My two messed-up countries: an immigrant’s dilemma

The long read: While her birthplace, South Korea, stood on the brink of political chaos, Suki Kim watched her adopted home of the US go into meltdown after Trumps election. Stuck between past and future, she found herself in an impossible position

In late October 2016, Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul was packed with hundreds of thousands of people, young and old, single and in couples, and households with small children. They carried candles and red newspaper signs, which read: Park Geun-hyestep down.

The nearby metro exits were lined with thousands of riot police. Garmented in neon-green uniforms and carrying plastic shields, they seemed threatening at first glance, but then I noticed that they were just young men, barely in their 20 s, looking borne, or tired. They were the army reserve. Because the two Koreas are technically still at war, all Korean young men must serve in the military. In South Korea, the mandatory draft is for 21 months; in North Korea it is 10 years. Dozens of blue-and-white police bus were parked one behind the other to form a roadblock, barring the path to the presidential mansion and blocking the street from the metro exit. It seemed a pointless endeavor, since all one had to do to enter the area where people assembled was to walk around a few blocks to bypass them.

The square is the focal point of Korean patriotism, where a 10 -lane avenue leads to the royal palace. In the middle of the sprawling boulevard stands the giant bronze statue of Admiral Lee Sun-shin, a 16 th-century military hero who opposed the Japanese invaders, and a few steps north sits the golden statue of King Sejong who, in 1446, devised the Korean alphabet. Nestled behind the royal palace is the Blue House, the presidential residence.

The protest was scheduled for 6pm, but by early afternoon the crowd already extended as far as the eye could see, each protester demanding that the president step down. The organisers were a loose association of labour unions, students and civic groups. Somewhere in the distance, one of them get up on a stage and hollered, What kind of a country is this? The crowd responded, in unison, Impeach Park Geun-hye !, and then, Arrest Park Geun-hye! Volunteers handed out the candles that have become a symbol of defiance in South Korea. On stage, a succession of musicians of all styles, from hip-hop to folk performed anthems that assaulted the president, with lyrics telling her to piss off or disappear. The mood was jubilant, and the crowd was orderly. At midnight, people began to leave, though many remained behind to clean up and recycle the garbage.

I had flown to Seoul from New York, intending to stay just a few days on a stopover after a book festival of the states of the region. Back in the US, the nation was gearing up for the final move before the presidential election. I was in need of a transgres from the American news as the campaigns is more and more belligerent. For the first time in its history, a woman was about to become the president of the United States, and her competitor for the job was a real-estate mogul and reality TV starring. In South Korea, Park Geun-hye, the countrys first female chairperson, was mired in a corruption scandal that threatened to unseat her.

Autumn was bleeding into wintertime, and the leaves were just beginning to turn. Seoul is my childhood home, where I was born and raised, and I get nostalgic in autumn, which any Korean will tell you is the loveliest time to visit the countrys mountainous landscape, but that was not why I found myself stalled there. Every few days, I would wake up and phone the airline to postpone my return flight to New York. This ritual became so familiar that before long I knew the airlines reservation number by heart.

The two countries, on opposite sides of the world, both of which I considered home, seemed on the verge of something significant, and I felt stuck. This feeling of being caught between two places and cultures is, in many ways, the condition of being an immigrant. There is the native home you have left, and the adoptive home in which you build conscious efforts to assimilate. Since I moved to the US as a adolescent, it has been, for me, both a refuge and the future. Or, at the least, that was the mantra I adopted to cope with the challenges of settling down in a land where I was perpetually viewed as other. And until recently, when Donald Trump rose on an anti-immigrant ticket that demonstrated unnervingly popular, I felt I had done so largely successfully.

So this stopover in Seoul was meant to be a brief reprieve. I had expended my childhood there. It was where everyone spoke my mother tongue, where my skin was not described as being yellow. In Seoul, a part of me readily returns to being a child my natural self, one that had been there before I learned to be Asian in America; and yet, on this visit, Seoul was no refuge. The country was reeling from each new revelation about its president. Tens of thousands of South Koreans took to the streets, and that number would grow and grow, eventually bringing down the president and blowing open the biggest political scandal the country had seen.

The unrest had been brewing for months.On 19 October, the principal of Ewha Womans University, one of the countrys top colleges, resigned after a series of student protests. The demonstrations were against the favoured therapy of Chung Yoo-ra, a 20 -year-old national equestrian who had been granted a place at the university without the necessary qualifications, and who had later received top grades without once attending classes. After the principal stepped down, it was revealed that Samsung had donated millions to pay for Chungs horse and training, and that she was the daughter of Choi Soon-sil, a close friend and confidante of President Park.

