Stories of Capitalism

Last summer, we were sitting at Cathy’s favorite Vietnamese restaurant — the only one she vouched for in NYC — after a day of wheeling free office chairs through the NYC subway and chatting about why we do movement work. We were getting ready to dive forks-first into the dishes she had ordered for us, when she muttered, “Capitalism literally made my family sick.” She said it so quickly and off-handedly that I almost missed it. It sounded like a rehearsed prayer recited before meals. I looked up, already mid-chew, and felt her words slowly wrap itself around my throat.

For the next couple of moments, I merely picked at the bánh xèo, not knowing how to continue the conversation. I know the sickness of capitalism too well, having seen too many of us beaten down by it. I wondered exactly how many families capitalism had worn through, how many it had displaced and tossed, how many it had locked up behind bars. There is a sunken heaviness in the bodies of those who drag around the wounds of capitalism. Familiar lines of fatigue etched around their eyes, giving them an eerie look and prompting me to turn my head for a second glance, wondering why it reminds me of the hollowness of my own father’s eyes.

If capitalism sickened her family, it scattered mine. It is the reason my family exists in our current fragmented state — with my father working 12-14 hour days at a corporation in China, my grandparents aging isolated and alone in Korea, my mother and siblings in a Midwest suburban town pursuing the American Dream, and me usually off in big cities across the U.S. trying to financially make it work.

Perhaps all of this is why I’m so focused on getting “home.” A part of me believes that finding “home” would bring all of us together, back in one place and eating rice over the same table. Home, where children could sit in grandparents’ laps and take lazy summer naps. And perhaps in a home like that, the overly wary and calculated relationships that we’ve constructed as defense mechanism could slowly fade. There would be no tally system of the give-and-take. We could dilute each other’s pain. And perhaps then, we could begin healing our wounds.

Another argument with my mother in the kitchen. About money. Our fights always seem to be about money. How she didn’t have enough growing up. How my father is throwing away his life trying to make enough for us. How much they invested in me. How I need to give them a return on that investment. And how I’m not doing that now.

She hates when my anti-capitalist rhetoric flares up — worker’s rights, living wage, how I don’t want to be valued only by my job title. Sometimes the latch releases, and my unformed thoughts about worker’s co-ops, free education, and communal living within an alternative economic system flow out in a jumble of Korean and English phrases. That’s around the time that my mother tells me to go to North Korea, since I hate capitalism so much.

네가 뭐라고. 네가 뭔데 그런것까지 바라냐.
Who do you think you are? Who are you to want those kinds of things?

네가 그렇게 싫어하는 그 더러운 돈으로 널 먹여 살렸다. 어쩔건데?
We fed you and clothed you with that ‘dirty’ money that you hate so much. How about that?

I try to feel out the faded line between self-care and First World overindulgence / between courage and arrogance / between demanding my rights and not devaluing the lives of those who could not make those same demands. Often, after these kinds of exchanges, I escape away to our backyard and lie there with the grass tickling against my skin, genuinely wondering if I what I want from this world is simply too much.

I wonder if backyards are a luxury. If clear blue skies and occasional summer showers are a luxury. If affordable healthcare is a privilege, then perhaps my safety or sense of belonging, too. Sometimes it feels like I am greedy to want all these things. Good health, a sense of togetherness, and maybe even an occasional meal together over the dinner table with my family. They have all become things that I dare not wish for. I wonder if in the process of trying to curb the greed of capitalism, we have made luxuries out of human things.
I am on the phone with S, a soon-to-be labor attorney who will have a hefty sum of student debt upon graduation. Being from a working class single parent household, she is hoping to help financially support her family when she graduates, but the nonprofit jobs lined up all make around 40k. If she stays at a nonprofit job for 10 years — being overworked with no weekends and high rates of staff turnover — her debt will be forgiven by the government. By then she will be in her mid-30s. When I casually mention that she could consider going corporate to make money, she immediately repeats back all the lines we have been taught. That would be selling out. I want to serve the people, not corporations. There is a pause of silence before I open my mouth. “I’m serious. If you have to go corporate to support yourself and your family, it’s okay.” It’s okay. It really is. I know plenty of radical friends that would call me a sellout for even saying that, but I still stand by it.

