10-14-12

I am now at my aunt’s house in Seosan. She is the only one of my mom’s 8 siblings to have settled down in their hometown. While much of it is still farmland, its central area has become completely urbanized, lined with multinational corporate chains. In the US, there are things that are very much unique to the big cities, such as the fashions and types of commodities and restaurants that one can expect to find, but in South Korea, many of the aspects of urban living seem to be spread pretty constantly throughout the different regions. Even kids in Seosan dress like New Yorkers, but in way that really epitomizes the expression, “you’re unique, just like everyone else.” It’s pretty shocking how adherence to fashion and brands in Korea has become a country-wide necessity, from the smallest towns to largest cities. Especially when it comes to places like Seosan, I wonder if these families can really afford it or are forking over disproportionate amounts of their livelihoods to meet the “requirement”. Its prevalence makes it almost like a flat tax on the people to the multinational corporations. There is so much more i’d like to learn about how these “needs” are created in different societies, but the image of a douchey investment banker salivating over the “Asian markets” comes to mind.

During the day, we went around Seosan and made impromptu visits to the homes of two of my mom’s extended family. First we visited my mom’s uncle (my grandpa’s younger brother), who was bedridden and in very delicate condition. He didn’t remember my mother and had never met me, but he looked at us from his state with a gaze so heavily weighted with suffering. As he grasped my mother’s hand and painfully mouthed his thanks that we had simply come to see him, my tears suddenly began to spill out.

My mother thought i was crying because i was thinking about my grandfather, who passed away, and soon enough we were both crying in front of the poor guy, whose expression never changed. But really, I was struck by a simple picture of life, worn into the skin and dimming eyes of an old man I never knew from Seosan. Like my grandpa’s eyes, they were so full of pain and severity, as if life had never cut him enough of a break for him to smile. I only knew my grandpa when I was too little to begin to understand that pain, but as i learn more about our history and physically experience remnants of the world that made my family, i feel myself somehow making sense of the imprints left on my younger self by my grandparents, especially during the few years they lived with us in the US.

It’s a sad fact that some people on this earth are born into lives where they will toil without knowing lightness or leisure, without profiting from all they produce for this world, while others in the world live out their excess and frivolity on the backs of others, and gain access to pensions and retirements or amass enough private wealth to continue living cushy existences until death.

The second place we visited was the home of another great uncle. All his children happened to be home for the harvest, so I got to meet my mother’s two closest girl cousins. It touched me to see how they so dearly held onto my mother’s arm, even though they had barely been able to recognize the face they had last seen so long ago. One of the cousins put her hand against our faces and fawned over us in a way that most people i know would only do towards children. I feel that we as human beings have such a natural desire to connect, physically and emotionally. Yet so much of that is inhibited and broken in us by societal norms and the alienation of human touch and the distortions of our ability to identify with one another. Observing how expressions of love materialize in the different places I’ve been to makes me realize that there is something so constant within us, which is expressed differently, according to what our societies and our languages allow.

When I interact with my relatives, I have been able to become so deeply bonded to them through touch and the most basic, silly interactions of love. In the US, the dominant culture seems to turn love and meaningful social interaction into some kind of rare commodity or difficult exam that only a few of us deserve to succeed in. I think it leaves us with a constant feeling of emptiness, or wrongness, that we try to treat in a lot of ways. It’s a void that festers within us, leaving us vulnerable to a lot of forces that only further rob us of our ability to meet our collective needs, and makes us dependent on a lot of dehumanizing forces. Almost everything sad about society that i can think of, from rampant consumerism to militarism, seems to have a lot to do with that void.

4 months ago, i  haphazardly got rid of almost everything i owned from 6 years of life besides what could fit into 2 suitcases, and moved out of new york without ever really deciding to do so. then i moved from place to place, spent a few weeks pretty much just staring at the cutest baby ever (my nephew), and finally moved to korea last month, where i have continued to move around.

this constant state of flux has really challenged my sense of reality and my connections to the fixtures of my life. and the word that crossed my mind to describe my current state was “unhinged”.

i think it has to be my favorite euphemism for “crazy”, “abnormal”, etc.

a hinge is something that fixes one object to another, so that the object can only move in a predetermined way, pivoting from a fixed location.

