Jung Hae Chae | Essays
Everyone who has seen, sees farther.
—Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictée
I remember neither being terrified nor anticipating the hole the night I fell into it. Light had gone out inside the stuffy 4×4 shed that was the outhouse, where heat rose from weeks-old putrefaction, an underworld full of as-yet-unknown knowledge to my five-year-old self. The room filled with fey air that took up my lungs each time I entered it. Carved into the center was a rectangular hole, a portal to an other world. I squatted down like a sumo wrestler over its frame that was bigger than my torso and held myself. Until I no longer could. One develops a peculiar memory, an inherited kind, in order to command the mystery of the hole.
I’ve been thinking about out of body experiences again. The kind where you’re there in the same room with another version of you. One of you is in the scene, as it were, doing all the doing, while the other you—the one outside the body—is watching the first you, without being able to touch or talk to her. They are separated somehow. Only one—the seer—is aware of the presence and existence of the other—the seen; this makes for an unequal power relationship.
The first time this happened I was a small child, almost mute and sullen-faced, living with my grandmother and several of her unmarried children, two aunts and an uncle, in my grandmother’s house on the outskirts of Seoul. Hers was a traditional Korean home, a remnant of pre-war, colonial architecture, outfitted with a bunker-like kitchen, its concrete-poured floor set low and dug a few inches into the ground, like a secret hide-out designed to save you in case of a nuclear disaster. The dimly-lit kitchen came with a wooden stove, also set low to the ground, and with some other spartan furnishings. In the corner was a small hole framed into the wall just large enough to fit a tray through it, a way to transport food from the kitchen to its adjoining bedroom. Next to the kitchen, a row of bedrooms with rice-paper-fitted sliding doors lined the side of the house, with several stone steps leading up to them. My grandmother taught me to always line up my shoes on those steps—the left and the right pair—so the two could be together, lest we die one day unexpectedly. Out back near the chrysanthemums was an outhouse.
I loved this house, the quiet, austere mood that hung thickly in the evening air, its afterglow lingering around the house’s perimeter. I loved the rectangular flower garden that sat in the middle of the courtyard around which the neighbor’s kids and I ran in circles to play catch, and where women gathered to make kimchi each autumn that they then buried into the ground to make it last through the winters. I loved its earthiness, its low-to-the-ground humbleness, its loneliness, and most of all, its owner, my grandmother, who spoke sparingly and simply, what little she said dense with meaning.
But the outhouse. I didn’t love the outhouse. The hole was much too big for my five-year-old build, an obvious fact no one seemed to mind except I. My legs would strain to hover and hold steady, over the dark abyss below, often seizing in place from exhaustion. It was a testy ritual each time, save for my favorite part: at the end of each month, a giant monster truck would come around to swallow all the muck inside the hole, leaving its insides hollow and hungry again to receive more of what we had to feed it. It was a monthly opportunity for renewal, a re-birth.
It had gone otherworldly dark inside the cramped shed the night I woke up to go face it. To maneuver my body, set my feet down, the left and the right pair, at the precise footprints along the edges of the rectangle, then hold my breath, hold steady for what would feel like a lifetime, longer than I was able, must have been near impossible, painful.
There was a pause.
I saw her fall—the other me; I stayed behind: I, the seer.
I don’t know how it came to be that I was in my body one moment and then I was out of my body the next moment.
That is a hole in my memory.
I have recalled this incident more than a few times in my life. This is the point in the story where people ask the what, where, when, who, why, how questions: What happened next? What happened, exactly? How did you fall? How far did you fall? What did you see? Are you sure this happened? I don’t quite follow you. . .
I do not know the answers to the Q&A. The answers aren’t what matter.
I do know I was without fear, say as I might have been about spiders. When one is out of the body, fear—that touchstone of human emotions—sublimates and is no longer an option. I know this now. Death, as I’d come to know it some years later, was also not an option. Not yet.
