The River that Flows Through Me
별보다 야경 / City lights, [brighter] than the stars
Soaring through the sky, dipping up and down between clouds, I struggle to reach my hand outside the plane window and grab a hold of the stars. The stars, so close to where I am sitting, I can feel their glow, like my cheeks have been smothered in mashed up chili peppers, but I love the way they burn down the back of my throat. The sky is so close, it enters the airplane cabin and fills the air with molecules and tiny little galaxies and black holes. I throw myself out into the swirling unknown, desperate for adventure. Down one of these paths I will find myself, through one of these keyholes I will be waiting (for myself?)
It’s the month of June, 2016. My third trip to Korea. I fly across the globe to dedicate my next two months to exploring, to summer school classes at Korea University in the district of 안암 (Anam), Seoul in the northeastern quarter of one of the world’s largest cities, to making new friends, learning a new language, immersing myself in a place where I am as foreign to it as it is to me. It’s the summer after my high school graduation, hands thrown up in the air and college acceptance letters tucked into a drawer in my bedroom (better to look at those later, Kristin.) I take Korean language classes five days a week, and on the first day, they place me in the advanced class. My mind has been resting on Korea for a while, a crutch through the dark days when I’m stuck on the thought of escaping and the interest of a place so unlike where I call home can keep my fickle brain entertained.
For three years, I have been studying Korean with a tutor, stuffing the words in my brain like flowers into a vase. The first week, I doubt my abilities, I fear looking native speakers in the eye. I whisper my “유자차 한잔 주세요”s (“Could I have a cup of yuzu tea?”) in an almost indeterminable tone at the café I frequent with my summer school friends every morning before class. The barista cranes her head only so many times before my voice begins to carry louder. My confidence grows in late-night taxi rides where the drivers drill me on questions about my background and what I am doing in Korea, curious to see how far I can go before my vocabulary runs out. They push and push and push me but all I do is receive, words float above my head in orbit and all I have to do is reach up and grab them. My Korean friends laugh when I tell them I feel more comfortable talking to 택시 아주씨s (older Korean men who are taxi drivers) than them. But don’t we stop holding back when we know that something will only last for a moment, and then it will be gone?
Seoul is split in half by a river named 한강 (Hangang). The older part of the city stands to the north of the river, and the newer area to the south. Little parks scatter across the riverbanks on each side of the city. These grassy areas between water and metropolis are all referred to as 한강 (Hangang). There are many spots to go and sit at and watch the water lap onto grey rocks at low tide, many patches of green to lay a mat out on and close your eyes and listen to the cicadas chirp chirp, chirping so loudly it’s as if their wings are flapping inside your ears and banging a drum. These parks are extremely popular, no matter the season. The people of Seoul frequent them to escape into little pockets of nature. Bikers buzz by at all times of the day, even at night, headlamps shining down paths upon paths and casting a glow onto the water. Families with babies in strollers, children running through the stalks of grass, patches of flowers, climbing up slides and swinging from monkey-bars, couples admiring the view of the flowing water from a bench or a picnic mat, friends sharing 소주 (Soju) at the water’s edge, delivery men without helmets zooming on scooters and calling out phone numbers, trying to find whoever ordered four portions of 양념치킨 (Korean marinated fried chicken) and do they want an extra free portion of pickled radishes, dogs on their daily walks with their owners, 아줌마s (older Korean women) hanging out at picnic tables, eating 번데기 (roasted silkworms) and roasted nuts and laughing about the good old days. There is a spot at 한강 (Hangang) for every kind of person, except maybe enthusiastic swimmers, because in summertime when the sun beats down on the water all day long, it begins to smell faintly of garbage and is overall not the loveliest. 한강 (Hangang) is an oasis, though at times a slightly icky oasis, but an oasis through and through.
The first time I went to 반포항강공원 (Banpo Hangang Park) was with a boy whose name I try to forget. We meet on the first day of classes at Korea University. The clock begins to tick. I fan at my ear, trying to swat away the fly buzzing too close to my head. I end up slapping myself instead. 반포대교 (Banpo Bridge) crosses 한강 (Hangang), leading the neighborhood 서초 (Seocho) to 용산 (Yongsan), one full of luxurious skyscrapers kissing the clouds, crowding the streets so much that oxygen can barely pass through. The other, an older, more rustic part of town, greatly populated by foreigners and American military, or the rich and famous who seek a more exclusive, quiet life. Every night at 08:45 pm 반포대교 (Banpo Bridge) puts on a light and fountain show. We sit down by the water’s edge at 08:05 pm and wait. We wait, the stone steps stick to the backs of my thighs—sweat is a given in summer and the rocks have been sweltering beneath the sun all day long. The breeze blows in my face, hair gets stuck in my eye, the boy laughs and tells me I’m a mess. I tell myself to take it as a compliment, thatswhatitisright? I’m a mess, imamess, I’m a mess a mess a mess I’m a m—
Have you ever seen a view this beautiful? No, I haven’t. Northern Seoul’s cityscape reflects in the water, apartment buildings and hills dance in the mirror, casting light from their backs like a shadow being shaken from their shoulders, diamonds falling in to the water. 남산타워 (Namsan Tower) stands atop a high mountain in the middle of the city, as if it’s a beaconing lighthouse, twinkling in the glassy water. Once the bridge begins its performance, water gushes from the sides of the steel railings, a rainbow flying out into the air and falling towards the water at a constant rapid speed. Red yellow green blue purple. I barely see the colors or note their order. Maybe there were other shades in there. I don’t remember. I watch him, watching the water. He looks up, farther beyond where my eyes can see. I can’t take my eyes off him. I dive headfirst in.
