My dearest Ruth, you are the only person I have loved in my life - setting aside a bit, parents and kids and their kids - and I have admired and loved you almost since the day we first met at Cornell some 56 years ago. What a treat it has been to watch your progress to the very top of the legal world!! I will be in Johns Hopkins Medical Center until Friday, June 25, I believe. And between then and now I shall think hard on my remaining health and life, and whether on balance the time has come for me to tough it out or to take leave of life because the loss of quality now simply overwhelms. I hope you will support where I come out but I understand you may not. I will not love you a jot less. Marty.
I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.
I asked my friend, Kenz, to explain the word jung (정) for me. I’ve translated her response:
The Chinese root of jung (정), 情, is made of up sim (심), 心, meaning heart and chung (청), 青, meaning blue. While chung means blue, it also connotes youth, or the freshness and vivacity of youth. That’s why we call the springtime of one’s youth, chung choon (청춘). The word jung draws from this in the sense that a memory or a person can give you a vague, nostalgic feeling. So even if you don’t necessarily like a person, memory, or situation, they can be hard to let go of. It’s the feeling you have when you would rather carry your worn handbag than the new, designer one you received as a gift, when you can’t throw away the broken fountain pen your father gave you, when you laugh and caress your lover when you see them even though they drive you crazy, when you love your hometown more even though you’ve lived longer in Seoul, when you care more for a complete stranger after you realize you share certain similarities, when you look back at a cat getting rained on, when you set out some food for strays. The feelings that make those actions possible is what you call jung.
It’s the feeling that I had the last night I spent in Seoul, crying with two of my noonas over scallops and soju at my favorite pojangmacha. The ahjumma couldn’t believe that I was leaving again. She was drunk after a few beers she had had before we arrived. She burned our eggs and mixed up our orders and called me a bitch when I told her I was leaving for the States the next day. She demanded to know when I would come back. I didn’t know, I said, but I promised that I would. I had always come back, hadn’t I?
Then she said she was going to sleep and pulled up a mat on the brick sidewalk and lied down, telling us to wake her if any customers came. We kept drinking, my noona and I, pulling out bottles of Chamisul (참이슬) from the cooler and tearing off pictures of Yoo Ah In and sticking them to the bottom of our glasses until we finally had a talk about what had happened. The events themselves were stupid and petty. They were not significant, but everything that had led up to them, the hours spent staring at the river, the tears shed on subways and buses and in restaurants, the loves lost and the friendships gained, the wandering and the returning home, the reasons why we came together to drink and laugh and cry that night, all of the jung, was.
I woke up the ahjumma around 3 a.m. The air was crisp and cool, and the sky was a perfect black. It was time for us to leave.
This is nice, on top of the fact that it’s cool to hear about where 情 comes from.
Performances of blackness catalyzed the formation of Asian American identity. Far from being mere mimics, however, Asian Americans who began to consider their own racial positioning through contemplations of blackness went on to forge a distinct identity of their own. The Red Guards adopted the Black Panthers’ language and style—two key elements of the Panther mystique—as a political statement that underlined their espousal of the Panthers’ racial politics.
I would also have to convince him that he had no choice, that this storytelling wasn’t a game or something on the same level as watching a movie or talking about politics. He would have to see that everything besides the story was useless, even his desperate existential thoughts that did nothing but frighten him. Only the imaginary must count.
Reading this piece, I couldn’t help relating him to the Flushing-native teenager that I was - and how my shyness and emotional psychology were been shaped crucially by poverty, New York City, and being Chinese American. Danny Chen deserved more, in opportunity, in happiness, and ultimately, justice in death. Check out the New York piece, some of the best writing on him so far.