Emanuel’s Talk at TED @ Hongreung about Korea and his Grandmother

Emanuel’s talk about a dream of his grandmother at TED X Hongreung

Emanuel gave a talk about a memory dream he had about his grandmother when first studying in Korea at the recent TED event. Hongreung is the name of an old neighborhood (named after a royal grave) in northern Seoul that has become the center of a research cluster defined by Korea University, KAIST, KDI, Kyung Hee University Hanguk Sook of Foreign Studies and KIST.

Link to the video:

“A Dream of My Grandmother on New Year’s Eve in Korea”

TED X Hongreung

October 29, 2011

“A Dream of My Grandmother on New Year’s Eve in Korea”

I had been in Korea since June. The experience had been difficult in many ways. Koreans simply did not want to spend much time with me and I found the struggle to learn the language a tremendous burden. Of late I thought about returning to Japan, a country I felt far more comfortable in where the streets were clean, people spoke to you politely and the food was not too spicy. I had taken a trip to the Korean countryside with some Korean students once, but they just spoke to each other and pretty much ignored me for three days.

This time I set off alone. I arrived at Haeinsa Temple high in the Gaya Mountains around eight PM on New Year’s Eve. The year was 1995. It was dark outside and I was exhausted. I wandered around aimlessly and an older woman seized me and brought me along to her neat little inn where I was given a small ondol room (heated from the floor) and a futon and pillow for about $12 for the night.

Felt like just sleeping, but it was New Year’s Eve! I walked up and down the corridor. Next door some Korean students were roasting bits of pork on a gas grill they had brought along, and eating them between swigs of beer and soju, that unique vodka of Korea. I joined them for a moment, the light dim but the laughter brilliant. I did not fit in. I was getting pretty tired of these conversations:

“What country are you from?” “America” “How long have you been here?” “six months” “can you eat spicy food?” “some but not much” “how many brothers and sisters do you have?” “one brother and two sisters”

So it was back to my bare little room. I lay down on my futon for a minute, reading a book, and drifted off to sleep just around 11:50 PM on New Year’s Eve.

There I was at my grandmother’s apartment in Manhattan. The Vermeer, an apartment building built of yellow brink that I so enjoyed as a little boy. I was running around trying to find my grandmother in the lobby. I asked the doorman repeatedly, a man who had been so kind to me when I had visited as a child. He told me he did not know where my grandmother went. I went to the elevator bank then ran out the front door of the apartment building to look around for her on busy 7th Avenue.  My grandmother was nowhere to be seen.  I was a bit discouraged, feeling oddly alone.

And then I saw her, coming in the front door of the apartment building with many shopping bags in her arms. She dropped them and raised her arms. I ran to her instinctively and hugged her as I had hugged her as a boy. We were together so close at that moment.

I felt an odd sensation, as if I was slowly changing states, moving from one level of being to another. And then I found myself at last there in that little room in the inn, and remembered how I had gotten there that afternoon on the bus. Yet I felt odd, almost as if something of that moment with my grandmother stayed with me.

I was back in Korea, but somehow it seemed more familiar from that moment on.

There was something peculiar about the dream. It would take a while for me to figure out what it was.

My grandmother died just before I started Yale College as a freshman back in 1983. She had retired to Florida a year earlier. But she died not long after she moved there of cancer at the age of 67.

But the grandmother who hugged me in that dream was much older than that. My grandmother in the dream was woman in her eighties: The age that my grandmother would have been if she had still been alive. It was almost as if my grandmother had been here in Korea all the time. Her presence lingered with me after I woke up.

name was Hortense, originally Hortense Cohan. A very fancy name for a Jewish girl from Manhattan.

Hortense means “gardener” in French and my grandmother was the constant gardener, cultivating us all, over time with great persistence. She was the beloved daughter of Manny Cohan, a jovial businessman who established a little kingdom in the metal plating industry.

