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.

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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

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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.

Pounding Hearts

Its cold and smooth surface felt oddly alive against her skin. She hadn’t touched a 장구 / janggu in years. Rubbing her right palm against the smooth face of the drum, she leaned in to take a closer look at its wooden body. A thick hourglass figure, the 장구 / janggu’s chestnut center lay horizontally against her crisscrossed legs. Her right hand grabbed the straps connecting the two faces of the drum on either end and swiftly pulled to tighten. She then slowly rotated her drum like a water wheel to tighten each of the straps around its center and sat silently, thinking about other things while the instructor chattered on.

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The last time she had been face-to-face with a 장구 / janggu was in first grade, when she had been sent off to weekend Korean school with the rest of her Korean church kids. She learned how to tighten the drum that day, as well as stories about how farmers had used these drums to bring in the harvest. She had tried to imagine her grandmother drumming, perhaps not in her usually baggy floral pants and plastic visor, but nevertheless standing with a drum tied tight to her hips, drumming out sporadically accented staccato beats like the way she spoke her 경상도 / Gyungsangdo-region Korean. Her grandparents had been farmers, she recalled, somewhere on the southern tip of the peninsula. But neither her Korean nor her memory was good enough to remember exactly where. She had never been able to visit her grandmother’s village while she had been alive. But there were so many memories that held her grandmother’s stories of the village 사천 / Sachon, that sometimes they felt like her own. The lines around them could get quite fuzzy sometimes. She remembered the open gravel roads that always snuck a couple rocks into your shoes, the hills spotted with a deep orange from the persimmon trees, and the loud speakerphone peeking out over the blue- and orange-roofed houses, shrilly blaring the news of everyone in town for their daily 마을방송 / village news. She had imagined her grandmother somewhere there, drumming with her townspeople against the backdrop of their golden rice fields.

Here she was now, somehow in the basement of her old church with a handful of Korean American highschoolers like her, all sitting in front of a drum they didn’t know how to play. They had been mercilessly forced to sit on these cold tile floors with their drums for the last half hour or so. She had been listening on and off to the instructor talk about the garak. Garak? Like jutgarak / chopstick?… Occasionally, he would wave the drum mallet in the air and point at someone to tell them to focus. Maybe he’s talking about how to hold the stick. She leaned in, but couldn’t quite catch all the words. He named too many things in that spit-fire uppity Seoul Korean. Her mother spoke much slower than he did and spoke with a different regional dialect, like her grandmother. She grew bored, and as others fiddled over their grip and drum positioning like the instructor told them to, she just gripped the mallet whichever way and brought it down with a loud thump.

.

The instructor stopped talking and swirled around, trying pinpoint the rogue player. But as her sound began to fade, others around her stepped in to fill in the void and took off with their own thumping and ringing. She liked how their drums sounded together, echoing chaotically in the cold interior of their church.

The instructor seemed to be yelling something to the group. Probably to stop playing, she assumed. She looked around, but no one could seem mind him. Hitting down with the mallet in her left hand and then the thin stick on the right, she played the drum in sync with the opening and closing his mouth.

“자, 여러분—”
쿵.
Close.
.
“모두, 플리즈—”
쿵.
Close.
.

He tried for a couple more times, but soon he seemed to give up fighting against the thunderous roar of the drums. Instead, he took his spot back at the center of the room. With his drum tied tight up against his body, he faced the group circled around him.

Everyone was still furiously pounding away at their drums. No one saw him hold his mallet up high with his left hand and the stick with his right. No one saw the way his entire body seemed to be pulled up into the air — weightless — then in a sudden movement, brought down both stick and mallet in perfect sync.

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She looked up. His arms jolted back up to their positions, like a maestro, then pounded down again. . Other students’ eyes flickered up. He drummed out slow, regular beats at first, then gradually it began to grow louder and faster. She was still staring, but some of the older students began to join in. 덩    덩   덩  덩 덩덩덩덩. Even those who had initially dropped their own mallets to silently watch, now took up their sticks, and the entire room pulsated in rhythm. Bodies rocked back and forth with each beat. Everyone’s arms lifting high into the air, then down hard against the drum. Faster and faster, they went; everyone’s arms flapping up and down, as if about to take flight. She felt out of breath chasing the beat around the circle until it just turned into a flurry of pounding, pounding, pounding. Then, during a sliver of a pause, the instructor’s body arched back and his arms opened broad to hover in the air for the slightest second, before he brought down a final beat along with everyone else.

.

His arms fell limp against his sides. Warm and pulsating.

