On displacement from roles
When we are both tired, Halmeoni gives me a foot massage. “Today I work so hard,” she tells me one day, knuckling the bottom of my foot. “I cook kalguksu for next week so your mama can just—relax. And then I clean. Whole house.” She slaps my heel for emphasis. Her hair catches the light in small curls.
This has become our routine while she is visiting: each night we sink onto the couch and she chats, one story unfurling into the next, while I quietly accept foot massages from my grandmother. She pauses as her eyes meander across the room, trailing a storyline only she can see. Her white head hunches over my feet. It is in this brief stillness that I suddenly become aware of my breathing, the world churning around me, and I sense that there is something horribly off about this scene.
“Halmeoni, you shouldn’t be working so much. You’re our guest,” I say. What I mean to say is that this reversal of roles feels wrong: a granddaughter should be giving her grandmother a foot massage.
“I am happy,” she replies, swatting at the air. “This. Do you enjoy?” Halmeoni presses into the ball of my foot, drawing out the tension. Her papery skin shifts over her knuckles, over her veins.
“I enjoy,” I say, smiling tightly.
A memory passes through me: I am six; I am complaining that I walked all day and my feet hurt so bad and I want the hardest foot massage she can give. She pretends to oblige, cradling my feet in her hands. What do we know about the proper placement of things, when we have displaced ourselves from our roles for so long?
“I enjoy.” English is my first language, yet it always seems to break around her.
On displacement from country
Halmeoni and her husband came to America with three hundred dollars, a Japanese camera, and degrees from South Korea’s most renowned universities—which held little significance to their prospective employers. For two weeks, they stayed in a church basement and thanked God for free rent.
Like most educated Korean immigrants, Halmeoni’s husband matriculated into assembly line manual labor. His arms, soft and suited only for turning pages, shuddered as he hauled package after package. During breaks he kept going because he was already falling behind. Faster, faster—how his limbs whirled like machinery.
By some chance—God is so good, she professes—Halmeoni escaped the pipeline to manual labor and landed an office job. Her job: to transcribe tapes. Her qualifications: having majored in law at South Korea’s most renowned women’s university, but more specifically, possessing the ability to type.
Halmeoni typed words she couldn’t understand, typed faster than any other transcriptionist. It was easier that way, she discovered, to empty out her mind.
Each night after Halmeoni and her husband finished work, they took turns stepping on each other’s backs until they creaked. Winced, then breathed in their moments of quiet. They were at home as long as they couldn’t hear anything.
Later on, Halmeoni won the transcriptionist award of the year at her firm. She proudly reiterated the supervisor’s reasons for picking her.
She work hard.
She never sick.
She never complain.
On displacement from natural environment
Halmeoni is the first to notice when my sister’s pet gecko loses its survival instincts. It happens one day when Halmeoni flicks the tank to see if it’ll flinch, and its eyes stay dispassionate and open.
“Why is it not hiding?” she asks.
“There’s nothing to hide from, Halmeoni. It knows that.”
“Oh, so gecko is smart.”
I recall its first months with us, crouched within an artificial cave. On month three it made a run for it, skittering into the depths of our couch. I had never seen it run so desperately.
Now the gecko has stopped scratching at the walls. It eats when we feed it, sleeps when we switch the lights off. In the dark, its eyes glint like pennies.
It doesn’t belong here, I realize. A gecko should be outside. But it is here, with us, confined in an artificial desert where its survival instincts—to hunt, to flee—are displaced by endless hours to contemplate other ideas. It has moved up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but perhaps not towards self-actualization. Perhaps it knows that this 24” x 12” tank is where it will die. This gecko’s misery is distinctly human.
On displacement from home
I was born in a cloudless suburb in Illinois that we just call Chicago, because it’s close enough and we can’t bother to remember the real name. In English class we learn that telos—doing what makes you excellent and fulfills your potential, or in other words, finding your place in the world—makes life worth living.
When I explain to a classmate that I am 50% Korean, 50% Japanese, and 100% American, he squints at me and laughs.
“No, you’re not.”
“That’s 200% total—completely, mathematically impossible.”
I say nothing. I am thinking of the gecko without its place in the world.
On displacement from language
Before dinner, Halmeoni and I pray that my great-grandmother—her mother—will die in March, when it is warmer. But we both know she won’t last past this December. She has stopped speaking, stopped eating. Her body is shutting down. On Skype, Halmeoni pens fat letters in Korean on paper and lifts it up to the webcam because her mother can no longer hear.
Have you eaten?
What did you do today?
In Halmeoni’s hands, the paper is smooth and cold as the computer screen between them.
On displacement from family
In all of my photos with my great-grandmother, I am straining to smile. In my four visits to South Korea, I couldn’t hold one conversation with my great-grandmother: all I could say in Korean was hello, goodbye, and thank you. My great-grandmother had the same photos taped on her balcony wall. This balcony is where she stepped out every morning to pray for me, long before I ever knew her, Halmeoni tells me. I wouldn’t know otherwise.
It is after my great-grandmother dies that I realize I don’t completely believe that she is gone. Because we have always been an ocean apart, I can still press my phone against my cheek and imagine that she is still there, just on the other side. Momentarily disconnected.
On displacement from body
“So warm,” Halmeoni says after I ask her how my great-grandmother’s funeral was. I hadn’t gone: my great-grandmother had died right before all the holidays in late December, so last-minute plane tickets to South Korea were sold out.
“It was so cold in Korea. At first I was thinking, my mom worked so hard. I was asking God why my mom must die in cold season with no plane tickets? But on funeral day, weather was warm enough to eat outside.”
“I said thank you very much, God. It was very warm compared to what I expected.”
I realize then that Halmeoni believes that dying is a kind of moving. An easy transit: earth to heaven, body to spirit. But how did she remain grateful? It seemed radical to me, even transcendent. How did she resist the instinct of defeat, eyes dispassionate and open?
How do you move forward if you have no place to move from?
On displacement from time
On the couch, Halmeoni unfurls another story.
“I used to want to be lawyer. Your harabeoji wanted to be doctor.” In Korea back then, women went to law school to become secretaries. In America, her college degree was illegitimate.
“It was the times,” she says. As a mother she had never told her children about this dream that escaped her; and yet somehow, she notes, her daughter is now a lawyer, her son a doctor. God is good.
“When you have grandchildren you will give them foot massage too, yes?”
I grimace at the thought of giving a six-year old a foot massage—somehow it is outrageous unless I am on the receiving end— and she cackles at that.
“I am happy,” Halmeoni says. She smiles, a flash of teeth stained yellow. Her expression then softens with such tenderness, I feel an urge to hold her close.
For my birthday, Halmeoni reads every pre-written card at Target and buys the one that is closest to what she wants to say. She slips in a few extra dollars, apologizing for not being so good with words.
But there are no words for what we want to say to each other. How do we create a new rhetoric when it is one born of loss? When do we stop speaking in absences and become full?
I take her hand in mine. This, I think, is a new language emerging from the residues of displacement—where words fall short but we keep reaching and reaching and reaching. There is so much in what we do not say.