For thousands of years, scarcely anyone left. Korea was the hermit kingdom, with its spiritual basis in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shamanism, until 1910, when it was annexed by Japan and colonized for thirty-five years thereafter, followed by the Korean War in 1950. Having been born and raised under these brutal colonizers, my paternal grandfather spoke fluent Japanese. Shortly before his death, in the mid-1980s, he came to stay with my family in Queens, where he befriended a young Japanese woman, a missionary from the Unification Church. When my father confronted him about his sudden interest in the cult, my grandfather answered that he didn’t care about the Moonies, he only enjoyed the chance to speak Japanese with his new friend. Like others from his generation, he suffered from a sort of Stockholm syndrome and missed the language of his oppressors.
TIME THERE SEEMED TO PASS DIFFERENTLY. WHEN YOU ARE shut off from the world, every day is exactly the same as the one before. This sameness has a way of wearing down your soul until you become nothing but a breathing, toiling, consuming thing that awakes to the sun and sleeps at the dawning of the dark. The emptiness runs deep, deeper with each slowing day, and you become increasingly invisible and inconsequential. That’s how I felt at times, a tiny insect circling itself, only to continue, and continue. There, in that relentless vacuum, nothing moved. No news came in or out. No phone calls to or from anyone.
We accepted our situation meekly. How quickly we became prisoners, how quickly we gave up our freedom, how quickly we tolerated the loss of that freedom, like a child being abused, in silence. In this world, there were no individual demands, and asking permission for everything was infantilizing. So we began to understand our students, who had never been able to do anything on their own. The notion of following your heart’s desire, of going wherever you chose, did not exist here, and I did not see any way to let them know what it felt like, especially since, after so little time in their system, I had lost my own sense of freedom.
For a moment, I felt a pang of envy. I remembered those few drifting years after college, taking off alone with a backpack to explore the world. I thought I was playing a dare with life then, challenging my limits, but I was scared most of the time and wept for no clear reason in dingy hostel rooms across Europe and Central America. But the years had worked their magic, and that scared girl I had been in that remote place in time had dissolved into infinite invisible threads, so thin and delicate that I could almost touch her and then lose her the next minute. Now, almost two decades later, it felt as though she had reappeared, still uncertain, still afraid. Katie