Tag Archives: death

On Korean Funerals and Being an Outsider

Morton Salt Girl

My wife’s grandmother passed away last Monday. It was a very sad occasion but not unexpected. She hasn’t been living well for two years now. But I guess that’s the hallmark of a good long life, to die and have people remark “Well, we were expecting it. She was old and at least now she’s at peace,” instead of “What!? How did she die?”

The funeral was very traditional, even by Korean standards. My wife and even my co-workers say they just don’t bury people that way anymore. It felt both like a privilege and me intruding (I’ll explain this more later). I knew I was watching something that’s no longer done and probably would no longer be done in the future. And it was also extraordinary that I was pushed to participating into many aspects of it, even carrying the casket and lowering the body. It’s a bit morbid, but I was reluctantly grateful for it.

Several things marred the experience for me though. One was the almost mandatory inclusion of heavy drinking. I understand drinking in a funeral, but at some point it turns less into a funeral and more into just a regular drinking session with Koreans, complete with the ugliness of hierarchies in such occasions. I was particularly annoyed at one of my wife’s relatives “testing” me and my brother-in-laws to see if we were fit to either be part of the family or be married to our wives. We’ve all been married to our wives for years, and the man was basically a stranger to me. He won’t be there when our marriages run into a trouble whatsoever, but yet he gets to lord over everyone in the table. Why? Korean culture. Perhaps it was all coming from a good place, but it felt quite obnoxious at some point. And no it wasn’t happening because I was a foreigner. My brothers-in-law had to tolerate some abuse too. But it does nothing but alienate people or make them feel like they don’t belong in the table. I said so that night myself. Being in that table, while it makes me feel like I’m family for whatever that is worth, it makes me feel small and that I have to constantly prove to others that I belong.

Being a foreigner, I tend to be a target for people who are not quite used to seeing foreigners. This is why I’m sometimes not particularly excited to be in the countryside. One drunk grave digger who probably never saw a foreigner before in his life started yelling incoherently at me and was bragging that he can speak seven languages. And yet he does not understand a word of English. I suppose he’s a genius with languages who just happens to dig graves as a hobby. And I was the idiot who had to tolerate his nonsense and not punch him out. I was warned not the engage him, which was smart, but then again, why was I the target of his abuse in the first place?

Again, I can’t help but feel it’s because I’m the other. I’m a foreigner. As welcoming as many of my Korean relatives can be, it can sometimes only take a few handful of events before I start feeling like the “other,” like I’m the dancing bear. Perhaps I’m being too sensitive, but I don’t really complain about it in real life. I just keep things bottled up inside and write about it here where no one would read it. But it’s that feeling of being an “other” that makes me feel like I’m intruding in the funeral in the first place. Last Wednesday, we buried a wonderful woman who had a great life and whose selflessness has touched the lives of so many people in her family. There must be other people worthier than me, someone who actually feels comfortable to be there and fits in, to be part of the group that lays her body to her final resting place.

On a rather sweet note, I remember one time, back when my wife’s grandmother was healthier, we we’re all spending Korean thanksgiving together. For a brief moment, it was just me, her, and my older brother-in-law in the living. I think at some point, she started feeling bad for me, wondering why I wasn’t spending Korean thanksgiving with my parents. She asked why I don’t take my wife to my family and have her help my mom with thanksgiving preparations (as is the tradition in Korea). I told her that my mom passed away and my family was not in the country.

My brother-in-law was more direct, “He’s a foreigner. He’s not Korean.”