What happened next I know as much as my body knows. The memory, the senses attached to that memory, is lodged in the body. When triggered, I feel the thing—the pull, the pluck, the grip, by a hand?—that tugged on my shirt and lifted me out of the hole—in my body. Even now.
It was quick, it was decisive. Just as swiftly as I was out of my body, I was back in.
It is good to die completely is the Shaman way.
Before there was South Korea and North Korea, there was mudang, a female priestess who officiates kut, an ancient Korean Shamanic ritual of calling the dead. She has, in turn, been called to her vocation by the gods, and by a matrilineal heritage of all the mudangs before her. During kut, still practiced to this day, the mudang performs an elaborate rite of spirit exchange accompanying loud chants, prayers, and ecstatic dances, while drums, gongs and other percussion instruments encircling her play along. It is a family affair. From all over the mountainside village, a throng gathers in the courtyard of the host family and surrounds the mudang, while chanting along, and watches nervously as she walks along the blade of a sword and dances into a trance. She does this to summon the dead, the ancestors of the host family. They may ask for guidance from the dead about an illness or death in the family, or for prosperity to reign over the village or for other matters affecting the community. In this spirit exchange, mudang acts not merely as a medium between this life and others that came before it, but rather as a container in which she is displaced by the evoked spirit. During the trance, the dead possesses her body, mind, and personality, temporarily, in order to transmit mes-sages to the living.
In death, as in life, a closure bodes well for the heart. In the Chinogi kut, a type of kut performed three months after the death of a family member, the soul of the departed, soon to be an ancestor, is released in a final send-off, a farewell party, if you will. This is so they may transition completely to the other side, over that treacherous bridge between here and there, in peace, lest there be han, a deep regret, or unfinished business carried over from this life.
The morning after I fell into the hole, I wasn’t sure whether I should relay this incident to my family. I was a shy kid, small and slow. I rarely spoke, even when spoken to, in the way that some children who experience trauma early on lose the ability to use language to communicate in social situations. I was afraid of having to strain my neck and look tall and up at grown-ups, to try to get their attention. I was afraid of having to speak, make sense—beginning, middle, and end. I was afraid no one would believe me, me and my dumb story. I was ashamed of being afraid. I was ashamed that this strange thing happened to me, that I now had the responsibility, perhaps duty, to share it with my family and possibly the world beyond the walls of my grandmother’s house. I told myself it wasn’t my fault, though doing so made my burden no less.
I became a trifecta of afraid, ashamed, and confused at five.
But I should try.
“I have something to tell you,” I started. The grown-ups seemed surprised to hear me speak. As soon as I began though, already sensing incredulity and flagging energy from my audience, I skipped over parts, important parts, including the part about being out of my body. By the time I got around to saying something about someone plucking me from the hole, pulling me to safety in the middle of the night inside that death-trapping shit house with no electricity, they seemed to lose all interest in my story. Everyone was busy getting ready for work, busy getting on with the hard life after the war, the one that took my grandfather into the North.
“Why were you up in the middle of the night?” one of my aunts asked. Before I could answer, another aunt chimed in, “Just be more careful next time.”
My grandmother was a consummate listener, a diminutive figure who stood tall at 4’ 8”. At this lower eye-level, it seemed as though the whole frequency of her being had been altered. There was a deep, resolute silence about her, an aura that was certain of itself, without having to exert sound. Talking seemed like an excessive and unnecessary act. I, too, had become absorbed into this frequency, into her silence. That my grandmother and I were most ourselves when we were quiet alone, and most at ease when were were quiet together, made me trust my grandmother in a way I trusted no one else in the family.
She must have sensed the impatience gathering in the crowd, and seeing that no one believed me, she met my eyes approvingly, silently. My uncle, the only man in a house full of women, accustomed to being the prize in the family, claimed proudly, with a wink and a nod my way, that he was the savior who helped me out of the hole. He was charming and I wanted to believe him. I wanted to be believed. But even at five, I knew better than to trust a man. The one who had plucked me out of the hole, that had intercepted me from prematurely becoming the seer, couldn’t have been a man.
