Min-Jun Ford always felt out of place, but that changed with a late-night encounter at a crowded karaoke bar when he met Yu-jin, a smart, beautiful student who accepted him without question and made him feel seen for the first time. Yu-jin had her eyes trained on a high-profile career after graduation and she kept their relationship a secret from her parents who would never approve of her dating while in school (especially an American). Min assumed he would eventually return stateside. But when he is blindsided by the news that Yu-jin is dead, with all signs pointing to suicide, he starts second guessing every moment they spent together.
EXCERPT FROM “WHEN WE FELL APART” FOLLOWED BY Q&A WITH THE AUTHOR
Anything you might desire
Everyone heard it, the pop. Min knew what to do, gasping for air on the cleat-pocked grass, a semicircle of concerned teammates forming around him. Stretching the afflicted arm over his head, he slowly rotated his hand, fingertips cold, heat knifing into his lungs, and reached for the opposite shoulder, exhaling only when he felt relief, ball meeting socket again. Min couldn’t help but smile. The looks on their faces.
Even the Australians had stopped playing, gawking at his dangling arm. Of all the expats who played rugby every Saturday, they were the toughest, always willing to play through a broken nose or a bruised quad, as long as it meant showing up the Brits or the Kiwis.
Min could have told them about the other times he’d dislocated his shoulder—basketball, football, a poor attempt at surfing—but he didn’t. Better to leave some mystery, he thought. He’d grown used to injuries, bodily betrayal. Quick but slight, he’d taken his share of physical damage, especially in high school, where he’d insisted on playing football despite his parents’ objections. He was never exceptional.
Being exceptional wasn’t the appeal. It was the physicality he enjoyed, the feeling of narrowly ducking a crushing hit over the middle, juking out of bounds, safe from hulking defenders intent on his destruction. More often than not, he was leveled, crushed, left blinking away stars. But there was something appealing about that, too. A part of Min liked being hit, showing he could take the pain.
There’d been no opportunity for recreational football in Seoul, only soccer and rugby. Naturally he’d chosen rugby, prizing physicality and the risk of violence above anything else. His teammates regarded him with cautious kindness, miffed by his name and appearance. Of the expats on his team, Min was the only American, except he didn’t look American, according to one of his Irish teammates, whose comments quickly garnered nods of agreement. Min only smiled. He was used to remarks like that. No matter where he went, people couldn’t put their finger on him, puzzling over his ambiguous origins.
Tolerance was what Min practiced whenever he spent time with expats. They were a lost bunch anyway, the expats. ESL teachers, exmilitary, burnout backpackers, forty-year-old nothings with penchants for Asian women, these were the types of foreign men in Korea. Min considered himself different from them, somehow special, here for a reason. Biracial, Los Angeles–bred Samsung consultants were the exception in Seoul, something Min took pride in. He was here because of ancestry, because he’d never seen the country whose language he spoke, because he’d never felt wholly American, because in the snuggest kernel of his heart, he hoped to find some sense of belonging.
After rugby there were usually drinks at one of the tacky Western- style bars ubiquitous to Seoul, where teammates drank Guinness and listened to acoustic Oasis covers. Min avoided those places at all costs, and after he’d declined the first few invitations, the offer was never extended again.
A block away from the metro the sky opened and raindrops plummeted from the high-rise-cluttered sky. Umbrellas bloomed upwards as Min weaved his way through the lurching crowd. A jet stream of humid June air funneled down the street, slanting the rain and blurring neon signs and LED billboards scrolling ribbons with the latest financial news. Every storefront and city block called out in electric blues and pinks, offering up karaoke, libations, and fortune- telling.
This was what had mesmerized Min upon his arrival in Seoul a year and a half ago: the sheer magnitude of it all, the way it loomed over you, dwarfed you, obliterated the senses while simultaneously offering everything and anything you might desire. In awe, Min had watched cobblers toiling in their street stalls, boys fanning coals in the back alleys of restaurants, businesswomen checking their makeup by the glow of their phones. With its mirrored skyscrapers and pulsing chaos, the city itself had seemed to whisper in his ear: you’re home. In recent months, though, these revelatory flashes had grown less frequent, and Min had begun to doubt his reasons for coming to Korea. Still, there were sights he’d yet to see, parts of the city he’d put off visiting that he hoped might yield that fleeting feeling.
