Korea Part 4: Transition

Travel

Transition does not happen overnight, but when a whole bunch of shit happens one after the next, it forces you to make quick decisions that hopefully powerfully align with your gut.

Brian was six years old when he came to live with us. My brother and Brian’s mom had separated years before, and the day that most of us hadn’t anticipated was happening. We were at my cousin’s house in El Segundo – no parents, just my cousin, brother, and me.

Suddenly, we had become the adults with the urgent need to be responsible, and we waited big-eyed for the next addition to our family. I held my breath as the social worker pulled up in her gray sedan, briefed us adults, then opened the car door to let a pair of skinny, tan legs crawl out.

He had a buzz cut and wore a baggy dark grey sweater. He had his chin pointed down and peered around apprehensively, timid and curious at the same time. He looked so much like my brother except with darker skin. He was thin.

At first, he didn’t say anything as he sat on my cousin’s huge couch and we all gathered around him. He kept his head down and was grateful when he was handed an iPad. Angry Birds ensued. As he played trying not to mind the three adults murmuring around him, peering at him and admiring how much he had grown, my brother began to renew their connection.

In 15 minutes, we were running around the living room and playing a ridiculous game of tag where the person who was caught instantly became a zombie after a melodramatic fall to the earth.

Not all airports have bookstores.

Spoiled from LAX’s masses of books, magazines, and snacks, I scoured Incheon Airport convinced there had to be one stand or food mart with something, anything, to read on the 5-hour flight back home.

A beautiful building yet lacking. Even more interesting or sad is that there’s no need. I looked around to see no one reading, though it’s hard to tell if people are reading or meme-ing in their death stares.

In an anxious mind, the land of multitasking, I FaceTimed my brother and sister-in-law, wrote my travel notes, prepared career-building reading for the flight, and sexted my boyfriend.

There’s a quote by Publilius Syrus.

To do two things at once is to do neither.

Though I’m pretty sure I got wet while working on my professional development.  

I’m not an opportunist, more of a human desiring machine-like efficiency with growing diligence and delivery. Another quote to reflect on is by DJ Quik.

Stay ready so you don’t need to get ready.

At half an hour before boarding, I reflect on my to-do list once I land: pack up to move home, start making money from teaching English online, find other work, establish my writing routine, start my real estate course.

The list will always be there, I realized yet again, finely aware of the death and rebirth cycled in so many forms recently. Then I boarded, wondering how to survive, first, the 5-hour flight without a book.

Korea Part 3: My Dad

Travel

My dad, the hero and villain, both the protagonist and antagonist, a human by any other name.

His moods waver from each interaction to the next, steadfastly living the idiom you teach people how to treat you. I sometimes walk faster to maintain a distance between him and me. At times, I’m embarrassed at the latest outburst with a submissive service worker seemingly depressed behind a glass window or maybe bitchy with an all too cheery façade. Sometimes, I’m frustrated at my dad’s incessant need to school others as if he were exemplary. As if any of us are. At some point, what you may call impossible standards are frankly just good standards against the low ones we have all succumbed to.

When I was younger, my friends would respond to me with a familiar detachment, exasperated sighs, and rolled eyes when I called shit out, proclaiming, “Someone has to do it!” I would not be accused of being sheepish or not brave enough to defend my principles – that was the worst thing to imagine. How much have I really changed?

As my dad bought our bus tickets to go from Seoul to Cheongam, he went fluidly from politely requesting the later bus at 9:20 am to scolding. His precise delivery translates to something like the following:

You know, you need to look at people when you talk to them. Did something bad happen to you this morning? Put me in a bad mood.

My dad has bad hearing so when he yells, that’s a ready excuse. He didn’t say anything wrong. It was the delivery. Another reminder of my own opportunities as I have been advised before. I must be careful of my tone and speak to people softer, not like a submissive lady but rather respectful and calm, coming from kindness and not anger. Traveling with my dad is a lesson for me, not the other way around.

As I vented then to my mom about how my dad acted, I felt that familiar distance and exasperation from my mom. She was feeling the same towards me as both she and I had so many times felt from my dad’s actions. At that moment, I woke up from my anger and heard what she had asked me before – what are you going you to do about it?

Complaining has always been a pet peeve. It’s an act that accomplishes nothing, indulges in self-pity, and sticks the speaker and all those around in a bubble of negativity and inaction. This is why I write, how a hypocrite learns.

It’s not the words we say that are the most important – it’s the essence. My casual dread of powerlessness had started to inflate each additional day of travel with my family. That’s a fallacy to break, and I remember how it’s been done. The trick is doing it. It’s understanding my dad’s needs and expectations, changing the turmoil to a matter of fact. Any action can be handled tactfully, supporting my dad while also mediating the situation to help the person not feel like shit.

