Last night, I was fortunate to attend the opening of Still Present Past, an amazing multimedia exhibit about the legacies of the Korean War. At the risk of hyperbole, it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. Part of the reason for my gushing was that so many people came to the opening. In talking to some of the steering committee members for this exhibit about the numbers, we were speculating that maybe 500 people were in attendance. Not too shabby for a Midwest town with a tiny KA community. Of course, because Minnesota is home to so many Korean Adoptees, there were many of us "representing" – but a good number of the Korean American community were present too. And Deann Borshay mentioned to one of my friends that ours was the largest attended opening thus far in the exhibit’s history.
Ramsey Liem, professor at Boston College and Ji Yeon Yuh, professor at Northwestern, were both inspiring and moving. I was especially emotional during Professor Yuh’s speech, which wove personal narratives about her parent’s memories of the war with factual information and a global context in terms of what happened in Korea as it relates to other wars both past and present.
The genesis for this exhibit began with Professor Liem’s work with collecting the oral histories of Korean Americans, inspired by the personal quests of younger Korean Americans to grasp a better understanding of their families’ experiences during the Korean War. As the literature on Still Present Past states, these oral histories
"are among the first public remembrances by Korean Americans of the devastation of this horrific civil and international conflict. They also reveal multiple legacies of the war that influence individual, family and community life to this day. These oral histories provide a counterpoint to the invisibility of the Korean War in public consciousness and the U.S. historical record."
As an Korean American adoptee, I am acutely aware that my own history and emigration story is directly tied to the Korean War, something that most people in thinking about contemporary adoption narratives forget. I am so pleased that Korean adoptees were included in this exhibit, especially the film, "Practical Hints About Your Foreign Child" by filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem. "Practical Hints" juxtaposes old archival film clips of Korean children with American GI’s and in orphanages with text from an International Social Service document given to American adoptive parents.
Defining Moments by artist Yong Soon Min and Girl with a Tank by artist Injoo Whang were my other two favorites. Plus, it was great to see several other local artists featured in this exhibit, including HERE: A visual portrait of Korean Adoptees living in Minnesota (for which I am writing the forward and introduction).
I’ll be attending several other SPP events this month, including a historic panel of Korean immigrant birth mothers who will share their stories of giving their children for adoption as a result of the war on April 28th, and an evening with Dean Borshay Liem, creator of First Person Plural.
Many of my friends were involved in some way with bringing this exhibit to Minnesota and I believe it has been such a great success already. As one who has often felt as if my life began (or constructed) the minute the airplane carrying me to Minnesota landed and someone placed me in the arms of my adoptive parents, I’ve felt – as a good friend of mine once said – like "a novel with the first three chapters torn out."
While I will never be able to reconstruct or re-write those lost chapters of my life, Still Present Past was able, in a small but significant way, to help me re/imagine the historical and social contexts for my adoption experience and feel more connected to the Korean American immigrant community’s collective consciousness. Silence is shaming, and silence gives others a chance to change and construct other meanings of our experiences.
We are reconstructing these narratives as authors of our own histories.
We will be silent no longer.