Since when did striving for financial stability become forbidden in this work? Sometimes it seems as though being in The Movement (or being a “good” person, as defined by The Movement™) means living on a below average salary while working around the clock, having all of your emotional boundaries pushed to its limits, straining relationships with family, not having time to breathe let alone relax, and not being able to afford decent health insurance. It seems as if our dedication to The Movement is measured in how little we sleep and how much pain we endure. But what told us that working class people are not allowed financial stability or organic food? What told us that true organizers should reside in pest-infested housing and live on food stamps? What told us that being dedicated to the Movement as a lawyer means drowning in student loans? Is that what we’re fighting for?

This is a race to the bottom. Soon, there will be nothing of us left.
These days, I think about how to live guided by abundance rather than scarcity

To remember how a single scoop of rice with my hands always makes enough for two. How a single flame can light an infinite number of wicks. How a fruit is both the final product and the seed to begin anew. It feels as though we are trying to remember things that we used to know once, long ago.

I am fighting for the breaths of fresh air.
The grass between our toes.
That sweet tang of the first fall strawberry
picked straight off the vine, and
friendly chatter with the neighbors
who always carry a stock of our tupperware
from the latest exchange of food.

I want it all / to bring us closer to ourselves
and keep reminding us of where we are going / how we can all become free.



꽃은 바람에 흔들리며 핀다 / 김정원

꽃은 바람에 흔들리며 핀다 / 김정원

마음에 담아두지 마라

흐르는 것은 흘러 가게 놔둬라
바람도 담아두면 나를 흔들때가 있고
햇살도 담아두면
마음을 새까맣게 태울때가 있다

아무리 영롱한 이슬도
마음에 담으면 눈물이 되고
아무리 이쁜 사랑도
지나가고 나면 상처가 되니
그냥 흘러가게 놔둬라

마음에 가두지 마라
출렁이는 것은 반짝이면서 흐르게 놔둬라
물도 가두면 넘칠 때가 있고
빗물도 가두면
소리내어 넘칠 때가 있다

아무리 즐거운 노래도
혼자서 부르면 눈물이 되고
아무리 향기로운 꽃밭도
시들고 나면 아픔이 되니

출렁이면서 피게 놔둬라
꽃은 바람에 흔들리면서 핀다


Flowers bloom swaying in the wind / by Kim Jung Won

Do not carry it in your heart

with the things that flow
let them flow on by
Carrying the wind will sway you at times
Holding onto to the sunlight
will scorch your heart black at times

Even the clearest dew
becomes tears held onto in the heart
Even the most precious love
hardens into scars when it passes on
Just let it flow on by

Do not lock it up in your heart
What is coursing, leave it to glisten along
Even water will overflow when it is confined
Rain will splash over when it is caged
Even the most pleasant song
becomes tears when you sing it alone
Even the most fragrant flowers
leaves pain when they wilt

So leave them be, to surge and to blossom
For flowers bloom swaying in the wind

On Black Lives Matter

Note: Both English and Korean subtitles available

I made a video last week in Korean about my perspectives on Black Lives Matter work and how I think it connects to my parents’ Korean immigration stories. It’s based on conversations with my parents and other Korean elders about police violence. It’s not perfect, and it’s not a video of the most “radical” political speech. And I still believe that it’s the most important to tailor the message to each person and that no video can actually have the conversation for others.

But I still went ahead with it. The video stems from a place of trying to establish connections and gentler forms of understanding with Korean families/relatives/friends, rather trying to push a political agenda on others. Often times, the intimate sphere (where Korean may be spoken more frequently) can feel separate from the political sphere (where protests/vigils/political action takes place and English is the dominant language).

My intentions for the video are: 1) to provide another tool for organizers (esp. monolingual English-speaking) to bring their political work closer to their Korean-speaking intimate circles and 2) share my thoughts and experiences as an organizer, as to make political movement work less intimidating or distant to viewers. I hope that the video is something you can share with Korean-speaking folks in your life.


[Korean Transcript]

지난 주, 연달아 두 명의 흑인 남성들이 경찰에 의해 살해 당했습니다. 그들의 이름은 알톤 스털링 (Alton Sterling)과 필란도 카스틸 (Philando Castile)입니다. 뉴스나 인터넷을 통해서 사건을 이미 접하신 분들도 많겠지만 그 두 사건들에 대해 간단하게 설명드리겠습니다.Read More »

Link Roundup 7/13/16

The most powerful art from #BlackLivesMatter movement | Washington Post
Featuring a wide range of art pieces on police shootings and reality of Black lives in the U.S.

