Today was a day of a psychedelic amount of laughter and joy for being alive, running around the corners of my family’s mind, unlocking arsenals of memory and shared references, our shifting relationships to culture and with each other. Today was the first time in my recent memory that my family celebrated Chuseok together, the holiday falling on the mid-autumn full moon. “I’m coming home this weekend for chuseok lunch,” my sister had texted my mom, who then looked at me across the kitchen table, puzzled as to what that entailed for her to do (women’s labor has historically been a contentious point in regard to traditional Korean holidays that often requires extensive cooking and preparation). We settled on manduguk, fish, various jeon, assorted banchan, and I have to say, it was perfect. This time last year, I had taro ox knuckle bone soup (도가니탕), a beloved dish in her sister (my aunt)’s family, with whom I spent Chuseok when I was in Korea. Video here:
This year had its own color, its own flair. My parents had not opened nor seen their old hanboks in many years. Certain cultural traditions carried with it a weight of obligation that is difficult to burden when having immigrated to another country, morphing into complex feelings that are easier left avoided. And, often times, such traditional holidays tend to emphasize difference between generations, a multi-century, cataclysmic split, and reminder of lost customs. It is a confrontation of change, to which one might feel without control. When we dug out my parents’ old hanboks from the garage, we were suddenly reminded as a family how a piece of heritage that we always carried within us could still be new and re-discovered for the very first time.
We became kids again. My dad could not resist the urge to imitate being a Grim Reaper, bursting out in the absurdity of it all. My sister imitates a modern Korean lady with her hot pink clutch. I, on the other hand, was mesmerized with Somu’s dress (pictured as feature image), which, confirmed by my own eyes, created a sense of magic difficult to describe. But I was utterly mystified (I will need to write a separate post with updates about an avatar I am developing, Somu, who is a young maiden and shaman girl from medieval Korea based off my Fulbright research). “Are you two doing a gwisin (ghost) concept?” my mom yelled from the kitchen. “These days, all you kids do is for Instagram,” my dad said (neither of us use Instagram). We continued our delirium of selfies. For us the hanboks became costumes, objects of play ascribed meaning through our intentions as a family moving forward together. It had always been like that for us – embracing transience and constant change – so much so that only in special moments like these do we remember that the capacity for change itself is an identity inherently shared between us.
Laughter soon became fear of time passing. I ran downstairs to grab my camera. “Can you help me get this off?” my sister asked, as I rummaged my room for the more immediate task– my batteries. Upstairs, my dad was contemplating his father’s calligraphy, which he hadn’t seen in years, and my mom had just been teaching us to tie the hanbok. The documentarian within me knew these intimate moments are those that unravel layered meanings upon reflection, moments that otherwise easily can be lost.
“야! Is this a gwisin concept?” my mom said louder. You are supposed to tie your hair back with hanbok, she would explain, lending herself over to restyle our messy hair draped over our shoulders. She took off her hair tie and began combing through my sister’s hair. We looked at my mom, at each other. Wearing hanbok was also evoked visions of femininity in Korea, felt through glimmers of pride and maternal connection, but also with its own complexities.
I ate my manduguk in Somu’s dress, and felt at peace. Soon it became time to attend the opening reception of the LIZARDIANS exhibit, created by Young Joo Lee, which I had been looking forward to. The topic of the humanoid body- especially those gendered female- has been on my mind for the past several weeks, especially after meeting a robot recently in my animation class, and surprising myself with my own uncertainties with how to speak with her. Thinking of the digital body as a manifestation of its complete objectification is a harrowing but compelling thought. Ascribing personhood to inanimate objects reflects an inverse yet equally perplexing phenomenon. Young, as an Asian woman, gives her digital body (in LIZARDIANS) new voice, a script, a dance – movement. I was curious what that could be. My mom and sister helped me through many manifestations of my outfit trying to incorporate a part of our hanbok festivities into it. “You look like a kindergartener who raided her mom’s closet,” my sister said. Precisely the look I was going for, I headed to my professor’s exhibit opening.
In its speculations of a world where body parts are harvested, LIZARDIANS forefronts the very real labor conditions that persist at the front lines of our digital worlds. I will publish a review of the short film and exhibit later this month, perhaps accompanied by some dialogue with Young. At the event I met sound engineers, an artist who suggested I incorporate a 복주머니 with the Somu avatar, a physicist and mathematician, and overall motley of folks in Los Angeles thinking with similar tools and mediums. Back to my coursework and start to the week.