Generations Dear Imo: A Letter from the Korean Diaspora
I made a promise, too, that I would bring her back to you.
For Ha Bok Su and Ha Koon Ja
Imo-nim, my respected aunt,
Years have passed since I’ve seen you. How have you been all this time? Geuh dong-an eotteo-keh jinaeseyo? Uri-mal jal mot haeyo. I’m sorry. I don’t speak our language well.
I can hardly believe that it has been forty-five years since all of us were together in Korea: me, my mother, my brother, and you, Imo-nim. I was only five then, but the scene of our last departure is unforgettable. It was August 1976, and we were at Busan’s gleaming new Gimhae International Airport, just days after its opening. The air was humid and thick with cigarette smoke.
As Umma, Oppa, and I approached the boarding gate, you grabbed Umma’s arm and words tumbled out of your mouth. You fell to your knees, clinging to her with both hands now, as my mother dragged you across the floor, mortified and trying to break free. You began to wail.
“Dong-seng-aaah! Dong-seng-aaah! Dong-seng-aaah-aaah . . . Gaji-mara.”
Little sister. Don’t go.
It was as if you knew that would be the last time she’d ever come to Korea, because women who consorted with American soldiers were fallen women, too impure to be considered Korean, and exiled from the nation. I would learn thirty years later, once I had become a scholar of Korean diaspora, that these women and their mixed-race children were the targets of South Korean social policies designed for our exclusion.
The budding South Korean nation wanted no reminders of imperialism, so it purged the women and children whose bodies had been marked by the imperialists, thus starting the engine of transnational adoption by sending these children westward. Children like me, with American fathers, were presumed to have no place in Korean society, but only because the nation made it so. They were denied South Korean citizenship for nearly all of South Korea’s history. If my mother hadn’t married my father and moved to the US, I would have been a stateless subject in Korea. Our immigration was an effect of the Korean War’s aftermath. But how could I have known that at the age of five?
1976 wasn’t the last time you saw Umma, though. A few years later, you came to visit us in Chehalis, Washington, my father’s hometown, where we settled. America didn’t have any of the glitz of Hollywood movies. Instead, you encountered the brutal isolation of being Korean in rural white America. Umma was also shocked when we arrived, but she always kept her disappointment and struggle hidden from you after we left, so that she could keep the fantasy of America alive.
Our immigration was an effect of the Korean War’s aftermath. But how could I have known that at the age of five?
Umma was happier than I’d ever seen her now that she had your company. As the days turned into months, it started to feel like you would always be there with us. While you stayed with us in our rural small town, Umma told you: “Geokjeong haji-mara.” One day I will show you America. I will show you everything. That was the last time you saw her, in 1982. Only long after you were gone did I learn that you had outstayed your visa and could not come back.
There were, and still are, so many things I wished I could ask you about what happened to you and my mother, about what you lost in the war and how that loss shaped our collective future. If only my tongue hadn’t betrayed me. Uri-mal. Our language, the language of my birth country, violently suppressed under the regime of your-mama-speaks-that-chingchongchinese-go-back-to-where-you-came-from. Despite how much I loved you and Umma, I grew up ashamed of being Korean.
After I left home for college, I spent the next twenty years analyzing my shame, and then my mother’s shame, so that I could free myself from its grip. While parts of me feel whole now, my tongue is still broken. You even said as much yourself. “Sesang-eh, sesang-eh.” What in the world happened , you asked once, shaking your head. You used to speak our language so well.
Twenty years after you left, I prepared to go back to Korea for the first time: I enlisted my Korean friend to help me rehearse answers to the questions I knew you would ask, as if doing so could somehow repair my broken tongue. I practiced the imagined dialogue between us the entire journey, from the cab ride to JFK until I stepped off the bus at the Daegu terminal.
I wondered if we’d recognize each other after all that time, Imo-nim, but I spotted you in an instant: your broad tawny forehead and downward-sloping eyes, the same short ajumma perm you had when I was a little girl. You immediately cried when you saw me, and when we embraced, you kept squeezing my arm, like you were hugging me with your hands. Not two minutes into the car ride to your home did the questioning begin. Where is your mah-mi? Why didn’t she come?
My friend had advised me to say “ma-eum-i apayo.” Her spirit hurts. Because the concept of schizophrenia doesn’t exist in Korean. Her spirit hurts, so she can’t travel anymore. The last time she went outside was in 1994.
Is it funny that other people measure life’s important milestones in firsts, but I measure in lasts? Maybe it’s because I could never see the end coming.
The last time I saw Umma was on March 1, 2008, when I cooked us a pot of saengtae jjigae, Halmeoni’s recipe. She died eight days later.
Once again, I had to train my tongue so that I could deliver terrible news in my broken baby Korean. “Umma dora-gasheo-seoyo. Shim-jang mahbi.” Mama passed away. Heart attack . I didn’t know the cause of death, but I had to tell you something.
And then your grief spilled out over the phone, a cascade of words I couldn’t comprehend, but a familiar cry from 1976: “Dong-seng-aaah.”
How wrong it must have felt that she died first, when you are sixteen years older. What a blow after a lifetime of survivors’ guilt over the father who died during the war, the brother who disappeared during the war, the sister who died in the war’s aftermath.
That summer, when I took Umma’s ashes to Korea, you told me stories about her when she was pregnant with me in Korea. How much she craved nok-du juk, how she hoped that I’d be a girl, how her attachment to you became so desperate that she’d hide your shoes whenever you came over to make you stay (all of this through my friend, the translator).
