Friday, October 17, 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.

Friday, October 3, 2014


Dismantling personal privilege is like reaching the front of the line, but stepping out to move to the back or leave the line entirely. You do this because you realize that there’s a whole slew of folks at the back of the line who will never make it to the front because of the restrictions that define the line. You realize the queue, regardless of its superficial democracy, is inevitably unjust and based on inequality and hierarchy.

What good does it do, one could argue, to leave the line when you were so close to getting your turn, taking that power, and directing it toward whatever you choose?

But you leave the line because you cannot stomach it, cannot bear to be part of a system so manipulative and oppressive. Whatever power and privilege you would accrue would be tainted with complicity, and the price your soul would pay for that would be too high.

Or—at the risk of employing a highly charged racial trope—dismantling personal privilege is like being at the front of the bus because that’s where you have been placed, based on education, class, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, age, etc. You start feeling uncomfortable as you realize this. You walk to the back of the bus, and see that there’s a whole different culture based on a different set of values back here. One that is based more on cooperation than competition, more about creativity than productivity, more about the community than the individual.

For me, leaving Milwaukee, my home of 25 years, and more so, leaving the middle class lifestyle, was a decision to leave the front of the line, front of the bus, and willfully move to the back. Even as I experienced the severe disadvantages of being a woman of color in a heteropatriarchal white supremacy, I still enjoyed many benefits based on class and education. Living in the same city for so long as an artist/activist/teacher, I enjoyed abundant social, cultural, artistic, and political capital, and while I was married, economic capital as well. Because of my various networks, I could get around the city even with my eyes closed and hands tied.

Moving to Detroit was like moving to the back of the bus, while coming to realize, in true Detroit style, there’s a party back there! And it’s a much more exciting party than what’s happening in the stodgy, privileged, front of the bus. That is, what’s happening on Field Street—Field Street Neighborhood Association, the new community garden, New Work Field Street Collective, a prospective women’s collective, the Boggs Center—is much more interesting than anything Downtown or “Midtown.” I don’t have the comfort of my extensive Milwaukee connections, but I am gradually earning trust and developing abiding friendships. I moved to Detroit to be a learner more than a teacher, to embrace vulnerability, and learn how to live more sustainably and interdependently.

Moving to Korea is yet another step in dismantling personal privilege. Even more than in Detroit, I am truly nobody here, Bob Dylan’s “a complete unknown.” To the casual observer in this sprawling, crowded metropolis, I’m a confusing, androgynous mess. I look Korean, but why do I dress in such ratty clothes? No make-up, no bra, and so rude to have all that messy undyed white hair. What’s with those weird glasses, and oh my God, is that a tattoo? Either I get a cold shoulder, or sometimes, outright looks of disapproval.

What’s more, when I open my mouth to speak my broken Korean, I confirm my outsider status. If I was white and young and pert, I would be forgiven, and college students would approach me to practice their English. But a 50-something American ajumma? WTF? No one seeks me out, and it’s been difficult to make friends.

Indulge me in one more analogy: dismantling personal privilege is like learning to do a yoga asana not from your strength, but from your weakness. That is, instead of relying on the muscles that are always over-performing, to learn how to hold a pose from the underemployed, less conscious places in the body. For instance, in Tadasana, mountain pose, can you release the grip of the strong gastrocnemius (calf) muscles, and instead learn to employ the deeper soleus muscles that lie under the prominent gastrocs? Can you use yoga to awaken the unconscious, less intelligent parts of the body, rather than simply reinforce established movement patterns?

If I wanted to, I could spend every single day in Seoul with English-speaking expats. Facebook and Meetup teem with groups filled with English-speaking film buffs, musicians, foodies, dancers, literati, and every other interest you can imagine. You know—my people. But that’s not why I came here. I didn’t come here to speak English and recreate my American life. I came to learn, to reindigenize myself, and immerse myself in native language and culture.

What this means is that, at least for the time being while I am still learning the language, I am totally at the back of the bus, the end of the line, the bottom of the social ladder. Because I can’t express myself with any complexity or engage in in-depth conversation, I’m relegated to the periphery.

Korea doesn’t embrace difference, and Seoul in particular presents many difficulties for differently-abled folks of any type. At school the other day I saw a woman in a wheelchair, the first I had seen ever on campus. I watched as folks poured out of the elevator and another group poured in. The woman in the chair was left out. No one made space for her, and no one gave up their spot in the elevator for her. Even being physically large creates problems because of the density of the city, not to mention the extreme cultural bias and fat-phobia.

But I am slowly finding the “party at the back of the bus” here in Korea.  This weekend Jung-In and I are visiting an alternative community called 빈집, Empty House. In Detroit style, a group came and began occupying some vacant houses, and eventually created a community in Seoul. Now they have about 40 low and moderate-income people living there, a café, and a guesthouse where we are staying for 2000 won/night ($2).

Last weekend I went to the courthouse on Jeju Island where a group of activists received their sentences for civil disobedience, for protesting the militarization of Gangjeong village. Despite the somber occasion, I enjoyed sitting with the motley crew of down-to-earth cultural and political creatives.

My people are everywhere, and as always, occupy the fringes with flair, passion, creativity, vitality, and intelligence. Meanwhile, I toil away with my stack of vocabulary words, my clumsy tongue, my willingness to act the fool and be an object of disapproval, to be at the back of the bus where I can see all the dynamics and goings-on, and to be an open channel for whatever learning I can humbly absorb.

Hey, friends, pray for me. And join me in dismantling whatever privileges you have that depend on systemic oppression, while creating a more sustainable life for yourself and others. What other analogies can you offer?

In love and struggle,

Sister Gwi-Seok