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Repost: Our Loving Each Other Would Not Be Now The Obstacle That It Was Then

I am repost­ing this piece from 2012 because in read­ing the explo­ration of cross-cul­tur­al/in­ter­ra­cial/­transna­tion­al rela­tion­ships in Chi­ma­man­da Ngozi Adichie’s Amer­i­canah I reliv­ed some of what I wrote about back then.


This arti­cle in The New York Times, by Choe Sang-Hun, fas­ci­nates me:

[Jas­mine] Lee, 35, who was born Jas­mine Bacur­nay in the Philip­pines, made his­to­ry in April when she became the first nat­u­ral­ized cit­i­zen — and the first noneth­nic Kore­an — to win a seat in South Korea’s Nation­al Assem­bly. Her elec­tion reflect­ed one of the most sig­nif­i­cant demo­graph­ic shifts in the country’s mod­ern his­to­ry, a change Ms. Lee says “Kore­ans under­stand with their brain, but have yet to embrace with their heart.”

Only a decade ago, school text­books still urged South Kore­ans to take pride in being of “one blood” and eth­ni­cal­ly homo­ge­neous. Now, the coun­try is fac­ing the prospect of becom­ing a mul­ti­eth­nic soci­ety. While the for­eign-born pop­u­la­tion is still small com­pared with that of coun­tries with a tra­di­tion of immi­gra­tion, it is enough to chal­lenge how South Kore­ans see them­selves.

In 1988–89, when I was teach­ing Eng­lish in Seoul to the very priv­i­leged men and women who came to study at the hag­won where I worked, my stu­dents often used the phrase “one blood” when explain­ing to me why it was so impor­tant for Kore­ans to mar­ry oth­er Koreans–traditionally, as some­one quot­ed in Choe’s arti­cle puts it, “some­one born to Kore­an par­ents in Korea, who speaks Kore­an and has Kore­an looks and nation­al­i­ty. Their rea­son­ing, I remem­ber think­ing at the time, i.e., that eth­nic and cul­tur­al uni­ty was the only way suc­cess­ful­ly to main­tain Kore­an cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty and pass their tra­di­tions on from one gen­er­a­tion to the next, sound­ed an awful lot like the argu­ments against inter­faith dat­ing and inter­mar­riage that were part of my Jew­ish edu­ca­tion in the Unit­ed States. For my stu­dents in Seoul–no dif­fer­ent­ly than for my fel­low Jews–this kind of exclu­siv­i­ty was not about impos­ing an ide­ol­o­gy of racial or eth­nic puri­ty on the rest of the world; it was about encour­ag­ing a very spe­cif­ic kind of choice in valu­ing one’s own cul­tur­al and eth­nic roots.

Amongst Jews, espe­cial­ly Ashke­nazi ortho­dox Jews–I don’t know if the same is true of Sephardim, Mizrachi or oth­er Jew­ish commnuities–the terms of that encour­age­ment are very harsh. The scene in Fid­dler on the Roof in which Tevye dis­owns Cha­va because she has mar­ried Fyed­ka, who is not Jew­ish, epit­o­mizes this:

Nonethe­less, no mat­ter how much your heart might break for Cha­va or how deeply you might con­demn Tevye, there is some wis­dom in the posi­tion he takes, not in dis­own­ing his daugh­ter, but in his belief that the only way to pre­serve the Jew­ish tra­di­tion he knows is for Jews to mar­ry oth­er Jews. After all, if you want, in any tra­di­tion­al sense, to have a Jew­ish fam­i­ly, live accord­ing to Jew­ish val­ues, observe the Jew­ish reli­gion, it doesn’t make much sense to mar­ry some­one who does not share those val­ues, or who is unwill­ing to make the changes nec­es­sary in her or his life that ful­ly shar­ing them will require. This fact–that some­one who wants to can become Jewish–separates the Jew­ish from the Kore­an ver­sion of “one blood” think­ing. Indeed, “one blood” is not an accu­rate label for how Jews see this ques­tion at all, for what­ev­er else may be true about the nature of Jew­ish reli­gious identity–and the pro­hi­bi­tion against inter­mar­riage is a reli­gious prohibition–Jews do not racial­ize it. Anti­semites might; the Nazis cer­tain­ly did; but as far as I know there is no main­stream Jew­ish group that sees the reli­gious aspect of being Jew­ish as akin to any of the racial or eth­nic cat­e­gories with which we are famil­iar, white, Black Asian and so on. There might be dis­agree­ment amongst Jews as to which kinds of con­ver­sions ought to be accept­ed as valid; there might be sus­pi­cion of con­verts in some quar­ters and even dis­crim­i­na­tion against them; but the idea that con­ver­sion is pos­si­ble and that con­verts ought to be accept­ed ful­ly as “nat­u­ral­ized” mem­bers of the Jew­ish reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty is not a con­tro­ver­sial one in and of itself.

