My grandfather is spooning his food into his mouth faster than usual. He spills some soju, pushes away the napkin I offer him. My grandmother has already left the table and is sitting on the sofa pretending to read a magazine. She went missing yesterday, while I was out at Disneyland. She set off by train for Shin-Okubo, where the Korean shops are, in search of long noodles. She didn’t recognize the station and stayed on the train, going round and round on the Yamanote line over and over again. My grandfather assumed I was with her. I called the police as soon as I got home. You need to wait for a while, they said, old people are unpredictable, they often act on a whim. In the end, a Japan Railways employee brought her back home; he’d found her in one of the seats reserved for elderly people, asleep.
“All that for a few noodles,” my grandfather grumbles.
“I’ll go with her next time,” I say under my breath.
“I can go by myself,” my grandmother protests.
Looking at them, I feel overwhelmed. Their lives begin and end with the pachinko parlor. The only social interactions they have are to do with exchanging balls for trinkets: one hundred balls, a bottle of water; one thousand balls, a bar of chocolate; ten thousand balls, an electric razor; no balls, a pack of chewing gum, the consolation prize. They don’t socialize at all with other Zainichis, Japan’s Korean community: exiles, people who came, as my grandparents did, to escape the Korean war, and others, who were deported during the Japanese occupation of Korea.
“We need to organize things for the trip,” I say tentatively, almost to myself. “I still haven’t booked our tickets.”
My grandfather complains that he can’t leave the pachinko parlor in the middle of the season. I remind him that we’d planned to go for one week only, at the beginning of September. He’ll think it over, he says. We can discuss it again tomorrow. It’s time for the service. And slipping into a well-established routine, my grandparents push the coffee table to one side and place two cushions in front of the television set tuned to KBS World, the Korean channel that broadcasts the weekly church service. They sit cross-legged on the floor, Bibles in hand, following along attentively. When it’s time for the hymns they both join in the singing, my grandmother’s voice strong and full, my grandfather’s a wavering vibrato. My grandmother looks up, lost; my grandfather helps her find her place, keeping time with his index finger. They’re completely absorbed, unaware of my presence.
On the table, our three bowls make the shape of a face. My grandparents’, the two eyes; mine, the mouth, rounded as if in astonishment. I clear them away and get on with the washing up. When I’ve finished, I help myself to a beer and go downstairs to my room. I’ll have to stop doing this soon. I can’t go on using jet lag as an excuse for knocking myself out like this for much longer.
My mother has messaged me. My birthday is still two weeks away but she wanted to make sure I read this in time. They love me lots, I’m their pet, their little chicken, they send me hugs.
There’s an audio attachment. A clip from a radio program, a recording of the classical music festival in Verbier. An organ solo, in a church. A piece I don’t know. The last few bars. A pause. People clap, the organ strikes up again. It’s playing “Happy Birthday.” The commentator is surprised, mumbles something about it apparently being someone’s birthday today, urges everyone to celebrate with the unknown person. The applause grows louder. Someone shouts: “Hooray.”
There’s a picture with the message. My father, at the organ, photographed from behind, my mother in the foreground, a selfie. She’s smiling, features distorted by the perspective: double chin, mouth enlarged, forehead shrunk.
I take a good look at the picture. Swipe it away quickly to save it.
I have a message from Mathieu too. He’s in the village, he’s come down the mountain to send me this message. He says he misses me, he thinks I’d like the chalet, you can lie in bed and gaze at the Dent Blanche. Has my grandfather managed to reduce his hours? He’s concerned about my grandmother’s health. He’s thinking of us, sends them his love.
I feel reassured by the tone of his message. He’s not angry with me after our parting words at the airport. He’d said not to worry, if I had any problems at all he’d come straight over, I could count on him. I’d snapped at him, said they were my grandparents, not his, insisted everything would be fine and gone through security without looking back.
But it was his caring nature that had attracted me to him in the first place, when I was in his Japanese seminar class at Geneva University. From the start, Mathieu had tried to understand the reason for my lack of enthusiasm. I told him it was Korean I really wanted to study, but to do that, I’d have to go to Berlin, London, Paris. I couldn’t do it in Switzerland. I never went, I couldn’t imagine being so far away from home. I fell back on Japanese, telling myself it would make my visits to my grandparents easier.
“You can learn Korean later,” Mathieu used to say.
It was all so easy for him. My grandparents spoke Japanese with him. We went to see them together twice. His presence masked the difficulties I had in communicating. Mathieu would spend whole days with my grandmother. I’d go for walks all over the neighborhood while they were together. I felt relieved, but I was jealous too. He’d report their conversations to me in the evenings, in this room; they talked mostly about their life in Korea, before, under Japanese occupation.
“They made it illegal to speak Korean. You could be sentenced to death for speaking it. And do you know what your grandmother’s mother did to avoid being subjected to speaking Japanese at school? She sliced off part of her own tongue.”
I didn’t know. I knew almost nothing about my grandparents’ past. They didn’t talk about it with me or my mother. I knew they’d come to Japan by sea in 1952 to escape the civil war in Korea when they were eighteen and nineteen years old, my grandmother pregnant with my mother. They’d heard rumors of a flourishing industry in Japan, run by Zainichis. There was nothing in the way of entertainment in those post-war days: no cinema, no theatre. The black market was everywhere, with cigarettes the most prized commodity. Koreans were locked out of the Japanese labor market by virtue of their nationality. So, they invented a game: vertical tray, metal balls, a lever. And cigarettes in exchange for balls.
It was Mathieu who explained to me how important pachinko became to the Japanese economy. In 1953, while Korea was tearing itself apart, its people fleeing to wherever they could, there were almost four hundred thousand pachinko parlors in Japan. Interest waned during the 1960s when other forms of entertainment began to expand, but even now there are still more than twenty thousand pachinko parlors in Japan, all run exclusively by Zainichis and their descendants.
Mathieu found it surprising that in all those years of exile, my grandparents had never returned to Korea. I remember, when I was little, hearing them say they’d go back one day. Now that they’d reached such a great age, we decided it would be best for us to take them there. It was up to Mathieu to speak to them about it. He said they seemed keen, and we booked our flights to Tokyo. Korea was unfamiliar territory for both of us and we were planning to make all the other arrangements once we arrived in Tokyo. But as the time approached, Mathieu realized he still had a great deal of work to do to finish his thesis. Eventually he decided to pull out of the trip, but he encouraged me to go without him. I couldn’t see myself reading his drafts on the family unit in Japan during the twelfth century—I’d just finished working on a second master’s degree myself. So, I came to Tokyo on my own.
Footsteps on the stairs. I’d left my door open. My grandfather walks past my room, in his pajamas, waves hello, goes into the bathroom. He’s probably seen the beer.
I close the door, turn off the light, lie down on the floor. I start a game of Tetris on my phone. The screen flashes in the darkness. Headlights from passing cars light up the room intermittently. I think about the photo of my parents again, my mother’s message. Me as their little chicken. I picture myself running round in circles, banging into things, falling over. Clucking. I try not to giggle.
Excerpted from The Pachinko Parlor by Elisa Shua Dusapin, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. Copyright © Editions Zoé, 2018. Translation copyright © 2022 by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. By arrangement with Open Letter Books.