Just a Phone Call away

It’s almost two am and I can’t sleep. I have a dentist appointment tomorrow morning and I’m not ashamed to say I squeak in alarm when things get too rough.

I overheard my grandmother say the most tragic thing this morning. She calls my dad multiple times a day and sometimes, I wake up to them arguing over the phone.

On this particular morning, my father was dropping me off when the phone rang (the conversation was in Korean).

Dad: hello?
Grandma: who is this?
Dad: hyoungwoo-
Grandma: who?
Dad: hyoungwoo, who else? What are you saying?
Grandma: you’re not the person I wanted to call. Your name is above the other name. (Something something, she said a name but I couldn’t catch it)
Dad: Mom! You can’t call them. You can’t call your younger sibling. They’re in that bad country.
Grandma (meanwhile, she’s disagreeing with my father)
Dad: Mom! You can’t call them! They’re in that bad country with that evil man. They won’t let you call. The nurses can’t find the number for you to call them. You can’t contact them. That country has no phone service.

My grandmother used to reside in 강원도, a province that was split by the 38th parallel at the end of the Korean War. My mother told me my grandmother lost her two siblings to the north. To date, that is by far the most upsetting conversation I have ever overheard between her and my father.

Once, when I was in 4th grade, we had a project where we were instructed to interview our grandparents and write a report. I asked her about the war and she shut down and told me she didn’t want to talk about it. She said there was nothing that could be done and that it had been so long that it was as if they were dead. As disturbing as that conversation must have been for her, it also frightened me and for weeks I had nightmares of being separated from my younger brother. I respected her wishes and stopped asking about it and lied on my school report.

Oftentimes, I wonder about them. The ones lost to the north. I wonder if they had kids and if they would have doted on me had we known each other. My grandmother was very traditional in many ways and coddled my younger brother. She still took care of me but I was often left to my own devices. I wonder if I have a counterpart on the other side. A twenty something year old boy or girl with the same blood coursing through his or her veins. I wonder if they look to the south and wonder the same thing… I wonder if I would have thrived in that environment or if I would have been sentenced to forced labor camps for any number of treasonous acts.

I once thought of reuniting my grandmother and her lost siblings but she told me it was a horrible idea. She said she had accepted they were lost to her. The task seemed too gargantuan to pursue and it was over before it even began.

Two and a half years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the 38th parallel and as I toed the yellow line, forbidding me to cross, I craned my neck for any sign of life on the other side. Of course there was none to be found since I was several kilometers away and staring at Propaganda Village, a mock city set up to persuade us into thinking there is a good life to be found over the border.

But if life was so great over the border, would hordes of people be trying to escape? Even when they know they are sentencing their loved ones back home to a horrible fate? When I was in college, I managed to watch a few videos sneaked out from North Korea. Not the ones of the almost bare capital or the staged greetings but the ones of starving feral children and aerial footage of people running for the border. The last video I watched was of two men trying to slip through a gate. The first one managed to rush out. The second was close on his heels until a soldier grabbed his sleeve as he was halfway out the gate. I screamed alone in my dorm room as he was dragged back. You could see the first man reaching back for the second but you know they are both doomed. A shred of humanity in a jab of futility.

I stopped watching those things after that. And now I’m even more awake than I was before.


Seers and forks

My mother made a confession:

She hid a fork in my purse.

I wouldn’t call her a superstitious person, but every few years, when things get rough, she likes to visit the fortune teller. I think it’s more of a verbal reassurance for her that everything will be all right rather than because she actually believes it will come true.

I guess my decision to abandon the clinical health track rattled her more than she let on. The fortune teller told her not to worry because even though I would soon be facing a major life change, once it was over, I would come back and settle down into a nice life. The one piece of advice she did give my mother was that I should always carry metal with me as it would provide protection.

My mother’s solution was to throw a fork in my purse.

She told me all this with a sheepish laugh as she asked if I found it.

I did open my purse at one point and wonder when I put a fork in there. Funny thing is even though I took the fork out before I left for Ukraine, I did carry my hot pink survival knife with me at all times. I came back home safe and sound and found an awesome job soon thereafter.


One of the very first things I noticed about Ukraine was the lack of sirens. Back home, I would fall asleep to the sound of sirens and street traffic but there was none of that here.

I had a dream this morning that I was staring out at a sapphire blue sea from the wooden deck of an old school ship. Cannons kept going off. I was puzzled because I couldn’t feel the rocking of the ocean.

I was merging my dreams with reality.

There are blasts going off periodically and the sirens have not stopped all morning. It sounds like the world decided to play Pirates of the Caribbean and the Wire at full volume.

I hear popping noises. I know what they are; I’m just reluctant to accept it.

The protesters in my apartment had a heated discussion this morning. They are gearing to head out.

Paying the Price

The ambulance is parked on the street corner: one wheel haphazardly riding the curb. I can’t see what’s going on because it is facing me and the doors open away from my line of sight. I walk closer to the explosions in Maidan.

