“This Diss is Selfish”

This is going to be one hell of a selfish dissertation

… I thought while writing the proposal for this project. I tried to stay dignified yet emphatic with my obvious point that I would contribute to the conversation on environmental and transpacific studies. I meant it. But it wasn’t the whole story.

Keep calm and sound dignified.

I wasn’t calm at all.

I read about beautiful and admirable narratives on human relationships with non-humans and the power of history on migrant lives. And they made me jittery.

Both narratives had stories to tell, which spoke of a particular kind of experience. What is a good way to coexist with the natural world? How do the experiences of your people, filled with challenges and grief, affect how you view the surrounding world and yourself as a racial and ethnic minority? These are passionate, compelling stories. Empathy for other beings and solidarity with your people drive these stories. And such passion is incredibly compelling. The stories invite you to imagine the flowy, hypnotic body of a jellyfish or the harrowing journey across the Pacific and even more harrowing days settling in a new country that you come to love but also want to scream at. I was ashamed to be human looking at the guts of seagulls exploding with ocean plastic. I felt fury, ache, hope, and the sense that I am also an “Asian,” more than just “Korean,” for the first time. I have become an advocate for their experiences.

An advocate for their stories.

My story was missing. Sometimes, the description of the moist, pine-scented morning air would take me not to the North American woods but to the rear balcony of my apartment in Korea which faced a trail packed with pine trees. My own migration was filled with fleeting impressions such as this pine-scent flooding through the window in the morning or the stiffness in my lower back after the twenty-hour flight across the Pacific. But in the thorough, historical accounts of tortuous immigrant lives, there seemed to be no room for such triviality.

I said that I would make a scholarly intervention. But more so, I wanted to insert my experience—one that has permanently changed how I position myself in a world filled with endless movements, across continents and oceans. So, this project was going to be one selfish undertaking.

I crossed the Pacific Ocean five years ago to relocate to the U.S. East Coast. The Pacific Ocean is the biggest body of water on Earth, covering one-third of its surface. Crossing it takes a long time. Long enough to signal to your body that you’re on the move. That your body is tracing the widest part of the planet’s body. Ocean-crossing is, above all, a bodily experience.

So is remembering that ocean-crossing. It wasn’t always through the frustration of being a young Asian woman or answering, “are you Korean Korean or Korean American?” (though both happened). Most of the time, the memory came back serendipitously and in random fragments that went away the next moment. It was a fall afternoon in Cambridge and the air was remarkably crisp. I thought of the last time I complained about my leaking rain boots in the September wet season in Korea. It was two years ago. I don’t remember if I continued the thought. Probably not, since hanging out at Rodney’s Bookstore is all I remember about the rest of the day.

Rather than through the ethics of the human species and a solemn historical arc, this was how I was going to tell my story of migration. Through the incomplete memories left on my body.

Wanting to move away from the abstract, I gravitated toward the tangible and granular, to those tactile moments that unexpectedly revealed how two different places or ocean-crossing trajectories could connect. What do urban Singapore’s manicured and monotonous days have in common with the days in an isolated opal mine/cult commune in the Australian outback? Nothing, in geography or long history. But a lot, in nature’s once seductive power on the human body—the demonic spell of the luscious rain forest, the hallucinatory barrenness of the open outback. This was a startling connection, which I never would have made if I only followed the history of each place. The connection suggested that sensory descriptions were more than a spicy condiment in travelogues. They could drive new stories harboring critical questions that are more expansive than their fleeting presence implied.

Making apparently random connections between apparently random places was incredibly pleasurable. The fun intensified as I weaved together more random stories and writers. For one, I had not yet seen Japanese American writer Karen Tei Yamashita and Sri Lankan Australian novelist Michelle de Kretser mentioned together. There is the Pacific Ocean between them, the great divider—or the great connector. Both Yamashita and de Kretser unfold globe-trotting journeys of migrants crossing cultures and languages, the seemingly typical scope and topic of migrant narratives. Yet neither writer gives a legible and dramatic narrative arc. Instead, both novelists stubbornly gather menial and ahistorical things such as how people decorate their homes in a new country or how insanely pungent twenty-year-old natto sleeping in a kitchen cabinet could be. It takes patience to piece together the migratory movements that the authors conjure up and even those are porous and nonlinear. These sloppy stories made perfect sense to me for I never thought of my ocean-crossing chronologically from start to finish. Yamashita and de Kretser naturally belonged together.

In the control chamber of a clinical experiment, all external infectants and stimuli are suppressed to amplify the tested phenomenon.

The pandemic felt like a bizarre clinical experiment. My room was a control chamber. My sensorium was the test subject.

A controlled environment can work perverse wonders with bodily senses. Ears perk up at practically nothing such as a beer can hitting the trash can at the back of the apartment. A badly taken picture of a sunset looks otherworldly beautiful.

I really thought this photo looked beautiful.

A person can hallucinate from starving. So can the senses, when starved for two and a half years.

I planned out the first three essays—a review of Ponti, a piece on the loss of the natural mystique of hot climates, and a review of Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong’s selected works—at the time of the omicron craze. Subsequent hyper-sensitivity showed in all three essays. Each one homed in on small, tactile experiences with confidence in their delicate power to place the readers in stirring bodily moments. With little to no sensory distractions from outside, a line of sensory description absorbed the entire body, its ripples filling my empty room.

Then the quarantine lifted. The chamber opened and the colorful, sumptuous world flooded back in. For about four months, my body was ravenous. This was also when I gave birth to my first child, which was the messiest bodily experience ever.

For four months, my body was in a sensory surfeit.

