From the cloud of white rainbow, a shimmer coalesced into solidity as it curved down to the earth. At one end of the misty arc, a huge white egg appeared. The egg opened laterally, like a clamshell, and a woman clothed in brilliance emerged, holding a box tenderly in her arms. It hurt to look upon her, both splendid and vulnerable; this strange beauty broke something open in me, with the crackle of melting ice.
The arrival seemed more like an apparition, a light transmission, than a manifestation from above, but news footage showed a crater swallowing the entire dusty parking lot where the egg had touched down. On examination the egg-ship was found to be composed of light, heat and matter – it became more or less tangible depending on the instruments of perception.
As for the woman, she slipped away as she had come: in a vanishing instant. While some seers felt heartened by the experience, others were beset by mourning. For yet others, it became an obsession. A community of ufologists, for example, shared theories derived from the Japanese legend of the utsuro-bune, itself said to be a composite of several myths, which told of a visit by a hollow ship. Inside the utsuro-bune villagers found inscriptions in an unknown language and a woman, an alien, who was very attached to a mysterious box. Not knowing what to do with her, they cast her back into the sea.
Sometimes a catastrophe has the function of a miracle; sometimes a miracle has a catastrophic effect. It can be difficult to discern between the two; they are part of the same whole. Not long after the arrival, I decided to leave. Sometimes a journey makes itself necessary.
䷂ changes to ䷐
You carry at centre the mark of the red above and the mark of blue below, heaven and earth, tai-geuk; t’ai chi. It is the mark. The mark of belonging. Mark of cause. Mark of retrieval. By birth. By death. By blood. You carry the mark in your chest, in your MAH-UHM, in your MAH-UHM, in your spirit heart.
Twin tracks run through you, your MAH-UHM. You are a child, born into Japanese-occupied Manchuria, soon after Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s mother. Where the other Koreans live. Same as you. Refugees. Immigrants. Exiles. You, too, are a split self, from a land that will also be severed. You too will carry the mark in diaspora, in your chest, in your spirit heart, where it hurts when you think of your mother, who died when you were my age, when you died, so far away.
Mark of belonging. Mark of dislocation. Mark of cause. Mark of break. Mark of retrieval. Mark of loss. Modernity’s wound carries forward, like blood spilling into warm water,
edged with coral and gold.
Notes from the first landing. The city of life and death, Maha Shivatri, the darkest night of the year:
Pick up a perfectly round stone from the ground and fall through it onto the other side of the world (rite of estrangement; return to the first teacher.)
My body, a glass bead rolling, my blood, beating with nameless memory;
Unbound, anything seems possible, probable – weave new patterns, I.
The oracle replies: Fire on the mountain.
䷁ changes to ䷀
You told stories and fortunes using hwatu cards. I try to recall what you said about this particular card, my favourite. On a rainy night, a stranger comes. Or, less literally: In the night, a stranger comes with the rain. My aunt reminds me – it’s not a stranger, but a guest. The suit of this card is called bi (rain) in Korean and yanagi (willow) in Japanese. In Japanese hanafuda, the suit corresponds to November, and, in Korea, December.
I think of how you must have selected your memories, sorting through the languages of your childhood (Japanese, official; Korean, outlawed and punishable by having your tongue cut out), to transform them into stories that you thought appropriate to tell a young granddaughter.
You told me how your uncle and his comrades in the independence movement would come from their hideouts to eat at your home under the cover of the night; that you had rice to share because one branch of the family owned a mill. You did not tell me that the reason your family moved to Manchuria from occupied Korea was because of the harassment, surveillance and torture they received from the Kempeitai, the Japanese imperial secret police. You told me that when they moved back after the end of the Second World War, you, for the first time, were able to use your Korean name in school. You did not tell me your Japanese name. You told me my favourite card showed a nameless guest, and not the legendary poet.
Often, buried stories and silences are phantomogenic, visiting ghosts upon the descendants of a culture. When exiled memory haunts, remember that words have the potency both to heal and to harm. Remember the methods of gathering and holding, receiving wandering spirits and unresolved antecedents: in stories, in a circle, in a crucible, where they might finally become real and rest. On the night of the full moon, among the willows, the guest arrives in the rain…
䷓ changes to ䷴
After the ashram, I am relieved to be alone. I am staying in a spotless guesthouse run by a woman from North Korea. She and her Nepalese husband are kind to me; I am sick, and she makes me congee the way my grandmother used to. In Nepal, they say, the guest is god.
In the third space, the soft liminal whatever of my convalescence, my frail need is showing, and I feel okay about this.
Still I travel to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, where I meet my twin. It is the anniversary of the earthquake: a magnitude of 7.8 on one scale, and immeasurable on another.
Lumbini has its own vibration, the dimension of the heart. My friend, my beautiful twin, says, “I felt something in there,” as we emerge from a temple and into the sunlight. “Compassion, compassion… There is so much compassion left here.” We sit quietly under the bodhi tree and our shadows smile back at us. “We need to be connected with something greater than loss,” he says. “Bless us that we may recognise this dream state.”
