Transmissions, Vol. 2: Seeds of Transference | Varyer

Transmissions, Vol 2: Seeds of Transference

Se Young Au bridges worlds by exploring the through-lines and intersections of multi-sensory experiences.

I. Many people throughout history have had to unwillingly leave their homes. But the nature of displacement as we understand it has changed in an increasingly connected world. It might be possible to translate cultures across physical borders, carry on traditions, or find old communities in a new place, But the essence of home can still be elusive, even haunting, and that chasm can be devastating. Our senses are the key to access touchpoints in our lives and evoke both the tangible and cursory that are no longer within our physical reach.

For me and more than 200,000 Korean transnational adoptees, this is not a mere suggestion but an imperative. We must worldbuild to survive. Transnational adoptees find themselves at the unique intersection of solitary immigration, meaning that we must navigate both the loss of our birth culture and assimilate into another all on our own, without the protection and guidance of the family unit (because our experience cannot be shared by our adoptive family). When the world constantly reflects back to you that your mere existence is at a cognitive dissonance within the context of the fabric of society, you begin weaving together a life raft of mixed worlds and realities to establish this complex sense of identity.

When you are extracted from your place of origin without any familial ties to tether you to your cultural identity what inherently attaches you to the land, the people, the culture? Binaries fail transnational adoptees in that our narratives are much more nuanced than straddling worlds and we must build within more accurately the liminal space between them to work towards something fully realized beyond being “re-homed.” My idea of what home cannot simply be resolved neatly due to the multiplicities within my experience.

The Korean diaspora is composed of many historic events that led to hundreds of thousands of people leaving their homeland: the Japanese occupation of 35 years, the Korean war and the fragmenting of the land itself into “North'' and “South'' Korea and US military occupation for over sixty five years. Thus, resulting in the erection of two states at the 35 parallel, the DMZ which is a heavily militarized border unlike any other place in the world. Korean people indeed had a unique sense of how we may need to implement a scopic view of home in order to exist.

How is this transference of place erected in different iterations globally? Can you really bring a piece of home with you, unfurling into different versions of home and folding back onto themselves until it is one continuous abode? Can you augment your sense of home by expanding the understanding of a home’s function: a fixed structure built upon colliding memories while providing foundational elements for limitless possibilities?

Contemporary Korean-born artist, Do Ho Suh addresses these questions with his prolific sculpture work from the past two decades. Specifically centered upon this question of home, his silk and polyester textile works are born out of 3-D scans (1:1 scale replicas) of different homes or segments of homes he has occupied throughout his life spanning places such as Seoul, London, and Rhode Island.

Works such as Hub, 260-10 Sungbook-dong, Sungbook-ku, Seoul, Korea (2016) and Home within Home, 2019 assert themselves using the tension of both fragile/ephemeral and powerful/massive components. Suh plays with the concept of home as a transportable device and how these seminal places serve as studies of how we reconstruct iterations of our lives through memories.

I remember my first encounter with these pieces. It was as if someone had given physical form to what I had struggled to elucidate about my transnational identity throughout my life. Here was an individual who too had left Korea and lived in many other places around the world and his works conceived of confronting similar themes of isolation, displacement and obscuring borders.

His immersive work encapsulates longing for home in how it’s transferable and inescapable and forces the viewer to confront their own expectations of space and permanence. I cannot speak for Suh, but I sense that he grapples with the perceived net gain in calling many countries home. What you end up losing and searching for is something that you know on some level, is impossible to “get back”— a suspended vehicle for a lifetime of grieving.

The choices Suh makes with scale and detail in his work communicates the way the viewer receives a sense of exact place. His employment of sheer, almost ghost-like material offers a juxtaposition that keeps them in a dream state achieving room for vastness and interpretation. His expressive use of saturated color such as vermillion or a deep peacock signals an element of fantasy and elicits an emotional response from the viewer.

