Perhaps it is time to speak a little more about myself. Obviously, I can talk endlessly about the Korean culture, family history, food, etc., but ultimately and eventually some presence of myself has to be left on these pages. Many labels can be made to a person like me: a Korean transplant living in America, an immigrant, a Korean American, a first generation Korean living in America…whatever label happens to fit at any given moment, there is always one persistent feeling inside me.

That is…the sense of un-belonging.

I have no place I really call home. I am a Korean who has lost the country she knew as that country is forever etched in the imprint of history. The Korea I know, learned, and admired no longer exists. That Korea only exists in my memory. The Korea I visit often to see my parents is not a place I belong anymore. I am a Korean who is a foreigner in her own land. Yet in America, I am an immigrant. No one who sees me will ever consider me just an American. I am first and foremost, a Korean in everyone’s eyes and that is confirmed with my accent, which is not even really a Korean accent. 

So where do immigrants like me belong? Not the country I am from certainly as they do not consider me part of that society any longer. Yet not this country either as I don’t really belong here as I come from somewhere else. Hence, I become like many other immigrants. I live here and I am successful here. Yet where I belong is perhaps in those past etchings of the Korea of the past.

서예 (Seo-Yeh, Korean Calligraphy)

I started learning Korean calligraphy when I was in the first grade. I suppose as a descendant of a noble lineage, learning of the calligraphy was a must. Korean calligraphy is not simply writing beautiful characters. There is a certain mindset or a way of being that one must adopt.

Image by Samuraijohnny

Since I started when I was just seven years old, all of that way of being was not verbalized to me. We were taught to sit quietly, settle our 벼루 (Byeo-roo, ink stone) on the table, pour just a little bit of water into the well of the ink stone, and start grinding the 먹 (Meok, ink stick). The more expensive the ink stick, the more fragrant it is. The cheaper ones you can usually tell by how bad they smell.

This process of slowly grinding the ink stick, is what settles you and put you in the mindset of tranquility. There is really no hurrying this grinding process nor do you want to go fast as it will just splash (but ink won’t come out any faster). Usually the calligraphy session full of first graders would start out loud, then within 15-20 minutes, everyone becomes quiet, mesmerized by the never ending circular motion of grinding ink stones and the ink smell permeating the air.

붓 (boot, brush) and 선지 (Seon-ji, paper — special calligraphy paper) comes next. Initially the beginners use cheaper practice paper and also have to fold papers to create guidelines for the letters. Then within a year or two, the practice paper is replaced with the special calligraphy paper (한지, Korean paper is well known for its quality). The beginners start with the standard 한글 (Hangul, standard Korean), next step is the cursive, and then pictures or other characters.

The posture you have to assume is very strict. It is said that those who are able to write beautiful calligraphy could also wield sword equally well. When you write, you can never drop your elbow or lean. The tip of the brush is the only thing that touches the paper on the table, like a tip of a sword. Imagine how much strength must go into that.

Sadly it has been a few years since I held a brush in my hand, but I still do remember that rich fragrance of the ink stick and the utter calm that settled over me whenever I held a brush.

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