Asia Personal Travel

Replanting Our Roots

Story and photos by Jaeyoung Lee

Coming back to Korea after living in the United States for seven years, I’ve realized how disconnected I was with my roots. Although I look distinctly Korean — black hair, black eyes, monolid eyes —  I spoke, knew and acted nothing like one. Seeing Korean on highway signs made me nauseous and reading Korean was like a melatonin pill for me. I desperately wanted to go back to America again. That was until I rediscovered the pages of my family history. 

Every weekend during the summer, my mom forced my sister and me to drive three hours to her hometown, Bonghwa. Bonghwa is a small countryside town, a time capsule back to scenery before Korea developed into an urbanized powerhouse nation. Often, you could see tractors roam the roads alongside cars and smell the horse feces or whichever animal they used to fertilize the plants. 

Amid the views of endless rice fields, there was a special village called Darsil Village. Darsil Village literally means “chicken” in Korean. Not only was it unusually shaped like a chicken, but it was also home to my grandmother’s 500 plus years of family history. Visiting the long standing, wooden Hanok (traditional home in Korean) that has been around for hundreds of generations and visiting all the rooms where much of my family was born (aunts, uncles, my mom) was mind-blowing for me. Each piece of wood on the ground, each tile holding up the ceiling and each tree planted were all hand-picked and built by my ancestors. The architectural beauty and the culturally rich site of Darsil Village put me in awe and disbelief. How often is it that a village over 500 years old is kept in perfect condition, let alone your own family history?

 From then on, every weekend trip to Bonghwa wasn’t forced. Breathing in the nature of Darsil while talking with my grandmother as she told recollections of her childhood life made me realize even a “foreigner” like me could plant her roots inside this historical and personal village. Playing in the lake where my aunts and uncles would cool off during the summer and watching the stars under the same sky my mom grew up under formed a bridge into my family history. 

So, I made sure to leave a little bit of history of my own behind too before the summer ended. I started recording the stories of my grandmother and taking pictures of the long-withstanding village. With my camera, I documented the houses that have slowly started to decay and become dominated by weeds and the traces of time that showed on the faces of the people who have resided in these homes. I noticed that surprisingly it seemed like time had stopped within the village when the world outside had rapidly modernized. Reflecting on our modern society, there has been so much new history being written that in consequence, a part of our past is getting lost. Urbanization and modernization have led us to electronics, advanced medicine and much more, but it has also led us to forget about some of our key roots: culture, heritage and traditions. Family is a huge factor that links up our roots, therefore I wanted to store these precious stories of the past into a digital video for the future generations to experience. 

Although Darsil served as a home to my grandmother first, it’s now a home for me too: the town where I cultivated my appreciation for my roots. 

The story is featured in VOL 7 ISSUE 2 SPRING 2023 (Print Edition).

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