Salvaging the Sewol

I digressed.

The English lesson I drafted on that day — with my bowl of overripe strawberries — was about the Sewol ferry incident. The Sewol passenger ferry sank off the coast of Jindo Island back in 2014, and along with it, 295 passengers who never made it out of the ocean. 9 are still missing. Many of those who died were high school students who were on a school trip. When the ship began sinking, the captain told passengers to remain in their own rooms for their own safety, while he and other crew members save their own life. By the time folks realized how serious the situation was, the water had filled the inside of the ship, and it was too late to exit. It was a mass killing. To this day, no one really knows why the ship sank or why it made such a steep turn. No one knows what the ex-President and her team were doing for a chunk of 7 hours that day, instead of responding to the crisis. No one knows the clear reason why the rescue team did not immediately enter to save the passengers, and instead idled outside the ship as passengers took their last breaths.

The incident threw the nation into a state of mourning and confusion. Families gathered at the port and the Jindo sports stadium, near the site of the sinking to wait for the passengers to be rescued. Hours passed, and one by one, the names of victims were called as bodies were carted in to be identified by their families. “It was sad. Terrible. Horrible,” said one of the students I teach. We had just learned about emotion words, and he pulled out all the words he could remember. He had actually been there on the first few days of the incident, as a volunteer to provide technical support to families of the victims and the press. He works at a telecommunications company and had just moved down south for work, leaving his own family behind in Seoul. The Sewol ferry crashed within his first year there. “It made me think of my own children. It is terrible to see your own child pass away.”

sewol-2-540x231

In another class, two students told me that they worked for a shipping company and had heard about the news when they were at work. “At first, the news told us that all of the people had been saved.” “It was false news,” the other added. “The news had lied. Almost all of them died.” When I asked them about why they thought the ship sank, they talked about the ship itself. “We work with cargo ships. They are much bigger than the Sewol. The Sewol is a passenger ferry, very little, and it had too much cargo. Material for the U.S. navy base in Jeju. I heard it was not fixed correctly, and no one checked the gross weight.” They said that regulations were too lax. That rules exist, but were never enforced properly.

It took 1072 days for the ship to be pulled out of the ocean for investigation. The actual salvaging of this ship took a mere day, and they are now in the process of pulling the ship to the Mokpo port. The families of victims have been calling for a proper investigation since its sinking back on April 16, 2014. “Why do you think the salvaging was continuously delayed?” I asked. “Because she was still the President,” replied a student, not missing a beat. The ship was decided to be pulled out two weeks after ex-President Park was impeached.

The day of the salvaging, one of the top searches on the Korean portal sites was “cost of salvaging the Sewol.” “I saw that,” a student piped in. She is usually quiet and hesitant to speak in class, but she spoke clearly with a lot of intention. I remember leaning over to listen. “That is why we pay taxes. For the government to do things like this. We have to salvage the ship to find the truth. And to restore trust in our nation. We have to know that the country takes care of our own people.”

Something about this lesson felt different than others I had taught. I was able to see the ways that their thoughts and experiences came together, in ways that usual English lessons do not allow. To see the ways that all these different students, from completely separate parts of the city and leading their own lives came together to weave a common narrative — it was powerful to me. The stories they shared built upon each other, collide with others’ ideas, and opened up space for more emotional stories. And it made me realize that whatever I do in the future, I need to keep teaching and learning.

ESL lesson plan: Salvaging of the Sewol
Intermediate / Advanced

Strawberry Season

After another one of my long days, I sat at my dining table with a bowl of overripe strawberries to draft out a new lesson for this week’s classes. Strawberries seem to be in season right now, the ones grown in greenhouses down south. All the street vendors have stacks of them piled up, with a cardboard picket behind it that say “a pack for 2,000 won” or “golden strawberries for 4,000.” It’s getting a bit warmer now, so the strawberries are probably going to be replaced with something else real soon.

The weather is always mild here, compared to Minnesota. The sky is always gray from the smog, and people have pruned the trees on the streets down so much that I think some of them died. Sometimes I can only tell what season it is based on the fruit that vendors are selling on the streets.