Not so in Korea, where the resis­tance to the mul­ti­cul­tur­al, multiethnic/racial inte­gra­tion rep­re­sent­ed by peo­ple like Ms. Lee makes clear just how deeply racial­ized Kore­an iden­ti­ty is. This, again, is from Choe’s arti­cle:

After Ms. Lee’s elec­tion, anti-immi­gra­tion activists warned that “poi­so­nous weeds” from abroad were “cor­rupt­ing the Kore­an blood­line” and “exter­mi­nat­ing the Kore­an nation,” and urged polit­i­cal par­ties to “puri­fy” them­selves by expelling Ms. Lee from the Nation­al Assem­bly.… “[Peo­ple like Ms. Lee] bring reli­gious and eth­nic strife to our coun­try, where we had none before,” said Kim Ky-baek, pub­lish­er of the nation­al­ist Web site Min­jok­corea. “They cre­ate an obsta­cle to nation­al uni­fi­ca­tion. North Korea adheres to pure-blood nation­al­ism, while the South is turn­ing into a hodge­podge of mixed blood.”

The rhetoric, of course, is very sim­i­lar to the white suprema­cist rhetoric you still hear in the Unit­ed States, stat­ed explic­it­ly on the fringes and then more and more sub­tly cod­ed as it gets clos­er and clos­er to the cen­ter, but it’s not the par­al­lels to our own, home­grown vari­eties of racism and xeno­pho­bia that has drawn me to write about this arti­cle. Rather, it’s the way the arti­cle brought back to me my own, heart-break­ing expe­ri­ence with the “one blood” ide­ol­o­gy and the hav­oc and poten­tial ruin it caused in the life of a woman I loved.

The entire sto­ry is too long to tell here, so I will start in the mid­dle. I returned to Korea in the sum­mer of 1990 to see once more the mar­ried woman with whom I’d fall­en in love the pre­vi­ous year. To tell you how Yoon and I came to be lovers will require an entire post unto itself, so I will say here, sim­ply, that I did not pur­sue her; nor, real­ly, did she start out to pur­sue me. Rather, we became friends first because she sought me out as some­one she could talk to about how unhap­py she was in her mar­riage, so unhap­py that she’d con­tem­plat­ed sui­cide. She’d tried to talk with her fam­i­ly and friends about it, but because her hus­band was not abu­sive and was, in fact, by the stan­dards of the time, real­ly quite lib­er­al for a Kore­an man, the pri­ma­ry response that Yoon received was that she should stop com­plain­ing, con­sid­er her­self lucky to be mar­ried to him, and focus on being a good wife and moth­er.

It was, in oth­er words, out of a kind of des­per­a­tion that she sought me out–I’d been her teacher–and while, in hind­sight, I can see how agree­ing to be her friend under these cir­cum­stances might have made our sex­u­al and roman­tic involve­ment inevitable, that was the far­thest thing from my mind when we sat down in the Char­lie Chap­lain cof­fee shop around the cor­ner from the school where I taught. Equal­ly to the point, I believed her then–and con­tin­ue to believe her now, even though she is long gone from my life–that she did not set out to seduce me. Any­way, I will tell the entire­ty of this sto­ry anoth­er time. What I want to tell you about here is what hap­pened when Yoon and I were out to din­ner that sum­mer in 1990–her hus­band was traveling–and she told me that, had I asked her to come with me the pre­vi­ous sum­mer when I returned to the US, she would have said yes with­out hes­i­ta­tion.

