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.

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