31 August 2015

Korea: The Reckoning

A whirlwind of planning, setbacks and finally a day of “what happens, happens” lead our small family of four (plus three, very patient kitties) to our Korean Air flight. The week prior had held the wrong person’s nightguard not fitting my mouth, the boy’s fractured bone and non-compliant pet micro-chips.

Once the bags were in the van, my friend, Cynthia, at the wheel, and a trio of crying cats cruising down the highway, my mind shut down. I wanted to chat those last minutes with my friend, but I was physically and mentally spent. I immediately fell asleep.

Since my father’s death and the subsequent news of an older half-brother, my life had no time to tailspin. I held it in, again. Small releases of steam came out as cursing at kids and small grown-up tantrums. My remaining little family had been tolerant, but I felt selfish in not allowing them the time to process this trip with me. Shit, I didn’t have time to process.

I have been silent in my sorrow … silent in my fears.  What if my children hate Korea? Will they hate me for the yearning my heart has had since my first trip back last summer?

As the lights dimmed on the plane, and my daughter fell fast asleep, the tears ran down my face. We had done it. We were making that pilgrimage to the place of my birth … the place my father loved … the place where my brother was left. Questions flooded my mind, and I felt I was drowning. Would I find Daddy some closure? Would I find my parents too? Would my brother feel upset with me for not finding him sooner?

I have been lost more times than I can count. Lost from my original family, lost from the only parents I remember, and lost from my big brother. I have almost lost my little family too. I often feel very alone in my sadness.

Just as I had talked myself into this frenzy that I know so well, the hands of my husband came from behind my seat to show his caring and knowing of my fears.

And I am back. The focus. My search. Sharing the joy of the small wonders I found in Korea with my little remaining family …

Not many are able to take this journey. I understand that … and I am grateful for this opportunity.

I am ready to land on my feet.

16 August 2015

The Twinkie Chronicles … Privilege at an Indigo Girls Concert

Since the early 1990s, the lyrics and music of the Indigo Girls have mirrored themes in my life. They console me, comfort me and cajole me. I love that.

When they came to a town close to me or to a friend, I arranged child-minding to never miss them … Knoxville, Nashville, Denver, Charlottesville, Madison and Iowa City. Their concerts always felt like a family reunion … fans of all types resembled my life and my activism for equity and justice … that is, until I moved to the Mid-West and more specifically Madison.

There is something about seeing them in the South. Perhaps it is the kinship I have felt with them as Southerners. I love “Southland in the Springtime” which rarely plays in the Mid-West. But the overall prevailing camaraderie with the crowd is different.

Recently, they returned to Madison. This was my third concert of theirs since moving to Madison. I invited my Tennerican friend to come see them with me. He’s like a brother to me, a Puerto Rican with Tennessee ties. We were ecstatic! We arrived early and were within the first ten in line to go inside.

As we sat down, a young man sat next to me. Jovial and excited, we began a conversation. He offered to buy me a drink, though I declined. We waited. The space in front of us was a mosh pit, not exactly what I was accustom to, but from our seats, we could still see despite the crowd in front of us.

As the Indigo Girls entered the stage, we cheered. I told the man next to me that I was excited about seeing Lyris Hung. When I said this, he said, “Well, if I weren’t queer, I would do Amy hard. But I also love Asians and think I will end up with an Asian man someday. As a matter of fact, my friends call me ‘The Rice Queen’!”

I was in shock. A man who I had initially seen as a nice enough person was now showing signs of misogyny and racism. This was a precursor to more obnoxious behavior from this white, gay man.

Lyris Hung made her appearance on the stage with the Indigo Girls the year before, at concerts in Madison (on the same Overture Center stage) and in Iowa City. Seeing an Asian musician was a welcomed sight. Since seeing her in Madison and feeling the energy of the “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” I wanted to see more of what her contributions would be to the band that spoke to my heart.

As the set progressed, Amy played the song “Fishtails.” This song speaks of the loss of a father, and of course, it spoke to me since my father’s passing was still an open wound. I had listened to it repeatedly since buying the album. It was the moment I was waiting for. But just as Amy poured her heart out to meet mine about our shared loss, a group of white women in the mosh pit decided to joke and laugh loudly. I was crushed and angry.

