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.