Nissa Rhee: The Original Foreigner
When I was pregnant with you, I stood in a field in central Vietnam and watched bombs explode, clouds of white napalm dissipating in the air. I held my belly and waited for you to kick. But you – the athlete who never stops moving – were silent. I sighed, both relieved that you did not wake and disappointed I couldn’t share the moment with you.
It would be 18 more weeks until you saw daylight. Your father and I filled those days as best as we knew how. He went to work every morning and came home to compose songs and play video games. I combed through interview transcripts and struggled to write a book about a war that ended a decade before I was born in a country 8,000 miles away. At night, I fell asleep on the couch to the drone of the TV screen.
Elsewhere, things seemed to be falling apart. A Missouri suburb burned in riots, an Israeli naval ship killed children playing soccer on a beach, and planes kept falling from the sky. We wondered what the world had in store for you. Then, just as a cold wind blew into our city, you arrived on this planet, wet and alert.
I’ve spent many years as a foreigner, living first in South Korea then Australia and Vietnam. I’ve learned to turn new sounds with my tongue, when to shakes hands and bow to strangers, and a dozen different ways to make coffee. But you have just begun your life as a foreigner. Un-tethered in this alien land, I’ve watched you learn to smile, hold my hand, and crawl. I’ve seen your world expand in concentric circles, from the womb to our cramped apartment to the zoo on the lake. There is so much more I want to teach you, so many places I want us to go. But the world is so big, and you are so small.
Kurt Vonnegut once tried to write a manual for babies called “Welcome to Earth.” He gave up, though, after getting stuck on explaining how gravity works. Sometimes I wonder what I would write in such a manual. I could try to explain evolution, how humans came to walk on this planet and why your almond-shaped eyes are grey. But these are things you’ll discover in time and make little difference to the way we live. I could tell you to be kind and take only what you need. These are indeed wise words, but can be found in any scripture or self-help book. For you, my daughter, I have a more specific instruction in mind. A simple one, just six words: Go forth and see the world.
You come from a long line of women who left home. Your father’s grandmother fled Pyongyang when the Korean peninsula was still whole but battered from decades of Japanese rule. She made a home in Seoul, where she saw poverty and war. She raised three children who one day would pack up their belongings and fly to the United States. Your great-grandmother followed them and, along with your grandma, put down roots in Chicago.
My family, too, crossed continents to get here. Your great-great grandmother boarded the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse when she was only 22 years old and sailed across the Atlantic, leaving behind her family in Austria to start over in Wisconsin. When my mother was pregnant with me, she made the reverse journey, flying east to visit our ancestral home. By that time, however, it was part of a different country, a communist state unrecognisable to the royalty-loving matron.
You, like me, traveled while still a foetus. Our first family trip was to France, where we floated down the Seine and ate every kind of pastry we could find. Later, you and I went to Vietnam. We met men and women who dug up and destroyed leftover American bombs under the unbearable summer sun. We visited ancient temples and ate crabs on a crowded beach. I was glad to have you with me, my nascent traveler.
Someday soon, you will make your first real trip abroad. You are curious and that is good start. Never content with staying one place, you peer around doorways and stare into the eyes of strangers.
But be patient with the world, dear daughter. You will meet people who look different than us, speak their own languages, and see black where we see white. Sometimes you will be scared, you will be tired, and you will be lonely. When you go home, your friends may not understand you. They will tell you to settle down and take vacations instead of journeys.
Still, you must go forth. You must challenge the stories your country has taught you, the values your father and I instilled in you. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” Mark Twain wrote, and they can have slow, painful deaths.
Back in Vietnam, the dust from the explosion began to settle. Waiting for the all-clear, I stood with three bomb squad members behind the cement wall that separated the road from the demolition field. Only one of them spoke English. I was jet-legged and hot, and my back had been throbbing ever since I got off the plane. My mind was already looking forward to the evening when I could rest in my air-conditioned hotel room and talk with your father on the phone.
Beside me, an old man in military uniform was picking long white flowers. He was a veteran of the war against the United States. He used to kill Americans. I’m not the first American he’s seen since the war, but I imagine it still must be strange for him. The ordnance our country dropped is still killing people in his province. Just two months before I arrived, a coffee farmer lost one hand and disfigured the other when a bomb he picked up exploded.
The old man interrupted my reverie. He handed me the bouquet of flowers he collected and smiled. It was then that I remembered why I travel.