1. Seocho via Gangnam
My family and I are struggling along Teheran Road in Seocho-dong, Seoul, and it is my fault. I should have conducted us one stop farther to Gangnam Station, where the number ten exit would have deposited us in front of our destination, but we are disoriented by the city’s newness and haven’t yet learned the subway stations, nor do we know the banks and stores and restaurants piled atop each other in metallic high-rises footnoted by cafés and tea rooms and dessert shops. It is late May, nearly summer, when people punctuate meals with shaved ice covered with red bean jelly, rice cakes, diced fruit, grain powder, green tea, condensed milk, and ice cream for more richness. Humidity surrounds us and compresses our chests, though the forecast today says “mildly dusty.” Tomorrow, when it says “very dusty,” the sky adopts a yellowish tinge from pollution that Koreans claim drifts over from industrialized China. The passersby do not wear sunglasses, a strange omission for a country obsessed with pale and poreless complexions.
What we seek is one branch of a bank, the one that houses my late father’s accounts. For the past six years, since my father passed away, my mother has avoided visiting this bank. Distance, for one reason, because we live in Los Angeles, at least a 12-hour flight to Seoul. The hassle, for another, because transferring the accounts requires identity verifications and beneficiary designations and other tedious paperwork.
In one sense we are here because of the money. But for my father’s accounts, we would not have boarded planes and rented an apartment and taken the subway and walked down Teheran Road today. In another sense, we are not here because of the money at all. No part of me considers the accounts to be a windfall or gift or other benevolent thing inherent in those words. That they have accrued to my mother’s interest is purely an accident we have not foreseen. When my mother first learned of the accounts, she wanted to abandon them, refused to call the bank or uncover the details. The essence of her negligence was: Should I take care of him even after he’s gone?
My sister and I understood. Like most children, we came to know our parents simply by virtue of living together. We lived here in Seocho-dong until I was three years old before returning to Los Angeles, where I had been born. We lived there together until the summer before I left for college, when my mother asked my father to leave.
I have never known how to explain why living with my father became unbearable. We were not a household that constantly argued or aired grievances to family and friends. I think of our years together mainly as a period of silence, during which my mother singlehandedly maintained the routines of wifehood and motherhood while my father lived alongside us.
By way of example: today marks our first trip to Korea in over 30 years. My father, on the other hand, visited many times, or so I think, based on the receipts and souvenirs I found when I sometimes went through his belongings during his frequent and unexplained absences. His trips ranged all over Asia, from Korea to China, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia. Later, they expanded to far-flung places like Egypt, the Czech Republic, Australia. Then there were weekends he spent playing Pebble Beach, Pelican Hill, and other sunny resorts I have heard of only in passing. How he funded these trips, I do not know, because he did not appear to hold a job for most of the years he lived with us.
The mechanics of our residing together must have been easy for him. During the weeks and months that turned into years, my mother worked and paid the mortgage and our expenses. She cleaned the house, cooked the meals, washed and pressed our clothing, the costly apparel my father took with him on those unidentified trips. At night, my sister or I carried food on a tray upstairs to him, which he ate while watching Korean news or dramas. Maybe it was this domestic ease that compelled him to continue living with us when he craved no other involvement. Maybe he thought my mother was so proficient at caring that he was superfluous.
I saw my father three times during the ten years between when my parents separated and when my father passed away. The last time was at a wake for his mother, my paternal grandmother, and I went because it was the kind of duty my mother expected from me, and she is the kind of person who adheres without condition or exception to the imperatives of duty. That is likely why she finally consented to our visit here, which my sister and I have framed as partly assignation, partly tourism, partly trip down memory lane.
In fact, these blaring and teeming streets bear no resemblance to the neighborhood we left behind. My most vivid memory of Seocho-dong is of riding tricycles with my sister and our playmates down the hill facing our apartment complex. Nothing now suggests anything so leisurely and carefree and uninterrupted as children coasting downhill on tricycles was ever possible here.