What I didn’t know then: why did she choose me? Had she followed me from another lifetime?
I was certain of one thing: she was a woman in that lifetime.
Tell me about your life.
In the ballad of the Arirang, an ancient Korean folk lyric, a mountain pass appears before lovers, as one is about to part with the other. The lyric is in the voice of a scorned (female) lover who at once laments her loss and forewarns her lover of an imminent bodily injury before he reaches even ten li on foot. Arirang may have begun as a song by a ghost of a woman killed by a man out of an unrequited love, before morphing into its more popular current version in which the script has been flipped. The pass here is a symbolic one, and so too are the subjects crossing it, as is the situation calling for the crossing of the Arirang pass also highly mutable. Traditionally, it’s the women who sing this mournful lyric.
For years now since becoming a mother I have been at the foot of the Arirang pass of my imagination, hearing this refrain, “Tell me about your life,” reverberate through the night sky, a directive playing over and over again inside my head as if on a remote feedback loop, and at an ever higher pitch as the years wear on, taunting me to devise an answer. It’s at once a seductive voice and a melancholic voice, both an offering and a plea. It’s strange because the “you” (in “your”) addressed by the speaker doesn’t feel personal: it could be me but it isn’t me, the now-middle-aged-single-mom-living-in-suburban-New Jersey-me; it’s a more aggregate kind molded out of all the me’s that have come before me. That is—the me in the women, all of my women.
It’s always the women. My beginning and my end.
It’s an unforgiving voice, this refrain, in that it feels like a one-off, a final gesture before a send-off of some kind to somewhere, an end. It feels as though once I answer this directive, or gesture toward answering it, the end will be in sight. Tell me about your life, lest it be no longer. For years, I’ve been afraid to answer it.
In Bhanu Kapil’s Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, the author set out to ask various women, “strangers [she] met in theaters, forests, laundromats, temples and diners,” a set of twelve questions, to which they answered anonymously. An experiment, a life and literary kind. Her questions are more varied and specific and more interesting than the singular directive playing in my head: Tell me about your life.
She leads with evocative and deceptively open-ended questions: How will you begin? or How will you live now? Others are more dire sounding such as What are the consequences of silence? or downright morbid: Tell me what you know about dismemberment. One question needled me the most: Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother? It seems this question had followed me from another lifetime, perhaps lifetimes. Plural. I could have been the interviewee and the interviewer, one and the same.
Lately, I’ve been noticing things around the house. The random, stray pennies, the flattened and barely readable pennies, pennies with Lincoln’s face obliterated, the 1936 pennies and the 1917 pennies (the birth years of my mother and my grandmother), pennies no longer recognizable as pennies, so many pennies waiting to be given my attention to. I find them while cleaning the floor; I go down on my hands and knees, zig-zagging the tiles with a wet rag in hand. This is the way I was taught by my grandmother to properly clean a floor under our feet, by lowering ourselves, lest our eyes lose focus and we miss a stray: lest we become deafened to an other world.
I’ve begun noticing more and more of the pennies in every room of the house, so much so that I started a small bin to collect them all, that then grew into a larger bin. Around the same time, the fire alarm in the dining room started going off in the middle of the night for no reason. “Aieee!” I muttered under breath, as I got up one night to rip out the batteries, put new ones in. Even after switching them out multiple times, they’re still ringing in random bursts. And again the other day, I saw a pair of orange-beaked cardinals out in the backyard, one busily chasing the other around, this way and that way, as would a dutiful mother dote on her prodigal son; they always come in two’s.
