You thought it took more than television to chase off menopause, but your mother solely relied on The Legendary Birthplace—and occasionally the house floor—that summer. You attentively observed the pale-faced girls dressed as virgin ghosts. Vengeance, everyone knew, was what made them ghosts—their combination of regret, sorrow, and anger kept them in the limbo world. Though they did not always remain to wreak their vengeance. You categorized some as warnings that they judged necessary.
Each time a virgin ghost flashed onscreen, your father ripped the remote from your mother’s hand. Your mother slapped his knuckles. She repeatedly reminded him that ghosts were fake. Plus, they didn’t use weapons, only flashlights. What harm could they be? Your mother clucked her tongue and you raised an eyebrow whenever your father overreacted. It was as if he were one of those men who always felt the virgin ghosts were coming for them. What had they done that made them think they were to be the targets? You felt something between pity and glee. You didn’t have to wonder far about what your father’s grievous sins might have been. You eyed your mother and saw the tips of her ears lifting. You could guess why your mother watched the horror series. You liked the concept of an afterlife that wasn’t heaven. Like the virgin ghosts, it was also in your nature to never forget.
Your chance at an afterlife came earlier than you expected, and you didn’t mind. You were on the bus back from your unpaid internship. You weren’t much of a complainer. You, like most of the unemployed population, accepted it as a necessary path. Your internship was going to end up as a single line on your resume. You didn’t expect much other than the task of making coffee and photocopies. The full-timers advised you to get married early and have children—how else would you repel the bosses’ creeping hands that freely explored your thighs? They informed you it would be less so when you return as an ajumma. But you knew your parents wished for you to marry in your thirties. They were expecting at least five years’ worth of your salary before you tied the knot with a stranger. But, on that bus, you had let go of the bar to turn and confronted the ass-pincher’s shameless face. While you were free-handed, the bus braked and your neck snapped. You learned later that a motorcycle had intercepted the bus. It didn’t matter to you how you died except that the ass-pincher hadn’t.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about the Death Messengers. They were what most people expected them to be these days. You were pleasantly surprised that they seemed familiar. Both sexes of the Death Messengers wore black Chosun-style scholars’ clothes as depicted in K-dramas. More importantly, you were impressed with the Death Messengers’ professionalism—both the ironed cuffs and their impartiality in laying out the two options:
2) Virgin ghost
Before your unlucky and undeserved death, you had vaguely accepted that you were to grow old and naturally go through the stage of being an ajumma. But you hadn’t concretely thought that there would be another option in your life. Your grandmother had once been a virgin like you, had gotten married, had children, and had become an ajumma before becoming a granny. The same went with your mother. You thought life flowed into one without much time to realize it. Once anyone fully entered ajumma-hood, you knew no one could turn back. You told the Death Messengers that you had only a vague notion of what it would be like to be an ajumma. They cleared their throats politely and in a calm voice elaborated on the matter.
First, the path to ajumma-hood was a stable choice. It could be compared to having stocks in a long-trusted brand like LG or Samsung, though there were variations depending on the individual. Here is a preview of the fate ahead of you. With a whizz, your potential life as an ajumma sped by you. It was a life with no hesitation. You spoke truth, for your strength was derived from your children as it had been for your mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. You could not only defend yourself, but all the people around you, with gochujang power and the sheet of metal you laid upon your face. You saw your faded beauty, but embraced the warrior qualities you had gained. Nothing could penetrate an ajumma, not even shame. That ass-pincher, you could slap in broad daylight. All the years of respect you had garnered for ajummas rose up like destiny in your throat. You had envied ajummas who could shout when they wanted and eat what they wanted. You were surprised that the passive and shy you could transform into that. It was tempting to jump on board.
Ajumma power excelled in the school system and against taxi drivers. Most everything in the household was also within the palm of the ajumma. Yet, all lives had hurdles: the Death Messengers showed you both sides of the coin. Ajummas being the very force of each household, their ultimate opponents were other ajummas. Ajummas against ajummas, sizing up each other’s skirt wind; competition was the foundation of their feisty power. Even as an ajumma, you understood without a doubt that other ajummas would trump you. There were stronger opponents to ajummas than ajummas: mothers-in-law were more than capable veterans of ajumma-hood. But nothing trumped money. In the harsh physical world, the Death Messengers explained, ajummas and their mothers-in-law live within the realm of money.
The rite of passage to become an ajumma was childbirth—so you asked of this. The Death Messengers hesitantly informed you that your husband would not be one to know the difference between shampoo and conditioner. But he wouldn’t go bald, they consoled you. You would both have to work to get by, but would not hit rock bottom. Just don’t let your husband open a fried chicken restaurant with his retirement fund, they warned. You nodded. Your children, they added, would all score right at the 50th percentile in the country. You could accept that, too, not having been much better at school yourself. They flipped through their files for more information before declaring that your husband would neither be handsome nor, they paused, be good in bed—mostly because of his selfish nature.
