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.