Upon first glimpsing her, my immediate thought was that her attire was not what I’d expected to see at an Anglican cathedral on a Sunday morning. She strode confidently out of the church, wearing black leather shorts and a black tank top, carrying a black leather handbag.
I’d come to the church as part of my reporting for a story on falling levels of religious observance among young people in South Korea. I’d arrived during the main Sunday morning service. I was hoping to chat with young congregants about their faith, and why they felt it worthwhile to attend church, what comfort religion provided them as they lived in a stressful, demanding country.
Since it was not possible to talk with anyone during the service inside, I was sitting on a bench outside the church, hoping to strike up a conversation or two. It was Easter Sunday, and the air was warm and moist. Cherry blossoms bloomed on trees nearby. I zoned out for a moment, trying to recall the last time I was at a church on a Sunday morning.
“Where are you from?” My contemplative fog was pierced by heavily accented English.
I looked to my left and the black-leather clad woman was seated on a bench next to me.
“Canada,” I said. “Where are you from?”
“Thailand,” she responded, before explaining that she was half-Korean and half-Thai, and had lived for extended periods in both countries.
She then said, “Transgender”, pointing to herself. Though I’d vaguely noticed something unconventional in her appearance, this nevertheless surprised me. As the word “transgender” echoed between us, I noticed that her shoulders were broad and somewhat muscular, and that around her nose was redness that suggested recent cosmetic surgery.
“How long have you been coming to this church?” I asked, attempting to steer the conversation toward the area of my journalistic interest.
She looked at me blankly. Sensing she didn’t understand, I asked the question in Korean. She replied that she wasn’t a regular, but had come on this day to receive the Eucharist.
We chatted a short while longer, in a wobbly mix of the two languages. She told me she had recently returned to South Korea after some time spent working as a “showgirl” in the Thai beach town Pattaya. After a few minutes, she stood up, held out her smartphone and asked, “Do you use Kakao?”– the South Korean instant messaging app.
We bid farewell, she left and I went back to seeking potential interviewees.
Roughly fifteen minutes later, as I was interviewing a young family about their religiosity, I got a Kakao message from her, asking, “Is that your wife?”, an apparent reference to my background photo on Kakao, which shows my wife and me on vacation in Kyoto.
Yes, I responded. She told me her age and asked mine, then began to address me as oppa (an affectionate Korean honorific for older brother) upon learning that I was one year older than her. She wished me happiness; I answered, “Thanks, you too,” and assumed our correspondence would pretty much end there.
About twenty minutes later, she sent me another message, this one reading simply, “I’m going to commit suicide today.”
The question of how to respond to someone who announces an intention to commit suicide may be complex; I have no training or expertise in this area but I knew there was one simple message I had to get across.
“Don’t do it!” I wrote.
I told her there were people who cared about her. I asked what was bothering her to the point of suicidal thoughts.
“I’m lady boy in Korea. So much sorrow, tears,” she wrote.
An exceptionally high number of South Koreans end their own lives. An oft-mentioned statistic is that South Korea has the highest suicide rate among members of the OECD, a group of developed countries. As such, the country has long been an unwitting testament to the reality that rising incomes and living standards don’t necessarily lead to happier lives.
And suicide figures are particularly shocking for transgender people. A study by Yonsei University professor Lee Sang-moo found that 20 percent of transgender people attempt suicide before undergoing gender reassignment surgery (a rate 1,000 times higher than the general population). Even after gender reassignment, 1.5 percent of transgender people attempt suicide (still 100 times higher than the rate among the general population).
South Korea is a tough place for ethnic or sexual minorities, indeed anyone who doesn’t follow a certain conventional path of university, white collar job, marriage, children and so forth. People who choose to do things differently, even if that just means wearing unique clothes or following a different career path, can end up isolated as a result.
This woman obviously had problems I could do little to help her solve. I therefore fell back on a clichéd Korean expression of compassion: I told her that next time we met, I would buy her a nice meal.
“There is no next time,” she said.
She then sent me a photo of a wrist slashed horizontally, under water in what appeared to be a bathtub, the water full of clouds of maroon blood.
“Oh my god. You need to get to a hospital.”
“I have no money.”
“Just go. Use a credit card.”
What, if anything, could I do to help this woman? I’d met her that day and we had spent a grand total of less than ten minutes together in person. To say I barely knew her would be an understatement. Should I call the police and report a suicide in progress? I didn’t know where she was. Was that photo she sent me really her, and actually taken just now?
There are many chilling online forums with suicide tutorials. I looked one up and read that horizontal cuts were from Hollywood movies, and weren’t likely to induce enough bleeding to cause death. To ensure enough blood loss to cause death, one should slice a vein vertically, the forum stated.
My feeling of helplessness was compounded by recalling the suicide of my 21-year-old cousin Sean, in 2015. Ironically, I had barely known him either. My cousin’s father, my maternal uncle, and his mother had separated when Sean was still a baby. Sean had no contact with anyone in our family until his late teens, when he and my uncle resumed a relationship. As I was living in Seoul while this was going on, I only ever met Sean in person once (save for a few encounters when he was still a baby), at our grandmother’s funeral, less than a year before his death.
When he took his own life, in addition to basic sadness, I also felt like I had failed him. I felt like if I had been able to speak with him before his death, I might have been able to talk him out of it. I would have offered to buy him a flight to come see me in Seoul. Maybe if he saw how big the world is and how much he had to live for, he would change his mind. Though we hadn’t known each other growing up, I envisioned a future where we could be close.
It pained me that he hadn’t thought to reach out to me before ending his life. But of course he didn’t reach out to me; the truth was, he barely knew me.
Now someone else I barely knew appeared to be committing suicide, and I felt a similar kind of helplessness. Hours went by with no new Kakao messages. I phoned her; her phone was turned off. The next morning I phoned her again, this time from the landline at my office. Still off.
I peered at my last message to her on Kakao, in which I asked “What you doing?” Kakao has a feature where a yellow number sits next to a message that hasn’t yet been viewed by the recipient. Every time I looked at that yellow ‘1’, in my eyes it burned like a candle. I just didn’t know if the candle signified warning of an ongoing tragedy, or mourning for a tragedy already passed.
Around lunch time, I got a message from her. “I went to the hospital. I slit my wrist and fell asleep in the bathtub but didn’t die.”
“I was worried. That’s a relief,” I responded.
“What’s a relief?”
“That you didn’t die.”
“Thanks a lot.”
The only other thing I could think to say was, “Let me buy you that meal sometime.”