I’m Korean American, And I Can’t Watch The Pyeongchang Olympics

I wasn’t prepared for how much it would hurt to see North and South Koreans competing, together, so close to the border that keeps them apart.

The Olympics are the only sports I follow — or followed, past tense. With the Pyeongchang Winter Games, I haven’t been able to watch so much as a single full replay clip without crying; that, or shouting. I can barely read the next-day write-ups. I grieve or I rage. When I’m having dinner with white friends and they discuss the latest athletic triumph, I try not to listen. But still, I get pulled in.

“Do you know that part of Korea?” they ask. “Have you been to Pyeongchang?”

“I visited the province once, just for a couple of days,” I say, and I leave it at that. What I don’t explain is that my father’s from that region, as is the rest of his family. His father, my grandfather, helped govern the province of Gangwon, where Pyeongchang is located. I was born in Seoul; a sizable percentage of my family used to be from what’s now North Korea. None of this is worth explaining, not while I’m at dinner with my friends.

The Olympics have always held my attention, and how could they not? I love, of course, the grand, fast spectacle of it all, the glory and tragedy of the minutes and seconds during which lifelong hopes are by turns crushed and realized. In The Renaissance, Walter Pater says that Greek gymnastics originated as part of a religious ritual — “the worshipper was to recommend himself to the gods by becoming fleet and fair, white and red, like them” — and I love to watch humans push up against what’s possible, nudging those physical limits up, and up again.

If that were all, I’d also delight in watching other varieties of sports; I don’t, so why the Olympics? It has something to do, I think, with the global dream underlying the Olympics, the ritual’s organizing principle. The peaceful coming together of a multitude of nations. Each time it happens, what a shining, joyful ideal. What an almost impossible sight.

Last week, though, I couldn’t even finish watching the opening ceremony. I’d heard that South and North Korea planned to walk in together, but I wasn’t prepared for what it would look like. The athletes from both countries, in long white jackets, marching beneath a blue and white unification flag. It wasn’t the first time the two nations walked in together; they last did so in Italy in 2006. But this felt different, occurring as it did on South Korean land just 40 miles from the North. I couldn’t tell who might be from the South, who from the North. Everyone waved small versions of that same flag, the unfamiliar colors flickering. I stopped the show, in tears — though, at this point, I wasn’t sure why.

I find I’m sick with inherited grief, again. 

But I was lucky I switched it off, as it turned out, because I didn’t have to watch live as NBC’s Asian correspondent, the startlingly ignorant Joshua Cooper Ramo, told US viewers that “every Korean will tell you that Japan is a cultural, technological, and economic example that has been so important to their own transformation.”

Outrage ensued, an uproar loud enough that Ramo was then removed from further NBC Olympics coverage. If you don’t already know how painful this could be — why I shouted at my laptop when I read this, and how this could have been big news in South Korea for days — I don’t really know what to tell you. Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, for one thing. No one had occupied the country before that. Barbarities abounded: the systemic rape of sex slaves, bloodshed, the countrywide banning of the Korean language. I could go on, but I don’t want to. I find I’m sick with inherited grief, again. If you haven’t learned about this yet, go look it up.

I’ll say a little, though, about what concluded Japan’s colonization of Korea. With World War II at an end, the US and the then–Soviet Union conferred and decided to split apart a nation that had been a single entity for centuries. Not even 70 years ago, there was no division; my grandmother remembers what it was to inhabit that one country, though she’s not inclined to talk about the past.

“A lot happened,” she says, on the phone. She’s in her apartment in Los Angeles, and I’m calling from San Francisco. Imagine if California were its own country and it got split in half by foreign powers, and, weirdly, the two halves became enemies with a border almost no one’s allowed to cross. That’s how artificial the separation can feel, and how strange.

I wasn’t aware of the extent to which a lot of Americans might not know about this history until my husband, a progressive, well-educated man who happens to be white, disagreed when I mentioned that the US had helped partition my country of birth. I pulled up a Wikipedia article and showed him what it said. “See?” I said, until he did.

We’ve been together since college, my husband and I: When people ask how many years it’s been, we both have to pause, do the math. My parents now dearly love him; at first, though, they had trouble accepting how serious I was about him. During graduate school, while I was engaged to him, they kept attempting to set me up with Korean American men they knew, the available sons of their friends.

“It’s just that I want to be able to talk with him in Korean,” my mother said once, trying to explain. “I want to be close to whoever you end up marrying, I want him to be a son to us.”

She and I were talking on the phone in our usual Korean-English hodgepodge. Her English is quite good, if not perfect; my Korean is terrible, like that of a very small child. (My family and I moved to the US when I was little. One of my first memories involves a Korean American new friend, in kindergarten in LA, noticing that I hadn’t learned how to use chopsticks. Pitying me, she helped me out.) In English, I’m a writer: I’ve made a life from my love of words. In Korean, I’m close to illiterate. Together, stumbling along, my mother and I talk, making it work.

During the long-ago time when my parents set themselves against the fact of my then-fiancé, a Korean American friend advised, joking, “Just go home and tell them you’ve fallen in love with someone who’s Japanese. After that, they’ll be totally fine with a white guy.”

