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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

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“you see the color the hue the same you see the shape the form the same you see the unchangeable and the unchanged the same you smell the filtered edited through progress and westernization the same you see the numerals and innumerables bonding overlaid the same, speech, the same. you see the will, you see the breath, you see the out of breath and out of will but you still see the will. will and will only espouse this land this sky this time this people. you are one same particle. you leave you come back to the shell left empty all this time. to claim, to reclaim, the space. into the mouth the wound the entry is reverse and back each organ artery gland pace element, implanted, housed skin upon skin, membrane, vessel, waters, dams, ducts, canals, bridges.”

– theresa hak kyung cha, dictee

an edited version of this article was published on racialicious here

 

When I see articles like Jezebel‘s “I Can’t Stop Looking at These South Korean Women Who’ve Had Plastic Surgery,” which I only found after reading Feministing‘s awesome response, I am immediately reminded of my middle school self: a somewhat obnoxious, insecure Korean American girl who was eager to get a self-righteous thrill by observing how superficial and less enlightened people other than me could be.

Growing up in the Korean American community of LA, it was common to make fun of “fobs” (fresh off the boat), the more recently immigrated, less assimilated, Koreans of our generation, sometimes with love but more often not. Existing in our clearly divided groups but occupying similar spaces, we would make fun of their cutesy antics, superficial looks, plastic surgery craze, and love of k-pop. We may have considered it all in good humor, but ultimately it assured us we were morally superior, a higher art form, closer to the ultimate goal of assimilation. Perhaps we thought that by defining ourselves against the less assimilated, we could stamp out our own sense of foreignness.

When I finally grew up a bit and began challenging my own internalized racism, I began to realize my judgments of South Korean culture were more about my desire to define and raise myself above it rather than any real attempt to understand or better the world. And once I finally started paying attention, I began to be challenged by the depth and power of the Korean side of my bicultural divide, a complicated side of my identity that has the power to both alienate and embrace me.

I am now living in South Korea, the place I was never from but to which my life has always been bound. As I center this society and develop a deeper, more complex and humanizing view of “Korean Koreans,” I have begun to recognize and love our shared soul even more and make the connections between Korean society today and its incredible history of struggle and endurance, which echoes throughout the next generations and across diasporas.

Throughout a country where, not too long ago, there was vast stretches of farmland, there are now concrete jungles of rampant consumerism, endless rows of skyscraper apartments, overpriced chain cafes, and expensive Western and domestic clothing brands. It is the frenzied symptoms of a country, severed from its other half and rapidly swept up into the capitalist world without time to process or redefine after colonization, war, coups and dictatorships, political repression, and resistance, a place where the landscape was wholly transformed before the people could change with it.

Today in South Korea, Western brands are generally much more expensive, and western culture is portrayed as elite. It’s interesting to observe how companies in South Korea use the image of whiteness in their ads to sell capitalist culture to the people, a tactic that profits from the complicated relationship that Korea has with the western world. In the US, the little we are taught about the Korean War leaves us thinking that the US went over to liberate the Koreans. Rather, the US engaged in a proxy war using Korean bodies for their own interests, and twisted things so that they would be welcomed as saviors. There was incredible cruelty and massacre carried out against the Korean people, North and South, under the watch of the US military, and the US continues to maintain its military presence here today (in fact, it can use any of South Korea’s military bases “at will”) and regularly intervenes in South Korea’s economy and politics. I recently spent time with activists in Jeju, who have been protesting since 2007 against the construction of a military base on the small South Korean island. The base is being constructed illegally, without the required permission of Gangjeong village, whose land the base will devastate, according to the needs of the US military, during a time when the US is expanding its imperialistic arm throughout Asia. This problematic history and relationship continues to be a presence in South Korea and contributes to warping the society’s sense of self.

I have begun to understand that many older Korean people who now walk around armored in expensive brands can remember times when they were too poor to eat. I can empathize with their paralyzing fear of looking poor, feelings of shame over humble pasts still fresh. Rags to riches is the national story, a story that has been trumpeted left and right by forces that want to take credit, from Westernization/capitalism to nationalism to Christianity, and despite rising inequality, no one wants to admit they didn’t make it out okay. The obsession with brands and “uniformity” may be seen as a reason to reduce South Korea to a superficial society, but I see the human side of it all.

