In Memory Of
by Hyunsuk Yoo
“My name is Hyunsuk Yoo. I am a Korean-American adoptee. I wrote this in response to the death of George Floyd. My family is of multi-national background. My parents are white, my sister is African-American, and my brother is half Filipino and half Indian. The perspective I have gained from learning to navigate race, ethnicity, and heritage from being raised this way has heavily shaped my worldview. Though I have not had an immediate familial bond with Korea, my writing always comes back to this heritage as being Korean is such a major part of my identity.”
To pass the time, I have started doing Pilates, taking frequent naps. For three weeks, Tom insisted I watch Pulp Fiction. I’ve eaten close to a thousand Oreos in the past month and a half. This is not hyperbole. I can do a pack a day. Some people separate the tops and bottoms from their centers. My method is not delicate. They are sandwiches- I am not someone who cuts crusts or corners, but I know when to appreciate something that has been made for me.
In the first week of quarantine, I came home to my roommate, Araceli, with a bleach-soaked sponge in one hand and the dish rack in the other. Juan-Carlos, our other roommate, was not feeling well. He is prone to sinus infections and above the age of 60. I joined her in sanitizing the knobs to our front doors, the bathroom, the floors, the kitchen, etc. and for two weeks listened nervously to the sounds of his coughs as they echoed through our shared wall and bounced against my growing list of symptoms.
When we met, he asked where I am from. ‘No, not New Jersey’. Where I am really from, Korea. I add when he makes a face, “obviously South Korea.” He says that it is a beautiful country, asks if I have been back, tells me that he fought in the war. I wonder about this because he does not seem old enough. I assume it is a miscommunication, that he means to say he was stationed there, after the war. It is easy to misinterpret simple things. Like what the purpose is of telling someone you helped wage war on their land, or maybe only helped keep it divided.
I have started having dreams of being part of the family I grew up in. Isolation has reminded me in its constant humming way that I am now alone, that I crave for connection. AT&T reminds me with less subtle notices of my abhorrent data-usage. My unlimited-plan never imagined I would be trying to scroll through months at a time. It gives me incremental updates when its service will begin to slow, as if trying to wean me off.
Through text message, Nico marveled at the number of straight friends he has (maybe only 2), and of what straight people do. I told him, “They sit and wait for things to go back to normal.” I spent most of this time in my room looking forward to be able to return to work, to begin planning again. I tell him that even the good dreams feel bad. He asks if I have used my recently acquired health insurance to enroll in therapy. I have not. I do not fill out paperwork that includes my name and address wantonly. It would surprise anyone to find out the amount of contact information a complete stranger will illegally give your crying parent.
Three different addresses (six if you include email), two bank accounts, and countless job locations. I fear basic forms for this reason, anything that could lead back to me. I do not tell him that I am tired of running, that I half expected to see them outside of my building at the beginning of the pandemic. I check the windows of every car parked in front of my apartment before I get too close to turn around.
Araceli blasts the Macarena everyday, unironically. She also listens to artists that are and are not Pitbull, but I could not be asked to identify the impersonator. My adoptive mother used to listen to Nickelback and Creed in the car. The similarities of this situation are not lost on me. Sometimes you endure things for people you love, and sometimes unfortunate circumstances thrust the consequences of other people’s poor decisions upon you. Both of these examples feel like a result of the latter. Most things do nowadays.
There have been protests across America regarding the Stay at Home Orders. My roommates follow these closely and insist that the virus will be over by summer. Their common message is that people should be able to choose for themselves if they want to observe measures to prevent the virus’s spread. Two weeks ago, I stood in the Korean grocer with a freezer full of different shapes of rice cakes and wondered “What will we do with all of this freedom?” This week, I installed my air-conditioner and Araceli keeps ominously saying ‘wait and see’. It is easy to predict nothing, takeout comes with a fortune cookie to prove it.
George Floyd said, “I can’t breathe.” For five minutes, over and over. “I can’t breathe.” I have not watched the whole video. I doubt that I can. Two Asian police officers stood over him as he continues to repeat, “I can’t breathe,” and did nothing to stop Derek Chauvin. Chauvin knelt for three more minutes on top of George Floyd’s body and still they did nothing. “I can’t breathe.” These are the same words Eric Garner used when he was murdered by a New York City cop. The same words my African-American sister would say to our white mother when she was choking her. “Stop, please. I can’t breathe.”
The National toll for Covid-19 has reached 100,000. Almost a quarter of them are black. Their population only makes up 13 percent of the United States. These numbers say that we do not care if the system fails black people. They say that we do not care if the system is killing black people at disproportionate rates. They say that we do not care if they cannot breathe, whether it be from police brutality, respiratory disease, or tear gas. We only ask not to see it and feel grateful to not be the one held down.
In Pilates, Cam instructs us to inhale as we reach out. ‘To lift and then lower.’ Juan Carlos tells me that it is important to pray in this time. He says it is all we can do. ‘Exhale. Come back to center. Stay with that strength.’ I wonder if God found inner peace and turned his back on everything else. ‘Arms over your head and into wide prayer, thank your body and yourself for this commitment and give yourself a round of applause.’ I wonder if we were created in his image to do the same, to turn inwards. Or if:
‘The path of the righteous man
is beset on all sides by the
Inequities of the selfish
and the tyranny of evil men’
I have unfollowed every person on social media who talks about how nature is taking itself back. How the world is healing. The space between North and South Korea has become a wildlife preserve. The demilitarized zone has been unoccupied long enough for the environment to thrive. It is littered with land mines and barbed wire. Nature will grow in all of the places we leave behind, but I would pull every tree out by hand to see both halves of my country reunited. I would burn the whole thing to cauterize this wound.
I have been told that being adopted to Americans in a multi-national family is incredibly lucky, to be grateful for such fortune. But I wonder if is it much better to be an orphan here and not there? It has been five years since I have spoken to them. When my family talked to me about adoption they told me about the sacrifice you made for your child, and so I grew up believing that you had loved me so much, that the greatest thing you had given up was not your freedom, but that it was me. And when I was younger, I needed this. Some days I still do. I cling to it like a peach to its stone.
And I did so when I assumed you would have kept me, if only being a single mother in Korea was not so hard. I know now, or it may be more accurate to say that I hope— that you would not have. That given the opportunity, you would have had an abortion, the option to admit that you did not want to be a mother, and the agency over your body to not have had to carry me to term. At times, I find it hard to imagine you, not connected to me, to remove your status as my mother from you as a woman.
They say that the apple does not fall far from the tree, but what of the branches that have been grafted to it? Do they feel jeong for their new roots? Or han for being brought here?
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