These past two weeks have been especially tough emotionally. I found out the Saturday before last that my younger male cousin Dong-gi had been killed in a car accident in Korea. When someone you love is gone without any warning, it is very difficult to process the information. For many days I alternated between denial and grief. If I just pretended it wasn't real, then I wouldn't have to be an emotional wreck. Like I did when my grandmother died, I acted as if I were the Dread Pirate Roberts and I would throw my mind during the torture sessions. Since I didn't actually see my cousin die or go to his funeral, I could pretend that he was alive and well in Korea.
Of course, I had to tell people to explain why I was being especially flaky or crying suddenly in the middle of an activity. (One friend even asked if my eyes were so bloodshot and swollen because I had fought with Stewart) A close friend who also had experienced the death of a cousin said that one of the things that her aunt and uncle appreciated were heartfelt letters about her cousin. I had been thinking about it since my uncle and aunt were not ready to speak to anyone on the phone. Her telling me this gave me the nudge I needed to go through with it. Why was it so hard? First because my Korean is bad. I left Korea when I was five, and so my reading and writing is basically what a kindergartener can do. But mostly because, if I wrote the letter, I knew I would have to admit that Dong-gi being gone is a reality. As I wrote the letter I had many different thoughts running through my head. I couldn't express them all in Korean, so here I am throwing it out to the world through my tiny footprint in the blogosphere.
War of Flowers. He was so busy, he couldn't visit my uncle when it was Parents' Day in Korea. He finally got the chance to go down to Masan (where my cousins and I were born) the weekend of May 18th. Because he had to be on set to film early on May 20th, he left Masan (six hours drive from Seoul) late in the evening on May 19th. He had driven because that was the only way he could get down there and back in the shortest time possible, while maximizing time at home. At 2 AM on May 20th, a couple of hours away from Seoul, he was killed instantly when he hit a truck.
Part of me was angry because the way the drama industry is set up in Korea is so ruthless and crazy. Why can't they do it like they do it in the US where they shoot an episode weeks in advance? Why does the timing have to come down to the final minutes before broadcast? Working under pressure can produce great work, but it also encourages the people working in that industry to make bad choices in order to have an iota of personal time. Over the past ten days, I've come to realize I can't blame the industry. To do that would be disrespecting my cousin, who had made the commitment to work as a PD. It had been his dream from childhood to work in broadcasting. If you can imagine how fiercely competitive the L.A. TV scene can be, multiply that a hundredfold and you might get a sense of what it meant that my cousin had "made it" as a PD in Korea. The U.S. has the network stations and cable--potentially hundreds of channels for which to produce work. Korea has three major stations and a couple of cable stations. Our entire family had been proud of him for building his reputation within that community and finding better and better work since he started on God of Study.
So we mourn the potential of his life. At 30, Dong-gi had so much more to do, so much more to live. He still had to get married and have kids and share all of that with his brother Dong-yeob. The Korean tradition is that all males in the same line, in the same generation share one character in their name. My uncle is Sang-sik and his brother (my other uncle) is Myung-sik. Their cousins are Bum-sik, Hyun-sik, and Woo-sik. My uncle Myung-sik has a son named Dong-hoon. The plethora of Korean names just to emphasize how much a man shares with his male relatives (the sexism of this being ignored for this post), that they are entwined with his very identity. I don't think I can even explain this well, but the fact that there were two Shin-dongs in that family line and now there are one, it tears my heart apart. When I think about how much Dong-yeob has lost, I am so worried that this will push him into ruination. How can there be one Shin-dong?
Maybe it seems strange that I am feeling this death so intensely. After all, I did leave Korea before Dong-gi was born and I didn't keep in contact with him regularly. But because I didn't have any brothers I always felt a special connection with Dong-gi and Dong-yeob, especially since they were the sons of my mom's twin brother. Whenever I went to Korea to visit my grandparents, it would be for several weeks and even months that I would spend 24/7 with them because my uncle and his family lived with my grandparents. We went all over Masan and Korea together, with our grandparents and our uncle when we were younger, and then when we were older, just the three of us or with our older cousins. Here in the US, we had no relatives growing up, so when I would go back to Korea, I would just revel in the closeness and love. Not having to explain myself or be self conscious or worried about acceptance--I cherished every minute of that family life whenever I went back to Korea. So of course, Dong-gi was a part of those memories that I held most dearly in my heart.
Dong-gi and Dong-yeob called me "noona," the Korean term for older sister. Unlike in the US, in Korea being an older person means something. The younger person has to respect you and listen to you. My own younger sisters had ceased to call me "unni" (older sister) decades ago but Dong-gi and Dong-yeob called me noona. I can still hear Dong-gi's voice in my head saying noona-yah. 눈물이 쏟아 나오고 있어.
So I cry for Dong-gi, for Dong-yeob, for myself, for my uncle and sookmo. I look at my second son (Dong-gi was the younger brother) and I think how I would be completely destroyed if anything happened to him and I cry again. I cry because there is one less person in this world that has had a commonality of experience, of family, of history with me. I watched a movie in the theater with my grandmother once in my life and Dong-gi had been there. There is no one left to remember that with me. My love of Korean pop music started when Dong-gi and Dong-yub sang to me when I visited Korea for the first time since immigrating. Dong-gi, Bum-sik and I went to have tong-dak when I went to Korea for my
bar trip. Now there is no one to whom I can say, remember that time we
had tong-dak before Bum-sik had to flee the country and go live in
Manila because his stepmother took out loans in his name with loan
sharks? Dong-gi was the only cousin who was there with Stewart, H and I when we went to visit my grandparents when H was 14 months old. Dong-gi saw H singing and dancing and bringing joy to my grandmother who was in immense pain from the cancer that would end her life three months later.
As cathartic as writing the letter to my uncle and this post have been, I know that there is no end to the grieving process until I can go to Korea and sit with Dong-yeob and remember Dong-gi for all the goodness that was him. Dong-gi, to say you are sorely missed can't even describe what you meant to so many people. Anyone who knew you, knew your quiet strength. You were kind and sweet and funny and all kinds of awesome.