The Haunting of My Family
I know now that a ghost haunted my family’s dinner table. Growing up, my mom prepared sumptuous Korean meals and in response, my siblings and I told her daily that the meal was masisseoyo (맛있어요). But otherwise, silence ruled our meals as if an invisible dinner guest bound our tongues. Or perhaps instead the silence provided for a vacuum that the ghost filled. Perhaps it was a bit of both. As a result, I have only bits and scraps of the life stories of my parents and family. This silence is apparently not uncommon in many immigrant Korean families as Grace Cho writes:
But now, I am beginning to understand this ghost as a sort of han (한), a Korean word that is most commonly understood as collective transgenerational emotion and experience of unresolved trauma and oppression.
I’ve also come to believe that our streets are haunted by ghosts as well through a sort of past and present collective trauma that remains unresolved. That might appear to be an extreme statement except when you consider the body toll. Since 1899, more than 3.6 million people in the United States have died from car crashes, which is greater than the approximate 1.2 million American soldiers who have died in all American wars. We understand this collective trauma from our fear of the streets, which almost feels instinctual, but rather it’s learned and inherited trauma. In a talk, Enrique Penalosa observes, “if we tell any three-year-old child who is barely learning to speak in any city in the world today, ‘Watch out, a car,’ the child will jump in fright, and with a very good reason, because there are more than 10,000 children who are killed by cars every year in the world.”
I find it an odd sensation to walk down the middle of a street usually packed with cars that is closed off to traffic for a special event. I always feel a simultaneous sense of unburdened freedom that begins to imagine what streets could be like but also a guilty uncomfortable feeling of transgressing onto a space I’m not really supposed to be in. These ghosts act as a burden, a weight that we can feel. One common way to name our haunting have been ghost bikes, which are often erected to memorialize cyclists who have fallen to motor vehicular violence and to remind us all that cyclists deserve safe travel.
To give a sense of the prevalence of ghosts, below is a screenshot (from 2011) of the old Crashstat map from Transportation Alternatives of pedestrian and bicyclists fatalities and injuries from car crashes from 1995-2009 in Midtown Manhattan (you can see similar patterns in the more recent data in the current Vision Zero crash maps).
The ghosts of car-based trauma haunt every street. We live with past and present trauma in our streets and often have difficulties talking about it as it is normalized into everyday life as blameless forgettable “accidents.” But we never truly forget because the damage is written onto our bodies and inscribed into our souls as fear.
What is han? As mentioned before, han is an indigenous Korean word that describes the collective feelings and experiences of transgenerational trauma. Han is an energy, a force. As such, han facilitates positive or negative energies. In one way, han can be channeled into positive social action and collective movements for justice to resolve oppression. But conversely, han can be channeled as a highly destructive force because of the frustration and desire for revenge that can emerge when a people experience an oppression that they do not have the power to resolve. Han can be experienced on personal and collective levels but is rooted at the systematic and structural. However, han has another meaning. The second meaning of han is resolved collective love, which sits in complementary relationship with the other meaning of unresolved collective pain. Thus to resolve collective oppression and trauma, we need to move toward enacted humanity, empathy and love.
To be Korean also means that we are incomplete, as conflict with North Korea lies in close proximity across a short DMZ that separates us South Koreans from our families in the North. Popular in Korea are the stories of modern-day reunions of family members who had not seen each over several decades. Not long ago, my uncle was reunited for a short meeting with his brother after not seeing him in over 40 years. The story of my hal-meo-ni (할머니 or grandma) haunts me as she was visiting family in North Korea when the DMZ went up and she was stuck on the wrong side. She ended up paying a smuggler to take her on a harrowing trip in a fishing boat along the seacoast back to her home in South Korea. In an alternate reality, I could have been North Korean. Not only are we incomplete, but our North Korea is the shadow part of us but it is also the part that we fear. Our divided country keeps the ghosts alive and wounds open.
We live in incomplete streets. Many of us drive and a few of us don’t. But because of the way we have structured our society, we are all dependent in some degree or another on motor vehicles. For many people, this means that basic needs of daily travel can only be met by the car because our streets and systems of travel have been structured and designed to privilege the car. For others, they may not commute by car, but nearly all of our basic foods and goods are transported by car. We are all complicit in car culture and its violence.