For awhile when I first got here, it was all persimmons. No one had anything else but persimmons. Hard ones and soft ones, round and oval, the ones that were pointed at the ends and kind of melt when you hold them in your hands too long. Then one day, everyone switched over to strawberries, and now it’s the season of greenhouse-grown strawberries. There are of course large groceries stores that sell a variety of fruit all year round, mostly imported from the U.S. or Latin America, but I prefer to buy fruit from local vendors. It’s a different feeling than grabbing overpriced prepackaged fruit from a neatly arranged shelf. These fruits come straight from farms down south, where vendors go to pick them up at the peak of dawn. It reminds me of stories that my mother told me about how she would wake up at 4am to hold my grandmother’s place in line so she could receive the day’s worth of vegetables from the farm middleman. And sometimes the women crouched on the streets with their floral pants remind me of my grandmother, how hard and calloused her hands are and how at home she feels in the local markets in her neighborhood.

At first, it was also a way of integrating myself into the community here — letting folks know that I live along this road, that I prefer soft persimmons over the crunchy ones, getting long sermon-like advice on how to eat whatever I bought that day. I once asked for a single persimmon, and the vendor told me that she only sells it in batches of 6. They weren’t prepackaged, just piled on top of one another in a red plastic bowl. But she still wouldn’t sell one to me. Instead, she told me to go give it to my neighbors or family. That persimmons are not supposed to me eaten like that. It’s things like this that make me think.

Walking down that road each morning makes me more aware of the seasons, the passage of time, and the ebbs and flows of nature — even in a city like this, with its concrete grounds and depthless skies.

The Hurt & the Hurting

cw: mention of physical violence

A lot of numbers and dates are overlapping these days, and today I wrote that it was October 2015. It’s not. Thank god it’s not.

I was also here around the time last year. Probably sleeping on my aunt’s old bed at my grandmother’s house, with the lock bolted shut at night and a wooden chair leaned up against the door for good measure, even when the heat kept building up in that tiny room  — because my grandmother was afraid of him bursting through the door and choking her at night. She didn’t feel safe without hearing that sharp click of the door each night. When we got up, I spent my mornings trekking out to the local library, mostly to get out of that stifling house. Sometimes, I would browse on Facebook, and Always, I would find bits of a person from my past jutting into my life, even though I had finally made it thousands of miles away from her. A new photo with a mutual friend, people replying with heart emojis at her latest angry activist post, a message from a friend asking me if I knew how she’s doing. It seemed like I could never really get away from her — her updates, her thoughts, her profound realizations, her trademark glaring look that would come shake me awake in the middle of the night. There was never a physical barrier I could put up to prevent her from intruding in my life. But I suppose that it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. I would’ve always known what lay on the other side of that door and that wouldn’t have given me any peace of mind. It never did for my grandma, anyways.

I suppose things have changed a bit since then. My grandmother sleeps with her door open now, and the chair that used to guard her door has found its way back to its original place at the dining table. I know all the privacy settings possible on every social media app, and I don’t see a lot of her news anymore. Things still find their way to me, and she still acts as if nothing is wrong, but I don’t feel her presence hovering over me anymore. I guess this is somewhere close to the end?

But a part of me feels like it’s a little weird to call it that, because nothing about why it happened has been resolved. I don’t know if she actually ever worked on things around queerness, if she ever worked through her trauma and triggers so she doesn’t lash out at people like she did with me, or if the Movement culture shifted at all to hold people accountable — even those that hurt others from a place of hurt /and/ people with cool queer aesthetics and other forms of social capital. I wonder if her friends ever talk about things like this with her. Or if everyone with social capital in the Movement is exempt from hard conversations like that. I wish I could break down that binary between people who hurt others /and/ people who are hurt. Why we always think that we are one but never the other.

I know the places inside of me that have been hurt, and I know that I must simultaneously work to get to know the parts of me that have cut / lashed out / hurt others. And I feel responsible for holding those parts of myself, too. I have laughed at people who have shown me sincerity. I have ignored people when they told me that they were hurting because of me. I have acted from a place of insecurity and pushed others down. I don’t think I should ever brush those things aside or ignore them to move forward. It would be such a dishonor to the people whose pains led me to so much growth and change. I want to bring all of my experiences into each conversation / the good, the bad, and the hurting / and that’s really all I want from her, I suppose, as accountability. But it seems like the world that she exists in (and the world that the Movement envisions) asks us to leave the abuser in us behind — as if it didn’t happen, as if it didn’t exist, as if it could never happen in the future by people like us. And I think that’s a dangerous place to strive towards. A state of denial and silence.

