Home in the liminal: A personal essay

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MARCH 09, 2019


“I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women I have loved; all the cities I have been to, all my ancestors.” — Jorge Luis Borges

What’s a home? It could be the roof, the walls, the bed. It could be a city you say you know like the back of your hand. But you could feel loneliest in the city you inhabit, prone to dissolve in a sea of unknown faces. The sense of home I speak of is not so much a physical static place nor some notion of Nation. Perhaps the closest word for it is identity. Can one be at home with oneself? What is the self? Or let me put it this way: If I, like Ariadne, provide the ball of thread, will you follow me to the center of the labyrinth?

Is there a center?


“I didn’t seek; I was the search.” — Hélène Cixous, “Coming to Writing and Other Essays”

Where to locate home? Where are its coordinates? Some say the body is a home, the flesh vessel that encases and enfolds the self. The body becomes foreign to her when she herself is alienated from it. She realizes the way she is perceived is completely remote from the way she feels about being. She is unsure of the very essence of her nature. She is in constant negotiation.


“There is no mother tongue, only a power takeover of a dominant language…” — Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

Oeuvre — body of work, the likeness of the body to text. Others read me. When they do, what do they imagine? What is the rationale behind the man who asks, “where are you from?” or worse, “what are you?” I tell him I was born here, already he takes note of what’s left of the hyphen, scans the grammar of my face, makes periods of my eyes, those final marks of his judgment. Read in this way, I am foreign. This is fine, I tell myself. I feel little affection for a country that sentences myself and others to some impossible category. My face hardens at the irony of the platitudes these so-called Americans provide about what makes an American. But neither do I entertain romantic visions of returning to the “mother” country. What I know of Korea is by proxy. What I feel of Korea is the dismembered wriggling of a phantom tongue. My Korean betrays, signals the traitorous American in me.


I am held at a distance, remote and buoyed in the solitary vastness of liminality. Is the bifurcated anger I feel tied to something essential in my nature? Is it a gesture, performed? Why must a country halved defer to another in order to make peace with itself?


In Korean, the pronoun is free to depart. I look in my journal of English sentences. The I is dropped, the self effaced. Don’t know. Felt a moment of uncanniness. Not sure. The I evades, slippery as sannakji, severed tentacles squirming in sesame oil to slide easy down the throat.

There is no language when I dream, dreaming mute, as if I have forgotten my very tongue in protest against the articulation of the deepest wound.

Mouths move in utterance. I do/n’t understand.


“One sees how the country’s identity is, in reality, a multiplicity and an assemblage—constantly being construed in the present.” — Trinh T. Minh-ha

I get they are trying to connect to me in some way. Their intentions are not malicious. So I entertain. They may think that by asking me these questions, I will confirm some Image they have of Koreans as a whole. I find that it’s not so much the benign questions I am tired of, but my own lack of control over the associations made: kimchi, K-pop, BTS, oppas, Blackpink paper white skin plastic surgery double eyelids people who all look the same fantasies of rich men rescuing poor women death by truck by cancer love triangles secret heirs Samsung soju bomb Kim Jong whowasthe fat dictator starving brainwashed people who look all the same.

I should remind them I’m not really Korean.

Does the food I eat eat me? Does what I watch watch me? Does what I hear hear me?

I do not speak for Koreans.

In fact, I feel, I am, at best, a fraud.


If you are fortunate, you could seek a life elsewhere, however temporary.

Summer of 2018.

Studying abroad in Cambridge. Speaking American in an unfamiliar place. Americanness is most when spoken. No one bothers.

Slipping into a new invisibility, I miss the familiar, the places and people I left momentarily back in Berkeley and Los Angeles. So I look for them as I walk these cobbled streets.

Standing in line to see inside the Wren Library, my parents appear in the gestures of the Asian couple in front of me, dad’s arm circling mom after his lips land on her neck and lift off moments later like a bird. Mom is in the way she leans her head on his shoulder.

I can’t think of churches without some bitterness, but here I relish reading the name of a Korean church in Hangul, holding each word on my tongue like I’m savoring the sweet melt of hard candy.

And as I eat in King’s College, I chance upon a group of male Korean students (graduate? doctoral?), sitting separately. Up until now all I have heard is English or the murmurs of other international students too far away to understand.

My eyes rest on one of the students in a black dress shirt. He remains quiet while his friends chat away. I look down at my plate and try to receive the words from their mouths not as words. The way the words in a song will, if I listen half-focused and half-dazed, muffle their meaning and become music. Poetry.

During the final week, I sit with a friend for lunch. The Korean in black sits at the long table before us. I look over my friend’s shoulder. Our gazes match. The contact feels almost unbearably long, interrupted only by a professor who sits across from him.

I find his gaze inscrutable. Was it recognition? You, you’re Korean, too. Was he wondering how our gaze was sustained?

Disappointment would have eaten me had I asked him anything. It would have eaten me had he said anything. Within the unblemished space of the unuttered, the seductive breadth of imagination, we have, momentarily, communed in the same liminality. Foreigners in a foreign place.


“Translation, however faithful, is fiction.” — Ilya Kaminsky, “Of Strangeness That Wakes Us”

My last night in London. The city, in its newness to me, is labyrinthine.

I don’t look for a Korean restaurant nearby, though I have been missing crisp spiced geotjeori that makes my mouth water and the pungent bubbling warmth of Mom’s doenjang-guk.

But as I walk by the window of a bookstore, I stop. Illuminated under the lights sits Han Kang’s The White Book. I smile.

The original written in Korean is different from the translation that sits on display before me. The process of translation bornes a bullish beast, horned hybrid.

My reflection is superimposed over the books on display. Minotaurish, am I also a translation?


Who are you to say you care?

You weren’t even born here.

You’re an American.

(You have no claim. Your sense of connection is irrational.)


Which Korea are you from?

Learn to take a joke.

It’s all in the past.

Forget. Ignore. Dismiss.


It is not only my Korean that struggles. My English, too, sounds alien. Slippages in the form of an impalpable accent, my rounded o’s, my mispronunciation and stuttering. You don’t sound perfect. Crisp. Napkin-like. White. I don’t want to. My tongue is in slow revolt. What used to shame me, I recognize as a message.


Am I the peril you dream? The one that tosses and turns you in sleep?

Am I the slanted eyes of the abject alien?

To trap my slipperiness you try to name and correct me.

Does my presence give shape to your invisibility?

You deny your precarity. I emerge in mine.


“Further, Further inside. Further than. To middle. Deeper. Without measure. Deeper than. Without means of measure. To core. In another tongue. Same word. Slight mutation of the same. Undefinable. Shift. Shift slightly. Into a different sound. The difference. How it discloses the air. Slight. Another word. Same. Parts of the same atmosphere. Deeper. Center. Without distance. No particular distance from center to periphery. Points of measure effaced. To begin there. There. In Media Res.” — Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, “Dictée”

There is no going back. There is no point of return.

Safe harbor is here, in the thick of words. From my broken speech, my mongrel tongue upon which I float, I am dis/assembled.

Neither/nor, either/or. This is what I know, what I am learning, what translates me—the knotted heft of doubt, the haze of uncertainty, the dual condemnation and salvation of questions. I am making my home—in that splendid and shoreless, dazzling and directionless drift.

Contact Kris Shin at 


MARCH 09, 2019