26 Ways to Be in the Struggle Beyond the Streets
A list of different ways to support the movement apart from physically protesting, esp useful for broadening accessibility and approaching “labor” with a disability justice lens.

Jamila Wood’s new album HEAVN
Her voice is airy and yet full at the time, as she sings about the legacy of Black freedom fighter women in “Blk Girl Soldier.” A much needed voice and song for these times.

Abolish The Police | The Nation
“When people ask me, ‘Who will protect us,’ I want to say: Who protects you now?”

My Revolutionary Suicide Note | Melissa Harris Perry
A performance piece about Black death as suicide and freedom.

What to Do Instead of Calling the Police
A Google Doc resource list of articles and toolkits on how to not rely on police

6 Ideas for a Cop-Free World | Rolling Stone
Suggestions for ways to replace the police when we finally abolish them

Healing & Wounds

Yeah, I know. Healing is not linear. I just wish it would be fucking done already.

I’ve started and erased this post so many times, trying to get down in writing what I’ve been doing for the last year — since leaving a stable nonprofit salary, health insurance, and comrade friends behind. I’ve flown under the radar since then, trying to reserve my energy and not overextend myself for people who do not put in the same effort to share their time or energy with me, and as a result, people don’t really know where I am or what I’m doing. It’s kind of freeing in a sense, to be away from the constantly interrogating gaze of the “successful” and to be the only one responsible for holding all the parts of myself together.

Today, I just want to share a brief list of unconventional “self-care” tips that I have collected throughout time, especially around family trauma and movement burn-out. It’s different than just focusing on the fight against the inner demons, because sometimes I feel like the more I force it to go away, the more it clings onto me. Rather, the goal is to focus on strengthening and building up resilience, as well as a safety net, so that when the hard periods come, I will be more prepared to weather it out.

  • Acupuncture for depression & anxiety, which is now largely covered if you have insurance. I have found it one of the most effective things I do. Even without insurance, there are many community acupuncture clinics with sliding scale fees.
  • Try life coaching. There are other options for life coaching, but I received 12 weeks of free life coaching through Grad Life Choices, which is a program for unemployed/underemployed college grads. I would highly recommend.
  • Drink plenty of water. If you need help keeping track, try using the Plant Nanny app.
  • Cut caffeine intake, if you have anxiety, as it stimulates your central nervous system even further. Instead, try rooibos lattes and other alternatives!
  • Take omega-3 supplements, which have been shown to decrease mood fluctuations and help with depression (source).
  • Join a childcare collective (NYC / Bay Area / DC / WA / Chicago), which provides volunteer-based childcare to organizations working on liberation for working class parents of color. It’s a tangible way to support movement work, and plus interacting with kids has got to be one of the most magical things!
  • Fill your Facebook with good things, including my favorite FB page, QTPOC Mental Health, which is always chock full of inspirational reminders and helpful tips.
  • Meditate in guided group sessions, which are usually offered free through local community centers. Some even offer people of color only meditation groups.
  • Pick up a good fiction book, which helps my brain can focus on something other than its own downward spiral thinking and instead imagine something outside of our existing world.
  • Light a candle for some aromatherapy. Certain candle scents like lavender, vanilla, cinnamon, sandalwood, and jasmine can relax and help relieve stress.
  • Reading poetry salt by nayyirah waheed is always good for the soul.
The real post about healing will have to wait, because it’s a long winding story folds back onto itself, again and again, so that there is no beginning or end to tease out. And it’s ongoing. The work that I’m doing now of undoing the trauma in my family, as well as the parts that have lodged themselves deep within me over the years — I also kind of consider it a form of anti-imperialist, anti-violence work. After all, what is movement work but building the foundation so that our people may shed their trauma and become fuller beings. #healingjustice

For the Queereans

I’ve compiled a short list of queer Korean (“queerean”) resources that I’ve collected over time and wanted to share, in both Korean and English. You can scroll down for Korean language resources. The post will be regularly updated over time.


