Departure is the worst awakening. Departure rudely reminds you of either whom or what you are leaving behind or is leaving you. In this case, my mother and grandmother left after a week in Seoul. Departure also causes my emotional stability to wreak havoc and, therefore, do spontaneous things such as cry in front of Homever and in front of a line of young male police guards staring at me wondering what had happened that left me sniffling and wiping my eyes while stumbling into the mega store. Thankfully (?), departure also allows herself to heal quickly, leaving the memory of two generations of Korean women while I continue my routine in Seoul.
All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.
– Susan Sontag
Img. No. 1 Because I’ve made the mistake of neglecting my camera, I took mental snapshots during their stay. One is of which my grandmother, who grew up in South Korea throughout the 1930s, is crossing one of 2007 Seoul’s busy roads with her daughter, my mother, walking closely behind and her daughter, myself, following and hoping cars and mopeds won’t cut through. It is unfortunate to already know the answer to the question of when the next time will be when all three of us will be in South Korea at the same time again.
Img. No. 2 Over an hour away from Seoul, the air is still, the sky is clear and the sun stands high over my grandmother’s brother’s grave. Underneath two small grassy hills are himself and his wife, side by side, and in vivid imagination, hand in hand. To pay respect and reli(e)ve the spirit of his father’s soul, the cousin whom my mother hasn’t seen since childhood inserted a lit cigarette at the foot of his father’s grave, poured soju over the grassy mound and laid dried squid beside it. I turned and took in the view: Sitting high on a steep hill side, the grave overlooked a naturally priceless landscape that was not (yet) destroyed by urgent modernization.
Instinct and Despair
Img. No. 3 I was dragging my legs up a subway station stairwell after a painfully exhausting and stressful hour of shopping at Dongdaemun Stadium. The night was the coldest that Seoul had experienced since her seasonal change into fall: 0 degrees Celsius. Sitting alongside the stairwell was a blanketed hunch that sat behind neatly aligned neon-colored plastic piggy banks on a flattened cardboard box. An old woman was clutching the blanket tightly around her face that looked well past 70. Her eyes were glossed over as she briefly looked up at me. There was a problem with this picture: an elderly woman was being brutally punished by the cold and left dependent on the financial returns of the useless things in front of her that nobody will buy. My mother turned to look back at me as we paused in front of the woman, while people pushed each other to pass by the three of us. The brief moment was eternal. “Isn’t that sad?” 엄마 asked. The old woman had already averted her gaze to nowhere.
That was the coldest night I’ve experienced in Seoul thus far.
Img. No. 4 They say that upon seeing a ghost, chills quickly crawl up one’s skin and a brief madness is experienced that nobody else can fully embrace because nobody else was there to witness the anomalous phenomenon with you.
One night while lying on the floor where she was sleeping, my mother unraveled her thoughts of Seoul, what used to be her home. There is something about black evenings that invites people to unlock some truth. For the first time since my arrival into the country, I slept well that week because I found comfort in discovering that I was not the only one who felt uneasy with her place in South Korea. Seoul, as I’d discovered, was as foreign to her as it was to myself. So I asked, but wouldn’t you want to come back to where you grew up? No. Family is home. My mom would mumble as she dove into a deeper sleep and I darted a few more questions in the middle of the night. I’d hear an answer, then a rustle of the blanket, and a security that she’ll flip channels on the television early the following morning while thinking.
On the day that both women had left, I returned to my officetel after work to find my floor naked of a mattress and blankets, a kitchen that has been cleaned up and spotless, and a table that was no longer covered with clothes and loose change. For a week there was a strong denial that change will eventually occur while a routine was building up. Seeing the sudden change from the entrance of my officetel, I was convinced that surely, a ghost had swept through.
I give up pretending that I know this place. – 엄마