On the subway, people rise and offer seats, first to my sister who carries my nephew, then to my mother. They resume gazing into oversized smartphones and ignore my brother-in-law and me, who appear to them unfettered or young. My mother is the elder, but my sister’s status as a new mother takes priority. This is one thing that has not changed.
2. Yongsan, A Gateway
I guide my family on the subway because I am the first to arrive in Korea, one day and a half before our sojourn to the bank. From Incheon International Airport, I go to Yongsan Garrison, north of the Han River, where a family friend who works at the U.S. Embassy is housed.
I am intent on maximizing my time alone. Once my family arrives, we will have six days in which to visit not only the bank, but also Gyeongbok Palace, Gwanghwamun Square, Chonggyechon Stream, the Demilitarized Zone, Seoul Arts Center, the Furniture Museum, and my maternal grandfather’s grave, as well as share three or four meals with family and friends. The itinerary might be plausible for my sister and me, but adding in my mother, my brother-in-law, and my nephew, who cannot walk long distances, renders it ambitious at minimum. During the one full day I have to myself, I decide to visit an art museum in nearby Jong-no District and Garosu-gil, a neighborhood of cafés and shops within Gangnam District, south of the Han River.
To leave the garrison, I must exit through one of its gates guarded by military personnel. Walking through the residential area, I can think only one word: M*A*S*H*. Each bungalow fronts a shingle bearing a surname painted in the familiar stenciled font and embedded in manicured and verdant lawns. Aside from the startling call of pheasants, the sloping landscape is so evocative of nostalgic situation comedies that I am both incredulous and amused. It is, as our friend says, like Mayberry.
On my way to the subway, I pass a community center adorned with yellow ribbons inscribed with messages. We will not forget, we make amends, please forgive us and rest peacefully, they say to the students who were aboard the MV Sewol, the ferry that sank off Jeju Island only two weeks ago. Later, the bank clerk apologizes to my family for the timing of our visit and explains, We are a country in mourning. For the next six days, we see yellow ribbons weft into memorials throughout the main districts of Seoul. Students and academics are revered in this country. The cities are interspersed with secondary schools and tutoring academies, where schoolchildren cram well into the night. Each year in November, traffic and trading in Korea are deferred while students commute to an eight-hour college entrance exam. The entire country halts that day.
My first trip on public transportation is frustrating, though I have downloaded a subway map onto my phone. Station names are announced on the train, but not the cardinal directions, and I double back twice after going the wrong way. When I reach my intended stop, I buy an umbrella from an underground, fluorescent-lit convenience store. Once outside, I feel light-hearted and unencumbered in the rain, anonymous and sheltered under my new cover.
The museum is closed. Gyeongbok Palace is nearby, but I have saved it for another day. Instead, I wander through Unhyeongung, the former residence of Heungseon Daewongun, who was father and regent to King Gojong, the penultimate ruler of Korea. Despite the Daewongun’s exertions, his son abdicated in 1907 and succumbed to Japanese colonization, perhaps the most painful 35 years of modern Korean history, aside from the Korean War itself. This I have heard firsthand, having grown up with a maternal grandmother and aunt who lived through the occupation.
Inside, the men’s quarters are free and spacious, encircled by a lattice-fenced veranda facing bygone gardens. On the other side of the courtyard, I peer into a chamber in the women’s quarters where I see cotton-lined, silk-paneled comforters folded against a wall, identical to those my grandmother used to make. Seeing the layout before me, I am reminded anew that I originate from a culture so divided by gender.
Though the sky is dark when I return to the subway, I have one more destination to reach. 45 minutes later, I still have not found Garosu-gil, so I park myself outside a cafe and tap into the street map. Gangnam-daero runs north-south but is intersected by 160-plus lateral, curving alleys also maddeningly named Gangnam-daero. I finally deduce the many offshoots to denote cross-sections along the primary Gangnam-daero.
