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

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Resistance, Survival, and Healing: A Korean American Journey

[Here is the bigger picture of my Korea project, as I begin to articulate what brings me here. The picture is slowly coming into focus for me....]

My family immigrated to the US from Korea in 1968 when I was 5 years old. This mantra defines my life in Korea, as I explain over and over to everyone I meet why my Korean face does not match my clumsy tongue. I’m back here for a personal sabbatical because I know there is unfinished family business here. I don’t mean bank or land issues, I mean emotional business.

My father died in 1999, and my mother in 2001. In 2001 as our country was reeling from the 9-11 attacks, and asking “why?” I was also reeling from the loss of my parents and wondering what it would mean to be the family elder at age 38. My parents were both the eldest in their families, so my brother and I were the oldest of the next generation, and I, the youngest of my immediate family and the only daughter, fell into the role of the emotional caretaker, the “feeler.”

Orphaned before age 40, I felt I had inherited some weighty family baggage. It was as if I had these suitcases full of untold stories, unprocessed trauma, matters I could not understand. My family baggage manifested in my body as physical chronic illness as it plunged into an inflammatory state—I couldn’t breathe or fully digest my food, developing asthma and losing weight I could not afford to lose.

it took me another 10 years to remove obstacles, gather resources, and summon the courage to come and live in Korea for a while. Despite my decades of American schooling, including a master;s degree and a passion for lifelong learning, I realized I knew next to nothing about Korea. Korean history and politics were rarely discussed growing up. My parents exemplified the progressive practices of immigrants, who left the old country behind to embrace the promise of the future. My father was a driven, passionate scientist, always throwing himself into the next research project and producing paper after paper. My mother devoted herself to being a wife and mother, and also became a spiritual leader and mentor in the local Korean church.

While they maintained ties to Korea and extended family, they never went back to live, and allowed us children to speak English at home, so that Korean became something we understood but couldn’t speak, an antiquated language spoken by old folks, and new immigrants—“fresh off the boat”—whom we regarded as hopefully uncool and not worth our time, as we frantically tried to claim our own Americanness, our own membership in the club.

What was the true cost of that membership? After my parents died, I was only slowly beginning to understand. They died young—my father at age 70 and my mother at 65—of neurological autoimmune conditions. As a yoga practitioner, I don’t abide with the allopathic disease model. I believe we are complex psychosomatic beings who also exist within larger constructs of community, society, and history. Furthermore, history itself is multilayered and cyclical, and  past, present, and future coexist simultaneously. My beliefs are shaped by quantum physics, yoga philosophy, esoteric Christianity, but most of all, my own intuition and attentiveness to my body.

My body was telling me to go to Korea. As if to confirm this, several years after my mother died, I got a phone call from my aunt, informing me that a piece of land in my mother’s name had been sold, and that money was being held in a safe for me and my brother, but that we were not legally permitted to remove the money from the country. It was as if my mother herself was beckoning me back to my birthplace.

What were the untold stories? It felt like I was on one side of a heavy curtain and things were happening and being discussed on the other side that I didn’t have access to. The first thing was to regain my mother tongue, my first language until I started kindergarten in Hawaii.

The next thing was to teach myself about Korean history, culture, and politics. As an engaged and aware activist, organizer, artist, and teacher in the US, I remained clueless about my birthplace, and what forces had shaped me.

At several key points in my life I felt myself repeating my mother’s life. As much as I told myself I would not marry until I had established my independent self, I found myself marrying 3 months after college graduation, just as my mother married my father. Just like my mom, I had my first child exactly one year later, then again 2 years later. When I was pregnant with my third child, I realized I was the same age as my mother when she was carrying me, her third child. Enough! I declared. But still, I am so much her daughter, inheriting even her oversensitive immune system. After my mom died and my body went into inflammation, I developed asthma so severe that any allopathic patient would’ve gone on steroids, when I realized I was the age my mother was when she first went on steroids to treat myasthenia gravis. Of course, I refused, and took a naturopathic approach involving food, supplements, herbs, yoga, and anything else I could muster.

