한 & KOREA

June 2017, I moved to South Korea, my mother’s land, to go towards my own heartbreak for “comfort women.”

I lived in Seoul for nine months while translating testimonies of “comfort women,” some 200,000 women forced into sexual slavery during World War II by the Japanese military.

Lee Yong-Soo  halmuni  (grandmother) speaking to reporters in front of an exhibit memorializing the lives of “comfort women”, which features my translation work.

Lee Yong-Soo halmuni (grandmother) speaking to reporters in front of an exhibit memorializing the lives of “comfort women”, which features my translation work.

I believe that heartbreak is physical, a moment when your hand reaches your heart to brace for impact, to hold it in place to keep from bursting outwards.

To test my belief, I wrapped a heart-rate monitor around my chest to see if I could in fact record physical heartbreak. I found I could, and I did:

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heart break data:

My heart, still for 32 minutes, while translating an account of how Japanese soldiers disembodied a girl for refusing to obey. They then piled her remains, piece by piece, into a burlap sack.

While in Korea, I sought to translate three words: Han, Jung, Heung, that have been said to, together, make up the soul of Korea. The people I interviewed: taxi drivers, street vendors, activists, were divided. While some maintained the three were intimately Korean sentiments, others believed the three were intimately human and belonged to all. I agree with the latter and have attempted my own translations here:

HAN (한): the embers of pain, a persisting sorrow caused by injustice;
the story of how We came to be — and who We can become.


HAN is most evident in the pain and resilience of “comfort women” for their ongoing, 70-year battle with the Japanese government to be undeniably acknowledged and memorialized in history.

HAN is often pain without resolution. My father once explained to me,
"HAN forms when the casket closes, because only then do all the ways in which you failed to love come to mind. This pain has no release, so it sits forever, deep inside your heart." 

To live with HAN means to dignify our hurt and acknowledge that not all pain can be resolved, but also to maintain hope that we possess the resilience to transform our pain into beauty:

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Garden of


Buried Dreams

3x5 ft. biodegradable bamboo coffin

Here lies: sprouts grown from seed paper
planted in a ceremony
to bury the dreams that never came to be,
to offer them a chance at new life.

 

JEONG (정): 
an invisible string that connects Us all, manifested in an unspoken sense of responsibility for another's well being.

JEONG is the yin to HAN’s yang; neither cannot exist without the other.

I often wondered why in Korea, the tops of otherwise barren trees always bent with persimmon. When I asked a passing grandmother, she replied, “까치 밥? We leave them be. They belong to the magpies."

We are all connected through the shared pain of being alive. It is up to us, and no one else, to tend to each other's well-being. This is what it means to be human.
 

 

HEUNG (흥):
a joy that effortlessly bubbles out of your body.

HEUNG is joy in the face of life.

On a trip to Busan, once a refugee site for fleeing citizens during the Korean War, I stumbled upon dozens of seniors, dancing away at a subway stop.

From outside the circle, I smiled in amazement. Noticing my inhibition, an elderly man motioned me into a crowd of his friends. Grinning, he said, “Your body knows what to do. Lift your hands and let them fall.” I asked him what made Busan distinctly Korean. He motioned again to the people now dancing around us, “We let ourselves be free.”