I was reminded of a visit I’d had with a man, a medium he called himself, possessing a special skill in being able to mediate the communication with loved ones who had passed over to “the other side.” His website mentioned that his gift had brought him to a brink of death earlier in life before he finally relented to his calling. He regarded himself as a “servant” dedicated to helping people “find their way.” That last marketing bit about finding one’s way, as cheesy as it sounded, spoke to me. His office was located conveniently in a corporate park somewhere in Connecticut. He was no , but he’d have to do. With my bad driving, I managed to avert a close three-way collision on the way there from north Jersey. I arrived late. He welcomed me with a big bear hug and ushered me into a living room full of other lost souls in search of being found. We sat encircled, as the medium went around the room, communing with whoever happened to “show up” from the other side. Immediately, I felt underwhelmed, sensing quackery in action. Still, I tried to give myself over. I’d already forked over a hefty sum, and drove over a hundred miles to get here on a Sunday afternoon.
Soon, he conjured up an old woman with a small child, his hands fastened to her side. My grandmother had always doted on her son while she was alive, her dedication to him only heightening after losing another son, her first-born, during his infancy to an accidental fall. She’d spent the remaining years of her life atoning for that sin. She’d made herself so small, she’d slowed down, so that she could tune into the frequencies of another lifetime where her son might have fallen to.
Some nights, the noises in my ears turn intense and woeful, their waves ricocheting off the unsettled beats of my heart, tapping to the howling winds outside. I look out through the shutters in my bedroom windows and feel eerily connected to the wind, as if its notes were a message sent for me from an other world, being tapped out to the esoteric tunes of my body, its frequencies only I am to decipher.
The other day I told my ten-year-old daughter about the time her grandmother, my mother, who had passed away more than 25 years ago when I was a young woman, visited me; she was reading a book in the corner of my room. I was woken to the sound of a page turning, pages from a book I’d been reading and that now she was reading. She was a reader when she was alive.
“Why do you think she came to visit you?” my daughter asked brightly.
“Maybe she was curious what kind of books I’ve been reading, just like I ask you sometimes what you’re reading.”
“Were you scared?” she asked, her eyes wide and wonderfully lit.
“Not at all,” I said.
The book I was reading was earmarked to a page with a text by a Korean-American writer named Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who had died at age 31, shortly after her book, Dictée, was published in late 1982. I thought about what I was doing in late 1982. It was a memorable year in my life, as my mother had brought me and my brother (my sister was left behind with father) to America after years of holding our breath to gain entry. I learned how to transliterate my Korean name into English, a sound-only name, its meanings hidden and held in suspension: a name in exile.
Hak Kyung had been murdered by a stranger, a man, a sweet-talking serial rapist as the authorities would later find out, in the basement of a Manhattan building where she’d gone to meet with her newly married husband, the photograher, Richard Barnes. Her body was later found in a parking lot nearby, the initial police report dubbing her an “oriental Jane Doe.”
The prose poem I was reading and re-reading that day was one that Hak Kyung had written to her mother, one of six muses—including the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon, Joan of Arc, Demeter and Persephone, Cha’s mother, and Cha herself—she chose to represent as matrilineal anchors in her book. Hak Kyung’s work, arguably one of the most iconic, genre-bending, multi-modal, hybrid work of the 20th century, defying formulation as prose or verse, or literature even, with its ungrammarly syntax and texture, without clear form or discipline, her words felt like a love letter from an other world to her mother, Hyung Soon Huo. Her mother had been a Korean born in Manchuria to first-generation Korean exiles. Her colonizers had taken away her language, her mother tongue. In one of the more emotionally clarifying moments in the book, Hak Kyung excavates the provenance of her mother’s trauma, and in turn, of her homeland, a trauma she had inherited:
Your father left and your mother left as the others. You suffer the knowledge of having to leave. Of having left. But your MAH-UHM, spirit has not left. Never shall have and never shall will.
She then tracks the movement of exile to secrecy to waiting, how one gives way to the other, then to the other:
You speak in the dark. In the secret. The one that is yours. Your own. You speak very softly, you speak in a whisper. In the dark, in secret. Mother tongue is your refuge. It is being home. . . To speak makes you sad. Yearning. To utter each word is a privilege you risk by death. Not only for you but for all. All of you who are one, who by law tongue tied forbidden of tongue. . . . But you say not for long not for always. Not forever. You wait. You know how. You know how to wait.