Approaching them, I said, “Do you mind taking this conversation outside? I am trying to enjoy this song.” This didn’t quite sink in; they looked at me, dazed. When I walked away, my friend saw them glaring at me. They continued to stare at me throughout the night and chatting amongst themselves like a cluster of sorority sisters, beers in hand and talking loudly. They only came to life with the music of “Galileo” and “Closer to Fine.”

My friend wanted to approach them during the concert, but he expressed his fear that he would be seen as a disruptive Puerto Rican man.

White Madisonians do not realize the prevailing scrutiny that people of color, especially Blacks and Latinos experience. Madison is painted as an idyllic, liberal college town. It is liberal … for whites. White liberalism is a dangerous kind of liberalism where people believe that they cannot be racist because they hold other forms of liberalism high. They are active in liberal politics, the environment and issues surrounding gender equality, but only equality as it applies to whites. Now, not all Madisonians are this way, but the prevailing comfort and smugness of liberalism discredits any dissension in the ranks.

As the evening at the concert progressed, the white gay man decided to stand alone in front of his seat, despite the pleas from the women behind him. Addressing him as “Sir,” they politely asked him to sit in his seat or moved to the mosh pit. We all had chosen our seats for the luxury of sitting and listening; he refused to budge. He stood and scanned his phone, not at all paying attention to the music.

The women approached an usher and asked that someone talk with him. The usher refused. A white, stubborn man, regardless of his gender would not be asked to change his behavior. I just imagined the scene if it had been my friend, a Puerto Rican man standing in defiance. My friend was just as annoyed but recognized his place in this environment.

Despite the annoyances, we enjoyed our time together in a place filled with music that speaks volumes to us, and I was able to get photographs of Lyris to show my girl at home. The image of an Asian woman successful in her musical pursuits.

11 August 2015

The Birthright

“Nobody’s Perfect.”

This was the line that echoed throughout my childhood. My sister and I had matching nighties with this phrase emblazoned on them. One evening, my three-year-old sibling put hers on backwards. She grinned and said, “Nobody’s Perfect!”

Imperfection runs amok in society, but we try our damnedest to cloak it … mask it … shroud it … bury it.

I was once someone’s secret, the personified shame of some encounter. I am still hidden, but there are now more treasures to be found.

Many times in my life, my father reminded me of the country from which I came. He gave me his 1961 Korean dictionary. He sought out Korean restaurants. He insisted I read books on the post Korean War Comfort Women. The latter always disturbed me. It was as though I had insulted him for dismissing a book I couldn’t stomach at the time.

When my son was seven weeks old, my mother suffered a stroke. This event brought our small family together; my parents had been legally separated for more than 18 years. On our first evening together, my sister, my father, my infant son and I shared a hospital hospitality room.

As a new mother, I couldn’t settle my son down. His infant screams were piercing. We all tried various tricks, but nothing worked. Suddenly, my father shouted, “Can you shut that baby up?!”

My sister quickly whisked my father out the room. The outburst seemed to work, and I was able to eventually calm my child. Sobbing uncontrollably and asking for my forgiveness, my father re-entered the room. I tried to calm him and told him not to worry, that we all were tired and stressed, but he kept insisting that he was a bad man and that my sister and I had no idea what a bad person he was.

This scene always lingered with me. My heart broke for my father. He turned around and cared for my mother until her death some eight months later. She fell in love with him all over again as he made her every meal for the remainder of her life.

Last summer, as I searched for my birth mother, my father called me each morning to check in and see what I had done. He was living vicariously through me as I enjoyed the experience of being Korean in Korea. The day I visited my agency to receive nothing, I begged him to come to Korea with me and help me by asking on my behalf for my file. His response was peculiar … “They didn’t tell me anything either.”

When my father died in January, my heart broke into an infinite number … I felt fully alone in my quest. My most fervent supporter was gone.

Five months later, I discovered the cornerstone, the piece that fit all the others together. My father had been stationed in Korea. In my mind, this fact was the reason why he loved Korea, longed for it and was so determined to keep me Korean. I was his connection to a time that meant a great deal to him.

I unearthed that his connection to Korea went beyond me and my connection. He had a secret too. He fathered a son. Somewhere in Korea or beyond is a Korean Puerto Rican who has my identity as his birthright.

Brother/Uncle, we will soon be in Korea to search for you as well …