Once in Garosu-gil, I realize I have no particular goal in mind and end up at an upstairs rock-themed café, whose walls are lined with Guns N’ Roses, Motley Crüe, and Aerosmith posters, and watch the wayfarers underneath. Their uniform in the damp weather seems to be voluminous shirts tucked partway into skinny pants, and the girls wear chestnut-dyed hair streaming down their backs or framed into bobs. They have brushed on straight, full eyebrows and lined their eyes to emphasize a rounded gaze. Puppy eyes, the magazines call them, the antithesis of feline allure. Couples link arms and share clear umbrellas refracting raindrops and the globe lights strung between stores like Abercrombie, Zara, Forever 21. The sight is so appealing that later I abandon my umbrella against a wall and purchase a newer, transparent one.
The next day, I leave the garrison in a taxi headed for the apartment my family has rented so I may prepare it for their arrival. The taxi driver becomes disoriented by construction around the main gate and turns into a parking lot by mistake. He is backing out when two Americans run over, their countenances ruddy and splotched from outdoor exertions and alcohol. One leans through the open window.
“Hey!” he says to the driver. “I need a taxi.”
The driver stiffens and says in accented English, “I have a passenger. You call for another one.”
The guy puts his hand on the sill and thrusts his head farther inside but barely glances at me. “You’re here right now. You do it. You call one for me.”
“No,” the driver repeats and pulls away. Though the guy flushes more, he retreats, his companion behind him shame-faced and quiet. The driver apologizes for the disturbance, and I say, Please don’t worry.
I am ashamed of myself for sitting in silence, for not chastising the guy in his own tongue. I am unprepared for him. I have not expected an American’s dismissiveness in the country where my parents were born.
3. The Demilitarized Zone
The DMZ is not a place Koreans visit, according to my dentist. Only foreigners and gyopos, Korean-Americans like her and me, deem it worthwhile to visit The Demilitarized Zone, though the reasons for its existence would seem to weigh heavier on South Koreans, the potential targets of most North Korean missiles, if the reports are to be believed. South Koreans, however, are for the most part uninterested. They are absorbed in everyday concerns and ambitions, whereas the memories of post-war hardship seem to have fossilized in the minds of Koreans who emigrated to America, as my parents did.
Americans or not, the DMZ is a place my sister and I would visit anyway. In our view, a proper trip packs as many landmarks as possible, regardless of touristy connotations. The bus tour is scheduled to last eight hours and starts from Camp Kim, a USO center adjacent to Yongsan Garrison. The waiting area contains a wall poster featuring Gary Sinise, who performs regularly in military benefit concerts. “Lieutenant Dan,” I say to my sister and brother-in-law and point to the poster before we move outside and onto the bus.
As we head into the countryside, the scenery changes to fields and rice paddies dotted by an occasional crane or farmer. If Korea had a Turner, his paintings might have looked like this, minus the occasional, jarring industrial complex. I lean my head against the window and try to sleep, but the tour guide’s prepared speech permeates my consciousness.
Japan occupied Korea until it surrendered during World War II, then Russia occupied the peninsula north of the 38th parallel, while America controlled the region south. In 1950, on June 25—six-two-five or yook-i-oh as Koreans call it—North Korea, with Russian and Chinese support, invaded and advanced to the southern port of Pusan before South Korea, together with American and United Nations reinforcements, retaliated. The fighting intensified through the spring of 1951, then stalemated over the next two years until the armistice agreement was signed in 1953. M*A*S*H*.
The Demilitarized Zone is four kilometers wide, two kilometers on each side of the Military Demarcation Line, the true border between the Koreas. We are headed toward the Joint Security Area manned by soldiers from both countries and the United Nations. There, American soldiers will escort us through South Korea’s Freedom House, which faces conference buildings and Panmungak, the main North Korean building.