P.S. A friend of mine posted about their experience of hurting others — and asked some thought-provoking questions. I have some responses rolling around beneath my tongue, and perhaps I will share them some time, but for now here are the questions. I had never seen anyone pose questions like this before. I hope it gets people thinking as much as it did for me.

From my friend C (posted with their permission):

I can analyze all I want or offer whatever amends exist, at the end of the day, I lost people because of the painful impact I had on them. It’s only fair, and their decision for themselves is not a signifier for lack of love on their parts. In fact I think it’s a testament to their care for themselves and that I will always applaud.

Shoutout to all the people who have caused harm: where do you summon the energy to exist when you are spiraling? Are there any practices that have been helpful for you, so that you can build different dynamics in the future? (Other than just “don’t do what you did again,” maybe?) How have you communicated your experience of enacting abuse with the people already in your life and those who are new to it? Do you feel shame? Do you want to hug? How do you trust yourself when you are forming new connections? Let’s talk…

What’s your relationship like with the idea/act of “forgiving yourself”? Is it possible? Is it meaningful? Do you let yourself ask for compassion? What does hope feel like for you? What are the things you’ve learned from enacting harm that you’ve never told anyone else/that no one asks about? How has your relationship with music and art changed since it all started? What do you fill your time with when you are desperate for growth?



“From the Other Side” is a series of posts dealing with burn-out, healing, trauma, and a critique of current movement practices. It stems from my past year trying to heal/cope from my experiences in organizing (nonprofit and volunteer-based) and an emotionally abusive relationship with a close friend.

We are not machines

This post was published on Rest for Resistance.

I went to a pottery class last week, and we spent most of the time learning how to softly shape the outer edges of the teapot body while supporting the insides with our other hand. My hands felt too big and clumsy, and the teapot kept sinking down because the bottom could not support the weight that I had piled on top. Then when I was done, the instructor handed us an already flattened clump of clay, set it in the deepest groove of our hands and told us to cut it to fit the opening of our teapot. “That will become the lid,” she said and gave no further direction. I sat there frozen, holding onto my pottery knife and this round piece of clay. I had made the teapot without even thinking about how big the top had to be. I wondered how the hell I was supposed to cut out a perfect circle to fit the size of the teapot opening. I wondered if there was a stencil. I wondered if I was supposed to hold it over the teapot then try to trace it the best I could. I wondered if I was supposed to get a compass and make a circle.

Then I happened to look over at the instructor. And I saw her carve a circle into her piece of clay. No tools, just a free-hand drawing of a circle-like shape. She didn’t look up from her clay, but in between slicing off certain edges, holding it over the teapot to measure the size, then taking it back to adjust it again, she said, “우리는 기계가 아니에요. 인간이에요. 완벽하지 않아도 괜찮아요. 우리는 기계가 아니니까요.” We’re not machines. We’re human. It’s okay if it’s not perfect. Because we’re not machines. It felt like she was talking to me. I silently grabbed my knife and started carving.

I keep thinking back to that moment. The assumptions I made about how creation should happen, how mistakes still strike fear in me, and how her words can apply to so many of the situations that I find myself in these days.

***

The more I grow, both physically and emotionally, I realize how important the process is and how important creation is. And how our society minimizes these acts because they do not fit into the capitalist goal of maximum production. But we are not machines. Our productivity does not have a steady rate that can be calculated, and we don’t produce more just by spending more hours at a certain task. We’re more complicated than a simple input (x) —> output (y) kind of linear function. We require physical rest, emotional connections, daydreaming, food, laughter, purpose. And all of these things prevent us from fitting neatly into a machine model. I don’t think I really understood how this idea of “productivity” led to my habits of overworking myself, pushing myself too far, not scheduling in breaks — because that’s what always worked and got me to places that others deemed to be “successful.” Now I realize that it was because I had run myself down as if I was not human, as if I was a machine — and that was what they valued.