He slightly loosened the drum strapped to his body, and in between his ragged breaths, he began to describe the sound they had just made together: “The 장구 / janggu that we just played is the sound of rain. It goes along with the thunder, wind, and moving clouds of other instruments in 풍물 / korean drumming.” He brought down the mallet on the left face of the drum. . Rain. Her eyes shot over to the still vibrating skin of the 장구 / janggu.

She wondered if this is what rain sounded like this in her grandmother’s village in Korea — a heavy and low rumbling against her chest that exaggerated her hollowness yet left her feeling full. And as she absentmindedly rubbed the left face of her drum, feeling a warmth radiating against her palm, she wondered why the drum sounded so similar and familiar. Like the sound of her own heartbeat.

War Stories

My grandmother tells war stories
over the dinner table
or sometimes alongside the evening news,
chatting away with the news anchor on the screen
drowning out his monotone drawl
and filling his mouth with her own words.
She keeps her gaze steady at the fast-flashing clips
the latest bombing, carnage, and wreckage
while her fingers feel out
the easy curves of the persimmon
ripened by the autumn wind,
deftly peel over each layer to expose
its inner skin, sticky and raw.
The knife slices clean into the center
defenseless
vulnerable,
the carnage drops onto the plate
in sync with the flashes on the screen
she strikes
a small fruit fork into the flesh
victorious.

chocolate simply rained from those military tanks,
soldiers threw them out to watch us
flock like a herd of sparrows
for that sweet piece of humiliation.
but I never ate that chocolate, no, couldn’t
them watching our frenzy with those lit up blue eyes,
and rubbing their stomachs
as if they felt full on their good deed.

My grandmother’s war stories
they’re never about the war.
but how she thought that
meegook must be a rich country
if their pieces of dirt tasted so sweet.
The war is when she learned
how democracy worked,
that voting 17 times for the U.S.-backed president
would feed her family 17 times over.

The war is the way
her mind has been sharpened,
her heart has learned to ache.
The war is in the fact of her survival.

Inheritance

[content warning: mentions of sexual assault, suicide, intergenerational trauma]

October 29, 2015
My grandmother referred to my uncle as “your brother” and my grandfather as “your father.” It was as if she could only see my mother in me and ignored the rest. I once caught her calling me by my mother’s name, but I didn’t say anything. I figured that it was who she needed me to be.

Something of a tightly bundled package is passed down mother-to-daughter, and the unraveling of these tales tie one generation of women to another in my family. Raw scenes of daughters being sold, repeated sexual assaults, attempts to kill their own children rather than letting them starve, generations of bottled up grief against men — they all spill out into the open palms of their daughters, to stain and to hold. It is the desperate practice of mothers carving age-old trauma into their daughters’ bodies, as if the pseudo-inoculation could provide some kind of immunity to the outside world. It is the secret telephone tree of women that wraps around each daughter’s spine at birth, connecting and binding them to the generations of 한 / grief from their mothers and mother’s mothers before them.

My mother opens today’s bundle, quite benignly: “I always thought being nice was a compliment. But now I know that being nice just means that you’re stupid.” I look up from my meal, mid-chew, and brace myself for the onslaught. She always likes to bring up these things over meals for some reason. At some point, food became the communication method of choice in our household, perhaps after finding that spoken words could mistakenly fall into the crevices between her language and mine and that attempts at White-family forms of affection created far too much discomfort. The stories spill out over our dinner table. Bits of poverty and abusive fathers falling out between the clanging of our chopsticks as we reach for the 반찬 / banchan, and then the shame-guilt and a woman is worthless following as our spoons make the final scrapes against our rice bowl. I try to maintain some emotional distance between us as a buffer, silently nodding and occasionally allowing my mind to drift, as to keep the outer edges of ourselves from blurring together too much. But I don’t know why I even try. It seems like we were meant to be bound up in each other’s pain all along, like some fatalistic umbilical cord was suffocating us slowly, while pushing us ever closer together. I could recite her stories as if they were my own. And I’ll even admit that sometimes I can’t quite remember if it were my mother who quietly burned a kerosene lamp under her sheets to study at night, rebelling against the cries of my grandfather that studying would ruin a woman — or if it had been me lying there with my heart pounding against the enclosure, squinting at the edges of the page that fell just outside the confines of the flickering yellow light.

I find it a bit ironic that I am listening to my mother talk about having to hold my grandmother’s stories and how her brother never had to do shit for anyone. How her own mother had always leaned on her, just a bit too heavy. I find it ironic because when my brother walks in, my mother’s eyes dry instantly and her lips slice open into a welcoming smile. I don’t think that my brother has ever seen her cry. But I know all too well, the way her eyes open wider and wider in an attempt to swallow back the tears, and how they leave long bumpy red streaks on her all-too-sensitive skin, like soft but vengeful scratch marks of a young kitten. Or how she reaches for the stack of flimsy napkins we’ve collected from fast food restaurants to blot away her tears, but always rubs too hard that it leaves bits of napkin flakes on her eyelashes. For some reason, maybe because he is younger, maybe because he is a son, my brother is spared from these family rituals. And maybe because I am older, maybe because I am a daughter, I serve as the lone keeper of these stories that well up inside her whenever she forgets to take her medication or on days when the sky takes on a particular shade of grey.

