Rituals of Separation: A South Korean Memoir of Identity and Belonging

Contributed by Liz Rice

I was nine months old when my American family landed in Seoul, South Korea, in 1966, the youngest of four children. My parents were social justice oriented people, called to divided places. They moved to South Korea as missionaries to try and help a country that had lived through a devastating century.

I was too young when we arrived to go through culture shock or deal with acculturation as my parents did. I was too young to know what it meant that we were leaving the country of my passport behind. Going to Korea is something I don’t remember. I woke up to life there. And over sixteen years, Korea, its history and its ways, became my reference point.

I learned to speak Korean as I learned to speak English. For the first four years of my life, as my parents were attending language school and beginning to work, I was in the daily care of Koreans, soaking up language, culture and the customs of one of the most Confucius and homogenous cultures in the world. I went to Korean nursery school, soaking up even more. Up until the age of five, when we first visited the US, Korea was all I remembered and knew. My family was American, but the US was a foreign country. For the next sixteen years, Korea was, simply, home.

And if the story ended there, it would be a story of a complicated and rich childhood in a place of contrasts and contradiction, in a humble, ancient nation far away from the home of my ancestors. A story of a girl, part Korean, part American, and always something in between. But something happened after my family left Korea.

It was in the U.S. that I first learned what culture shock felt like. I began to suffer from depression and a feeling of deep dislocation. We lost contact with the lady we called Ajumoni, a woman as dear to me as a grandmother. I began to grieve the loss of all of it as if I was grieving a death. Without any language to understand my situation, I went through that grief alone. I lived life as a half-self, trying to start from scratch in a culture I didn’t fully understand but was expected to. I didn’t feel American. And I didn’t look Korean. And I was beginning to understand that in leaving Korea, life as I had always known it was over.

While psychologists at that time understood concepts like culture shock and acculturation for adults who moved “overseas,” few understood the effects of reverse culture shock, especially for children who had been raised away from their passport countries. These days there are numerous books and resources for something called “Third Culture Kids” – children who are raised in a culture other than their parent’s culture for a significant number of their development years. Third Culture Kids are said to carry the influence of their parents’ culture and the culture of the country or countries in which they were raised, but don’t have full ownership of any one culture. TCKs, it turns out, often experience some period of cultural rootlessness when they return to their passport countries.

Eight years ago I began to write Rituals of Separation as a love song to a cross cultural childhood and as an exploration of the complexity of issues of loss, belonging, and cultural identity. I wrote to give a voice to people with complicated cultural identities, who have lived stories we can’t always see in their faces. As novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “There is a danger in telling a single story…to show a people as one thing, and only one thing over and over again, and that is what they become…The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity.”

Writing the book was a “ritual of separation” for me – not to separate from Korea – but to memorialize that time, to make record of and acknowledge the lasting impact of Korea and its history and people on my identity – to say the names of those that I could not forget – the people I carried with me from Seoul to Middlebury to Boston to Seattle. I wrote to record and remember what happened in Korea at that pivotal juncture in the country’s history, when Korea was recovering from a horrific war that divided the nation into two, industrializing at a rapid pace, and seeing the burgeoning of a democracy movement that would eventually lead to the toppling of a line of dictators. I wrote to understand the deep impact of my parents’ involvement in the Korean democracy movement on my understanding of the world. And I wrote to help me better understand from what matter I, and we, are culturally formed –  and the role of Korea, and my hidden bicultural identity, in that struggle. Over eight years, with each chapter, I peeled away another onion skin of belonging.

As I state at the end of the first chapter of Rituals of Separation, “After we left Korea, I balanced precariously between two lives, unsure how to go back and unable to move forward. I had to come to terms with all I had seen in those years. I had to look into the ways of the people and places that formed me and find myself, like a pebble sorted from rice. And I learned to pick up the pieces of an unrooted adulthood time and time again. For what is lost can’t always be recovered. Sometimes the only way to move on is to learn to let go, to be deeply grateful for what we had, to know we will never be the same for what we have seen. To learn that maybe, just maybe, our fractured parts do, after all, make a whole.”

Writing allowed me to begin to fully answer the seemingly simple question that so many global souls come to dread…“Where are you from?” With each chapter I took one more step in finding healing and answering that question.

Author: Liz Rice

Elizabeth spent most of her first sixteen years in Seoul, South Korea as the youngest child of socially progressive Presbyterian missionaries. After her family moved to the U.S., she received her undergraduate degree from Middlebury College and a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Washington. She spent many years working in the NGO sector, serving as administrative director for a public health nonprofit for immigrants and refugees in the Twin Cities and working in grassroots community development organizations and nonprofits in Seattle, Mississippi and Zambia. Elizabeth is currently living between Costa Rica and Vermont. Rituals of Separation is her first book.