Speaking in “[her] own” tongue is “a privilege [she] risks by death.” When language, her only refuge, is taken away, when not speaking means averting the death of her people, she has no choice but to wait. So she waits. She waits in silence. Hak Kyung notes the resiliency of this memory traced to the silencing of her people, how memory of exile is “burned into [her mother’s] ever-present memory. [It is] memory less. Because it is not in the past. It cannot be.”
Exile is memory less. Time less. Body less.
The second time my consciousness left my body, when I temporarily became all-seeing possessing what writers call the omniscient POV, happened soon after my mother died. I was a young woman, by then having all but forgotten the experience of leaving the shellcasing of my body some eighteen years earlier. I had recently undergone many of life’s firsts—besides losing my mother, I’d been in the throes of depression, averse to light, sound, and people, in ways beyond what my thresholds for them had been, often harboring thoughts of self-harm. I’d soon come to welcome death because it had welcomed me, ushering me into an experience, as it were, that was unavailable to me in the small sphere of humanity that had become so uninviting. I’d lost my ability to feel the range of familiar emotions that had anchored me to the humanoids—sadness, anger-fear, jealousy, the dark matter that sits next to light, the joys and the loves of the empathic heart—and the expressions for those emotions, the tumble of feels that had made me me. I hardly left my bed. The word, emote, from Latin, emovere, to “move out”: literally then I’d lost interest in moving out of my cocooned, darkly-draped bedroom.
It was around this time that I found myself sitting one day on a park bench in Weehawken, New Jersey. I don’t remember how I got there, what occasion had brought me there. It was the early morning of my twenty-third birthday. Just days ago, I’d been so certain of my fate, one cut short for no particular reason; no big bang that would take me out other than the gnawing, nauseating, nonsense-inducing sense that I was unfit for life. It must have been early. Before me, the rising sun, so close I could feel its heat against my face, the flaming rim of the swelling ring like cat-eyes, feral. I paused to touch it.
A flash. Laid out in front, between the primal sun and me, was a panoramic view of my life. It flickered before me, for a splintered second, as though projected onto a green screen at an outdoor movie screening: the past, the present, and the future of my as-yet-unlived life quickly folding into a flash narrative—with no beginning, middle, or end. A flash was all. If there was a moral to this narrative, it was straight out of a self-help book: my life had a purpose. Hold on. This, too, shall pass. I took this home with me that day. I cleaned up my room. Slowly but surely, my emotional faculties returned over the next several weeks and months.
The first dream I had of my mother came several months after she died from complications from a cancer that had started in the middle of her and grew like the branches of an ancient tree. In the dream, she was shrouded in a ceremonial cloak and “spoke” of her han (ÇÑ), a Korean word imbued thickly with sorrow and suffering, the kind buried deep inside the vaults of a mountain-heart, brought on by an unresolved “debt” carried over from earlier lifetimes and felt through generations. Though the word itself is abstract, when used in a sentence with the modifying verb, ¸ÎÈ÷´Ù (pronounced meh-chi-da), meaning the quality of being deeply lodged, as in a cut or a bruise that wouldn’t heal, it becomes concrete, as it takes on a body; it becomes felt.
I had known about han aurally, listened to the neighborhood women of my childhood in Korea sing, dance, and emote the lyric of the Arirang that captures the soul of the suffering borne by my people. Still, I had not been aware of ever harboring this kind of suffering in my body.
Before she discovered Jesus in America, my mother had had dreams of becoming a writer one day, as a young woman coming up in the post-war South Korea when no woman wrote books, let alone a novel anyone has ever heard of or read. By day, she worked as a secretary at a university. By night, she was a writer, crafting myths of her own making. Every night, she scribbled her little and big poems, so many poems, sorrowful glyphs dancing in trance across the many little and big notebooks she kept close to her heart and bedside. Even after she brought her children across the ocean to chart a different life for them, she never stopped documenting all of her quotidian happenings, creating worlds, in tiny portions. She did this until she no longer could.
