Abandonment pounds through the pulse of Korea. Separated families, orphans, missing spouses, abductions, common during wartime. But after war, during the economic boom, the pattern of abandonment continues. “Goose daddies” whose wives and children fly away to the USA for education, women coerced or betrayed into giving up their children for adoption, overworked parents who rarely see their children, and the myriad of addictions that devastate relationships.
My own pre-verbal pattern of abandonment is triggered here. I didn’t think anything special of the fact that my parents left me for 6 months when I was an infant. I thought it was normal. My father, always devoted completely to his profession as a scientist, took my mom and oldest brother, age 4, to Rochester, NY, in 1964, leaving me and my brother, age 2, with my grandmother. This is so common in Korea it’s hardly worth mentioning.
Not until I had children of my own did I re-think this event. Not until I mothered, breastfed, and bonded with my own babies did I realize how wrenching an extended separation could be. I had a hard enough time leaving my infant for 2 hours to go to an appointment, much less 6 months. What did my mother feel as she left her infant and toddler behind to accompany her husband? What kind of withdrawal must my brother and I have gone through as our bonds with our primary caregiver, our father, and our brother, were severed? Luckily we knew our grandmother well. Nevertheless the role of the primary provider, our mother, is unique, and elicits specific hormonal and neurological responses.
I know that infancy abandonment has affected me in many ways, even if I cannot always recognize or articulate them. In my body, I am experiencing Korea heavily in my heart. Daily I break myself open to both joy and sorrow, to both laughter and tears.
At the same time, my elderly friend and mentor in Detroit is ailing. I said my goodbye before I departed for Korea, and it breaks my heart that I cannot be physically present. I have served as a would-be midwife to the dying, for my parents, and for close friends, as a benevolent angel of death, I darkly joke. I am so sad I cannot be there for my friend, and devastated to be so far away, in a city where I do not have a community to celebrate and grieve our friend’s life and ongoing transition into death.
All of this has my body in a state of inflamed red alert. Old asthma patterns have been triggered. Respiratory inflammation roams from sinuses to nose to throat to chest. I strive to be patient with myself, nurture myself, and to lean into the connections that remind me that I am not alone, I am not abandoned, I am resilient, and am always surrounded by love.
My friend Jung-In points out that Koreans do not identify as a colonized or occupied people. She would not be able to live with such an identity. Instead, she experiences Korea at its best as a nation of resistance and survival. She looks to the fierce farmer activists over generations, fighting for the right to grow food, protect the land, and support their families. She works with teachers dedicated to meeting the needs of stressed and burnt-out urban youth. She allies herself with the protestors and hunger strikers at Ganghwa-mun demanding that the government take responsibility and make amends for the Sewol ferry disaster.
I would also like to identify with the b-boys and b-girls of Korea! I had my first exhilarating encounter at a festival last night, with the fantastic Jindo Crew, whose performance took my breath away, and literally left my poor sensitive lungs wheezing. My breathing is back to normal today, and I am bravely opening my heart and lungs further and further, embracing all that green and pink of the heart chakra.
Beyond decolonizing, I am re-indigenizing myself, taking in Korea’s rhythms and flavors, feeling the land beneath my feet, taking a nightly moonbath on our rooftop, feeling the stars watching me even if the bright city lights obscure them.