But a surfeit is a bubble that eventually pops. So did mine.

After the insane first six months postpartum, I crossed the Pacific again to Korea. With the fresh invigorations from the latest ocean-crossing, I fleshed out the first three essays that I had planned at a fairly quick pace and with delight. I was excited to move on to the next essay about Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rain Forest and the works by Scottish artist Gayle Chong Kwan, another piece planned during the pandemic, which was going to be the most unapologetically sensuous piece so far.

In the first draft, which went over 4,000 words, I tried to delineate how transportive and immersive each sensory moment was. How a passage on the chrome red color of a tropical bird could transport the readers to an ecohybrid Amazon forest where the rust from the abandoned Fords gives the bird its exquisite, scarlet plumage. How the disgusting blocks of rotting cheese could completely captivate and tie the viewers in front of its grotesque mystique.

The draft was bad. I slashed 1000 words. It was still bad.

What was worse, it now sounded fake.

I left the draft unfinished, perplexed and dejected. Not a single word came out for the following month and a half, which was frightening. To change the air, I ventured into two books that were not in the project proposal, Yiyun Li’s novel The Book of Goose and Ling Ma’s short story collection Bliss Montage. They revealed why I sounded fake in the abandoned draft.

I was forcing what I was saying about vibrant sensory. And I knew it. The two books, by delivering the opposite messages about the same vibrancy, poked at the recognition that I had avoided articulating. Are the pulsing memories as potent as I have believed? Have I been telling the wrong story?

Not wrong, but fragile, according to the two books. Do those gripping sensations survive the test of time, the extreme changes in physical conditions? It clicked. It made sense why the descriptions of granular memories didn’t feel as immersive as they were during the pandemic. The sudden influx of bodily excitements when the quarantine lifted and the eventual dwindling of exhilaration—“I feel so alive!”— as the senses recovered their equilibrium. The Book of Goose juxtaposes the lives of two young friends who speak of opposite ways of living. One consumes her body to feel alive. The other remembers her childhood friend’s tumultuous, fiery life on the other side of the globe and continues with her relatively uneventful, lukewarm life. It is the latter who gets to tell the story in the novel: “I was a whetstone to Fabienne’s blade. There was no point asking which one of us was made of harder material.”

Memories marked by the hyper-sensuous may or may not survive their own volatility. The pandemic proved this. But memories that are not so colorful or palpable can have a long, lean life.

Then there must be loads of quiet yet resilient memories that had slipped through my vivacious, tactile lens. I needed to carve space for these memories in my ocean-crossing story.

But less tactile memories were harder to describe with the engaging vigor that the tactile ones naturally supplied. How do you talk about “boring” memories without sounding boring? How do you describe a place in the past that is not even there now, without being annoyingly abstract? I had to find a different way of channeling ocean-crossing memories that did not solely rely on their inherent vitality.

This transition was rough. I discarded multiple drafts for the next essay on Kamchatkan lives. There was something rusting and stagnant about living in this isolated peninsula that haunted the Kamchatkans, which I could convey only vaguely as some indescribable gunk under the frozen surface of their lives. The vagueness, because it evoked the kind of abstract migration story that I meant to move away from, was unsettling.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the next essay revolved around the most abstract theme in the entire project, concentrated on the Chinese character “拆.” Meaning “to dismantle,” it is a marker that a building is bound for demolition for an urbanization project. The building still stands physically, but “拆” says that it doesn’t and invites plans for whatever that is going to take over this space. A crack on a wall and a greasy handprint on a doorknob are still there and, at the same time, are thought of as not there. In “拆”, one can physically touch an absence.

My story up to this point was all about things and places that are real, tangible, which leave equally tangible ripples on the body. Then what about a void that is somehow still tangible? Does it leave a real mark on the body or is such a mark a mere fantasy? Or could the memories of a place based on fantasy be as corporeal as ones based on material objects?

“Fantasy” was not a good word. This impulse was closer to “imagination.”

An imagination that can encompass something as concrete as a crack on a wall and as non-existent as a demolished building is counterintuitive. Still, such imagination exists and it generates wildly creative yet physical visions of memories.

This imagination, along with sensory stimulations of the body, is the wellspring of ocean-crossing stories.

This diss started selfish. Now, I would say it is less so.

I have unpacked my ocean-crossing story. But along the way, I found that this was not just my story. I saw my way of remembering speaking to the memories of the journeys that seemed so far removed from mine. It was exhilarating. My story could be our story.

And with this potency, I also learned of my story’s fragility. That my body could be so helpless against the whirring changes in the sensory world. That there are other ocean-crossing stories that were not as vivid or caress-able as mine and therefore were more resilient than mine. I have come to admire their imaginative power, which I used to snub as an abstract fantasy. Now I see in these quiet crossing stories a kindred spirit.

This project has ended up less selfish. And I am grateful for the other ocean-crossing memories scattered around the earth for letting me see that mine also exists in the web of their connection.

Work Cited

Alaimo, Stacy. “Your Shell on Acid: Material Immersion, Anthropocene Dissolves,” Exposed. U of Minnesota P, 2016, p. 143–68.

Jordan, Chris, “Gallery-Midway.” Chris Jordan. 10 Oct 2023, https://www.chrisjordan.com/gallery/midway/

Kwan, Gayle Chong. “home.” Gayle Chong Kwan. 11 Oct 2023, https://gaylechongkwan.com.

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “I Love America. That’s Why I Have to Tell the Truth About It.” Viet Thanh Nguyen. 10 Oct 2023, vietnguyen.info/2018/i-love-america-thats-why-i-have-to-tell-the-truth-about-it.

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