- Written in Korean by Suk Yong Kwak, mid 1970’s, Korean Journal, Toronto
- Translated by June and Ok Ryong Kwak
I begin with an apology to Mr G, a friend whose story I tell here. I am sorry to be breaking a promise to him, but maybe if he reads this now, he would smile. He will be 40 years old next year and still single. It has already snowed three times this year in Northern Alberta where he lives now regrettably alone.
He is on his own, but it is not the case that he was unwilling to marry. There was an ill fated marriage that ended after two months and maybe that is why he went to Alberta.
At Seoul University, I knew him for four years and for another one and a half years we were enlisted together in the army as students for compulsory military service. I knew him to be a strong willed person with backbone, without an excess of words in his mouth and he was studying geology. He had been a top student from a rural town who came to Seoul to study. He supported himself by working as a private tutor. By the time he finished university, there were American universities offering him scholarships and he was preparing the required paperwork to study abroad. On graduation day, he was wearing a necktie for the first time and his girlfriend was putting a pin on his necktie and she was very pretty.
That friend typically wore his overdyed army uniform and worn down army boots and spent all his time in the library. We thought he was a just a book worm, but it seemed as though he was managing his life just fine. At the graduation party, we went out drinking and got him drunk.
We learned that his father had been captured during the war and his girlfriend’s father and his father were very close friends going back many years.
Without any prompting, his girlfriend’s father made sure to attend Mr. G’s graduation ceremony with his daughter. The graduation was in September of the year of 4.19 (the April 19,1960 student demonstration, known as the April Revolution). In November, they were going to have an engagement party and go to the US together. Before we said our good byes, we promised to get together for another drink before he left for the US. I was working at a rural school at the time and I heard no news from them until the following year. In April, instead of an invitation to a farewell party, a wedding invitation arrived. When I visited Seoul during summer holidays, I heard that Mr G was living alone in a rooming house and working as a private tutor. What happened to this friend who was supposed to be studying in the US and what about that pretty girlfriend?
Perhaps with adversity opportunity also arises. This is roughly the story I heard at a small road side drinking hole.
Mr G’s father’s friend became a politician after suddenly coming into money after the 4.19 revolution. He asked Mr G to delay going to the states and stay by his side and help him.
Mr G postponed the trip to the US and got married. After getting married, he found out that the pretty girl, (who he could never call his wife,) had been with a man of poor character before he met her. His father’s friend was worried about his prestige and family’s reputation because of his daughter’s personal relations, so he went to see Mr G who was graduating and going to the states, with the intent of having him become his son-in-law and he promised to pay for tuition in the US later on. In retrospect, Mr G felt that he had been too simple, having agreed to everything since he had been his father’s very close friend.
After less than a month of marriage, finally that pretty girl left and went out on her own. Her father who was worried about her, had been scheming to have Mr. G take care of her and he wanted to send them both away to the US. This is a long story. This friend who is a big man, cried for the first time since becoming an adult. He had been through a lot in one year after graduation.
Ten years later, I was visiting Toronto and I met Mr.G by chance at a Korean store. I was so glad to see him that it brought tears to my eyes. He was in working clothes and his hair was unruly. All his plans to study abroad had failed. Even his mother passed away and he was all alone. For a chance to see the wider world, he came to Canada one year ago. His father’s friend did not see a good end. After 5.16 (May 16, 1961 coup
) he returned to his home town in the country side and his daughter, the pretty girl, after they separated, she was working at a tavern serving drinks. Hearing news about that girl and her father had unsettled his mind and so he was drawn to Canada, a place with lots of snow. Studying? – No. Immigrating? – No. Family? – No. A job? – No. That friend hid behind no smile, not able to give an answer that was comfortable to say or to hear. Car? For sure he would have said no and phone number or address, in case that was also, no, I said I would get in touch later and said goodbye.