N A R R A T I V E S  /  우 리 들 의   이 야 기

Personal Stories / 개인적 경험담

For Parents of Queer Children / 성소수자 자녀를 둔 부모님들을 위해서


I N F O R M A T I O N A L  /  정 보 마 당

Organizations in the U.S. / 미국 한인 성소수자 시민단체

Organizations in Korea / 한국 성소수자 시민단체

Media / 미디어

Writing / 잡지 + 책 + 에세이

Hopscotch Alley

“Time stops at the point of severance, and no subsequent impressions muddy the picture you have in mind. The house, the garden, the country you have lost remain forever as you remember them.”
— Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation

New Doc 54_1

When I was younger, we used to live in my grandparent’s house, situated on a backroad in Seoul. And across from our house was the opening to a small alleyway, where all of my other friends lived — or at least where we all met to play. I guess I never really knew where they lived. They probably came from all over, but in my mind, our childhoods all existed in that alleyway space, and we never saw each other outside of it. I took a peek into it when I went back last year, on a spontaneous trip after quitting all my jobs and booking a one-way ticket to Korea. I didn’t have it in me to step into the space and explore it again, now almost 20 years since I had left, but I did sneak a quick look as I walked by, and it’s quite a small alleyway. I recall it feeling small even back then. It was a wider-than-normal walking path between two 빌라 / “villas” (which is what Koreans call 2-3 story apartments) that faced each other, and then at the end of the villas, there was a sharp L-shaped bend in the alley, which opened out into a bigger road that we used to use to get to our elementary school.

My mother disliked me going through the alley on my own or playing there. It was quite dark and narrow, without any streetlights, and I suppose it was a dangerous place for a kid to walk through alone. But to me, it felt like the dark warm crevice of a familiar space, and I used to run through it on my way back from piano lessons, just to see if anyone was out playing. I still remember the hopscotch board that we used to draw out for ourselves (a different one than the square ones here) and how we would jump rope together, eventually ending up tired and rolling around on the brick-paved alleyway till dusk.

I don’t remember their names or their faces, just that we spent that parts of our childhood together. Sometimes my grandmother pulls out a name and asks me if I remember running around with them when I was younger — usually after this person has gotten married or goes abroad, probably something that was brought up in the local gossip circles — and I just shake my head. They all remain a clump of warm feelings and nostalgic memories in my mind, and I think actually meeting them against the backdrop of our parents egging us on to be best friends again after nearly 20 years would be incredibly awkward. Plus, they became reshaped and remolded so frequently in my memories that they’re more figments of my own imagination than actual people. I know from experience that retouching old memories sometimes shatters them beyond repair. And so, they will always remain in that alleyway as long as the place continues to exist within my mind — skipping hopscotch in the approaching dusk.


Coming Out

Back in the bay, an organizer asked me to tell my coming out story (family ver.) at a queer gathering that night. I thought about it all day at work, tugging at different moments to find the beginning tip of thread that could unravel the rest of the story, or perhaps the tail end for a perfect wrap-up, but I couldn’t quite figure it out. In the end, I had only written down one line in my notes — I was straight until I wasn’t — and I told her I couldn’t do it.

The reality is that there is no real story to tell.

There is no beginning, rising action, climax, and the resolving conclusion. I feel like coming out stories are ongoing, always evolving, repeating, and folding back onto itself over and over like kneaded dough. Sometimes we only hear of the explosive fight that drove the person out of the house or the all-embracing stories, where devoutly Christian parents decide to forsake their church that would not accept their child.

But there are also the untold stories of pauses, comas, and the indefinite white space that follows the period at the end of a sentence — coming out stories that play like black-and-white silent movies each holiday season. Running their hands through the itchy bristles of their new military cut, in preparation for the trip back home. A bitterness that fills their mouths at the mention of family. A polite smile etched onto their face during the talk about a husband, withering egg cells, and marriage. An out-of-the-blue reminder of “don’t bring a girl home next time.” The words wrapping itself around their throat and suppressing the instinct to scream over the otherwise peaceful family dinner table.

For me, there was an underestimation of how much my mother’s words would sting. And following it was a frantic desire to explain my humanity to my mother. I found myself helpless in the face of language barriers and reaching for the only thing I knew — academic English jargon that was never meant to hold people like us in the first place. There were moments where I had to swallow my words whole because I didn’t know what to do with it all.

