A couple of posts back I talked about leaving my job. It was a tough choice to walk away from, not just the position, but from my work, a sense of comfort, societal (and my own) expectations, and unfulfilled possibilities (however slim). I’m still not certain of what direction my path is headed but I do know what the next chapter is in the in-between.
Next month, my two kiddos and I will board a plane and head to South Korea. Let me say here, that having this opportunity during these times is a very privileged place. I recognize this option is not available to many so I have wondered for a while about how to talk about it in this space. My aim is for honesty and transparency. Mine and my husband’s access to education, secure jobs during the pandemic (despite my part-time status), several years of discomfort in paying off debt, along with additional privileges afforded us by our families and identities has helped bring us to this place.
It’s not a vacation as much as a short-term move of sorts as we plan to be there through mid-July. My husband is unable to accompany us on this trip and we are supremely disappointed. As I’ve said so many times before, I am so lucky and grateful for such an amazingly supportive and understanding partner in life. He is my rock through so much. We had other lofty goals that were cut short due to the pandemic and this was an alternative we were able to manage. I am also thankful for the encouragement of my partner’s family. They’ve been amazingly excited and supportive of taking this trip.
For obvious reasons, the pandemic poses some significant challenges and questions for this trip. I’m well aware that this trip will be very different than my last. I’ve been obsessively keeping up with COVID and Korea in case any last minute changes or cancellations would be necessary. Though their numbers haven’t returned to the baseline before their third surge in December, their numbers are exponentially better than that of the United States. That said, there will be many things the kids and I will be unable or unlikely to experience in keeping with safety measures and adhering to Korea’s current guidelines. It’s the sad reality of our current situation. Despite that, our trip is a unique opportunity to be part of a culture in a way that we could not have done at any other time.
I’ve often spoken of loss and a feeling of being untethered. Loss of my culture, language, traditions, and family is a missing part of my being that exacerbates the untethered way I’ve been navigating through life recently. Loss is the emptiness that’s follow me through my life and I’ve spent years engaging in both healthy and not-so-healthy ways to fill that emptiness. My filling this sense of loss and emptiness propels me forward on this path. It’s not with a sense of regret so much as seeking to find a way forward. Changing the past is not available to me but shifting my future is. It is exactly with this hope that our time in Korea will bring healing, reconnection, and reunion that I set out on this next journey of immersing ourselves fully in the culture.
I am grateful to my amazingly supportive circle and this blog for connecting me to countless people who are enthusiastically at the ready to make this trip everything I could ever hope for it to be. One such individual is a newfound 언니 (unni, older sister/friend). She’s been wonderful in answering all the questions I have as well as helping connect me with ways to keep Dragon and Monkey both busy and foster a real connection to their Korean heritage. 언니 is helping me find a way to enroll them both in public school as well as 학원 (hagwon, like extracurricular activities).
All my emotions collide when I think ahead to stepping out onto Korean soil. Fear and anxiety around both the pandemic is first at this point. Quarantining with two small children in a government facility seems like a small taste of hell on earth and yet if I can survive that, I feel certain I can survive most anything. Anxiety about contracting COVID, myself or my children, is another very real emotion. I was able to get a vaccine due to my job but my children are not so we aren’t in the clear there. It means avoiding similar high-risk activities we’ve been avoiding here at home such as large, indoor crowded places. It also means being a bit more relaxed on some aspects as some risks are lower given the high mask-wearing compliance, strict contact tracing, quarantining, and testing practices.
Lurking close behind is the anxiety of a homecoming with my children. It’s that while it was once my home, it hasn’t been in over 30 years. I’ll roam the streets as an imposter in a place that once nestled me safely in its arms. I’ve continued my Korean language studies, especially in preparation for this trip, but I am far from fluent. I fear the moment I open my mouth, of being perceived as the fraud I feel I am. Here’s the truth for me though, the Koreans I’ve met and interacted with who have some bit of context of my story have been nothing but kind, empathetic, and welcoming of me. They have embraced me with open arms. I recognize this is not the experience had by all. I am equal parts nervous and excited at the possibility of my Korean language improving by sheer forced use.
I would be lying if I didn’t also express the sheer excitement I feel of being in Korea. So many dulled memories, images, and smells have resurfaced as the time of our departure nears. They aren’t new but there’s a new edge of anticipation of possibly connecting these tattered pieces to real and tangible experiences.
My mind holds one such image of a vastly dense landscape of descending tiled roofs. A trip with my husband, children, and father-in-law a few years ago to Mexico City shook that image loose. Something about the stacked homes in the city transported me back to the balcony on which I stood overlooking these downward slanting tiled roofs of my childhood. I can’t say exactly where it is I stood or if I could retrace my steps back there but so many corners of Korea conjure the image and the tenor of feelings attached.
I can’t wait for all the smells. The rich and ripe smells of food drifting lazily across the road. It was a call to come home to fill my stomach with not just nutrients but of love, heart, and tradition. When my husband and I were in Korean in 2019, the smell of the food everywhere was one of the things that cemented that, indeed, I did belong there. It was a tether, however tenuous, to a part of me.
Reconnection and rediscovery of the dormant self within me is well within reach, not only through culture and language but through exploring relationships. My last trip was more focused on curiosity and searching. Finding my 엄마 (eomma, mother) again as well as 아줌마 (ajumma, a family friend I lived with) was a major goal of our last trip. Along with meeting my 엄마 (eomma) was sitting with her to listen to her story. The last eight of so years of my life has been a series of incremental steps toward some vague destination. In truth, it’s not a destination, it truly is a journey. I am careful in diving in this area of my life. Abandonment has played multiple roles in my life and has cemented in me a cautious trust of others. If I’m being really honest, I’m not sure I have found a true comfort of fully trusting other people. As such, while I do have hopes of further cultivating and growing the relationship with my 엄마 (eomma), I do so with much hesitation. I proceed with intention of not making our bond more or less than it is. It’s similar to the way I hold space for my 아빠 (appa, father) family. Our connections are complicated and tangled in ways that having an easy or simple relationship is impossible. All the same, I look forward to the direction my relationships with various family members there might take and how it will likely add to the texture of my life.
Lastly, it’s not beneath my notice that during such tense times in this nation I am afforded an opportunity to escape the daily stress and fear. As I’ve said, I’m acutely aware this is a privilege not accessible to all. I know myself well enough to know that I won’t be separated entirely from it. I will continue to consume the news and events of things happening in the US but the ever-present anxiety I feel about mine and my children’s safety won’t be as much in the forefront. My birth family and their safety will continue to take up space in my mind and heart. Perhaps the space will allow me more capacity to be productive and active rather than the persistent exhaustion that has set into my bones. My work in my previous role has opened new opportunities in May to continue contributing to antiracist work as it intersects with health and wellbeing.