My Korean Mother and I Speak to the Dead

·9-min read
Photo credit: Design by Ingrid Frahm
Photo credit: Design by Ingrid Frahm
Photo credit: Design by Ingrid Frahm
Photo credit: Design by Ingrid Frahm

I met my first ghost when I was eight.

We lived on Schofield Barracks at the time, an Army base established in 1908 to defend what was then the United States’ new territory, Hawaii. I was sleeping over with a friend who lived in colonel’s housing, which, unlike our cinder block duplex, was a standalone bungalow with a courtyard in the middle. The house had a servant’s quarters with its own bathroom, which the family used as a playroom. Those old houses were perfect for playing pretend; the architecture of the buildings revealed the handprints of generations past, the spectral servants who had cared for military families like ours.

I was scared of aliens and Abraham Lincoln and Lord Voldemort and Jesus and the dark. That night, I couldn’t fall asleep, and I was scared to be awake alone in this old house. I stared into the blue darkness and listened as my friend breathed slowly. A gecko clicked his tongue at me from a dark corner. And my pale, ghostly halmoni, my grandmother, stood over me and rested her hand on my forehead until I relaxed into sleep.

My halmoni had been dead for three years when she visited me that night. She’d died suddenly and violently from a gunshot wound; my mom was 27 when she flew home to Korea to clean her mother’s blood from the floor of the shop her parents had owned.

My mother and I talk about ghostly encounters in such a matter-of-fact way. She saw her first ghost when she was a child too—at a jesa, a Korean memorial ceremony.

The low table was loaded with fruit and dried fish and rice and soju in offering to deceased ancestors, and when they were summoned, she saw her grandparents, translucent and white, and ready to join the gathering.

A woman once stopped my mother in a supermarket and told her that she had abilities to speak to the dead. “It’s a power I can develop if I want to,” my mother bragged. But she didn’t want to. Instead, she contents herself with everyday medium activities. She interprets my dreams and calls me based on uncannily accurate feelings about my mood or anxiety level.

When I was 18, my parents dragged me to a dinner party at a gleaming white home on top of a hill on Oahu. The partygoers, a group of military officers and their spouses and children, gathered in the backyard, which overlooked crumbling homes in the poorer nearby neighborhood.

I nibbled salami on crackers and made conversation with grown-ups while agitation crept into my periphery, slowly clouding my vision of this house with its high ceilings and freshly cut fruit and precocious children. I couldn’t locate the source of my unease in my surroundings. I couldn’t even articulate what exactly I was feeling. But I had the distinct sense that we were not in a good place. I kept my eyes on my parents, silently begging them to turn in early that night.

In the car on the way home, I mentioned that the party had felt weird. My parents faced forward, quiet for a moment.

Then, my mother said that she had felt it too. The owner had given her a tour, bragging about the deal they got on the house, which had been foreclosed on the year before. It was 2010, and Hawaii was one of the states with the highest rates of home foreclosures in the wake of the recession.

“She took me to the garden, and I felt a darkness in one corner. She told me the past owner had committed suicide there the year before,” my mother said.

Her body had lain there for hours before anyone found her.

“If I knew that about the house’s history, I would never live there,” my mom said. “But she kept saying they got such a good deal.”

We didn’t go back to that house again.

Ghosts feel distinctly Korean to me, and they’re something I’ve shared closely with my mother. After a childhood in Hawaii, where my classmates called me a haole, a white person, and I believed it, I’ve journeyed toward my Korean identity with trepidation, tempered by voices in my head—classmates, friends, my own family members—who say that my Koreanness is merely a feature, like being left-handed or having brown hair. So I search myself for characteristics I can hold up to my mother and say, yes, that is something we share. Something Korean.

In her book Haunting the Korean Diaspora, Grace M. Cho draws upon Nicolas Abraham and Maria Tolok’s work on intergenerational trauma to situate the ghosts that haunt the Korean diaspora: “An unspeakable trauma does not die out with the person who first experienced it. Rather, it takes on a life of its own, emerging from the spaces where secrets are concealed.” The ghosts grow from silence, from concealment, from shame.