As a transnational adoptee, I straddle time and the understanding of space differently than many people. A friend of mine once offered up a positive spin on my identity: “what if because you don’t feel like you belong anywhere, you can live everywhere?” A riff on “citizen of the world” I suppose. As Do Ho Suh’s works remain poignant in my mind, they offer up a tangible gateway to getting closer to a less idyllic, more complicated yet expansive sense of home.

II. Some scientists argue that one should eat a diet similar to your ancestors if you want to experience optimal health. But what if you are raised 6,500 miles from your homeland and had little access to those foods? As a transnational adoptee, I have spent large portions of my life navigating the impossible task of bridging worlds between Korea and the small, predominately white Midwestern town I was raised in.

My adoptive mom did the best she could given the resources she had in the mid 1980’s exposing us and celebrating our birthplace of Korea. But you can’t really contextualize yourself in a place where you’re heavily “otherized” via only books and traditional garb as it had its limitations of flatness and lacking a fully rendered life experience.

It was the early 90s, and the massive K-pop wave, K-beauty, and Oscar-winning films had not yet reached the West. Those kids who braved taking their traditional Korean food to school were shamed and ridiculed at the threatening unfamiliar smell of pungent kimchi. America had not yet cared to embrace my birth culture as viable or deserving of attention. A lot can change in 30 years.

Starting around elementary school, for one week out of every summer my brother and I would attend “Korean culture camp,” a place where other adoptees throughout the country could gather for an annual educational immersion about all things Korean. We had vocabulary classes, dances, history, and taekwondo.

Our family all piled into our boxy white Chevy Venture minivan, we were headed to Minneapolis. I have fond memories of the cumulative smells of indistinguishable fast food stops, Banana Boat sunscreen, and Bonnebell lip glosses in flavor profiles reminiscent of shimmery birthday cake and blue moon ice cream.

My sensory world came alive, as everything seemed more vibrant and delicious to my young palette. Korea was digested and understood by way of experiencing a melange of delights through the senses: brightly colored accessories for traditional dances, korean snacks with textures that were otherworldly, and honeydew flavored ice cream pops, (generic grape and fruit punch would never be able to compete again).

One scent memory which superseded them all was my love of the distinct smell of sesame seed oil, simultaneously familiar but also foreign to my Midwestern sensibilities. It was a far cry from a standard American kid’s lunch centered around a bologna sandwich and a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Lunchtime at camp was when it reached fever pitch, as it wafted out of the cafeteria, tempting our ravenous growing bodies. The aroma was both seductive and welcoming and the oil’s molecules permeated everything. It was warm and toasty like being swaddled in something nutty tinged with a sweet slightly smokey honey note.

Local Korean women piled into the kitchen where they would spend countless hours squatting over massive bowls and colanders where they would amass mountainous piles of vegetables. It was an incredibly laborious and arduous task that they seemed to do with grace and ease. Our meals consisted of one or two vegetable side dishes (banchan) flecked with gochugaru (korean pepper flakes) and some sort of protein plated with a heaping pile of perfectly fluffed steamed rice and kimchi.

To smell it for me, may still be more enjoyable than even the act of ingesting. It’s so aromatic and unambiguous that it is able to reach the cellular walls of my ancestral memory.

It symbolized a “return” through the senses which was both evocative and powerful, as it gave me access to a culture that’s been embedded deep in my DNA- reclusive amidst all the Americanness I'd been raised on.

This scent became synonymous with belonging and a deeper sense of who I was, who my birth parents could have been, and an understanding of who I was becoming. For a brief time during those summers I could fall into a sense of ease, sharing stories and laughter with kids who I shared both physical traits with and also the burden and loneliness of growing up between cultures. There was no magic bullet to distill what being Korean meant, but those moments helped assuage that which still wholly evades me.

The week in Minneapolis would undoubtedly fly by, and we’d once again be lost in the monotony of the standard Midwestern fare. My mom would eventually come to fold in some Korean food into her repertoire for special occasions, which the whole family reveled in. These days, whenever I am feeling a twinge of longing, I reach for the amber hued bottle of oil, a rather remarkably simple gesture to guide myself to the idea of home, no matter how complex of a concept it remains.