As the corruption scandal unfolded, it emerged that about $70 m had been paid by Koreas biggest companies to foundations set up by Choi. In return for these huge sums, it was alleged, Choi used her relationship with the president to influence Korean policy.

Besides use her friendship with President Park for fiscal gain, Choi, a private citizen with no security clearance, had been given access to categorized the documentation and was said to be advising the president on nation affairs. Choi had edited drafts of major presidential speeches, including the address Park stimulated in Dresden, formerly in Eastern germany, in 2014, in which she called for the reunification of Korea. Investigations revealed that Choi was in charge of decisions large and small relating to the president, from the choice of handbag Park carried, to the nonprofit foundations she championed some of which were, in fact, shell companies created by Choi.

The story then took a strange spin as it was revealed that 60 -year-old Choi was the daughter of Choi Tae-min, founder of the Church of Life eternal and Parks longtime mentor until his death in 1994. The chairpeople close relationship with both parent and daughter became the focus of popular outrage. And the reason it so infuriated the public was that Park was unlike any other president.

As the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the military despot who ruled South Korea from 1961 to 1979, Park had grown up in the public eye. She spent most of her childhood in the Blue House. In 1974, when Park was 22, her mom was shot and killed by a North Korean sympathiser, who had actually been aiming at her parent. After her mothers death, Park became a surrogate first lady, accompanying her father to nation events.

Soon after her mothers demise, Park gratified Choi Tae-min, who claimed to be a messenger from her dead mom. Forty years Parks senior, he was a low-ranking policeman turned Buddhist monk turned pseudo rector, who had changed his name six periods and married seven times. Park emotional dependence on him became so extreme that her parent and siblings tried to intervene. When Park Chung-hee was assassinated in 1979 by the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, the murderer testified that his actions were provoked by the presidents inability to end Choi Tae-mins influence over the first daughter.

Masked protesters posing as South Korean president Park Geun-hye, depicting her as a puppet being operated by her confidante Choi Soon-sil. Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/ AFP/ Getty Images

In 2007, the US embassy in Seoul sent out a memo went on to say that Choi Tae-min had complete control over Parks body and soul during her formative years, and that his children amassed enormous wealth as a result. After Choi Tae-mins demise in 1994, it appears that his daughter took his place at Park Geun-hyes side.

In 2013, Park was elected, less for her political expertise than because she had been both a daughter and a mom to the nation. Her strongest supporters were older voters who, with the occur of period, felt oddly nostalgic for her fathers authoritarian reign. They forgot the repression and the torture of prisoners, recollecting merely the rapid economic growth of his epoch. Also, for many Koreans, whose spiritual foundation is family-centred Confucianism, there was sympathy for Park, whose mothers had both been murdered, and who herself has never wedded or had children. During her electoral campaign, Park often claimed that she had marriage the nation.

With no family or dependents, and estranged from her siblings, Park was also free of any temptation to enrich their own families while in office. For the public, then, this corruption scandal felt like a deep disloyalty. Park was elected on her promises to ensure an age of hope and happiness by constructing a stronger economy and taking a tougher posture against North Korea. She had also made a commitment to stamp out corruption in the countrys biggest companies, yet she ended up being accused of conspiring to extort money from those very same organisations.

The unfolding revelations also dredged up an incident that had badly damaged Parks credibility: the Sewol ferry catastrophe. In 2014, a ferry capsizedwith 325 high school students on board. They were ordered to stay in their seats as the vessel sink, while the captain and crew escaped in lifeboats and the coastguard botched the rescue attempt. South Korea is one of the most digitally connected nations in the world, which meant that the horror was witnessed live by huge numbers of people. The trapped adolescents texted and video-chatted their parents until their final seconds. A total of 304 lives were lost, but in those desperate hours, Park was nowhere to be found. No statement was issued by the Blue House until she finally appeared seven hours later, appearing dazed and asking: Why is it so hard to find the students if they are wearing life jacket?

Park never did explain her whereabouts at the time of the sinking. Two year later, it would be revealed that for at least some of those missing hours, a hairdresser from a salon in Gangnam, a trendy region of Seoul, was at the Blue House, styling the presidents hair. Many reports compared photographs of Parks face before and after that day, suggesting that she might have been receiving anti-wrinkle therapies under anaesthetic at the time, which would explain why she was missing during a national emergency and appeared incoherent when she ultimately emerged.( It was proven that Park had frequented an anti-ageing clinic in Gangnam, which Choi also frequented, under a pseudonym, and that several plastic surgeons, including Chois doctor, made secret trip-ups to the Blue House to treat the president .)

