Below is a set of reflections I wrote for each string of the gayageum back around 2011 when I was taking lessons with my late teacher in Downtown Los Angeles. It’s on my old blog but re-posting here.
Persimmon, kiwi, apple & grapes – cut up neatly and arranged on a plate. I politely refuse, knowing she will make me eat it anyway.
She remarks on how much I resemble my dad, then proceeds to ask me why I want to learn to play the kayageum. I say something rather irrelevant; she tells me I must play because I am Korean.
Sitting cross-legged like a yangban, she shows me how to move my hand and pluck the strings properly. Your index & middle fingers must always stick together for strength, for they are weak when divided. Lift your thumb up to the sky, then let it drop gracefully. Don’t rush, there’s time enough.
I think about these things and wonder what she meant when she said, “You are definitely a Kwon. But most definitely an American Kwon.”
Wearing her usual aqua blue skirt and a fluorescent t-shirt that no one else could make match, she asks me again if my pants are uncomfortable and tells me to wear looser bottoms.
She beams as she plays a song for me, and asks if the piano could produce the countless tones and pitches that our kayageum can. She waits for the correct answer, then smiles triumphantly.
It was love at first touch.
Cradling him on my lap like a newborn, I delight in every sound he makes. Each hiccup, each snore, each attempt at a word, is precious.
There is a certain immediate intimacy, one that I had not known in the others. Hunched over his body, we resonate as one until the blood flows out of my foot, reminding me of where my body ends and his begins.
Before departing, I run my fingers through his silk hair a few more times and feel content admiring the blisters on my hand until our next meeting.
Your passion may become your obsession. Your obsession will become your illness.
Many things in life are obvious; I wonder why I didn’t see it until I do in an abrupt moment of lucidity.
She proudly shows me a photo of her grandson and says, “This kid will never know how much I love him.” Then I feel this sudden urge to run to tell him so he’ll know!
It dawns on me that I too have a grandmother, just ten minutes away, who may be thinking the same thing. But why can’t I believe that about her?
The sun rises in the East.
The spoon lies by the chopsticks, to the left. I eat the rice, banchan and soup my mom prepares each morning, before hurrying off to her full-time job in Koreatown.
Midday, I drive to downtown Los Angeles and go up the elevator to the eleventh floor. Eager to begin, I scarf down one tangerine, as usual, although she gives me two, as usual.
She takes her time teaching the lesson, observing an order that rushing cannot upset. Though my rhythm has not yet been synchronized, I am learning …
The sun sets in the West.
“That’s the thirty-eighth parallel right there,” she says when I stumble through a section. Desiring flow, we practice the problematic passage over and over until we reach unity in our kayageums singing together.
As the line signals temporary peace, the gong marks sections of an exemplary piece. Do these markers maintain order or dice up the whole into unnecessary quarters?
When I speak Korean, my first language, my English intonation exposes me.
When I speak English, in which I am most proficient, my Korean tongue betrays me.
When I speak Portuguese, which I don’t really speak, my unabashed pronunciation disguises me.
More and more, I am reminded that I lack mastery over any language. Yet no single language alone is sufficient to express the thoughts in my head, the words on my lips. Nobody can truly acknowledge me as a native speaker of any language; such is the state of an immigrant.
But I’ve the right to claim as home, just as much as any local, this pavement of cement or the soil of my ancestors. And I will continue to tread this ground in solidarity with those alienated in their homeland, be it native or newfound.
Ahbuhji. There is no equivalent. Backseat driver who insists on accompanying me, until I am able to master the art of maneuvering automobiles to his standards. He who drives me crazy with unceasing assessments of the flaws in my personality, my inner child, the ego & the id. The health nut who tells me to stop eating ice cream and go work out with him at the gym.
We’ve exchanged our share of caustic comments and it’s much too late for those words to be retracted. And I was born female, not to mess up our family lineage, passed on from generation to generation to the eldest male, but because I was fearfully and wonderfully made to be who I am.
Wearing our cultural blinders, I know it was difficult to see three daughters as something other than liabilities. But I hope you can see past that now.
After having “arrived,” you find that the American Dream is a myth.
You may get your two-story house in the suburbs, with a few cars, kids and their college degrees but then …
But then, you will find that you would like nothing more than what you had before, if only you could regain what was never there to begin with.
The tenth string… (칭)
Some days I forget the sound of my own voice. I forget the name of the string chafing against my skin, distracted by things to be done, other songs to be sung.
I try to focus on the sequence of tones, the underlying rhythm and the shape of my hand. But every so often, a haggling thought, a worry, interjects itself, and I forget where I am.
Punctuated by these rude interludes, the music unknowingly slips out of my grasp. And I am left wondering what happened today while my fingers obediently danced atop the paulownia stage.
From subsisting on food stamps, to living like yuppie champs – only by the grace of God, were we brought this far.
With our lowly entry, into this foreign country – clutching all of our cash in a tight wad, wondering how we’ll make the payments on our little red car.
To contemplating if we’re living in vain, as I hear my baby sister complain – about still having to use her third-generation i-Pod, when none of her friends are.
쨍 (also known as 총)
She raised a daughter as a single mother after her husband left, teaching kayageum lessons to earn a living.
She sacrificed everything she knew and came to this country, working tirelessly so that we could pursue our dreams.
She collected her dead sister from the self-hung noose in her bedroom, to shield the rest of her family from the horror.
You wouldn’t know from her bright red lipstick smile.
You wouldn’t know from her modest demeanor.
You wouldn’t know from her fragile frame.
But if you knew, you would see that they are strong women, unsung heroes among us.