At the same time, we all get out of our cars at some point and move as a pedestrians, cyclists, skaters, wheelchair users and so on. We are all multi-modal. We are multiple and we are simultaneously both the oppressor and the oppressed in our streets. We embody fear of the street yet we are responsible ourselves for that fear. Maintaining the false divide between drivers and non-drivers feeds the ghosts that keep our streets incomplete. The divide makes it easy for many to blame the victims of car violence rather than look at how we structure our streets. Marginalized bodies also bear the disproportionate brunt of the trauma and pain from incomplete streets.
The First Step
About a year and a half ago, Jennifer and I were visiting my parents in LA. Early in my visit, my mom asked us urgently if we would want to see a new Korean film called Ode to My Father (the trailer is below).
Sensing this was immensely important to my mom, we went to the movie with my parents who cried through much of the movie. This movie was about the dislocation, separation of families, and trauma experienced by Koreans during the Korean War where about 10% of the population (or 3 million people) died. Afterwards, back at home, we spoke with my parents about the movie. My mom plainly said that the movie was their story. My dad who had rarely if ever spoke about his life in Korea opened up for the first time about what happened to him. He was a little boy when the war started and he remembered running in the forest barely dodging the North Korean army. His father and brother were captured and endured forced hard labor for some time until they were released. Even though forced to work for the North Koreans, my dad’s family was stigmatized as a result. It was a time of deep poverty and hunger for both my dad and mom’s families. This was the first time I ever heard my parents begin to name the ghosts of han that haunted us. The first step to resolving han is to name our ghosts and our collective pain.
The Second Step
“Wait, you’re Oriental? But you talk like the rest of us!” exclaimed the print shop owner over the phone.
I had been chatting with this guy for a few minutes about a newsletter we wanted to print and had just given him my name as the person to call back for the estimate. With one hand tensely gripping the phone and my other hand cradling my head to stop from screaming, I calmly replied, “Well, I grew up in California and learned English just like everyone else.”
Doubling down, he replied, “But you don’t have problems with your Rs and your Ls.”
Somehow I managed to laugh it off on the phone and get off the phone as soon as possible. I went over to my coworkers, three white women named Alice, Lucy and Olga to tell them this amusing anecdote even though I was reeling inside. Instead of laughing, they were appalled and told me in no uncertain terms that we should not give him our business. I tried to say it was okay, but they insisted. Their reaction stunned me in many ways. This was hardly the first time something like this had ever happened to me, but up to this moment, every time I had tried to express my pain to white people, I was told it wasn’t that big of a deal. I had grown accustomed to making light of such events and making jokes out of them as a way to tell these stories to whites without enduring a clear rejection of my pain and to fulfill a role of assuaging white discomfort even as I bled inside. But this time was different, as Alice, Lucy, and Olga heard, recognized and validated my experience of pain. I felt loved.
The second step to resolving han is to have our communities acknowledge and validate our oppressions. We can name many of our oppressions (such as Black Lives Matter or Crash not Accident), but we often fight over and protest the lack of the basic recognition of collective wrongs and trauma.
To conclude my story, ironically, when we met with another print shop guy, he had trouble with my name (“Do” pronounced like “doe”) to which he replied, “Well, in English, we pronounce your name as ‘doo.'” I started to wonder if there was something wrong with all the old white print shop guys in Washington DC.
The Third Step
In 2012, when I first started biking to midtown Manhattan from Queens, I encountered a dilemma that basically, there was no easy, legal way to get to 2nd Ave on a bike. The fastest, most direct way to get to 2nd Ave is to cut underneath the Queensboro bridge on 1st Ave and head up on 59th St and hook up with 2nd Ave. The problem for cyclists however is that we have to ride on the sidewalk on 1st Ave as it was a one-way in the opposite direction, and then ride against traffic on 59th St for about half a block. You can see this in the first video below from my bike commute in 2012 in this stretch. The alternatives were to ride a long way around (blue route) or to go a bit less out of your way (brown route) but encounter dangerous traffic conditions on this stretch of 2nd Ave where cars were merging onto the Queensboro. Like many cyclists, I chose to go the easiest and quickest (red) route because I could safely and slowly get across on the sidewalk and there was often little oncoming traffic on the part of 59th St where I would bike the wrong way. It wasn’t legal, but it wasn’t unsafe either as you can see below in the video.
Riding on the sidewalk and going a bit the wrong way on the street was something I always felt bad and guilty about even as it was safe. There was always a part of me that lived in the fear that the police could at anytime issue me a summons and tickets. I wasn’t a bad person, I was making the best choice given bad choices, but I could at any moment be marked as bad person by the police and was certainly often judged as a bad person by pedestrians and drivers. I can’t even imagine what it must feel like to be a food delivery cyclist making a countless number of these kinds of decisions everyday while physically exhausted and trying to get our food delivered quickly.