North Korea has sent, as part of its 500-person Olympics delegation, four women ice hockey players, six skiers, two figure skaters, two speed skaters, musicians, taekwondo athletes, and 229 cheerleaders. In addition, the two Koreas have temporarily united in a single women’s ice hockey team. On the one hand, it’s astonishing to see the two countries working together, joined. In the match against Japan, their only goal was made by a third variety of Korean, Randi Heesoo Griffin, a US-born Korean American from Raleigh, North Carolina.

It’s astonishing to see the two countries working together, joined.

The team lost to Japan, but the real win of the game, perhaps, came from the 229 cheerleaders, Kim Jong Un’s so-called army of beauties. During the game, they sang; they moved in sync, chanting, “We are one, we are one.” In the audience, South Koreans chimed in. We’re not, though; that is, they’re not. In tears again, I turned away.

But here’s what various media outlets have said about the cheerleaders: They’re “robotic.” They’re “over-choreographed to the point of lost authenticity.” (Since when are cheerleaders not over-choreographed? Don’t they all tend to be pretty intricately synchronized? Isn’t that kind of what cheerleaders do?) They’re “singing, dancing spearheads of a strategic North Korean propaganda campaign.” (But as Jia Tolentino points out in the New Yorker, “cheerleading, by nature, is a form of propaganda.”) They’re “one of the weirdest spectacles at the Winter Olympics.” They’re “creepy.” “Kind of terrifying.”

Weird, creepy, robotic, terrifying — I’m shaking as I type this, angry again. On the one hand, at least some of this commentary has to be reacting to how still the cheerleaders remain between routines, or how they’re visibly flanked by older men, as if to be kept in line; on the other hand, please notice the choice of words. These are the usual slurs made against Asian people in Western countries, that we’re strange, robotic, other than. I try to sit through more replay clips. It occurs to me that, before this, I’ve never seen North Korean women sing, clap. There’s something familiar about how the cheerleaders move, rhythmically inclining their heads left and right as they clap, and then I realize: My mother does this. She often tilts her head side to side, clapping, while she sings. It’s just like this, and it’s fucking adorable. Other women, her Korean American church friends, do it too.

The summer after I graduated from college, I taught English in Seoul for a couple of months. I was curious about what I was from, but I’ve never felt so out of place as I did in the city of my birth. I looked like the people around me, but then, if I started speaking in Korean, people often stared. They laughed, made comments. I kept flubbing the syntax. My accent was wrong. I sounded American. With the first words I uttered, any taxi driver could tell I was foreign.

Before I flew to Seoul, my parents asked me to promise I wouldn’t try to visit North Korea. The two countries are still technically at war, after all, and my passport shows where I was born. “Please,” they said, so I made the promise.

Instead, I took the short trip to the South-North border, the demilitarized zone 35 miles from Seoul, and I looked at the lush expanse of wilderness — just 2.5 miles of green, of hidden landmines, and then a caged-in, totalitarian, repressive land on the other side. It’s hard to extract much information about my family out of my parents, who, like my grandmother, avoid talking about the past. I do know that my mother’s father, my maternal grandfather, grew up in what’s now North Korea. Before the start of the Korean War, he and his family fled south. My father’s grandmother was also born and raised in what’s now North Korea; she, along with her family, also escaped south before the country was halved.

I know most South Koreans oppose reunification with the North — last I heard, 60% prefer peaceful coexistence. But I’m not South Korean, of course, not really. Even as I write this, I keep checking small facts, calling my mother to make sure I’m translating correctly, nervous I’m getting it all wrong, that I’ll be shown up, proven to be as ignorant as I’m afraid of being. I’m so deeply American, is the thing, even as, with each month that passes since last year’s US elections, I get still more signals that a lot of people in my country believe people who look like me don’t belong here.

In the meantime, the president of the US keeps talking about nuking North Korea. Others in his administration support him. I sit in America, in my beloved, adopted country — the only one I really know, and which, almost 70 years ago, helped divide my country of origin — and I listen to its political leaders chat about the possibility of obliterating the northern half of my homeland.

I’ve read so many books and articles about North Korea, starved to learn what I can about the regime and its brutalities. Not much information gets out, though; not from a country with the most tightly controlled borders in the world. So, when I see these North Koreans in Pyeongchang, I can’t help but scan their features, wondering. Could one be distantly related to my grandfather, or to my father’s grandmother? I’ll never know. The thin, strange possibilities glint everywhere, which also means they might as well be nowhere.

In the last Olympics replay clip I watch, briefly, before I have to hit stop again, the North Korean cheerleaders sing, “Ban gap seum ni da.” The closest translation is a simple “Nice to meet you.” But the more literal translation is “We’re glad to meet you,” and I’m crying again. Each time I try to watch these North Koreans in Pyeongchang, I find I’m grieving my people. ●

R. O. Kwon's first novel, The Incendiaries, is forthcoming from Riverhead in July 2018. She is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, Vice, Noon, Time, Electric Literature, Playboy, and elsewhere. Born in South Korea, she’s mostly lived in the United States.

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