Saturday 28 May 2022

A Return to Seoul, Again, guest post by Helena Rho

Former pediatrician Helena Rho is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominated writer - the Pushcart Prize is an American literary prize celebrating the best poetry, short fiction, essays or "literary whatnot" published by USA-based small presses over the previous year. Helena's work has appeared widely in the USA and she was awarded a writing fellowship in a scheme called TWP: To Think, To Write, To Publish, administered by the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. She is a devoted fan of Korean dramas, Korean green tea, and the haenyeo, the famed female divers, of Jeju Island.

Helena was six years old when her family left Seoul, Korea, for America and its opportunities. Years later, her Korean-ness behind her, she had everything a model minority was supposed to want: she was married to a white American doctor and had a beautiful home, two children, and a career as an assistant professor of pediatrics. For decades she fulfilled the expectations of others. All the while Helena kept silent about the traumas - both professional and personal - that left her anxious yet determined to escape. It would take a catastrophic car crash for her to abandon her career at the age of forty, and recover her Korean identity.

American Seoul, published to coincide with Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month, is Helena's powerful and moving memoir of her journey of self-discovery. It reveals the courage it took to break away from the path that was laid out for her, to assert her presence, and to discover the freedom and joy of finally being herself.

Here Helena explains how working on American Seoul helped sustain her through a Covid-quarantine in Seoul…

In the last chapter of my memoir, American Seoul, I end with a conversation I had with my son, Liam, about returning to Seoul every year. I talked about my desire to know Korea and its history more deeply, wanting to re-attach myself to the country of my birth, the country of my mother and my ancestors. I was standing in Seoul Tower as lights illuminated the city below me on May 12, 2019. And I really thought I’d return again to Seoul in 2020. Unfortunately, a global pandemic happened.

In the summer of 2021, I was convinced that South Korea would finally gain access to vaccines against the novel corona virus, something Western countries had in abundance for months. But supply, my aunt told me, was limited and the Korean government was still mandating lockdowns. As a “foreign” citizen, because I held only an American passport, travel to Seoul would involve fourteen days of quarantine, regardless of my vaccination status. Emo, my mother’s sister, told me to delay my trip. She told me that isolation for that long would be almost impossible to bear. She said, “It’s best not to come this year.”

But by November 2021, I was in the end of copyedits for American Seoul, and I became anxious that I’d gotten things wrong about Korea, about my Korean family. After all, I’d been told by a fact checker at Little A Books that the elementary school I’d attended in Seoul as a six-year-old didn’t exist. I’d called Emo to confirm that I had indeed attended Rhee Rah because I couldn’t trust my memory. The school does exist, just not in English. Its name remains in Hangul, the Korean written language. I convinced myself I had to go back to Seoul for the sake of my book. I didn’t examine too closely my worry for my almost 80-year-old aunt, her health getting worse by the year, and how I dreaded getting a phone call from one of my cousins from Korea, while I remained helpless in America. I realize now that I needed to see my aunt, a mother figure (even before the death of my own mother), who always reassured me when I felt so lost in my life. Emo appears in several chapters of my memoir. 

I resigned myself to flying to Seoul and staying at “a government designated facility,” a hotel, for two weeks with no contact with the outside world. Luckily for me, South Korea changed their quarantine requirement to ten days from two weeks but being held captive in a hotel room with nothing but three cold meals a day dragged on. On Day 6 of quarantine, I said aloud to myself (because there was no one else in the room), “I’ve lost my will to live.” Yes, I was being melodramatic. But it felt like the truth.

I’d brought several novels to weather the loneliness and found reading comforting. But whenever I lifted my gaze from the pages of those books, I found myself staring at the bland wallpaper of the hotel room and feeling despair. The only thing that gave me a sense of purpose was my book being in the final stages prior to publication: proofreading. Those nights when I would sit at a narrow desk looking out the single window of the hotel room at the lights of Seoul, yearning to be out and yet trapped inside, whisper-reading every word of my memoir saved me. It sustained me through a time that felt like it would never end.

When I “busted out of quarantine,” as I posted on Twitter, the first person I saw was Emo. I jumped up and down. I almost cried. I know I squeezed her thin body too hard and held on too long. But she smiled and told me that I’d been strong, that I’d survived yet again. We walked arm in arm through the vast grounds of Gyeongbokgung, the main palace of the Joseon dynasty emperors. I spent hours and hours with Emo, and I’d never been happier.

Two days after my quarantine period ended, my editor at Little A Books emailed me the final book cover of my memoir. I’d heard about the previous iterations, but I’d never actually seen one. I was sitting in a hanok, a traditional Korean house with wooden beams and floors and a clay tile roof. I gripped my hands in prayer before I opened the PDF. My book cover was a silhouette of a woman’s head, her hair and face made up of red and blue and gold flower petals. They swirled in a pattern that resembled the red and blue center of the Taeguki, the Korean flag. She was simply beautiful. 

This time I cried. I felt like I’d come to the end of a very long journey and I was going to be alright. And I’d been right to return to Seoul, again. Because my memoir needed to materially come into being for me in the very place where my journey began as a child. I was an American in Seoul who’d written American Seoul.

Details: American Seoul is published in hardback by Amazon’s Little A Press (USA), priced in local currencies.