Wednesday, May 05, 2021

The underbelly of this kind of work

If you don't want to know about the ugly bits of my research experience, I recommend that you look at the pictures and skip the words. The first bunch of photos are from a fan museum (I would use that term loosely) in Jeonju that I visited after my first visit with a new dentist here. A friend who was in my first Fulbright cohort in 2008–2009 had mentioned months ago that I should devote parts of my next book to the challenges that I face in this research. I don't think this next book is the place for that, but if I even began to write about all of those challenges, it would become a book unto itself. I don't want to do it because there are so many memories that I've blocked and I don't want to relive them.
[Now that I know how to make bamboo splints, fans like these look like SO much more work than I ever imagined.] This particular story is only one I feel like I can, and should, share because of the ways that it has become slightly safer to bring these things to light. I'll preface by saying everything seemed great on this trip aside from the usual challenges of people not being willing to show me the things I wanted to learn, or travel headaches, or the difficulties when living in another country and using a different language. I felt like all of the work I had done for so long was paying off in beautiful ways, the way that you have to wait 10 years or more for the fruits of labor to truly appear.
[Straw fans that look like non-functional brooms! Love.] There was one person I met on this trip who from the start was extremely energetic about helping me, to the point where I wondered why he was so invested. He said it was because it was important to help someone so sincerely invested in hanji, but it still seemed excessive. He was very inquisitive about my entire life and because I am a yammermouth and oversharer, of course I answered questions. The other issue being that I was raised in the Confucian style of respecting your elders in the hierarchy, and this person was well over 20 years older than me (and a man), so I fell into an old bad habit of obeying in every sense.
[This Indian fan is made of bamboo splints I think and seems to be woven much like I learned to do screens, which is a TON of work for a fan!] This included picking up his phone calls, which started out seeming like they came out of concern because he knew I had gotten sick (because of his inability to read the room when it came to turning in for the night or talking about a million other topics when everyone else wants to just go home). The calls came each day and I thought, okay, he's concerned about my health. Then they never stopped and he got more and more invested in my research, essentially dictating when I would go where, as he insisted on driving me around.
[So many feather fans. Still not sure how I feel about that but they are so different from what I thought I'd see here.] I went along with a lot of this because I needed, or felt I needed, to do this fieldwork. And I thought he had a great deal of information that contradicted things I had learned in the past, or expanded on them, and it was exciting to think that I had a new source of information. However, he would talk more about how he knew a lot and how everyone else didn't, rather than actually imparting actual knowledge. There was a lot of, "Oh, next time you come here, we'll talk about it." Always later. I should have read this red flag.
[Jiseung fan holders! They look like funny popsicles but are lacquered twined paper.] He became more and more familiar in his speech to me, which is something I didn't really notice as much because used to be spoken down to or in a more informal way because I'm always at the bottom of most hierarchies (starting from being a child, always from being a woman, and then because I'm not married). I did notice a certain term he would use to speak to me that felt weird because it's a pronoun I only knew to be used between very close people. I only heard my parents saying it to each other, and years later, my mom saying it on the phone to an extremely close female friend.
[This might look like a fan but it's an oiled paper hat!] On top of that, he would repeat himself all the time, things that he thought were funny but that I did not. I didn't stop him because I thought I had to be polite and listen, as I was in a lower position, and he was an 'elder' who was 'helping' me. The various things he said over and over:

1. Your boyfriend probably doesn't like that you're hanging out with me, a man.

2. "Guess what I'm doing? I'm with a woman! I'm with a woman! No, not my wife. An unmarried woman!" [he'd say this all the time on the phone when people called while he was driving and I was trapped in the car]

3. You should have a boyfriend in every city in Korea that you visit.

4. How much do you think I would get if I sold you?

5. Let's go to [X city] and go on a date by [doing some sightseeing or another].

6. You can't do anything in Korea without the right "running mate" (this would be him. He literally said those English words with Korean pronunciation)