䷡ changes to ䷪
Cephalopodic and humanoid, the chimera wears sunglasses and an inside-out suit around downtown Tokyo. The monster is a fish out of water, the left hand of oceanic feeling. At the shrine and at the diner, she hands out papers describing a regrettable aquatic cataclysm. (What must be said that cannot be said?)1
‘Monster’ in Chinese is 怪物, comprising 怪: ‘strange’ and 物: ‘thing’ and romanised as guàiwù. In Japanese kanji, it is the same, but romanised as kaibutsu. Korean hanja also has 怪物 but more commonly used is the hangul transliteration 괴물, which is romanised as goemul. A shared language with entangled roots, full of strange things.2
The scarlet monster is both a gorgeous-grotesque rupture and wounded conception, externalising internal organs and postcolonial melancholy. It is a talisman against, or an omen of, a certain kind of blue.3 Perhaps all of the fish might mutate and come out of the water, as in a dream – a restoration.
The twelve days of Lee Bul’s performance are most remarkable for the in-between bits when Lee Bul is a woman putting on her monster suit, like a commuter putting on make-up, or undressing, like a snake shedding its skin. In these moments the monster is the shaman, with coins lacing her body, with a fan, dancing, laughing, summoning, existing between worlds.
The Blessed Isles: where time turns into space. Geomantic and megalithic forms reflect cosmic order, bringing down astral forces, while worldly scars mark the populace and earth, both reverberating with the scorched past. There are ghosts among the gods, and things become repeated.
The highest volcano on the island is abundant with the divine mushroom of immortality, commonly known as the fly agaric. Like the island itself, it is only revealed to those who seek it. At the foot of the mountain, a Buddhist pilgrimage route culminates in a temple. Travellers descend on it, to meditate in a labyrinthine cave.
I’ve come here to meet the old woman, who cuts a hole in my chest and hides some earth in me. When I wake up, the wound is healing, and she says that it is necessary, sometimes, to grieve the loss of illusions. Then she tells me a story.
One day, a young woman left her home to build a road into the sea. She used fractured tiles and slates that bore images and symbols – many of these resembled each other, but were slightly different, stratified with corruptions, embellishments and the particular styles of their unknown makers’ hands. Finally, she pieced together a rickety bridge, which stretched into the southern sea and coiled up to the stars. When she had no more pieces to use, she found that she did not know how or why she should continue. In her fatigue and despair, she saw only heartlessness in the open water. She fell down into its depths, where she was swallowed by a whale, and inside the terrible immensity of its mouth, she learned how to see in the darkness once again.
After three days and three nights, the whale delivered her back onto her spiral path to continue her work. When she followed it to the farthest point, to the peak of the mountain, a figure was waiting for her, against the red and yellow sky. This stranger gave her a gift in a white box. Upon opening it, she discovered it was something she already possessed.
Then, the old woman and I, we ascend. The lines become a circle, and trance and pilgrimage come together.
The narrative topography of diaspora is not of one origin and destination, but of many beginnings and many ends. The story is not just to the shrines but between them, too.
You. You paint the temple and show me the way there, the inward journey. Amid the mother trees that bear my name, I turn to look at you, but you are gone. I find you inside the picture, where the air is carved from memory, and your body is surrounded by a rainbow of colours that pour out of the many thresholds of the temple. There, you turn and stand quite still, before passing through a door and out of sight.
1 (For example: the Asian, predominantly Korean, women, forced into sexual slavery as ‘comfort women’ for the Japanese Imperial Army. Whose lawsuit against the Japanese government broke a collective silence only in 1991, one year after Lee Bul’s performance Sorry for suffering — You think I’m a puppy on a picnic? (1990). Whose servitude carried forward to the military prostitutes for the US Army occupying the Korean peninsula. Whose dispossession of their bodies produced transgenerational phantoms arising out of unspoken traumas.)
2 (For example: the human subjects of unspeakable experimentation for the purposes of biological and chemical warfare development at Unit 731, a factory for the production of monsters, at a covert site in Manchuria, the Japanese Imperial puppet state, now northern China. Some, later transferred to Japan, haunt Toyoma Park as hitodama, balls of fire that appear when a soul has been severed from its body.)
(For example: the millions of refugees who died, disappeared, and were forever separated from their families during the 1950s Korean War, a Cold War proxy war. The Forgotten War: the war remembered as a genealogy of trauma.) (For example: the severance of the land, the earth, the people, at the 38th parallel. The suspended war: the wound that does not heal.)
3 Originally a Chinese concept, han is said to be culturally specific to Korea (an imperial diagnosis). Han is an invented history that has become mapped into the nervous system of a people: a cluster of suffering, sorrow, resentment, anger that can be demystified as the affective complex of dispossession. What Cathy Park Hong calls ‘minor feelings’.
Works referenced, in order:
Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red, Jonathan Cape (1999)
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee, (University of California Press, 2009)
I Ching or Book of Changes, translated by Richard Wilhelm (Arkana, 1989)
Grace M. Cho, Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War, (University of Minnesota Press, 2008)
Lee Bul, Sorry for suffering – You think I’m a puppy on a picnic (1990)