My chair is pushed back just a bit from the table in front of me. A low light hangs over it, piercing the cloud of cigarette smoke and illuminating the rough and desperate faces that surround it. Waitresses circulate, wearing clothes too close cut to be appropriate in any normal establishment. Of course, this place is not proper or established or appropriate. Just being here breaks the law. But it is where I am.
It is where I have fallen to. No other casinos will allow me to play.
I order another Soju and look at the cards in my hand. It is not a good hand. But perhaps there is a chance I will win. I pull back the clear liquid in a single gulp and then lay 10 portraits of Shin Saimdang, the great woman artist of 500-years past, on the table. Each portrait graces the front of a 50,000 won note. It is 500,000 won. 500,000 won I have just borrowed from the house.
My debt is almost 50 million.
I watch as the dealer deals his cards and my fate is written for me. I cannot win this hand. As I watch, passively, the players circle; folding one after another. But one does not. I look at him, praying that he too will fold. He is a tough man, but old. He must be in his seventies. His face is rough and worn. He’s wearing glasses and gaudy, but tired-looking, clothes. He grimaces, and all his features seem to fall into the entirely of the motion. I realize I’m staring, desperately. He glances at me. His eyes are hard, and I am afraid he will see my weakness, or take umbrage at my stare.
I look quickly away, and down at the table.
I know my place. I must respect it.
My heart drops as he lays down his cards.
He has not folded. I do not know what I can possibly do.
At that moment, the dealer asks, “Would you like to extend your loan?”
I want to say yes. I want to stay in the game. I want a chance. How much worse can it get? The dealer is about to press his offer, perhaps specify it in more detail. But then the man in the gaudy outfit makes a small motion with his hand and the dealer falls suddenly silent. I understand then.
The casino belongs to him.
The man in the gaudy outfit looks at me. Then he stands slowly and gestures with his hand, as if he is inviting me towards him. I know who he is now. He is a jopok, a gangster. He will collect my debt.
As if on a string, I begin to circle the table towards him. A million thoughts run through my mind. Perhaps my stare insulted him. Perhaps I have damaged his kibun; his ‘face’, his ‘presence’ before the others here. Perhaps this is the end of me.
But then I realize that is not how they think. They want money, all of them. Perhaps he simply believes I could never pay off a debt greater than the one I have now. Perhaps, now, he will tell me what I must do to make him whole. There’s a chance I could survive.
As I come towards him, the jopok wraps his hand around my shoulder. I want to shake off the unwelcome touch. We do not know each other. We are not friends. It is not appropriate. But I am small and he is not. Or at least he does not think he is. I bow my head and allow myself to be guided to a table in a corner of the room.
I stay calm, but inside I am shaking with a strange combination of insult and fear.
The man holds up his hand and a scantily clad waitress comes over. Unlike the others, she is not Korean. She is tall and blond. She seems European. She does not come to take an order, though. She comes with a bottle of Soju, glasses, some snacks and a slip of paper. She already knows what the old man wants.
She puts a bottle and two small glasses on the table. Then she lays the paper on the table, face down in front of the old man.
The old man then leans forward and pours me a drink, as if he is my host. I reach forward and do the same for him, trying to keep my hands from shaking.
We sit then, across from one another, the glasses in front of us. I’m staring at the table, but I can feel the man’s eyes boring into me.
“It would be rude not to drink,” he says, suddenly. My arm shoots forward then and I grasp the glass. I lift it almost robotically and our glasses touch.
“Konbe” we pronounce, together and then both of us drink.
He pours another for me and I pour another for him. Then we sit, silently.
After what seems like an eternity, he asks, “Do you have a family?”
I lift up my eyes and look at him briefly, confused. Is he threatening my family?
He continues, “This is not business, not yet. Just a question. Do you have a family?”
“No,” I answer, cautiously.
He nods and we lapse back into silence.
A minute later he speaks again. “Where did you get your mathematics training?”
My eyes shoot up. Is my debt so large that he has researched me so carefully?
“Kim Il Sung University,” I say.
“Ahhh,” he answers, pursing his lips. We sit then, silently. He rolls his drink in his glass. I wait.
“Do you know how long I’ve been a jobok?” he asks.
I shake my head, no.
“Almost 60 years now, can you believe that?”
I shake my head, yes. It can never hurt to agree with a man like him.