On 25 October 2016, Park stimulated her first televised apology to the nation, which lasted simply one minute and 40 seconds. She recognise seeking advice on her speeches from Choi Soon-sil. She described Choi as someone who helped her during difficult times. On 31 October, Choi was arrested on a charge of exerting inappropriate influence over nation affairs. Parks acceptance rating fell to 5% the lowest of any president in South Korean history.

In early November, I was planning to fly back to the US when Donald Trump was elected. The first thing I did upon hearing the news was postpone my return to New York once more. I told myself that I should stick around in Seoul to see how the protests panned out, but in reality, I just did not want to go back to America.

I was afraid, and the root of my feelings stretched back deep into my immigrant past. That anxiety seemed to undo everything I had worked towards since I first landed at John F Kennedy Airport, aged 13, without a word of English. I moved through several inner-city schools. I very rarely fulfilled white Americans, except for a few teachers, because they did not seem to live in the outer boroughs of New York City where my family had resolved. I learned that I was appeared upon as Asian in this new world, which was segregated according to the colour of ones skin. I also learned that those of us who had freshly arrived, who were not white or black, were invisible. The white educators mispronounced my name so often that I objective up utilizing a shortened version, a bit different from my Korean name. That is how I became Suki, and how, as the years went by, the name I was born with stopped feeling like mine.

I was still a child then, but old enough to feel a pinch of humiliation that never quite went away. Those were my mute teenage years, in which I persevered because, having so little, there was no choice but to hold on to America as my future. To this day, I cannot bear Charles Dickens, because Great Expectations takes me back to the time in high school when I stayed up all night translating each term with a tattered dictionary. To survive in this new world, where I recognised nothing and had to start anew, I had to push away Korea, even in my deepest dreaming. I missed it profoundly, but I knew that if I succumbed to that impression, I would not be able to stand being where I was.

For immigrants, home is a complicated thing. The act of leaving your country of countries of origin the place where your people have lived for generations, and where your parents or grandparents will live out their old age without you and relocating to the unknown suggests that the forces that obligated you to leave were desperate. For many of us, our native home is mired in nostalgia, sadnes and guilt.

I fled my childhood home in the dead of night when my father, who had owned a shipping company, a mining venture and hotels, went bankrupt overnight. During the volatile politics and economy of 1980 s Korea, many independent companies folded, and insolvency was punishable by incarcerate. After a year of concealing from police, we moved, penniless, to New York. My mothers run tirelessly at whatever chore they could get; there was not much selection for non-English-speaking immigrants in their late 30 s with three children. My parent once told me that it was at the airport that an immigrants fate get chosen. Depending on whoever comes to pick you up an acquaintance or a remote family member who might now work in dry clean, a fish marketplace, or a Korean deli you follow that person and get hired through his introduction. Having grown up under the care of a governess and a chauffeur, I had never seen my mothers do manual labour. The cost of the American dreaming was decades of hard work and heartbreak.

My father was an undocumented immigrant until he became a naturalised citizen through an amnesty. Any mention of the Immigration and Naturalization Service still fills me with dreaded. When I got to college, I applied for US citizenship; not so much out of patriotism, but because it was where I lived and I didnt feel procure without a credential to prove my legitimacy.

Now, at 73, my father remains grateful to America for dedicating him a chance to raise his family. With day, though, I have come to realise that my fathers America isnt truly my America. For him, America meant working non-stop at jobs in which he was often treated as lesser, and scolded for not speaking English. Sure, he should have learned the language, but running seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day, doesnt leave much hour for ESL classes; moreover, the only thing left he had of his home was the Korean speech. So perhaps it was on his behalf that I sought my adoptive language with a vengeance. When my first volume “re coming out”, reviews in newspapers such as the New York Times did not seem to impress him. It was only when the book was translated into Korean and reviewed in the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo that he seemed genuinely excited. In his intellect, he always reaches back to Korea for meaning.

Immigration is never a simple equation. You do not subtract the most intimate part of yourself and replace it with another. It is a long, painful journey to make oneself a home in a strange land where the established norm is different to what you are and what you know. The act of placing your palm upon your chest and swearing allegiance to the flag is not what induces you American, but the fact that, by the time you have that possibility, you have given the toughest and most tender parts of yourself to this country. My parent has expended half of their own lives in America while dreaming of his Korea. I have often wondered if his life was happy. If America had been worth all that for him.