it’s an interesting metaphor for human beings, and really telling that to be “unhinged” is considered a dangerous state. we are creatures of habit, fixed to certain ways of existing and perceiving the world. we become fixed to our ideas of what is ‘normal,’ which are often shaped by information that is fed to us, or ignorance of the different, equally valid ways that people exist in this world. though our lives change constantly, we continue moving back and forth along the same drawn-out paths, perceiving our lives through the same fixed frameworks, prejudices and fears. we continue to be oppressive to others in the same ways, avoiding anything that might challenge us to see our beliefs and actions for what they truly are. we keep considering the same range of possibilities for ourselves, refusing to see all the ground that we are not crossing, experiences we are not having, and people we are not meeting or understanding. we continue to silence ourselves because we somehow feel subject to a system of unspoken rules about what we are allowed to say.

there have been moments throughout my life when i have felt completely unhinged, major moments when my world changed and i had no choice but to move away from the place i had been comfortably occupying, and reassess the versions of reality that i had accepted and operated by until that moment.

every instance has been painful and confusing. it has meant losing foundations for my sense of self, becoming alienated from friends, and redefining my ideas of success.

but once i become unhinged, i free myself from a lot of fears and expectations, and learn to stop operating according to the same knee-jerk reactions. suddenly i become less concerned with being useful to systems that i realize do not work for me or most people, and i begin to transgress those systems that once held so much power over my life.

and though i may expand my universe and find new ways of challenging myself in those moments, ultimately there are still parts of me that remain fixed to other things. sometimes they are new things. new communities of people, by whose standards, real or imagined, that i will continue to assess myself. new sets of values by which i will determine the rightness or wrongness of things. new fears and preoccupations that will border my possibilities.

and i don’t think any of this is necessarily right or wrong. existing in set ways for set times has allowed me to understand myself better, to make space for fragile relationships, and to realize obvious, constant truths i had been missing.

but in the end, each time i free myself from one more thing that was making me experience the world back and forth, i become more willing to unhinge myself again, and search, unattached and unafraid, for a more expansive reality.

10-9

Yesterday, my uncle put us to work on his farm, planting a whole field of something called “colabi”. As someone who has never performed any hard labor for the sake of survival, i had a lot of fun doing it, even though i hate bugs and stuff.

And here is where i suck all the fun out of everything: the fact that americans are always going abroad to farm through programs like “wwoof” is kind of a really apt expression of how ridiculous our world is, how completely certain countries have sucked up all the wealth and opportunity in the world and left some of their people with more than they know what to do with. I admit the greater irony of my situation, considering my parents grew up in agrarian poverty in korea, then immigrated to the US and worked their asses off to provide their children with good educations, all so that i could move back to an enriched, urbanized korea 30 years later to do a variety of somewhat pointless things. i guess the big difference is that whenever i stop finding it cute, i can hop on the next flight back to the us and get a desk job somewhere where i get paid to watch cat videos while other people break their backs for my food, or just settle down in seoul and delight in the westernization of my ancestors’ land, and how even i as a yellow person can plaster myself with western brands and be a super-consumer for my self-worth, all the while making ridiculous amounts of money off of my mere existence as an american english-speaking ivy league tool. the system!

(this is the worst travel blog ever.)

10-6

now on a flight to jeju, after our family reunion in gyungido. excited, but also nervous, because i know jeju exists at the fray of transformation in korea, and its history is one of incredible struggle and loss, including a genocide that has gone unnoticed by the world.

it was joy to spend time with my whole family in korea for the first time in ten years. though i live on the other side of the world and have seen them only a few times throughout my life, i have always felt very close to them somehow.

spending time with family made me revisit the constant struggle in my mind between individualistic vs. communal ways of life. while i have always idealized family, community, and culture, i realize that doing so often rejects and ignores my own complicated identity. i was born and raised in american society, and while valuing family and community as necessary to our survival as human beings, i have also existed in such a way that my daily life has become somewhat independent of these structures.

as a person who lives in her head, i like being alone most of the time and don’t function very well in large groups. i have always had trouble reconciling myself with the inherited cultures, traditions and social norms of both my korean family and american society. i came to be who i am now by questioning everything and often breaking away from expectations so that i could choose the reality and standards for my universe. while i love my family and recognize how they have informed my life, i would not be able to fully thrive within that space alone. and though i’m often an apologist for the value and even superiority of communal lifestyles, much of my identity has formed in opposition to the expectations of conformity to any community’s structure. i have come about my own convictions in a process of choosing what i know to be right, and have refused much of what is asked of me to participate in the community i idealize.