Before she was finally taken out of her body, my mother had been out of body for a long time, with all the stupidities of this life. Because, if not for her stupid children, she would have undone her life with her stupid husband. Because words sprouted inside of her wildly and stupidly like dandelions crack-opening asphalt, unchecked and unwanted, in parking lots across the back-side of America. Because in the darkest hour, inside the cracks of language, she found a god there and there and there, in tiny portions.
She died in winter, in an intensive care unit located in a part of New Jersey not worth a mention. I took a bus to get there and a bus to get back to the empty house my mother and I had shared. Our small living room looked like an empty gym. Alone, I gathered up her belongings, those that had tended to her body: her pills, her glasses, her stockings to keep the swelling down in her legs—and placed them next to the things that had tended to her soul: her Bible that felt heavy from all the highlighted and penciled-in pages; and her writings, including the heap of letters she had written to me, my brother, and others, some saved but unsent, along with a few books. I put them all into a box and labeled them (mother)—my mother’s life fit into a single box. In the funeral director’s office days later, I would insist that she be buried in a fancy coffin made of mahogany even though it was going to cost several thousand dollars more than the pine. This was my send-off to my mother: no drums, no gongs, no shaman’s or priest’s blessings, but a fancy mahogany coffin to neatly contain her han-ridden soul.
My mother was not at peace: this much was clear in the dream. In life, in body, she was not at peace, and now in death, out of body, she was not at peace. And now I was not at peace, not that peace had ever been a life goal. My mother had been worried about me. I am the youngest, the infant she had carried in her arms the night she ran away from my father’s house. What would become of her daughter, the one closest to her image, what kind of a man would she meet that wouldn’t hurt her, make her run for her life in the middle of the night? She wanted me to break with the stupid guy I’d been seeing, come back to her. She wanted me to go back to school, re-discover Jesus, go on missions to China or North Korea, wherever lost souls may be found. She believed that to find a soul within, one must give soul without. She believed in me.
Small things. She wanted me to be moved by small things, to write the tiny bits, into the every, thing and residue of this life.
Tell, Young One, about the pieces of yourselves, the holes inside your days, of your han-ridden selves, even as you may not know about them yet fully. Tell about the sorrows in the air, the way they move through your limbs when you’re at the grocery aisles, as you pick through the litter of tomatoes, one sorry tomato after another, tiny pieces of tired bodies sunken into your palm, shaped like a mangled O, the “o” inside a hole left by longing.
I know this now—the han inside of me that I share with the women who have passed on; the han that lives, everyday, inside the objects of our lives—my mother’s, my grandmother’s, and now my own—within and without our bodies, the memories embedded therein.
I am drawn to women in exile, outside of time and body. I’m drawn to women who pass on before their time, like Hak Kyung and so many others, who are forced to transition to becoming the seer when they would rather not be seen at all. Disembodied against their will, they come to possess another kind of body, a disfigured, sometimes dismembered, body, silenced into exile, a soul that has not been given a proper send-off, that is unremembered but ought to be remembered. They manifest their unfulfilled destinies at higher frequencies, hovering over parking lots or shit holes or other portals to an other world, because their stories have been punctured into a space-time that has no beginning, middle, or end. They are not a nothing.
The trauma is magnified when they die at the hands of men. I’m drawn to those women whose artistry as human beings and their as-yet-unknown purpose on earth are cut short, by men who seem as though they are stationed here precisely to intercept the messages carried by these women, through brute force, for fear they would become witnesses to something unresolved from other lifetimes. What did these women see (or will see) from thence that these men don’t want revealed.