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Space Death

Woman

Jumping from a building to your death is probably the most basic ways people can kill themselves. With enough height, forget the cracking of bones, the exploding of skulls, and the damage done to tissue upon impact. Forget all of that. Those are minor things compared to the grandeur at play. It is the collision of a human body with planetary forces. This is a person being killed by physics. Just as we are all ultimately born from the remnants of ancient dead stars, this is a planet ultimately killing a person. Just as a little bit of sunlight doesn’t usually hurt people but it will kill a person if they manage to fly out into space and come close enough to the sun, so too would the Earth’s gravity kill a person should they decide to embrace it freely from a distance of over ten floors. It is space death without the spaceship. Imagine floating in space and colliding with a wayward asteroid. But with jumping off a building, you are colliding with a planet populated by people you couldn’t care less about anymore. Your horizon is now shifted by 90 degrees, and it is the weight of the Earth slamming on you, with all its continents, mountains, forests and seas. All of the Earth’s trees, creatures, and secrets crush you as the planet’s gravitational pull over you infinitely overwhelm your own gravitational pull towards the planet. It’s like a heroic death envisioned by Ray Bradbury. When people get hit by vehicles, people would describe it as such. Greg got hit by a bus. Susan was crushed by a train. But with jumping off buildings, “Joe slammed into the planet Earth.” It just sounds more epic. Should I jump to my death, I think it would only be fitting to wear a spacesuit. Maybe wear a blindfold to emulate the darkness of space, drink tons of alcohol to get courage and emulate space sickness, and wear earphones to listen to some music and drown out the outside noise. Astronauts listen to music, don’t they?

The only thing I could think of that would be more primordial would be breathing in helium, one of the early gases in the universe. The problem with this however is that setting up a helium bubble takes a lot of human aspect and design to make it happen. It’s not very primordial, is it? Also, most helium distributors now sell canisters with enough oxygen in them to make sure they cannot be used for probably one of the most comfortable ways to commit suicide. I’d call these companies killjoys, but that term doesn’t really make much sense in this scenario.

Despite the rather grim entries these past few days though, I am not seriously thinking of killing myself. I feel like that is something that has to be said. It is weird how talking about suicide always has to be prefaced by saying, “I’m not thinking of killing myself, but…” And even if you mentioned that, regardless of how explicit your warning is or how happy you appear to be, people will always be thinking that you’re suicidal or depressed to some degree. It’s like saying, “I’m not racist, but…” You will always sound racist no matter what you say to finish that sentence. Some bigoted commentary and suicidal musings cannot be uttered without being thought of as being a bigot or suicidal. Anyway, I’m not suicidal, but I’ve been thinking a lot about jumping off tall buildings lately, that and dying in space.

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Forgetting Me

Rabbit Headlights

After the last couple of days, I now believe that the animated movie ‘Coco’ was teaching a bad lesson. It had great things to say about family, but the part about remembering dead relatives is a tad misguided.  The lesson needed tempering. Sure, it is only natural to remember our loved ones long before they’re gone, maybe even learn some lessons about their lives especially if they’ve made a significant impact to their families or the larger community while they were alive. But outside of that, I’m not sure if it really benefits the dead in the most pragmatic sense.

It has been a very rough recently around me. People have been dealing with health issues, with some having the possibility of passing in a few days or so. With this rather depressing mood, I’ve been thinking how things truly are for the dead once they have passed. Life does not stop. And I believe we sometimes overvalue our impact in other people’s lives, which is part of the reason why we fear death. What about my wife? What about my family?

They will all eventually move on.

If there’s one valuable thing that Facebook has taught people is that people do eventually get over you. People move one after a person’s metaphorical “death” in their lives. Our old classmates, co-workers, and exes have fulfilling lives without us. They move on and we become strangers to them, as much as they probably become strangers to us. “Boy, he’s gained weight since I last saw him.” “Oh wow, she’s got kids now.” Life does not stop. We might not have died, but we might as well have because they wouldn’t really know at this point if we did. And I’m not really sure if it benefits me if any of these people from an earlier part of my life, as wonderful as they are, remembers me. A part of me thinks wanting people to remember you is a tad arrogant.

If my church teachings are to be believed, the secrets of the universe will be unveiled to you right after you die. Your plate is full right after you die. You’ve got the whole world and beyond to know and experience. Do you really want others to suffer long after you’re gone? Do their remembrances and broken hearts make the secrets of the universe that more appealing? Wouldn’t time at that point be meaningless and we’ll eventually see all of our living relatives in what is equivalent to a millisecond?

One of the reasons why I don’t have children is that I don’t want to burden others with my death. It’s one of my regrets with marriage. Should something happen to me, I don’t want my wife suffering long after I’m gone. It would be far better for me to die single in a lightly attended funeral than to leave behind a widow who will struggle her life back together after I’m gone. But then again, maybe that’s the “remember me” arrogance talking. I married a strong woman. I’m sure she’ll move on just fine without me.

