“I thought it wouldn’t hurt even if somebody asked me about the past… was it all a lie?” One of my favorite South Korean artists, Lee Moon Sae, sings this lyric in his 1991 hit, “An Old Love.” This is one of my dad’s all-time favorite songs — I remember peeking into his bedroom at night and seeing him on his bed, softly strumming along to the melody on his guitar. Along with Lee Moon Sae, I acquired much of my parents’ music into my own collection growing up, as many of these old Korean songs from their teen years made up a large portion of our family road trip soundtracks. Because of my lacking Korean vocabulary, I often asked my dad what the singer was saying, and he would explain to me the themes of their music — of first loves, of personal sorrows, of humanity and of our relationship with nature. Even though many of these universal messages were widely touched upon in the “American” music that I also called my own, the fact that these old Korean songs were sung in a different language somewhat distant yet so inherent to me cast an entirely different spell. It was almost as if my Korean-American inability to translate and comprehend each word in its fullest intention, yet still feel the fullness of its emotional resonance, bore a unique experience I felt no perfect Korean or perfect American could really understand.
On these nights, I would often head back to my room and delve into The World of Alleys, a compilation of Kim Ki-Chan’s photographs of Seoul’s alleyway neighborhoods shot throughout the mid 1970s and up until the late 1990s. I endeared the authenticity captured in the photographs, and it seemed to me that these alley neighborhoods and the people in them were somehow just as candid as the photos themselves — little children grinned as they ran through the narrow alleyways and street corners; older men laughed with one another beside wisps of cigarette smoke and rusty mopeds; aged folk squatted on the streets in front of colorful clotheslines and worn newspapers. Korea at this time could be considered “poor” by our standards, but this didn’t seem to matter much to the people in these pictures; they wore second hand clothes and lived under fractured roofs, but they lacked nothing at all, they seemed to tell me.
This two-dimensional world of photographs then came into motion when I watched Reply 1988, a South Korean television series about five childhood friends growing up and stumbling through their season of adolescence. The vignettes shot of their lives were so picturesque: they lived in the same neighborhood alley and waited for one another at the bus stop every morning; the mothers pickled side dishes together for breakfast, and the kids combined their home-cooked lunches to create an epic bowl of bibimbap to share for lunch; the characters crowded around the television after school as the parents played cards after work. And at the end of their day, they all walked home on snowy winter nights and each fell asleep tuning in to the same radio station, many times playing music from Lee Moon Sae himself.
A few years ago, my parents and a few of their fifty-some-year-old friends gathered around the television and binge-watched this series during our annual Christmas ski trip. They watched as these kids grew up to the songs, references, and daily encounters of the Korea that they knew, and they laughed and reminisced in a way that seemed so pure and joyful. It illuminated a beautiful portrait of their world — one in which they saw their younger selves — and they cherished this show as a memory of their own. As for me, I also grew up watching and listening to the same music, television and art set in the late-20th-century South Korea of my parents’ adolescence — and I too very much fell in love. I found the context of their upbringing so beautifully simple in its aesthetic and character, and the stories told through these texts made me romanticize this version of Korea. I began to envy it as a far-off world that had just barely missed me, and suddenly, I found myself becoming incredibly nostalgic for a past that had never even belonged to me.
When I was a junior in high school, my dad made me watch the South Korean film 1987 with him when it was released in the AMC theater in our town. The film’s premise centered on the 1987 June Democratic Uprising in South Korea against the then-ruling military dictatorship and their attempted cover-up of a student protester’s death. It was one of the most horrifying and heart-wrenching films I have ever experienced. As I watched scenes of student Park Jeong Cheol being tortured by waterboarding, civilians coughing at the sight of tear gas, and parents scattering the ashes of their activist children, my eyes began to well up. But as I looked over to my left and watched my dad’s hand shake as he unfolded a drenched handkerchief from his eyes, I felt for some reason that his tears were heavier, they were deeper.