I read articles about how machines are going to eventually replace us at work. Mostly in production of goods. And I kind of wonder if that is a necessarily bad thing, and if it comes from the idea that people always need jobs, or that work defines us. What would happen if you didn’t have to work? What would happen to the profits that come from the machines working to produce goods? Where would that surplus go? I wonder if there could be a science fiction novel about machines taking over the world — and teaching us how to live in a different way. I know that it would essentially require a restructuring of the current capitalist economy, but it would be interesting to think about working in a way that produces things for our community, working based on need, not valuing ourselves by the hourly labor that we can offer corporations. If machines replaced us at some of the machine-like work that we are doing, what would we be left to do? Do we have aspects of our current lives that separate us from machines?

I think that’s why I’m looking for more opportunities engage in work that creates something more than a thesis paper — like gardening, writing, pottery, music. I am slowly learning how the input of my time, energy, and thoughts never directly lead to a final, marketable product. And I also am able to see how the process of creation is so different each time. The same amount of time, energy, and thoughts might create a completely different “product” on a certain day, for a certain person, in a certain time — or perhaps no complete “product” at all. And it brings into question how to quantify or commercialize something like that. How to put a monetary price tag on food / pottery / art / music / time that don’t have a set quantifiable labor input. It’s fundamentally non-quantifiable, and I think that’s something so amazing about processes of creation (and artists!). I wonder what the world would look like if we didn’t quantify our labor in “per hour” units. How it would shift our understanding of cost, value, and worth — especially of ourselves.

Redevelopment

On my way home from my grandmother’s place, I noticed that the entire 4 blocks next to her place had been marked for clearing. My grandmother said an apartment complex is coming in. I stood there for awhile in front of those hollowed out stores and tried to remember it as it was. I had walked by those stores and houses every day last year on my way to the library — a small friend chicken place where an elderly couple were always bustling about, a pizza place that I never got to visit, an auto shop run by a handful of middle aged men, and our old 만화방 / comic book renting store on the hill. During the summer months, my mother would borrow an entire armful of Korean comic books from the 만화방 아저씨 and all three of us — my mother, sister, and I — would be splayed out on my aunt’s old bed binge reading them. My sister and I would be lying down in a neat assembly line next to my mother, waiting for her to finish the first book. But more often than not, we would become too impatient and start reading the second book, then when my mother finished she would hand me the book, and I would be reading everything out of order. The book traveled down the row from my mother to me then my sister, and by the end of the day, there would be a stack of an entire comic book series next to my sister, completed. The bookstore sat quietly, only reflecting back my own image under the street lamp. When I got closer, I could see that the place was now closed and completely gutted out, just like the rest of the area. All the building in the area were completely empty, and the outside of the buildings were slashed with blood red spray paint marking them for destruction: 철거 대상 / Target for Clearing. 이주 완료 / Move Completed. The words splashed so carelessly across their shop doors and signs that at first I couldn’t make out the words. In between the shops, there were old brick houses with 마당 gates that had been left open and piles of trash with accompanying rodents loitering outside their doorsteps. I had never known that there had been so many houses in that part of town. The entire thing made me feel hollow, like a chunk of myself had been taken from me. I didn’t realize that I had had a relationship with the people, the chatter, and the buildings of this part of town.

I wonder if this is what “development” and “progress” is supposed to feel like. People being ripped out of their homes and their absence left rolling around in the dark alleyways. And leaving the rest of us staring at dark windows and an eerie hollowness of the town, wondering when they are next. “시골같이 살 수 있는데가 없어,” my grandmother told me. I felt so helpless hearing that a large part of her life — the section of town that had sustained her relationships and daily routine away from my abusive grandfather — had all been cleared out. I wonder if companies think about stuff like that. The grandmothers who will now have to sit home alone instead of chatting with their friends at their favorite salon. The people who will forever look at the shiny new buildings and remember the ghosts of their childhood. Middle aged men who have lost yet another smoking-friendly gathering space to redevelopment. How many will miss their absent neighbors, how they will have to forge new connections with one another in an ever shrinking space, and how long we will remember the people of that neighborhood who once greeted us and welcomed us home.

To myself

[one time during therapy, I started thinking about all the things that I wished my mother would tell me, then said fuck it and wrote it to myself.]

I just wanted to let you know that you are a genuinely kind person. You are thoughtful and constantly striving to grow. You are brave and courageous, always taking the jump to figure out things and stepping into new and sometimes uncomfortable situations. You are open to new things, accepting people as they are. The way that you don’t judge things when you hear about them. How you give people the benefit of the doubt and hear people out. I think that’s one of the things that I admire the most about you.