So yeah, I think there’s comfort remembering our loved ones. Memories of my mother still warm my heart, followed by bouts of longing and depression. I can’t help it. But yeah, in my case, it’s arrogant to ask people to remember me after I’m gone. Perhaps the kinder and better message would be “Forget me. Live a good life without me.”

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On Living People Your Corpse Will See Again

Smile

An interesting thing happened over the weekend. Someone from the company I work for passed away on Friday. Nothing too unexpected; after all, he was getting up there in years. So on Friday afternoon, people either went to the hospital or made plans to attend the wake or the funeral. Amidst of it all, I heard that one of my former co-workers and an old friend of the diseased made plans to go on a flight over the weekend in order to make it on time for the funeral. He lives in the US.

The last time I saw the diseased was over two years ago. He was a big man in the company. Many years before, he was usually driven around and led by helpers, and even accompanied by company lackeys. But the time I saw him, he was not surrounded by helpers and no one was opening any doors for him. Any clout he had within the company, he seems to have relinquished at the time. If I didn’t recognize him, I would’ve confused him for any other old man wandering the streets of Seoul. In any case, I imagine with things being the way they are, with his old friend living in the US for so many years now, I’m guessing there was not much correspondence between the two. I was the one who initiated telling him about his friend passing. I’m not sure if they’ve heard about each other in the years before.

And so what have I learned? I learned about a special type of relationship, a new category of person whom I find it hard to pinpoint exactly which one of my few friends belongs to. Not a friend who you’ll talk to, do favors for, or keep in touch with now and then. This friend does not care how deep a depth you swim to or on what slow hell you are killing yourself with at the moment. None of it matters to this friend. It is most grim, and I’m not passing judgment on whether it is good or not, but ultimately this friend is quite the intimate sort of acquaintance. This friend will be there for you only when you finally die. This is the friend that will only reunite with you when there’s not much left of you to be reunited with.

Again, I don’t think this is good or bad. I think it is intimate, peculiar, and not necessarily unique, especially when it comes to relatives. How many of us only see our distant relatives only when they finally pass? But I think it really is more special when it comes to non-blood acquaintances, particularly because there’s no familial pressure pushing one to be there for the wake or the funeral. “I haven’t seen him forever, but I have to be there for the funeral.” Who is this for exactly? For the diseased? For the visitor? Or the relationship that’s now expired? What’s funny is, when I start thinking about the people in my life, auditing my relationships and choosing which people I’ll probably never see again but who’ll likely be there at my lightly-attended funeral. It’s a rather sad, interesting, and honest exercise.

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On Keeping It Inside

Bee

On Monday, I suddenly fell terribly ill. I got up early in the morning, worked out, then BOOM, my health just suddenly turned and I couldn’t go to work. My stomach turned upside down, my chest started hurting, I felt terribly nauseous, I got a fever, and my head felt like it was going to explode for the better part of the day.

I had an especially terrible weekend. I’ve been quietly dealing with depression and anxiety for weeks now, but it just came to a boil a couple of days ago. During my mother-in-law’s birthday, my wife ended up embarrassing me during dinner. She started complaining about me and my lack of Korean skills, and much to my surprise, my brother-in-law and my mother-in-law rose up to my defense. I really don’t mind people talking about me, especially since my Korean is indeed quite poor. But my wife talked about me as if I wasn’t even in the room. And by the time I wanted to talk, by the time I was about to do the one thing she wanted me to do (speak  Korean), she stopped me and said that the conversation has moved on to another topic. How terribly, terribly condescending. I felt like I was trapped in a Cat Stevens song. And really, is complaining about spouses just another interesting topic to talk about and later dismiss on a whim? What should we talk about next? BTS?

When I was young, my father picked on me a lot. He picked on all of his children a lot. I was particularly annoyed at the injustice of him picking on my intelligence when I couldn’t recall him achieving any great heights in life due to his mental brilliance. One particular instance I couldn’t forget was when I was having trouble memorizing the multiplication tables at a young age. As my sisters and I were sharing a snack, it was a can of shredded potatoes called Pik-Nik, he stopped me from eating and told me to go upstairs and memorize the multiplication tables. I don’t get to snack unless I memorize from 1 to 12. It was unnecessarily cruel. What bothered me most about the incident was how jarring it was. It was late in the afternoon, we were having a snack, then he comes home and suddenly tells me to go upstairs and that I don’t deserve anything until I learned my multiplication tables. It sounds quite minor, but as a child, I felt like the biggest idiot in the world. I started thinking that there might have been something wrong with me. And to this day, even though I have long been on good terms with my father, past incidents like that will always remind me that he was not the best person to grow up with. He might have been a good husband, a good friend, or a good leader, but he was never good with children.

