betwixt and between |  sunny yoon


'Good grief, Charlie Brown.' I don't know what I expected coming here after my uncle passed away. I'd imagined that it would be the perfect point of resonance for grieving the death of my father, being surrounded by mourning. Instead, I find that my emotional work here may be reconstructing the past that I had shed all too quickly when thrown into a new world.

Korea is playing a neat trick on me of being both familiar and foreign. I had expected a lot more foreignness having merged into my constructed American identity that seemed seamless in its appropriate subtle references to pop culture, passing without the telltale accent that gives away Otherness. But instead, I find that very small things I do that I thought were always idiosyncracies, odd ones at that, have a home here. My aunt peels apples the way that I do, thin, nearly transparent skin rolling neatly off in a spiraling single piece.

And the tea thing at Chinese restaurants -- when I make mocking reference to my Korean first-daughterhood and pour, left hand bracing the right, all the way around the table before ending at my cup. This oddly old world practice that usually feels awkward and lovely in its isolation finds a whole constellation of accompanying movements at the dinner table here. It is a well-orchestrated dance of each serving the other, of each ending up with every element of the meal. It feels as if those pieces of me floating out there have a space to settle.

The way that we connect here feels so, so... known. I remember our conversation over dinner when you had said about codependence, how the giving in the north/west had its boundaries drawn by the giver who gave as much as s/he wanted while the recipient simply took everything offered.

But elsewhere, worlds from which we come, it is the recipient who drew the boundaries, knowing only to take what is appropriate in order not to abuse the generosity of the giver. That insight returns to me as I watch my family, each sacrificing so much for the other, giving until there is nothing left. It is a heavy gift, this.

My mother had always wanted to leave Korea, and I think I am beginning to see what she wanted to flee, this web that swaddles you in safety, that constricts. It seems too much to take in the sufferings of others, that you carry the worries of your entire family, that you cannot retreat to simply heal, that what others think is absolutely crucial when your connection to them is a profound part of your identity.

I find myself more Korean than my mother in so many ways... she simply disconnected emotionally from my aunt when she realized that she could do little to help in a concrete way. I can also see why. I am leaving partially because I find my aunt's helplessness unbearable -- because I cannot do anything and because she is coping but also unable to believe that she is capable. The boundaries between me and the others, her tidal wave of grief, are infinitely permeable.

It is too much for me to digest, this. I need to retreat to my silence and my solitude, two companions at whose arrival I usually despair.

I just wrote another long e-mail about my mixed emotions about returning, but how ultimately, it made me happy to return home. I only hope that what I am expecting upon return isn't the imagined, the constructed.

I do know that even though I may not have the perfect niche to fit into upon return, I will at least have a space in which I can flounder about, and people of my kind with whom I can continue to search. as wonderful as it feels here to be swaddled by caring, connectedness, I am also feeling very displaced, as if I am wrong for this particular world.

I wonder if I could measure the Richter scale of emotional discomfort, whether this would measure higher than the angsting that I seem to undergo because of my solitude, feelings of disconnection. I don't really know, and I don't really know if there is a holding which is complete without some constriction... this question, how to hold myself and others, is at the crux of so many things.

discuss this issue with other bintelnas readers on the message board

email this piece to a friend
Their name:
and email address:(

add a comment:

Your Name:
and email address:

All illustrations and writing Copyright 2007 The Author except where otherwise noted.
Site design Copyright 2007 Bint el Nas. All Copyright and Trademark Rights Reserved.