Going Home

A year after college, I quit my job and accepted a fellowship. I was placed me at an organization in NYC to work with Korean tenants in public housing, so here I am in the city. I have been spending my summer in the steaming hot hallways of public housing, knocking on Korean tenants’ doors to talk about issues they face. Come inside, they say. “밥묵었나?” I nod, but they still feed me steamed potatoes dipped in brown sugar. I’ve come to realize this summer that my usual awkwardness melts away when I am with older folks. We dip into their ridiculously pro-America politics, frown-squint up at the kitchen ceiling that’s been leaking for the last year, and chat about how the stream of family and visitors have slowed over the years.

I eventually go into my organizing piece, and we get to talking about privatization: private companies buying up public housing land all over the city to turn into unaffordable luxury towers. Many just nod, knowing that it means that they will be pushed out eventually. Public housing is the last frontier of affordable housing in NYC, and for many, there would be nowhere else to go.

Organizing is 120% legwork. And I would add, 200% emotional labor. I meet with tenants twice a week to hear their struggles with language, mobility, and repairs in public housing. Then the next day, I walk into our Chinatown office to news about another building of Chinese residents moving out en masse after taking buyouts from the landlord. Another step in this terrifying sprint towards Chinatown decimation nationwide. K tells me that housing organizing is always being in “crisis mode” — and I see the emotional toll that it takes on us. Homelessness, evictions, tenant harassment, threats, lawsuits, buyouts, gentrification. My heart aches every time I see snapback white boys drinking coffee on wood plank benches on Ludlow Street. And the Wyndam Gardens hotel standing tall where the Chinese theater and Chinatown community mural once stood. And don’t get me started on those damn white photographers who come to take photos of elderly Chinese folks at Hester Park, as if they are on display, as if folks are all part of their cultural tour experience. There is a lot of protective anger, pain, and fear in this work. I wonder how we can keep going and if anything will be left in a couple of years.

In the quieter moments of this summer, I also think a lot about what it means to go “home.” I notice myself asking tenants about their faded Virgin Mary statue wrapped in a thick, green rosary, identical to the one that stands on my mother’s bedroom dresser. I catch glimpses of my grandmother in softly aged creases of our members. Traversing the trapped staircases of public housing, my body has developed an eerie ache for the stifling heat of Seoul summers, and I wonder if anything will ease my diasporic tug quite as much their repeated questions of if I’ve eaten dinner that day. As I ride the train back to Brooklyn, I wonder when this restlessness cease and allow me to find what I am even looking for.

It’s unclear what I am leaving this summer with, because at times, it feels as though I am left with more gaping questions in my vision for social justice. Who do I do this work for? How do I build a political home? How do you articulate something you do not know, that does not yet exist? How do you go home when it no longer exists?

I trod up the darkness, unlock the door to breathe in the hot silence of the apartment. A thud and a clank as my bags fall to the ground, and keys onto the desk. I lie on the futon with only the phone glowing in the room. My fingers count out the hour differences before my thumbs drum out the number that my mother used to ingrain in me as a child. 여보세요?

She replies with the thick kyungsang namdo accent from memories of my childhood. 응, 그래. 밥묵었나?

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Conversations with Mother

음.. 맞아. 정치를 하는 목적은 정권쟁탈. 사업을 하는 이유는 이윤추구. 우리 사회는 고쳐야 할 문제가 많지. 다만 남을 바꾸는 것은 어려고 강제로 할 수는 없다는 일이라는 걸 알아둬. 그들을 물가로 데려갈 수는 있지만 오로지 그들만 물을 마시겠다는 선택을 할 수 있어.
운동권을 할때도 내 갈 길이 바빠서 참여할 수 없었어. 한번 들어갔다 나오면 내 살 길이 없어지기에. 내가 같이하지는 못했지만 진짜 응원하고 성공했으면 하는 애들이 있었어. 그 반면에 다들 시험을 거부하라고 부축이고 나서 진작 자기 행동은 자기 이익을 버리지 못하고 시험을 보러간 애들도 있었어. 걔네들은 남을 다 선동을 하고 시험을 떡하니 보러간거야. 그런 애들은 정말 죽이고 싶었어. 나는 애들 앞에서 내 장학금을 포기하지 못한다고 시험 거부 못한다고 해놓고 교수가 교실까지 끌고 갔는데도 마음이 아파서 못들어갔어. 애들의 연설을 들으면서 제들이 왜 저렇게 하는지 이해가 가기에, 배신하고 싶지 않았기에 결국 시험을 보지는 못했어. 나도 그들이 나라의 울분을 가지고 뭔가를 하자는 흐름을 모르지 않았으니까… 작은 마음으로 보태며 살아가야된다고 생각해. 그러는게 세상을 서서히 변화해 나가는거 같아. 떵떵거리면서 말하는 것 보다 조그만 행동으로써. 엄마는 네가 그렇게 계속 생활했으면해. 남이 알아주든 말든.
***

One of the better conversations I’ve had with my mother, which are surprisingly becoming more frequent . Of course, there will always be incredibly hurtful remarks and arguments, but leaving college gave me more space to appreciate the stories she holds and simultaneously, her venture into graduate school gave my mother a lot of personal experiences of racism & sexism that now lend her more insight into what my childhood was like in Minnesota. She has a pretty nuanced perspective of racial hierarchy in the United States, just from a couple of years teaching in public schools, and sometimes her absolute confusion or hatred around racism reminds me how illogical and horrible it seems to the outside eye. Sometimes I forget that this type of treatment isn’t normal.

Today, she shared a story about her time in college during the 1980s student democracy movement in S. Korea. Hoards of students protested the military dictatorship and called for democracy in Korea. She recalled the class/exam boycotts that had taken ahold of college campuses across the nation. I remember her telling me that everyone hated her for still attending class, not understanding that she didn’t have the financial cushion that other students did, if they were to get kicked out. Her scholarship depended on her grades, and she would never have been able to graduate from the university, which she had fought her “why do women need a college degree” family tooth and nail to attend. “Include people like me in your movement,” she told me once. I silently nodded.

I think about her a lot when our movements leave immigrants behind. I know we as a family have a lot to fix and unlearn, but I don’t want the revolution if my mother isn’t in it.

***

Quote Translation:

Mm.. You’re right. Purpose of politics is to seize power. Purpose of business is extracting profits. There are too many problems for our society to fix, but always remember that changing people is’t easy nor something that you can force on another person. You can take them to the water, but only they can choose to drink from it.

I was too busy following my own path to participate in the student movement. I knew that once I went in, I would lose my source of future livelihood. I couldn’t stand alongside them, but there were folks I cheered on and definitely those I hoped would win. Then there were also those who rallied others to boycott exams and go take the exam themselves, unable to suppress acting for their own benefit. They led others to boycott then simply strutted right in to take the exam. I just hated people like that. I had stood in front of students to say I couldn’t boycott the exam because of my scholarship, but when the time came, I didn’t have the heart to go into take the exam. My professor had even dragged me to the entrance, but I couldn’t do it because from their speeches, I understood why the students were doing this. Because I didn’t want to betray them or their cause, I didn’t end up taking the test. I, too, understood that we existed in a point in history where change was possible and being propelled by these students’ pent-up anger and frustrations… I believe you should lend your hand in small ways throughout life. That is what is going to slowly change the world, not making grand speeches. I hope you continue living in that way, whether others acknowledge it or not.