Did you know that sociologists of immigration would look at our family’s story, my inability to speak to you without a translator, and see success? They have this idea called “the third-generation language shift,” when the third generation becomes fully absorbed into the dominant culture and language. The sociologists are quick to point out that it takes Asians only two generations. It always incensed me that they were unable to recognize the loss of language as a form of psychic violence. Instead they say that we’re “honorary whites,” without ever asking how the very notion of “honorary whiteness” is an expression of white supremacy.
Was Umma attracted to whiteness when she lived in Korea? Did she think it an honor to walk arm in arm with a white American soldier, despite the shame that other Koreans imputed to such behavior? Maybe it allowed her to bask in the shadow of her glamour-soaked JFK-and-Jackie American dream. Or was she attracted to it simply because she needed to survive, and working at a base was the best she could do without education or status?
There are so many competing versions of her in my imagination—a woman rejecting patriarchal rules about chastity and marriage, about whom she was allowed to love, and forging her own path. A woman pulling herself up from the ruins of war, into another kind of ruin. Whatever her reasons, proximity to whiteness was once a woman’s downfall in Korea, the scarlet letter. Your baby sister, who earned money for the family by working in the camptown, was banished for oegug-ingwa sar-eul seokkda, having “mixed flesh with foreigners.”
Mixed flesh, mixed blood. My white features always provoke questions from strangers, double takes from cab drivers in the rearview mirror, whenever I’m in Korea. Where are you from? You seem Korean. Why don’t you speak Korean well? Are both your mother and father Korean?
No , they conclude. You are not Korean.
It was only after Umma’s death that I felt the full weight of rejection from Korean society. When I sought permission to transport her ashes to Korea, the official at the South Korean consulate in New York said, Your mother is not Korean . She came to this conclusion because of Umma’s married name, my American father’s last name. But I insisted that she was Korean, that she still had a sister in Korea. The woman inspected the certificate again. Your mother was born in Japan. She is not Korean.
Yes, in 1941, when Korea was a colony of Japan. Surely you know that thousands of Koreans were laboring in Japan at that time , I said.
Only Korean people’s remains can be taken to Korea , she said. Your mother’s do not belong there.
After years of researching our history, I thought I had tamed the effects of our trauma on my own psyche. But here was the colonizers’ imprint on my mother’s official record, the stigma of the American’s man’s touch marking her even in death.
What I did next was what I always do whenever I’m confronted with Umma’s erasure: I insisted with my whole body. Look again , I said, refusing to move after the official dismissed me. Her parents’ names are Korean names. Can you not see that?
Okay, what are their names? she shot back, as if it were a trick question whose answer I could not have possibly gotten right.
Her mother is Cho Sung Woon. Her father is Ha Jum Eul. My mother is Korean.
The official stamped a paper and handed it to me without looking up from her desk. I grabbed it and left in a fury. Why is it always other people’s shame that renders my mother homeless, unworthy of having a motherland?
Who am I to tell you about our family’s legacy of trauma when you lived it, Imo-nim?
You witnessed the partitioning of land, the annihilation that followed, the orphaning of a people. You were eleven when the Japanese imperial army began to pillage your home of Changnyeong, in Gyeongsang province, for girls to become “comfort women,” some of whom were as young as you. Gyeongsang was just across the East Sea from Japan, their most accessible source of female bodies.
Who am I to tell you about our family’s legacy of trauma when you lived it, Imo-nim?
I’ve always wondered if you were one of them, but I never knew how to ask you. The mere possibility that you might have been forced to “service” the Japanese army was enough for me. You were half the reason I went down the path of dedicating my life to research, to interrogate the history of imperial soldiers laying claim to Korean women’s bodies.
Nobody knows how much suffering I’ve been through in my life , you tell me time and again through a translator, always through a translator.
Umma used to be the translator, the link between you and me. Once she died, you became my link to her. You were the one who made the kinds of maternal gestures that Umma could no longer make—the way you scrubbed my back, or made me dansul and grilled galchi when I came to visit Korea. The taste of the sweet rice and salty fish transported me back to the mother of my childhood.
I loved you fiercely because she did. And once I knew how her story would end, you also became an emblem of our family before it dispersed, of my mother before her mind shattered.
You were ambivalent about me bringing her ashes, casting doubt over my decisions. If she wanted to come back to Korea, why didn’t she do it when she was alive? I guess you didn’t understand how bad her condition was when I told you that her spirit hurt.
After I had gone to see you a couple of times, I invited her to go with me. I knew she wouldn’t, but I was curious to know what she’d say. She was thoughtful for a while, maybe even considering how she might convince her voices to let her go, and then she made a face—the one I recognized as bitter disappointment. I want to take Imo to see this country. Aigu, I been here so many years and hardly seen anything.
I could feel the pain of her broken promises. “Geokjeong haji-mara.” One day I will show you America. I will show you everything. Her promise to you after you had spent a year barely moving beyond the borders of our small town. The broken promise of what America was supposed to be.
I made a promise, too, that I would bring her back to you. I was seventeen when I said it. “Mom, I’m going to take you to Korea someday, so we can see Imo again! I promise. You’ll see.”
After I scattered Umma’s ashes in the mountains near Samgwangsa, you took me to the temple in Changnyeong to mourn. It was August 15, Liberation Day. I felt like even more of a foreigner at the temple because I’m not Buddhist, but I watched and mimicked you, following the monk’s directions. Though I could barely understand him, I started to relax, knowing that you were there to guide me.
There were names written on scrolls hanging from the ceiling, and among them was Umma’s Korean name. Ha Koon Ja. A name that no consular official would ever question.
To see her name written in Hangeul reminded me that there was a time before she was broken down and made into an anonymous no-place woman. That she once belonged to this place, this people. That no matter how many years had passed, she was still your baby sister.