As I approach the ambulance I begin hearing shouts and see a crowd forming around the gaping doors. I peer in. They are helping a man in a green jacket onto a stretcher. He stares at me with a stricken face and I stare back. He is quickly carted away.

I keep moving forward. At this point I see the flash of stun grenades and the sparks from fireworks used as weapons. Shouts of “слава Украина” fill the air. There are not as many people as you’d expect on the way to the barricades.

It is jam packed within the barricades. I entered through the south entrance and there are no policemen here. People look grim but calm. There is a steady clanging heard from people breaking bricks from the ground to arm themselves against the Berkut. All eyes are turned to the fires raging on the northern and eastern end of the camp. The smoke eats up the sky and is cast in stark relief with every bang of a flash grenade. My camera’s flash can not even compare.

Around me are men, women, young and old. Housewives in fur coats and young men in bulletproof vests.

I exit via the way I came in and something catches my eye. I move closer. There is blood on the ground. I turn on my camera and begin recording every step I take. I follow the droplets, step by step, down the block until they finally end – back on the corner the ambulance was parked on.

Update: Kyiv Post reports that the death count is now up to 14. The last man died at the hospital after injuries sustained at Maidan. Judging from the trail of blood, I’m afraid it is him. The man in the green jacket.

Missing Home

Whenever I think of home, I think of Sunday mornings brunching with my friends near/at eastern market. I barely remember the slushy winters or the sauna summers. I remember browsing through secondhand book stores, picking out plants for my garden, and nibbling on cheese samples.

I remember beautiful spring days and buzzing bees and taking my fluffy white dog on hikes through rocky trails. I remember driving to the countryside and visiting farms and thrift stores to just browse for random things.

I miss making dinner for friends and going to house parties. I miss trying new restaurants and sipping wine at the jazz garden. I miss driving and fantastic salad. I miss vegetables that don’t rot in 2 days.

I want to take a walk down M street, grab a fresh salad, watch a movie on the lawn, and then go grab a cupcake. I want to celebrate friendsgiving and Halloween in raging style.

I want proper gin&tonics and dark&stormies. I want to go to the sea. I want to read books on the back porch and go to barbecues every other weekend.

I miss kayaking and silly 5k runs. I miss charity events and walks through old town. I miss musty museums and the city skyline.

Fuck, I miss DC…


Anxiety in Ukraine

For the first 7 weeks, I was swept up in the power of the people. The massive protests and the surging momentum of the movement.

Now I feel like a kid on a broken roller coaster. I can’t get off and now I feel like I’m going to vomit.

The pressure of being immersed 24/7 in the noise of the protests is really setting my teeth on edge. Not because I don’t feel safe but because I have maintained an emotional high for far too long.

There is no escape. I see the square from my office, my students filter in from there, and I walk home even closer. My Facebook is constantly flooded with information, and the little masochist that I am, I actively seek out information as well.

Before, I eagerly awaited each new attempt at a resolution, but now, the hope has dissipated. I feel on the verge of tears. I’m not a citizen of this country but I feel so enraptured by it that it’s making me crazy.

I finally bit the bullet and paid a ridiculous sum to join a gym here and I’ve been pounding away at the treadmill ever since.

It helps a little. For a while, I feel like I’m doped on Valium but then I go back home and it starts all over again.

I am frustrated. I can’t even fully articulate why. I can’t calm down. At this point it would be like jumping out of a speeding car.

I wrote this a few days ago. I could not handle it much longer and stopped following a lot of Euromaidan on my Facebook today.

Sounds of Maidan

My bedroom overlooks a great little courtyard so I don’t see much of the revolution other than the stacks of snow filled sandbags behind city hall and the trails of smoke rising above the buildings.

What I lack in visual stimulation is made up for in audio stimulation, and I think it has taken a greater toll on me than I’d care to admit. For the last 2 months, I have heard the roar of crowds filter through my windows. I can always feel the pulse of the protests by how loud and distinct they are. They faded off about 5 days after the start of violence, but they have resumed for a while today.

It usually sounds like the steady and persistent thrumming of fingers on a table. Not loud enough to startle you from your sleep but distinct enough to keep you awake. It takes me forever to fall asleep. I think of how cold it is outside. I think of how dark and isolated it is. I think about how vulnerable the protesters are.

I hit refresh on Radio Liberty, Kyivpost, and my Facebook newsfeed like a mad woman. I operate under this ludicrous belief that the faster I consume information, the faster it will be generated, and the faster this will be resolved in a twisted backward sense of logic.

With each inconclusive Verkhovna Rada session, I feel a bit more strangled. This might seem strange. I’m American. If the situation sucks, I can just go back home. Whatever happens here has no direct consequence on me or my future children, so why do I care so much about what happens?

For the last two weeks, I’ve been losing clumps of hair and feeling increasingly agitated. I am not close enough to the area of violence to hear what goes on there but every bang I hear brings with it fears for the people outside who are risking everything for liberty and justice. I ride the crests of sounds with the people who make them.

