My parents and I walked down a narrow set of concrete stairs to get there. Each step moved us closer to a moment in our family story that changed us. Once we were down inside the basement restaurant, we walked to a space in the center. We were surrounded by red and white checkered tablecloths in a western style BBQ restaurant in South Korea. The tablecloths seemed as out of place as I felt.
My mom had told me vague stories multiple times about how she had lost her family when she was growing up in South Korea. As a young girl, I was full of questions. My mom hinted at complex things and tried to explain war, poverty, and loss in ways that would satisfy and make sense to me as a little girl. More than anything, I remember how often I felt her on-going sadness. In my personal experience, intergenerational trauma is real.
That summer day in Korea, I complained like any American six-year-old might complain about having to sit in taxi after taxi, not fully comprehending why we were spending the entire day doing what we were doing. I remember how my legs stuck to the black taxi seats, and how I would try to busy myself by counting the beads that were stitched together on the taxi driver’s beaded seat cover as we drove here and there, chasing after my mom’s clouded memories. Up until that point I didn’t think much about the fact that I only knew grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins on my dad’s side. My mom’s side was blanketed with a million questions and the sound of her tears as she bent over the sink washing dishes.
My parents and I stood alone in the checkered-table restaurant for a moment like a small, silent island. Then there was quiet chatter that became louder, like sirens heard from afar, now up close, blaring and inescapable. Korean women were weeping and we were engulfed in the sound of their cries. They reached for my mom and she reached for them. They reached for my dad and me as well and I remember feeling scared, uncomfortable and yet deeply moved in a way I had never felt before.
That night, I watched a part of my mother’s heart mend and I felt part of my own heart become forever lit. I learned an important lesson: I can belong to those who feel like strangers, and they can belong to me.