Returning Home

A Composer's Travel Journal (10)

- Returning Home -

Now that I've returned home to San Francisco from my month-long stay in Korea, I think back over what I experienced. I spent 24 days at my Pansori teacher's house, visited a museum of Folk Drama in Kongju, traveled back to Seoul twice for concerts that included my music, went to a Buddhist festival of ritual for the dead and another of Shamanistic ritual, and even went to the funeral of my close friend's mother. I traveled this time almost as a foreigner in Korea, not really as an American, definitely not as a Korean.

Writing this now looking back, many of my thoughts about these 4 weeks tend to be critical. My singing lessons were, at first, interesting and fascinating for me. As they progressed, though, my teacher seemed to become bored with teaching me and I became more and more impatient at what seemed to me like the superficial nature of her instruction. Maybe we both realized that what I could learn in such a short period of time was necessarily limited. As a Korean student, I had to stifle the many questions that went through my head during lessons. I knew that my teacher would brush aside anything I asked. It was clear early on that she couldn't explain anything about her singing, that she could only repeat what she herself had once been taught by her teacher. This is the nature of the transmission of Pansori from teacher to student - its 3 elements, sori (singing), aniri (talking) and ballim (physical gesture) must be exactly reproduced from one person to the next and from performance to performance.

I'd visited the Kang-neung Tano Festival in 1999. So I went again on this trip, and was surprised to see how commercial everything had become. Everywhere you looked was the "World Cup". When I was younger, I used to enjoy the sort of open-air markets and festivals you find in Korea. This time, though, I couldn't help feeling uncomfortable when I noticed the Buddhist monks talking on their cell phones and the local politicians loudly promoting themselves for the upcoming elections during the solemn ceremonies for the dead. Is it really inevitable that this sort of commercialism will eventually infect and pervade every aspect of Korean life? If we realized that things we might do or allow unconsciously today will quickly become accepted as reality tomorrow, how careful we would be!

Coming to the U.S. from Korea 20 years ago, I was a visitor and I was 100% Korean. Since I decided a decade ago to become a permanent resident, I've lived in a dual world - Korea, America. As the years go by, I cross the boundary between these 2 parts of my world more easily and, at times, the boundary itself becomes quite fluid. Sometimes the Korean and the American even seem to merge.

I notice many Koreans living in America who seem to want to preserve the Korea they left behind many years ago for their life here. The problem is that America is not Korea and Korea itself has moved on. It's easy to find oneself trapped as the sole resident of a sort of no-man's-land. An example that I could consider amusing if it weren't so perplexingly distasteful is something that occurs repeatedly at the local Korean market. When I shop there by myself, I can write a personal check without showing my ID, because I'm "Korean". However, when I shop with my American husband, they won't accept the same check because he's a "foreigner".

I haven't written a single note of music for a month now. The music has been going through my head though - now it's time to write it down. For me, home is where I can work for many hours each day.

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