But why hadn’t he told the truth about why he skipped the post-rugby drinks? He could have easily said he’d made plans with Yu-jin, that they’d set aside their Sunday for each other. It was simpler this way, Min thought. He wanted to keep her separate, away from the usual strategizing and maneuvering that would ensue if the expats discovered he was dating a Korean woman. There’d be endless questions about Yu-jin: How’d they meet, did she have cute friends, was she a prude like all the other girls in Korea? A white lie had been better, Min decided as a train approached, the plastic barrier between the platform and the track humming to life.
Leaving it all behind
Focused, driven, ambitious, obsessed: I was all those things in high school. None of this set me apart from my classmates. It didn’t make me special. We knew what was at stake. Our eyes were on the prize, unflinching: gaining admittance to a university in Seoul. For those with even loftier goals, SKY (Seoul National University, Korea University, or Yonsei University) was the ultimate—admittance to any one of the three instantaneously setting you on a course for financial, social, and marital success. College wasn’t just the next logical step. It was the foundation upon which your entire adult life was built. It
was everything. Slip up on a test at school, mess around during night classes at hagwon, or, worst of all, bomb the College Scholastic Ability Test—there went your future, all your hopes and dreams gone in
an instant, every future self you’d ever imagined, vanished.
I had plans of my own. Or, I should say, my family had made plans for me: Ewha Womans University. It was my mother’s alma mater, one of Seoul’s most prestigious schools, and an all-girls one at that, something my father particularly approved of.
But more than the promise of Ewha’s rigorous education, more than its vaunted postgraduation connections, more than the alluring prospect of escaping my parents’ house, more than anything, I wanted to be in Seoul, in the center of it all. As long as I was there, somewhere in that city, I knew everything would work itself out.
I didn’t hate growing up in Gyeryong, but even at an early age, I had the sneaking suspicion that the tiny city I inhabited was boring, prefabricated. Like most of the kids I went to school with, my family had moved to Gyeryong because of the military. It seemed like everyone’s father, including my own, worked at the army, navy, or air force headquarters based around the city.
Boxcar administrative buildings, dull government workers in identical gray suits, military officials with matching buzz cuts—this was all I ever saw. Even the housewives wore the same dresses and blouses, never deviating from their neutral tones of beige, black, and pale blue. Uniformity engulfed the city, smoothed its rough patches, varnished it to a perfect sheen. With every restaurant serving the same three dishes, the movie theater only showing two movies at a time, and the norebangs updating their music catalogues once a year, I had little trouble focusing on my studies. Unimpeachable grades and a top score on the CSAT were the two goals that saved me from boredom.
I yearned for a place with grit and edge, a place with a pulse, something boiling beneath the surface. And I was almost there. I could feel it in my aching fingertips as I scribbled class notes. I could taste it in the cheap curry donkatsu I scarfed down between day and night classes. In three weeks, I’d take the exam and be set on my track, hurtling toward that magnificent megacity, overflowing with chaos and life. It was all I ever talked about with my friends: Seoul. Home to ambitious students, aspiring artists, high fashion models, and brilliant CEOs, it was everything we didn’t have, everything we craved. I’d been to Seoul twice with my parents. We’d toured the palaces and seen the sights. I remember being astounded by the sea of pedestrians emerging from the metro, the cacophony of blaring horns during rush hour. There was an energy, a marvelous desperation to the way these people lived their lives. From then on, I knew I had to come back. And as I sat in the dingy classroom of my hagwon, going over one multiple- choice question after another, it took all my self-restraint and focus to sit and study. I was so close. So close to getting out, leaving it all behind.
