Monday, December 1, 2014

Black in Seoul: Love, Hate, and Objectification

Badass Yoga Nun hit the dance floor Saturday night. Every once in a while I need a good 2-4 hours of sweating on a dance floor to speed up my metabolic and metaphysical processes. In the wake of the Michael Brown trial in my solitary rage, I had been needing a physical outlet to vent—some pounding music and enough energy around me to support and inspire. I had not had an opportunity to dance in Korea, given the class and age segregation inherent in Confucianist Korea. Where is a 51 year-old yoga nun supposed to get her dance on? I’m told a lot of clubs not only have dress codes but also age caps—no one over 30!

Whatever….I decided to chance it at a queer-friendly party at a club in the foreigner district, Itaewon. Queer communities are more welcoming and less conservative as a rule, so I thought this might be the best setting to step out. On the other hand, I hadn’t been around White people in months and I immediately felt triggered. The armor I had been unconsciously shedding came back on, like the smoke that filled the basement bar.

Once inside, I had work to do. I stormed the dance floor like a banshee, unwilling to wait for the crowd to get drunk enough to dance. I was out there alone seemingly forever, old and unashamed, but eventually a few folks stepped up and sort of bounced mildly with drinks and cigarettes in hand.

Things got exciting when a spontaneous cipher began with a few gay Brown men voguing and a sister who joined them. Spectators whipped out their cameras and filmed the scene. I love ciphers for their unpredictability and the spirit of participatory democracy, but this one disturbed me after a while, because no one else was joining. It turned out to be a performance rather than a community dance-in. a racially charged exhibitionist/voyeur event.

In the wake of Michael Brown’s trial, a friend posted on Facebook, “If only white people loved Black people as much as they love Black culture.” To be Black in Korea is tough. In addition to a tradition of colorism and homogeneity among Koreans, there is an idolatry of White culture borne of an unhealthy relationship with the USA after more than a half century of occupation, and to Koreans, to be American means to be White. It seems Koreans have internalized some of the worst parts of White culture, based on mainstream media and a conservative military. And that equals both a fascination and a fear of Blackness.

Yet Black culture is highly sought out. African American hip-hop fills the airwaves here like it does all over the world, and I’ve connected with the African drumming and dance communities, as well as the Capoeira Angola community in Seoul. I’ve met artists from Burkina Faso, able to make a living here, performing and teaching, and hanging out with their Korean girlfriends. It all feels a little Josephine Baker-ish, and the long tradition of Black artists from Nina Simone to James Baldwin who left their homes to live where they could financially support themselves and live in a less overtly hostile environment.

On one hand, I love the universality of art and how it brings people together. On the other hand, I abhor exotification and cultural appropriation. This tension manifested on the dance floor, as the White and Asian crowd surrounded the Black dancers. Itaewon is also filled with Korean women in their microskirts hanging out with their White boyfriends. The interracial mingling goes beyond this trope, but this particular dynamic concerns me the most, because of the dominance of global whiteness and the fraught history of the USA in Korea. The walls of the Itaewon club flickered with videos of Black bodies—the less clothing the better, the air throbbed with Black voices, and now a cipher surrounding Black dancers.

Meanwhile, Michael Brown. And so many others whose names we may or may not learn, Brown and Black folks, victimized by systemic White supremacy.

What does it mean to love Black people, especially Black youth, especially Black male youth, and treasure them the way White culture treasures White youth? For those who claim to love Black people (“my best friend/boy or girl friend is ___”), how can you tell when you lapse into objectification, appropriation, and exotification of Black folks?

In America, we are Black or we are White. The extreme violence that surrounds us forces us to choose: we cannot be in-between. Society chooses for us, actually, and because Asians have been slaughtered in hate crimes just as African Americans have been, we are also Black. Think of Vincent Chin, Chai Vang, and just this month, Sao Lue Vang,

And yet, in Itaewon, are Koreans more White than Black? How does this manifest in how Koreans treat Blacks? How does this show up in how Koreans treat other Asians—the recent immigrants from Southeast Asia, their browner neighbors from sunnier countries?

May we Yellow and Brown folks embrace Blackness as a political, social, and cultural stance of solidarity. May we not idolize, idealize, exoticize, objectify, or exploit other people of color. May we love all our children and protect them from harm. May we link arms and stand together with fierce compassion. May we dance together on the sticky concrete dance floor in a basement bar in Seoul. May we shift the gaze from voyeur to participant. May we all take on the vulnerability and power of Michael Brown together.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

한국어의 시: Poems in Korean

One of my goals has been to be able to write with ease in Korean--not just simple notes and emails but essays and poems as well. Here are my first Korean poems. I feel abashed about them unlike my English language poems that I dash off and toss onto this blog. They are very simple and somewhat child-like, and very earnest. I present them in both languages here, although the feelings and images and phrasings are strictly Korean, so the English translations may be somewhat awkward.