A month later I bring my friends from summer school to see the same bridge. He doesn’t come with us. When 08:45 pm rolls in, I stand beneath the water and drown in the color. Was pink in there, too? I open my mouth and droplets slip from between my lips and drip down the front of my shirt, my eyes sinking in their sockets, sloshing and splashing and kicking their legs up from the deep, hopelessly succumbing, water clogs my ears, I let it take me take it all wash me clean and I pretend it does what I ask. I want my friends to see the beauty of this bridge too. I want them to think I’m happy and put-together. I wait for his hand to reach up from the river water and pull me in. It never does. He wants more than me, always more, I want to be more I want to be m—The light show ends and my friends turn and tell me “This was the most underwhelming thing we have ever seen.” The Bridge of Disappointment is christened that night with its new name. Did they not see the pink, either? Maybe if they saw the pink lights in the fountain, they would like it better.
Arms wraps themselves around my shoulders and walk me back to the subway station and I turn my head to catch one more glimpse of the bridge, craning my neck down a dark pedestrian tunnel beneath a highway. I blink. The river water flows into the tunnel, filling the space all the way to the top. Red yellow green blue purple red yellow purple purple blue blue blue blue blue blue blue blue. Polluted, murky salt water is being pushed down our throats but we think we’re throwing up rainbows. The delusions of youth, when you can’t see how badly something is hurting you even when it’s right in front of you. Insecure desperation for them to love you, too. I blink. The water has receded. (Maybe I should be giving myself that love instead?)
계절이랑 나아간다 / I move forward with the seasons.
Flash-forward to January, 2017. I come back to Korea University for their winter program. I plan to stay another two months in Seoul. In January, wind flows down from Siberia and Seoul becomes one big, fifty-million-inhabitant block of ice. Have you ever tried to lick a piece of frozen metal that’s been standing out in the snow? Don’t do it. It’s like my tongue is stuck, I keep coming back to Seoul, and if I try to yank it away from me, I only bounce back harder. I slam my head down on the pavement. The ringing in my ears and the taste of iron on my tongue is there to remind me I cannot go far before I long to go back. I was starting to feel like I wanted to escape my escape, each thought of Korea was followed by a heavy, thundering raincloud overhead. I started running towards the storm, colliding head on with all of the ugly memories I have been carrying around for months. I don’t want to lose anymore. The night before we begin classes, I ride the subway for twenty-two minutes and get off at 고속터미널역 (Express Bus Terminal Station). I stuff my hands in grey knit gloves and tuck them in my coat pockets, a scarf is wrapped thirty times around my head, my legs still shake in the freezing wind. I can’t feel my toes ten minutes in. Fifteen minutes from the station, I make it to my destination and wave my hand inside my warm and toasty pocket at 반포항강공원 (Banpo Hangang Park).
I came to this bridge with a boy who I thought loved me,
I came back to it after he said he didn’t.
My abnormal psychology professor said that exposure therapy is very effective in getting rid of old ghosts. I hope he was right. I flew 4,792 miles and stood in front of our bridge once again. The flowers of summer that once bloomed beneath our feet have wilted into hard icicles, prickling my skin. Blocks of ice skate across the glassy surface of the winter river, frost clings to the bare branches of the trees, the world is glistening, even with clouds above. I no longer miss the humid sweat clinging to my forehead or the sun beating down on the back of my neck. Even summer is leaving me now. I am happy to see it go.
