Love in the Big City
Park Sang Young 박상영
Anton Hur 허정범
What does it mean to be a gay man in Seoul? For Park Sang Young, it means to be lonely when with others. It means to love while not loved. It means having to hide your truth from those you care about. It means being unable to touch those you love in ways you want to. It means to be left behind while others move on with their lives.
There is a reason for this difficulty, and it’s something that Park subtly, but poignantly points out in multiple instances where the main character must hide his true identity. It is that despite its prosperity and flourishing culture, Korea pitifully lags in not only protection but even a minimal sense of respect toward LGBTQ+ people.
According to a 2019 Franklin & Marshall Global Barometer of Gay Rights, Korea is one of threeOECD nations that earned an “F”, while OECD nations on average earned a “B”. F Indicates that the country is persecuting members of LGBTQ+ communities, rather than protecting them. F&M still reports to this day an F for the country.
This is the background against which our protagonist Young struggles to find love, where he must hide who he is, and make up lies to protect himself.
It is easy to dismiss Love in the Big City as a story that meanders without a destination. After all, that is what it portrays. Young is a perpetually lost soul in a city that constantly presents him disappointments. But the point is exactly that. It is a tale of someone who finds himself without a place to belong to. In a city filled with people, Young is left without a person to love.
Throughout The book, his relationships all come with a fatal flaw. With Jaehee, he finds a partner-in-crime for his nightly debauchery. Jaehee and Young share a common ground, which is that they are both outcasts. Jaehee’s sin is that she is promiscuous. Young’s sin is that he is gay. They quickly form a camaraderie around this shared identity.
His friendship with Jaehee comes to an end when Jaehee finds a man to marry. From the realm of rejects, she enters society as one of their own. She has been accepted, while Young still remains banished. It is why Jaehee does not come back to Young once she leaves their apartment, except for one brief passing moment later in the book.
“Jaehee, who had taught me that every season is its own beautiful moment– that Jaehee didn’t live here anymore.”1
It also affects the way heis with his mother. Even as she is dying of cancer, Young has a difficult time connecting with her. In her fading moments, he cannot tell her the truth of who he is. In fact, he hopes to free her from the knowledge that her son is gay, asif it’s a crime.
“All I could do was awaither death. And hope that she would die without having known.”2
Of course, this is most accentuated when it comes to his romances. With the older former activist that Young desperately tries to hold on to, it is doomed from the start due to theman’s inner shame at being gay. He cannot stand to be seen in public as a couple with Young, and he does not like Young’s romantic advances. He even states that he does not love him in the way Young wants him to.
“You didn’t think this is love, did you?”3
Then There is Gyu-ho, with whom he could have had a perfect romance with. Alas, itis prevented by ‘Kylie’, an STD that is highly implied to be HIV. The inability to be freely intimate with Gyu-ho is an obstacle for Young, who believes that he is an imperfect partner for Gyu-ho because he cannot give that sexual satisfaction. Inbreaking up with Gyu-ho, Young displays self-loathing and his inner belief that he is not deserving of love.
“I had wanted too much. I’d already been given so much in the past three years. When you try to have too much, you’re bound to stumble at some point.”4
What is considered a normal relationship for anybody else, Young considers it a luxury, and he ultimately forces himself to throw it away.
When Young lets himself be unhappy and make choices that deteriorate him, we get a glimpse of what he could have. That he could have had a normal friendship with Jaehee that would survive past a marriage of one of them. That he could have had a relationship of truth with his own mother. That he could have had the courage to reject someone who doesn’t love him much easier. That he could have had a fulfilling relationship with a partner who loves him for who he is.
And therein lies the biggest struggle of it all. That he is unable to love another person. Though he direly wishes to find love and is constantly searching to fill that gaping hole. In his trip to Thailand with the businessman Habibi toward the end of the novel, he reminisces on the happy moments he shared with Gyu-ho on a trip to the very same place he goes to with Habibi.
My only wish.”5
In these moments of him longing for Gyu-ho, one can’t help but feel intense grief for the kind of life he must lead. This is where we begin to understand the kind of struggle that the LGBTQ+ community goes through in Korea and get a glimpse at the emotions that come with such experiences. What is life when even something as vital as love is a hurdle through and through? That’s what this book is all about.
In the acknowledgments after the book ends, Park speaks of a comment from a reader that particularly remained in his memory:
“Thank you for writing about us, about me.”
And for that reason alone,for giving a voice to those who cannot raise their own above the crowd, this book is necessary. It is a tribute to those whose lives struggle through what would have been easy if they were considered ‘normal’ by Korean society’s standards.
Suffering is often quietly endured and invisible to the public. It is also a difficult thing to understand. When a gay man says he is struggling, how are we supposed to know exactly what suffering means for that person? That’s what the book helps us with. To begin to understand what it’s like. Because that is how we change the grade of F for gay rights to a B or even an A: see what it’s like to step into their shoes.
By laying it all out in its dazzling glory, the ugly parts included without any filter, Park Sang Young tells it without holding anything back: to be a gay man in today’s Korea, is to be unable to truly love.
1 Park, Sang Young. Love in the Big City: A Novel.Translated by Anton Hur, Grove Press, 2021. 50
2 Park, Sang Young. Love in the Big City: A Novel.Translated by Anton Hur, Grove Press, 2021. 126
3 Park, Sang Young. Love in the Big City: A Novel.Translated by Anton Hur, Grove Press, 2021. 116
4 Park, Sang Young. Love in the Big City: A Novel.Translated by Anton Hur, Grove Press, 2021. 176.
5 Park, Sang Young. Love in the Big City: A Novel.Translated by Anton Hur, Grove Press, 2021. 217
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