"Letters to Home"
an essay by Catherine Chung
Every family has secrets. Ours was an aunt I'd never met, never even knew existed until one day forty years after she disappeared, she sent us a letter. She was alive, she told us: she'd gotten married, had children, thought of her brothers and sisters and deceased parents often. How was everyone, she asked. What had happened in our lives? And could we send pictures?
My aunt was a college student in Seoul when she went missing some time after the Korean War. The North Koreans had been kidnapping people for several years, and one night they raided her dorm. The next morning my aunt and a handful of other girls were gone. Even now, over ten years after I found out about her, this is almost all I know.
As a child, my parents' history had always seemed far away and long ago. This made it all the more mysterious, and Korea itself had its own pull on my imagination, a place so sorely missed by them, which had the power to transform them into happier, more comfortable people. Even though I hadn't been born there like my brother, I still learned the lesson immigrants must learn: how heavy the lost life weighs in the new one.
The revelation of my aunt's existence made clear how much had been lost that I didn't even know, how much of my own history was hidden to me. The magnitude still takes my breath away. Korea was one country when my parents were born into it. And then it split into two, and the two halves took drastically different turns. My aunt was taken to the other side in an act of violence, and she survived. She lived a whole life.
My family never spoke of my aunt because for a long time it was forbidden. It was dangerous to have relatives in North Korea, even if they'd been kidnapped against their will. It seems to me this must have been the hardest loss: the right to lay claim to those you love. Even though everyone had family on the other side, if you spoke of them openly, there could be terrible consequences. And so until recently, the whole country bore this in silence. They missed their lost ones quietly. And then my aunt wrote a letter, reaching out to us across the expanse of time and separation. Forgotten Country is a book about that expanse, and the voiceless longing to reach across it, and meet.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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