At Korea University, my friends and I study for a test on psychological behavior therapy. A method stands out. Systematic Desensitization: Removing a fearful or upsetting response to a stimulus by replacing the response with a relaxed and happy feeling. Open new document. Type: Unlovable. Space. Delete. Unlovable. Delete. Delete. Delete. Type: New memories. Type: I am enough. Type: I have enough. Type: Take back your favorite place. Type: Make it home again. I take the long way back to my rented apartment after class, my friends in tow, we walk through 반포항강공원 (Banpo Hangang Park) and snow is falling and the words are swirling in my head, mixing with the snowflakes and spinning me around on my axis, making me feel like I have eyes in the back of my head for I see it all so clearly now. Systematic-desensitization, systematic-take-your-psyche-back, systematic-I-want-to-feel-like-myself-again, systematic-I-am-strong-my-mind-can-bench-press-nine-hundred-pounds-of-despair, systematic-look-how-far-I-have-come, systematically applying ointment to my sensitive wounds, systematically no longer flinching and screaming “Noli me tangere” at whoever comes close, no more worrying if I am enough. It means desensitizing this place, this city, of feeling safe again, of replacing all the sad memories with light. It means no longer sensitive, no more pain, delete. Pink is my favorite color. I pay attention to the fountain-show at 08:45 pm, and it is all pink on this day, pink for me.
여름아 나가지마 / Summer, please stay for a while.
It’s summer again. I come to Seoul for a month to catch up with my friends. My gap year after high school has neared its end, and soon I will be starting university. The days my friends are busy, I go for walks at 한강 (Hangang) by myself, I visit different parks all over the city, all facing the same river. I watch the groups of teenagers who head into convenience stores, buying large mats to lay out on the grass, and packets of instant ramen. Ramen at 한강 (Hangang) is so normalized that the convenience stores, like GS25 and CU, offer little ramen-making stations, equipped with water boilers, aluminum trays and gas burner stovetops, making it easy to customize your bowl. Many add eggs, processed cheese, fresh kimchi, sausages, the works. A careful, penguin-like shuffle then ensues, with the boiling hot ramen in hand, towards a grassy patch to lay down your mat and enjoy the break from city-life.
In summertime, flowers grow along the banks of the river, yellow daisies and pink 무궁화 (hibiscus syriacus) stand out in the green landscape. Korean summers are hot and humid. I keep a small bottle of perfume in my purse and when I’m with my friends, we all take turns spritzing it all over ourselves. A couple minutes outside and we long to open the cap of the bottle again. Riding the subway is like being stuck inside a metal armpit, especially if the subway car’s air-conditioning is broken, which happens more often than not. Hot, sweaty bodies are shoved together in a fast-paced vehicle, and when the train comes to a halt at a station and more passengers file in, strangers get squished together and the oxygen gets real sticky and your lungs yell HELP. Heat vibrating off bodies inside a motor has never felt so technical so disconnected. I get off at 여의나루역 (Yeouinaru station) and run up the escalator stairs and out into the open air and up, across the street, down the steps, to여의도항강공원 (Yeouido Hangang Park), on the southwestern side of the river. I follow cobble-stone rimmed walkways, I breathe the smell of dew fluttering down from the clouds.
At 여의도항강공원 (Yeouido Hangang Park) there is a single bench, built as a rocking chair with a little wooden canopy, surrounded by flowers, overlooking the city. I come alone and sit beneath the sun and open up my mouth to smile, I taste the tang of the salt rising as steam from the river. My journal holds my hand, with poetry keeping me company on days when I enjoy the peacefulness of being alone. I feel so happy I could cry. My eyes flutter to children playing in water fountains that are built down in the cement, which shoot water up into the air and straight up their noses, and they giggle and snort and their short legs run between spouts of clear blue. I stay in the park until the sun is swallowed by the skyscrapers in the horizon, casting a bright peachy glow over the city. The sky is a pink and orange sherbet and the clouds resemble floating 무궁화 (hibiscus syriacus) blossoms, glowing softly in the lamplight amongst busy neon signs and city lights. On a fresh page, I write:
June 11th, 2017. 01:02 pm. 여의도항강공원, 서울.
There are a lot of colors that reside within me. I can see them when I close my eyes. A palette of every shade that painted my heart. In between it all, there was you.
Meeting you was green. My favorite, just like you. You sprang into my life by surprise, like spring after a long winter. I never saw you coming. The buds on the trees had begun to bloom, their pollen covering my days with golden sparkles of dust. Leaves unfurling their toes and stretching out beneath the warming radiation of the sun. Your presence engulfed me like the most vibrant moss growing around my heart. Green, the color of my eyes that could only see you.
Being around you was purple, like the violet wings of the butterflies in my stomach whenever my mind played your smile over and over again in my head like a broken record stuck on the same song. I was so hung up on you.
Thinking of you was the strongest and deepest red, I could not put out the fires within burning for you, scalding the roses of my cheeks and the tips of my ears. Red was my heart beating all the way up my neck, red was your plaid shirt that you wore the night we first met, it was your hand in mine and nothing else mattering.