Sometimes my friends would talk about visiting each other once we were all in college. I wanted a clean slate, an impossibility with my high school friends around. I wanted the chance to reinvent myself, start anew. Secretly, I hoped we’d never see each other again after graduation day. I was embarrassed by our dialects, our taste in music and clothes. Everything about us screamed rural and backwards; everyone would know we didn’t belong. For months, standing before the bathroom mirror, I’d practiced my Seoul dialect, merging my vowels, committing each unique intonation to memory. Still, I contributed to their stories, played the game.
The fall had been a sprint to the finish, the placement exam looming like a dark, treacherous thunderhead. I charged forward, into the fray, fearlessly. Some fell by the wayside—depression, eating disorders, mystery illnesses—but not me. My eye was on the prize.
The day before the examination father took me out for ice cream. I couldn’t remember the time we’d done something together, just the two of us. He was always working, gone before the sun rose, sometimes not making it home at all, opting to sleep in the dorms at army headquarters. Like a ghost, he came and went, his presence only detectable from the half-empty bowl of fried rice on the kitchen counter, his smudged fingerprints on the doorknob from the morning newspaper.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am,” he said that day in the diner, taking my hand in his. “You know that, right? Me and your mother. We see the hard work you’ve been putting in. It’s all going to pay off.”
“You’re going to get a world-class education,” he said, tapping away on the tabletop.
“You never went to university in Seoul.”
“It was different back then,” my father said, gesturing to some invisible truth. “And I climbed my way up through the military. Women can’t do that. That’s why you must attend a top university. I was lucky your mother was willing to look beyond my poor education.”
“I already know the story, Dad,” I said, cutting off before he could repeat how he’d convinced my mother on a date with him. They’d met during one of his mandatory physicals for his compulsory military service, exactly twenty- months in the marines.
“So how are you feeling about the test?” my father said, digging into his sundae.
“I’m ready. Ready as ever.”
“That’s my girl. And who knows. Maybe we’ll be joining you.”
I tried to hide my shock. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t look so happy. What? You think your father wants to work in Gyeryong forever? I’ve put in my time. Word is I’m in line for a promotion. Something in the government. Something in Seoul.”
I tried not to panic. Everything would change if my parents moved to Seoul. With them living in the city there’d be no excuse not to live at home. It would be the practical thing to do, as my father always said.
I struggled to see a way out while I ate my ice cream, numbing myself, smiling, nodding, keeping up appearances.
My father watched me quietly, eyes crinkled at the edges. “Let me guess. You aren’t too happy about this development.”
I weighed my words. “I’m happy. I guess I just thought this would be my chance to get out of the house.”
“Your independence is important to you.”
Fear seized me, as I felt my moment to persuade him slipping away. “I’m grateful for everything, Dad.
I just want to—”
“You’ve earned it, Yu-jin,” he said. “Your mother and I couldn’t have dreamed of a more perfect daughter. I want you to have some freedom. I can’t think of anyone more deserving.”
He understood then. He knew how much this meant to me. Leaning back, he studied me, a glimmer in his eye. “I thought you might like living in the dormitories at first. You can spend summers at home, and if you’re able to find roommates and a place off campus, you could move your third year, with financial help from us, of course. How does that sound for an agreement?”
I was stunned, ecstatic. “An agreement?”
“Yes,” he said. “Our agreement.”
I was so elated I only heard fragments of what he said next, but the parameters of the deal were simple. I was to major in Political Science and International Relations. My grades would never dip below an A-minus, and upon graduating, I’d pursue a career based upon his professional recommendation, most likely something in public service or law. If I did all this, I could live just about anywhere I pleased.
The only thing my father said regarding boys was to be careful.
“You have so much promise. In the future you’ll have time for romantic relationships, but for now be selfish, Yu-jin. Make the most of these four years. Give everything to your studies. Don’t curb your potential and ambitions for someone else. That’s the worst thing a young person can do.”
That was our pact, the spoken and unspoken rules. I didn’t think twice before agreeing.