I know that there have been mistakes in your past about how you have treated others, how you have held back and been afraid to open up, how you have been in codependent relationships, but I think it’s really telling that you are where you are now. That you have a much clearer sense of where you end and another person begins. How you have been able to build the kind of relationships that you have with your friends. And they aren’t the ones doing all the relationship work like you think. You are also being a good friend to them.

I know sometimes things get hard and all of these things get forgotten. There are so many things that feel like they are shifting underneath your feet. It’s so hard to see the pain ingrained on your mother’s face when you tell her that you aren’t going to live the way she wants, even in the face of her listing off all of the sacrifices that she made for you. I know what it feels like to have that constant buzz of internal dialogue inside of you, with all these people who still constantly haunt you. It feels like they have power over you and that you will be hurt, left, and unloved if you don’t do what they say, but know this: you are valuable regardless of what they say. Yes, truly. Even if you are not loved by your mother, even if C gets upset at you for not directly communicating with her, even if you don’t have the right queer aesthetics, even if you don’t know all the right things to say to support your friends, even if other people think acupuncture is bullshit, even if your father will be disappointed in you, even if S never told you why they pulled away the way they did, even if you don’t attend protests, even if you don’t do the most radical things all the time, even if you make mistakes, even if you are working from a place of trauma, even if you are not a good daughter, even if you don’t really know what you’re doing, even if you’re not fun or drinking or sleeping with people, even if you don’t dance bachata the way that M wants you to, even if you don’t want to sleep with anyone ever, even if you aren’t ever planning to come out to your relatives, even if you are living off of the support of your family, even if you are not the best at all things. you are still worth it.

Isn’t that the radical love that people preach? The idea that you don’t have to “do” or “be” anything to be loved. The idea that you can be loved, always. That you could be loved regardless, because, and even though. I wish you could be loved like that more.

you know that your resilience is something that I also admire? you have been in so many situations where you were rendered powerless and unable to speak up, but you still found the power to move away from them. I don’t care how long it took you, I don’t care how you did it. I don’t care that you didn’t write all the most radical analysis about it, or that it took a long time to recover afterwards. you ultimately did that. you left situations that were hurtful and sought out something better for yourself out there, even when you didn’t know that something like that could exist or when you didn’t know that you were allowed to have nice things. you always believed yourself out. If you look at that and don’t think it’s resilience, I don’t know what resilience would be.

Try to hold onto the memory of that resilience. Recall the place where your power comes from when things get hard. and remember: Do not hand over your power. Do not hand over your safety. Do not hand over your freedom, your worth, or your being. You are worth the fight. I want you to remember that.



“From the Other Side” is a series of posts dealing with burn-out, healing, trauma, and a critique of current movement practices. It stems from trying to heal/cope from my experiences in organizing and an emotionally abusive relationship with a close friend.

Safety in Unlikely Places

I was talking to a friend about how he felt like he couldn’t make a mistake in the Movement. He was always in a constant state of fear, wondering if he was doing the “right” thing. I had carried that anxiety once. Being frozen by the fear of not doing the “most radical” thing, of making mistakes, of hurting other people. How did you get out of it? he asked. I had nothing to tell him. It was (and still is) an all too convoluted of a process for me to come up with a clear answer.

1.
My first Spanish class assignment was to submit a short paragraph introducing myself. I didn’t know what to do with the gendered a/o endings, so I just stuck in ‘x’s for all the endings like I had seen my genderqueer Latinx friends use, and then sat there wondering what I should tell my professor. The formality of the situation and my status as her student almost made things easier. I wrote a short note in the comments, telling her that I chose to use ‘x’ endings for personal reasons around my gender and then cringed while I pressed submit. The next day, she wrote me a nice note with a smiley face, saying that she understood and supported the decision. And that was that. The simplicity of it all blew me away.

She pulled me aside after class the day after and apologized to me, saying that she didn’t know that much about alternatives to o/a gendering in Spanish and that she would look into it in her other graduate classes and resources back home in Spain. Throughout the rest of the semester, she intentionally switched back and forth between ‘o’ & ‘a’ endings when referring to me. At the end of the semester, I received an email from her:

Last thing: I did not have the chance to tell you that I started a conversation with my department and other smaller departments about gender in the Spanish class, and about why it is important to develop an awareness that some students do not identify with either gender. I had never thought about this reality before (at least not very carefully), and I started doing research about it and got in touch with a couple of associations in Spain that work on this. I will visit them this summer when I am in Spain and I will go to a workshop in the Basque Country. Again, thank you for making me think about this.

