Once upon a time, there lived a man called Cinderella.
(What do you mean, that’s a name for girls? Says who? Some fairy tale? No, I’m not changing it to Prince! Okay, fine. We’ll just call him Cinderella Man, happy? Geez.)
He was also called Oh Dae-san. And Lee Joon-hee. Because you see, there were two of him. In build, stubble and number of earlobe piercings they were the same; even their hair was the exact length and shade. But there were also subtle differences.
If you studied it intently enough, you would realize Dae-san’s hair was ruly whereas Joon-hee’s was ruled. (Don’t use those distinguishing traits on a windy day, though.) Dae-san had pilot vision, but Joon-hee was myopic. Dae-san was sunny; Joon-hee was sullen. Speech-wise both were clearly peas from the same pod, speaking with a lisp so that you had to strain your ears sometimes to understand what each was
mumbling saying. Joon-hee’s voice was especially soft, but as the Bard said, “Is whispering nothing?”, so it wouldn’t do to dismiss Joon-hee as a mere softie. After all, even as a baby he knew when to open his mouth and when to keep it shut, such acumen sorely lacking in his twin.
But we’re skipping ahead. Let’s first retrace the beginning of the twins’ story some twenty-something years ago. Imagine, if you will, a dark and stormy night. All through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
Oops, wretched crossed signals from nigh unrelated tales. Let’s try again. It was a dark and dry night. All through the house every creature was stirring, even the scavengers up in the rafters. Something was afoot. The lizards watched warily, supper all but forgotten, as a man stepped lightly into the house, his face a queer mix of fear and resolve. Outside a lady of gentrified standing waited in a car, her senses heightened from the baby cries inside the house.
The man checked his watch to see if it had died, since the waiting seemed to last forever. But then a woman descended the stairs, a bundle in her arms. An exchange of momentous implications ensued, he receiving the bundle and she an envelope presumably thick with bills. Both wore expressions that suggested they despised being privy to the proceedings. In fact, the man’s furtiveness as he scurried away was a damning confirmation of another of the Bard’s wise sayings: “O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!” The lizards obviously concurred as they flicked their tails in disgust, glad to belong to the squamata order of reptiles, a species that did not sell its young for cash.
Handing the bundle over to the middle-aged lady in the car, the man whispered to her: “It’s a son.” She received the news like one being told tomorrow’s weather forecast, with equanimity. No doubt she was quietly pleased as she gazed upon the sleeping child in her arms, his face a carbon copy of hers. He was her grandson all right.
As he was about to get into the driver’s seat, the man was startled to hear a baby crying. Not the baby inside the car but another one. Or was it a cat? Of course it was a feline cry. How could it be otherwise? He got in and drove away.
In a blink the years flew by, robbing us of the opportunity to see the baby as a child, which meant we would never know how a certain lisp was acquired. A man skipped down a crowded street, whistling and wearing such a jaunty air you couldn’t help noticing him. He moved from store to fashion store, depositing wares and ordering goods, grinning and waving like he was vying for Dongdaemun Market’s Mr. Congeniality award. It was frankly rather amusing, if you were given to a cheery disposition yourself and liked spreading sunshine wherever you went.
Mr. Sunshine aka Oh Dae-san was mid-smile when he received a call that wiped said smile immediately from his face. Someone had died.
Coincidentally (or maybe not, since “Double, double toil and trouble” might as well be this story’s chief theme even if a certain bard meant it as an evil incantation and not a summation of twin shenanigans), over at the Seoul airport the man who years ago had caused some lizards to lose their faith in humankind was waiting, yet again. Then and now he wasn’t the sort to wait while whistling a happy tune. No, he was all nerves and his glasses had slipped so low on his nose as to be rendered practically useless. Where was the young master? Would he arrive too late and thus miss his father’s final journey?
But there he was at last, looking all spiffy in shades. Mr. Lee Joon-hee himself. The baby who had remained so quiet on that dark and dry night many years ago. Now all grown up.
“If only you had come earlier…” the minion started to say, before he was interrupted by the young master. Showing he was made of questionable filial fiber, Joon-hee not only had not collapsed into a weepy heap, he was asking for his car. That was his first concern upon arrival, not his father’s passing! Oh, oh, the Bard would have something to say about that for sure. And the lizards, too, if they hadn’t already returned to their maker.
