All Woman and Springtime
Finally, a whistle blew and the foreman announced, as if it were against his better judgment, that lunch was being served in the cafeteria. Gyong-ho and Il-sun stood up and, in rigid military fashion, filed out the factory door. Gyong-ho wondered if there really would be lunch, or just the sawdust gruel that was served most days.
The women splintered into small groups as they exited the workroom, and the air filled with chatter. It seemed an odd contrast between the martial atmosphere of the workroom and the casual muddle of the lunchroom, as if they were ants that morphed into women and then back into ants again. Occasional laughter could be heard, and a Party anthem played in the background on tinny speakers. Gyong-ho made a break for the latrine. When she returned, she and Il-sun queued up in the cafeteria, waiting for the day's ration, which turned out to be a small scoop of rice and a slice of boiled cabbage. On the wall behind the service counter was a poster with a drawing of stout Chosun citizens handing food across a barbed wire fence to the emaciated and rag-clad Hanguk. American soldiers with long noses and fierce, round eyes were holding the Hanguk down with their boots, the hands of the Hanguk outstretched in desperation. The poster said, simply, Remember Our Comrades to the South. Gyong-ho and Il-sun received their bowls and sat down at a corner table.
"How long do you think we will have to stockpile food for the Hanguk?" Il-sun asked, looking despondently at her meager ration.
"Until the Americans stop starving them, I suppose," Gyong-ho answered. It was widely known that the imperialist Americans were harsh overlords to the oppressed Hanguk people, who craved reunification of the Korean peninsula under the Dear Leader. That is why the Dear Leader was stockpiling food for them, asking his own people to sacrifice much of their daily ration to aid the unfortunate people of the South.
"Yeah, but what I wouldn't give for a bite of pork," another woman at the table chimed in, not quite under her breath. The whole table fell into a tense, uncomfortable silence. The cold of the concrete room drilled bone deep. Nobody dared inhale. Such a statement was as good as slapping the Dear Leader - it could leave the stain of treason on anyone who heard it.
"But it is worth it for the benefit of our dear comrades to the South," she added quickly, forcing a smile at the rice balanced on her chopsticks. "It is by the glory of the Dear Leader that we eat so well."
Conversation resumed. It was a broom sweeping dust under the corner of a rug. Such talk was dangerous.
Twenty minutes later a whistle blew, signaling the end of the midday break. It ended all too soon for the weary Gyong-ho and Il-sun, who were ants once again, marching back into the workroom. They stood next to their sewing stations, feet apart, hands behind their backs. Not all factory foremen demanded such military strictness of their workers, but Foreman Hwang was decidedly old-guard. The shift began with a song in praise of the country's founder, then the foreman spoke.
"Comrades, I do not need to tell you that there is no higher purpose than serving our Dear Leader." His voice was low and gravelly, like stones rolling around in a tin can. "It is an honor that he has bestowed upon you, allowing you to serve him in the People's garment factory. But sometimes I think you do not fully appreciate this gift. Every day I see complacency and laziness." His eyes landed on Il-sun, and Gyong-ho tensed. "These must be stamped out!" He punctuated the statement by slamming his fist into the palm of his hand, sending a shock wave down Gyong-ho's spine. She nearly gasped out loud. "We must be prepared for the day when the imperialist dogs, the American bastards and their flunky allies, attack us. Even though we no longer hear their bombs or feel their bayonets in our hearts, we are still at war. They are afraid of the Dear Leader and the mighty Chosun army. They are afraid like cornered animals; and like cornered animals they must eventually strike at us, even as hopeless as they know it will be to do so. So we must be prepared for that day. Each of you must ask, 'What can I do for the Dear Leader?' " He let the question hang in the air for a moment to collect drama. "You must do exactly what is asked of you, without question, without complaint." He paced thoughtfully for a moment.
Excerpted from All Woman and Springtime by Brandon Jones. Copyright © 2012 by Brandon Jones. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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