Written by Sonja Swanson ETA’10-11
There come moments in life when one is caught, trapped for the preciseness of a split second between the inertia of our forward-hurtling lives and the sudden decision to take a step back from it all. If frozen there, what would our faces reveal? The thrill of breaking with convention? The fear of stepping into the unknown? The shock that we’d even taken such a step in the first place?
The face I wore onto the airplane that carried me to Korea last year was all of these faces, and maybe others as well. I could be in a suit, going to my first job right now, I thought to myself. As I boarded the plane, the self-accusatory mantra played again in my head: I had delayed real connection with my mother’s homeland for too long. My relatives would ask me why I couldn’t speak Korean, why I didn’t know Korean history, why I was coming to live there now, nine months after my grandmother’s funeral, as if I had been waiting for her to leave. But there is something in blood that is stronger than inertia and I still went.
No one lives in the house where my mother grew up. Following trends of vertical urban development and upward social mobility in the 1970’s and 80’s, my aunt and my uncles married and moved into apartments, leaving behind the jutaek, or single-family house. Their apartment windows, propped up on meter after meter of steel and concrete, afford views of the horizon that the traditional single-story homes could never offer. My grandmother’s house, though, offers views that people in apartments cannot see. Picture this: It’s August, and I have come back for the first time since I was eleven, or maybe twelve. At the entrance, I pause and commit the number on the rusting blue sign to memory. From here, I can look into the courtyard, untended, the tree stump such a natural accessory to this scene I almost forget it was once a tree. My grandmother’s brown earthenware kimchi and dwengjang (soybean paste) pots still sit at the top of the crumbling steps. The opaque sliding doors protest before opening onto rooms that look so much smaller than I remember. I look up at the black roof tiles and remember a story about my intrepid halmoni (grandmother) climbing over their slick surfaces in the pouring rain to fix a leak.
There are a million different ways to feel pain in your chest cavity, and at that moment, I felt as if there were a hairline crack in my heart, like the kind you might see on an old diner coffee mug that slowly lets one or two beads of liquid form on its surface before you wipe them away casually and wonder aloud if the cup is leaking. “Nah, it’s fine,” someone assures you, so you keep on drinking your coffee and wiping away the drops with your white paper napkin.
And anyways, how can one grieve a person one hardly knew?
But they put my name on her gravestone. It’s there, the very last name at the very bottom right corner, because daughters go after sons and my mother is the youngest daughter. 쏘냐. Sonja. It’s an admission to foreign blood in the family on public record, a stronger statement of acceptance than even my relatives’ hugs and smiles and tears. It’s permission to weep.
I don’t remember the month or day when I began to feel more at home here in Korea, but I remember that I was taking the train to visit my uncle. If one’s seat is facing backwards, as mine was, there is a moment when a perfect equilibrium between forward and backward motion can be found. As the bullet train slowed near my destination, I pushed against the inertia to stand and felt that slightest of moments hold me poised above my seat before my body split quietly into two. One of me, the foreigner, pressed back into the seat cushions and gazed with mild curiosity at this countryside station, its benches and vending machines no different than those of the last unfamiliar station name and the one before that. Maybe she was trying to count the white birds in the rice field to her right. The foreigner-me glanced over the balding middle-aged man waiting on the platform with clasped hands and did not linger.
He had my mother’s eyes, the not-foreigner-me saw. I lugged my bags in his direction and a smile stretched over his face as soon as he saw me. “You look like your mother today,” he said. As the foreigner-me faded away with the roar of the train in the distance, the not-foreigner-me took a deep breath, coalescing, gaining substance, stretching limbs now entirely my own. Not a foreigner. “Let’s go home,” my uncle said. “Your aunt is preparing some food for us.”
My grandmother’s house will be torn down some time in the next few years, whenever the city government decides to put an apartment building there. I may not be in Korea when it happens, but I also don’t need to pretend that it won’t. I hope it’s not too selfish to want to hold both memory and modernity in my hands at once, but I will try. I am scribbling furiously, collecting, writing stories about my grandmother and looking up to see apartment buildings, silent watchmen silhouetted against the sky, slide by as my train takes me to the next destination.
찾아갈 수 있는 우리 집.
목소리만 듣고도 난 줄 알고
문을 열어 주는 우리 집.
다 내다봐는 우리 집.
(Yoon Seok-Jung, 1911-2003)
This is our house,
That we can find with our eyes closed.
Just hearing the voice we know it
The doors are open in our house.
The little window opens onto sky.
Let’s go look at our house.