서울의 가을                                                                         

1호선을 타고 밤에 집에 올 때
한강이 나에게 말한다

지하철 안
뜨뜻한 자리가 나에게 말한다

나의 발밑에서 말한다

노랑잎이 머리에 떨어진다
“잘 다녀 왔니?”

모퉁이 가게 아저씨
아침마다 말없이 미소로
인사를 건네준다

어디를 가도
자꾸 들린다
“어서 돌아오세요 - 
우리는 널 기다리고 있었다”


나는 돌아왔다


riding the #1 line home at night
the han river speaks to me
“so, you’re back now”

on the subway
the heated seat says

wonmi mountain
under my feet, says
“come on over”

the gingko tree
drops yellow leaves on my head
“you’re back from your travels?”

the uncle at the corner store
wordlessly greets me every morning
“how are you?”
nodding his head

everywhere i go
i keep hearing
“welcome back -
we’ve been waiting for you”

i’m here

서울 사진 축제에서 

서울의 옛 모습이 담긴
낡은 사진들을 보고있다  
사람들은 지나가고
나는 사진들을 혼자서  
바라보고 있다 

여기 계시나요?
우리집이 어디로 사라졌을까요?

여기 서 있는 나도
나무 뒤로
아니면 군중 속으로 사라졌다

나는 사진 속에 여전히 남아 있다
아주 오랜 어느 옛날에


i am gazing
at old photos of seoul
people walk past me
i remain alone
still staring

are you here?
where has our house gone?

i’m here too
behind a tree
or vanished into a crowd

i remain in the picture
once upon a time long ago

Thursday, November 20, 2014


The idea of a hometown always struck me as odd. Growing up in two different nations and having lived in five different states, no particular place felt like a definitive home. I’ve always prided myself on my adaptability, feeling like I’m a citizen of the world, who could make her home anywhere. I sometimes felt a bit jealous of folks like my former husband, who had an unflagging loyalty to his hometown, New York City, where he was born and raised. He longed to go back one day but I couldn’t really relate.

When meeting new people who asked me where I was from, I always answered, “I’m not from anywhere.” I explained that I was born in Korea, grew up in Hawaii, went to middle and high school in Western New York, and spent my adulthood in New York City, Nashville, Milwaukee, and now Detroit. “Are you from a military family?” folks ask. No, just the daughter of an ambitious professor who sought out the best research environments for his physiology experiments, and whose children also became un-rooted, free, detached.

But in my 51st year, it has changed. If you are my Facebook friend, you may have noticed some changes on my timeline. Maybe you don’t recognize my new (old) name, my birth name, which became my middle name when my parents moved us to Hawaii and gave us perky, all-American monikers. My last name is still “Hong,” pronounced with a long “o” as in “go,” but Korean-style, it precedes my given name, Gwi (“rare”)-Seok (“stone”).

But if you look further you may see that, for the first time, I have a hometown: Seoul.

Everywhere I go I feel like I’m with family. Sure, I’m still the oddball, spiky gray hair and crooked vintage glasses. I’ve failed to protect myself from the sun like the good ajumma I should be, so my face is dark and freckly. My clothes are fucka-mucka, raggedy-ass as always, and as soon as I open my mouth, people get confused. Nevertheless I am recognizably Korean, and people treat me as such.

In the USA, no matter where I go and how many decades I live there, I will always be regarded as an outsider. People will always approach me with the friendliest of intentions and ask me “where are you from?” silently implying, “and when are you going back?” Let’s face it: Asian in America = Foreign.

I feel like a bonobo who had been living among chimpanzees, having been separated from her colony, and having habituated to the new species, forgot what it meant to be a bonobo. I didn’t realize until now how I have had to brace myself all these years, protect myself from the next microaggression, bear a continual sense of unconscious inferiority, and feel like an outsider looking through a curtain which I could never completely lift.

Sure, I’ve been back to Korea for short spurts, and a slightly longer stint back in my college days, long before I was ready to take on the responsibility of being Korean. But not until now I did not call Seoul my home.

The concept of “hometown” is very important to Koreans. 고향, ko-hyang, is where you go for every holiday. One of the most beloved folk songs in Korea is about ko-hyang, and everytime my mother heard it, she would cry, after decades as a naturalized American citizen. My mother wanted to come back to Korea to retire in the countryside, and to die, but never did make it. Along with ko-hyang is “우리 나라,” Uri Nara, “our land,” which in English feels yucky and jingoistic, but in Korea, is spoken by all as a way of defining culture and history, the positive and the negative.