In Korea, there is a greater acceptance – call it camaraderie – of speaking loudly, emotionally, and authoritatively to get your point across. Koreans are an enthusiastic, passionate crowd, and it became clearer again as I walked down the street with my dad the morning after the burial ceremony. He fit in with the crowd and didn’t give a fuck about his mannerisms while others, younger people, did. He requested a discount from the middle-aged and round-faced fruit guy once we bought 50,000 KRW of fruit (about $50 USD worth), and we got 2 free plums. At the rice cake shop, he negotiated 500 KRW off some traditional dduk. As we were walking out, my dad said See you in a few years! The reserved, young lady said the respectful affirmative nae, not recognizing the tourist joke or even calling out what could easily have been construed as rudeness. The subtle hit was hilarious, and I instantly felt proud to take after him.

Later that day, we visited a traditional palace where we took candid and characteristic photos, took in our ancestral heritage, and enjoyed a modern art museum, but not before my dad yelled at the ticket lady for charging us another 2000 KRW for museum admission.

Korea Part 2: Reunion

Travel

With travel comes tests. With family comes drama. With humor comes ease. I wrote this in the computer room on the 16th floor of a hostel in Myeongdong, a bustling discount shopping district infused with tourists from China, the Philippines, and of course the USA. It wasn’t a computer room as much as two computers on a dirty white table in the hallway between a couple rooms. Kind of like how Step Inn wasn’t an inn as much as a hostel. The power of marketing compels you! I sat there graciously ready to write and physically and emotionally manifest peace in another space, any space, outside of the tiny room my parents and I were staying in.

There was no use having a bad attitude for not anticipating the hostel/inn discrepancy along with my dad’s history of high expectations and low patience. Who am I to interpret cozy as good enough for my parents? Call it the immigrant family trap, model minority rap, of wanting the best for a pair who have roller-coasted around both extremes of the economic ladder in Korea and the US. All so I could write this post.

Before arriving at the Step Hostel, my parents and I stayed at my grandmother’s home for one night where I saw glimpses into my dad’s past. A black and white photo of him with his parents, his twin brother, and older sister was placed on my grandpa’s desk. My dad must have been no more than 14 years old and was in the middle of laughing, his mouth wide open, and I laughed at all the times he scolded me to keep my mouth closed in photos. As I took in my late grandpa’s room with his clothes still hanging on racks and documents lying about his desk, I wondered if he looked more and more at that photo as his time neared. In the hallway, there were three glass cases with military ribbons, medals, and the like. I quickly snapped photos before considering the metaphorical peace and dignity I was stealing by resigning them to tiny squares on a screen.

The day before, we went to the burial ceremony, which involved a 3-hour bus ride both ways, incessant bows, obliging naes, and feeling fed up then resigned about the tense nature of a formal, buttoned-up family who never quite listened or understood one another. At least we were well-rested and, well, alive. Lucky enough to have the time to pay our respects; lucky enough to leave afterward. No more getting told to get married or work somewhere for 10 years. No more expectation of female servitude, at least in close quarters. When you know there’s a limit, anything that may bother you is more tolerable and then at once you may become a saint or, God forbid, the perfect granddaughter – a feat I don’t know if any of conquered while my grandpa was alive.

Korea Part 1: Stasis is Death

Travel

Since I was 12 years old, I have lived by this maxim.

Stasis is death.

Because in my pre-teen angst, nothing was more deathly than resigning to a life where comfort besieged all.

As I got older, I used this to high power my decisions choosing to make mistakes rather than stay in the same place afraid of what may come. The strategy was not misguided, just not directed enough, and I developed a habit of going forward sometimes blind to the heart and guts of my whole operation.

And so I pursued my love of learning and grew my chops in quality management and operations. This was not the wrong decision, but it prolonged what I already knew. I was not scared to make the wrong choices, but I was scared to make the inevitable one that fit my oh so contemplative soul.

Last month, I left my disturbingly high-paying job at a distribution center to pursue something, anything, closer to my heart. My priority right now is to write – my first love, my first heartbreak.

I was overjoyed walking out of a role I knew no longer fit my determination and clear-sightedness. At the time, my nephew, who I helped raise for the past six years,  was planning to move to Seoul, Korea to be with his dad.

The apt choice, an easy one, but only in retrospect. I spent the next week and a half hanging out with my nephew and reconnecting with my older brother. The drama is not mine so I won’t share it but through that previous time, with my whole body and mind, I was finally able to forgive.

When my mom and I stood at the escalator before security check at LAX, trying to wave happily and not let our overflowing eyes be too obvious, I locked eyes with my nephew. At 12, he was a wise one after moving around from home to home adapting to changing circumstances since he was born. His face froze briefly as he realized I was going to cry, then he smiled softly as if to comfort me as he rode the escalator up with his dad.

A week later, my grandpa died.

A decorated 3-star general from the South Korean military and patriarch of my dad’s side, he was a serious man who I didn’t really get to know. The last time I had seen him was when I was 12 years old, the year of my maxim decree. Now, 18 years later, I was going back to Korea for his funeral.

Quick planning helped my dad get a flight out that night, and my mom and I got one for 2 days later so it wouldn’t cost extravagantly more than a month’s rent.

Before I left, I  reserved movers to leave my expensive Rancho Cucamonga apartment for a rent-free room at my parents’ condo in Buena Park. Everything was changing, and at that point, I wasn’t sure if it was good or bad. It was all – transition, death, and rebirth.

To be continued…