There are an infinity of ways in which you can move from that spot over there to here. But have you figured out those movements in your head, or are we seeing your soul in motion? Even that fleck at the tip of your nail embodies your soul... the essential thing is that your movements, even when you're standing still, embody your soul at all times. -Kazuo Ohno
Last November, I had this dream
Much of that was spawned from a long conversation I had with my grandmother about her childhood in Korea in the last fifteen or so years of Japanese occupation and into the Korean war. I grew up with my grandmother telling me stories about her family life, about my great-grandfather, and the very shaky yet strong sense of identity my grandmother had while growing up.
My great-grandfather was born in Pyongyang not too many years before the Japan-Korea Protectorate Treaty of 1904
was signed, which was the first of a series of Treaties that eventually lead to the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty of 1910
and subsequent occupation. His parents died when he was not much older than 8 or 9 and he was adopted by a wealthy Japanese couple who had no children of their own. On the one hand, they were good people because they adopted my grandfather, but I am not sure of the circumstances surrounding the adoption and whether or not it happened before of after his birth parents died (this did happen back then). Nonetheless, he was taken back to Japan for a time where his adoptive father was a wealthy businessman. His father opened a branch of his business in Seoul, and so my great-grandfather returned to Korea as a teenager and within his father's company he was trained as their Korean-Japanese liason.
My grandmother was born in 1931, which was in the last 15 years of Japanese occupation in Korea. I knew she grew up during that era, and I also knew that she grew up Christian (her father was from Pyongyang, where there were many many Christians, so this makes lots of sense. He was born into a Christian family, raised Shinto by his adoptive parents, and then reclaimed his Christianity as an adult) until she was married. My grandfather's family has been Buddhist for many many many generations.
What I did not know until that conversation was that she could not read or write Hangul until she was 19. It wasn't until after she married at age 19 that she began to learn to read and write Hangeul and also converted to Buddhism. She could speak Korean, of course, but the language of her education was Japanese. I was not surprised, but I have no idea why such a concept had not occurred to me until she said so. It put a lot of things into perspective. My grandmother is not stupid, but her reading of Hangeul was always a bit slower while her comprehension was fine. The way she read, it always felt like she was very tentative as if feeling out something that should be familiar but it was as if one were engaging in an activity that should be familiar but with someone else's hands.
This also caused her to read aloud instead of silently rather frequently as well, which honestly never bothered me. My grandmother raised me, so I was always happy to hear her voice and listen to her speak. But her slow pronunciation and enunciation also helped ME to clearly isolate parts of speech and the language itself.
This has been on my mind quite a bit since that conversation, especially given that the last several years I have grappled pretty hardcore with the discourse of the activist communities while trying to navigate my own sense of identity and formulate a concept of where I stand and how I make sense of the world. It's an ever-shifting work in progress. All the same, crises of identity are pretty common in my brain and seemingly within the brains of many of the people around me as of late.
This has also somehow tied itself with my renewed interest in Butoh
after learning of the death of one of the performance style's pioneers, Kazuo Ohno
. (My favourite Ohno performance: Mother
) It's an underground and experimental form of performance that is visceral, sometimes grotesque, and firmly rooted in cultural folklore. And I have had this desire to use elements of this performance format and aesthetic and create a piece about my dream and about my grandmother.
This has especially sparked in my brain lately, especially after one particular aspect of a play I recently saw, "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven", where in this particular production the three Koreans were played by non-Koreans and spoke their lines in Japanese, Mandarin, and Cantonese respectively while wearing a more archaic form of the Traditional Hanbok, as opposed to the more modern ones. I know that in the play itself, the playwright specifies that the three Koreans are to be played by people who're either Korean, Japanese, or Chinese who speak their lines in their respective native languages. I was particularly fascinated by this because it drew upon two things for me: an acknowledgement of the changes brought to the culture through the occupation of both China and Japan in Korean history and an acknowledgment of the fluidity of culture and how culture shifts and changes over time and is not monolithic. With that play, there's also a lot more going on with the levels of sarcasm and what that particular choice means, but that's not for this post.
It got me thinking a lot about the concept of using the language of one's own occupiers to rediscover your own identity. And I want to use Butoh to explore this concept regarding my family history since my great-grandfather's ties to Japan also circle back onto me (I was born in Japan.)
There are a lot of people who struggle with this even now, people whose language of their education was that of their colonisers even if the actual occupation ended generations ago. They leave marks on their infrastructure, and those concepts worm their way into your brain until you cannot even think of yourself except in the terms that were imposed upon your roots. And then we have to rediscover our own languages as if reclaiming our own thoughts, piecing together our identities from the fragments we have left.
This concept of mine is still very much in its larval stages. There is still a lot more research to do on the technical aspects. There is a lot of history on which I will have to brush up, and this is also a chance for me to pull on mine and my mother's background of Korean folkdance. I want to incorporate traditional Korean instruments, particularly the 가야금 (gayageum)
and 장구 (janggu)
But a lot of this stirs mixed feelings in me. I'm not entirely sure how to articulate some of them, but there's a sense of instability. The more I learn about my family and the more I root my family history in the larger parts of history, I gain a lot of perspective of how intercultural relationships affect one another and the lasting generational impact. In some ways knowing these things makes it easier to feel vindicated in many of my own life-long views about how to engage with culture, but it also makes me understand more and more the viewpoints of modern Koreans and the generations of Koreans who latched onto the German models of extreme nationalism as a way to reclaim identity. That helps me to be a little more compassionate and understanding towards the viewpoint even if I disagree with a lot of the practises that arise as a result.