7. Why don't you get married? Become part of my family; you could marry my son!

8. I'm waiting for a good daughter-in-law who will take care of all of my work and organize all of my stuff.

9. To repay me, you'll have to sell your house and even that's not enough.

10. Where are you? What are you doing? Where are you going? Who are you meeting?

[This is only a fraction of the tools on display. Tomorrow I will visit another fan maker to try and get more info on getting a bamboo knife before I leave.] That last series of questions would happen every time he called, and his calls were not only more frequent, but would arrive later and later at night. After 9pm, after 10pm, then in the morning, constantly. I kept forgetting that he was probably not calling for a REASON, and I would pick up. Yes, I know now, I didn't have to pick up the phone all the time. And I had been warned well in advance that I needed to get off the phone quickly if I didn't want to get roped into another long and winding rambling that would go on for hours.
[These are the Korean fans, I think dating from the Joseon Dynasty.] For the last trip I had to take, he insisted that he would pick me up on a Friday because he had to come to town. I was upset because I had gotten home less than a week prior to that, and hadn't recovered from the last trip and also had perishable groceries that would go bad. When I protested a bit, he said, "If you don't want to, you don't have to." Yet when Thursday rolled around, he called and announced when he'd be picking me up. I was chagrined but reluctantly started to pack again. I trusted there was a good reason for doing this, but then I ended up having to pay 3 nights to stay in moldy lodging in a city I don't know where I was alone the whole time, preparing for a lecture. I could easily have done this at home where I've already paid my rent and then taken a bus the day of my lecture.
[This one has writing on it but my favorite Korean fan remains in Washington, D.C. at the Library of Congress, with a map drawn onto it.] Even at my lecture, he began to lecture from his seat after it was over. It felt like a failure to me, but I knew at least that night I would finally be free of him for a while. The problem had already exploded during our ride on Friday. As soon as I got into the car, he asked why I looked so peaked. I explained that an in-law had lost his mom to Covid-19; I had been crying. He said, buck up, and then reached out with his hand to touch my leg above the knee. Instantly the dread sunk in. It was happening again.
[On the stairwell up to the fan display, lots of decorated fan papers.] I've survived most of the worst things that you would imagine a woman in this world has to survive, so I've definitely been in a car when an older man starts to touch my leg. But I had blocked that memory out until last night: I was 24, working an arts job in NYC, doing an outreach trip and meeting someone affiliated with the org. He was in his 70s, and we had been courting him for an advisory committee. When he drove me home from dinner, he started feeling up my leg and then said, "You have great breasts," and then expected me to invite him into my hotel room. I was mortified and as soon as I got back to the office, I told my colleague that we had to strike his name from the list going to the board for approval. My colleague was so upset and he said, Do we have to?? Was it really that bad? Demographically, this person fit all the underrepresented categories in one body: Black, elderly, not from NYC, and a non-fiction writer. I was adamant that we never allow him to serve and my co-worker reluctantly removed him from the list.
[Now we're back in Jeonju: I was really craving salad but then treated myself to carbs. I deserved it! Plus there is a full beautiful salad underneath all that pasta.] When I recalled that memory, I wondered about my coping mechanism, because it's not dissociation. It's denial. I pretend what is happening is NOT happening. As my dear friend today who has helped me through so many crises before said, if it's not happening, you don't have to deal with it. So I hoped it was an isolated incident. Then later in the ride, when I asked to check the spelling of a word, he wrote the character in the air with his finger. I got that. For emphasis, he then took his finger and wrote it again on my leg. I keep saying leg but technically this is my thigh.
[I spent a bunch of time looking for an ideal treat for myself a few days ago but then when I got to the place, it was under construction! I ended up coming here because I was still in the mood for Japanese food, but because I didn't understand anything on the menu (it was in Korean but all Japanese words), I picked something based on price. It turned out to be a giant assortment of tempura on rice. Yikes, as I don't process fried food well. But it was delicious.] So that felt terrible, again. Then at a rest stop, we were in the car having snacks before he started to drive and I had asked about a certain technique and material for couching hanji. I had a piece of paper and pen that I was writing onto and he took the pen and used my thigh again as a support for the paper (a quarter of the size of a letter) to draw onto it. Oh, god, this was not going to end.
[Yesterday, in a desperate attempt to be inspired and remember why I make art, I traveled again and visited the Gwangju Biennale. It was so disappointing that I only visited the main venue and then the national museum a sweaty walk away, and then jumped onto a bus to the terminal to head home. The long-distance bus takes about 1.5 hours, where I noticed that my temporary crown seemed to have collapsed, so I had to go straight to the dentist from the bus terminal, stinking of sweat and not having had a chance to brush my teeth. They had to make another one to cap these two molars. AGH.] All of the unwanted and uninvited touching of my body happened before my intense screen study but I wasn't able to understand or process it until I got home and was able to clear my head for a few days, by texting this man that I couldn't talk to him for a few days b/c of work. I had three glorious days of not being called until he rang up again yesterday.
[These are effigies from the 1980s, from the Museum of Shamanism. I did not get into all of the reading for this event but it seems they mixed contemporary international art with objects from the folk and shamanism museums in Korea. I was much more interested in the artifacts than the art.] At this point, I have gotten a lot of my research done and the rest would be the cherry on top. I can live without the cherry if it means I can never get into a car with this man again. I will give up the last big chunk of research to protect myself, and that is an easy call to make. The hard call now is how I move forward. I've been offered many different options: silence, yelling at him with a list of all the wrongs he has perpetrated, asking someone else to do that, and so on. For now, all I've realized I could do is block his number. My father said that there is no way that this will not end badly, so it's all about mitigating damage.
[Sangho Lee made this, Men Who Glorified Colonial Times (2020). Color on mulberry paper, 240 x 320 cm. Sponsored by The Center for Historical Truth and Justice.] I've lost so much sleep and cycled through blaming myself (as my family does) and reminding myself that it's not my fault. While processing with three different friends, I was on the verge of tears. After the last long phone call to the person who introduced me to him, I burst into tears. Thank goodness today is a national holiday, Children's Day, so no one is in the office right now and I could cry in the dark. It was a mix of a lot of feelings, from being angry and sad that this happened, to being sorry for all the versions of myself that had already survived similar incidents, but mostly relieved and grateful for the strong and powerful women who have supported me and continue to back me 100%.
[The exhibition design was awful; the first gallery felt like they shoved a bunch of stuff in and turned off the lights. The subsequent 4 galleries were no better. This one gallery was FULL of fabric that I guess was supposed to help guide you through but the maze was very confusing and not effective. What I found amazing was that there were tons and tons of young people visiting! And getting yelled at by security for running into sheer curtains.] While I think some of this is cultural, a lot of it is simply men behaving badly. I don't have the energy to go back and purge this person from my prior posts so suffice it to say: this person is NOT someone who is gainfully employed right now, and NOT the wonderful teacher I just studied with. That's what helps remind me that I'm not the one at fault: all of the men I've met who are kind, respectful, generous, who have excellent boundaries and have never made me feel in danger (of them).

