Freeing My Seoul
Every life and every death begins the same way, with an exhale. We come into the world with a cry and go out with a sigh, each of these expressions floating on the out-breath.
Buddha’s disciple, Maudgalyayana, taught his own student an important lesson by showing him a huge pile of bones. When the student asked, “What is that?” Maudgalyayana replied, “These are all the bones from the bodies you had in previous lives.”
The bones are always the first to go; it is how the earth element in our body dissolves. Water goes next, followed by the element of fire. Then our wind blows out. After the air element leaves us, the only thing that is left is our consciousness and finally that exits the body, too.
Some say that after forty days we are reborn. The root of the word incarnate means “to cause to heal.” We leave our bodies behind, yet our minds become healed as we rotate through the cycle of arising, abiding, and dissolving.
We are lucky that we can embody this vinyasa without actually dying. The body that we leave behind could be the carcass of a hard idea, or the rotting frame of a destructive pattern of behavior.
We are lucky that we can practice dissolving without losing the good stuff. As we breathe out we really can just let go of all the hard thoughts, which make hard hearts. The Sanskrit word for heart is hridayam, which means “that which takes, circulates, and gives.” Hearts are meant to be pliant; to pump; their job the ultimate “placing in a special way.”
Without giving, there is no receiving. Without letting go, there is no letting in. Without dissolving, there is no new arising. Without an exhale, there is no inhale.
~ Cyndi Lee, “May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind” ~
image: The Night Bears
death, darkness, silence, nothingness.
these are all scary things.
what are you afraid of? dying? disease? not being successful? not having a legacy—kids, work, love, something tangible to show for all of these years of living?
ghosts? airplanes? wild animals? clowns???
as silly or extreme as our fears may seem, i can’t help but think that whatever we are afraid of comes back to the same fear, really. death. or pain, i suppose. either something is really going to hurt or we won’t be able to feel anything. (anymore, ever.)
i used to be averse to a lot of things—the dark, the unknown, serial killers, spiders—to name just a few. i used to want a lot of things like a successful career, love, some sense of stability, a life of adventure. these desires were also motivated by a fear of not achieving them.
i now realize that my fears and hopes were two sides of the same coin. we avoid things and grasp for others, ultimately, to feel fulfilled by the time our final moment comes (or to avoid that moment altogether).
but we can’t do that because there is no such thing.
i’m going to let you in on a little secret. there’s a fallacy going around. it lives in the same neighborhood as “Certain: Death and Taxes.”
death is not final. (on the subject of taxes, i make no comment.)
even if it is certain, isn’t being afraid of the inevitable a totally fruitless endeavor? it just makes us act weird during the time we do have. there will also be some other punishment to pay down the road for trying to avoid it.
i can tell you this because i’ve died already. i’m a kind of 生き魑魅 (ikisudama)—a living ghost like Nao in “A Tale of the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki. in fact, i’ve died many times in this very body.
and here’s the big secret: you have too.
in a sense, we are all 生き魑魅. we were all some other thing before we came to know ourselves as this particular body or consciousness or what have you. unless science is wrong and matter and energy can, in fact, be created and destroyed, then you were “someone” else before you even knew it. you are made up of a whole lot of bits of someones (or somethings) that came before you.
but here’s my real point: it’s going to happen. and some point, at many points, you will be asked to let go. whether it’s your last physical breath before you die or whether it’s the last breath that you breath into a relationship or whether it’s a job or television show or idea—one day you will have to let it go. it will come to an end. so how much nicer is it to acknowledge the goodness it has brought to your life and with the ease and grace of a full exhale, let it go?
it’s hard. but if you believe in the cycle of life, dear reader, please be comforted by the fact that out of the release comes something new (and possibly exciting). out of death, we have new life. from darkness, we can see light. there is no sound without silence to compare it to. and we can only know what something is in its relationship to knowing its absence.
i learned about this when i went to Korea. here’s my story.
i was initially resistant to going to Korea. even though i had been trying to convince my family to go for 10 years, when i came to Japan i found enough excuses to nearly dissuade myself from going.
but if you listen very carefully, the universe will tell you what you should be doing. your only job is to listen.
and i heard the message loud and clear, so i went to Korea. soon after, i realized why i had been resistant. i was scared of what i might find there. even though my mother grew up in Korea, i never knew anything of what that actually meant.