By “drawn” I mean I feel a pain, of han—of theirs and now mine—contusions in our collective souls carried in the waves of our daily lives, that ripple through mountains and lakes, over valleys and forks, and when the sun sets, that hover over our bodies, here and yonder, resonating. The residue of their han is in my own subtle body, the outermost layer of my here-being or whatever one might call it, whatever boundaries, in or out of body or in between bodies. I am them, one of, them & me—together as a pair—I feel their urgent call, so I listen, just listen, lest I be taken one day unexpectedly, too. At their urging, my listening has become intense and more dire, silent though I may appear as my grandmother, yet strident in my desire to know what they saw, the frequencies of their sufferings that are now in my orbit, what traces of themselves, in code, they may have left behind, through their lives and art. Hak-Kyung’s spirit, along with so many of my women, their MAH-UHM and now mine, have not left. Never shall have and never shall will.
In the Northern provinces of Korea, a type of mudang performance called a “bridge” kut is common, as a farewell ceremony for the dead. A bridge is a trope used often in Korean folklore, here representing the chasm between this world and the one beyond. Every soul must cross such a bridge in order to move on, and the bridge kut is meant to ease the journey through this potentially treacherous path. It would appear that given all of the lived experiences here, the recently departed must find it difficult emotionally and otherwise to just “up and leave,” especially if the death wasn’t anticipated or happened suddenly. They need time, just as we living do, to process what in heavens is going on. As if in exile, they miss and pine for the company of their loved ones. Some can’t even believe or admit to themselves that they’re dead. The kind of acceptance or the lack of denial need-ed to get over the loss of a loved one in this realm is also needed for the departed in the in-between realm, over the bridge, in order for them to transition fully to the next realm. In this sense, the knowledge of having left, if the knowledge occurs to him/her/them at all, often accompanied by shock or sadness or regret or any number of other human emotions, is something for the dead to wrestle with, to be reckoned with, during this state of passing, though on the surface they may seem un-negotiable. One has a choice in the matter, which implies that one could learn and thus prepare to face the matter, arguably the most important choice in one’s life, and to do so artfully, gracefully—that is, to die well, which is to say, to die completely.
In the dream where my mother spoke of han several months after her death, I knew that she had been waiting there, wherever there was, over the Arirang pass between where her children were and where her ancestors had gone. For a time, the dead linger in this liminal space. With so much unfinished business in this life, my mother wasn’t ready to move on. Just as in life, in death, she was wanting to make sure I, her youngest, was taken care of. She must have held on, alone inside the vast hole, uncertain of her destination or how to get there even. She held on until she no longer could. She appeared just before swan-diving into another hole. When I woke up, it felt as though I awoke not from a dream but from another dimension, having time-traveled from my mother’s into mine. I had not had the chance to send her off properly from this life. That dream was her last good-bye to me.
Perhaps one way to prepare well, to die artfully, gracefully, is to begin with questions. I’m afraid I’ve been asking the wrong questions, for the better part of my life. To the refrain in my head that has kept me awake at night for years now, Tell me about your life, I realize now I have to revisit an incident from my past. I have held onto it in my body for a long time.
The last time I disconnected from my body happened several years after my mother’s death. Again, just as unexpectedly as the first two times. I’d been living alone at the time in a tiny garage-turned studio apartment in New York City. The apartment didn’t have very good acoustics, so I could hear the conversations people were having on the other side of the wall separating my apartment from the street, every sordid phone conversation between a jilted lover and his crush. The twin bed that came with the kitchenette was pushed to the far corner of that wall, making me feel “exposed.” Sometimes, the noises woke me up with a full-throttle panic in my body. To feel panic, a kind of jolt, experienced in my depressed body, meant feeling that much more alive. Those days, I was seeing guys, several, at once; each of them, singly, had been unfit or insufficient in one way or another. Even together, as a composite, had not been enough to awaken my senses. One evening I tucked myself to bed alone.
I awoke with a sensation that I was not alone in my bed. I was in a semi-prone position weighted down by something or someone. I don’t remember being terrified. I knew something was wrong by the fact that I couldn’t hear the sound of my own voice asking, “Who is this? What’s happening?” I could sense that a hand larger and other than my own was grasping my hands. I tried with all my might to pull this hand away from mine, only to realize that I couldn’t feel anything. It was as if I was paralyzed or in sedation, my body unresponsive with a fully alert mind inside of it.
