祖母 (조모/jomo): Grandmother. You call the woman who grows saddeningly older every time you visit but still cooks a feast of the foods you liked as a ten year old your halmuni. The resident register calls her your jomo, just like it calls your appa your bu. Substitute the pure Korean words around you with Chinese characters: you have formality, distance, detachment.
傳(전/jeon): Story. Titles of folk tales bound into books for the wealthier often end with jeon, following the main character’s name. Example: Chunhyangjeon, in which Chunhyang is jailed for refusing to serve the new governor because she is waiting for her husband to return. With her execution scheduled in a few days, her one true love swoops in, the governor is jailed, Chunhyang gets married. Or: Janghwahongryeonjeon, where the ghosts of Janghwa and Hongryeon haunt the new governors in town, asking them to bring their murderous stepmother to justice.
When I whispered to Dad that I summoned you in a seance, he chuckled. I didn’t mind; I had giggled through half the ritual. But when we asked for a sign and a chair creaked against someone’s weight, I knew I wasn’t not a believer. I didn’t know it was you until later. I gave Dad my three reasons that the ghost we summoned was you: first, the girl next to me felt something; second, you don’t speak English; third, before we summoned the spirit, I was thinking of you because ghosts are scary and you aren’t. He said you wouldn’t show up to those because you’re Christian.
I am closest to you when I fill out forms in blank hospital lobbies, so white the lights deflect like star flares. Check the box if at least one of your extended family members has been diagnosed with this disease. Cancer. Check.
Instead of traditional ancestral rites, we sit in circles, legs crossed and backs hunched, with Protestant hymns. We sing lots of Protestant hymns instead of watching the men stand in line and traditionally kneel into bows at the table piled with ripe harvest. Traditionally, you sit on the table and watch me untraditionally whisper amen when I’ve never even been to a church. I do start attending a Catholic church almost thirty years after your probably Catholic, at least Christian funeral. That year, Dad’s oldest brother thanks God for bringing Dad back to Him, and I decide that my favorite hymn is what Dad’s father says was yours. Regardless of what I do or think, every year, you sit among fruits with your graduation cap on, black and white and too high quality to have been taken at least six decades ago. How old are you? Twenty two? Twenty one? Either way, I can never read what your face spells out: it’s not a wide-mouthed smile like the photographer made me do in my elementary graduation albums, it’s not a smile at all; yet you seem kind. And like a normal person. This is the only way I am able to picture you.
I supposedly look like you. Mom apparently looks like you as well. I am not sure. I am rarely told I look like anybody, not even my parents. But I apparently do look like you, to those who remember your face. Your real face, I mean; not the single photograph at Dad’s aunt’s house that we take out for Lunar New Year and Korean Thanksgiving, when we thank our ancestors and serve them. Maybe they’re trying too hard to draw connections, stretching as far as to say that Mom looks like you. Or maybe I do look like you.
Once I asked Dad what you looked like. He told me you had two eyes and two ears and a nose and a mouth.
where I’m from
“han” is the name we gave to struggle and pain
this river runs through our city like it runs through our veins
to us it’s the one thing above all things;
money, love, gods and kings
it’s what’s driving us be it ahead or insane
we said shotgun to it, wishing that it takes us,
navigates us to a better living
it’s with us, cramped up in a bus, subways,
our schools and our building
it’s the price that our “appa”s paid to buy food for the children
it sits at the bottom of the pot when our “umma”s got that
hot dwenjanggook in the kitchen
on and on, it makes us hustle on
for the money, we fight, fall but overcome,
that’s why we call it “won”
“han” is spoken yet unspoken, we could be broke but never broken
it made my father work the graveyard shift
and still makes his graveyard shift
and that’s that shit right there,
what you call soul is a city right here
from Hongdae to Bedstuy,
we’re born from the same pain shed alike tears
some call it pain, we call it “sarang,” man
middle finger to the hate and the broken minds that can’t relate
Mom is a dust storm, Dad is a shower. The showers come in the evening and leave without notice. Dad is never mad, and if he is, it never takes more than an hour for him to apologize for one thing or another. I never learned to apologize; maybe I would have if I fought with him more when I was younger. I did not because he is never mad. But last year, Mom told us to leave Dad alone during anniversary week because he might be easily upset. I thought he stopped missing you that much after more than thirty years, but I guess not.
What’s the daughter of a dust storm and a shower? Arizona monsoons? Or the freedom of quiet between the sandy fog as time crosses from afternoon to evening and the sudden, neutral surprise of raindrops sticking on the window and slipping off the surface without a single glance through the shut blinds? Dad has a way of summoning the droplet of liquid splatting on the eyelid. (“Wait—is it raining?”) He tells me you would have loved me so much. I miss you.
I remember crying because I felt bad for Dad. Mom remembers me crying because I was goofing around and she scolded me. I guess they were two separate visits to your grave.