Defections from North Korea through the DMZ are nearly impossible. Most have occurred across the Chinese border—more than 25,000 over the past two decades. The repercussions of failure are unimaginable, not only for the defectors but also for their families, who become victims of the government. The living conditions in North Korea are so bad, the guide says, that people continue to try.
By the time she finishes, I am absorbed in each word, as are the other passengers, though much is already known to me. Over the years, I have asked my mother to tell the history again and again. In truth, I am here as more than a sightseer. I want to see North Korea because I know so little of my father, because it is where my father was from.
My father was born in 1943 in Hwanghae Province, when the country was still one Korea. In 1948, when Russia and America divided the country, the province was subsumed into North Korea. Sometime during the Korean War, while the battle lines shifted, my paternal grandmother took my father and his younger sister, crossed the border with the rest of her birth family and thousands of other refugees, and settled in the southern city of Daegu.
At the time, my grandmother believed her husband was in Manchuria, though he never confirmed the locations he visited for his job with the North Korean government. Like the rest of her family, my grandmother thought the separation would last a few months, maybe a year at most. Like most Koreans, they believed the country would be unified, one way or another, at the end of the war. To leave the country in limbo, in an arrested state of unresolved conflict, was unthinkable, senseless.
That is what my mother told me, as she in turn was told by my father. I could not ask my grandmother herself because by the time I was old enough to understand what had transpired, she had lost much of her memory. Nor could I ask my father because I never felt relaxed enough with him to initiate such a conversation. I cannot fathom his being so accessible as to relate the story to my mother. I cannot imagine his closeness with anyone, not even his own mother.
What I remember about the wake, my grandmother’s wake where I last saw my father, is the way in which we parted. The service took place in Michigan, where I happened to be attending law school, only an hour’s drive away. When I saw my father, he asked how I was and if I was seeing anyone. I was not, and he said it was because of him. I began crying, not that I agreed, but I felt an outrage that I could not voice in front of strangers, these other mourners of a grandmother I barely knew. He reduced me to some psychoanalytical cliché, when I had never read or seen anything that approximated our relationship. He assumed the deficiency in my life revolved around him, and self-centeredness is perhaps the most accurate description of his fatherhood after all.
When I left the gathering, he walked me to the car and tried to give me a few hundred in cash. The gesture recalled to me every time he had failed to contribute anything. Please apologize to Mom, I said in my imperfect Korean. Could you apologize just once? I would not accept the money, and my question seemed to frustrate my father, but he may have been startled that I brought her up at all, when I had never before confronted him. The thing is, I had not seen him in eight years and did not foresee another chance to intercede against the burden he had wrought unto my mother and, because she bore the brunt, fractionally unto my sister and me.
He wanted me to take the money and return to school. I wanted him to concede I was attending the wake, attending school, only because of my mother. Neither of us got what we wanted.
On the night he died, the hospital called my mother, who left me a voicemail because I was out with friends. She said nothing about my father in the message or over the phone when I called her back, saying only to come home soon and drive safely. We drove together to the hospital, into the city where I had been just hours earlier with my friends. I learned then that, over the past ten years, my mother had kept my father on her health insurance, named him a dependent, and paid for the additional coverage, though they had not seen each other once during all that time. She performed this routine task, as she always had and he never did, knowing he would not do it for himself. She covered the last treatments he received. She took care of him until he was gone.
I cannot remember who broke that news, the nurses or one of the doctors. I am sure it was not the resident who attended my father in the emergency room because my sister and I met with her later that week. We wanted to know what had happened, we told her. Was it a heart attack? An aneurysm? The hospital had told my mother it did not specialize in my father’s condition. She had asked them to move him to a facility that did, but the transfer had not happened.
The resident was taller and seemed older than we but looked young, with lean and athletic limbs. She told us my father had suffered an aortic dissection. He had had high blood pressure, and it had weakened the walls of his heart, so that they could not withstand the pressure and tore. At this point, she apologized. She did not mean to be blunt, but it helped people sometimes to know the facts. Yes, we agreed. We were that sort of people. We preferred the facts.
