I arrived in this country when I was 5 and my brother was 7 - the same ages of my children during my residency. The first place we visited was Disneyland. I thought we had hit the jackpot. America was even better than I had expected. Soon after, we settled in Warrensburg, Missouri and a new reality sank in. I was transported from the cityscape of Seoul to the American midwest. I have clear memories of walking through the vast prairie and the mazes of cornfields as a child.
My mom had a studio photo taken in preparation to come to the US- for the passport and visa applications. My dad was going to graduate school and we had come to visit. We didn’t know that we were never going back to Korea. He didn’t want us to leave. When I made a picture of that photo, it was drizzling. A tiny fortuitous raindrop fell right under my eye. I didn’t realize until I was editing that this had happened. I ask my child self, “Why are you crying?”
I notice the kids interacting with nature, playing together and seeing how they create their own worlds and make their own memories. It is when I give in to seeing the world through their eyes that I find it easiest to parent. And then sometimes, their magic seeps into my world, when I let go of trying to be in control. I project my past onto them but I know parts of them remember it too.
What does this land represent? I think about the house we are in during the residency- a casita built for Mexican rail workers a century ago, one of the last ones to survive. There are three units in the bunkhouse. From the drawing in the room, it looks like there could have been up to 10 units at one point. I had packed a Mexican dress that was gifted to Mila without knowing the history of the bunkhouse. I feel like it was an homage to those workers. The kids are obsessed with the wild garlic here, possibly brought here by the Mexican laborers. A part of their history continues to grow and nourish.
I also think about the Chinese rail workers who built the transcontinental railway- how they were omitted from the 1869 photo commemorating the completion of the railroad. Everyone is celebrating, opening champagne as the final golden spike is hammered into the track. How easily have our experiences, as immigrants, been erased from American history? Corky Lee recreated that photograph in 2014 with the descendants of those Chinese laborers, 145 years after the original photo was made. We can take back some of our histories in commemorating the forgotten, lost and erased. Remembering.
The more trains I watched pass behind the casitas, the more details I notice. I realize the ones carrying the oil moves more slowly than the ones carrying coal. My children recognize the logos on the trains moving consumer goods across the US after just a few clicks on someone’s phone or computer. There is a whole system of labor and movement I don’t always consider. Through this work, I re-examine my connection to this land, reconsidering overlooked histories, as I tap into my own forgotten memories, conjuring the past, creating new memories all while exploring my connection to the natural landscape, to my children, and to our past and future selves.