Psychologist Joy DeGruy tells a story about being in Lesotho, and speaking at a gathering (listen to the end of the full-length talk, 1:15:00). The audience was trying to understand the concept of being African-AMERICAN, when a woman from all the way in the back of the hall walked forward and stated, “I am from Lesotho. Lesotho is my home. Even if I am not living in Lesotho, Lesotho is still my home. You are African. You will always be African. Did you think we would forget you? We mourned Martin. we mourned Malcolm, right there beside you. You are African, 300 years from home. We just wondered when you would come back."

Is this ko-hyang that I have been missing all these years? Is this the restlessness I have felt my entire life? Is this what has been burning in me and driving me to create? To make poems and songs and dances and babies and communities? Is this why I had to marry, and then leave my marriage? Why I felt compelled to leave Milwaukee, and seek a home in Detroit? Is this why I am back in Korea?

When American friends expressed enthusiasm and support for my Korean sabbatical and referred to this trip as “going home,” or going to the “motherland” I recoiled a bit. Until now I did not feel this allegiance to Korea or anywhere. I still think of Detroit as my chosen hometown, and until now, felt sure I would live out my days in Detroit with a big community garden and a yoga school. I continue to feel a soul connection to Detroit and miss the city and community, But my long-term picture has just now become a mystery.

Just a sliver of an almost-new moon hangs in the Seoul sky. I never expect fulfillment and even bear suspicion in the face of comfort, satisfaction, and completion. But I feel a sense of circling back, after half a century, a Saturnian revolution, a sense of (dare I say it?) wholeness, living here in my hometown.

Today I said my first goodbye to Korea, in the form of my Korean language teacher, after turning in my final exam. We both wept, and embraced. What? It’s just a class, right? And Koreans aren’t supposed to hug. But something deeper is going on which I cannot yet explain.

Now, more than halfway through my sabbatical, I grieve the prospect of leaving, as I clutch the Han River stone I keep in the pocket of my quilted Korean pants. What’s to become of this new sense of belonging? Not sure yet. We shall see.

Sunday, November 2, 2014


Scene from "Miryang, A Welcome"

For the first time in my life I am identifying myself as indigenous. That is, I belong to a land and a culture that goes back many generations, perhaps thousands of years. I am not a visitor, an immigrant, or a colonizer, but a member of a nation not defined by a state. As far as I know, my ancestors are as much a part of this peninsula as the pine trees on mountainside cliffs and the currents of the Han River.

It’s an awesome sense of belonging which I am only just beginning to find the words to describe. Everywhere I look I feel affirmed, mirrored, connected, familial. As I gaze at all the different hair styles on the subway, I know that if I ran my fingers through one or another person’s hair, it would feel almost exactly like my own thick, dense hair. Amid the variations, the prominent cheekbones are familiar, the broad noses, square feet.

And yet I feel deeply alienated and conflicted about so much of modern Korean culture: the suicide-inducing, uber-competitive school system which almost invites cheating because of its unrealistic demands and aggressive gatekeeping; the heteropatriarchy that keeps women subordinate and dependent on men; the incessant, unrelenting pressure to consume; socially-condoned addictions which include workaholism and binge drinking, and other issues as well. These are not necessarily issues unique to Korea, but common in many other countries including the US. However, they seem more obvious here for a number of reasons, which includes living in a huge, extremely densely populated metropolis.

So my task has become learning to distinguish between the aspects of Korean culture that resulted from colonization and the aspects of Korean culture that are truly indigenous. Perhaps it’s impossible to completely distinguish between them, and these cultural practices, values, and beliefs run on a spectrum rather than on opposing sides of a clear boundary.

For instance, the prevalence of plastic surgery is literally changing the face of Korea. What does it mean when one no longer resembles their mother, father, grandmother, grandfather? When one has changed the shape of the eyes and eyelids, and shaved the sides of the nose to make it narrower? What happens when their child is born with the hooded eyelids and flat noses of their grandparents? What happens when you no longer recognize your close friend or family member because the structure of their face has changed?

I remember in the 1990s and early 2000s when yoga was becoming popular, especially “flow” styles in Los Angeles. It seemed like every actress in every film had the same yoga-toned body, the same deltoids and pecs and lean abdomen, as if they all had the same personal trainer sculpting the same body over and over again. Here in Korea, there is a certain “look,” almost like a mask, which you see repeatedly in ads and movies and music videos, especially among women performers. The same wide, round eyes with the necessary double lid, the pointy narrow nose, and pert chin, surrounded by long flowing brown, or sometimes shades of blond, hair.

But this is not indigenous culture. This represents a sliver of the Korean population, whose obsession with a certain definition of beauty results from internalized racism and a conscious or unconscious acceptance of white supremacy. This past week, Korean Clara Lee was named #2 Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Flanked by white women at #1 and #3, the announcement raises a slew of questions. Who gets to choose? Based on what kind of bullshit? Does Clara Lee represent indigeneity? What does it mean if a culturally-defined beauty is surgically produced? This is a layer of modern Korean culture I need to remove to access indigenous culture.

