It’s common for Korean people to ask each other where they come from – province, town, village – which made my aunt’s parents approve of our family when she sought their permission to marry my uncle. I’ve always hesitated when asked this question, and I regret now the frustration I’ve felt when people have asked me if I’m from North Korea. Are you even a U.S. citizen? Maybe you’re a spy. Sympathizer. A defector.
But there’s an underlying fact that a lot of people forget. Since the Korean War, identifying as Korean is itself a fractured sense of identity. Deann Borshay Liem, director of Memory of Forgotten War, said as much when she responded to an audience member’s question about responsibility and accountability at a screening I attended last year.
If you identify as Korean, it is only considering half.
In the film, a woman who immigrated to America from South Korea was finally able to reunite with her family in North Korea, and she talked about how there was a river in front of where they lived. To remember her family when she would leave them, she grabbed stones the size of her forearm from the river and told her sibling that even though they were heavy, she would carry them. To her they were gold.
I only just found out the truth that I can answer these people, yes. Because we’re nine years apart and I feel somewhat responsible for making revelatory statements to her occasionally, I recently told my younger sister that we’re technically North Korean. We can trace our last name there. We owe lineage to the entire peninsula. Our grandfather, Han Chang Yol, was born in North Korea and migrated to the south with his family. This is why my aunt’s parents allowed her to marry his son, my uncle.
My sister gasped. This is so interesting, she said. This changes so much.
Her reaction was touching because until I learned about my family’s history, I had been gathering rubble to lay the groundwork for my fiction writing. I wanted to write a novel about Korea, for what that was worth. At times, writing felt like approaching a scene of wreckage without knowing what was there before. Through research I had access to book history – timelines, summaries, pieces of information, dates, names – often enough to cup in my hands but easy enough to slip through.
My aunt handed me a stone, the one I didn’t know she kept. Her mother’s stone: the kind that draws your shoulders forward and wilts your spine from carrying it constantly. I had asked her for help in getting permissions to use photos from the KBS archive for a story I wrote about the KBS reunification broadcast, “Finding Dispersed Families,” in 1983. By then it had been thirty-three years since the Korean War with over 100,000 families applying for help in finding their loved ones. She told me about my grandfather. She told me that her parents always wanted to go on the show. They left Korea just a year before.
I interviewed my aunt at Han’s Learning Center, my uncle’s tutoring facility that he’s been running in Hawaiʻi for a long time now, where I also attended throughout my childhood. There I had studied math, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and test taking. There, the English language became a scar that only became visible when I attempted to speak Korean to my relatives or anyone else. Colorful elementary school appropriate posters of continents hung around one of the tutoring rooms. The divided Korea looked like an appendage rather than its own country. Something easily forgotten. Maybe it was appropriate that I returned for another lesson.
We talked about my grandfather being too young to perhaps remember what it was like to live in the northern region of the peninsula. I thought it would be too difficult for me to ask him for more than he’d be willing to share. There are the mines that Korean men make of themselves, where privacy and silence become a hollow yet wide open place of retreat.
My aunt agreed. He just doesn’t share much about it.
It would be too hard to explain, these men would say. You kids wouldn’t understand. Can’t comprehend what we went through. This is why I fear the day these men collapse and their stories become irrevocably lost.
My aunt’s father, Yi In Bong, was drafted to fight for North Korea. By fourteen his mother and father both died. He deserted his post and migrated to the south with his siblings, whom he eventually lost when he was drafted by the South Korean army. He deserted again to find them. Unlike many, he was lucky enough to locate them. After the war, he found his wife, my aunt’s mother, through a matchmaker. He wanted a wife from the north.
My aunt worries about having more access to his story. Secondhand. Her father currently struggles against cancer. All I know are plot points about his life. Third-hand. But I’m grateful that they’re more than what I had before. Outlines. To imagine the house by seeing its frame, so I can at least know how to haunt and rebuild these rooms. To live in them.
It is no wonder that voices kept within the homes of our names, bodies, can disappear when story walls are broken into groans. Since living in South Korea, my aunt’s parents have been arrested, interrogated, and tortured under the suspicion of being communists. They were being demonized for where they came from. They are still separated by their family members like countless others. It is no wonder that they immigrated to Hawaiʻi in 1982.
My aunt once showed them an aerial view of their home using Google Maps. They were amazed. It looks just the same. Their dream is to still go back, she said. How hard it must have been for them to leave, each step in a new place re-inscribing the act of turning their backs.
Every time they talk about being from North Korea now, do they remember how they’ve been beaten into something resembling the South Korean body? Did these authorities not realize? The DMZ is built by slashed throats, and generations bleed the names of family members they’ve lost. My aunt’s parents had bled enough. There was nothing more to be asked of them.