Cho writes about a ghostly phenomenon that occurs in the Gyeongsang provinces, a region that “boasts ‘the dubious honor’ of possibly having experienced not only the highest incidence of civilian massacres by the U.S. military during the Korean War but also the highest concentration of girls conscripted into sexual slavery for the Japanese military during the colonial period.” According to local folklore, their interred bodies have changed the chemical makeup of the environment and spontaneously combust into little bursts of ghostly light that release han, a Korean concept of deep intergenerational despair, into the world.

My haraboji grew up in Kaesong, a city in what is now North Korea. He was born in the 1930s under Japanese colonialism and was forced to speak Japanese in public and at school. In 1945, his father told him and his siblings to flee to the southern city of Daecheon, where it would be safer. He was 11. He and his two brothers and two sisters left home on foot. At some point, they were separated, and he traveled the remainder of the 200 miles on foot and alone.

How did he stay alive during that time? Did he find a friend on the road who kept watch while he slept? Did a strange, kind woman take pity on him and share her rice? What did he see that would haunt him for the rest of his life?

My haraboji did not talk about his journey to the south. He did not talk about how his family cleaved at the 38th parallel, a line drawn by foreign governments that rendered his father a stranger and subject of an enemy state. But he did drink. He did abuse my grandmother, and my mother, and my uncle, the one intact family he did have.

My haraboji died on New Year's Eve in 2017. I found out when my younger sister called me, panicking. He’d lived in Korea at the time, and my mother had only reconnected with him a few years prior. I could hear my mother wailing in the background. It was an utter despair I’d never heard before. Like something that had been trapped deep within her had been released, against her will. When she came to the phone, she sounded like a child, yearning for comfort that I couldn’t give her.

When my mother moved away from home, she was 22. She met an American GI while working at a shop on the Yongsan Garrison, the military base where my father was stationed.

I’ve heard the story of my parents’ meet-cute a million times. My mother tells it at parties, laughing over glasses of wine at the familiar beats: the night they met, the friends they were with, the first date to see the film The Lion King. Now, it occurs to me that it’s one of the few stories from her past she readily offers to new acquaintances, and it’s the only story of her life that I know so thoroughly I can repeat it in precise detail. It’s as if she repeats this story so there’s no chance for questions she doesn’t want to answer.

Korean women who performed sex work for American GIs, willingly or not, are called yanggongchu. It’s also a derogatory term for Korean women who married American GIs because of how closely those two groups are linked. Cho argues that the yanggongchu is a ghost who bears “secrets about the traumas of the Korean War and U.S.-Korea relations—and, in many cases, about her own past.”

Because of the pervasive culture of shame and secrecy around sex work, it’s not clear how many Korean women worked as yanggongchu, either of their own will or through coercion, or as wianbu, comfort women, for Japanese soldiers the generation before. I do know that this work is so pervasive that my mother says among Korean wives of American soldiers, discussion of the past is strictly off-limits unless the woman herself brings it up. The chance that a woman met her husband through sex work is just too high.

“It’s a locked door,” my mother said.

After my parents married, they moved to Kansas, where I was born. She was 23 and lonely, so when they moved to Fort Carson in Colorado, she sought out a group of Korean wives not much older than she was, with children who looked like me: that telltale honey-brown hair so many of us have when we’re little.

They sat around smoking, and between drags off their cigarettes, they asked her where she was from.

“Oh, I’m from Seoul,” she said, confused, because she had already explained her background to them.

“No,” they said, rolling their eyes. “What club are you from? Where did you meet your husband?”

My relationship with writing about my Korean identity is fraught and tangled due to my tenuous relationship with my parents’ past and their willingness to speak about it. The ambivalence I feel about sitting in my experience as a Korean woman fully owning that description extends to creating work that excavates Korean diasporic trauma. In “The Indebted,” from her collection Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong writes, “I used to think I’d rather leave a blank space for my pain than have it be easily summed up for consumption. But by turning to prose, I am cluttering that silence to try to anatomize my feelings about a racial identity that I still can’t examine as a writer without fretting that I have caved to my containment.”

I don’t want to write to fill an expectant frame of yellow suffering, but the ghosts of intergenerational trauma grow from silence. They live in between words not said, stories not told, and pain not processed.

Documenting these stories—asking my mother what she knows of her father’s journey to the south, if she’d ever heard the word yanggongchu, if that was why she didn’t have many Korean friends—is a way of exorcising the hold these ghosts have on me, on us; a way to combust into bursts of ghostly light and let the stories go.

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