21st Century Families

There is a talk that every father has with his son in which he brings the child to understand that there are ways we must act, things we must say, but inside we're still us, we're family. I was 8 when my father had this talk with me.

We were under a tree on Moranbong Hill. He told me that there was a path set out for us. On it, we had to do everything the signs commanded, and heed all the announcements along the way. Even if we walked this path side by side, he said, we must act alone on the outside while on the inside, we would be holding hands. On Sundays the factories were closed so the air was clear, and I could imagine this path ahead stretching across the Tedung Valley (?), a path lined with willows and vaulted by singular white clouds moving as a group.

We ate berry-flavored ices and listened to the sounds of old men at their janggi boards and slapping cards in a spirited game of Go-Stop. Soon, my thoughts were of toy sailboats like the ones the young ones were playing with at the pond.

But my father was still walking me down that path. My father said to me, "I denounce this boy for having a blue tongue."

We laughed. I pointed at my father. "This citizen eats mustard." I had recently tried mustard root for the first time, and the look on my face made my parents laugh. Everything mustard was now funny to me.

My father addressed an invisible authority in the air. "This boy has counter-revolutionary thoughts about mustard. He should be sent to a mustard-seed farm to correct his mustardy thinking."

"This dad eats pickle ice with mustard poop," I said.

"That was a good one. Now take my hand," he told me.

I put my small hand in his, and then his mouth became sharp with hate. He shouted, "I denounce this citizen as an imperialist puppet who should be remanded to stand trial for crimes against the state." His face was red, venomous. "I've witnessed him spew capitalist diatribes in an effort to poison our minds with his traitorous filth."

The old men turned from their game to observe us. I was terrified, on the verge of crying.

My father said, "See? My mouth said that. But my hand? My hand was holding yours. If your mother ever must say something like that to me in order to protect the two of you, know that inside she and I are holding hands. And if someday you must say something like that to me, I will know it's not really you. That's inside. Inside is where the son and the father will always be holding hands."

—Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master's Son

Spoiler alert: Things do not end well for this family.

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