I want­ed to ask you,” I said, “but I had no way of sup­port­ing you. We would have had no place to live; I did not have a job. It would have been a dis­as­ter.”

This was com­plete­ly true. When I came back from Korea in the sum­mer of 1989, I moved in with my grand­moth­er. I sim­ply could not imag­ine show­ing up on her doorstep with a Kore­an woman and her five-year-old daugh­ter in tow–because I could not imag­ine that Yoon would leave her daugh­ter behind as well. “Hi! I’m back. Meet my new fam­i­ly.”

By the time we were sit­ting in that restau­rant in the sum­mer of 1990, how­ev­er, I did have a job, and a place to live, and I believed I could–I was more than ready to–support her and her daugh­ter no mat­ter what it took to do so. I was ready to mar­ry her. “If you still feel the same way,” I told her, assum­ing that she would of course under­stand my invi­ta­tion to include her daugh­ter, “if you are still as unhap­py as you were, come back with me when I go home.” I don’t remem­ber exact­ly how it came to be that Yoon told me yes, though I know she did not give me her answer that night. I do remem­ber well, how­ev­er, the moment she told me that she would not be bring­ing her daugh­ter. We were walk­ing around Seokchun Lake at sun­set talk­ing about what our lives would be like in New York. We stopped in a seclud­ed area to sit for a few min­utes, and I said some­thing about reg­is­ter­ing her daugh­ter for school once we got to New York. Yoon looked away and explained that she would not–could not, actually–bring her daugh­ter with us. Sim­ply put, it would have been kid­nap­ping. At that time in Korea, in the event of divorce, fathers retained sole cus­tody of their chil­dren. I was dev­as­tat­ed. Had I known this, I would nev­er have asked Yoon to come with me, but this also is not the part of the sto­ry that Choe’s arti­cle brought me back to, and so you will have to wait for anoth­er post to hear about it.

Rather, the moment that read­ing Choe’s arti­cle made me relive was the night Yoon brought me to the build­ing where her old­er sis­ter lived so that she could show me to her. On the way there, Yoon explained that she’d been talk­ing to her sib­lings a lot since she’d decid­ed to come with me, and she was pret­ty sure she’d con­vinced them that leav­ing her hus­band was the right thing for her to do. Nonethe­less, once we got to her sister’s build­ing, Yoon asked me to wait out of sight on the land­ing just below the apart­ment. She didn’t know who else was going to be there and she didn’t want to take any chances. Yoon knocked and her sis­ter came to the door; the two women exchanged a few words; and then Yoon called for me to show myself. When I stepped into view, her sister’s eyes went wide with shock and her mouth quiv­ered with hatred and dis­gust. Clear­ly Yoon had not told her that I was migook saram, an Amer­i­can. “Go!” She screamed and Yoon trans­lat­ed the rest for me lat­er. “Be an American’s whore! May your daugh­ter do the same.”

Yoon, I think, had expect­ed this response, or at least it had not sur­prised her. I, in my naïveté, had been com­plete­ly unpre­pared, though I have some­times thought that maybe her inten­tion had been all along to strip away any illu­sions I might have had about what her choice to be with me would cost her. I would watch Yoon bear the bur­den of that cost over the sev­er­al months that she lived with me after she arrived in the Unit­ed States; and when she told me she would have to move out of my apart­ment, I under­stood it was large­ly that bur­den that moti­vat­ed her, and when I received in the mail the Kore­an Air­lines fre­quent fly­er cards that she had sent to my address–as, I am sure, a way of let­ting me know she’d gone back to Korea–I knew the bur­den had final­ly grown more heavy than she could bear.

I am still haunt­ed by the fact that I nev­er got the chance to say good­bye to her.