The resident said by the time my father arrived, his aorta had torn too extensively. They had done everything they could. By the time he arrived at the hospital, there was not much that could be done.
Our bus is one of two stopped at the gates of Camp Bonifas, where a U.S. soldier climbs aboard. He tells us that he chose this bus because the other is filled with kids and he is not good with kids. I cannot identify another place like this, where two countries formally remain at war but schoolchildren may visit with supervision. Inside the Freedom House, the soldiers issue us instructions. We will arrange ourselves in two lines along the exterior steps facing North Korea. We must avoid sudden movements in case they are perceived as threatening. We may take photographs but under their direction.
Outside the Freedom House, I keep my head still but my eyes roam over every detail. The South Korean soldiers wear aviator sunglasses and stand with clenched fists and wide-legged stances alongside buildings painted the signature blue of the United Nations. We all face the lone North Korean soldier observing us at a distance. Everyone in our group is polite, stepping aside so others can take photographs.
The only disruption is a bee. When it darts between our bodies, a few, including me, duck and swipe nervously. I hope the North Korean soldier has binoculars and can discern the cause of the slight commotion. Can a single bee dismantle the armistice?
The U.S. soldiers lead us inside one of the conference buildings, where South Korean soldiers guard the windows and doors. A wooden table bisects the room into South Korea on one side, North Korea on the other. We get a few minutes to be in Communist country, and someone behind me deadpans in a whisper, “I already feel oppressed.” When the soldiers give the go-ahead, everyone snaps pictures of them, the furniture, the United Nations flag decorating the table. My sister insists on taking a selfie with a South Korean soldier. It is irreverent and arbitrary, but so is the entire situation: we tour a war zone, we bypass a table into North Korea, and the soldiers are tall and good-looking. I take a selfie, too.
Our final stop is the Bridge of No Return, used for P.O.W. exchanges at the end of the Korean War. The soldiers recount a brutal incursion by North Korean soldiers in 1976, when they attacked and killed U.S. officers cutting down a nearby tree. Subdued, we stare into the thicket of the DMZ, now an inadvertent ecological preserve. Animals, if they manage to sidestep the land mines, thrive relatively unperturbed.
The tour concludes with a visit to an underground tunnel dug by North Koreans but discovered by South Korea in the ’70s. We stand by guardrails before uniformed personnel who number us into subsets as if entering an amusement park ride, and indeed the initial descent reminds me of the passage to Space Mountain in Disneyland, with its darkened archways, rubber floor linings, and damp atmosphere. My only comparison to the tunnel itself is a rocky cave in New Zealand where I went once to see glowworms, and the natural beauty manifests here in a freshwater spring where we dip a ladle and take a drink.
I feel guilty deriving any pleasure from this remnant of past conflict and attempted infiltration, but our sojourn is not all ethereal and cool. As I perspire and gasp through the return ascent, my mind alternates between two images. One is of the North Korean soldiers who would have been forced upwards, bearing heavy supplies and artillery, without the inkling or luxury of rest or dissent. The other is the image I am trying to suppress, a scene from the documentary we watched before entering the tunnel, of a toddler waving his arms. My nephew does the same when he receives an unexpected visitor or gift, but this child was reacting to the corpses and bombed-out houses surrounding him. What shakes me is how such similar motions can result from such disparate circumstances.
Back at the apartment, when I tell my mother about the tour, she responds with, “Your father.” That child could have been my father. He was that age during the war. After the fighting ceased and the border closed, there was no going back for any Korean who happened to be south. My grandmother began a new life. She traded black market goods and accumulated enough wealth to send my father to university in Korea, then study abroad in America.