That feeling of being inadequate, that feeling of maybe there is something wrong with me, I felt that during dinner with my mother-in-law. Worse, it was casually brought up by my wife who was supposed to be on my side. It made me love my in-laws more and love her less.  God bless those good people! But like a good Catholic, I kept my thoughts and feelings to myself. Why spoil the whole weekend for everyone when it was just me who was hurt?

We spent the night at my in-laws and I tried to be a good son-in-law. Thank goodness it snowed heavily. As lame as it may sound, the cold snow actually brightens my mood a bit. In any case, I kept everything bottled up inside. Then Monday comes, I get ill and the doctors couldn’t give a cause to my downturn other than stress. Stress. This is the first time keeping my depression bottled up inside has made me physically ill.

Worthington Industries, an American metals manufacturing and distribution company announced two years ago that all of its portable helium tanks will only contain 80% helium. If you’re going to get a helium tank, make sure you get 100% helium.

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Swallow the Moon

SwallowtheMoon

Too busy for thoughts, but not for art. God bless us all.

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Goodbye 2016

puppet

2016 was not the most horrible of years, but it was one I’m not that very happy with. There are many celebrities who have died, but that’s all part of life, and I’m sure all years have their share of wonderful people dying that year. Personally, I happen to like Scott Weiland, but I can’t really blame 2016 for his death. There are disappointments over politics, but I believe the worst that the Trump election could be is still yet to come. He’s still a person with his own will and conscience. He can make the next four years good or as bad as people fear he would.

That and I have to remind myself that I am a Canadian. It doesn’t do me too much good to follow American politics too closely. I can disappoint myself with Canadian politics just as well. (Why did Trudeau have to approve that damned pipeline?)

I haven’t done too many art shows this year, but that’s a mixture of luck, with not many art shows coming my way, and with me not being as aggressive with my work. Work-wise, not much has changed. But I’m content where I am. I’m just glad I’m not struggling as many people are. And as for personal matters, I only have myself to blame for any failings last year.

I met a couple of scumbags last year too. Boy, were they scumbags!

As for good things, two nieces were born last year. My sister as well as my sister-in-law both had daughters. It’s good to see their families grow. My sisters are making sure their lives in North America are turning into a particular Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song. My good friend, Alicia, visited me last year.  We went to Japan with her and her boyfriend. It wasn’t without its bumps, but it was good to see one of my oldest friends. I happened to save someone who fell on the subway station while they were here too. I guess that’s something.

I also found one of the best beaches to go to last year.

Here’s hoping that 2017 would be better. So far, with Canada losing to the US in the Junior Hockey championship game yesterday, it’s not off to a good start. But perhaps that’s just an early glitch.

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Christmas was an asshole this year.

christmas-2016

This year is the worst. I’m not just saying that because of politics and celebrities dying, but personally, the years have been getting worse and worse. Outside of my mother dying in 2008, this year has me most beat.

I feel like Paul Robeson on Showboat, “tired of living and scared of dying.” 

 

 

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Estranged

Poet

This is my tribute to Gord Downie. It might not seem like it, but I’ve been putting a lot of Canadian-related imagery in my work lately. It doesn’t get more Canadian than the lead singer of the Tragically Hip.

More death. This is becoming a grim trend on my website entries. My estranged uncle passed away a few days ago. The funeral was just over the weekend. Our family had a rather curious relationship with him. My grandmother gave my mom the responsibility to watch over him. This was a task/burden she took to heart, and as we were growing up, she was always there to support him. At times, it got really rough, my uncle had a lot of demons, and it made it very hard to be on his side. But even when my mom was dying of cancer, she was still trying to support him.

When she died in 2008, our family made the decision to cut him off. My uncles and aunts didn’t. They still maintained contact with his kids and their mother. But we felt that we had to do it. We just had to move on with our lives, even if it unfortunately meant having no relationship with our cousins.

