Tuesday, December 2, 2008


last tuesday night i got a late phone call from my friend wonchul. it was about an hour or so after i finished my last evening class, and i was still awake reading some of brothers karamazov before going to bed. after my enthusiastic 'heeeeello!', it didnt take long for me to figure out something was wrong.
'there's some bad news,' he said. 'you remember eunsoo from hilo? he's passed away.'
like suddenly muting all the noise from the world, everything in my mind dropped. what could i say? i never in a million years expected anything like this to happen. 'what happened?' i breathed out the words, and even those barely managed to shake themselves loose of grip around my voice. my words sounded grating in my ears nonetheless.
'it was a car accident,' wonchul said. 'we dont know anything else.'
he told me that there had been a memorial service that day and that he had been trying to get a hold of me. i felt like an idiot for not receiving his call, even though there was nothing i could do about my phone dying earlier that afternoon. he explained that korean memorial services last for two days and that i could go the next day with a couple other friends of ours who had also been unable to go that day.

eunsoo was a friend of ours from hawaii. although i can not say that we were very close, eunsoo and i shared many good times in hilo together, playing baseball together, weekend barbecues, and many late-night go stop binges. we also met a couple of times in seoul two years ago when i visited korea for the first time. myself and other friends joked often about eunsoo's apparent lack of success with girlfriends and his constant stream of overly-melodramatic screen names on instant messenger such as 'what the hell am i doing with my life' and so on. these jokes were never an expression of looking down on the guy, meerly expressions of affection.
i asked wonchul how he felt. 'confused,' was all he said. after i hung up and sent a message to another friend telling her that id call her in the morning to figure out when we could meet to visit eunsoo's family, i laid back in my bed and tried to understand how i felt myself. confused was the only word that seemed to fit me as well. staring restlessly off into space, sleep eluded me.
during my morning classes i managed to get a phone call off to my friend hyunsook who i would be meeting to visit eunsoo's family. we would have to go to the hospital which was located in 의정부 ('uijeongbu'), a town more than 2 hours from suwon where i live. since we'd be meeting in the evening, i would have no chance of being able to teach my evening classes. i braced myself for confronting my boss with this situation, but i was resolved to go, and i wouldn't take no for an answer, no matter the cost. surprisingly, in a breach of character, my boss yielded without much resistance. even so it would be an exhausting day, and hiuyan was flying into incheon international airport that night to visit me for a few days, so the timing would be tight.
i headed out in mid-afternoon for uijeongbu and managed to rendezvous with hyunsook along the way without much difficulty. there wasn't much we could say to each other for a while, but the reassurance of someone else's company was enough. with marginal success we chit-chatted in the train, asking idly about recent dealings in our lives and eventually broaching the issue of eunsoo's death. neither of us, it turned out, knew much about what happened, being certain only of our own determination to make this journey to see eunsoo's family and perhaps find some answers to the questions and uncertainties bouncing around in our own troubled hearts.
when we got out of the station, it already felt like night, and the air was cold and unfamiliar. neither of us had ever been this far north out of the city. we grabbed a cab to the hospital and eventually found the place where funerals were being held.
the atmosphere was quite different from what i expected. what had at first appeared to be a waiting room or cafeteria to me quickly materialized into the funeral hall itself, as realization dawned on me. along one wall were enclosures separated from one another, each housing a personal shrine for someone recently deceased. each displayed a large framed picture of someone, most of whom were elderly people. there was also a incense rack. next to these shrines stood pairs or groups of people adorned in solemn clothes and expressions patiently waiting or greeting arriving visitors. along the other side of this long, hallway-like room were low tables spread with a rich, many-coursed meal in the korean tradition. at many of these tables sat numerous visitors or family members, and their hushed chit-chat and occasional laughter permeated the otherwise sound-barren air.
i cautiously glanced at the pictures on my left, searching for the one familiar face i knew i would find in that place, still wondering if perhaps i had gotten things wrong, misheard somehow or something. we walked to the far end of the room and removed our shoes before greeting eunsoo's parents. and there his picture was. although i was uncertain about my every action in the unfamiliar setting, i allowed my eyes to linger on his face. hyunsook left my side to light a stick of incense and upon her return, hyunsook and i sank into the customary 5-point bow and prostrated ourselves before the shrine. turning our attention back toward eunsoo's parents who were standing patiently aside, hyunsook introduced us and explained our acquaintance to eunsoo. i shook his fathers hand and smiled and his mother. we signed the guest book and left our envelopes of money, a custom also practiced at weddings such as the one i had attended weeks before.
hyunsook and i decided to stay and partake of the meal offered us. i was glad we did. i needed to experience the comfort of the social atmosphere that was also around us. i immediately noticed with appreciation and wonder the balance and harmony of the korean funeral ceremony. there was the solemnity of respect for the deceased and their family and friends and an unmistakable mourning in the attitudes of everyone present. but there was also this undeniable life taking place all around - the sounds of living people, eating and talking. i could not help but feel peace from this balance and hope for the life still present everywhere, for my own, for hyunsook's, and for all the people around me and in my life. later i talked about this with lucas, listening to some of the similarities to malian funerals, and we agreed that western funerals are generally pretty skewed emotionally and screwed up in comparison.
before we left, eunsoo's father stopped me. 'thank you for your coming,' he said, and i could see it in his eyes.
making our way back to the station, hyunsook and i talked about what we had experienced, both this evening and over the last couple of days. i still felt confused, but i was much more comfortable with that. i realized how much the funeral was for me and everyone, how important coming had been to me, how much i couldn't help thinking of myself, and how much i had needed to not feel shame for that, but to listen to myself and my feelings. i told hyunsook how thankful i was that she had come with me, that i couldnt have come by myself (logistically and emotionally), and how much experiencing this had meant to me. 'that's just what i wanted to say!' she told me, and i went home on subway satisfied and waiting to greet my girl...

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