MPT FEATURE

A Short Piece on Migration

2016 Number 1 - SOLD OUT - The Great Flight

Whenever I obeyed the shadows, I saw tiny floating arms covered in mould.


I was born in South Korea during the U.S.-backed military dictatorship. I grew up in a small, traditional house my father bought with his award money for his photographs of the Student Revolution of 19 April 1960 that took place in response to President Rhee’s anti-democratic and dictatorial rule. What my father still remembers about the uprising is that many children, orphaned during the Korean War, gave up their lives because they had nothing more to lose. What I remember are the children, no older than me, who used to come around late afternoons begging for leftovers, even food that had gone sour. The drills at school in preparation against attacks by North Korea kept me anxious at night. I feared separation from my family due to the ever-pending war. I feared what my mother feared – my brother being swept up in protests and ge ing arrested and tortured. Our radio was turned o at night in case we were suspected of being North Korean sympathizers. At school, former North Korean spies came to give talks on the evil leader of North Korea. I stood at bus stops to see if I could spot any North Korean spies, but all I could spot were American GIs. My friends and I waved to them and called them ‘Hello’s’. In our little courtyard, I skipped rope and played house with my paper dolls amongst big glazed jars of fermented veggies and spicy, pungent pastes. I feared the shadows they cast along the path to the outhouse. Stories of abandoned infant girls always piqued my interest, so I imagined that the abandoned babies might be inside the jars. Whenever I obeyed the shadows, I saw tiny floating arms covered in mould. And whenever it snowed, I made tiny snowmen on top of the covers of the jars. Like rats, children can be happy in darkness. But the biggest darkness of all was the midnight curfew. I didn’t know the curfew was a curfew till my family escaped from it in 1972 and landed in Hong Kong. That’s how big the darkness was.

In 1980, my father filmed the rising waves of student protests against the dictatorship in Seoul. He also witnessed the beginning of the brutal military crackdown on the pro-democratic movement in Kwangju. He believed then that the dictatorship would not end and that it would be too dangerous for us to return home. He sold one of his cameras to pay for my older brother’s surgery, who was injured during his mandatory military service. He gave the South Korean government news footage of a student protest in exchange for the release of my brother from the military and a permit to leave South Korea. He thought then that he was saving us from a life of perpetual darkness. In 1983, my family ‘scattered all over’, as my mother said. My parents and my younger brother headed to West Germany. My sister remained in Hong Kong, my older brother left for Australia, and I went to the US as a foreign student to complete my degrees in art. In light, we all ailed from separation and homesickness. In light, we had to find a way to settle down, as my mother said. In light, we lived like birds.

Browse our features about translation

MPT has ... opened windows on landscapes of feeling, on insight otherwise inaccessible...George Steiner

Go Digital

Subscribe to the digital edition of MPT for access to all back issues and to the Exactly app.» View free trial issue

Next issue…

Spring 2017

Spring 2017

No 4 / 2014

Submissions related to the open call are accepted at submissions@mptm... » Read more » Submit to MPT

Back to top
Supported by Arts Council England

Copyright © Modern Poetry in Translation and contributors
Website design ashbydesign
Developed by Code Frontiers
Powered by Storemill