Archives for posts with tag: korea

i’ve been in korea for almost 9 months now. the first month was mostly traveling around korea visiting family members all throughout the country. the second month i spent in jeju, living with my aunt and uncle in a village called jeoji, and visiting the anti-military-base activists in gangjeong. the third month, i briefly came back to seoul and then was off for a month-long trip to thailand, cambodia, and vietnam.

since i got back from my trip, i’ve been living in seoul. i got my own apartment in hongdae, a cool, artsy neighborhood of seoul where the streets overflow with cafes and drunk people by night, every night… the nightlife is like nothing i’ve ever seen anywhere else. my time here has ranged from interesting to dull, frustrating to inspiring. it can be very isolating at times, considering i can count the number of friends i have on one hand, and my acquaintances here on two, but in a way that has helped me to develop a new capacity for peace and happiness in solitude. other times, i feel enveloped by the warmth of new relationships, new forms of love, mainly the bonds i’ve cultivated with family members here. sometimes i feel like i’m not doing much beyond existing, and it is often challenging to renegotiate my existence, now that i am so removed from a defined community. all in all, i know my time here is invaluable and will inform the rest of my life in beautiful, necessary ways.

i feel like, as a korean american, i existed in american society with all these random hooks, extensions, nodules attached to me, which seemed to have no purpose but to get in the way… since i’ve been here, it’s like my experiences are hooking onto all those parts of me, giving them use and meaning. i begin to understand how much of me belongs to another history and heritage, deeper than i can hold, that shapes the way i interact with the world, the way i talk, socialize, process information, empathize and express emotion…

it feels like there was always this pool of liquid, my “koreanness” as opposed to my “korean-americanness”, that was right beside mine, separated by a thin membrane, and as i poke holes in that membrane, the two mix so effortlessly, changing what i know/knew of myself, and helping me realize how much was already mixed up all along.

as i learn more korean language, every little bit that i learn unleashes a trove of language that i already possessed, brings forth all that vague knowledge that had entrenched itself in the nooks and crannies of my brain and filters it into something useful and distinct, expanding my ability to communicate here exponentially. i realize expressing myself in english has always felt like such an effort, even though it is my primary language, as if i have to carefully construct everything, and i can often express myself more naturally and directly in korean, especially when it comes to the rawest things i feel. i guess it makes sense since it’s the language that first taught me love.

everything about my life is nuanced by my time here. sometimes in ways that make me feel incredibly proud or validated, other times in ways that bring me back to sources of trauma, and force me to confront my heritage beyond my idealizations of it, the security blanket version i have used to protect the marginalized parts of my identity.

i spend a lot of time thinking about the rampant capitalism/imperialism/westernization/militarism/cultural erasure, etc. going on here, how they are so much the same force. i feel the weight of the title of my favorite book, “the inheritance of loss”, and it eats at me and will continue to do so until i can resist it in an effective way.

so this is something of a scattered update. sorry there is nothing very specific. somehow the process of writing about literal things and recounting day-to-day events makes my brain hurt… some kind of negative conditioning related to homework.

til next time



this past october, before my mom returned to the us, we went to visit her aunts and uncles in her hometown, seosan. it was on her mind that this might be the last time she would get to see them, since they are elderly and she rarely gets to come back. a few days ago, my grandaunt, pictured here , passed away. in korean, when people die, we say that they “returned.” it is such a beautiful and apt way to express death. rest in peace.


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.

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.