A named demon is easier to fight than an unnamed demon, as they say. I felt I needed to understand my parents’ stories,

What were my parents’ lives like during 20th century Korea? They were born under Japanese occupation. They were young adults during the American occupation. They maintained some privileges, and my father was able to get an American doctorate in the 1950s. My mother’s father was Dean of the medical school at Yonsei University, and all his daughters obtained bachelor’s degrees from Ewha University. What did it take to acquire all of this? What was the cost, financially, politically, emotionally, spiritually? How did my family resist or comply with oppressive power structures?

How did all of this get passed down, as part of a postcolonial legacy? What did this mean for me and my own children, who were already experiencing some chronic health conditions? What were our bodies telling us, and what were they asking for?

As part of the body politic, I long to understand more fully how my body, and my children’s bodies, may be microcosms of the macrocosm of Korea-America. I am inspired by artists like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who explored these questions with her work in the 1960s and 70s.

Of course we are not the only ones in this fraught postcolonial condition. What are other Koreans and those of the Korean diaspora experiencing? Furthermore we are all living through a mojor transition facing humanity itself, in which we are shifting from the industrial age to a new post-industrial, post-oil, post-jobs era. In Detroit and beyond, we are framing this as the New Work/NewCulture/New Economy paradigm. How are contemporary Koreans responding? What are some promising projects addressing these major questions? How do we move from resistance to harmful conditions, political and otherwise, to survival, so we are not victimized by these conditions? Then, how do we move beyond survival to healing, so that we are actually strengthened by what we have endured, and we can celebrate?

To explore these questions, I plan to:
  • Gain fluency in spoken and written Korean
  • Study Korean history, politics and culture, especially the history of resistance in 20th-21st century Korea, through books, classes, and discussion
  • Interview Korean elders born in the 1920s and 1930s, and create a literary response
  • Research and visit communities and organizations in Korea engaging in New Work/NewCulture/New Economy projects and approaches
  • Explore Korean healing modalities, while offering my experience in Iyengar Yoga, sharing what I have learned while seeking further learning
My time in Korea is progressing too rapidly. I realize I need to return, next time for a full year. I am at the cusp of a new stage of my life, embracing ever-expanding circles, hoping and working toward personal and collective healing—myself, my children, my ancestors, and generations to come. May it be so.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Making a Deal With the Ancestors

the ancestors are pressing too much on me
says the mudang
i am surrounded by ghosts 
she yells at them and chases them away

they are putting too much pressure on me
planting too much expectation
i cannot breathe under their weight
my shoulders ache and my guts are wrenched into knots
i come as an open and humble channel
and they exploit me in my eagerness

sepia visions of old korea
yangban father in a palanquin
white linen hanbok and persimmon dyed pants
one scene after another

my ancestors want me 
to finish up their old business
unsettled arguments 
ego attachments
the bad business deal
the spurned lover
the fight over money and land

enough i say
i will pay your karmic debt only
i will bring to completion cycles of suffering
so as not to perpetuate them
i will seal the doors on old business without reopening them

i will not settle petty disputes
i will not avenge those who have hurt you
i will not create more karma for your progeny

i will burn up the grievances of the ancestors
turn it all to dust and throw it into the ocean at jeju harbor
i will dissolve old knots and free up old souls
i will set myself and my children free

“hmmf, well then,” grunt the ancestors
as they lift off my back
and turn into feathers and house dust

Friday, October 10, 2014


I’ve been here for 5 weeks now, and feeling more at home than ever. Every time I step out of my building, whether I’m going to class, to the neighborhood bathhouse, or to the subway station, I feel a sense of joy and gratitude for being here.