Q & A with Soon Wiley, by Minsoo Kang
Minsoo Kang: Tell us something about your Korean heritage, your connection to Korea, and your background in the US.
Soon Wiley: Growing up in a biracial family, I was always keenly aware and proud of my Korean heritage. When I was younger, my mother made a real effort to explain how the Korean side of my family came to be in America. With that said, I’d say my connection to Korea itself was tenuous at best. I didn’t grow up speaking the language, and I didn’t visit the country until I moved to Seoul after college.
MK: What were some of your personal experiences that led you to come up with this narrative of a biracial Korean-American man in Seoul dealing with the shocking death of his girlfriend and the life story of the girlfriend herself?
SW: When I was living in Seoul and teaching English as a second language, I wasn’t aware that I wanted to write a novel, let alone one set in South Korea. It wasn’t until about five years after I returned to the US that I started working on what would become WHEN WE FELL APART. As the novel grew, and Min became this fleshed out character, I found myself remembering interactions I’d had with Koreans that connected to Min’s own experience. Since I didn’t look 100% Korean, it wasn’t uncommon for strangers to comment on my appearance or just stare at me. People should remember that Korea is quite homogeneous, so anyone that looks even just a little bit different is going to stick out. I always felt like the attention was coming from a place of curiosity rather than maliciousness. Anyway, a lot of people would ask if I’d gotten plastic surgery. They’d want to know my specific height or my ethnic background. I didn’t think much of these interactions at the time, but they definitely informed Min as a character in one way or another.
MK: As different as they are, all four of your main characters – the Korean-American Min, the Ewha University students Yu-jin and So-ra, and the Japanese expatriate Misaki – are people who never felt that they fit into the environments that they were in, both for apparent reasons of ethnicity and nationality and for deeper secret reasons. How did this theme of alienation become so essential in the novel?
SW: One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about writing is that you aren’t quite sure what your stories are about until you’ve finished them, and even then, you might need someone else to read them to tell you what you’ve written. I didn’t set out to write a novel about alienation, but like you said, the theme is quite tangible in WHEN WE FELL APART. As a reader, I’ve always been drawn to characters who see themselves as outsiders. Ironically, it’s those that stand on the periphery of culture and society who often have the most astute insights. As a writer, I’ve always been interested in the perspectives of those that feel alienated or marginalized.
MK: The issues of sexism and homophobia in modern South Korean society play significant roles in the narrative. Did you set out to explore them, or did they rise organically as you put the story together?
SW: These issues definitely worked their way into the novel organically. With that said, because the story is set in Seoul, I did feel a certain responsibility when it came to portraying the realities of homophobia and sexism in South Korean society.
MK: There is a comic scene in which Min tries to explain the American standard of beauty to his Korean co-workers through a showing of the reality show The Bachelor. It must have been a challenge to describe for American readers a scene in which a Korean American is explicating American culture to Koreans. What made you want to include that scene?
SW: I had a lot of fun writing those scenes. As a writer, I was keenly aware that many of my potential American readers wouldn’t understand a lot of things about Korean culture, so including those American pop culture scenes allowed me to show American readers how their culture might be viewed by Koreans. And along those same lines, those scenes also allowed me to explain a few things about Korean culture without being overly didactic. Throughout the writing process, I tried my best to strike a balance between painting a vivid fictional story and giving the reader enough culture context to understand the characters and the environment.
MK: A tragic irony of modern Korean history is that while South Korea managed to overcome the tragedies and poverty of the past and turned itself into a wealthy and democratic nation, it ended up creating an extremely competitive and stressful society with one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Was one of your initial purposes in writing the novel to explore the situation?
SW: When I set out to write the novel, I knew I wanted to paint a rich and nuanced portrait of modern South Korean society, which meant exploring some of the darker consequences of the country’s miraculous growth. Americans and American media tend to laud South Korea for all the gains it has made as a country, especially in areas like education, economics, and overall quality of life. This isn’t to diminish the success that is South Korea, but I think we’ve already begun to see the limits and cost of those rapid gains, especially for the younger generations of Koreans.