Thus far, it’s been a privilege for me to watch the rebirth of a nation, but at the same time, I cannot escape. There is no reprieve. I am immersed in the revolution 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I am getting so sick of the revolution that at times I want to vomit.

I’m sick of hearing reports of intimidation and human rights violations. I’m sick of people losing eyes, limbs, and lives. I’m sick of hearing words like compromise, negotiations, and ultimatums because those words mean nothing here.

I don’t want the protesters to give up. I want them to be HEARD, and I want something to be DONE. I want politicians to find their dignity and self-respect. I want them to stand up. Nothing sickens me more than people who blindly follow even when the evidence is screaming in their face.


I don’t know who to credit for this picture since there are so many copies of it floating around, but I thought it was appropriate.

Stay Safe

“Stay safe”, it’s a phrase I’ve heard more in the last 2 months than in any other period of my life. Ironically, this is not the most dangerous place I’ve ever lived in.

Maybe, I have a misplaced sense of security. I know a lot of people who protest, and they are all fantastic people. I live close enough to Maidan that I feel cocooned by protestors. I do not feel any apprehension walking through Maidan. It’s not the protestors that worry me but the riot police and titushky. I am obviously a foreigner and a girl which, I believe, gives me somewhat of a shield, but maybe that’s wishful thinking. Obviously, I act accordingly, avoiding violent protests and being aware of my surroundings, and honestly, I think that’s the best anyone can ever hope to do.

My family used to own this really old Lincoln town car and I remember sitting in my mom’s lap (this was before we had seatbelt laws) as we drove though Northeast D.C. in the early 90’s. Washington, D.C. was known as the murder capital of the world back then and we were in one of the more dangerous neighborhoods. She would press my head to her chest and whisper to me “don’t look outside and don’t look these people in the eye. It might provoke them.” My mother was not being overly cautious. The streets were full of people strung higher than a kite. You drove through these neighborhoods knowing that a stray bullet through the windshield was a possibility.

Why were my parents driving with their 4 year old through such neighborhoods? Because they owned a fish market and then the liquor store on Rhode Island and 1st. We never really talked about it with non-Koreans, but I see no reason not to. My parents were immigrants and they had 2 little children, very little language skills, and very little family support.

It was 1992, and tensions where high. Not only was there a drug problem but the LA riots, also known as the Rodney King riots, broke out the day after my birthday. Of course, I don’t actively remember the events that lead to my surroundings, but as an adult, I can reflect and better understand the context. While those events took place on the opposite side of the country, it was felt throughout the Korean American community. Korean Americans in LA stood up to protect the stores that they had to worked so hard for against rioters, and in the chaos, horrible things happened. Tensions escalated between the Black community and the Korean American community in LA and those of us in D.C. felt it as well. Everyone was forced to a side by skin color, regardless of actions or beliefs. Koreans viewed Blacks as rioters and thieves while Blacks viewed Koreans as racist merchants. Both sides were not entirely wrong…

As a 4 year old, I had no idea what was happening. I just knew not to look strangers in the eye and to stay quiet as I napped under the counters covered in bulletproof glass. Sylvester, my father’s only employee, would call me little lady and compliment my drawings.

As I grew older, I started to help. I would attend the cash register and count cash. I remember watching movie scenes of drug deals as a teenager and watching the teams of women seated at a table counting stacks of cash and giggling because I had been doing the exact same thing since I was 8. I could count money just as fast as any money launderer or drug dealer. It makes this distinct riffling sound, a bit duller but louder than shuffling papers. Is it an ideal environment to raise a child? No, but did I come out any worse for wear? No. I got to spend time with my parents, and I grew up with a healthy respect for authority, went to college, got a job, and moved to the other side of the side of the world. Honestly, I have more angst about my “normal” years than my “unique” formative years.

Moral of the story? Danger is something to be aware of and to adjust for but not something that should stop you. Life goes on.


Pieces of the Whole

They are a couple. The wife is a scientist preparing for the GRE and the husband is preparing for the GMAT. They have a blonde, curly-haired little tyke who often visits the office as her parents alternate taking classes.

The wife has a slow sweet smile, and there’s something about her that makes me instantly like her.

The husband often walks into classes smelling of tire smoke. He actively protests, and the wife holds down the fort at home. Both parents have bags under their eyes but both, dutifully, come to class.

The husband has not done any homework in the last month, and in light of the circumstances, I find it hard to chastise him. I only fret because I know it worsens his chances for improving his future.

Unfortunately, he is not the only one.

I have another student studying for the GMAT who nods off in class. He too often smells of tire smoke so I know where he has been.

He’s been worried about his test. He recently came to the realization that the revolution is not the end of the road and so he needs do better in other areas of his life as well.

He promised he’d try harder in class since his wife had left for her mother’s house. She did not like staying home alone while he protested.

These are just some of the faces of the protesters. They’re not jobless hooligans just trying to stir up trouble. They are working professionals who work hard, attend classes, study, and maintain families all while fighting for their civil rights.