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?