I received a text message from my brother in South Korea, with pictures of the memorial service held for his father-in-law, Mr. Kang, who’d been an artist and a professor. As a child, he’d migrated from North to South Korea with his family, just before the Korean War. I scrolled through the photos of his family and former students, all gathered in black, who’d come to celebrate his life and the impact he’d had on them. They were standing in front of a large screen displaying some paintings from an art exhibition Mr. Kang had held two years earlier. One painting featured a collection of little black-and-blue houses, nearly identical, on a somber blue background. Another featured a series of spiky black volcanoes on amber hills, with little orange lava spurts bursting from the tops. Also on the screen was the exhibition’s title: I’m Going to My Gohyang.
In Korea, gohyang has several meanings. It’s the place people go to shortly before they die, and it implies that the end of their life is arriving. But it also means hometown, a village where you and your ancestors were born, raised, and buried. It’s a simple but emotionally evocative word that carries deep meaning for North Korean refugees and Koreans living abroad. While I didn’t know Mr. Kang personally, tears welled in my eyes when I read this word. A familiar pain coursed through me as I once again felt the geographical distance between myself and my family—a pain I’ve been carrying my entire adult life.
Thirty years ago, I left my home in South Korea and moved to the United States for graduate school, leaving behind everyone I knew and igniting an experience of what we Koreans call han, a brokenhearted state, a pain that can’t be healed. War refugees from North Korea who had to leave their hometowns speak of han, and although many of them have died, their children know about the han their parents carried. It’s felt across generations.
After the service, I repeated the word gohyang again and again. I wondered how I’d managed to get by without my family, save for occasional phone calls and video chats. I have fuzzy memories of my first weeks in America. I remember feeling excited to be in a new country, where everything felt different, but overwhelmed by the unknown. My English language skills were shaky, and I worried about my ability to connect with people who seemed so different. I worried about becoming invisible. I missed speaking Korean with friends and family back home. I remember saving up as many quarters as I could for a five-minute phone call to Seoul. In the ’90s, public payphones were the only affordable way to make international calls. How quickly I spent those quarters!
“Hang up! Hang up!” my mother would shout over the phone. “It’s too expensive for you!” I was flooded with words and emotions, but I could never express them all before the phone devoured the last of my change.
The night before I left for America, my mom took my hands in hers. “I’ve always wanted to keep you close to me,” she said. “I know what it’s like to go through life without a mom.” Her mother had died during the Korean War, and she’d never fully recovered from the grief. My father had also lost a parent during the war: his father had fallen ill, and due to the shortage of adequate medical services, had gotten sicker and passed away. These deaths were another form of han. But I didn’t consider that at the time. With a one-way ticket in my pocket, I believed I could always—and eventually would—return home.
Thanks to visa complications, that wouldn’t happen for another nine years. I’d never thought about how leaving home could lead to feeling alone, lost, and disconnected. I’d never thought about how I’d be impacted by the chronic absence from family activities, like spending a day at the beach, going out to dinner, or even going for a walk with a parent. Now, when I see families doing these things—celebrating birthdays, Mother’s Day, graduations, weddings, and holidays—my heart sinks. They’re constant reminders that I’m alone. It makes you realize how much that feeling of family is tied to making memories around special occasions.
People say the moment you leave your home country, your relationship with it changes. When I was finally able to return home, I discovered just how much I’d lost. “Sister, your Korean sounds funny!” my brothers exclaimed. “You speak like a North Korean spy!” They thought it was hilarious that my accent had become unrecognizable, and that I had trouble understanding new Korean slang. It hit me hard. How could I lose my own language? I wondered. A part of me always knew I’d lose things in the move, but what had I gained?
I try to fly home at least once a year. It helps with the homesickness. But squeezing visits with everyone important to me into just a few days, while recovering from jet lag, isn’t ideal. I often wonder what it would be like to be able to celebrate special occasions with family, to invite my brothers out for coffee or take my mom out for lunch. I dream about big Sunday dinners, about playing with my nieces and nephew in the park, about spending time together for no reason other than to spend time together. This is what I’ve missed all these years: the ordinary.
I come from a long line of family members who’ve made this sacrifice. In South Korea, children are taught about the land, its history, and the country’s struggles. When we were younger, my father would tell my brothers and me about my uncle, who in the 1940s was forcibly separated from his family during the Japanese occupation and taken to Japan to work as a child laborer. It wasn’t until 50 years later that my father was able to find him. When he did, he discovered that his brother had abandoned his Korean language to blend in and avoid discrimination. He also told us about the summer of 1950, when war broke out and his family escaped South Korea on foot, carrying only the bare essentials on their backs, including my sick, immobile grandfather. These kinds of survival stories, requiring great sacrifice, were often told in our home.
Even now, my family members are making sacrifices. My brother and sister-in-law have been living separately, in Korea and New York, respectively. After their son was born a few years ago, he was flown to Korea at three months old to live with his father and extended family while his mother finished graduate school in America. This arrangement isn’t unusual for many families in Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China, but it sounds strange to many of my American friends.
When I think about why I decided to leave Korea, I’m reminded of these stories. I recognize that I left for the same reason so many of my ancestors left their own homes: to find a better life and better opportunities for their families. For them, leaving was never about cutting ties with family: it was about making sacrifices for it. We Koreans define family love in terms of endurance, sacrifice, and survival. We sacrifice being with family, that most precious thing, for the next generation. This sacrifice is a part of han. It’s a sacrifice you make for an unknown future, for a fruit you’ll never taste.
My mother, now in the early stages of Parkinson’s and dementia, has told me many times not to come to her funeral when the time arrives. “There’s no reason to fly out here and take up so much vacation time,” she says. “It’s good that you see me now, and that’s good enough.”
I often wonder what the future holds, what decisions I’ll have to make when my life changes. I think about what will happen to me in old age without family nearby, whether I’ll go to gohyang or continue to try to make a life here. Isn’t it only natural to want to go home as your time approaches? I wonder. Where do I belong? In Korea, or America? What if I belong to neither?
These are tough times, but I find solace in reading stories from other immigrants about life away from their home countries. In his autobiography, Walking with Ghosts, Irish actor Gabriel Byrne writes, “I was an exile emigrant and immigrant, belonging everywhere and nowhere at all.” Austro-Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler once wrote, “I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.”
There will always be people who need to leave their home country to move forward, for themselves and for their families. This often means they won’t be able to see loved ones for years, or ever again. Some may call this brave, but I don’t think it’s a matter of bravery: it’s simply something we must do to survive. Can I make America my gohyang? My home away from home? I’m not sure, but I hope so.
Sarah Jin, MFT, has been a marriage and family therapist for more than 25 years in Pasadena, California. She works with cross-cultural couples and families of immigrants, and offers therapy in Korean and English. Visit her website at sarahjintherapy.com.
Illustration by Adam Niklewicz