we grew up in a small town in southern New Jersey. when my mother moved there in 1971, she was basically the only Asian person. if there was anyone else for a long time after that, we didn’t know it (and in small towns everyone tends to know each other).
my sister and i were the only Asian people in our school—and we were only half. “Asian” wasn’t the only lacking demographic.
don’t get me wrong. i love where i grew up. but it was all 白人 (hakujin). so i thought i was a 白人 too. everyone else pretended i was a 白人 so it wasn’t hard. my sister didn’t always have it so easy and i remember some people saying some nasty stuff to my mom before i even knew what those words meant. but i felt like a 白人 because i didn’t know any better.
sidenote: 白人 means “white person.” (i love the Japanese word for white person because swan is 白鳥 hakuchō and white person is 白人 hakujin and it always makes me think of the potential for change.)
i mean, i knew i was half-Asian and heard a lot about Korea, but it didn’t mean anything until i went to a diverse college and people started to ask me, “Where are you from?”
i went to school in-state, so “New Jersey” always seemed the most appropriate answer. until they said something like, “No, I mean, where are you from???”
oooh, i see.
i have always been different but i thought it was because i had a weird personality. or maybe every child feels awkward, so they just don’t feel like they belong in this particular world. however, it was at this point that i realized why other people perceived me differently. thus, my interest in Korea started to surface.
when i was a baby, i knew some Korean. later in life i found some cassette recordings of my sister and i speaking and singing in Korean.
“Who is that?” i asked my mom.
i couldn’t believe the answer.
i tried to learn Korean in college, but all the punks in my class already spoke Korean. they were taking it to get an easy grade and fulfill the Humanities requirement. not only was i the only “non-Korean,” but i was one of the only ones struggling to learn it. suffice to say, it did not go well.
so when i was offered the opportunity to meet my Korean family for the first time, i was confused and frightened. most of them don’t speak any English. what will we do? how will i communicate with them???
i was embarrassed.
i was also sad. the story is super complicated. and sensitive. but basically i have a Korean brother.
JaeBok was my mom’s nephew. her sister had JaeBok and then died when he was young, so my mother raised him in Korea. that made him my adopted brother. but he’s my cousin too. anyway, it doesn’t matter because i have always thought of him as my brother.
JaeBok came to the U.S. and lived with us for many years when i was in high school, college, and beyond. JaeBok was one of the kindest people i have ever met. and because of some really crappy circumstances that i can’t even begin to describe here, he had to return to Korea.
i always regretted that he came to the U.S. when i was an inconsiderate teenager/college student. i felt guilty that i didn’t spend more time with him when he was here and that i didn’t know to help him when he needed it.
but he went back to Korea and i was all busy living in NYC. then JaeBok suddenly died. it was less than two months before i went to Japan. JaeBok was only 51 years old.
when he found out that i was going to Japan, he was so excited. he told my mom on the phone that he was going to visit me and we could go eat sushi together. he loved sushi and even opened a restaurant for a short time when he returned to Korea.
i thought i could visit him in Korea and meet the rest of my Korean family. i thought i could make up for lost time and a sordid adolescence—except that JaeBok ceased to exist right before i made it there.
without knowing it, my dream to go to Korea started to vanish as well. plus, my mother couldn’t go. and i couldn’t speak Korean. i basically set myself up to go there and be a sad disgrace.
unfortunately, i can’t say that i went there and it was any different. the surprising thing: it didn’t actually matter. my funny, generous, 気が強い family loved me anyway. the literal translation of 気が強い (kiga tsuyoi) is strong spirit, but in Japanese it’s more nuanced. sometimes it’s seen as a negative trait. i was told i was 気が強い and in the same turn that it’s not always a good thing. maybe in English we would say “strong-willed,” which could also mean stubborn or inflexible (although culturally i think it carries a slightly different connotation).
for most people who have a Korean mother who has immigrated to the U.S., there’s a lot of camaraderie about how they are 気が強い. my mother is no exception. i was surprised to find that most of my Korean family also seemed to be this way, in a variety of different and nuanced ways. or maybe it just seemed that their love was super 強い！i was shocked by how intensely i felt loved. i figured i would spend most of my time wandering around Seoul by myself. i had an upcoming grant deadline for the Night Bears, so i thought i would sit in a café by myself and work. my Seoul family’s situation was unusual as well:
my cousin is in Australia until next year. her son is in university there and so she is there taking care of him.
i thought her husband 현우 (HyunWoo) would be at work most days.
her daughter, my second cousin 민선 (MinSun), was mid-finals in college.
and my mother’s siblings are all in their 70’s.
despite all this, i was attended to almost every waking minute of the day (and fed nearly as often).
the difficult part was that i couldn’t really talk to anyone except 민선 (MinSun) who ironically can speak Japanese from the year she spent studying painting in Osaka. so in the beginning we mostly communicated in Japanese—a language neither of us are completely fluent in (although 민선 is significantly more 上手 jōzu.)
