By Grace S. Ahn, Junior Researcher ’17-’18
Something You Said
In memory of Mijung Moon 문미정
“Remind me again, Sora. What do I call these?” she asked in her perfect Korean. Her gentle, fragile hands suddenly tickled the bottoms of my bare feet, giggling as I roared in defiance begging her to stop.
“I don’t remember!”
These were the days you sat with me on our patio under the white blossoms, bribing me with hoddeok to speak with you in our native tongue. I remember collapsing in frustration, letting my arms fall into your lap, my face nuzzled into your neck.
“Umma, we are in America and I am American… Korean is hard and I don’t need it at school.”
“Sora, listen carefully.”
Her voice grew grave.
“This is who I am, and this is who you are. Hard things will come but when you remember this, you will remember me and know that we are with you.”
Uri-ga neo-wa hamgge-raneun geos-eul algeoya.1
My attention evaded the tense air, fading in the direction of where Belle scampered beneath the trampoline with pieces of my sweet rice cake. Uri, she said, “we.” Who was we? Words that fluttered through my nine-year old ears, words of a mother who worried too much, words that meant nothing to me at the time—barely hinting the gravity they would soon carry for me.
Now I am here, standing where you once stood. So many years ago, where your own mother bathed and fed and tickled you. Before you met appa at the barbershop in Brooklyn, before oppa and I came into your life, before the tumor nestled into its hiding place.
Now I am tripping and stumbling through a country you once called your home. A place you left to escape the burden of a broken family and broken times, but a place you longed for everyday since. I’m barely aware of what strangers in the streets murmur around me, how the ajumma working the counter of the local pyeonuijeom instructs me to use the sejeongje, where the men are heading with soju bottles in hand, why the children laugh so heartily in this eunhaeng-filled playground. I’m here barely standing yet held in place by something you once said to me.
Now I am just beginning to understand the place you came from. I feel the weight of its tumultuous upbringing as I pass the reconstructed palaces and towering monuments of legendary men and renegade leaders you told me stories of. I breathe in the familiar scents of fermented spicy cabbage, red bean dumplings, garlic marinated beef you toiled into our small kitchen walls back in the Pennsylvanian woods. I observe the fragility of appearance and reputation, why it was so imperative to look and do our best in a nation crawling then sprinting its way to the top. I marvel from my train window at the chain of fog-covered mountains you once sketched for me. I recognize the jeong you disciplined into my mannerisms, my respect and consideration for others. I glimpse the silent ache you must have chuckled through when I slowly forgot how to pronounce the name halmeoni gave me. I frame the uri that binds the people here together into the community that both hurt and cared for you.
Now I am struggling to speak with the families I came here to help and guide. I want so badly for you to be here beside me, repeating back the words I grasp for as I try to communicate with the grandparents who’ve just learned the chemotherapy is no longer working. My lips search for the right words that I can only think of in English—useless to these families who have never stepped foot in America, in Pennsylvania where I once thought my whole world was. I tell myself in secret this is what I deserve, suffering from the ignorance I refused to correct in childhood embarrassment and laziness.
Now I am using the time I have, walking with these shadowfeet through a land I’d never seen or known. I’m shifting, less and less asleep from the dream of passivity I’d fallen into. I’m changing, more and more into the woman you might smile down. I’m ashamed and proud (of how I lived / who I come from). I’m grieving and grateful (how I treated your wish to pass on this part of yourself to me / for the opportunity to finally start). I accept the negligence of my past with which I brushed away your words as if they were nothing when they contested my own comfort and convenience.
I’m now made of different things than when I began, barefoot in the forests shrouding our home away from home, and I’ve sensed it all along. I did all of this for you, but I know now it was also for me. It is the land here that made me and is continuing to make me.
We is the people who wept and cooked and struggled and laughed and fought for the land that raised my mother. Uri is the country that shows me every morning here who she was, why she was, where she was while becoming the woman my life continually strives after. Although wehgook is what they call me, uri nara is the country that made her and, in part, made me.
These feet you gave me, the prayers you whispered over me, this heart you molded so carefully after your own—they all brought me here. You are with me, reminding me this is where you come from.
Where I come from.