But then in 2013, the city fixed the problem for cyclists by putting in a connecting bike lane on 1st Ave and a contra-flow bike lane on second half of 59th St. The first time I rode the connecting bike lanes to 2nd Ave, it felt like a minor miracle, my feelings of badness and guilt evaporated. This is the 3rd step in resolving han: the community must change structure to resolve collective pain. Han cannot be resolved by individual action (like wearing a helmet) or simply recognizing the systematic problems. Not only did the city name and acknowledge our pain, but the city altered the actual structure of the street to resolve the collective problem. Below is a recent video I took of the connecting infrastructure:
Essentially, one day I was doing something illegal albeit harmless and safe, and then the next day, my illegal behavior was codified into legal behavior through a small but meaningful change in infrastructure. This was an act of love by the city towards the cyclists in pain. Han is resolved only through love. This also speaks to the idea that legality is often more about power than it is about preventing harm.
This story also speaks to the power of privilege to resolve han. While a number of working cyclists like the immigrant food delivery workers I have written about have benefited from this bike infrastructure, the process to do so was driven by the more privileged cyclists who commute into midtown Manhattan for white-collar jobs (or academia in my case) on this route. Historically, communities of color have often been ignored when they have asked for street safety improvements. In one case I read about in Melissa Checker’s Polluted Promises, a city built a highway right in between two black communities. The communities asked for a safe way to cross the highway with a crosswalk and a signal light. Instead the city put in guardrails. This is reminiscent of the tragedy of Raquel Nelson. The walls that divide and the lack of power to resolve the anguish of han are key features in how han is experienced and traverses generations.
Freeing the Ghost
“I have bad news. Your baby has no heartbeat on the ultrasound,” the doctor solemnly pronounced. Jennifer’s sharp gasps and sobs violently pierced my body stunned by disbelief. That same day, my dad went into surgery to remove a life-threatening tumor in his stomach. A few hours after we found out about our lost baby, my sister called to happily tell me about the tremendously successful surgery with my dad in stable recovery. I choked and sobbed out the news about my dead son and did so again when she put my mom on the phone. My mom responded resignedly, “One good thing, one bad thing.” I wonder if this response is a side effect from our collective Korean han. We would tell my dad a few days later into his recovery and in his devastation at the news, he sobbed and asked why God would spare his life and not that our baby boy. I tried to assuage him that his health was not connected to the death of my child, but the tears still fell and we all still struggle with feelings of shame and guilt that have no rational basis. Perhaps this is also a residue of han, how easily we can blame ourselves for circumstances beyond our control. All Jennifer and I can do is to hold each other tightly and whisper that we’ll get through this together.
About 36 hours later, after an induced labor, Jennifer gave birth to our stillborn boy of 20 weeks into the pregnancy. We named him Rohan, a Sanskrit name, which means “ascending” and also “healing.” We had been thinking about boy names with the syllable of han and Rohan just stuck with us. It also sounds like “rowan”, which is another common name for mountain-ash, a tree that often shows up in mythology as a symbol of protection. As sweet, tiny Rohan lay still in Jennifer’s arms and then mine after the delivery, I felt the echoes of grief from my ancestors before me in a brutal Japanese colonial occupation that sought to erase Korean language and culture, the genocide experienced in the Korean war, and the division of a country (and thus countless families) by more powerful foreign countries. Our family has struggled in silence about these traumas and griefs that haunt us and many others of the Korean diaspora. Zora Neale Hurston once said “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” I think this applies not only to the physical body, but that there can be a kind of murder of your soul through silent suffering (or being forcibly silenced). I write about my personal and our collective grief and trauma as act of love. In this way, I am naming the ghost of Rohan, not so that he’ll haunt me, but so that I can set his ghost free as never forgotten and always loved.
Riding into My Han
When I bike to the Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan from where I live in Queens, I have to cross and climb the Queensboro Bridge. This climb involves something like a 130 feet within a half mile and on hot muggy summer days, I’m breathing and sweating hard as I pedal. With every leg pump, the N subway train thunders along parallel to me for a moment before disappearing under the river. With each pedal, the East River flows quietly below and while the skyscrapers of Manhattan loom ahead. With each revolution, I’m breathing hard from both East River air on my right and the exhaust of the idling car traffic to my left depending on which way the wind blows. As I struggle and reach the crest of the bridge, I wipe aside the salty streams pouring down my face as my legs burn with something that belongs in the space between pain and joy.