Loving you was yellow, like honey. You were the effort of thousands of tiny endangered bees collaborating, you were a miracle made of flowers, love and glitter, and you made everything sweeter. You were my sunshine that filled my days with the brightest light. You were everything, everything.
Losing you stripped my world of its colors. Even sunsets were not the same without you there next to me because when the sun left and the world became dark, I still saw light in you. The day it was over was somewhere between white and grey. I could not put my finger on how it felt when you left me behind. It was everything and nothing, all at once. I felt like I was suspended in space, floating through the void and unable to go anywhere. Gravity dissolving beneath my feet, stumbling and falling onto my knees, scraping me up and lodging fragments of loneliness deep into my skin. It was like every goodbye ever said to me came back again. The darkness surrounded me like a thick veil I could not see through, nor could I distinguish between the shadows of you. Emptiness engulfed me, straddled me in its arms promising solace in being numb, but instead it lowered me deeper down into the pain, slamming into me like constant meteors falling, reminding me with each rock hurling downwards and cracking my skull, that there is no escape.
Missing you was pitch black, the only thing I could see at 4 AM when I was thinking of you and could not forget. I thought those nights would never end. I was nothing, nothing to you.
Learning how to let you go is blue, like the ocean that I always long for when it feels like I have lost my way. Healing comes to me in waves and pulses of clarity and forgiveness, my own strength becoming the one reliable current in my life. I hold my own broken heart in my hands and let the water wash out everything that had been drowning me inside. I see how capable I am of loving myself even when it seems like no one else does. I look up at the sky as you float away from me with the clouds. Blue, like the tears that set me free.
Moving on is the soft orange of the sunrise peeping in through my bedroom windows. When I pull back my curtains, I see it had been waiting for me to make it through the night; to invite the light back in. My heart comes back to life, its beats stronger than before. The happiness I feel illuminates my ceiling like millions of tiny orange stars that shoot across the sky to spell out my name. My days smell like sweet peaches and tangerines and I realize I am enough. I look to the rising of the sun, reminding me that it’s there and I am safe even if the night comes calling again. Strength is made of natural rays straight from the sun and the beautiful autumn leaves that I wait for all year. Orange, the end to the green that let me down and the start of a whole new rainbow with specters of colors, tints and hues that my eyes have never seen before.
I know this is love for I see colors again.
이 아픈 길에는 꽃이 피었다 / Flowers blossomed along this painful road.
The following summer of 2018, my friends and I buy a mat at GS25 and lay it out below a tall oak tree at 뚝섬한강공원 (Tteukseom Hangang Park). We buy mango juice and salt potato chips and ice cream packaged in little plastic tubes where you have to push the container between your fingers to squeeze the ice cream out of the top. We lie beneath the trees and talk for hours and listen to the birds and the sounds of the city-life around us but in this park it is quiet so quiet and we are so far from the city so far from responsibilities so near the sun. iamhappyiamhappyiamhappyiamfinallyhappy. We run to the swings and push each other back and forth, sand in the sandbox getting lodged in our shoes, and we laugh and we wait thirty minutes for a couple to stop making out so we can sit on the rocking-bench surrounded by flowers where I sat the year before and truly found myself again.
“And this is the exact moment my heart fell out of my butt,” I say, across the picnic table from my group of friends, showing them a photo on my phone of the sun setting over the cityscape, full of tall, modern buildings and older, scruffier looking structures, with a few traditional palaces mixed into it all, seen from 반포항강공원 (Banpo Hangang Park). The light is a soft orange, coloring a beautiful tangerine sky, and my eyes glisten, recalling the afternoon I spent the week before, with a good book, a mat and a cold watermelon juice. The air is heavy and humid, the day having been a sweltering thirty-three degrees, and in the glow of the sun, I sat on a wooden bench, scanning my eyes across the city I have been living in every summer the past three years. The view is breathtaking, and I want to sit there forever, drinking it all in. My friends laugh and call me a nerd.
These parks where I learned how to love myself and not rely on validation from anyone else. Where being alone is okay. This river that flows through my veins and is heavy and proud, so it can keep my feet on the ground. I hold on to the sun on my face the slush of snow that I kick between my boots the cherry blossom trees opening their petals which flitter as pink and white puffs from their branches. I hold on to the feeling I have when I stand before this great, strong river, holding a huge city together, the feeling of being so capable of love, of not only giving but receiving it, of being powerful and independent (I, too, hold the strength to keep myself together). This city where no matter how lost I am, I am found.
Kira Santana is currently studying at University of Hawai'i at Mānoa on the island of O'ahu, where she is an English major and hula dancer. She is interested in how writing can be used as a tool for healing and discussing trauma. She received the 2019 Myrle Clark Award for Creative Writing.