현우 (HyunWoo’s) English vocabulary is huge and he was really good at explaining things, but it seemed my questions and explanations in English were a bit more difficult for him to understand.
and 외숙모 (Oesugmo), my mom’s older brother’s wife (my aunt but not blood-related), would travel about 40 minutes almost every morning to wake me up and make me a huge breakfast. talk about 気が強い！the very first day i arrived and met her, she took me into the bathroom and told me my hair was messy. 외숙모 proceeded to fix it for me and, using advanced mime techniques, demonstrated how to wash my hair in the bathtub. she didn’t speak any English, but i knew what she was getting at as the hairbrush turned my hair into some new kind of frizz.
these three people took turns and sometimes overlapped on taking care of me for eight days. we went sightseeing out the wazoo, i met my mom’s brothers, some of my other cousins, and did i mention how much they fed me???
: food montage photos courtesy of 장민선 (MinSun Chang)
after awhile, i adjusted to being unable to express myself; i figured i would practice being present. after articulating 何回も (nankaimo, so many times) that “i was fine on my own” or “i wanted to pay for something” or “really, i was full!” i just gave up. if they insisted on being around me when i couldn’t offer anything substantial to the experience, so be it. if they wanted to feed me ’til i barf, fine. i love food. so i ate it.
i didn’t literally barf, but instead i started to cry.
the first time, it happened when i went out with 민선 (MinSun) to eat 부대찌개 (budaejjigae, the first and second food photos). i apologized for deciding to come to Korea so suddenly and how i felt bad that she was doing all this work to be my guide during a busy time. and by the way, i didn’t plan better because i was resistant to coming. with JaeBok gone…then the tears started. and 민선 just let me go. she simply listened while i exhausted my confusion and sadness. she hardly said a word. she was just there and in so doing, was there for me in a way i had never experienced before.
i’m not sure i ever stopped crying for the rest of the trip. i was just so full—of food, love, sights, information, emotion—it just all came out my eyeballs. every time i thought about how nice my family was being, i would cry.
it was really embarrassing.
i’ve spent the greater part of my life thinking that not crying was a sign of strength. i can count the amount of times i’ve seen my parents cry on one hand. i, too, began to believe that there was no great need to cry. my life is pretty good, what is there to cry about?
but the tears kept coming.
my favorite time was at Korean barbecue with 외숙모 (Oesugmo, my mom’s older brother’s wife), 외삼촌 (Oesamchon, my mom’s older brother), and 작은 외삼촌 (Jageun Oesamchon, my mom’s younger brother).
i didn’t have the cushion of 현우 (HyunWoo) and 민선 (MinSun) to speak a little English or Japanese to. it was just me and a whole lot of rawness (meat, emotions, and many pickled side dishes to go along with it). 외삼촌 (Oesamchon) could say one thing in English, i found out. ¾ of the way through the meal, he looked me in the eye and said, “I’m sorry I can’t speak English.” then he said it over and over again. 何回も。
i looked back at him across the smoky barbecue pit and said some of the only things i know in Korean. “제 잘못이에요. 미안합니다. 한국말 못해요.” (je jalmos-ieyo. mianhabnida. hangugmal moshaeyo. It’s my fault. I’m sorry. I can’t speak Korean.)
then they proceeded to have a whole conversation in 한국 about how i can’t speak 한국. (at this point i was starting to remember the Korean i had learned before.) i wanted to explain: it’s not my mom’s fault! we grew up in a really weird situation. i tried to learn it, but…
then 작은 외삼촌 (Jageun Oesamchon) said to them in 한국 that i didn’t understand, but did. he said, “It’s okay. I think she can understand with her heart.” he patted his chest and looked at me and said, “네?”
i said, “네.”
and he patted my leg.
at this moment, the last remaining thread holding it together snapped in half. the dam burst forth and i let it all go.
