There is a cemetery in Korea whose name I do not know, far away from Seoul and deep in the mountains, where my maternal ancestors are buried. Apart from my grandfather who passed when I was eight, I do not know their names or faces.
When my grandfather was alive, we visited the cemetery regularly. Each grave consists of a grassy mound framed with stone, a marker bearing hangul and hanmun, a small altar where visitors place food and drink for their dead and a stone vase for flowers.
While living in Korea, I didn’t think much about this cemetery. Since coming to the U.S., however, I’ve been thinking more about it.
I think more about it because I’ve realized that I have not been there in nearly a decade and may not be there again for a long time. I think more about it because I’m realizing that while I’ll continue to visit Korea, I may never live there again. I think more about it because I lived in Korea for 12 years but did not take enough time to understand it.
I call myself Korean, but I have little to no relationship with my family’s dead and an increasingly tenuous relationship with those left behind.
Maybe this was all inevitable. My father is American, and I have always been American. My legal first name is Sarah. In Korea I attended a K-12 U.S. college preparatory school for 12 years. I always planned on going to college in the States.
English was always my first language. As a child, I would blather loudly in English in public till my parents scolded me. I could not write or read hangul until I was six. Even then I didn’t have the patience to read Korean books; I found them too difficult, and besides, I was apparently too busy with my English homework.
From time to time, my father warned me that I may completely forget my “mother tongue” and roots. To seven-year-old me, this meant nothing.
As I grew older my Korean deteriorated. I began to struggle to make conversation with my extended family. In high school my classmates and I spent holidays at hagwons (cram schools) studying for exams.
I began to regret neglecting my heritage. My poor Korean was a constant source of shame. I was constantly told that I was not a “good Korean,” and I wanted to be. But that required time and energy, which I told myself I did not have much of. I could not vote in Korea. I was going to live in America. I rejected blood purity and nationalism, particularly ethnonationalism. I wondered whether “being Korean” was really just a nationalist construct. Did being Korean — let alone a “good Korean” — really matter?
When I came back to the U.S. in 2016, I thought I would experience a sense of homecoming. Instead, I spent my first few months at Hopkins with crippling homesickness and an oncoming Trump presidency. I did not feel like an American or want to be one.
To cope with my homesickness, I watched Korean films. I surfed Youtube for clips of 2000s K-dramas I watched with my family when my maternal grandfather was alive, when family gatherings were larger and more frequent. I kept a book of unfamiliar Korean words.
I imagined what my life would have been like had I been born in Korea and gone to a Korean school. I had friends from Korea who found community in Korean Student Associations. With my broken Korean, I could not enjoy that same security my high school friends found.
I’ve spent the past three years trying to learn more about Korea than I have in the 12 years I lived there. That I’ve been able to learn what I have in the past three years makes me hopeful. But it also makes me realize what I’d taken for granted, what I’ve lost and what I may have yet to lose.
At times I feel embarrassment and guilt. I’ve learned much of what I know about Korea not from living there or engaging with family, but from my classes, the internet and (shame) white people. At Hopkins, I’ve taken courses on the Korean language, literature, art and history. I learned Korean recipes not from my mother, but from the YouTuber Maangchi. I improved my Korean and my understanding of Korean customs watching “Korean Englishman,” a YouTube channel where white British men speak better Korean than I do. I learned about han from Anthony Bourdain.
I tell myself that I have ties to my Korean identity. It’s where my family is and was born, where I’ve lived for 12 years. I call myself Korean because I harbor resentment — the han — that many Koreans share for the traumas their families endured generation after generation: Japanese colonial rule, the division of the peninsula, the Korean War, the pain of diaspora and assimilating in places where — no matter how hard you try — you will always be “othered.”
Yet I’ve only read about or imagined most of these traumas, or heard details here and there from my parents. I know more about Baltimore than the community I grew up in. I know little of most of my extended family, of my late grandfathers and my ancestors. I can’t remember the last time I partook in jesa.
Can I call myself Korean when I know so little of my family? Can I call myself Korean when I have almost no relationship with my family’s dead?
I’ve spent most of my life working — to excel in my Americanized school in Korea, to get into an American college, to get a job in America. In working, however, I’ve also been forgetting.
I’ve had less time for my family. I continue to forget the Korean I have struggled to learn since coming to college. I cannot remember the names of some of my relatives, or the sound of my maternal grandfather’s voice. After graduation I will continue to work hard, and I may continue to forget.
In spite of all my confusion, ignorance and distance from my heritage, I cling to my Korean identity. I cling to it because of what generations before mine have endured: colonial rule, the Korean War, totalitarian governments, coming to the U.S. as first-generation immigrants. They were forced to endure these because they were Korean. They endured so that I could have a more privileged life. That, in the end, must mean something.
And while I will never truly know those who have passed, perhaps one day I will resume paying tribute to them. Perhaps, as I grow older, I may learn more about them, find new ways to remember them.
And there is still time with the living.