the things about me which i fiercely protect, i also end up putting on a pedestal and accepting unconditionally. my korean identity and family structure are also the parts of me i have had to resist and recreate for myself and my mental/spiritual survival. while as an american, they are the marginalized parts of me i must fight to love, as a korean, my failures in these spaces have been used to make me feel inadequate, inappropriate, and alien in different ways.

none of this is wrong, however, but a necessary contradiction of surviving as a bicultural person in a world that marginalizes you twice for it rather than valuing the added depth of your experiences. while i create these nostalgic representations to barricade myself against the constant pressures to assimilate and reject my heritage, i realize that what i most sincerely value is the experience of living as a person of color in the US, and especially as a second generation immigrant with very concrete ties to another world, another way of imagining the universe.

the experiences of a person of color in the US expose us to constant struggle and trauma, but simultaneously give us access to a world of profound understanding and exploration of our existence. they privilege us with unique perspective, and as people who live in the US, where there may be a more culturally acceptable tendency to question and correct things about society that we don’t appreciate as individuals, and more opportunities (though rarely used positively by most americans) for us to consider each others’ differences in order to arrive at a reformed understanding, we have more room to create new communities and cultures of understanding. it allows our imaginations to transcend what any of the cultures we were born into can provide for us.

i would not choose to exist in any other way than a second generation immigrant poc in the us. despite the anger, pain and frustration we endure in response to the constant attacks and messages thrown at us that we are pathological or nonexistent, we survive and reach a place of human understanding that once we experience, we could not live without.

40 minutes away from landing in Seoul. The time change and flight put us more than a full day ahead of when we boarded. This will be my first time back in Korea in 10 years.

I have always found it hard to express my thoughts on Korea. Any attempts to verbalize this deep reserve of nonverbal understanding has most often been for a purpose external to myself, in response to some demand that i explain or justify my connection to this place for the understanding/approval/validation of another.

Instead, I choose to write about my experience because i understand the richness to be gained by making sense of this part of me for myself, and also as a way of communicating with people who share these experiences, to help create the language that can more adequately capture our existence. Up until now, i have not found that language.

Korea is a place I was never from, but the source of so much meaning and truth in my life. It weighs in on all my paradigms, and colors the way I see and interact with my world. It was the constant reference point for my upbringing, and the stitching of my community.

The choice to go back to Korea, now that I have become more conscious of my identity and how I negotiate across my disparate/merged, embellished/blurred bicultural existence, is one whose significance I do not yet understand.

Korea has always served as an ideal for me, most real to me through feelings, relationships, traditions, and language. Throughout my life, I have used this ideal as a foundation for my sense of self. Korean or Korean American ways of life have served as a constant foil for my analysis of American society, and I have often chosen to see only certain aspects of these hardly monolithic cultures that could offer solutions to the imperfections of the dominant society in which i exist.

When I observe Korea becoming Americanized, it strikes a deep fear in me, a fear of erasure of something so much larger than nationality, culture, or ethnic identity. It is the fear of erasure of the truths that are available to us all through the existence of thriving differences. These differences coexist as sovereign parts of the whole until certain parts begin to undermine and colonize the rest, forcing the rest into a status of alterity that slowly erases them completely.

As these necessary differences become blurred, not by evolution through shared understanding but the forceful violation of the existence of others, through military, economic and cultural imperialism, the truths available to us in examining these paradigms become lost, and the power of one state’s mistakes takes a greater hold on our shared future.

It will be difficult to be at the center of my ideal, to physically experience and interact with a nation and society that has often served as a source of psychological protection, even though my complicated connection to it has made me constantly feel wrong in both worlds.

Once I enter the physical place of my cultural nostalgia, I must confront a more realistic examination of how cultures and people are formed, transformed, actualized, and destroyed as the forces that have always clashed within myself very literally play out in the contours of an entire nation, continent, and world.

So here is to learning, transforming, and opening my ideas to revision and deeper challenge, to reach a place of greater clarity and definition.