Over the weeks that I struggled to write this curatorial essay, Korea’s National Liberation Day arrived. For most of my life growing up here in the United States, that date, August 15, meant nothing to me. In fact, for entire decades, so much of what it meant to be “Korean” felt completely out of reach to me, nor was I inclined to stretch my hand out with any kind of curiosity. As an American-born child, my Korean-born parents were my earliest and most direct link to Koreanness, but we had a fraught relationship. By the time I became a young adult, we had never once stepped foot in their homeland together. I had no idea what modern-day Korea looked like. I was illiterate in Hangeul. I could not have told you the meaning of the word “jeong,” a Korean word that I had never heard before.
What changed for me?
In my last semester of college, on a whim, I enrolled in a class on Asian American literature, taught by a Korean American woman professor. I wish I could find her now to tell her how much that class changed my life, but her name is Sandra Oh. (Nowadays, the famous Hollywood actress, in all her fabulous vivacity, dominates online search results under that name.) My Sandra Oh, the open-hearted scholar of English literature who once taught in Miami, introduced me to my first work of Korean American literature, Dictee by the late Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.
In these pages, I first learned of Japan’s violent colonization of the Korean peninsula. I encountered the name Yu Guan Soon, a young, martyred heroine of the Korean independence movement. I learned that we Korean women -- including Korean American women -- are part of a rich legacy of rebels and storytellers and artists who have suffered and survived and created something beautiful from the wreckage. That realization was like the moment when my nearsighted self put on my first pair of eyeglasses: sudden clarity.
Thank goodness for the Korean American women in my life, an assembly that now includes all 23 of the brilliant artists and writers included in this Jeong Portfolio, curated by the Korean American Artist Collective. Together, we have seen each other through days of tremendous darkness, from the suffering of our ancestors past to the present, prolonged anguish of 2020-21.
I’ll confess that I felt lost in the days following the Atlanta-area spa killings on March 16, 2021. Eight people lost their lives that day. Six were Asian women, including four Korean American women who could have been our mothers, our aunties, our halmeonis, our loved ones. My face crumpled and my insides twisted with grief. I felt incapable of action. But there were others among us who were already mobilizing: Steph Rue and Dave Young Kim, the founders of KAAC and gifted artists in their own right, began reaching out to Korean American women artists in their circle of friends. “As Korean Americans,” our organizers wrote, “our reaction to the Atlanta massacre and recurring anti-Asian hate crimes is one of grief and anger. As artists, however, we are compelled to organize, create, and use our art to heal, come together, and take action.” Our artistic circles kept growing in strength and in size, concentric rings encompassing our sisters in other states, working in other disciplines, coming from a wide range of lived experiences in our Korean American bodies.
Before this portfolio came together, I had my own definition of jeong, one that I’d carved out through the experience of moving to Seoul in my early twenties and fumbling to build a relationship with my ancestral homeland on my own terms. It’s the care that Koreans show for one another, like a building block for all of Korean society, I would’ve said. It’s the reason why, when you’re riding the bus in Seoul and you’re carrying a heavy bag and it’s standing-room-only, the granny who’s seated near you will tug that bag out of your arms and into her lap and smile at you, even if she’s never seen you before in her life. It’s because she doesn’t see you as a stranger. She’s willing to lighten that load for you, even for a moment.
As the Jeong Portfolio has come together, it’s been beautiful and heartening to me to see my own definition of jeong expand to also hold my fellow artist-sisters’ meanings. I was struck by how hand-embroiderer and bojagi artist Jonie Broecker describes jeong as the thread that stitches many individuals together, mirroring the fabrics that she mosaics into stunning completion. It felt like a personal epiphany when I heard photographer Mary Kang describe jeong as a survival skill to our ancestry when a lot of our history has to do with turmoil -- a revolutionary act. Author and comics artist Robin Ha -- a dear friend who is one of my biggest sources of encouragement and inspiration in my own visual and literary artistic practice -- describes jeong in the context of sharing a platter of bossam, with bold hands and a wide-open mouth … [our] lives packed with vigor and flavor. I am reminded that our lives as Korean American women creators carry our suffering, but also our joy, our pleasure, our hunger, and our satisfaction.
What a humbling gift it is for me to be in community with these Korean American women artists, led with surety and kindness by KAAC’s co-founders, Steph and Dave. Thank you to each and every one of you for bringing your own individual sense of jeong to this collection because together, we encompass so much: We are raised by Korean parents, we are abandoned by Korean parents, we are adopted, we are immigrants, we are native-born, we are multiracial, we are cis, we are trans, we are queer. We are playful, we are sad, we are deep, we are weighty, we are delightful.
I was reminded on this National Liberation Day that in South Korea, this occasion is called Gwangbokjeol, a name that translates literally to “the day the light returned.” The dark days will continue to follow us, and many more are sure to come, but I’m heartened by the experience of coming together with all of you in the spirit of jeong. Together, as Korean American women artists, we have created a little bit more light in this world.
New York, NY