My grandmother was a smart woman; she had no pretensions or academic snobbery, but she knew best way to get what she had planned and she had plans for everyone. For me, as the first born grandson, she had special plans; but I do not know exactly what she had intended for me.

My grandmother was both extremely loving and also put incredible pressure on me through her expectations.

She sent me a package when I was a young boy. I opened it expecting to find a game or a toy. But no! It contained five, thick novels and history books. She expected me to read them all. I cannot say that I actually managed to read all those books, but I felt immense pressure from her expectations. I would say that the later drive to do well in school and achieve something unique started at that moment.

My grandmother had short hair and a modern look. She worked as a volunteer at the welfare office, helping poor people, especially Hispanics, in Manhattan. She would take me along with her to the office and I would build long strings of paperclips with my brother Michael as she worked helping people.

My grandmother cooked us special meatballs and made sure we knew just how special she thought we were. Even when I went down to Florida to see her as she was dying. There was no indication of her personal suffering; Just her concern for us. When she died, there were twenty pair of pink slippers in her Florida apartment. It seems she had bought them in bulk, her favorite kind, thinking she would live to be one hundred.

My grandmother made that enormous cultural jump. From the Yiddish speaking immigrants in a Jewish world into the cultivated world of America on the inside. She groomed my father to eventually study at Yale, and me as well in due time.

My grandmother seemed the most relaxed person in the world, but it was part of her skill. What exactly did she have in mind for me? I guess I will find out.

So why was I in Korea? A country I did not really fit into. Most Americans come because they are:

Missionaries, wearing name tags, tapping on doors to convert people. That I was not.

Military, practicing artillery, getting drunk at Itaewon bars. That was not me.

Businessmen, buying and selling securities, M&A in the Korean market: That I certainly was not.

Korea was the end of a long path, starting in College, to master Asian culture, Asian language, to prepare for a new world.

What did I imagine back in my freshman year at Yale? It was something like this:

I imagined a world in which I had to communicate in Chinese, to read and write and speak Chinese, because Chinese had become the primary language of the world. It was not a choice; I thought I had to learn Chinese well. And so I worked, all the time, taking courses in Chinese literature in Taiwan. And then the master’s at University of Tokyo-writing a master’s thesis in Japanese. Doing it the hard way, not allowing myself to be an American— struggling to somehow integrate myself into the cultures I encountered.

Finally studying in Korea. That was a stretch. I was learning Korean because I needed it for some larger vision of myself and my role in the world. I had this idea of Asia and its importance; I had to study Asian languages like a crazy man for a future that really no one else shared with me.

Oddly, it was an echo of my grandmother. I was trying to integrate myself into Korea in the way she had tried to integrate into American society.

I drifted off to sleep again and awoke the next morning to see a brilliant blue sky through the window. It was amazing to me. I walked out into the rays of brightness exploring Haeinsa Temple with such excitement. I had felt tired, but now I felt energetic. I loved the bright colors of the Korean temple against the blue sky and the grey/green mountains. Previously, I disliked such strong shades of colors.

And I went back to Seoul on the afternoon bus. Seoul was still Seoul; my dormitory was still my dormitory. But I felt somehow different. I was not merely laboring for an abstract goal. I felt I was more part of something.

Many things happened. I emerged from the dark passage of language study and arrived at a point at which I could conduct more complex conversations.

I met my future wife about six weeks later and I started to make other close friends. In fact, even as I complained about the terrible drivers and the bland architecture, I found had more close friends in Korea after less than one year than I had in Japan after five years.

I still was thinking I would just stay a year in Korea and then go back to Japan. Little did I know that I would end up living more than five years in Korea and have children who feel more comfortable in Korean than English. That transition from one culture to another. It makes me think of my grandmother and her own transitions. There she was waiting for me in Korea. I was searching for her, in the lobby of the hotel, in my studies, in my wanderings in Korea. Perhaps she had been watching me all along, perhaps she is still watching in Korea now.

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