AN UNDYING BIRD . . . forever lives, forever breathes, forever, with its two wings fluttering, flies. That is the universe. It was there when there was the empty space of our non-existence. It is here moving still. Where it is, silence is never there. . . . And speaking with an Asian's natural bias, it seems to me it is wrong to say, time passes. Time never passes. We say that it does, as long as we have a clock to calculate it for us. The two hands go, the iron tongue tells hours, we sense the experience of our own duration . . . we are illusioned. It is not time that passes, but ourselves. Time is always there . . . as long as there is life to use it. Only if no life existed, there would be no time. Time was because life was . . . as it is the mortal life to travel over the immortal time. The bird flies with the two wings, on and on. But the same time that occupied the Roman lovers is the same that Hamlet was insane in, and in the same I write and think of time. . . .
In the perpetual merry-go-round of the universe, suns, moons, planets, stars, the whole body of all ten thousand things shift with the shifting space and the eternal time that Orpheus asserted was in the beginning, but had itself no beginning. I, too, with my own life have skated upon the great time arena. I seem to have traversed much time, more than most men, although I am still in the early thirties. To the old-fashioned Oriental, life goes back, step by step, to many forefathers, in unbroken chain, and onward into descendants which are somehow he, not in any abstract coldly philosophical sense, but as the solemn vehicle of his Ghost and his God, his most material ghost which eats with them. My own life in actual books still extant in my Korean village was traced far back in this way to ancestors with the bodies of men and heads of cows. This lifetime, threaded to theirs over the mellow—gold distances of time, can it be the same which now sees New York City?—And I ask myself, did I fall from a different star?
Up to a short while ago, the other side of this earth was like the turned face of the moon to people of the West. But there once the men, the women and children, the plants, fruits, gardens and animals, all traveled together in a forgotten leisure. They sang songs, made love and ate heartily, because there was always time. There life grew in manifold harmony, careless, free, simple and primitive. It had its curved lines, its brilliant colors, its haunting music, its own magic of being.
Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity
Until Death tramples to fragments . . .
Shelley has said. It was my destiny to see the disjointing of a world. Upon my planet in lost time, the heyday of life passed by. Gently at first. Its attraction of gravity, the grip on its creatures maintained through its fervid bowels, its harmonious motion, weakened. Then the air grew thin, cooler and cooler. At last, what had been good breathing to the old was only strangling pandemonium to the newer generations. . . .
I know that as I grew up, I saw myself placed on a shivering pinnacle overlooking a wasteland that had no warmth, that was under an infernal twilight. I cried for the food for my growth, and there seemed no food. And I felt I was looking on death, the death of an ancient planet, a spiritual planet that had been my fathers' home. Until I thought to stay would be to try to live, a plant on the top of the Alps where the air is too cold, too stunting, and the wind too brutally cruel. In loathing of death, I hurtled forward, out into space, out toward a foreign body . . . and a younger culture drew me by natural gravity. I entered a new life like one born again. Here I wandered on soil as strange as Mars, seeking roots, roots for an exile's soul. This world, which had sucked me in by its onward, forward magnetism, must have that in it, too, to feed and anchor man in the old durability . . . for in me has always burned this Taoistic belief in the continuity of living and of time. . . .
It was here . . . here in America for me to find . . . but where? This book is the record of my early search, and the arch of my projectile toward that goal.
From an old walled Korean city some thousand years old-Seoul—famous for poets and scholars, to New York. I did not come directly. But almost. A large steamer from the Orient landed me in Vancouver, Canada, and I traveled over three thousand miles across the American continent, a journey more than half as far as from Yokohama to Vancouver. At Halifax, straightway I took another liner. And this time for New York. It was in New York I felt I was destined really "to come out from the boat." The beginning of my new existence must be founded here. In Korea to come out from the boat is an idiom meaning to be born, as the word "pai" for "womb" is the same as "pai" for "boat"; and there is the story of a Korean humorist who had no money, but who needed to get across a river. On landing him on the other side, the ferryman asked for his money. But the Korean humorist said to the ferryman who too had just stepped out, "You wouldn't charge your brother, would you? We both came from the same boat." And so he traveled free. My only plea for a planet-ride among the white-skinned majority of this New World is the same facetious argument. I brought little money, and no prestige, as I entered a practical country with small respect for the dark side of the moon. I got in just in time, before the law against Oriental immigration was passed.
But New York, that magic city on rock yet ungrounded, nervous, flowing, million—hued as a dream, became, throughout the years I am recording, the vast mechanical incubator of me.
It was always of New York I dreamed-not Paris nor London nor Berlin nor Munich nor Vienna nor age-buried Rome. I was eighteen, green with youth, and there was some of the mystery of nature in my simple immediate response to what was for me just a name . . . like the dogged moth that directs its flight by some unfathomable law. But I said to myself, "I want neither dreams nor poetry, least of all tradition, never the full moon." Korea even in her shattered state had these. And beyond them stood waiting-death. I craved swiftness, unimpeded action, fluidity, the amorphous New. Out of action rises the dream, rises the poetry. Dream without motion is the only wasteland that can sustain nothing. So I came adoring the crescent, not the full harvest moon, with winter over the horizon and its waning to a husk.
"New York at last!" I heard from the passengers around me. And the information was not needed. In unearthly white and mauve, shadow of white, the city rose, like a dream dreamed overnight, new, remorselessly new, impossibly new . . . and yet there in all the arrogant pride of rejoiced materialism. These young, slim, stately things a thousand houses high (or so it seemed to me, coming from an architecture that had never defied the earth), a tower of Babel each one, not one tower of Babel but many, a city of Babel towers, casually, easily strewn end up against the skies-they stood at the brink, close crowded, the brink of America, these Giantesses, these Fates, which were not built for a king nor a ghost nor any man's religion, but were materialized by those hard, cold, magic words-opportunity, enterprise, prosperity, success—just business words out of world-wide commerce from a land rich in natural resources. Buildings that sprang white from the rock. No earth clung to their skirts. They leaped like Athene from the mind synthetically; they spurned the earth. And there was no monument to the Machine Age like America.
