producing a sense of place

Last night I watched a documentary — which actually I had seen before — on AZN TV, an international channel. First Person Plural is the story of a Korean woman who was adopted at age 5 or so from an orphanage in South Korea in the 1960s. She grew up in a white family in Fremont, CA, doing all the usual American things — being a cheerleader, going on family vacations, etc. In her adulthood, however, she began to have flashbacks to her early childhood in Korea, and began to investigate them. She finally wrote a letter to the orphanage in Korea, and learned she was not who her papers said she was, and that her family, mother and four siblings, were still living in Korea. She goes back to Korea to meet them and later takes her American parents with her to meet the family. It was all very emotional, as you might expect.

Since this is the second time I have seen the documentary I was not focused on the story so much as the visuals of Korea. I didn’t think the documentary was made particularly recently, judging by the look of Seoul in the movie, but the release date is listed as 2000. I watched the portions of this film that took place in Korea with interest, and my thought was that in the nearly 100 pages of writing I have done about my time in Korea, I have not conveyed what the place was like. I have conveyed my experiences, perhaps, but I don’t think I have brought the place to life.

I think of a hotel room that I once stayed in in Seoul when my Japanese friend came to visit… the room was perfectly normal by Western standards — the usual two queen size beds, nondescript furniture, TV, bathroom, etc. — except for one thing: the standard gas mask on the wall. Obviously such an amenity comes from being 40 miles from North Korea and the million soldiers that country has along the border with the south. But there’s something so poignant about the existence of that gas mask and the matter-of-fact directions that were posted next to it, much like the standard emergency exit diagrams posted in American hotel rooms. It’s these details that I need to capture in my writing, somehow.

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