Entering Collective Memory at the Seoul Institute of the Arts

Exactly two months have passed since I first arrived to Korea. Since then, it has been a process of finding the contours of what’s right to wrong, and gradually shading the ambiguities in between. For my first three weeks, I was with my relatives, sharing meals at my grandfather’s house, sifting through photographs from the 1940s, and falling deeply into the vortex of family history. Caught in a maze of century-old furniture, I saw myself reflected in my mother’s young photos, my voice in her handwriting. How peculiar it was to hold her old letters, tucked away in a shoebox in a room full of my late grandmother’s belongings. How beautiful it was to find myself here, too.

Soon enough, I was ready to come to campus. With the university nestled at the foot of a mountain, the city of Ansan stood true to its name. I was in awe. My balcony faced immense greenery, in good company of cicadas in the day and a scop owl in the night. My room was the perfect place to quietly retreat to myself. Here, I reflected on the years of confusion, challenge, and discovery that brought me to this moment, those desperate weeks in hostels abroad struggling to comprehend new languages when I had barely confronted the culture of my own. I had determined never to lose myself so deeply again, and spent years working toward new goals, eager to please, but nose deep into my work. Research, I determined, at least is organized chaos.

The Seoul Institute of the Arts university campus

The top of Gwangduk Mountain (광뎍산) next to the school

Every morning when I wake up, I feel just the slightest of feelings, a new type of peace that couldn’t be more different from my tumultuous 20-year-old self, but oddly enough, brings me right back to her spirit. Learning who I am in the Korean language takes me back to my first year in college, reading Beauvoir, Freud, the Frankfurt School, and new materialists. The crisp, fall weather transports me to those afternoons walking from the library at Duke to the market place, where my peers would be smoking a cig on the steps. We were so nervous to articulate any original ideas, reactions, or references to our lectures, but together, found beauty in not knowing, each secretly fueled by the great minds we read who wrote when only our age.

Memory is a beautiful thing. My days feel wider, multi-dimensional and with mass, embodying Bergson’s dureé. Having the time to listen to my body, move slowly, and be in sync with the rhythm around me feels like an art I only now am learning. Captivated by Grace M. Cho’s memoir, Tastes Like War, I lay curled up with my blankets laid out on my ondol floors (Korean underfloor heating), and I feel safe. Safe to confront my identity as a Korean-American, on a scholarship founded by the excess funds that the U.S. government had after World War II. After dropping nuclear bombs on innocent civilians, the U.S. decided to invest that money into education and cultural exchange, and thus, I am here. When I got off the plane from LA to Incheon, the airport workers in hazmat suits looked at my visa and ushered me into the line reserved for military personnel, about to shuttle me to Camp Humphreys. “Not army – education,” I’d stutter.

What does it mean to be a young woman in Korea? This question lingers in my mind. The story of Cho and her mother, a former bar hostess near the U.S. military base, speaks a truth beyond that of one family, but a history of exploitation by Japan, the U.S., and the Korea government as a whole, a history of failures that continues within the closed doors of professional and academic life. As I go from the Incheon airport to Seoul, with girl idol groups and AI bots plastered on walls, I take a step back. Remnants of the past don’t need to determine the future. But I do feel caution. So much that people don’t openly talk about and so much that gets forgotten. When I read the poems written by Park Younghee, who not only bravely shared her story of abuse in the theatre industry but also astutely articulated the structural and ideological issues that caused it, I am committed to stay true to the knowledge hidden beneath the surface.

So far, however, I am just barely learning to walk on the surface, any surface, at all. With stuttering Korean and phone plan that still doesn’t work, I have yet to be connected to the supercomputer that is the millennial Korean mind. With the much needed encouragement of warm welcomes, I am absorbing the sixty-year history of the school, slowly catching up to the students whose minds race in at present speed, their experiments in art, philosophy, and technology expressed by the sheer pace of brainstorming ideas from one moment into the next. As a Fulbright-SeoulArts Research Fellow, I am in a cybernetic wonderland, punctuated by my mask dance course that gets me to quite literally jump out of my seat and take my place in the collective. I may be entering the past through in the present, but only time will tell what the future holds.