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Emily Ding

Land of the Morning Calm

I find the inherent romanticism of mankind charming, how we attach poetry to even the names of countries. Do you know what "Korea" means? Land of the morning calm. And if you have ever been here, you will find it to be the truth. There is something pure and unsullied about this place, especially now in winter where everything is a vast, tranquil white that stretches on for miles and miles, stretches on until the whiteness vanishes into the glare of the sun and blinds you, so that it is impossible to tell where heaven and earth meet.

In the evening, however, it is a slightly different story. The sun seems frozen, buried beneath a surface of ice, not unlike the water in the small lake we have just come across, its glare diffused; but still, that sense of calmness permeates the air. It is almost eerie, this stillness, as if time has come to a standstill. The street is very quiet, flanked with little mountains of snow and shrubs bowing bashfully to the weight of the frost leftover from this morning’s snowfall. The occasional car rumbles past us, arcs a spray of snow across the ground. The fog and the gloom bring with them a translucent pearly grey blanket, so that everything around us has no shadow. Strangely, I find this flatness to the world appealing.

A myriad of images scud along the crust of snow in front of me, pockmarked now with the imprints of our ski boots, which all seem identical. It is impossible to tell them apart, whether adult’s or child’s. Brian and Nessa walk before me, their feet dragging on the ground, weighed down by their clumsy ski boots, skis and ski poles propped over one shoulder -- like unwieldy pregnant women -- unable to see past their ballooning parkas. We have been skiing for the past seven hours and everyone is pink from exertion. I hunch my shoulders against the stinging wind reaching its icy fingers into my neck, hold on to my grandmother’s elbow, tell her where to step, so that she will not slip on the devious ice. She waves a hand at me impatiently, and with the indignation of old people when they are told they are no longer capable of doing something on their own, tells me she can walk perfectly without my help. But I hold on to her. Mother would never forgive me if she slips and falls.

We come to a square of hard ice on the ground, and I steer Grandma over to the outer edge of the road. Cheryl, the quiet one with what we say is the Cindy Crawford mole in the right hand corner of her mouth, is oblivious as always to everything around her. She gives you this sensation of being left behind by a train as it slowly chugs away just as you get close enough to touch the doors, searching desperately in every face that soon passes you by in a blur for the one that you had seen on the street, the one that was familiar and whom you thought was dear to you. There is something untouchable, impenetrable about her. Now she stands steadily on the mirror of ice and peers down into it, searching for her reflection.

Nessa, a firebrand always looking for trouble, puts down her skis and purposefully marches onto the ice, pretends to be a figure skater and trips most inelegantly, skis and poles flying in all directions. She lays sprawled out on her chest, her glasses perched precariously on her nose; a baby bird that suddenly realizes it must first learn how to fly.

Brian laughs hard at her, and Nessa shoots him a dirty look, but Brian is too well mannered to match Nessa in a fight. His face closes -- seems literally to fold in upon itself -- and he slides his gloved hands into his pockets, turns abruptly quiet. He looks up at me as if to say, “What is her problem?” and continues trudging along in the snow. I hide a smile, and Grandma laughs soundlessly, tears squeezing out from the corner of her crinkly eyes; little rivulets of water on a map.

Fragments rush in, fill me. A high white forehead. Words I do not understand. Skis entangling. Legs buckling. A sudden boneless sensation.

There is a Korean photographer on tour with us called Ricky who says “Yes”, “Hello”, and “I love you” to everything English you say to him, who loves to correct us when we say “Seoul” wrong, who always goes around in the same navy blue parka, a Nikon camera too big for him hanging from his neck. There is something awkward, almost clumsy about the way he looks; a bird whose wings have been clipped. It is easy not to notice him at first; he does not command space like some men do, like my father does. I have only slivers of memories of him: from yesterday, when we were renting our ski gear -- I see him crouched over our feet, asking if the ski boots fit, not in any coherent sentences but more with gestures and nonsensical chatter, the way you communicate with someone who does not know your language; and today, he running around the foot of the ski slopes, chasing the gaggle of kids like he is one of them, with jerky exaggerated movements you would only expect of Jim Carrey.

I pick my way cautiously through the first flight of steps we come to, snow frozen over the thick wooden slats. We are staying at the Yong Pyong All Seasons Resort, a cluster of chalets and condominium-like buildings surrounding the ski slopes. We live on the lesser side, where the white paint of the buildings has peeled a little, shedding skin, revealing the greyish facade beneath. The steps leading to the top floor -- there are four -- are slippery and frost-laden. To make it easier for the old folks, I occupy one of the two rooms on the uppermost level.

It is at first pleasantly warm in the room after the biting chill outside, but as the minutes tick by, I feel as if I am walking on hot coals. The heat rises from the floor, presses down on me like a blanket, heavy as water. Even the sounds -- the distant whistle of the kettle boiling, the toilet door swinging open then shutting, the Korean drama playing out on the television set -- are muffled, and make everything seem not entirely real, vicarious somehow, my ear pressed to a floating bubble, listening to everything going on inside.

I venture out onto the balcony -- covered as it is by a thick bed of snow -- and the burdensome weight evaporates. Nessa, in her little attempt at being imaginative, tries to build a snowman using matchsticks for the eyes and the nose. The only problem is, the tips of the matches are white, not black or brown, so the poor snowman is faceless, just two blobs of snow rolled onto each other. She begs me to take a picture of it. It is a waste of good film, I am thinking, but I oblige anyway.

I peer through the lens of my camera, point it tentatively at Nessa, my naked fingers, deprived of the warmth of my mittens, stiff from the cold. But suddenly, as if a curtain has been lifted, it is not Nessa I am staring at; it is not the ridiculous looking snowman. It is, instead, the infinite expanse of dark blue sky above their heads, the lone stranger standing on the cap of the highest ski slope, delineated by the churning orange pool of the setting sun. The blanket of sky, devoid of stars, makes the world seem boundless, unending, larger than life itself.

So this is how small we truly are.

©2004 by Emily Ding

Emily Ding writes and takes pictures compulsively. She resides in Malaysia but will soon be studying law in London.

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