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My Trip to North Korea (Part 5)

January 16, 2013

As I reached her grave, I put down the flower pot, and bowed three times to the woman, my maternal grandmother and role model for as long as I remember. The black stone monument with my grandma’s name on the front sent a deep vibration through my body, a moving moment that held time still. On the back of it were inscribed all of her grandchildren’s names, following those of my parents. I went through each name and knew that every one of them adored this woman. Finding a white splash (must be the work of a bird) on the stone, I took out a piece of napkin from my bag and cleaned it off. Only then was I able to sit by the monument and look around to see where my company was. Min Jung and Mr. Kim were a few steps away from me. Willem, at the bottom of the hill, was busy with his camera.

I waited until all three were close enough to hear my voice. Then I told them a story.

Here resting is my grandmother who woke me up one winter morning in 1945 and told me that we had to leave. Still sleepy, I asked her why.

“To go to the South,” she said.

“What’s in the South?”

“Americans and democracy!”

“Who are Americans and what’s democracy?” I asked.

“No time to answer all your questions. For now, we have to hurry!”

That’s how I left my gohyang (home town) so long ago and crossed the 38th parallel on foot! Since then, I’ve never been back to my place of birth.


Of course, Don heard this story in so many variations. In 1987, the first time Don and I visited Korea together, we came here, hired two workmen and built the stone wall.  Don made friends with those two men over soju and American cigarettes.

I recall the evening of the third day when we were all done and getting ready to leave. I bowed three times deeply, and Don did exactly what I did. In Korean, I said slowly and clearly that Don and I would move her to her family mountain where her husband rests. “What did you promise her just now?’ asked Don. I told him and he nodded his head in agreement.

No one spoke. They were just waiting for me to go on. Of course, Willem continued filming.

Now Don is with my grandma.

As I uttered those words, my voice shook with so much emotion that could blow away the strongest wind.

I can hear him telling her, “Don’t worry. Dai Sil will keep her promise.”

A long pause and a sigh that could sink the earth.

As you know, Korea is still divided!

At that very moment, instead of shattering noise of the earth opening up under the weight of my sigh, a beautiful melody spread over the hills and the graves. Soon, we all heard the lyrics, “My gohyang where I lived was a mountain village with blooming flowers,” the song all of us sang so often when we came to Seoul on foot, crossing the 38th parallel. The song spread all through cemetery like a ray of sun light visiting every dark corner in quietude.

We came down from my grandmother’s grave, trying to follow the sound of the music. But we could not find the source of that song, so close, and yet so far.

I kept my innermost thoughts to myself. “Maybe, it was a heavenly song sent by either my grandma or Don. Better still, together.” Another thought followed. “Now I know why Willem’s visa was denied. Both Don and my grandmother wanted me to begin my film on North Korea from here!”

Do I sound crazy? If so, all the better. I like being crazy as long as it signifies my soul’s far reaching journey into the world of the unknown and into the time gone and the time yet to come.


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