I often won­der what this sto­ry sounds like when Yoon tells it. She and I nev­er had a chance to come to terms togeth­er with what we’d done, and it may very well be that the sense she has made of our bro­ken attempt to be togeth­er bears no resem­blance at all to the sense I have made, and am still mak­ing, of it. Nonethe­less, how­ev­er true it may be that I act­ed out of an arro­gant, self­ish, and self-delu­sion­al naïveté in think­ing that I could so eas­i­ly make a life with Yoon and her daugh­ter here in the US, it is also true that lov­ing her, that her lov­ing me, unleashed upon her–and no doubt with­in her as well–the fury of a cul­ture hell-bent on pre­vent­ing that kind of love from infil­trat­ing its bor­ders. I regret many things about my deci­sion to ask Yoon to come with me to the Unit­ed States, and I often wish I had that moment to do over, but I do not regret lov­ing her; I do not regret one sec­ond of the time I spent with her in Korea.

This is why Choe’s arti­cle struck such a chord with me, I think: because it means that a mixed cou­ple, like Yoon and me, could fight to be togeth­er in Korea in a way that was not real­ly pos­si­ble when I was there. I am not try­ing to dis­miss or triv­i­al­ize the dif­fi­cul­ties and com­plex­i­ties, the moral and eth­i­cal ques­tions that our rela­tion­ship was tan­gled up in because she was mar­ried and she had a child; I am sim­ply acknowl­edg­ing that, it seems, the sim­ple fact of our lov­ing each oth­er would not be now the obsta­cle that it was then. And that can only be a good thing.

2 Comments

  • Azam Posted July 20, 2017 2:55 pm

    Hi Dear Richard,
    the sto­ry was great, it was a trag­ic Romance. it seems that in mul­ti-cul­tur­al coun­tries like yours, this prob­lem is more common.but shock­ing­ly even in my coun­try which peo­ple are almost all from the same reli­gion and cul­ture, yet there are sit­u­a­tions in which cou­ples seem to have come from dif­fer­ent plan­ets, let alone coun­tries (lol), with their so much dif­fer­ent view­points which cause lots of prob­lems and divorce among them. a few of my friends have mar­ried to peo­ple from dif­fer­ent coun­tries. but such a cross-cul­tur­al mar­riage has not been defined for brain of many of my peo­ple such as mine(lol).
    in my coun­try, the law for­bids mar­riage between some dif­fer­ent reli­gions. so before you fall in love with a per­son its bet­ter to ask your beloved one’s reli­gion (lol).
    but gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, I think love is going to under­stand nei­ther bor­ders nor bound­aries .
    have you watched the ani­ma­tion “Mary & Max”?, if not, I strong­ly sug­gest you to watch it, its about these trag­ic kin­da loves.
    and yes as you men­tioned “Our Lov­ing Each Oth­er Would Not Be Now The Obsta­cle That It Was Then”.
    p.s. long time no emails. is every­thing fine? are you still trans­lat­ing Per­sian mas­ter­pieces?

    p.p.s. I guess I have the plea­sure to be the first one who has com­ment­ed. although I bet you were expect­ing an aca­d­e­m­ic kind of com­ments not a rudi­men­ta­ry one. (lol)

    Best Regards,
    Azam

    • rich­new­man Posted July 21, 2017 10:54 am

      Hi Azam,

      Thanks so much for stop­ping my blog and com­ment­ing, and I am hap­py for any com­ments, espe­cial­ly ones as thought­ful as yours—whether they are couched in aca­d­e­m­ic lan­guage or not.

      My sto­ry with Yoon is indeed quite a sto­ry. I some­times still won­der where she is and how she and her daugh­ter are doing. And you are right, of course, mar­riage is always dif­fi­cult. Even in the best of cir­cum­stances, fig­ur­ing out how to bring two sep­a­rate worlds togeth­er and turn them in a sin­gle world that is greater than the sum of its parts is a chal­lenge an awful lot of peo­ple are not up to.

      I will look for “Mary & Max” when I get a chance.

      Right now, I am prepar­ing for the pub­li­ca­tion of my sec­ond book of poems, Words for What Those Men Have Done, which will be out in the fall, so I’m not doing much writ­ing. Ear­li­er this year, though, I did pub­lish an essay about Attar, along with a trans­la­tion of the first, very long poem from Elahi Nameh. You can find a copy here, on Acad​e​mia​.edu.

      Again, thanks so much for com­ment­ing. I hope you and your fam­i­ly are well.

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