I could not believe that it had been so simple.

2.
It was perhaps the ninth or tenth time attending her yoga class. We were all lying there on our backs,with our knees up and stably resting against each other, “like they could stay there forever,” she said. She walked through the aisles and stopped to ask me if I had been doing yoga outside of her class. No, not really. The only other thing I’ve been doing is physical therapy. She told me that she could still tell that my body was being honored. “It’s so great to see,” she added with a smile, and then turned to the class to give the next instructions. I laid there silently processing it all. It was just a passing-by moment, but also probably the first time that someone had recognized all the work that I was putting into my body. All those hours of acupuncture, physical therapy sessions, reading herbalist blogs, googling back pain strategies, and daily stretches. Looking back, this random White yoga instructor had been the only one to truly witness the change of my body and its movement in those last couple of months. And it was powerful to have that work be recognized by someone and to be so seen.

I wish I had told my friend to seek out generosity, forgiveness, and understanding in unlikely places. To find people who made him feel safe. To find spaces that loved him as hard as he loved the Movement. That those were the things that brought me to where I am now.



“From the Other Side” is a series of posts dealing with burn-out, healing, trauma, and a critique of current movement practices. It stems from trying to heal/cope from my experiences in organizing and an emotionally abusive relationship with a close friend.

The Fall

It’s almost autumn again, and I’m nearing the end of my sessions with my therapist. I remember the first time I went to her back in February, when the roads were still slick and the skin on my knuckles were cracking from the dry Midwest winter. At the end of that first session, I carefully asked her how many more sessions she thought I would need to be “better.” “Usually with other patients, we start with six sessions then see how it goes,” she replied, already penciling in our next appointment. My eyes widened in surprise. Six sessions? That’s such a long time. But it is only now — nearly 20 sessions after that initial estimate — that I feel like I’ve reached a place where I have temporarily outrun my demons.

I don’t know how I got that far down into that ditch, initially; there was never really a starting point for it all. It was probably somewhere between the guilt-inducing nature of the Movement, her yelling at me over the phone on that crisp San Francisco morning, and feeling like there was never “enough”/ enough time, energy, or space for each other in the Movement. By the time I realized that something needed to change, I had already crumbled underneath it all.

I remember how I used to have a panic attack every two weeks, like clockwork. I remember when I always immediately apologized for everything – to ease over her anger, even when I didn’t really think it was my fault. I remember how I broke down crying in front of 40-some tenants at a meeting that I was helping to run, how my mind went blank and I bawled on the street curb for nearly an hour, ignoring all the concerned stares from passerby. I remember how numb I felt when I noticed how respectful and kind she was to others, how it was so different from when she was alone with me, and how I always felt myself shrinking around her. I remember sitting in my grandmother’s place and wondering how someone could love me so much for the simple reason that I existed.

I remember when I would wake up in the middle of the night from a flashback nightmare and a pounding heart that would not believe me when I told it that it was not real. I remember when I realized that it had been quite a long time since I had felt safe and that I didn’t remember what that felt like anymore. I remember blinking back coldly when a friend claimed that they “couldn’t possibly imagine her doing something like that” and the moment when I had begun to doubt my own truth.

I remember the war that I waged with everything inside of me and everyone around me. I remember the surge of fear, shame, and violent denial I felt when the therapist told me that it had been emotional abuse. I remember when my response to everyone and everything was, “What’s the point?” I remember myself choking on the righteousness of radical people around me. I remember when I felt something snap inside me during an argument with my mother, and I screamed alone in my room and pounded my head against the wall until a blissful pain choked out all the other thoughts.

And those days sitting at a red light on Zachary Avenue / holding my breath and pondering how I could disappear myself so completely from this earth — that it would be as if I had never even existed.


“From the Other Side” is a series of posts dealing with burn-out, healing, trauma, and a critique of current movement practices. It stems from trying to heal/cope from my experiences in organizing and an emotionally abusive relationship with a close friend.

Stories of Capitalism

1.
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.
2.
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.
3.
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.
4.
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