i tried to pretend i wasn’t crying as 외삼촌 (Oesamchon) poured me a glass of 소주 (soju). but i realized i didn’t have to say anything or be anything other than just me. i am enough. i am loved.
after that i started to enjoy practicing just being me, speaking in whatever language i wanted or not speaking at all. i found it funny when i had no idea what was going on, instead of feeling frustrated because i was supposed to know. i began to see how i could express my love for these amazing people in ways that both included language and didn’t.
on my last day, 현우 (HyunWoo) told me that 외숙모 (Oesugmo) was going to take me somewhere. i didn’t understand where, but accepted that it would be an adventure.
let me just say that 외숙모 is 77 years old and she had this big idea to hike up 인왕산 (Inwangsan Mountain). it was 부처님 오신날 (Buddha’s Day) in Seoul, so i think she wanted to take me to a temple. we held hands as we climbed the mountain. i worried for most of the time. “괜찮으세요???” (gwaenchanh-euseyo? are you okay???) i kept asking.
she kept saying, “네, 운동. 운동!” (ne, undong. undong! yeah, it’s exercise. exercise!)
but when we got to the temple, she looked in and decided we didn’t need to go in. i guess she wasn’t very impressed. so she took me to the Korean prison instead.
near 인왕산 Inwangsan Mountain is 서대문독립공원 (Seodaemon Independence Park). inside the park is former 서대문 형무소역사관 (Seodaemon Prison). it has been turned into a museum to honor the Korean independence fighters who helped overtake the Japanese occupation. the war ended fairly recently in 1945. the museum was a lot about torture. however, its message was really about the brave individuals who endured that torture in order to create change. no wonder Korean people can be so 気が強い. they had to be in order to be Korean.
it was interesting for me having loyalties to both Japan and Korea. it didn’t leave me thinking, wow. Japan is messed up. instead, what it made me do is understand how often it happens that people have to really fight to be themselves. there are countries all over the world where it is happening right now. other nations who think they know better come in and try to strip them of their cultures. they use the land and people in ways that aren’t mutually beneficial to both parties. it has been going on since ancient times and continues to this day.
it happens on an individual level too. i think that any time we want someone to change, no matter why or how, we are engaging in this kind of process. even if we think it’s for their own good, we are simply not accepting what is.
i feel so grateful that i was born into a country and life where i don’t have to fight to practice any particular kind of religion or adhere to any crazy laws about who to be or what i do. however, it is just as important to notice the more subtler kinds of oppression—the psychological and social forms you can’t escape wherever you may go. you may not be able to escape it, but you can notice and make choices about how you want to deal with it.
as 외숙모 and i left the park, she took my hand again. we walked like that for quite some time while looking at flowers and asking me if i was hungry.
this time we weren’t holding hands because she needed help climbing a mountain. (although arguably, that wasn’t why she did it the first time either.) i think it just felt nice because in that moment we loved each other. it didn’t matter that we weren’t blood-related or that we couldn’t speak the same language. i think we were just practicing being together and expressing love without words.
anyway, that’s my translation.
i returned to Tokyo soon after, changed by my experience in Korea. i thought about areas in my life where it didn’t feel okay to just be me, places where it wasn’t okay to cry or be silent or not know the answer.
there were a few relationships and projects where this was the case. there was no blame involved, only the knowledge that it would be better for everyone to let go of them for a little while so we could focus on the places where that freedom does exist. i don’t ever need to stay in a situation where i feel like i can’t be me. nor do you. it’s just that sometimes we need to fight to get out of oppression; other times we need to stop fighting to hold onto something that wants to be something or somewhere else.
photos by: 장민선 (MinSun Chang)
in Korea, i lost a lot of things i had come to rely on. i lost language, ability to be self-sufficient, schedule independence, and a lot of fluids. in doing so, i learned better how to love. i learned that we don’t always need to be doing something in order to succeed. and i learned even more what it means to be free.
Vinyasa has three parts: arising, abiding, and dissolving…
And the dissolving of one thing is the arising of the next. Every day turns into night turns into day. Winter becomes spring becomes summer becomes autumn becomes winter. Waves roll in and slip back out; tides ebb and flow. Every breath is like this. Every life is like this.
Each flower buds, ripens, and blooms, wilts and fades away. The leaves fall to the earth and create the ground for a new plant to grow.
~ Cyndi Lee, “May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind” ~