Originally the term “Han-pu-ri” came from the Korean shamanistic tradition. Korean shamans have played the role of the priest/ess of Han-pu-ri in his or her communities. Shamanistic Kut (ritual) gave the opportunity for the voiceless ghosts to speak out their stories of Han. The community then must solve the Han of the ghost collectively either by eliminating the source of oppression for the ghosts or by comforting or negotiating with the ghosts. Therefore Han-pu-ri has been an opportunity for collective repentance, group therapy and collective healing for the ghosts and their communities in Korean society.
Korean women have been the embodiment of the worst Han in our history. They usually did not have the public channels to express their Han. This developed a sense of impassibility among Korean women. Many of them died without releasing the sense of impassibility in their lives. That is why there are so many women ghosts in our traditional stories. Women who endured the helpless impassibility could understand one another through their shared life experience as women. Han-pu-ri became one of the few spaces where poor Korean women played their spiritual role without being dominated by male-centered religious authorities. Han-ridden women got together and tried to release their accumulated Han through Han-pu-ri Kut.
—Fabella and Park, We Dare to Dream: Doing Theology as Asian Women
Dad tells the same stories over and over again, and I fill them in. Like eyebrows, I teach myself this art of supplementing what I lack from birth. Dad says you would tell him he will melt and stick to the floor if he lies in one position all summer and would flip him over occasionally. I see a room with a yellow-hued floor, a material I can’t recall ever seeing but am certain exists. With sweat, flesh sticks to it like on vinyl. I can’t see his face but Dad is facing the wall in the corner, right shoulder suffering from the pre-teen weight. He is too lazy to turn around; he is mesmerized with yet another book on computers that he somehow found in a library in the summer of the 1970s and will spend the whole summer deciphering. Then you walk away with Dad now lying on his other shoulder, eyes never off the book. It’s only him and you in a room with nothing but warm light, light spilling out the top, because you are infinitely good and only good in Dad’s words that I weave together into what is ultimately a distortion of a memory that is not mine, plucked and colored with tweezers and drugstore makeup.
There are questions that I cannot answer by leaning over the counter on the tip of my toes to see the inflamed follicles better after plucking my eyebrows for the third time after turning sixteen. Does my inability to figure out makeup challenge my femininity somehow? Is my left eyebrow higher than the right? Do I really look like you? Are you as kind as you are in the forty year old fossil of memories? Did you really never yell at Dad, not even once? Would you have still been the calm, Buddha-like mother he makes you out to be if you knew he was smuggling plastic bags bursting with alcohol into his dorm rooms, smoking cigarettes behind the classroom curtains? – No, he would not have done so if you were alive; I don’t know, what do you look like?; yes, it seems that my left browbone is generally higher than the right; no, nothing defines my femininity, not even sorrow or Korean han, although that is the string between me and the generations and millenia of femininity before me.
I imagine you swirling the clouds with a finger, a hole wider and wider until you see Dad. And you watched for forty years already, moving when he does. You watched as Dad knelt next to a picture of you that was supposed to be in place of you and your whole life and visitors streamed in and out in black suits. You watched Dad at my age as he made all the decisions he did, the decisions he would disown me for if I made them. And you watched him gather himself together and become the father he is. Dad told me you are watching over me as well, but I think you’re watching me by association with Dad. Because he’s your son and you’ve never met me. But it’s okay, I know you still love me.
I hit Dad’s shoulder and shush him. He starts saying something that starts with “When I was young,” which I assume will lead to your piety, so I cut: “I don’t care, I’m going to think it was halmuni.” But Dad says you never even appeared in any of his dreams, no matter how much he wished, so what would you be doing at a seance? I don’t know. He’s right; it doesn’t make sense.
I want to insist that you may have showed up there to make up for never appearing to Dad, and you couldn’t give me a sign because we were talking to you in English. Or that it’s Dad’s fault for not hosting a proper seance. But I know Dad is right; you wouldn’t be there.
And perhaps that’s a good thing. Korean ghosts only wander among the living when they have han. They can only find their peace in the underworld when their han is undone. Pooldah, to undo, noun form puri/poori. When something unjust happens, han rains onto a heart and embeds itself into it, pushing in until the heart bursts in sorrow. Mechidah, the word we use for this immortalization of injustice, is the same one used for droplets of water appearing with the dawn, although those evaporate. Ghosts wander the earth to undo the han woven into their daughters’ souls, hook a finger on the blue yarn and pull it through to unravel, yank the loose string the way Mom does after tying the thread hanging from the bottom of my dress when she calls me back into the car because I look untidy. To undo the han not only in yourself but in generations of women that you inherited from my great grandparents whose names I don’t even know, to undo han passed to your three granddaughters through your sons, ghosts meander. There could be so many reasons for you to wander the earth. You never got to watch your sons grow up. Or maybe you did, sitting on a cloud and swirling a hole, fishing out the stars. You could have han, yet you did not appear to me. I hope this means you are instead in a peaceful world beyond this dimension.
Youngseo Lee is eighteen in Korean age but sixteen in Arizona. Getting published for the first time might be one of the most exciting thing that ever happened to her, alongside being named a 2019 YoungArts winner in creative nonfiction.