Subject Bought a Balloon (JO Kyung Ran) TWITTER THIS FACEBOOK THIS Count 7182
Author/Position Cha Mi-ryeong  

In her award-winning literary works, JO Kyung Ran (b. 1969) has gazed into the hearts and minds of people who seem to be drifting about without an emotional grounding. She has also built up a readership outside of Korea by introducing her works through book-reading sessions abroad. In 2007, she signed contracts with several leading publishers in the United States and Europe for the publication of her latest novel Tongue. In her short story, “Bought a Balloon,” she speaks through the protagonist: “If we can’t avoid anxiety in life, we should learn to live in its company, or even be spurred on by it.”

CRITIQUE: JO Kyung Ran Examines Personal Struggle and Unwavering Hope

In Korea, a “rooftop room” (oktap bang), as suggested by its name, is a kind of makeshift room built onto the roof of a house. A part of the house in one way, but also a separate space, a rooftop room typically serves as temporary accommodations for urban dwellers who cannot afford to have a regular home but still want a place of their own. As such, a rooftop room is associated with images of economic hardship, a sense of independence, and youthful exuberance.
Writer JO Kyung Ran lived in a rooftop room in Bongcheon-dong, Seoul, for almost 20 years. During this time, this small room, attached to the house built by her carpenter father, was the birthplace of her literary works. After reading her novels and short stories, you might be able to imagine this writer diligently writing down her thoughts in the solitude of her cramped room.
By receiving various Korean literary awards, including the Munhak Dongne New Author Award (1996), Today’s Young Artist Award (2002), Hyundae Literary Award (2003), and Dongin Literary Award (2008), Jo has well established her standing at the forefront of Korea’s world of contemporary literature. In her works, Jo has gazed into the hearts and minds of people who seemed to be drifting about without an emotional grounding. The quiet elegance of her novels comes from the author’s unwavering hope and search for a decent human existence, in the face of even trying circumstances.
This is true for “Bought a Balloon” as well. Included in a collection of short fiction, bearing the same title published in 2008, it describes a 37-year-old woman who has just returned to Seoul, after studying for 10 years in Heidelberg, Germany. What awaits her in Korea is neither academic prominence nor an attractive career, along with a less than supportive family. She feels uncomfortable after having been away for ten years; Seoul feels like a strange place. Her future here is marked by considerable obscurity. An account in the story, in which she is depicted considering the purchase of a French-made handbag, then in vogue among Korean women, shows the extent to which she feels like a stranger in the city and lacks self-confidence in her everyday life. How will she be able to handle this situation?
Two men are part of the story. The first, described in her reminiscence about her experiences in Germany, is Thomas, a friend she met there. He is a physician who had helped her to cope with her panic attack disorder by having her blow up balloons until she could calm down. However, even Thomas, who had been so attentive and sympathetic to her situation, could only wonder about her future. A final message that he sent her just prior to her departure for Seoul was ominous, saying that she seemed “destined to live in solitude,” because of her inability to communicate with others or the real world.
The other man is Jay, a young man she met in Seoul. He used to be a member of the national handball team. Jay attends her lecture presentation at the cultural center where she works. The two sense a connection and begin dating. Not long after their first date, however, the woman finds out something about Jay; contrary to his cheerful demeanor, he used to suffer from serious panic attacks. With his 28th birthday approaching, the age when his father committed suicide, panic attacks started to take over his life. How could Jay overcome this crisis?
In “Bought a Balloon,” the author delves into the anxiety and dreadfulness that are capable of driving people to the brink of their existence. The anxiety that the woman and Jay struggle to cope with does not only afflict those with a serious panic disorder. To express her sentiments, the author speaks in the voice of her protagonist: “We’d better fight anxiety when it limits our lives and drives us to lock ourselves in; but, anxiety can also be a kind of blessing in your life. If we can’t avoid anxiety, we should learn to live in its company, or even be spurred on by it. We should learn to accept and embrace our agony and unpleasantness as something that can sustain life, rather than ruin it.”
“Bought a Balloon” is about a woman’s struggle to escape from her self-imposed isolation and willfully change the direction of her life. It is also about her efforts to find happiness through a relationship with Jay, something that Thomas doubted would be possible. Probably, neither the woman nor Jay would be able to completely free themselves from anxiety during the course of their lives. However, they might be able to accept and embrace it as proof that life is never perfect. In fact, this imperfection can make life even more beautiful, as suggested by a realization about the possibility of love: “Nowadays, I long to acknowledge my imperfections and be reconciled with them. Because someone I want to care for has come along.”

The balloons gradually drifted upward in the sky. The path to overcoming fear is not something to look back upon, it is something to lead you ahead, Jay. This may well mean changing. If there is a special purpose in life that I could not discover for myself, it may be something round and needing to be inflated, like a balloon. To touch my forehead against his chin, I cautiously raise myself on tiptoe.

In the final scene, the woman and Jay meet each other after a long time and release balloons. The balloon, which used to be a therapeutic aid for coping with anxiety, flies upward, lifting their hopes. To them, the roundness of a balloon represents a will to live. “If there is a special purpose in life that I could not discover for myself, it may be something round and needing to be inflated, like a balloon.” The balloons flying freely in the sky suggest the possibility of a new life that the woman is now finding after her longtime despair and aimless wandering. The knot that has trapped her soul is finally loosened, releasing her spirit so that it can soar freely, like the balloons ascending in the sky.

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