I drifted out of my body. She—the woman on the bed, still trapped inside the body—stayed behind. Soon, I was floating near the ceiling, so high up near the ceiling that I had to curve my torso into a concave like sucking in your belly when you want to look thin, just to stay afloat, for fear that if I didn’t I’d shoot up through the ceiling. I saw a man on my bed. Tucked into the arms of that man was me, so small, almost buried. For a moment, it looked almost as though he was spooning her, their bodies like a figure 8, locked tight. From afar, one might mistake them as a couple. But, no, I knew it wasn’t like that. I sensed the pain that she, the young woman on the bed, was feeling, though I, near the ceiling didn’t feel any physical pain. She was trying to push away his hand, off of her own hands, but she couldn’t. I knew that he was someone she knew, that he’d come back to hurt her; something she did days earlier upset him, so he’d come back to hurt her. I knew that even though their faces were hidden from my line of sight. I had become all-seeing, from all directions. I had become body less, time less.
The same man returned the next night.
Perhaps this part of my narrative should have come earlier in the essay. I know it should have. Yet again, for one last time, let me digress.
Question 11 in Kapil’s Vertical Interrogation asks, How will you / have you prepare(d) for your death? It is such a direct question, one that confronts, startles, even potentially embarrasses the interviewee, that is, in the case that she has not done what the interviewer supposes she ought to have done. The thought might not even have occurred to the naive interviewee. Nowadays, the question might invoke literal interpretations and spawn answers as far flung, for those technologically savvy, as cryonics. In America, we’re scared to death about death; we don’t think or talk about, let alone prepare for it, though we, Americans, are not universal in this way. Kapil’s question rings as an interrogation of sorts, and presupposes that death should and can be prepared for, which implies that there is a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it.
The question brings me back to the bridge. Over the Arirang pass lies the han, of women, of my women—an invisible hole that could only be felt between a mother and her only son who had passed on too young; between a daughter and her mother whose shared narrative had become so punctured with traumas, rendering it full of holes, with no beginning, middle or end; between a mother and a child whose life had become a waiting. It is the han carried in things—within humans and without, in nature, the mountains, the trees, the rocks that nourish, protect, and judge them, too.
It seems I have been floating out of body, for the better part of my life. Why? This is not a question I or anyone could answer. Answers aren’t what matter. But I know that the moment I floated out of my body and saw a man on my bed, keeping me there by force—the me inside that young woman’s body—when I became a witness to my own assault—I had joined the coterie of women whose lives had been cut short by men, those with injuries that refuse to heal and are now burdened with facing a bridge they cannot cross. Unable to die completely, they hover over the living, wailing in silence, waiting. My mother and my grandmother, along with so many women before them, they are calling on me, throughout all the days and all the hours, to chant, to do the ecstatic dance, to walk on sword with abandon, to command the mystery of the hole: to write down my story, which is their stories. Perched above or below or beyond, wherever they may be, they are waiting on me, however ephemeral or unexpected my flight through the hole was, to return to this side to tell my story, theirs. In exile, they have been silenced into waiting, and I have been living, exiled from my own MAH-UHM, that all-seeing spirit, for a long time now, lifetimes. Plural. I don’t have all the answers. I know this now. Answers aren’t what matter.
Jung Hae Chae is a Korean-American writer. She is winner of the 2021 Crazyhorse Nonfiction Prize and the 2019 Emerging Writers Contest in Nonfiction from Ploughshares. Her work has appeared (or will soon) in AGNI, Crazyhorse, Guernica, New England Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere, and has been included in the Pushcart Prize collection. She is currently at work on a memoir that examines the matrilineal inheritance of han in the Korean diaspora.green trees on mountain, Seoul by Ben Blennerhassett