I write to express my gratitude for the book of poems you sent me and for the verse in your preface that I have been thinking about all day: "Who among us has not left home? Could I be the only one who has lost her homeland?"
These twenty-five years since I, too, left Korea, my homeland has remained a living memory in my heart, filling me with longing and guilt, and making me ache with pathos. But when I actually returned to Korea, everything had changed, the mountains and the streams, the people, the food, the smell, the neighborhoods, friends, siblings, home…even my mother.
When I stepped off the plane, the smell that immediately flooded my senses was the unpleasant odor of pollution, not the smell of home that I longed for in my dreams. The mountains and the fields were turned into broad roads lined with tall and short buildings. And where the cars chaotically chased after each others’ tails, I couldn’t find the trace of the riverbank where I used to dig up artemisia and make wedding rings out of clovers.
People on the streets with their fancy clothes seemed all too busy. The signs in front of restaurants with names of unfamiliar dishes like "Angler-Fish Bouillabaise," "Kneaded Sirloin," and "Mountain Boar Meat" only seemed hostile and could not spell out the warmth or kindness of my remembered home. My childhood friends ate expensive dishes in fancy restaurants and talked of real estate and stocks and how to live in a sly world, but they were no longer the pure, enthusiastic, and dream-filled youths I remembered.
The house in Soo-you-ri, in the neighborhood where the clear streams had flowed, was sold long ago, and in the new apartment in an unfamiliar neighborhood, my father’s place was still empty. He had died ten years ago from diabetes, and my once-beautiful mother was a lonely, seventy-year old woman.
Angelic, innocent sisters of mine who had once been so adorable and precious to me were now middle-aged mothers with children, each going her own separate way, different from mine. Still clinging to old memories of the long vanished homeland in my heart, I criticized their way of life, and they tried to laugh me away, calling me a peasant miser too attached to the past.
Time, after giving birth to me, lived by itself… To me, the years seemed completely stolen, lost. There was no longer a homeland to which I could return. As if betrayed by the person I loved, I was suffering from a disease, when you helped me discover the name of my sickness today: xxxx. Knowing the name, I feel as if the cure can come more easily. And today, to heal the disappointment and the pain, I decided that I myself will be the unchanging homeland. I will become the home to where my two children can always return and be embraced. I will still plant touch-me-nots and azaleas in the front yard, make pickles and wild sesame leaves sauteed with soy sauce. I will dry castor bean leaves and roast them, plant baby corns, and prepare stonecrop kimchi. So that my children won’t have to suffer from the loss, I will be their homeland and wait for them here, unchanging.
Kim Myung-Shin*Honorary title addressed to an older student.