It used to be I knew I loved a place because I left it. When to love a place was to leave it. Only recently am I learning: It’s okay to stay.
So I encourage you to go to your birth country, wherever that is. Figure out what you need to do to survive there. Figure out what Square One is to the people who were once, and maybe still are, your own. Struggle for justice. Never let anyone forget that you are a dignified human being with human rights, not a product for sale. Don’t let anybody fool you into thinking that your mother country is the same thing as the real person who is your mother. Find allies. Find a different way to solve problems. Go, see and hear for yourself. When the demand side starts to see you as a threat, refuse to shut up. Turn up the volume one more notch. Change history. Change the future. Do it with a deep and furious love.
—Jane Jeong Trenka, CONDUCIVE 2009
I disagree. Sometimes it is better to stay. There is no “back there” to which a person returns. There is no “homeland” for me. Motherland is a place in the heart. It’s not a country. A decade ago, my vulnerability to the kind of directives similar to the above quote fairly crackled in the sky like the dry tension of lightning seeking to ground itself. Who are we without backstory?
These are the details I remember of my Korean mother: her laugh, raucous and loud, explosive and youthful, throaty and full. Her ability to laugh when she actually felt quite sad. And, in another time zone, I remember the sweat that gathered on glass pickle jars when we sat outside in the summer, my father grilling dinner, my mother smelling of Skin So Soft and swatting away the gnats and mosquitoes. The eventual visible glow of lightning bugs signaling to each other in the grass, dogs panting at our feet.
For a long time, after emerging from travels I’ll call rabbit-hole diving, after meeting the very thing around which it seemed and felt everything began and ended, I felt all I had to show for my journey were my two empty hands and the feeling that I’d failed. It took me three years to find the words to speak to myself about this. I wrote myself a letter. This is what I learned:
Sometimes our lives are a starless sky, backlit by nothing. Even the creaking of planets in their constant, sometimes elliptical, rotation cannot signal latitude and longitude, degree and distance, cannot serve as points of reference. History is nothing without memory, and memory is nothing without context. I wanted to tell you a whole story, tried to compile a history for you, and sometimes it must appear that I only recover scraps of fabric that when sewn together do not make a whole cloth. I wanted to bring you a story that healed you. I wanted to help you find your way again. I know that it was too cold and windy inside of yourself to keep yourself warm. And you saw that same windy, cold, soundless place when you met your Korean father.
But, I want to tell you that you are not that cold, windy, soundless place. I want to tell you that the night sky that confounds you, the one without stars, the one that is dark and without color or noise or direction, without constellations, that is not your sky.
I want to tell you that your sky is brilliant, backlit, and always there when you need direction. I want to tell you that the sky they gave you, no, the sky they want you to believe is yours, the sky they hid from you, that night sky with which all humans on this earth must navigate, that sky was hidden from you, and that it is not true that you come from nothing, and nowhere, and it is not true that where you come from is a vast, empty, gaping, cold nothingness. I want to tell you that whatever they said is not true. And by true I don’t mean what happened, or facts. I mean the stories they told you about yourself.
In an existential sense, I want you to know that we all come from nowhere, and that we are all small, and tiny, and—if you want to use this word—insignificant. I want to tell you that the stories you wrap yourself in to keep yourself warm should be soft. Should be nourishing. Should be absolutely gleaming with constellations from here to the next galaxy, and light years beyond. I want to tell you that what they told you about yourself was not you.
This part, dear itinerants, this is the part where we live into learning how to stay. Enjoy it, even. It’s okay to stay.