I always listen to her stories in silence — if only for the reason that there is nothing I can do for her. I wonder when she will realize that she deserves things of her own. I wonder when she will realize that she did the best she could, and that her mother’s pain was not hers to carry. That the weight placed into her palms had been handed down from her mother’s mother and then the mother before her, and that she was never supposed to be able to set things right. I wish I could tell her that the only thing you can do sometimes is to gently soothe the wounds inside of yourself — like a parent placing a soft peck on the bruised knee of their child, more in hopes of showing their love than easing the child’s pain — so that the stories do not grow wild within you and swallow you whole.

Sometimes I forget if I am trying to tell these things to my mother, or to myself.

Stories of Grandmothers

Heard from grandma that she fell down a flight of stairs, while coming down from the 10th floor doctor’s office. The elevator had been broken, and she had already walked up the ten flight of stairs to go to the doctor’s office. Had to stop half way up the stairs at every floor. Almost took me half an hour, she said, as she pulled up her pant leg to show me a round black-and-blue bump on her knee. Said she had some pain in her head, too. Didn’t recognize her friend that walked by this morning. But she laughed, saying that she was fine. “They took x-rays and said nothing was wrong. Nothing broken, pulled, or sprained.” I just stared at her, in shock.

She smiled a sad smile and told me, “The first thing that came up in my mind as I rolled down the stairs was ‘How am I going to make my granddaughter dinner?’” That pained my heart so much. To know that she didn’t think of herself even while she thought she was going to die.

The other morning, my other grandma told me about her friend who married a marine. Her friend worked at a Marine base, and one day he forced her to marry her. “He had picked her out of a crowd. Saw her going to and from work everyday and just picked her out,” she said, while rearranging the Virgin Mary figure on top of her dresser. Said she got beaten up frequently at home. He was so scary, she told me. I asked her if she had met her friend’s husband. “No, but we would meet for lunch. Sometimes he would call before we even got our food. She had to leave right then and there.” She sighed and continued. “Only if she had a father or a brother. Then she wouldn’t have had to go through all of that. If she had male family members, they would have come and pulled her away.” I sat there looking at her, wondering how easy it was to sum up this woman’s life in these couple of sentences. How no one will give her an award or a period of promised happiness for her pain. How she will just end her life like this — and no one will remember.

— find the politics in all this

Politics of ‘Home’

For the past couple of months, I have been thinking about the politics of going “home.” What it means to return “home,” instead of fleeing to far away places where “success” supposedly takes place. What it means to grow old in the alleyways where you skinned your knees in as a child, how to begin a life in your childhood house filled with all the faded memories. It’s a question of how to love things that are normally unloved. Your immigrant family. Your mother’s accent. The octopus squirming on your plate. The thick smell of garlic unraveling from your clothes. The rusty old tractors in the abandoned rice fields.

I think about what it means to go back to a place where you will be considered a failure. Where your degree will confer you shame and unwanted power, which you must carefully wield. A place that will lay bare the rich, white habits that you loathed but unknowingly picked up over time. A place where people will love you but constantly push you away to do “bigger and better” things.

And what will happen when everyone leaves for “success,” and those do who cannot leave remain.

//

Returning “home” feels like a journey of unearthing oneself — from underneath years of shame, guilt, and sorrow. It’s the slow process of loving others who look like you, talk like you, who come from the places you’re from and have been. It’s a process of tracing the roots of your gut reactions — a language that your mind has forgotten but a place from where your body and emotions constantly draw.

It’s about finding yourself. It’s meeting people who sometimes know you better than yourself. And giving yourself the wholeness that you need & knowing that you have a place to constantly draw from.

A space you grew up in and can come back when you need to.
A space you can call “home.”

Mother Tongue

I had a panic attack last month, when I was facilitating a tenant’s meeting. Towards the end, I invited a tenant couple to come lead their portion of the meeting, which they had agreed to do prior to that day. Suddenly, they began shaking their head. When I asked why, the woman said that she didn’t want to do it anymore. “You do it,” she said, and told me exactly the things that she had wanted to say. I encouraged her to come and tried to share why it was important for her to share. Her husband, sitting next to her, began to get upset and interrupted: “시끄러워. 이런거 다 소용없어. 왜 이런 쓸떼없는 일을 해!“ Shut up. None of this matters. Why are you doing this useless work? Something in me broke, and the rest is a blur. I slowly backed out of the situation, crouched down in a corner, and cried. A handful of organizers, tenants, and strangers came by to ask if I was okay. I don’t even remember what I said in return. I felt as though none of it ever happened.

