A young biracial Korean American woman learns about the activist past—and present—of South Korea.
by HAEWON ASFAW
On the day of departure for my first trip to South Korea, I got to the airport and immediately began to panic. I broke down into uncontrollable tears. Will they know I am Korean? How will I communicate? What if they hate me?
As a biracial Ethiopian and Korean woman, born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, I had minimal communication with my extended Korean family growing up. My Korean grandparents disapproved of my mother’s marriage to my black father, and disapproved of us, their three biracial children.
Once I got to grade school, Korean classmates called me names like “a disgrace to my race” and the n-word. I coped by withdrawing from anything that reminded me I was Korean. To me, Korea was just another country on the map, a piece of land that was far away, filled with people that were nothing like me.
When I was in the fourth grade, my Korean grandmother met my sisters and me for the first time at my aunt’s wedding in Boston. She began working to reconnect with my family, and visited us in California. She was good to my father, got along well with my Ethiopian grandmother, and was kind to my sisters and me, spending most of her visit curling our hair with rollers, reading us our favorite books and cooking all types of delicious Korean food every night. It was nice being able to spend time with her, but it was as if she had popped up out of nowhere.
I was 15 when my aunt called to tell us that my grandmother’s body had been found in a river near her home in New York. She had committed suicide, leaving behind a brief note apologizing to the family. We did not spend much time talking about what happened. I struggled with feelings of shock and confusion, but I had only seen my grandmother twice in my life, so I made myself believe I didn’t have the right to feel too much pain. I coped by peppering my mom with questions late into the night, trying to find answers. She shared stories of her family’s immigration to the United States, discrimination, abuse within the home, alcoholism, and trauma that was met, as always, with silence.
Sparked by my grandmother’s death, I became interested in looking deeper into things playing out in the world around me. I started to get involved in the community by doing volunteer service as a way to change some of the struggles that I knew extended beyond that of my family. But it didn’t feel like enough. I needed something that would take my questions to the next level and wanted to see my investment have a deeper impact. As a junior in high school, I was introduced to the Bus Riders Union, an organization that came to prominence in 1994 for successfully suing Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Authority for its bus service, which was bad enough to count as a civil rights violation against the ridership, mostly low-income people of color. Coincidentally, BRU includes many progressive Korean Americans, including Hee Pok “Grandma” Kim, a 90-year-old organizer with the group. This countered my longtime assumption that Koreans are not vocal and are for the most part an apolitical and privileged class.
The Korean organizers began talking to me about the history of Korea, current issues, and introduced me to the Korea Education and Exposure Program (KEEP), a two-week trip to South Korea that immerses a delegation of young people into the activist culture of the peninsula. My mother, aunt and fellow activists encouraged me to apply, and I was accepted to embark on my first trip to South Korea this past summer. In participating, I was actively seeking to break the silence within my family, and to connect with unresolved parts of myself.
But once I was at the airport, I felt unprepared for the magnitude of my first journey to the homeland. I doubted I had the strength to enter the very place I held responsible for my feelings of exclusion, self-hate and isolation. After breaking down, though, I took a deep breath and made the decision that I would not take any of my painful experiences with me. This would be a new chapter. As I boarded the plane, I built up the strength to pick up my bags, and leave behind all of my judgment, self-criticism and assumptions.
During a whirlwind two weeks, our delegation learned about the struggles of survivors of torture under autocratic Korean regimes, unwed mothers, adoptees, LBGTQ people, migrant workers, labor unions and organizations doing anti-militarism and reunification work. We learned about Korea’s history of movement dance and songs of liberation. We went to Gwangju and visited the graves of the thousands of freedom fighters who were murdered, tortured and imprisoned in the fight for South Korean democracy during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. I was even given the honor of speaking at the 1,034th “comfort women” rally in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, demanding justice for the survivors of rape and sexual violence. I looked deeply into the halmeonis’ eyes, telling them it is our duty as Koreans to pass down the stories of our elders and not let their struggles be forgotten.
The highlight of our trip was a three-day stay in Gangjeong Village, on Jeju Island, where activists have been fighting against the construction of a naval base there. We participated in a peace march with children, students, religious figures, workers and the elderly from all over the peninsula and abroad. As the blazing sun beat down on our skin, we marched for eight hours. The march culminated in a festive celebration of theatrical performances, traditional Korean folk dance and powerful speeches that reflected the beauty and resilience of Korea’s long tradition of protest.
As the trip came to an end, I reflected on how it had begun. Our first stop had been the Demilitarized Zone. I thought back to stories I’d heard of my grandfather, fleeing from the north at the outbreak of the Korean War, and of his family, who had died during the bombing. I also thought about my still living Korean relatives, whom I will never know nor ever be able to connect with.
I understood that I was in a war zone, but I was surrounded by enthusiastic foreigners who sensationalized the DMZ as they took pictures of North Korea and posed, with their thumbs up, next to South Korean soldiers who were forbidden to move from their military stance. I was enraged. But this anger was a turning point in my journey. It was the first time I felt strong emotions towards Korea, making me realize that I am Korean, and I, too, am affected by the issues happening on the peninsula.
My grandfather is my last surviving grandparent, and he refuses to talk about his experiences during the war. The remarkable leaders I met during my trip, however, openly addressed painful issues. I left the peninsula with the stories that make up our history as Korean people. And, I became a proud part of Korea’s tradition of organizing and movement. I re-entered the U.S. with a deep sense of respect for the people I had met, and the warmth with which they embraced me.
Before Korea, I thought that once my grandfather passes, a part of my family’s history will leave with him. But now, I understand that we have a shared collective history that unites us all.
Anyone interested in learning more about KEEP, or more about the activist work of KEEP alums, is encouraged to contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was published in the February 2013 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the February issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)