To My Loving Grandmother

To My Loving Grandmother
사랑하는 우리 할머니께 [1]

Written by Andrea Kang

I’m frustrated that I can never send you this letter because it will be in English and you wouldn’t understand a word of it. As my friend always said, English is a colonial language and I too have been colonized—stripped from my mother’s language, your language. But I hope that this letter reaches you in spirit.

I saw you many times when I was young but I didn’t know much about you. You were only a distant memory, a faint scent of flowers and myeolchi bokkeum [2], bright red-stained lips, and small notebooks filled with Japanese kanji and paper cranes—perhaps remnants of a “globalized” past, harbingers of both nostalgia and trauma. I remember you used to use words like denki, shashin, and jishin [3]—words that I thought were distorted Korean from your Daegu accent but in reality were Japanese words that you would have only learned from your school days. As I studied more about Korea and its history, I began to understand that war taught you to be bilingual. In a way, it taught me to be bilingual as well. But for me, it has been a different kind of war, where assimilation was not as direct as it was in your era.

청개구리 ('Cheong Gae Gu Ri,' Trouble Maker). Hannah Shannon. Daegu.

청개구리 (‘Cheong Gae Gu Ri,’ Trouble Maker). Hannah Shannon. Daegu.

I remember styrofoam mats and magic carpets. A wall full of colorful drawings and alphabet posters with pictures of worms and apples, trumpets and roses. The smell of gingerbread and disinfectant wipes overwhelmed any visitor who walked in through those burgundy metal doors. My white teacher with round, golden glasses and graying brown hair hit me because I could not understand the odd words that she was speaking—the first time I was punished without really understanding the reason why.

This was just the first of many moments that would try to teach me to forget the complexity of my heritage and identity, and to force myself into the dominant culture. My mom and I were greeted by the sounds of ringing phones and the clicking sounds of the money counter sifting through dollar bills. It was a typical day of running simple errands. “Canu I depositu thisu?” my mother said with perfect grammar. The bank teller looked to me in confusion, asking me to translate the English coming out of my mother’s mouth. I apologize. Why did I apologize for a mistake that the bank teller made? Have you ever apologized for something that was not your fault? I am sure you have.

You grew up in a time when knowing and speaking in Korean meant physical death. For me, and for my mom, looking like we didn’t know English was a mark on our foreheads that said FOREIGN. NOT AMERICAN. We were all branded.

How did you survive your branded past? I wanted to know. You were like a book of war tactics that I wanted to open, because to understand your past was to understand my own, to understand how I could equip myself for the future.

When I came back to South Korea to study abroad in college, all those years after the first time I visited as a child, I wanted to get to know you better. But weeks turned into months, and months turned into a whole semester of interrupted times together, and I began to realize that it was more than just a language barrier that kept us apart.

Our family told me you were too sick to talk to anyone. They told me your depression had gotten worse so it was best that I didn’t bother you. Perhaps they didn’t want to burden you with another person to take care of in your home. That would make sense since the last time I saw you, a week before Chuseok [4] this year, you looked like you were carrying a jigae [5] full of bricks instead of wood.

On your better days, you would always talk about memories that even I had forgotten. But that day, your hair seemed a little grayer and the wrinkles on your face were not from smiles but from furrowed brows. Your movements were slower, and it seemed like you couldn’t remember what you did a minute before, let alone those memories from twenty years ago.

Cotes. Hannah Shannon. Jeju.

Cotes. Hannah Shannon. Jeju.

Maybe you were too busy fighting the demons that kept your doors shut. But I couldn’t help but feel that I was somehow being kept from getting to know you. Perhaps they were too afraid of what would come out of our conversations. Too afraid that those conversations would give you the power you once had—the power to present your beautiful, imperfect self to a world that tried so hard to cover the blemishes, the not so pleasant things. Maybe they were afraid that our conversations would make me realize that they were human, vulnerable and imperfect like you, like me, like everyone else.

But in the end, I understood your small gestures. The way you peeled the goguma [6] for me with your shaking hands, pained by arthritis. The way you picked up a small morsel of kimchi with your chopsticks and put it on top of my rice for me to eat. The way you dusted off my coat and asked me if it was warm enough for the South Korean winters, because it’s not just cold up North. The way you hugged me when I knew that hugging was not a practice you’re accustomed to. In the end, they couldn’t silence the language of compassion that our bodies spoke.

And I think that it was this form of communication that helped me understand you a little better. Your vocal silence did not mean that you were silent. Because you were speaking in other ways. And these other ways showed more compassion for those who had wronged you than anything else. I understood that compassion was in itself your power, and that you had never really lost any of it at all. These were the war tactics in your book, the way you survived and thrived.

You are not just the pleasant memories—paper cranes and flowers, red stained lips and myeolchi bokkeum. You are also war and depression, with battle scars that never really healed quite right. But I choose to remember all of you because that is what makes you whole. Because that is what makes me whole.

강민지 드림 [7].

 

Andrea Minjee Kang is a 2013-2015 ETA at Jungwon University. She previously taught at Gongju High School.

[1]     ‘Sarang haneun woori halmoniggae’
[2]     Traditional Korean anchovy side dish
[3]     In Japanese denki (電気) is electricity; shashin (写真) is photo; and jishin (地震) is earthquake.
[4]     Lunar Harvest Festival in the Fall
[5]     Traditional carrier mostly used for wood but also for other things such as luggage.
[6]     Korean sweet potato
[7]     Kang Minjee deurim, From Kang, Minjee