Magazine article The Spectator

Lonely Confessions

Magazine article The Spectator

Lonely Confessions

Article excerpt

Harry was eight, and he bore the mark of a victim. It wasn't that he was especially stupid or clumsy or weak; it was a perpetual feeling of shame. His walk was slow and slightly stuttering, as though he was trespassing somewhere far above his station and expected to be exposed at any minute. He'd chosen his English name in imitation of the wizard hero, and found that every third boy in the class had picked it. Some Korean children - crippled, foreign, illegitimate, those with divorced parents - drew other kids as blood draws sharks, but I never saw Harry at the centre of one of those frenzies of bullying; he was never the centre of anything. He would hang on the edges of little groups, ignored by the others, rarely speaking. Misfortune dogged him, endlessly reinforcing his status as victim: if something was being passed around the class, it would break in his hands; if we were playing a game, he would make some mistake that caused giggling and pointing around the classroom.

I tried to be kind to Harry, to single him out for attention and give especial praise to his efforts, even to pair him with other children who I thought might befriend him, or at least not shun his company. It was difficult not to laugh, though more from shock than from humour, when Harry came in one day with a wooden cross hanging around his neck. This wasn't a flimsy little crucifix, such as Catholic schoolgirls wear to help fend off their boyfriends' advances; it was the size of my hand and bent him down like a penitent pilgrim. I knelt and pointed at the cross asking, 'Why, Harry?' He looked up at me, and shook his head furiously, his eyes scrunched up. 'Bad!' he said, pointing at himself and clutching the end of the cross so tightly that the corners cut into his palm. 'Bad!'

Crosses were everywhere in Korea. They lit up the skyline at night like warning beacons, incarnadine in neon. Often there would be two or three on the top of one apartment block, little Golgothas marking competing denominations. Most of the time, there would be a few spinning poles between them, signifying massage parlours - one pole for legitimate, two for the euphemistic 'sports massage'. Seoul lacks the space to make nice zoning distinctions.

The churches themselves were mostly buried in the basements, part of the catacombs of a crowded city. On the ground, white-toothed pastors smiled invitations to passers-by from posters pinned to the front of the buildings' doors, modestly proclaiming their American training and the size of their congregation. Inside, there would be chairs in neat rows, a cloth-covered table for an altar, stacks of songbooks and leaflets, perhaps a TV and video and karaoke machine for the hymns. Like everything else, they were impermanent: rooms, not buildings. Korean businesses have a mayfly lifespan, and what was a church today might be a bar or an arcade tomorrow, the furniture whisked away overnight and replaced with the next set of temporary accoutrements.

There were pictures of Jesus, usually a bouffant-haired and gleaming Aryan, and there was the cross, but I never saw the two in conjunction. This was partly a Protestant phobia - a wariness of crucifixes - but they were noticeably absent from even the Catholic churches. Korean heroes tend to die beautiful deaths, as the Buddha did; that image of final agony, body twisted on the cross, held an awful terror here. Christianity was a public affair, but pain wasn't.

It usually took about ten minutes of conversation for someone to tell me they were a Christian. Everybody said it: little old ladies on the subway, students at parties, soccer fans crammed next to me at World Cup matches, the owner of my favourite bar. 'I am a Christian.' It was said with a compilcit look, like a masonic handshake, an assertion of shared ground between us. At first I didn't know quite how to respond, which would prompt a barrage of follow-up questions: did I believe in Jesus, did I go to church, was I saved? …

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