When you eat with other Koreans, they will always insist you eat more, heaping the best parts of the meal onto your plate instead of helping themselves. Everyone tells me that when the country was poor, people were shy about taking more since there was never enough, so it became built into the culture to insist again and again. It is a central part of social life to share the experience of food, to describe the exact textures and tastes and feelings of different foods while eating, and to make sure everyone around you is eating it in the best way possible. Dishes are still made to be medicinal and nurturing, and despite the entrance of multinational fast food chains and products, foods still center around natural and healthy traditions passed down generation after generation, in contrast to the US where healthy eating has become a highly commodified, classist mess. At the end of a meal, everyone will try to pay for everyone else, because gestures of extreme generosity and taking care of one another are important parts of our culture. I used to feel impatient when my mom would always call to ask about what exactly I had eaten that day, but now understand why our parents still ask us before all else, “Have you eaten?” and tell us that we are good for eating well.

I’ve always been frustrated by the impossibility of translating the Korean language into English. The casual speech of my relatives spills over with such intense feeling and raw authenticity that shatters me, and the playful humor and wit that color everyday interactions are rendered lifeless in translation. Korean language is an indescribably beautiful, deeply idiomatic world, honed over time and lives to capture such an elaborate scope of experiences and interactions that eludes the literal, and so evokes poetry. It is a language meant to be used as a community, to ease and lather at times, and perform ceremony at others. Between friends and family, it expresses things strongly, bluntly, to poke and play, and feign exasperation as a sign of closeness. When used formally, it is graceful and rich in ways of respecting different situations, nuanced in a way that traditional English is always wanting.

As South Korea dives into rapid urbanization and corporatization, it is a place full of contradiction. The language has undergone rapid change as well, now rife with haphazardly adopted English loanwords, to capture the existence of a sudden, new world. Consequently, the changes due to Western influence are almost delineated by the trails of English burned onto the native tongue.

But despite all the change, Korean society holds onto its roots of humanness. It is a place where people’s hearts still bleed with a powerful sense of empathy, a culture that still highly values integrity and respect towards others. Since I arrived, my relatives have shown me how to love big, humbling me daily with their incredible generosity, overworked and hard-pressed as they may be. My aunt told me very matter-of-fact that it’s like my mom is in her body, making sure that I’m okay. It’s the kind of love mixed with pain, a love they cultivated as 9 children of poor farmers, where food and opportunity were spread thin between them, and love was sacrifice and survival.

Looking back, I remember the creases of my silent grandfather’s forehead, his unchanging, solemn expression revealing a life without time for casual smiles and wasted words. I remember how he would surprise us with his warm light and humor for a moment, before returning to his distant world. When I think about him, the Korean immigrant experience in the US, my Korean American friends and our intimate sisterhood, my family and their stories of childhood and the painful history their lives have traversed, my heart splits with a raw sadness for all the truths that are regularly erased by the constant flood of negative representation that would convince us that the Korean story were a superficial and ugly one.

I suspect that my musings on Korea and my Korean American identity may all start to sound sappy in an American context. But what could appropriate emotional expression possibly mean across cultural contexts, in a world where all things “appropriate” have been decided by the dominant segment of the world, which happens to be the part of the world whose identities are not closely tied to loss. Using their framework, surely the rest of the world would look like melodramatic fools. Korean society, including its diasporas, has gone through many different traumas, which we were not given time to understand before quickly being ushered into the role of a lucrative Asian market for global capitalist needs, with the country’s military at the service of American imperialism.

I don’t write to romanticize this country or hide its problems. I know many of its problems very personally, as my identity does not fit into its expectations. I write to speak my truths based on my bicultural lifetime in the Korean American diaspora, and my experience living here now. I write because, as a Korean American, learning to love my Koreanness in an environment so devoid of truths about our experiences has been a revolutionary act.

I am still overwhelmed by the endless dualities of this country and culture and have more questions than answers. But as South Korea rises in international significance, the western world becomes increasingly concerned with representing and defining this country and its people according to its needs, picking apart our “bizarre” or problematic habits, using Orientalist assumptions rather than any real understanding of the context to make their points. That’s why I find it so enraging when the white teacher is featured on NPR’s This American Life as the expert witness on South Korean self-image issues, and Jezebel’s troupe of pseudo-feminists puts South Korea’s “superficiality” on the dissecting table, without ever understanding the depth and complexity of the issues they try to tackle with their limited, Western-centric frameworks.