“When I got started, it was an honorable thing; almost. In those days, in the late 1950s, the Japanese Yakuza dominated so much of our economy. They owned government ministers and they directed the activities of so many of our businesses. Our legal system was corrupt and so we had to fight back, outside the law.”
The old man reaches towards a small bowl of flavored nuts. The smell of sugar, fish-sauce, garlic and chili sparks into the air as he bites into the first of the nuts.
Then he continues, “Our gang was poor. They all were. We were there to push out the Japanese, and everything we had was poured into that. We forced others, businessmen, to fund us. We ran protection rings and prostitution rings and numbers rackets. But we were building Korea. I felt proud then, of what I was doing.”
The man slowly unbuttoned the top of his shirt. He pulls it open, revealing not only leathered skin but also a tattoo of twin dragons.
“You see this,” he says, nodding his head towards his chest, “I used to walk around with my shirt open. People could know I was a gangster. But then… things changed. The government became stronger and they managed to crack down on the gangs. All the gangs. Most of us left this life. A tattoo like this could land you in jail. I covered it then. I hid who I was. But I was a gangster and I stayed a gangster. For decades, I remained a gangster.”
“What service do you do now?” I ask.
The old man smiles. “Every society, even ours, has those who are stupid or irresponsible. They can cause immense damage and chaos. But few people are willing to step in and control them. When they come to me, to play cards or to borrow money for foolish ventures, I enable them to do so. But when it comes time to collect, I don’t threaten them with death. That’s not how Korea works. I would be erased if I killed a man over a debt. No, I just threaten the harmony of their families. I threaten them with embarrassment. The families pay up, their wayward sons become… more cautious. The families make them act appropriately. Bruises caused by one of my men, bruises seen by others, would be a disgrace too great to bear.”
He takes another handful of nuts and slowly places one in his mouth. He chews slowly. I hear each crunch of his teeth.
“I am not a skilled man,” he says, at last, “But you are. You have mathematics.”
“And you fled North Korea.”
I nod again. My accent, my clothes and my mannerisms tend to give it away. North Koreans are far more conservative than even their highly conservative southern counterparts.
The man continues, “Many North Koreans come here, to my casinos. But it is generally because they are both stupid and irresponsible. They are country bumpkins who do not really understand the games and who never learned to be responsible. They think they can just win money. They do not work with others to make real things. They don’t have others.”
“But they do not have families,” I say, “How do you collect from them?”
I’m wondering what the man has in store for me.
“It is not so hard,” the man says, “I force them to buy fake investments with the money they owe me. The investments collapse, then I take their money. Their stipends are transferred directly to my accounts and the courts enforce my judgments. Nobody really comes to help them. They are an embarrassment.”
I lower my eyes again. I’d expected as much. Perhaps that slip of paper is a contract.
“But you are different,” the man says, “I’ve watched you play. They play to win, because on some level or another they don’t understand that they can’t really win. But you play in order to lose.”
“What?” I ask, surprised.
“You always know,” the old man says, “When you have a good hand, or not. When you have a strong hand, you bid like it is weak. When you have a weak one… you bid like it is strong. You play to lose. That intrigues me.”
He smiles for a moment. Then he asks, “So why are you in my club, losing at poker?”
I can’t really answer him. I don’t know what to say. I didn’t know I was playing to lose.
“Let me ask another way,” the man says, “Why did you, a mathematician, leave the North?”
I feel my face burning.
“Shame,” the man says, “Tell me about your shame.”
“I was a loyal patriot,” I say, “My parents were patriots, sent abroad to serve the State. I don’t know what they do… or did. But I was taken in by the State. I was raised by the State. The State realized that I was a talented mathematician. I won a place at Kim Il Sun University. I studied statistics. And then I got a job at the Central Statistics Bureau.”
“In Pyongyang?” the old man asks.
“Yes,” I say, “I was in the Central Office. Most of our work was never meant to be published. We only shared a little information about population and electricity use. Because our enemies could see what we published, that information was fabricated. Our real purpose was to guide the State. So, we tracked all kinds of information – even the loyalty of different cities and provinces. I was good at my job. Very good. I rose quickly through the ranks and before long I was reporting to the Director General himself.”
“Impressive,” says the old man.
“I was proud,” I say. “Up until that point, I had had routine work. I had prepared numerous reports. But those reports stayed within the Bureau. In my new position, I was to review the work of others. I was to collect and summarize what they had done so that it could be passed on. Perhaps even to the Dear Respected Comrade, Kim Jon Un himself.”