[This is a piece only more interesting when you photograph it. It's basically a lit rope revolving in the dark.]
[I see more and more natural dyes being used in contemporary art, very trendy. This is one of three mandala-like platforms by Chrysanne Stathacos.]
[This is I think from funerary traditions. There was another smaller one but it didn't photograph well.] I am so tired and have lost a lot of time and energy to this situation. But I wanted to share it to give a little insight into the BS that happens behind the scenes. This kind of work is extremely difficult even when it's going well. There is so much to do, process, and recover from, on top of basic survival things like clothing and feeding myself, keeping my nest tidy and functional, and strategizing next steps given the little time I have left. For the first time yesterday, I was on the bus or in a taxi, missing home.
[This part of the national museum shows things that people from ancient times figured out, from stone tools to net making. I realized that they had to really deal with survival on a much more in your face level than what I'm dealing with right now. So they probably didn't have to deal with so many of the things we do today when it comes to interpersonal communication.]
[I was glad to see these not behind glass like I did in Naju: they are burial jars. Jar coffins are called dongneol.] I have traveled to so many places and met so many people and learned so many things. Clearly, there are certain lessons that I am fated to repeat over and over. I hope not to have to take this class again. My original plan was to escape today to Seoul, where I haven't been able to go for over a month because of all of these shenanigans, but because of my teeth, I am trapped for a few more days. The dentist will see me Friday; fingers crossed I can get a mold made of my teeth to order the crowns. Because I really need a trip to Seoul to reconnect with solid trusted friends and family that I miss and need right now. Even if it's only for a weekend.
[This is a funny replica or rubbing of an actual stone. I can't imagine this is easy to make, and after sitting through the dental aide making temporary crowns for me three times in two days, I think that only really skilled sculptors should do that kind of dentistry.]
[This is a regular rubbing from a temple stele. You can see where sheets of paper were connected to cover the entire stone.] One of the people I haven't even seen this trip is my eldest aunt, because she was not well when I first got to Seoul. She's fine now and I haven't seen her since my uncle, her husband, passed away a few years ago. She promised me that she would take me to my grandparents' ancestral gravesite, where my uncle is also buried. I want to do some rubbings but have no experience, so that's another thing I have to sort out, finding a place to buy rubbing wax and then places I can practice before heading north.
[The view from the back of the national museum in Gwangju.] What has made things even more onerous lately is the barrage of requests and favors from random folks who want suddenly to talk to me...because I'm a Korean American / Asian American woman and it's AAPI heritage month and people keep attacking and killing Asian-looking folks back home but people have only started to notice now. I have at least two more requests that I have to write out / have interviews for and I am so sick of it. I know I've put myself into a position where my job is to educate the public about certain aspects of my heritage and experience, but this is really too much. Being invisible and then suddenly asked, what can we do to help you, feels not great. Because does anyone really care and will anything change? It feels like a lot of extra unpaid work to say basic things like, see us, pay us fairly, remember we are human.
[This was the only piece I knew I wanted to see in Gwangju, a sound installation by Cecilia Vicuña, in homage to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Cha was an extremely talented artist—by that, I mean all around: writing, visual, performance, video, the whole package. She lived in NYC when she was raped and murdered. Cathy Park Hong writes an incredible chapter in Minor Feelings about the way this story was framed, this erasure and silence that followed about some "oriental Jane Doe" with the assumption that she went silently. When they found the murderer, he was covered in scratches because she had fought back so valiantly. We'll never know what she would have created because we lost her when she was only 31 years old. It's impossible not to cry thinking about her right now.] To have a quiet and safe place to rest, be alone, collect yourself, is a great gift. I still have so much back burnered to share with you but couldn't let this go without also sharing the reality of being in this body, in this place. Thanks for getting this far with me.

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