And then it hit me. The tears that filled his eyes were not the same that filled mine — his tears were the same tears that he had wept more than thirty years ago. My dad had actually grown up in Gwangju, the town in which the 1980 political demonstrations against the ruling military dictatorship of that time led to unprecedented police brutality and the deaths of more than 200 villagers. He had witnessed this massacre outside of his house as a fourteen-year-old boy, and because of this he later became very heavily involved in his university’s pro-democratic movements against the same regime that had once ravaged his hometown. I realized that watching 1987 was a very different experience for my dad because he saw himself in these characters: he had been arrested in those same demonstrations; he had undergone torture in those same political prisons; he had mourned the deaths of his friends in those same funerals. And I was not warranted to shed the same tears he had carried and, perhaps, still carries today.
After watching the movie, I found myself strangely wanting to call his story my own — not that I wished I had undergone the same hardship and political oppression my father’s generation faced, but in the sense that I deeply respected his struggle for Korea’s democracy and admired that he could proudly treasure his country as his own, and rightfully so. I, on the other hand, did not think I could, or should, be entitled to that same ownership at all — I acknowledged my identity as an American-born Korean American and would never want to assume the same emotional citizenship to Korea for myself. I had only ever been there a few times during my summer vacation, and I barely knew much beyond the borders of my grandma’s neighborhood. The distinctiveness that separated me from my Korean relatives had also been made explicit to me, as my grandma would always jokingly make comments such as “She can’t help but be an American” or “She really is an American child” whenever I would wolf down a plate full of french fries or show up in the summer with dark, sun-kissed skin. She said these things out of love and endearment, of course, but it still reminded me of the undeniably distinguishable Korean-American blood that coursed through me.
I knew that I was very proud of my own Korean-American identity and was grateful for the dual cultures I had been able to inherit, but sometimes I wondered what it would be like to belong to a story not in part but in whole — the way my parents could look back on their very Korean childhood as theirs or in the way many of my white friends could so-naturally talk about their neighborhood’s block parties and 4th-of-July barbeques every year, things I had never experienced or never felt quite fitting participating in. I felt that the norms and expectations of growing up in a middle-class American household that were represented in western movies and books did not apply to me, and I believed I was perpetually a mere observer in these narratives as they were simply not about me.
As grateful as I am for these works of art today — the Korean songs of my parents’ walkmans, Kim Ki-Chan’s photographs, Reply 1988, the film 1987 — I feel that they are somehow as alienating to me as they were comforting. These texts so beautifully and innocently invited me into a world that I could, for the first time, identify with, and this pivotally founded my desire to embrace and cherish my Korean heritage. But, at the end of the day, they reminded me that I never truly belonged to this period of Korean life or, perhaps more painfully, that I could never call any portion of my family’s homeland completely mine. I realized that these stories that I held so dearly as a part of myself were always stories told to me through old photographs and movies, not a true narrative of my own that I could confidently tell.
Last year, however, I rediscovered an interest in going through my old baby and childhood pictures. Stuffed in heavy albums and lost in the digital archives of my mom’s phone, many of these photos were taken by my mom’s old film camera back when my parents first moved to the U.S. or shot by parents of the childhood friends I grew up with. And as I now return to The World of Alleys and flip through the pages I had once bookmarked and dog-eared over the years, I realize that many of Kim Ki-Chan’s photographs from decades ago somehow look so alike the photos of my childhood found in my basement — not in setting but in the authenticity they evoke.
If someone were to go through my childhood pictures years from now, they would find a heap of archives unfolding a story of a Korean-American child growing up in the American 2000s and 2010s. We ate Bisquick pancakes for breakfast and shared pieces of our exotic-looking kimbap with our friends at lunch. We played in the local park district’s soccer league and secretly tried to figure out how to play Korean poker at our sleepovers. We watched Friends reruns on Nick at Nite and binge-watched English-subtitled Korean dramas online. We dreaded going to Korean School on Saturday mornings and were ready to help our parents translate emails whenever our help was needed. Of course, this is not the single story of all Koreans, Americans or even Korean-American kids for that matter; but I am realizing that this may, in fact, be the beauty of it all. The fragments of blessings, struggles and nuances that have comprised my upbringing as a Korean-American girl in the Chicago suburbs tell a narrative that is unique to me and the complexities of my identity. And this narrative is not absolute nor even close to being complete — but it is mine, and fully so.
MiC Columnist Yoon Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.