On a snowy day fifteen winters ago, I came home.
Asia was in crisis, and I came to save Korea. Land of my birth, home of my ancestors, my gohyang.
We touched down early at Gimpo, dawn uncurling its rosy fingers outside. “Welcome to the Land of Morning Calm,”the PA said. Snow fell lightly; a blanket of white covered the giwa rooftops of the houses lining the runway.
They had told me in New York to pack my bags for Seoul, saying, “You are Korean, aren’t you?”
There was a low hum at the airport. Visitors shuffling in line, officers tapping keyboards, bags circling on the carousel. Beneath it all, a stillness. The stillness of my childhood that used to fill our classrooms. When we were taught to be quiet, and not move. Words unspoken, thoughts unexpressed.
The officer at Passport Control looked from the eagle on my blue passport to me. “Koondae?” he asked. Military duty.
When I was twelve, I asked my father why we had decided to immigrate to the United States. “For your and your dongseng’seducation,” he said, tousling my hair. One night, Abuji came home, Chivas on his breath, and he told me, “Today, you’re naturalized, an American citizen. So you will not grow up to be one of them,” he said. “Never serve in That Dictator’s army.”
I shook my head. “American,”I told the officer. Wordlessly, he stamped my passport, waved me through.
One day back in Seoul, I came home from school to see Abujistanding by a small fire in the backyard of our house. He was burning a bundle of clothes. I could make out his officer uniforms, once so crisp, now a wrinkled heap, throwing off black smoke. I saw the medals of honor glow, then burn in the embers. I knew Abuji’s job had been in the army, in intelligence. Through the smoke, I could make out tears running down his face. It was the first time I saw my father cry.
I made my way through the arrivals area, where there were not many people. There was no one to greet me.
“Home is where you start from,” Abuji said, when he came to see me off at Kennedy Airport. “Over twenty years since we left, but it’s still your gohyang.” His face looked suddenly aged, already weak from disease, but the light there still. The light of a will to struggle, against his illness, and time. “Just need to keep breathing,” he said, tapping his frail chest.
Outside, the morning fog rose, dissipated with the distant rumble of jets flying into the sky. On the Olympic Highway, the snow started to fall again, lightly, the thickening white carpet punctured by green bristles of rice plants.
The air felt heavy, as though weighed down with the burden of history. I felt the tiredness of the long flight. I rolled down the window in the taxi, and I saw snowflakes descend silent, and soft, and slow, Longfellow’s poem of the air, revealing the secret of despair, and I thought of the centuries of foreign invasions of Korea, the colonial occupation by Japan, the Korean War, pitting brother against brother, leaving two countries at war still, a people divided. The long Han River snaked along beside us. I imagined the spirits from the war roaming the hills of Namsan and the ghosts of the tortured dissidents haunting the Blue House, where Park Chung Hee launched the headlong prosperity drive that produced the Miracle on the Han. All the ghosts of the past. I felt light-headed, fatigue creeping over my body. The tenth-wealthiest nation in the world, now on the brink of a sovereign default. I closed my eyes and held my breath in. I waited for my consciousness to dissolve.
I was back home, where I started.