by Shine Lee
I like the way that Vietnamese-American writer Ocean Vuong describes art — as public transportation. How whatever you create is always bound to go somewhere, to some station, and so even if you take the wrong line by accident you’ll still end up somewhere worth your time.
I hope I don’t look too pensive gazing out the window of the rickety time-stained NJ Transit Bus. I do wish I could be better at appreciating things right as they unfold in front of me — like the shreds of gum sticking to that young professional’s hand on the bus strap, or the pit-stained bearded middle-aged man dozing off on my shoulder as we’re all clumped together. It’s just that whenever I see those three words put together — “New” and “Jersey” and “Transit” — I often think about the people who’ve transited land and sea to New Jersey. Palisades Park, which is around the area that I spent my early childhood, is the only town in the United States with an Asian-majority (specifically Korean) population. It feels so close to South Korea that sometimes I even forget which country I’m in when I’m there, in spite of the fact that I spent nearly half my life in Seoul. Well maybe that just means that I’m directionally challenged. Regardless, growing up, the question of what this town represents didn’t cross my mind all too much; I think I had more important things to grapple with, like wondering why there wasn’t a rainbow Power Ranger or how in the world Pikachu’s thundershock could defeat a whole Onix. Yet later I began to notice just how unusual somewhere like Palisades Park was, that a group of people could construct a place for themselves that truly feels like their native home.
Intercontinental transit. Maybe this is an easier way of saying the word “diaspora,” or the dispersion of any people from their homeland. “Diaspora” is a word that underlies Joseph Juhn’s documentary Jeronimo. Nearly eight million Koreans live outside of Korea (one of those eight million being me), which makes over a tenth of the entire population of both North and South Korea. Diaspora is one of those words that really doesn’t have any good synonyms. But that just means there’s something universal to be found in it, just like all the other best words in the English language: who, what and where.
There is such a thing as a Korean diaspora, and there is even such a thing as a Korean diaspora in Cuba. Of course, never would I have even imagined there to be such a thing. In 1905, out of the 7,000 Koreans being moved to Hawaii to work at the sugarcane plantations for cheap labor, one ship left for the henequen plantations in Yucatán, Mexico. And the first ethnic Koreans to arrive in Cuba came from Yucatán in search of a better life. Jeronimo follows the life and history behind Jeronimo Lim Kim, a central figure in Korean-Cuban history. Jeronimo Lim Kim, or Lim Eun Jo, was the first Korean to attend university in Cuba and one of the leaders of the Cuban Revolution alongside Che Guevara. To be quite honest, I still can’t fully wrap my head around one of the earlier scenes in the documentary, which shows two strikingly juxtaposed photographs: one of Jeronimo surrounded by his Cuban comrades of the Communist Party, and the next of him wearing a traditional Korean hanbok and playing the Korean drums.
In 1909 the contract for Korean immigrant workers in Mexico ended; but in just the following year, Japan took over Korea, meaning that the former Korean workers now became stateless. That four-letter word “home” had always been so close to that other four-letter word “hope,” but now with no homeland to return to, nobody really knew what either word meant anymore. Is home still a place? And hope the image of it? I’m inclined to answer no, that home can be anywhere and anyone and anything, that home is simply being able to feel safe, welcomed and included. But what if hope was contingent on the existence of a concrete, physical home? The very word “homeland” implies some kind of return or reunion. But what happens when you become so physically removed that the once-familiar soil, trees and mist become clouded in memory?
One of the most memorable scenes from the documentary for me was when Jeronimo’s daughter points the director to a historical gathering site for the Korean community in Cuba, made to replicate how they lived back in Korea. No matter how abstract and unclear the image of one’s homeland — or returning to the homeland — might be, maybe there is some undeterrable desire in all of us to at least try to retain or come up with an idea of home anyway. This scene reminded me that it’s when parts of our identity are under the most pressure that our tethers to them become the most strong. It’s when we feel most distanced from something, someone, or someplace that we feel the most drawn to them. And ironically it’s often the people who are outside of the homeland — the Koreans outside of Korea — who are most protective and passionate about their Korean-ness, because it’s constantly being tested.
This scene also reminded me of a passage from Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, a novel that follows the intercontinental journey of two refugee migrants: “He was drawn to people from their country, both in the labor camp and online. The farther they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it.” It amazes me that the idea of (a) home can possibly be even more powerful than the land of one’s home itself. I suppose it’s no wonder that there are places like Palisades Park, where a lot of the people are only able to speak Korean. Though in much different contexts, I think both Palisades Park and the Korean gathering site in Cuba point to an innate need to assure a completeness in our lives, through finding people with similar histories written on us. Our bodies are inscribed with maps, and like James Baldwin said, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” And so whether they realize it or not, those who have become separated from their origin are tracing their way back to where their histories came from whenever they assemble as a group.
I used to always dread self-introductions — especially the classic “Where are you from?” question. I could never come up with a good answer for myself or for others, and sometimes I just ended up confusing people. I was born in Dallas, Texas, and grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey, and then in Seoul, South Korea. I went to high school in a tiny town in Connecticut, and now I go to college in Berkeley, California. I realize that the search for a home — to want to belong to and come from somewhere — often becomes a futile, unending journey. In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid mentions that “We are all migrants through time,” or that nowadays migrancy and “homelessness” is a common experience because every place in the world is always dramatically changing. But part of me wants a better answer than this. Because when I ask myself where I am from, I think I’m actually trying to answer a slightly different question for myself: “What is the history that you come from?” What stories of transit have my people passed down? I think this is a question that awaits every one of us.