Another 4 years later, last year at the end of November, on a windy day with wet snow falling, we met once more. On the phone, he invited me to come over to his place. On Yonge Street north near Highway 7 in a new housing development, he was living in a newly built house, in the basement in a room with a bed.
More than half a bottle of whisky had been emptied alone. “Son of a bitch, it’s been a long time! I heard you came to Toronto.” Mr G’s first words were warm, sounding exactly like the young lively good natured man I knew 15 years ago on the university campus. That day, over a brightly burning fire in the fire place, we roasted dried squid and together we became was happily drunk. He had been in Toronto for 5 years and would be leaving tomorrow for Alberta by train.
“During that time, I worked a few different jobs while I took post graduate courses part time. Now, fortunately I am leaving to take a job at an oil and gas company. It took 1 year to get that job. Even though I was studying part time the professor must have had a good impression of me and noticing that I’m still single with no family, he suggested that working in northern Alberta would be good,” he said with a reluctant smile. At the end of the story, I asked, “Why are you staying alone in the basement of this large house?” Hesitating, he answered oddly, telling a most unexpected story.
He became acquainted with a Polish Canadian who one day came to him and said, “If you aren’t doing anything this weekend, come along with me,” and that was the beginning of his job catching earthworms. He may be the most senior and experienced worm catcher among Koreans. In the spring from April to mid-November and sometimes later than that, he catches worms. In the day time, he works and three times a week he takes graduate school courses and other than that he catches worms almost everyday. “When I think of it now, it could be that I was punishing myself, I don’t know, but it was not that I needed to make money towards some goal, I just wanted to make life busy.” he said.
Not knowing any close friends, he worked and studied all last summer. His graduate studies are not completed yet, but he went to work for 2-3 years to gain experience in petroleum development. If he is lucky, he might be able to continue his studies in Alberta which would be much better.
Meanwhile, 2 years after starting to catch worms, his Polish friend said, “I’m going to buy a house, come along with me,” and he signed his name and he happened to buy a house too. He put down $5,000 and paid $32,000 and since he didn’t need a big house, he had been renting it and now that he was going to Alberta he had just sold the house. On paper, it is my house, I’ve been paying the mortgage for two and half years, but I have only lived here one week to look after the place until the new owner takes possession. So it was an unexpected story.
How much did you earn? I was left to my imagination. Not wanting to talk about money, he only said he can do whatever he wants to for 4 or 5 years.
Last spring in a letter, he wrote to say he had just returned from the North Pole where he had seen the northern lights and after a 6 month stay had returned to Alberta for a month holiday. If he becomes settled, he has invited me to come for a visit. In the closing remarks of the letter, he tells me that soon a young lady will be coming from Korea. I don’t know if he is really getting married, or just trying to appease my urging to forget about the pretty girl and get married, I don’t know yet. Only wishing to hear that his studies are finished and one day hearing the news that he has a baby boy.
To conclude, let’s hear about worm picker business.
The season is from April until the end of November if the weather is above 17 °C, any night that the worms are coming out of the ground. A golf course is best, especially hot and humid nights, before or after rain. Tools required are a coal miners helmet with a lamp, a can attached to each leg, two fast hands, that’s all. Unexpectedly the worms are very sensitive and very fast. The worms are being used for fishing and people feeding worms to their pets. Worm prices increase as you move up the supply change. One thousand worms, fetches $8 for the worm catcher and they are sold for $72, nine times the price. Of course from catching worms to the retailer’s refrigerator, they pass through many people’s hands. To be able to catch worms at a golf course they need to pay the golf course owner a fee in the range of $25,000.
At present, there are two earthworm collection businesses owned by Koreans and there are about 40 professional worm pickers including women, and around 100 amateur worm pickers. The top earning worm catchers make from $1,500 to $2,000 a month. So what about people who grow larva for fishing bait by the Han River? Would it be possible to grow worms and pick them out of the ground like bean sprouts? Everyone has that thought once. Each night you have to bend down and make your way around the fields, it is not an easy job.