“So, what went wrong?” the old man says.
“The first month, I did exactly as I was told. I took my first reports and I cleaned them up and summarized them. I proudly presented my work before the assembled heads of many agencies. The Director General was there, as was the senior leadership of the Agricultural Bureau and the Industrial Bureau, the Propaganda Bureau and so many others.”
“As I spoke, the Director General’s face grew darker and darker. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, but his anger boiled up within him. I grew less and less certain. I had thought my work was strong. Then, in front of everybody, he said I was an imbecile and an idiot. I lowered my eyes and I listened. But I didn’t really understand. I had done my work properly. I was a patriot. Then the Director General continued. He stated new results, new outcomes. New facts. They were better and stronger than what I had shared. I didn’t understand where they had come from. Then, bit by bit, I did. The lower levels of the Bureau collected data on our reality, perhaps. But the highest levels of government never saw that information. My job was to create a believable new reality, one that fit prior reports and could be carried into the future. I was there to craft a reality that made them all look good, and believable, in front of the Dear Respected Comrade.”
“What happened next?”
“The Director General asked if I agreed with his conclusions. I said he was completely right. I apologized for my stupidity. I was afraid I would lose my job – or worse. But I didn’t. They had brought me there to destroy my kibun. I had to be broken so I would understand what was really expected of me. I learned. But I never recovered. I had believed in the State, in the Dear Respected Comrade. But now I knew we were all weaving lies. We were all puppets on the strings of men like the Director General.”
“So you left?”
“Not right away. It took years before I had a chance. I just did what they told me and I did it well. The State found me a suitable woman. But we never really connected. Thankfully, we never had a child. Then, five years later, I was sent on a survey of a northern border region. It was along the Yalu River, but not in a major city. I lied to a guard and told him I was there to inspect a bridge across the river. He wanted to check, but I was from Pyongyang and I reported to a Director General. And so, he let me inspect the bridge. I walked most of the way across, got underneath ‘inspecting the girders’ and then slipped into the water and crossed in China. I thought I was free.”
“Of course,” the old man says, “You weren’t.”
“No,” I say, “I wasn’t. Other North Koreans, many of them, had fled into China. The Chinese government pursued them and sent them back. If they were caught, they were likely to die. They and their families alike. All of us were running and hiding. We were living in an authoritarian country with the best tracking systems in the world and we were trying, as hard as we could, to escape. I spent years there, always afraid of being captured. I knew a great deal more than most refugees and so I knew I was a valuable target. I ate fatty foods to bulk up my face and I cut my own cheek to confuse the facial recognition systems. Eventually, I made it to Thailand and the South Korean embassy there.”
“And you came here?”
“I came here. When I got off the airplane, I felt such relief and such joy. I was no longer a puppet. I was no longer locked into a single path – of service or of flight. I was breathing the free air of Korea. That was two months ago.”
“And already,” the old man says, “You have come to me.”
The old man asks, “Why?”
“Why are you here, in my casino?”
I look at him then.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Are you frightened?” he asks.
“No,” he says, “Are you frightened, in general?”
I think about it. And then I realize that I am. I am more frightened than I ever have been before. I don’t even have to speak; the man sees it on my face.
“What of?” he asks.
“I, I don’t know.” I say.
“Is it starvation?” he asks.
I shake my head, no.
I find myself nodding. Yes. Yes. I live in fear of shame. It is the greatest fear I have ever had.
The old man smiles then. “You are a smart man. An educated man. An accomplished man. A driven man. And you are now a free man.”
“That is why you are frightened.”
“I don’t understand.” I say.
“You have the fear of all great free men: you are afraid of not living up to your potential.”
I think about it. And then I know it is true.
“In the North,” the old man says, “You could not make your own choices. If things went poorly, it was not your fault. But here, if you fail, there is no such excuse.”
“So, let me ask you again. Why are you here in my casino? Why are you playing to lose?”
“I don’t know,” I laugh nervously, shame beginning to run through me.
“But I do,” says the man, “You are trying to escape. You are trying to destroy yourself so you don’t have to feel the shame of trying to succeed – and perhaps failing along the way.”
I sit there. My drink in my hand. And I know the old man is right.
He smiles again. “You are a mathematician,” he says, “A statistician. If you lose a hand, does it mean you should not have bet on it?”
“No,” I say.