My father told my mother he experienced little hardship while his mother paved his way. To my mother, he appeared meticulous and well-read, interested in politics and traveling, and drawn to music and art. But perhaps my grandmother did too much for him, such that he could not then withstand the drudgery of earning a daily living. Or perhaps she did not do enough to preserve their status. As a prosperous single woman, my grandmother attracted a certain degree of local attention. Eventually, she met another man, a South Korean military officer who already had a wife.
Was he unable to forgive his mother? Was his father’s absence the reason for his inability to act as a father himself? My father did not detail this part to my mother, how precisely this made him feel. His mother’s machinations. Their separation from his father. His feeling they had betrayed him. Any of it, all of it.
4. Ground Level, Eye Level
The caretaker’s lodge overlooks rows of grassy mounds. The shortest way to my grandfather’s tumulus is over a steep, narrow footpath leading to a muddy ditch that we cross by clutching a tree. My mother uncaps a bottle of rice wine, laces the liquor over the grave, and says, Father, I am here. My daughters are here, my son-in-law is here, and my grandson, your great-grandson, is here. We kneel and touch our heads to the ground, repeating the motion four times. The air fills with the unexpectedly sweet fragrance of alcohol blending into dirt.
When her father passed away, my mother was already overseas, attending graduate school in the Midwest. This was rare then for any Korean daughter, but she had earned her parents’ latitude by fulfilling every other filial duty. Whereas any given disagreement between me and my mother escalates all too quickly, I have seen my mother raise her voice to my grandmother only once. On her last visit to us, my grandmother had climbed the stairs to help with some task against my mother’s wishes, and my mother had screamed because my grandmother was frail and prone to injury. My grandmother had sat back on her heels and said only, Don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry.
Our final tour is of the Furniture Museum, a private collection displayed in traditional housing structures. My sister is the one among us who most enjoys the aesthetics of interior design and arrangement, but she and my brother-in-law cancel their tickets when the baby comes down with a fever, overcome by these strange and hectic days in a country he does not know. Her decision is instantaneous. As a mother, she sets aside her individual pleasure for the welfare of her child.
The museum’s alcoves contain relics of an unrecoupable past. A leather case built to shelter a gat, the black horsehair mesh hat signifying the status of literati. Moveable boxes stacked into a cohesive bookcase or separable for a reader’s portage and enjoyment of a specific set of volumes. Black lacquered wardrobes inlaid with intricate, pearlescent tableaus. The most humanizing antique is a bamboo wife—a hollow cylinder woven of the reeds—that a man may embrace when sleeping alone in male quarters, providing the corporeal solace of a spouse without any of the commitment, the attrition of co-habitation and mutual subsistence.
Before we leave, the guide leads us to a narrow, rectangular room and asks us to remove our shoes. Inside, we sit on flat, square cushions and look to our left, to the front, to our right. “The proportion of everything here is built to eye level,” the guide explains. “A nobleman’s purpose is to sit in contemplation of the world around him.”
Contemplation is not what I have sought on this trip. I came to assist with a task, but signing the papers, sending the wires, and closing the accounts, as we have done, is not a resolution. I have almost feared my reaction to this place whose rules have shaped me, sometimes against my will, without my prerogative. When I think of the people whom I have passed on the street or learned about on these tours—the lives they have led, the dangers they have faced, the opportunities they have abandoned or pursued—I think, I could be them or they could be me. The thought seems at once disingenuous and true. We share a coincidence of blood and history and traditions handed down over centuries, but we know nothing of each other, not really, not as individuals.
When I return from the tour, my brother-in-law asks me what I think and whether I will miss Korea. My immediate response surprises me. “I am sad to leave,” I say, thinking of our shared history and diverging paths. “I feel like a dog looking at wolves,” I tell him, “or maybe I am the wolf.” We marvel at the pace at which we have traveled. We name the landmarks we have not seen. We remind each other the baby is too young to remember any of this, so we must return one day. There will be another trip. On this point, we agree.
Stephanie Minyoung Lee was born and raised in Los Angeles, where she practices law and writes.
Photo by Allison Lee.