I could not have come farther from home than this New York. Our dwellings, low, weathered, mossed, abhorring the lifeless line-the definite, the finite, the aloof-loving rondures and an upward stroke, the tilt of a roof like a boat always aware of the elements in which it is swinging—most fittingly my home was set a hemisphere apart, so far over the globe that to have gone on would have meant to go nearer not farther. How far my little grass-roofed, hill-wrapped village from this gigantic rebellion which was New York! And New York's rebellion called to me excitedly, this savagery which piled great concrete block on concrete block, topping at the last moment as in an afterthought, with crowns as delicate as pinnacled ice; this lavishness which, without prayer, pillaged coal mines and waterfalls for light, festooning the great nature severed city with diamonds of frozen electrical phenomena-it fascinated me, the Asian man, and in it I saw not Milton's Satan, but the one of Blake.
I saw that Battery Park, if not a thing of earth, was yet a thing of dirt, as I walked about it trying to get my breath and decide what was the next step after coming from the sea. It was oddly dark and forlorn, like a little untidy room off-stage where actors might sit waiting for their cues. The shops about looked mean and low and dim. A solitary sailor stumbled past, showing neither the freedom and romance of the seas, nor the robust assurance of a native on his own shore. And the other human shadows flitting there had a stealthy and verminlike quality, a mysterious haunting corruption, suggesting the water's edge, and the meeting of foreign plague with foreign plague. I walked about the shabby little square briskly, drawing hungry lungfuls of the prowling keen March air-a Titan, he, in a titanic city-until in sudden excess of elation and aggression growing suddenly too hot with life, as if to come to grips with an opponent, I took off my long coat; and sinking down on a bench, I clapped my knee and swore the oath of battle and of triumph. The first part of a wide journey was accomplished. At least that part in space. I swore to keep on. Yes, if it took a lifetime, I must get to know the West.
Well, mine was not oath of battle in the militaristic sense. I was congenitally unmilitaristic. Inwoven in my fabric were the agricultural peace of Asia, the long centuries of peaceful living in united households, of seeking not the soul's good, but the blood's good, the blood's good of a happy, decorously branching family tree. In the old days the most excitement permitted to the individual man, if he got free from the struggle with beloved but ruthless and exacting elements, was poetry, the journey to Seoul, wine, and the moons that came with every season. His wife, usually older than himself and chosen by his mother and father, would be sure to know no poetry, but she would not begrudge him a feminine companion in Seoul, or even in some market place near-by-one of those childlike ladies who having bought—or more often inherited—the right to please by the loss of other social prestige, must live on gaiety, dancing, and fair calligraphy. But any wholehearted passion would have shivered too brutally the family tree. And I had done far worse. I had refused to marry my appointed bride. I had repeated that I would not marry, at the ripe age of eighteen. I had said, with more pride than Adam ever got out of sinning in Eden, that I must choose the girl, unhelped by my forefathers or the astrologers or the mountain spirits. And this rebellion against nature and fatality I had learned from the West. Small wonder I had struggled with my father over every ounce of Western learning. I had gone against his will to mission schools, those devilish cults which preach divorce in the blood, and spiritual kinships, which foster the very distortions found, says the golden-hearted Mencius, in the cleverish man. I had studied in Japanese schools and it must be confessed, my studies had brought ever increased rebellion and dismay-to me as well as my father.
The military position of Japan-intrenched in Korea in my own lifetime—forced me into dilemma: Scylla and Charybdis. I was caught between—on the one hand, the heart-broken death of the old traditions irrevocably smashed not by me but by Japan (and yet I seemed to the elders to be conspiring with Japanese)-and on the other hand the zealous summary glibness of Japan, fast-Westernizing, using the Western incantations to realize her ancient fury of spirit, which Korea had always felt encroaching, but had snubbed in a blind disdain. Korea, a small, provincial, old-fashioned Confucian nation, hopelessly trapped by a larger, expanding one, was called to get off the earth. Death summoned. I could have renounced the scholar's dream forever (plainly scholarship had dreamed us away into ruin) and written my vengeance against Japan in martyr's blood, a blood which like that of the Tasmanians is strangely silent though to a man they wrote. Or I could take away my slip cut from the roots, and try to engraft my scholar inherited kingdom upon the world's thought. But what I could not bear was the thought of futility, the futility of the martyr, or the death-stifled scholar back home. It was so that the individualist was born, the individualist, demanding life and more life, fulfilment, some answer to his thronging questions, some recognition of his death-wasted life, some anchor in thin air to bring him to earth though he seems cut off from the very roots of being.
And this it was-this naked individual slip-I had brought to New York.
"Dream, tall dreams," I thought. "Such are proper to man. But they must be solid, well planned, engineered and founded on rock."
Had I not reached the arena of man's fight with death? I sat there on a park bench, savouring rebellion, dreaming the Faustian dream, without knowing of Faust, seeing myself with the Eastern scholarship in one hand, the Western in the other. And as I sat it grew colder. I had thought a little of spending the night on that bench. It appealed to me to wake up here with the dawn and find myself in New York. It would not be the first night I had slept roofless in a large city. But in the inner lining of my cap, I had four dollars, all I had left, in fact, after my long gestation by boat and by train. I decided to get myself the birthday present of a room.
Copyright © 2019 by Younghill Kang. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.