“Correct,” says the man, “You play the odds. If you play them well, you will lose some hands that are strong and win some that are weak. But you play the odds. You can’t regret placing a bet when the statistics told you it was the right thing to do.”
I nod. He is right, of course.
“A good hand is still good even if it doesn’t win and a bad hand is still bad even if it does.”
I nod, again.
The old man continues, “This, is how you can survive your freedom. You must make the right choices, not because you know the future. But because they are the right choices. They are at one with inhwa, with harmonious living. Then you live with the consequences. You may acquire kibun in the eyes of others. You may acquire flashy cars and nice houses and a good family. You already have education. Or you may not. But you will acquire kibun in your own eyes, and you will find joy in your decisions you make.”
We sit there again, in the silence. I think about what the man has said. And then I ask him, “Have you found joy in your decisions?”
The old man smiles again and I see a tired bitterness in it. “No,” he says, “I have made the wrong choices. I sought the empty pride of a jobok when a jobok was needed. I put the ends before the means. I can lie to myself, but I know I have not acted for harmony, for inhwa. I hide my tattoos in shame. I rarely get a chance to taste the sweetness of my own freedom. But… sometimes I can do just that.”
He reaches then for the paper. He turns it over and I see, written there, the sum of money that I owe him. Then he speaks again, in a soft voice, “This is your debt. This is everything you have lost in my club. You cannot take my money and be clean. You cannot take it and preserve your kibun. But I can refuse to take yours.”
With that, he lifts the paper and he tears it in half.
I look at the torn paper. Then I look at the old man.
And then I bow my head in gratitude.
Calmly, and with a pride I have never felt before, I stand up and I walk out of the casino and onto the damp streets of Busan.
I am ready for the sweetness of freedom.
When the people emerge from Egypt, they are described as Chamushim. The word literally means ‘fivers.’ When we look at things related to the number five, there are few references. But one thing pops out: birds and insects and fish are created on the fifth day. Animals, and people, come on the sixth. In this context, a fiver is less developed than an animal. In this context, the people lack the responsibility and initiative of those who are free. The people have been broken by their oppressors.
When they emerge from the sea, they sing a song. The entire song is summarized by Miriam the prophetess in only one verse: “Sing to G-d because he is pride of prides. The horse and rider he throws into the sea.”
Speaking of the French-Algerian conflict, Satre once wrote: “To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remains a dead man and a free man.”
The Jewish people suffered tremendously at the hands of the Egyptians. They became chamushim instead of normal people. Even in the face of the tremendous numerical superiority they had before entering the sea, they were unable to defend themselves. Moshe himself could not conceive of such a defense. Like the victim of rape, they were immobilized by the simple existence of their attacker. They could not sing. But when Hashem cast the horse and rider into the sea He destroyed two people: he destroyed the domesticated horse the Jewish people had become and he destroyed the rider who had controlled them.
What emerged was a part way to a free people.
But only part way.
When the people come to Marah, the waters are bitter and undrinkable. When they are nearly overcome by their thirst, G-d commands Moshe to toss a tree into the waters. Then, the waters become sweet.
If we look at the symbolism of this story, a clear meaning arises. Waters in Torah symbolize spirituality and spiritual rejuvenation. On the other hand, trees are consistently identified as gifts of G-d – think of the Garden of Eden. By acting as commanded and putting one of G-d’s gifts to us into the water, we make His spiritual waters sweet. To me, the symbolism is clear: by using G-d’s gifts (the commandments), we can appreciate the sweetness of G-d’s spirituality.
Like the mathematician in the casino, the people had never had freedom before. They had never had room for spirituality. Like those freed in Egypt or Romania or Haiti, they were not ready to receive it. They are frightened of it. They want to flee back to their oppression. They want to flee the power of decision.
But this is not Hashem’s plan. Instead, like the old man in the casino, Hashem teaches them the first lesson of freedom: with righteous action, the taste of freedom can be sweet indeed.
From this baseline, the people are made ready to receive the Manna – the physical gifts of the Divine relationship. And from there they can become a source of spirituality themselves – like the rock that gives waters.
History has shown us that more often than not, freedom leads to horror. The Arab Spring has reminded us of this bitter reality. But it need not be so.
By remembering the gift of Hashem’s commandments, we can sweeten our spiritual waters.
And by remembering the gifts of Hashem commandments, we can be blessed in all we do and we can be a source of blessing unto the world.