As I was calming down, the man came by with his wife. She did most of the talking, explaining to me that so-and-so goes to the same church as them, and she didn’t want to be speaking at a meeting with them present. I was only half listening, because I was staring at the man’s head, where a grey hat should have been. I could’ve sworn he had been wearing a grey military cap, just like my grandfather’s. But slowly, I began to realize that he had never had one. That I had simply imagined it on his head, as soon as he began yelling those words. 왜 이런 쓸떼없는 일을 해. Why are you doing this useless work? Verbatim, the words uttered by my family about my life & work.

//

Writers always talk about the mother tongue as a place of home & return for their writing. Mother tongue knows you best, fights off the White colonizers, and expresses feelings that the English language were never meant to hold.

But it would be a lie to ignore the deep, unspeakable wounds left by our mother tongue — with its knowledge of the aches & bruises within your soul. It knows how to shake up your deepest core & leave you crumbling into pieces. Nothing quite captures the viciousness of its fiery lashes, and the generations of pain slowly drawn out from beneath your skin. English can never evoke the same kind of haunting vibrations between my ribs when they’re spoken. Because mother tongue is the words of trauma, the stillness of family silence, the cries of 전쟁 / war, 한 / grief, & 광복 / liberation. The kinds of words that dig deep into your heart and lodge themselves there, for generations.

For me, loving the mother tongue means opening myself up to reveal all the soft spots, as well as the wounded ones — and embracing the fire that knows how to both give me warmth & burn me alive.

No Memories

I was driving down I-94W with my brother in the passenger seat. Trees that lined the streets flew by, as Maroon 5 quietly played from the radio. It had been a couple minutes in the car, just the two of us, when my brother suddenly asked me if I noticed anything different about him. I took a second to look at him — straight black hair, long face, dark framed glasses, light acne common at his age of 15. “What? No, not really,” I replied, quickly returning my eyes to the road. “New glasses?” After a moment of silence, he spoke. “Don’t I seem more happy?” I pretended to concentrate on the road, but I was taken aback by his statement. I had never realized that he had been unhappy before. I asked him what made him more happy now, and he began talking about feeling more confident and comfortable in his own skin. “I guess I don’t care what other people think about me anymore. Not in a bad way, but just that I do my own thing.” He went on to talk about how he felt more normal after realizing that others were insecure just like him. “I talk more to my lesson teachers now, too,” he added proudly, as we were nearing home. I remembered seeing him with his lips quietly pursed year after year as his cello teacher tried her best to get a smile out of him during their sessions. “I guess I thought they liked me to be quiet and a good listener. But one day when I was feeling more loose — you know, I just have those kind of days sometimes — I talked more, and it was way more fun.” I smiled, noticing his dynamic hand gestures out of the corner of my eye. “That’s good.” He continued on, “Mom always said something like that, but I didn’t actually realize it till now. I think listening and understanding it for yourself are different things.” As we pull into the driveway, I began to realize how much he had grown intellectually and emotionally since I had left. I wondered what else I had missed out on.

I bend over to look at the books stacked on my brother’s desk. Precalculus. Return of the Soldier. AP U.S. History. And a library book laying flipped open face down: Why Good Kids Act Cruel: The Hidden Truth about the Pre-Teen Years. My heart ached a bit, looking at the book borrowed to understand his own adolescent experience. Because his mother did not go through the U.S. education system. Because both his older siblings are out of the house and “being successful.” “I don’t have any close friends,” he once told me — so offhandedly, as if he was telling me that his favorite color was blue. I stopped but didn’t ask him any more questions, and instead offered that “maybe high school will be better.” But I did wonder if he would be reading this book had I been more present for him.

When my family came for graduation, my friend R jokingly asked my brother to tell him my most embarrassing moment. He told R that he didn’t have any real memories of me. I remember silently blinking when R told me that and feeling a swirling queasiness in my stomach. I had realized how many years it had been since I had lived with my brother. How he had been just ten years old when I left. How I talk about him more than I ever really talk with him anymore. And it broke my heart just a little bit to hear him say that, that what he remembered about me was pretty much an empty void.

With every trip back home, I wonder where I am supposed to be. I don’t understand why fighting Oppression takes me away from developing a relationship with my brother, a lanky Asian kid trapped in lily-white Minnesota suburbia. I don’t understand why my work means that I cannot be here to watch and contribute to his growth. Why does success lie outside of our families and away from our homes? Maybe I’m doing it all wrong.