tempested_bird: (Go Gu Ryeo)
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.
tempested_bird: (Go Gu Ryeo)
[this is written almost completely stream of consciousness and entirely unedited, a record from last night's dream]

My grandmother is of the last of us to dream of Joseon, memories from her grandparents. Who now, even 60 years later, still struggles with the script of our ancestors, given to us by kings outraged that his people would be illerate, outraged that his tongue, his language, his reality bore no mark in the world that was our own. Who in matrimony massages away the bruises, shifting from kana to geul, from Josen-jin to Joseon-in, whose prayers lost in "amens" are found again in "om".

My mother is of the last of us to remember a world before Dae Han Min Guk, shifting from Joseon-in to Hanguk-in, fragmented but with hopes that one day we would one day be whole, a hope reflected in our name. Han. Roots that took hold as we reclaimed and recovered lost time, lost territory, lost seeds. Han - one, water that flows through our capital city carrying its heartbeat. Dreaming of a world before imaginary borders became a barbed-wire chasm.

Even now the city still breathes, gripped by the remnants of the Joseon that is no longer - the roots that even the blows that our once-brethren circling back upon us could not take away, growing through the concrete, the temples that remain half-cracked, shell-worn, bullet-ridden. Now weaves into the Hanguk that is. And the banners of the past permeate into our dreams, propelling the greater hopes that one day, one day there will not be a day - simply one.

Even as the liquid of the river shifts and carries "om" once again to "amens" and fast-food, we dream of three-legged dragons eclipsing the sun. We dream of great bows shooting arrows across the great chasm, stitching bridges from the robes of mudangs to the rhythms of chang-gu, toppling mountains to build a path back to the heavens.
tempested_bird: (Tea)
My grandmother and I began to speak of intensely personal things over breakfast this morning. After we finished eating, I walked into the kitchen.

"Can you pour me some water?"
"Actually, grandma, I was about to put on the tea kettle."
"Ah, yes."

The Tea Ritual is an intensely important aspect of my life and has been for as long as I can remember. I've spent a good portion of my life experimenting with how to properly brew different kinds of teas, learning where certain teas come from, how differing teas interact with one another and with water temperatures. Most importantly I have spent a lifetime sharing tea with people who are important to me.

To that end, the most vital result of the Tea Ritual is the interaction and connection that results in the sharing of it. Of course, I do adore the taste of tea itself, so appreciation of tea does play a big part in such an interaction. I have always felt that drinking tea is an art. There is an art to brewing and appreciating it that I enjoy engaging with; I like the reading and the research that goes into learning about how tea is cultivated and prepared. I like meeting with Tea Masters and learning from them brewing techniques or talking to my fellow tea enthusiasts and trading ideas and techniques with them. I feel like one can learn a lot from a person by what kinds of tea they like.

I have my personal Tea Ritual for myself, and brewing tea is a meditation in its own right. The act of wholly devoting my attention and myself to the process of making a pot or gaiwan of tea is something that helps to ground all of my nervous energy. Even the more traditional methods and forms of tea brewing are symbolic for a person washing away all of their mental static and taking the time to enjoy and engage with the pure sensation of drinking. It is actually one of my methods of focus and grounding to help manage my OCD.

While my personal Tea Ritual is about silence and contemplation, the Tea Ritual that happens with another person present is something else. With someone else present, it is about acknowledging connection and being present together. This began with my grandmother. After my father died, my grandmother came to the US to help my mother raise me. Even before that, she was the one who took care of me whenever we were in Korea. Since I was young, if something bothered me intensely she brewed some tea, sat me down across the low lacquer table (which I still have), and we talked. We would talk about what is on our minds, she would tell me stories about our family, about what it was like for her growing up during the Japanese occupation of Korea, our futures, she would teach me about traditional medicine. She taught me how to properly brew the East Asian teas while I taught her the art of western tea. At that table, everything that needs to be said can be said and, more importantly, it will be heard.

In many parts of Asia, it was (and in many cases still is) considered extremely rude to invite someone into your home and NOT offer them tea. Tea was often served first at the beginning of business meetings, which allowed two people to get to know one another, give them a moment to assess the mental state of the other, to take the time to consider their answers before speaking or conducting the actual business at hand.

This is something I have taken with me throughout my whole life. When I invite people over to my home, I offer them tea. Whenever my close friends are distressed, we sit down and have Tea. And we talk. I feel more connected to the folks who engage in this with me, and it makes me feel like I'm passing along something significant from my family and culture. At the end of long trips that I take with friends, I take them out to Tea. It's a good place to shove off all the weariness that can come from travel. It's a good place to reminisce about the good and the bad stuff. It's a good way for me to remind people that I love them. After major projects or events, I often do the same. I need it, and I can tell that sometimes other people need that space, too. There have been many times throughout my life where I've run out of the house at 1 am or later because someone asked me, "do you want to get tea?"

My grandmother and I had Tea this morning, and it was good. It put us both back on the errands we wanted to run and the chores we wanted to do by two hours or so, but in the end, the time that is spent together is more important than a few chores. She's not going to be around forever, and this is something we haven't done in a long time. She needed it. I needed it. Besides, I completely forgot it was Easter, so all the electronics shops I needed to hit to get the parts I needed were closed, and the downpour limited the amount of yard work we could accomplish today anyway. It crossed my mind that she is 79 this year, which means we may not have that many years left of doing this together. A big part of me just isn't ready to accept this yet. Her company is something I treasure immensely, and taking care of her is 80% of the reason why I still live at home. She knows it is selfish of her to want me to stay while she is still alive, but at the same time, for her I would endure a lot worse. And in a lot of ways, she is really my strongest connection to home. With my family gone off the deep end the way they have this past decade, most of us are pretty estranged from one another. It has forced me to really redefine my relationship with Korea on my own terms this past decade.

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An Approximation of a Cosmic Daughter

October 2011

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