Similarly, I wonder about the Korean idealization of education, the cut-throat competition, and status based on and informed by this system. My understanding, which needs to be backed by much more research and discussion on my part, is that Korea’s emergence as a major economic power stems from the American occupation in the 1950s, following Japanese occupation.  Primarily, the US goal was to make South Korea a fertile ground for capitalism and a worthy trade partner. South Korea, a small and mountainous peninsula lacking many natural resources, made policies to invest in human capital, its greatest natural resource, and decided to emphasize education as the path to global success. Instead of education limited to the yangban class in the old feudal system, everyone was encouraged to study hard and go to university.

Sounds good, right? But the reality on the ground in 2014 is that Korean college grads, like their global peers, face high unemployment, frustration, and debt. They’ve subjected themselves to at least 16 grueling, often oppressive, years of schooling which, for many, entailed classes well into the evenings and weekends, and a harrowing testing system designed to continually weed out students less skilled in a narrow measurement of aptitude. Like the limited definition of beauty that enriches surgeons, the limited definition of intelligence creates an elite class based on exclusion.

Meanwhile, everyone is encouraged to spend, spend, spend, even money they do not have. If your child is dreamy and disinclined toward rote learning, with enough money you can buy private schooling, tutors, and hagwons to train those traits out of them. If you did everything right but cannot get the job you’ve been training for, and have to settle for demeaning work, you can still find fulfillment, or at least let off some steam, in the latest fashions, the coolest phone, a new hairstyle each month, and weekend binge drinking. If you look like you’re succeeding, that may just be enough.

This should all be quite familiar to Americans, for this pyramid scheme is the modus operandus of capitalism. Masses at the bottom doing service work for those above, a middle class impossibly striving to climb to the next rung, and a little triangle on top becoming more desperate and aggressive to preserve their power.

These are just a few examples of what I deem non-indigenous culture. So what is actually indigenous?

This week I watched a remarkable film called "Miryang, A Welcome" (미량, 방가운 손님), about a rural community responding to an extensive installation of power lines through the mountainside. Seeing the fierce village grandmothers protecting their ancestral land was awe-inspiring. They had been there for generations, farming, and their ancestors were buried in mountainside graves, about to be plundered by a power company. The grandmothers sat down in the middle of the road, refusing to move for workers. They took turns camping in hoop tents in the mountains to protect the land with their bodies. In a showdown with the power company they chained themselves to each other and to the tent, wailing, weeping, and singing, refusing to leave.

Slowly I am beginning to recognize indigenous culture. Like indigenous cultures worldwide, it has everything to do with the land, the rivers, the oceans, the wind, stars, and native animal and plant life. Here in the city, it’s easy to feel out of touch with nature, with all our artificial lighting, protection from the elements, so much concrete and so many distractions. Indigenous culture also entails all the arts, completely aside from K-Pop and mass media.

In the states, I took little interest in rural life, which is overwhelmingly white, conservative, and dominated by pesticide-sprayed monoculture industrial farms. For people of color, rural life, especially in the northern states, can feel quite unsafe. Add the layer of gender and sexuality, and for queer folks, small town America can be downright dangerous. Korean villages, often populated by the elderly, also tend to be politically conservative. Yet it’s much easier to access indigenous Korea in the countryside. Here in the city, I can learn poongmul, Korean traditional drumming, music, and art. But if I want to grow food, learn about native plants, and live more harmoniously with the land and be more conscious of the elements, I need to go rural.

Mountain hiking in Korea is not for the faint of heart. Every weekend the Seoul metro teems with serious, usually middle aged to elderly hikers going to their favorite mountain. They bring walking poles, kimbap, thermoses of barley tea. It's easy to make fun of the 등산 아줌마  (mountain hiking aunties) and I even dressed as one for Halloween. 

But I'm beginning to understand that this devotion to weekend hikes is a response to the call of the indigenous for big city dwellers. After all these women are the sisters of the warrior grandmothers of Miryang. They say the nature spirits are strongest in mountains and rivers. I've begun keeping a stone from the Han River in my pocket. Walking down city streets, my left hand toys with it and it sings to me.

Perhaps living in the countryside will be the next leg of my pilgrimage, after my semester ends in a few weeks. As I type these words my anxiety level leaps and my mind immediately starts making excuses: no one will speak English, they’ll regard you as an interloper, you’re too old/not old enough, it’ll be too cold, blah blah blah.

I bristled when I typed the title of this piece: why "Part 1"? I felt like I was making a promise I was afraid I would not be able to keep. And yet how disingenuous to believe that reindigenizing happens all at once. And so it goes, two steps forward and one step back, working through layers of colonization, trying to be patient yet firm with myself.

In love and struggle,
Sister Gwi-Seok