I’m not related to my aunt by blood. But to be Korean means to know what it means to be cut. I wonder what her three children, my cousins, will do with these stories if she shares them. How they will identify as Korean. How they haven’t the way I haven’t, until I decided I wanted to write. I wrote fiction to get closer to what was real for many, and it took so long for me to realize that I wasn’t very far. My aunt’s family’s story is another family’s story is Korea’s story. Viet Thanh Nguyen once tweeted: “Many immigrants in USA because of American wars: Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos. That’s why immigrant stories are war stories.”
This reminds me of the time I confided in my poet friend about how daunting it was to write about Korean history. She told me that perhaps all Korean writers can never avoid writing about the war or addressing it in some way. What’s forgotten is that it has never really ended, no matter how far we move away temporally and geographically. War stories are also stories about healing, and of course, remembering. Mistake them for rubies, or cherish them as such, some stones are just red.
It’s been over sixty years since the Korean War’s armistice agreement. My aunt and her brother, who is now a missionary in North Korea, have both said that their mother’s story should be written into a book. Picture the library that would exist, the burden on its shelves, those that have already toppled and are too heavy to lift and rescue because there are not enough hands.
There is not enough paper to tell stories like hers in the way they deserve to be told and re-told, but at least there can be new spaces made to remember. My aunt’s brother hasn’t been able to locate his mother’s siblings, the eldest who may have already passed due to old age, but she is grateful that he even has the chance. She gave him their names like a cough after a familiar blow.
My aunt’s mother, Yi Yong Sun, was 16 when she went back for her sisters. It was typical for the head of a household to go down south to find somewhere to live and settle before bringing the rest of the family. Yong Sun’s father didn’t realize how difficult this would be. Yong Sun’s mother, Okyun, brought two of her five daughters with her, including Yong Sun and the sister just older than her, to look for her husband. They couldn’t all leave so they left the eldest and the two youngest daughters in the north.
When they found him, Okyun pleaded that they needed to bring the other daughters. Yong Sun volunteered, knowing that the journey would be too much for either of her parents. They were seizing anyone against communism, and it was dangerous for her to go back, especially after already having left.
Yong Sun met an old neighbor when she returned north that was kind enough to hid her when she finally located her sisters. The plan: to wait for a Korean soldier’s boat to come on his frequent trip for rice as a stop on his way back south. Yong Sun and her sisters didn’t know when he would arrive so they just waited.
Yong Sun’s oldest sister decided that she should go back to her home to retrieve money since they would need it when the moved to the south. She took the youngest sibling, wrapped in a poedagi blanket around her back.
I imagine that even until today, my aunt’s mother calls out across time to this very moment. Nuna, please don’t go, let us wait a little longer.
The panic she must have felt when the boat arrived not too long after her sisters left. The soldier told her that if she didn’t go now, she might never go back. A second stalling to respond was everything she needed, another, another, to build a moment where she could turn her head and see them coming back. The sun was already rising. Anyone could get shot for trying to leave, so they needed to hurry. The sun ripped her away from her wait.
At least I retrieved one, Yong Sun thought. I’ll come back to get the others again.
Yong Sun and her younger sister had to swim to the boat but she didn’t know how. Just grab onto me, the soldier said. You’ll have to leave all of your belongings.
What did these matter?
On the boat, Yong Sun saw all of her neighbors from her village. We thought you were dead, they told her. How did you come back? You could have died.
I imagine her now, because that is all I can do, ignoring their talk of concern, not looking at any of them. Before she dropped off her sister to her parents, before she could leave again to find the other two, before the demilitarized zone prevented this by splitting the peninsula into one side against another, Yong Sun stared and waited to catch a sight of her sisters, prepared to scream their names and for the boat to stop moving.
It has been so important for me to find out where my grandfather came from, where my aunt’s family came from. I grew up with my grandparents after immigrating to Hawaiʻi in the early 1990s while my parents worked in Seoul as they saved up money with hopes of immigrating too. On the days I feel sorry for myself, I think about that kid having to understand what distance meant. To say you miss someone in Korean literally translates to I wish I could see this person. There were phone calls and occasional visits every year until they became infrequent. I learned how a voice meant understanding heat rather than the fire that could be in front of you.
This is how I get close to stories of separation. I place myself in a time I’ve only read about and wonder if I’d have the courage to go back from someone I loved. I think of my sister and every moment I’ve held her hand, wondering how many ways my heart could break over decades if I lost her – let go. If I couldn’t go back for her. If I had the chance to reunite with her and we were both aged after sixty years, looking more like our parents or grandparents the way we remembered them than the way we remembered one another.
If I’m asked where I’m from now, I’ll say I’m North Korean and explain how. Then I’ll say South Korean and explain how. My final response will be both, and neither. Perhaps one day the distinction won’t matter.
I cannot comprehend what it must have been like for my aunt’s mother to realize that she’d never see her siblings again. To feel partially at blame. To constantly wonder after their lives apart from her own. To always think, chant, one day. To be Korean means to know what it means to seam. All I can do is repeat, after the generations, elders, and family members, after my aunt’s mother, this chant against latitude, this dream that can only be made impossible by forgetting.
Image Credit: Time Life Pictures—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty via Time