I was, and still am, afraid of the answer. So instead of returning to America, I remained in Seoul and took my place among the people on their weekly protest at Gwanghwamun. Park had now apologised twice in televised address, both hours briefly, without taking questions. On each occasion, she denied any personal wrongdoing and fired several of her top aides. The number of protesters outstripped a million, and the world was finally paying attention. The mood on the streets was jubilant, and everyone said that people were taking power back. They seemed hopeful that things might change at last.

Having grown up in South Korea during Park Chung-hees dictatorship, witnessing the suppression of public protests, it felt oddly familiar to see the crowd now collected against his daughter. Intricate layers of history had led to this moment. Koreas modern democracy abruptly seemed fragile. Park the closest thing Korea had to a princess had conducted herself in the manner of an absolute ruler, and now the masses were revolting in front of the ancient palace.

But the modernity of America, too, felt under threat. The progression embodied by the election of its first black chairwoman had come at a price, and now the countrys racist past was rearing its head, as white supremacists took hold of the news agenda to promote their favoured nominee. Joining the demonstrators in Korea, I felt stick between my own past and future. There was Korea on one side, and America on the other. Both were in turmoil, and neither offered a refuge.

Marching amid the crowd to the Blue House, I was mutely protesting against an America that no longer felt safe.

By late November 2016, Viagra was the most searched term on Naver, South Koreas equivalent of Google. It was revealed that the presidents office had ordered large quantities of the narcotic at the taxpayers expense. A Blue House spokesperson explained that 60 pills of branded Viagra and 304 pills of PalPalJung, the generic Korean version, had been purchased in preparation for the presidents official tour of Africa, as legal remedies for altitude sickness. Treating altitude sickness is one of Viagras lesser-known uses, but that did not explain why the Blue House had abruptly switched from the narcotic it had traditionally used for this purpose in the past, or why they had ordered two different brands.

The local media went into lurid detail about what it imagined the president might have wanted the drug for. Speculation as to the identity of her fan centred around 48 -year-old Cha Eun-taek, a pop video director who had landed many lucrative projects as a result of his acquaintance with Choi Soon-sil.

Among the hundreds of other medicines purchased by Parks office between March 2014 and August 2016 worth a total of more than $17,000 were injectable dosages of anti-ageing human placenta extract, garlic extract and vitamin shootings. There is likewise quantities of Emla 5 %, a numbing cream widely used for Botox treatments, facial rejuvenation laser treatments and dermal filler injections.

South Korean lawmakers and opposition party members hold placards demanding the impeachment of Park Geun-hye in December 2016. Photograph: Ahn Young-joon/ AP

The steep increased number of these pharmaceutical orders should have triggered inquiries about the Blue Houses dealings with the companies that rendered them. But instead the media focused on the possible personal employ of the medications, smearing the president as a loose, vain, silly woman and calling her leadership skills into question. Park already suffered from a widespread bias against girls, and as the scandal grew, her gender became a liability.

Bizarre reports surfaced every day, including a story that Park, a confirmed Catholic, had shamanistic rites performed in the Blue House. The presidents office denied that any such thing took place, but offered no comment on a shamanic luck ritual, arranged by her party, that had been held at the parliament earlier that year. For many Koreans, there is a collective shame about the folksier elements of their own culture. Shamanism, though an essential part of the countrys spiritual life, has always been rejected as an old womans notion, yet here was the president apparently endorsing it.

Reports also appeared about the so-called eight fairies, a group of women put together by Choi who had no official roles but supposedly held secret meetings at a downtown sauna and advised the president on national affairs. Before long, every narrative focused on the negative stereotype of the ahjumma , or middle-aged girl their superstitions, their predilection for shamans and fortune tellers, their preoccupation with cosmetic surgery and soap operas. For the nation to learn that it was was governed by such girls was wounding to its pride.

The way the protests grew and spread across the country reflects the complexity of Korean society. Caught between the larger powers of China and Japan, Koreans have historically been seen as resilient, obedient and emotional people. Centuries of feudalism and Confucianism lie deep within the national psyche, and help explain why people can feel both subservient to and resentful of a social hierarchy that allows the likes of Park Geun-hye and the heads of big corporations to rule the nation. The line between an individual and the nation can often be blurred. For instance, when they talk about the Sewol ferry calamity, it is common to hear Koreans assert the victims as my children. In a society where such group thinking predominates, public demonstrations have become a cathartic ritual. All through that wintertime, in rainfall or snow, people took to the street every Saturday in peaceful protest.

