Jeon: Home, Hallowed and Lost

by Min Kyung Jeon | 11/3/15 7:00pm

We all have a memory of a place or time, pure and precious, to which we long to return. Some recall the palpitations caused by the sight of a first crush on the playground. Others may think of the tranquil surface of a pond dappled with sunlight, seen on a trip through the countryside. For me, it is the proud face of my grandmother, crinkled by her smile, at my elementary school matriculation ceremony. With final exams, job applications and “the real world” on the horizon, it is tempting to reminisce on our idealized pasts, but we are better off acknowledging that, in reality, they were as flawed as our current lives.

My own glorified past is inextricably tied to my experience moving to the United States. The South Korea of my childhood is a home that no longer exists, and the image of bygone days casts a rose-tinted shadow over my mind. To my 13-year-old sensibilities, my family’s relocation to America had constituted a grievous uprooting. With the unexpected move came the acute and constant alienation from my peers in the classroom, at track meets and during jazz band rehearsals. No matter the number of academic and extracurricular activities I threw myself into, I never once felt at home.

This sense of displacement, compounded by the usual growing pains of adolescence, led me on a frantic quest for something to numb the solitude and nostalgia. Unconsciously, I searched for figures to substitute Grandma, who had passed a couple years before my departure from Korea. At 14, I was drawn to the myriad musical icons of the 1960s and 1970s, from the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix to Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan. At 16, the rockers and the folk singers gave way to revolutionaries and ideologues, propelling me to study Spanish in an effort to dissect Che Guevara’s speeches. At 19, I was infatuated with storied philosophers and literary giants like Michel Foucault and Pablo Neruda.

Ultimately, no one, living or dead, measured up to Halmeoni, my grandmother who had toiled away at household chores while raising me and my brother for my working parents, worn her poverty with dignified defiance and cooked me food I can only describe as home. To this day, I believe that Gran was the only individual in my life to bestow on me unconditional love, with her infinite forgiveness of my mistakes and unwavering faith in my potential to change the world.

The fear that I would never find somebody with whom I could share such a deep, instinctual emotional connection, around whom I could simply feel at home, has pervaded all my experiences thus far at Dartmouth. At every turn, I have ached for and felt betrayed by Gran’s affectionate chuckles — which used to inspire in me the courage to tackle anything in life — and my seven-year-old self’s unadulterated passion, which seemed to put any aspirations within reach.

Gradually, however, I have come to understand the necessity of loss and disillusionment as a rite of passage into adulthood. Even on the immaculate glass case of my supposedly carefree childhood, cracks have been present as early as I can remember — I had merely turned a blind eye to the imperfections. In reality, denials and heartbreaks abounded throughout this imagined innocence — my parents’ many disputes about our lack of money, my third grade teacher’s callous verbal and physical attacks on a classmate from a poor, criminal background and the neighborhood kids’ taunting my brother’s mild Tourette’s symptoms, among countless others.

For first-and-a-half generation immigrants like me, who migrated to the United States during their early teen years, it can be particularly difficult to refrain from idealizing our former lives in our homeland. Often faced with enormous culture shock, psychological as well as geographical disorientation and overt and covert discrimination, we unwittingly romanticize the “good ol’ days,” selecting exquisite recollections frozen in time to loop in our minds, like the final montage of romantic scenes in “Cinema Paradiso” (1988).

The pedestal on which I had once placed my heroines and heroes, including my grandmother, was never mine to erect. Growing up requires coming to terms with the fallibility of our idols and taking off our rose-colored glasses. Only then can we be sustained, rather than imprisoned, by our pasts as we forge new memories to treasure in years to come.