“Perhaps you should go in another car…” the minion said as he followed the young master out to the gleaming convertible parked outside in a no-parking zone. But would Joon-hee sit in a somber-looking car that was more befitting of the grief that was supposed to engulf him? No way. Jumping into the mean sports machine, he sped off, nearly knocking into a leggy woman standing by the side of the road. She, used to being whistled at rather than run over, screamed after him, but he was too far down the road to hear or bother.
By then his father’s funeral was over. As the mourning party left the burial grounds, a man (heart, be still!) reached out to hold his granny’s hand, but she reacted as though he had some contagious disease or something. Never mind, you fine specimen of a being, because for sure there is karma and your next life will be beautiful and you will have a grandma who dotes on you. Rest assured!
It turned out that man was Lee Jae-min, Joon-hee’s older brother. It also turned out that Jae-min was not the son of Joon-hee’s dad even though his mom was married to Joon-hee’s dad. Still, he obviously enjoyed his stepdad’s trust since he was the one helping the older man to run Sopia Apparel, the family’s extremely successful business. In that regard he would be the natural choice to take over the business as the new president. But since blood mattered more to the grandma than anything else, she wanted Joon-hee as successor. Now to get that fact drummed into his thick skull.
Whether it was because she despised the one who gave him birth, or because she resented how her hair had turned completely white ever since she brought him home as a baby, the grandmother’s relationship with Joon-hee resembled a bed of splintered glass. It was not delight that she served to him when they met after the funeral but a resounding slap. He in turn kept a surplus supply of shades, just because the old lady had a penchant for knocking them off his face and onto the ground where they reposed, broken and forlorn.
What really irked her was that he didn’t seem to care about anything. Why did he laugh after the lawyer had read his father’s will, which gave both sons an equal number of shares and hence equal standing in the company? He didn’t care for the business at all; his heart was set on going back to France where he had lived the last ten years.
Ah, France. The land from which the heroine of our story, Seo Yeo-jin, had just returned. Her beloved dad, with no warning whatsoever, had abruptly died. Now her mom lay in the hospital, after knocking her head hard on the ground during the funeral wake. It was Dae-san who had come to the rescue, carrying the unconscious woman on his back.
Although the dead man was his benefactor, the one who had taught him the ropes at Dongdaemun Market after Dae-san had left the orphanage, our lad didn’t seem overly grief-stricken. On the contrary he was his usual perky self, going about his work of stealing the latest fashion designs from the top departmental stores and then getting his contacts to replicate said designs for sale at Dongdaemun.
It was on one such ‘business’ trip that Dae-san found himself the recipient of an unexpected gift. “Sir, I was looking everywhere for you,” chirped a salesgirl as she handed over two bags of purchases to him. Since she practically forced him to accept the bags, how could he decline?
Of course it doesn’t require any smarts to know the clothes belonged to Joon-hee. Imagine then his displeasure when the salesgirl insisted she had passed the bags to him. “Do you have a twin, Sir?” she asked, said ridiculous question causing him to roll his eyes in disdain. “You know that suit is limited edition and very expensive, don’t you? The only one in Korea. Make sure you get it back for me or else I’m having your liver for breakfast.”
Meanwhile, said limited-edition suit was walking out the store, its wearer beaming from ear to ear.
When he returned to Dongdaemun, sans suit because sudden scene shifts are de rigueur in this story, Dae-san found himself thrust into an altercation. Some thuggish-looking men were inside the late Mr. Seo’s store. “This store was surety for your father’s loan,” said their leader to an incredulous Yeo-jin. “Now that he’s dead and the loan unpaid, we’re taking the store and everything inside.”
Trust Dae-san to come to the Seo family’s rescue yet again. As he made light work of the thugs, a policeman’s whistle could be heard. That got the men scrambling. No policeman showed up, though, perhaps because Dongdaemun was such a maze it would take weeks to locate a fight. Self-policing, everyone.
