In the final years of his life, after he had been forced to retire from a struggling janitorial supply business, my father hiked one to two days per week. Although he lived in the San Fernando Valley, he drove his green Chrysler Town and Country minivan to the Santa Monica Mountains or east to the San Gabriel Mountains for his half- to full-day treks with an ice-cold canteen and roasted nuts in plastic bags for snacks.
He didn’t have any fancy hiking gear, and usually wore athletic shoes, khakis, and a cotton dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves. Fully immersed in his own life, which read like selfishness to some, he was not a man who invested in or paid attention to gimmicks.
Sometime in the 1980s, he left us. He disappeared for almost a year, returning when I was about seven years old to finalize my parents’ divorce.
After the divorce, he spent time with my sister and me on Sundays. He would often take us to the mountains for four- to seven-mile hikes, and in these landscapes of dry brush, scrub oak, and uneven dirt surfaces, which seemed torturous and treacherous at times, as we scampered across rivers on loose rocks, my father was perhaps, although quiet for most of the hike, teaching us something about himself.
In nature, we never fought, we never argued or brought up the things that hurt us, because together, we had the elements to contend with at all times—the steep hills to climb, the narrow passes at the edge of a cliff that dropped down into a creek raging below, the poison oak that we had to be careful around, swerving to avoid.
So instead of the feelings, the thoughts that kept us up at night, and silently at each other’s throats, we had nature—beautiful and foreboding, spectacular and wild—to overcome, to distract us during those hours.
But nature, or rather the desire to be within it, maybe even to conquer the fear of it, killed my father in the end. In 2004, at the age of 66, he lost control of his car after hiking with one of his best friends, driving off the side of a mountain, plunging into what must have felt like the most terrific abyss—branches breaking and glass shattering.
Nature had finally consumed him.
A few years before he died, I wrote an oral history of my father for an introductory Asian American Studies class in college, which was the first time I had ever engaged with him directly about his past. He never talked much about his family, unlike my mother, who had also fled what is now North Korea during the war, and sometimes told dark stories about what she remembered, colored by the fact that she was both highly-imaginative and only four years old at the time.
My father expressed a mix of nervousness and even a little glee as the subject of my writing. He always considered me to a be a good writer, even encouraged me to pursue journalism, which, at the time, could provide a stable income.
Unlike my mother, who had suffered much trauma during the war, but didn’t lose any of her immediate family members, my father, who was about 13 at the time, lost his mother, two sisters, and a brother, separated from them when he and just his father had escaped their home.
He never knew what had happened to his family, if they had survived at all, and seemed to exist in a steady, unnerving state of pessimism, a haunting—occasionally manifesting itself in bouts of rage—and a real fear of anything North Korean. His fear must’ve been directed at both the actual government—its cruelties and human rights violations—and the feelings he might have in his homeland, where his family was either dead, or continued to live without him.
I’m not sure what would’ve been a sadder reality for him, and maybe even he didn’t know.
At some point during our session, I had asked him if he wanted to visit North Korea.
Instead of mentioning his family, he told me that he dreamed of one day hiking Mt. Baekdu, a 9,000-foot active volcano on the Chinese-North Korean border, the highest mountain on the Korean peninsula, which he seemed to think was the most beautiful place on earth.
His eyes, normally dark and sullen, lit up like a small child’s, thinking about the beauty of Mr. Baekdu’s great caldera filled with the deep clear waters of Heaven Lake, the lush forests, the pounding of the waterfalls, and the wildflowers that still, despite war and our deaths, sway.
After reading the news on Twitter, anxiously staring at any photo I could find of the historic inter-Korean summit between Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27, 2018, I texted my mom, who I text more often than call these days because I can use Google Translate, which helps us communicate more complex ideas and feelings.
Despite living in Los Angeles for over forty years, my mother’s English is still limited since she spends most of her time in Koreatown, where Korean Americans can still survive—shop at the supermarket, buy a cellphone, call a taxi—in their own language. I, on the other hand, do not speak much Korean because I spent so little time with my family in Korea and Canada, and my mother, who worked sixty to eighty hours per week, didn’t have the energy to force us to use the language while we were being raised in an education system that demanded English.
With Google Translate’s help, I texted: “What do you think about Korean summit?”
She responded: “I do not think it is the end of the war. He has to meet with the President of the United States.”
I couldn’t quite understand her logic (What does POTUS have to do with this?), or if Google had even translated her words correctly, so in my confusion, I wrote back in English: “So is this good?”
She still hasn’t responded.
The possibility of Korean reunification overwhelms me, as it must overwhelm my mother, who had for years, possibly her entire life, never believed or even thought about how 25 million Koreans could ever 1. live in and 2. be free from the grip of a brutal dictatorship.
The division of the country itself is something, even after sixty years, that I continue to struggle to process, so how can I comprehend what reunification might mean?
How could thousands of years of culture and language be separated by a war, a border, 155 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, that allows no permeability? And how do people and countries in power, including the United States, profit, or actually benefit from such an arbitrary and cruel division?
For most of my life, I have thought of North Korea as the rogue uncle that makes the rest of the family feel good about itself, or the uncle that is often the scapegoat for an entire region’s dysfunctions, or the uncle that we wish just didn’t exist somehow. North Korea has been both a reflection of who we, Americans, don’t want to be, and a mirror for who we actually are, what our wars actually do to people and countries, what and whom our wars leave behind.
Because North and South Korea’s separate existences continue to confound, the concept of an actual reunification presents an enormously complex and layered set of thoughts, fears, and emotions that Google, or perhaps any language, could never translate. If war could end between the two Koreas, what would this mean for the border? Would it become more permeable, and how? Could we end the border entirely?
As my father’s daughter, I wonder not only if I could find my family despite what little information I have, but if we could love each other despite how severe the differences in our lives have been. I fear that I wouldn’t have the capacity for the heartbreak if we could not.
Maybe I could visit Heaven Lake.
Perhaps, when I hike today, as I try to do once per week where I live, close to the hills in Oakland, California, on dusty trails amongst oak trees and monkeyflowers, orange poppies nodding, I, like my father, am training myself for the impossible, a life that rushes towards the sublime.
When I asked my father about visiting North Korea, he couldn’t say what it would mean to see or not see his family. All he could think about was Mt. Baekdu, and perhaps, in those treks together through those woods, that’s what he was preparing himself for, that’s what he was preparing us for—a future we could never imagine in a present that we somehow endure.