There were friends, who had known me as a straight girl, asking if I was struggling with my sexuality and wanted to talk about it. But I told them I was okay. Because I was. Everything felt so natural and easy. It felt right. I guess I had always imagined queerness to be a hard thing — a life threatening thing, a heavy thing, a sad thing — but this, this was so beautiful and warm.

There were moments when quick understanding of my own newfound queerness felt like a requirement to be a decent partner to them, rather than something I could go about freely. This was perhaps a burden that I placed on myself. I bought up the entire queer literature and perused every blog. We still broke up, and I still didn’t know what it meant to be queer.

There were days when I wish I wanted suburbia, 2.5 kids, and a nice salary man husband. I wished I wanted those things. I wished I hadn’t fated myself into a constant state of wanting.

There was a time I was sitting through a workshop, counting how many times I had been misgendered in the last hour, when a random text message arrived from one of my queer friends: “Yo so like are you gay I’m confused.” I left the room and cried.

There were emails in my inbox, citing studies arguing that gay behaviors were signs of a civilization’s demise. Calls where my mother bawled continuously and kept repeating that she had raised me wrong. Tantrums refusing to come to graduation. Threats of outing me to the rest of my family. Sudden cries of extreme Korean patriotism and framing me as a traitor for dating a Japanese partner. Accusatory questioning of why I was not dating a guy, and if it was because of all the struggles that she had as a woman in our overly traditional family because she assured me that being a woman was still worth it.

There was a night when I randomly emailed a NYC PFLAG member out of complete desperation, begging her to speak to my mother as a fellow Korean parent of a queer child. I was a complete stranger to her. She generously agreed to do it, but then my mother refused and that communication ended. Years later, I met her at a Trans Day of Liberation march and stood around awkwardly to thank her.

There was us sitting in my tiny apartment living room, among a multicolored slew of items that I had somehow accumulated during my four years in college and packing for the flight back home. My mother softly folding in her words between the creases of my rose-colored shirt. “왜 좋아하는지 알겠다 / I can see why you would like them.” And me looking up bewildered, as if newly awakened, only to be met by the steady rhythm of her hands folding down the layers of the next shirt.


Even days like this, where I am not constantly warring with myself and those around me in regards to my queerness, my body can instantly call back that feeling of helplessness and self-disgust, as if it had been set aside on a well-dusted shelf that is always within reach. It looms over me in moments where the world calls on me to be vulnerable yet again with strangers I have just met. I try to avoid talking about queerness with my family as much as possible, because of those fears that I’m not quite sure that I would be able to hold up in that conversation, even now.

Over the years, in meeting queer/trans Korean Americans all across the country, I have slowly learn how to soothe my own wounds and unravel a long-held guilt around my queerness and its associated secrecy. There are a lot of us out there (surprise), and there are folks steadily building out different ways to connect to “koreanness” than the ones assigned to them by their families or their church, which have been often homophobic and hurtful. It makes me realize that my Korean identity is not contingent upon my family accepting my queerness and that I can have a relationship with the land, language, and people that does not require carving out a large portion of myself to offer up in sacrifice. And I can’t tell you how freeing that is for a diasporic kid like me.

Update (7/9): I also want to share a post for queer Korean people with resources in both Korean & English. Hope it’s helpful.


May 17

What I’ve been really into these days:

  1. Buying tea to solve all my problems
  2. Saying No
  3. Making my therapist laugh
  4. Teaching my brother AP Biology
  5. Leaving spaces
  6. Watering my chamomile seeds
  7. Splurging on sashimi for my Neko Atsume cats
  8. Sleeping with a little purple eye pillow
  9. Pretending to go to the gym for exercise, then just going to the sauna
  10. Hanging out with doctors more than friends
  11. Crying in my car
  12. Watching sad Chinese lesbian films on YouTube
  13. Meeting people who have left the Movement™
  14. Hovering over the telephone, then deciding not to call my grandmother
  15. Fighting my inner demons & sometimes winning
  16. Sifting through garden dirt to find earthworms, then strategically releasing them next to my precious heirloom tomatoes
  17. Concocting  rooibos lattes variations at home
  18. Dreaming vividly
  19. Going to acupuncture and taking a mid-day nap
  20. Pretending that life decisions don’t have deadlines