part moan, part sigh

Let me be direct: I went back to try to awaken something in me that I had believed to be dormant.

By walking the streets of Seoul and inhaling the scent of the air after rain; by kneeling on the packed brown earth of the countryside; by waking to the fine gray mist that hovered over Mount Sorak: I might rise, shrug off decades of troubled, indecipherable dreaming and be touched, as if by divinity, with sudden and profound recognition. I might say: Now, I know who I am!

I walked. I ate, I drank. I tossed at night in my narrow bed. I breathed the stifling, wet air.

We took language lessons, learned to count to ten. To greet each other by name. To bid each other farewell. We watched children play the traditional games with sticks and wide ribbons.

We visited a school. At the entrance, rows and rows of shoes. Fans blowing in the hallways, small comfort in the wet heat. As we stood there, watching the students file past, L. collapsed. Slid to the ground with an exhalation of breath, part moan, part sigh. I volunteered to sit with her on the air-conditioned bus. She rested her head on my lap and slept while the rest finished their tour.

At the audio museum, I let T. take my hand for a moment and bring it to his cheek, as if the place itself triggered the memory of a gesture he was now trying to replicate.

J. said: This city smells like home. Like something that I recognize. And I nodded, said yes, yes. But to me it did not.

Did I return home unchanged? Is it even possible?

(The teacher, years later, says: “Your poem is too terrified to tell the story.”)

Did he mean: the story of traveling six thousand miles across the earth to feel nothing? To recognize nothing? For nothing to have been loosed in me?

Let me again try to be direct: It is as if, when I left for the first time, as a child, I excised from my body any part of myself that ever knew that place, that air, that earth. So that what remained was only scar tissue, to remind me: There was something here that you have lost.