I also feel a sense of belonging, which strikes me as odd because Korea has not been my home for 45 years, my Korean is still quite rough, and I’m deprived of communication privileges I take for granted in the States. In addition, Seoul is stressful and crowded, and I’m suffering from nature deficit disorder, because of the endless concrete. My body is in trauma mode and a high state of inflammation from the strain of adjustment. And visibly, I am quite different from the fashion-conscious residents in their trendy clothes and dyed, permed hair. Heteropatriarchy shapes society, which, on the whole, is very homogeneous compared to the diversity of the States.

Culturally I feel out of step, resisting the pressure to act and look in keeping with women of my age. Korea ranks 111 out of 136 nations in gender equity. This shows up as pressure on young women to be beautiful, thin, and sexy; strong emphasis on marriage; rampant objectification (including internalized objectification) of women; disparities in jobs and salaries, and much more.

Korean social life is largely defined by age, possibly more than class. People are confused because my lifestyle doesn’t fit my age. In the States, I could easily interact and be close friends with folks from their 20s to 60s and beyond. Here, same age-peers are important, and young folks don’t feel comfortable with older folks around, because of institutionalized Confucianist hierarchy. While I feel respected as an older woman, I also feel somewhat limited. I’m eager to go out dancing, yet many clubs outright reject people beyond their 20s. What’s a Badass Yoga Nun to do?

Perhaps the hardest aspect of life in Korea is the off-the-charts consumerism, even beyond what we see in the States. People shop their asses off and you can’t go anywhere, even on a nature hike, without braving a phalanx of stores and vendors. Seoul is wall-to-wall shopping for miles on end and for several stories up. Like Americans, Koreans go into serious debt to keep up with the latest phones, clothes, and what-not.

I could go on and on about the ways I feel out of place, but really this essay is about my love affair with Korea. If there is so much about 21st century Seoul that troubles me, why do I feel so comfortable here?

It’s a deep in the bones (and genes) thing, I guess. It’s the land of my ancestors, where I was conceived and born. I think of my mother encased in my grandmother’s womb, and her fetal self as my ovum-self formed in her tiny ovaries. I picture my grandmother in 1936, my mother’s birth year, and what she might have been experiencing during the pregnancy, and how that penetrated into the formation of my mother’s ova. I wonder what of my grandmother I carry now, as I walk through the city where she lived, up and down the hills of Seoul.

As I reflect on why I love it here so much, I realize how much lighter my allostatic load  is here than in the States. In Detroit, living in a majority Black community, I may be able to avoid a portion of the daily ravages of global white supremacy, but I am still routinely “othered,” regarded as exotic and alien, and not quite belonging.

As odd as I am here, I am not the other here in Korea. On the contrary, the lady in the bathhouse calls me “unni,” and the young men in my Korean class call me “noona,” both terms for big sister. Folks even ask me for directions on occasion, which always surprises me since I feel so confused so much of the time. Even though I often feel like a stranger, I’m not treated as such. I blend in—what a concept!

Only now do I realize how stressful it felt to be othered in the USA nearly my whole life. Only now do I feel in my bones what it must’ve been like for my parents, who died early from auto-immune dysfunctions—largely aggravated by stress.

This week, as part of my reindigenizing project, I started seeing a traditional Korean doctor for acupuncture several times a week now. Even though my doc is only a little older than my children, I feel I am reconnecting with my father’s father, a traditional Korean doctor, whereas his son took the Western route as a physician and physiologist.

In a subway station on the way to an acupuncture treatement, I came across this poem:


같은 각도의 입꼬리가 올라가고
같은 염분 기의 눈물을 흘리고
같은 색깔의 방귀를 뀌는




the corners of our lips lift at the same angle
we shed the same salty tears
we fart the same color

we are 

~Hwang Seong-Ah

Is this the first time in my life that I feel a sense of home, and a kinship that transcends difference? Perhaps. Meanwhile, I am enjoying the lighter load on my shoulders, and re-learning how to breathe.