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We Didn’t Know

by Cho Se-hui
Translated from Korean by
Don Mee Choi
Issue 11 Online Exclusive

The women workers at Ungang Textile went on a hunger strike. Those who knew about it knew, and those who didn’t, didn’t.

Some of those who knew were distressed at not being able to help out the strikers, and some just kept the information to themselves. Those who didn’t know continued not to know, so they stayed in the dark. Even if someone who didn’t know had known about it, nothing would have happened. There was no change at the factory because Ungang Textile remained oblivious to the people who became distressed, and because among those who knew, some just kept the information to themselves.

Knowing and not knowing meant the same—nothing. Ultimately we didn’t know.

Ungang Textile is a monster.

We are all busy.

Ungang Textile is a skeleton.

We didn’t know.

For seven days and six nights, Ungang Textile’s women workers fasted. But they drank barley tea. They also ate salt. And a few apples and thin rice porridge. Those who couldn’t withstand the ordeal fainted and were taken to the hospital by the people outside.

The women decided to end their fast after seven days and six nights. As they ended the strike, the women workers processed their thoughts and feelings. The list below is a record of their thoughts and feelings:

1. Our bodies have become weak, so caring for our health will be a problem after the strike. 2. Let’s not distance ourselves from the workers who are not on our side; let’s get close to them. 3. Even when the supervisors treat us harshly at work, let’s take it politely. 4. Let’s show only kindness to those we hate. 5. It would be good to collect money among us for food, so we can be equally nourished. 6. When a supervisor calls you in, inform the worker next to you. 7. Let’s be ethical to those who treat us unethically. 8. Let’s greet those who avoid us. 9. We were able to understand the hungry. 10. We were able to increase our tolerance. 11. We desperately craved dumpling soup. 12. We learned that water is life saving. 13. The salt tasted like candy. 14. When we became weak and lay down, the tree patterns on the ceiling looked like sesame cookies. 15. The buttons on our clothes looked like sweet potato cookies. 16. I was happy that my workstation had made a new friend. 17. We were happy to be able to confirm that we were one family. 18. I kept thinking about the bread I gave away to someone, the Labor Day bread that I received at the Labor Day ceremony. 19. I envied the power of Wonder Woman on TV. 20. When I was a child, I wished that I had been born a boy, but now, I’m proud that I was born a girl. 21. We didn’t fear the fists of the men who beat us. 22. I confess with shame in my heart. I stole and ate rice and kimchi. 23. I can understand the psychology of a thief. 24. I wasn’t thinking about a thief’s psychology, but rather about the unprivileged. I plan to devote my life to helping them. 25. My legs trembled severely when I walked up the steps. 26. I woke up from a dream about food, then cried silently. 27. When a co-worker walked in with a handkerchief in her hand, I was lying down on the floor, but then I sprang to my feet because the handkerchief looked like a bag of cookies. 28. We dreaded the return of daylight; we didn’t want night to end. 29. We got to know all of our weaknesses. 30. We were deeply moved by the stories told by those who sacrificed their lives for others. 31. We learned that we must love and care for each other. 32. Tears flowed as we watched our fellow strikers gulp down the porridge. 33. When a fake doctor came to check on us, we felt a kind of rage that was hard to suppress. 34. We were afraid every time we heard the door. 35. I remained lying down on the second floor. I really wanted to know who rode past below the window every day near dawn and rang the bicycle bell. 36. We wondered who would cry if we died. 37. We had thoughts about wanting to get married. 38. We all became very slim. 39. We felt like the terminally ill because we lay down all the time. 40. Whenever a priest or nun or any guests from the outside walked in, we looked at their hands first in case they might have brought food. 41. Whenever there was something to eat, our actions became embarrassing. 42. We hadn’t known starving was such a difficult task. Because we starved for so long, we fell into despair. 43. Hope was vague and despair was certain. 44. When a small person walked in, he/she looked like something we could eat. 45. We felt that dying was truly difficult. 46. I thought to myself that there wasn’t much to human life. 47. I was so hungry that when I kept getting bad news, I wanted to jump from the third floor. 48. I participated in the hunger strike knowing that I would be fired, but I’m worried. I am my family’s only breadwinner and there are six mouths to feed. 49. Starving in a group living situation is most difficult. 50. It was easier than working at the factory. 51. We felt like we were going mad when inutterably foul words fell out of the mouths of the men who beat and guarded us. 52. Their every other word was a curse, “Those bitches, those bitches.” 53. That was very polite compared to some things. We heard things that couldn’t ever be repeated. 54. I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I snapped back, “You guys must have nothing better to do.” 55. Let’s smile at the opposition even though they laugh at us. 56. When we are back at work, let’s not pay any attention to what anybody says. Let’s just push our agenda forward. 57. Let’s not fear our supervisors. Let’s all make an effort to regain our health as soon as possible. Let’s work hard.

And so, the Ungang Textile women workers ended their hunger strike.

People who know, know the motive behind the Ungang Textile women workers’ strike of seven days and six nights. And people who know, know that the workers who participated in the strike got fired and that the members of the regional labor committee are investigating it. Months later, people who didn’t know still don’t. People who don’t know never will. The fact that, for several months, the fired workers have been suffering with no income, and that even though they want to go to work at another factory they will never be allowed in, remains unknown even by people who know.

Ungang Textile is a monster.

We are all busy.

Ungang Textile is a skeleton.

We didn’t know.

Author
Cho Sehui was born in 1942 in Korea. He was a member of the “hangul generation,” so-called because its members were the first to be educated in Korean (previous years were under Japanese domination and language, and before this colonial period most scholars had studied Chinese). Cho’s writing is sparse and explicit, though it can also seem surreal. His most famous work is The Dwarf, a linked novel that criticizes Korean society and creates an unsettling narrative, considered one of the critical works of the 1970s. The Dwarf was translated by Bruce Felton and published by University of Hawaii Press in 2006.
Translator
Don Mee Choi is the author of Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016) and The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010) and has translated the work of several contemporary Korean women poets, such as Ch’oe Sŭng-ja, Kim Hyesoon, and Yi Yŏn-ju. Her translations include Anxiety of Words (Zephyr Press, 2008), Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers (Action Books, 2008), All the Garbage of the World, Unite! (Action Books, 2011), Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream (Action Books, 2014), and I’m OK, I’m Pig (Bloodaxe Books, 2014).