As Korean society comes up against the dissonance between its lived history and the demands of its present situation, flails through unpredictable world forces bigger than us all, makes its way across broken structures and traditions and through a maze of changing demands, I think it becomes increasingly necessary that Koreans remember the things we love about ourselves. The beautiful parts of our culture and the strength and love of our communities are most often the things that aren’t useful to capitalism or white supremacy, and therefore they are the most quickly erased and forgotten.

since i’ve been living in korea, moving from place to place, i’ve had limited or no access to new books in english, especially the kinds i’m looking for. the two books i brought with me are gloria anzaldua’s borderlands and audre lorde’s sister outsider, which i had already finished by the time my plane landed, but they have been a constant source of new truths and inspiration.

by now, i’ve read through both of them multiple times, continuously going back to meditate on different parts. both books so profoundly and beautifully explore the questions that i am always contemplating, the frameworks through which i filter my experiences, and have become especially relevant now that i am confronting my history and roots in a new way. even though i experience these questions as a korean american and do not pretend to claim the chicana or black/caribbean american experiences, i feel that the works delve into a place so much deeper than those identifications, rearranging the world itself to make space for their truths. it has been like sitting with a mentor, who knows what you’ve been through and understands how you think, but can always bring out your own thoughts in a way that transforms how you understand them.

Imagethis past week, i’ve been studying borderlands like a bible. for some reason, i’ve felt drawn to a different part of it every day, throughout the day. my amazing friend stephanie introduced the book to me, and this is just one of the ways in which many of my friends have really stayed with me throughout this trip. it is a gift beyond words to have kindred spirits out there who are always there, in that place deepest and most formative to who i am, no matter where in the world we might be.

i just wanted to share a few parts, that are only flickers of the light that is anzaldua’s work:

“writing produces anxiety. looking inside myself and my experience, looking at my conflicts, engenders anxiety in me. being a writer feels very much like being a chicana, or being queer–a lot of squirming, coming up against all sorts of walls. or its opposite: nothing defined or definite, a boundless, floating state of limbo where i kick my heels, brood, percolate, hibernate and wait for something to happen.

living in a state of psychic unrest, in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create. it is like a cactus needle embedded in the flesh. it worries itself deeper and deeper, and i keep aggravating it by poking at it. when it begins to fester i have to do something to put an end to the aggravation and to figure out why i have it. i get deep down into the place where it’s rooted in my skin and pluck away at it, playing it like a musical instrument–the fingers pressing, making the pain worse before it can get better. then out it comes. no more discomfort, no more ambivalence. until another needle pierces the skin. that’s what writing is for me, an endless cycle of making it worse, making it better, but always making meaning out of the experience, whatever it may be.”

“the work of mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject-object duality that keeps her a prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended. the answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts. a massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war.”

“whites, along with a good number of our own people, have cut themselves off from their spiritual roots, and they take our spiritual art objects in an unconscious attempt to get them back. if they’re going to do it, i’d like them to be aware of what they are doing and to go about doing it the right way. let’s all stop importing greek myths and western cartesian split point of view and root ourselves in the mythological soil and soul of this continent. white america has only attended to the body of the earth in order to exploit it, never to succor it or to be nurtured in it. instead of surreptitiously ripping off the vital energy of people of color and putting it to commercial use, whites could allow themselves to share and exchange and learn from us in a respectful way. by taking up curanderismo, Santeria, shamanism, Taoism, Zen, and otherwise delving into the spiritual life and ceremonies of multi-colored people, Anglos would perhaps lose the white sterility they have in their kitchens, bathrooms, hospitals, mortuaries and missile bases. Though in the conscious mind, black and dark may be associated with death, evil and destruction, in the subconscious mind and in our dreams, white is associated with disease, death and hopelessness. let us hope that the left hand, that of darkness, of femaleness, of ‘primitiveness,’ can divert the indifferent, right-handed, ‘rational’ suicidal drive that, unchecked, could blow us into acid rain in a fraction of a millisecond.”

“Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meanings.
We are the people who leap in the dark, we are the people on the knees of the gods. In our very flesh, (r)evolution works out the clash of cultures. It makes us crazy constantly, but if the center holds, we’ve made some kind of evolutionary step forward.”

sidenote: i have yet to find a korean american woman writer who speaks to me as much as audre lorde, gloria anzaldua, jamaica kincaid, kiran desai, and the list goes on… this is probably from a lack of trying on my part and a lack of exposure for those writers. if anyone has recommendations…