Growing up in the northern suburbs 0f Chicago, there were enough Asian American families around that I never felt that different from my peers, except when I occasionally was asked a question along the lines of "Are you from North Korea or South Korea?"
To me, a Korean American kid born and raised in the Chicago area, the idea that someone would think I was actually "from North Korea" really baffled me. It's not that I expected everyone to know the intricacies of the Korean War. It was the idea that North Korea was so completely foreign and unfamiliar to me that I just couldn't understand how I could be connected to it. At the time I just wanted to say, "I don't know anyone from North Korea."
Turns out I was mistaken. My grandparents, on my mother's side, were apparently from the Northern part of Korea before the Korean War forced them to flee to the South. As a result of their journey, they had to leave behind parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
When I asked my mother the other day why my grandfather, who still lives in South Korea, did not apply to have a chance to participate in the family reunions taking place currently in North Korea, my mother gave me a look that was simply perplexed.
"Why would he do that? He's the youngest of all his siblings and he's 89 years old. No one in his family is probably alive." And with a matter-of-factness that I can only attribute to her being a child of a war-torn generation, she continued, "Besides, what's the point? They meet for a few moments and then what?"
I recognized in my mother's voice a mixture of distrust and wariness, and most of all, resignation. That's just the way things are. Why try to change the status quo?
But for me, living in a country with every freedom imaginable and the confidence and perhaps brashness to think that things could be different, I didn't understand why my grandfather shouldn't try to meet any of his surviving relatives. Even after all these years, wasn't it still worth it?
On a trip with my grandfather to the border of China and North Korea several years ago, I remember my grandfather stretching out his arms toward the North Korean shore as we traveled in a small riverboat along the Tumen River. We could see a group of North Korean children in the distance, happily splashing in the water, too far away to see their faces, but close enough to hear their laughter.
In his expression was a look of longing and regret that I will never forget.
Though my grandfather may never know what happened to his relatives in North Korea, I would be happy if my own children grew up in a world where families separated by years of war and circumstance knew more about their legacy than I did growing up. They may see themselves as Americans through and through, but I hope they come to value the unique history that brought our family to the place we find ourselves today.