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[personal profile] chatoyant
Topic: Oldboy

My grandmother was born in South Korea, four days before the North Korean troops invaded the South in 1950. I've heard secondhand stories from her friends about how she never had a formal education and would kneel underneath the windows outside the school house in her village listening to her brother's classes. I've heard about how she worked in the rice paddies, barefoot and knee deep in murky water, from childhood until she finally left the country at the age of 21. I've even heard about her deceased siblings, relatives with unpronouncable names that died decades before I was born. I didn't hear any of these stories from her, I guess because when things like that happen to you you have to put some distance between yourself and your history in order for your heart to not break a thousand times each day, but then again I never asked, which is my fault, not hers.

I've always had immense respect for my Nana, she was dealt a phenomenally shitty hand and I've never seen any cracks in her facade. She lives on a day to day basis and never gives herself time to backslide into self-pity, which I admire. If she and I switched places in a Freaky Friday-esque scenario, I would spend half my time wallowing in my own disasters, endlessly complaining about how unfair it all is and how I deserve better than this. She never does that, though. Maybe it's some facet of the Korean identity that I just didn't inherit, but she has the almost dogmatic ability to accept all the things she can't change and simply exist.

I grew up in my grandmother's house, with my too-young mother flitting in and out of my periphery when she was in-between jobs or boyfriends. I remember her dropping me off for months at a time, visiting every weekend for a few hours before making her exit, resuming her life as a young and virile twenty something. She never heard any of the secrets my Nana was keeping either, though she probably is better versed in her struggles than I am. My grandmother's ticket out of South Korea was my grandfather, a habitual wife-beater and all-around awful human being. She weathered his abuse for 20 years until eventually, when I was 7, he hit her a little bit too hard and she ended up in the hospital and finally, after one too many warnings, he ended up in prison. I still remember sitting in my room in the dark, the police lights flashing red and blue on my walls, listening to my mother tell the cops the story through hysterical tears. It's one of the defining moments in my life and I won't ever forgive my grandfather for what he did to my family both physically and psychologically. There are some people that will look at his post-prison life, with his new wife that as far as I can tell he treats like an actual wife and not a servant that he is allowed to hit, and forgive him, but I will never be one of those people.

My grandmother never made a big show of teaching the rest of my family about Korean culture. We were all raised on seaweed rolls and kimchi, odd smelling noodle concoctions, and the weeds my grandmother grew in a plastic wading pool in the backyard, only to cook and eat at a later date. All of the children have at some point had their pictures taken in a ceremonial hanbok. But beyond the occasional poking around in an Asian market, we weren't exposed to my grandmother's culture. She ate from her jars of strange smelling, stringy vegetables and brass pots quietly, never explaining why it was that we had to sit on the floor and eat at a miniature table as a opposed to a dining table with chairs. When we pointed at the elaborately costumed Korean dolls she kept in a case at the top of the fireplace mantle and asked her who they were supposed to be, she only shook her head and told us not to touch them.

In 2004, due to a series of extreme coincidences a more spiritual person would mark as fate, she found her family. That autumn she spent three months in Korea, living with her mother in her childhood home. I've watched the many hours of video that she brought back from that trip, the endless barrage of black haired, slanty-eyed relatives that I never knew I had. I watched as what seemed like the entirety of the small rural town my grandmother grew up in collected in a house and greeted her. I saw her cry when she embraced her mother for the first time and thought dully that I had never seen her cry before, even after my grandfather hit her she always held it in. She bantered easily with her family, nieces and nephews she'd never met, and it occured to me that she has to convert every English word I say into Korean when she speaks to me, how exhausting it must be. But with these people it was easy. These were her people, and she understood them in a way she could never understand me.

When she returned to the United States, to say she was different is an understatement. She came back with an almost literal spring in her step; she was happy and not just resigned to her fate, as I had always known her to be. She subscribed to KBS, a Korean TV channel, and I watched subtitled soap operas with her. She explained the historical origins of the character's wardrobe, the language used, and the context of the show unprompted, injecting her own anecdotes where she saw fit. I picked up random words from the dramas that corroborated with things I had said mindlessly my whole life: The word "ajumma" meant "older lady," the same word I had used to address my Nana's Korean friend Lee since I was a small child.

The more I learned about Korean culture, the more I wanted to know. I had gone from a cultureless, white-bread Southern girl to something infintely more interesting overnight. I downloaded obscene amounts of Korean music, watched dozens of films rapid-fire, saved hundreds of pictures of Korean architecture and landscapes to my computer. This thirst for all things Korean was spurred on by the fear that my Nana would desert my family and choose to be with her other family instead, which isn't that far-fetched. It would be easy for her to leave the country and never look back, and so I tried to evolve into a better, more Korean granddaughter.

The first Korean movie that I watched was Oldboy.

There's a stigma about Japan and Korea, that they are insuppressably cute. Underneath this adorable veneer, though, is an undercurrent of dark, twisted thinking, the result of the repression so prominent in those societies. This comes out in a variety of mediums, from the (terrifying) fetish industry to the horror genre of film. Oldboy was the first piece of media that made me really want to embrace my Korean heritage, not just because of my grandmother but because Koreans are awesome. Park Chan Wook's film is incredible, the plot unfolds with expert precision and he achieves the kind of gasp-out-loud plot twists that M. Night Shamalamadingdong wishes he could replicate.

 

This is totally unedited, by the way. All the mistakes were corrected in the final draft, which I stupidly forgot to save. Also I had an actual conclusion in the final, lol.

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December 2009

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