Whereas she had given him the cold shoulder the first time he had tried to help her in the store (said occasion being a sales opportunity that Yeo-jin squandered because she thought Dae-san was being a busybody), now she regarded him with warmth. So he said, “Let’s go someplace for coffee.”
Showing he was made of sweet and sagacious stuff, Dae-san brought her up to Namsan Park. Nothing like a steep climb to whet one’s appetite for caffeine, right? “There’s no one here so just shout it all out. Release everything that’s bottled up inside.” And he showed her how.
At first he covered his ears, but then he couldn’t help wanting to know. In the end he heard everything. And what he heard made him determined that he would do all he could to help ease her worries and save her father’s Dongdaemun store.
First he would get her a job. Unfortunately, said job entailed copying clothing designs. She, who had been studying at France’s top fashion design school, would never stoop so low!
It fell upon her then to find a job herself. There was an opening at Sopia Apparel for a designer. How opportune.
Her turn to be interviewed, she stepped into the room and gamely answered such probing questions as “Why didn’t you finish your studies?” One of the interviewers looked familiar. Forgetting where she was, Yeo-jin brightened up. “Ajusshi, is that you? It’s you, isn’t it?”
Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, Lee Jae-min averted his eyes and replied, “You must be mistaken.”
The interview over, Yeo-jin wondered aloud as she left the building, “It’s him. I’m sure of that. The ajusshi from France.”
Hmm, interesting and also most intriguing. So now not one, not two but three of the main characters in our story hailed at some point from the land of the Eiffel Tower. Perchance the woman whom Joon-hee almost turned to roadkill came from there as well? Wouldn’t be too far-fetched to make that conjecture, no siree. And what was Jae-min and Yeo-jin’s relationship in France that she should be so pleased to see him? Why did he pretend not to know her? Was Joon-hee somehow also acquainted with Yeo-jin, even though she studied design and he culinary art? What fun to connect the dots one at a time, instead of having everything explained all at once.
Speaking of Joon-hee, the guy was doing all he could to distance himself from his grandma. Instead of staying in the house, he was holding his own memorial service of sorts in an apartment. Pouring his father a glass of wine, he said softly, “I always wanted to serve you the food I made, but you didn’t wait for me this time.” Tears filled his eyes. “Rest in peace.”
His father had left him a letter. In it he revealed what he had never told Joon-hee before: His mother was alive, her name was Yoo Jung-hee. “Find her and seek her forgiveness on my and your grandmother’s behalf.” Enclosed with the letter was a photo. For the first time Joon-hee knew what his mom looked like. She was beautiful.
A knock on the door. It was the minion and the matriarch. Face to face, the grandson lashed out at the grandmother. “You told my father years ago that you wished Jae-min was the grandson and not me. If you had known that I was going to be weak, you would have never taken me in. You thought I was asleep but I heard your words. I wanted to die at that time.” She retorted, “With the livelihoods of 3,000 people at stake, of course it would be a sin for the one in charge to be weak.”
And then the stinger. “If I had left you with your mom, could she have afforded your artificial heart valve?” Ah, by “weak” she didn’t mean he was weak-minded. No, he was frail of health!
At the mention of his mom, the tears fell. As she stared disbelieving, he told the grandma what he had just found out. His mom was still alive. He would look for her and ask why she had abandoned him. After that he would return to Paris for good.
Could it be true, that the wench wasn’t dead? “Find out everything you can,” the old lady ordered the minion. “What if she is indeed still living and wants to reclaim Joon-hee?”
What she, the minion, and Joon-hee (as well as Joon-hee’s dad) didn’t know was that there wasn’t just one grandson born that night, there were two. And now this second grandson was prancing in a night club selling his counterfeit designs.
“How dare you invade my territory!” yelled a burly man, who looked more like a night-club bouncer than an itinerant salesman of apparel. Unable to sweet-talk his way out of the sticky situation, Dae-san took off, drawing several ounces of his pursuers’ blood along the way. Our lad could pummel with the best of them.
Want to bet who should saunter in at that precise moment? Yes, you guessed right. And now this innocent one found himself the target of kicks and punches. First, he lost his prized suit because of mistaken identity. Now he was being beaten to a pulp for no rhyme or reason.
Just a matter of time before the inevitable happened…