Not skipping a beat, the messengers handed you a second pamphlet, explaining that as both a woman and virgin in your recent life, you would also qualify for the virgin ghost trajectory. You felt a bit of a pride, having avoided sex the night of your high school retreat. Following what your grandmother told you paid off. Choice was always a luxury. Now neither is the virgin ghost path without its own hurdles. First, the virgin ghost community was rather strict about its virgin ghost uniform and hair guidelines. The white hanbok and long hair have been their dress code for centuries, they explained. You thought it was quite backwards to keep that look, but you were never one to complain about your middle school and high school uniform and the bob cut. The Death Messengers elaborated that the dress code was fundamental in building the brand of virgin ghosts. That you could also vouch for, too, since American horror films now had virgin ghosts.
Next, in the increasingly scientific world, ghosts in general were losing their impact. What once would have scared the pants off a guy, could now be dismissed as some unrealistic thing that happened when he was stoned or too drunk. A diminished impact, you took note. And with all the special effects in the film industry that has numbed men’s senses, the virgin ghosts had to up their game as well. You have to have a lot more than a flashlight these days, the Death Messengers summed up. As a virgin ghost, you also would not get a good public rep. Your work would go unrecognized. There was no Virgin Ghost Day where girls would come pin a corsage to your breast. Feminist organizations would not award you, come Career Day. But neither did ajummas win awards.
Having made you aware of the inevitable hurdles of this second choice, the Death Messengers began with a second wind, explaining that virgin ghosts were considered to be one of the elite classes of ghosts. It was the most stable job and the work was not as strenuous as others. Working hours were flexible and you could even work from home—if there were men nearby. The pamphlet had the job responsibilities bullet-pointed in a neat column. One of the bullets read: Mentoring young men. You perked up. You liked that one. No men were safe from virgin ghosts; it did not matter if they were lawyers, CEOs, or billionaires. In your lifetime, you had had the urge to make an intervention—men molesting girls, cheating on girlfriends, and beating wives—but men’s power, status, and money had gotten in the way. Their misbehavior went uncorrected, and each time, a subtle boil rose inside you. The last glimpse you had of the ass-pincher’s face filled your mind. That is part of the lingo you will learn on the job. You felt that it would be fulfilling. As if sensing your merrily scheming vengeance, the Death messengers added, virgin ghosts generally develop a keen sense of integrity and pedagogy, teachers and mentors that they are.
Moreover, the Death Messengers remarked, the strong sense of community is what draws most candidates. Among virgin ghosts, there was no reason to compete. Nothing was a limited resource—neither men nor wealth. Virgin ghosts were free from the realm of money altogether. Then, the Death Messengers uncomfortably averted their gaze away from you. There is, however, one thing, one of them spoke in a low voice. They are very close to one another, blurted the other. Being an only child, you had always wanted sisters. Let’s say the virgin ghosts are probably the most liberal among us, one added, sexually. Caught off guard, you asked, With whom? Their gaze darted away, It’s their communal ordeal.
You didn’t understand how virgin ghosts could lose their virginity and still be called virgin ghosts. They explained that the ghost world’s health guidelines were dictated by the Ministry of Public Health. One of them awkwardly added, We have to follow their standard definition of sex as intercourse. They added, Men also think that flashing their wieners will chase away virgin ghosts, but that’s not the case, as you can guess. You had forgotten about the myth of virgin ghosts being afraid of men’s parts. This meant virgin ghosts actually did not have a weak spot since they were not interested in protecting their virginity. The name stuck around, they nodded together.
More importantly, you realized that you had never been concerned about your sex life in the afterlife. Due to limited information on what would and would not be possible, you simply had not known that ghosts could or would have sex lives. Then again, you didn’t know that the earthly Ministry of Public Health would determine the ghost world, either. More importantly, you felt incompetent entering the virgin ghost community. Your sex-ed class in high school only showcased bananas and rubber. You wished you had a fertile imagination because you had no idea where to start on being with other women.
Your passive nature is ideal for the virgin ghost profile, they counseled. Even as an ajumma, you understood that other ajummas would trump you for sure. Secondly, you weren’t a naturally a diligent person, and ajummas are on call 24/7. You would have to wake up before your kids, work under men in your company, and pick up after your husband when you came home. As if they read your thoughts, the Death Messengers pointed out, As a virgin ghost, showing up at your job at the given time is already half the job.
But you had always thought ajumma-hood was your destiny. A lump grew in your throat when you thought about your mother. Even if you went back, you only had a few years under your parents’ roof. You would soon be married off and sent away. Even thinking about your lousy husband to-be made your insides come to a rolling boil. Then, you thought of the daughter you would birth. She, too, would endure those unfair years waiting to be an ajumma. You couldn’t think of anything worse than that—to reproduce another being just so she would suffer. But you were never heroic. Your slurry of thoughts continued to swirl noncommittally, and you wondered if you were justifying something innermost. You blinked in hesitation. The Death Messengers perked up at the prospect of a decision reached.
Taeyin ChoGlueck is a third culture kid birthed by North America and South Korea. Her satirical play, The Pink Pope, is forthcoming through ND Theater Now.
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