One of my cousins tried to make contact with me a couple of years ago, but unfortunately, time has made strangers out of us. That, and I’m really not that active on social media. It led nowhere. Just hellos and how are you doings. I had an opportunity to be decent and build a relationship with a relative, but I didn’t take it.

And now my uncle passed away, and I don’t know how to feel about it. I feel numb to the whole thing. I’m sad about everything, but a part of me feels that I really should be sadder, if that makes any sense. Perhaps it’s the Catholic guilt. My mom felt this huge responsibility towards her little brother, and I felt that I should continue with that tradition, but it just wasn’t in me. I’m sad and numb but not moved to anything else. Perhaps it’s because we’ve become strangers. Perhaps my memories of him had too many darker shades. But that not enough to justify being an unkind, unfeeling person.

I hope my cousins will do better soon. My heart goes out to them.

Interestingly, the time between learning that my uncle is gravely ill and hearing that he passed away happened in less than twenty four hours. He’s been ill for about a month, but the seriousness of the situation didn’t get to me until it was too late. Everything just happened to fast to process. What I noticed however is how people, especially those around me react to me talking about personal crisis by talking about their own crises. Not very helpful at all.

I try not to be too personal with people. I tend to be more candid when I’m writing here on the Internet. But when I talked to two of the closest people in my life about my uncle being terribly ill, they both talked about their own personal experiences and never got to talking about mine. One talked about an uncle she didn’t get along with, another talked about a father who recently had surgery. Forget about what I was trying to talk about in the first place.

Then a few hours later, I told both that my uncle passed away. Suddenly, it’s all about how I’m feeling and how sorry they are and wondering if I’m okay. Ironically, this is microcosm of how our family has neglected my cousins, and now that my uncle passed away, we’re all concerned about them. But ignore all of that for a second. Isn’t it odd how some people wouldn’t talk about your problems without talking about themselves first? And sometimes in the process, they never get back to talking about your problems.

Or maybe that’s just me. Maybe I just surround myself with self-centered people.

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I will miss you, Gord.

Larva

Saw the Tragically Hip play the last date of their Man Machine Poem tour online. Thank goodness for the CBC for streaming the show for free online, especially for expats like myself. It was a bit of an odd online experience, as I was watching and messaging to my friends online during the show. I imagine it was like that for many Canadians around the world, a collective experience for one of the greatest acts the world doesn’t know.

I’ve been listening to the Hip since I was a teenager and I saw them play in Winnipeg during their Phantom Power tour back in 98. I have always admired Gord Downie’s ability to meld the Canadian experience with history, grief, love and hope. I believe whoever wrote Prime Minister’s Trudeau said it best, “Gord Downie is a true original who has been writing Canada’s soundtrack for more than 30 years.” The band never exploded south of the border the way Canadian pop acts often do. They’ve done concerts, played in Woodstock, and was even featured in Saturday Night Live, but they just didn’t take off. The Tragically Hip was a band that it seems only Canadians truly got. I tried explaining this to my wife, and how acts like Avril Lavigne and Justin Bieber are not what Canada is about. And that often music acts like them take away from the soul of what is actually good and substantive Canadian music.

It was great to see the band play but ultimately it was sad knowing that this could very well be the last time Gord Downie plays with the band. Back in 2012, he talked about dealing with his wife’s breast cancer, and how it takes a toll not just on the person afflicted, but also to the people helping them through it. His wife recovered but her struggles have influenced the band’s album ‘Now For Plan A.’ And now Gord has been diagnosed with an aggressive terminal cancer. While the show was a celebration of the band’s history, it was also a sad farewell to a great artist. It was Canada saying goodbye to a dying man, a dying man that we love.

I still have not recovered from my mother dying from cancer. I can talk about the subject lightly and even joke about it now and then, but it is still a sore wound. I’m sure most people’s lives have been touched by the disease in one form or another. I myself have given up to the fact that I would probably die from cancer myself. The show over the weekend is a celebration of life in the face of inevitable death. However, it is also a reminder that cancer, death, will take away all of the beautiful things in life, all of them, and that we should appreciate them while we still have them.

Hug your loved ones, watch your favorite band, go out and play sports, do things while you still can. Love and appreciate things while you still have the chance. I guess that was the big take away from the weekend. And as a Canadian, I’m glad to have known the beauty that is the Tragically Hip.

You really missed out, America.

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