Non-Fiction: Patricia Park
HOW I STOPPED WORRYING AND LEARNED TO LOVE THE (NORTH) KOREANS
Published in Slice Magazine, Spring 2011
Koreans like to say they have a lot of jung, an unbridled sentiment of warm-heartedness they heap onto others and receive in return. But growing up Korean-American in Queens, I felt that jung was yet another imaginary concept I was told to believe in as a child—like Santa Claus or the Mets winning another World Series—that would only materialize into disappointment.
I belonged to a race of people that prided itself on its purity of blood and thinness of frame; as a robust child—with curly hair and a pronounced rear end to boot—I was a genetic glitch in an otherwise homogenous community. This fact was routinely pointed out by aunts and uncles, the cashiers at my parents’ grocery store, even the principal of the Korean afterschool my parents sent me to. “Look at your daughter,” she said each time my mother came to pick me up. “Don’t you feel ashamed?”
My parents monitored my eating habits with a militant eye. When I was suspected of foul play, they rifled through the garbage for evidence. The incriminating Snickers fun-size wrapper or Capri Sun pouch would be brought forth, and my punishment was a tongue-lashing that managed to invoke the collective disappointment of generations of Parks, tracing all the way back to the Chosun Dynasty. If this was jung, I could do without.
But sometime in my twenties, I was plagued with a persistent nagging I could only describe as a sense of unfinished business. I decided this would only be appeased if I reconnected with my roots in Korea. A well-meaning cousin tried to warn me of what awaited. “Sure you want to go through with this?” she said, looking me up and down. “Koreans can be…pretty blunt.” I was an adult; surely I’d developed a thick enough skin to be unruffled by a criticism or two. I left Queens and my cousin’s advice behind and flew to Seoul.
In retrospect, it was delusional to arrive in a city of twelve million demanding instant camaraderie. The Korean-Koreans I met failed to acknowledge me as one of their own. They told me I was a “foreigner,” that I wasn’t “our country’s people.” I was offered the kinds of comments I initially mistook for compliments: I looked like I played golf, or volleyball; I spoke “cute” Korean; I had the kinds of eyes Westerners liked. However, I was treated like a Korean when convenient—when I botched a verb conjugation of “our country’s language” or didn’t yangbo my subway seat quickly enough for an elder—and was censured accordingly.
A pivotal moment came when I saw a face that looked like mine on the side of a bus: tanned, with single-creased, almond-shaped eyes and round, high cheeks. I was the before for a plastic surgery ad. The after-shot? Pale-faced and doe-eyed, with double-creased lids and an unnaturally high nose bridge; a repeat of every young female face I saw on the streets. I felt like an early prototype of the race, one that South Koreans were trying to revise, to forget.
One afternoon on the train, I saw my first Korean homeless man: hair disheveled, his face so brown, it was almost red. I wouldn’t have believed he was Korean if not for his eyes—narrow, uncreased, and shining black. The same as my father’s eyes. The same as my eyes.
The man began distributing Xeroxes onto people’s laps. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he said. It was a photocopy of his ID card and a formal apology for his inability to find a job. I never spared some change to panhandlers in New York, but this man was Korean—shouldn’t that count for something? I thought of the deli owner by my old office who would comment on my bad Korean before tossing a freebie pack of gum in my bag.
I looked about for social cues; my fellow passengers continued texting on their cell phones, watching K-dramas from their portable video players, or just staring into space. None of them—none of us—reached for our wallets. I made excuses to myself—this man was an elder and a male, I’d pervert the Confucian hierarchy—but in truth, I felt no connection to him. When he recollected his paper from me, I didn’t meet his eye.
As I grew disillusioned with life in Seoul, I had the chance to travel to North Korea, but harbored no great expectations for my trip. The DPRK, with its hermetically-sealed borders, represented to me an undiluted version of an already strict, militant culture. On the flight, myriad fears should have rightfully fought for my attention: that I was entering a totalitarian regime representing not one, but two enemy states; that my mother was born in the same province as Kim Jong-Il, and if the DPRK government discovered this fact, I’d be handled as they do daughters of defectors (to the gulags). Instead, my central worry was whether I’d be criticized and rejected by yet another faction of my kinsmen.
The amount of interactions I was permitted with the locals surprised me; the pleasantness of those interactions surprised me more. I met historians at Kim Il-Sung commemorative sites, schoolchildren on playgrounds, the elderly on the subway, and to each I introduced myself as an American-born Chosun, using the DPRK word for “Korean.” I was a head taller and thirty pounds heavier than the next biggest North Korean, yet they enveloped me in their thin arms like a long-lost sister, daughter, granddaughter.
I also never imagined I’d be sitting around a fire with North Koreans, drinking homemade acorn liquor. I was on a fishing boat off the eastern coast when I said hello to a group of locals. They evaluated me—my Korean(ish) face, my American sneakers—and just when I expected to be met with a dismissive grunt, one of the men pushed a clam into my hand. It was char-grilled, as meaty as beef. A woman offered me her seat—a discarded piece of Styrofoam. She pried apart a clam shell and poured into one of the halves a clear liquid. “To your health, little sister!” she said, and I was made to drink.
We toasted to “one flowing blood line,” to unity for the Chosun people, to the new memories we were forming. Even my tour guide, standing at the far end of the boat and occasionally glancing over, broke into a smile. I was overcome with a tingling sensation, and it wasn’t just the bathtub soju. Was I experiencing that mythical jung? These North Koreans were so gaunt their cheekbones threatened to break the surface of their skin, and yet they shared all of their food and drink with me.
I wanted to do something to express my thanks; earlier, I had sent over a bottle of soju, but it was a production that required the guide as a go-between. If I flagged him down again, it would only draw more attention. Tourists were forbidden from carrying DPRK currency, but I remembered I had some U.S. singles I could give as souvenirs. They were brand-new bills, which required pulling out the stack from my wallet and licking my fingers as I counted…
The tone of the group immediately shifted.
“N-n-no!” they said, throwing up their hands. They turned their heads away from me, pushing back their makeshift chairs.
“I’m sorry, it’s just…as a memento…” My cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
My handler pulled me from the circle, and as we walked away, I pinched the skin of my forearms. In God We Trust. Had I only confirmed the archetype of the U.S. imperialist? That fragile moment of unity, shattered.
I’ve since returned to Seoul, having traveled to a place no Southern citizen can legally enter. This is a fact I’ve taken to dropping into each and every one of my conversations. “I never felt jung until I went to North Korea. Oh right, you’ve never been…”
The South Koreans, in turn, shake their heads like I’ve gotten it all wrong. Jung, they tell me, takes a lifetime to develop, be it with a favorite mentor or despised mother-in-law. What I’d experienced was just “one, big, propagandized show” designed to “elicit sympathy” in the form of “cold, hard cash.”
I often look back on that moment on the fishing boat, and it disheartens me to think it might have been staged. I wonder, too, about the last words the woman had whispered to me as I—disgraced—gathered my things to leave.
“Just never forget you’re Chosun,” she had said, waving away my dollar bills. “It’s the only memory worth holding onto.”
PATRICIA PARK was born and raised in New York City. She received her MFA in fiction from BU in 2009. In 2010 she was a Fulbright scholar to Korea, and as part of her research she also traveled to the North. She is at work on essays and a novel; she blogs at KoreanBodega.com.