With the number of protesters across the country now in the millions, and a federal corruption investigation under way, the Blue House panicked and Park stimulated her third public apology. However, the speech, on 29 November, was catastrophically misjudged. Two things in particular outraged the public. Park said she was sorry to have mismanaged those around her, and that she would resign at the will of the parliament. This might sound like an apology, but its meaning was precisely the opposite. Park had refused to take personal responsibility for the actions of her administration and had, instead, changed the blamed to her subordinates. In addition, the Korean public had been demanding that she step down immediately, of her own volition. The Korean parliament does not have the authority to force a chairman to step down, so by saying she that she was able to resign if it told her to, Park revealed that she had no intention of doing so at all.

On 3 December, in accordance with the apology, a record number of protesters an estimated 2.3 million of them came out to Gwanghwamun Square. 3 days later, on 6 December, the heads of nine chaebul , or large conglomerates, including Samsungs Lee Jae-yong and Hyundais Chung Mong-koo, were summoned to a nationally televised parliamentary hearing on the bribery scandal. On 9 December, parliament voted, with an overwhelming margin of 234 to 56, to impeach Park.( She became the first South Korean president to be removed from office, as ordered by the constitutional court, on 9 March 2017. She was arrested on 31 March and is currently in jail, as South Korea prepares to elect a new leader on 9 May .)

Finally, I ran out of excuses to postpone my return flight. And yet I still did not leave right away. My indecision was fuelled by dread, and something else I could not name. I was fretted for New York, my home across the ocean, where people were marching in protest to Trump Tower, and I felt guilty for not being there with them. But I was also angry at the route things seemed to be heading, and I was immeasurably sad. That frenzy and sadness kept growing inside me every day that I could not find my route back to America.

On 29 January 2017, I took the New York subway to JFK airport to join the demonstration against chairman Trumps travel prohibition, which had blocked the entry of nearly 100,000 people including refugees and right holders of visas and green cards in transit. All weekend, lawyers offering free advice, interpreters and protesters had been flocking to airports across the US.

As the develop zipped beneath Wall Street, passing Ground Zero, which I still avoid 16 years after the 9/11 assaults, I recalled the last hour New Yorkers rushed to assistance each other. Back then, in the days following the attack, I expended my days at the Family Assistance Center, volunteering as an interpreter. There were more than 50 languages represented at the centre, because so many of the dead were immigrants. The first tower fell at 8.46 am. At that early hour, many of the people already at work were junior employees, many of them on their first jobs out of college, pursuing their American dreaming and making their parents proud. I expended many weeks holding the hands of those mothers, some of whom still believed that their children were trapped alive in the debris.

A demo against the Muslim immigration ban at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York, on 28 January 2017. Photograph: Stephanie Keith/ Getty Images

The train growled along ever so slowly. New York subways are awful, dirty and unpredictable, but they get us where we need to go. I was trying to trace a map of how this all began. I recalled the way that the Bush administration exploited people horror and anguish to wage what it named the war on terror. Sixteen years later, Trumps administration is waging war against its own people.

I recalled how valiantly people in South Korea rebelled against injustice. Korea is a small country where people rally easily, where they listen to organisers, where they are polite, and, despite differences in political opinion, largely peaceful.I wasnt sure if mass protest could be peaceful in the US, which is vast and profoundly divided. The polarisation of the country scared me, and I wondered how many people across its thousands of miles were right now heading to their nearest airport to protest.

Tracking back to the past is what we immigrants do. We always circle back to make sense of the current. Proportion of us is always left behind in the place we came from. On that cold January day, I rode the subway all the way to JFK, and by the time I arrived, I was weeping.

America seems to be slipping away from me at dizzying velocity, and becoming something I do not recognise. On the subway, I felt like that 13 -year-old girl again, arriving in a strange, scary place where I knew no one except that now I speak the language, and I have the best weapon for the fight ahead: my tortured, devastating love for America. So I soldiered on to the airport that had opened up a whole new world for me decades before, the place where it all began.

Main image: Kena Betancur/ AFP/ Getty; Chung Sung-jun/ Getty; Monika Graff/ UPI/ Barcroft; Lee Sang-ho / Xinhua ; Guardian Design

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