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My grandmother and me, 1994

To my four-year-old self, my paternal grandmother was an incomprehensibly old woman with a baffling cross-hatch of wrinkles that divided her brow vertically and horizontally like a waffle. When I visited my grandmother again in Seoul, Korea, at age 19, I was shocked at the resemblance between us. Not only were we physically similar—with tiny eyes, an oval face, and diminutive stature—but our gestures were also identical, even though we had met no more than four times in our lives. We both gave an upper-lip snarl to express contempt and used the same grandiose gesticulations when making an important point. Plus, we both had voices of an uncannily similar timbre, along with a fiery temper that was passed down through generations, an heirloom of dubious value.

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My grandmother at age 16 (left); me at age 22 (right)

My grandmother, Cho Ah-Young, was a writer and a visual artist, as I am. A passionate advocate of her own work, she weathered adverse conditions, including two wars and an abusive husband, to create and disseminate her poetry. In the ’80s my grandmother discovered the virtues of the Xerox machine and spent blissful hours at the neighborhood copy place replicating her masterpieces. She would return home with armfuls of duplicates and beamingly distribute them among her neighbors. My grandmother later boasted to us that she had been recommended as a National Treasure of South Korea for her poetry. She also regarded herself as the “Second Greatest Brush Painter of South Korea” (the first being her rival Chul-Gyung Lee). All bragging aside, her talent was palpable, and she was well regarded in Korean literary circles.

Though a natural self-promoter, my grandmother was introspective and seemed to enjoy having her picture taken alone. There are many portraits of her as a young woman, established in her self-identity but searching for something beyond the painted backdrop and the camera.

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My grandmother in her early twenties, Seoul, Korea

Similarly, I have spent late nights drawing self-portraits in front of the mirror, usually during times of crisis or profound loneliness. The only ballast I have then is my own face. While sketching, I seek shelter in the moment and solace in the familiarity of my reflection.

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Self-Portrait with Headphones, 2008

When I visited my grandmother again in my twenties, she heartily confided to me that she used to love drinking and dancing—which happened to be two of my favorite activities. For a woman living in conservative South Korea during the early twentieth century, my grandmother was a radical and irrepressible free spirit. I courted trouble as a teenager by becoming a punk rocker and eventually an anarchist. Like my grandmother, I was outspoken in my political views and attended many demonstrations, including the infamous Seattle WTO protests in 1999.

Even though my grandmother spoke only anachronistic Korean and I spoke late-twentieth-century English, we still managed to understand each other. My grandmother’s method of conveying things to me was to speak as if she were instructing a three-year-old. She repeated phrases over and over with exaggerated pantomime and sound effects. “For pretty lips, put some honey—you know … honey … booong booong [the sound Korean bees make]—on your finger and do this,” she’d say. Then my grandmother would purse her lips and rapidly poke them with her finger, making a sound like “muh-muh-muh-muh.”

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With my grievously limited Korean skills, I could discern little of what my grandmother was saying when she inevitably got on the subject of Korean history. To my ears, it sounded like she was saying, “Big mountain … Korea … war … LOTS of dead people.” Then my grandmother would clutch herself and heave a melodramatic sigh to emphasize the tragedy. It was a bit like watching the Muppet Show, but I would nod agreeably and try to look empathetic.

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My grandmother was famous for her poems about the maudlin history of her oft-colonized country. My greatest regret is not being able to read and fully understand her poetry; it feels like gazing at a walled garden and seeing only the tops of its vivid blossoms. It makes me sad that I will never fully understand the literary decisions that went into her work and, likewise, my late grandmother will never know my writing. But one day I will hire a translator and enter the garden she painstakingly cultivated.

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During one of my last visits with her, my grandmother positioned herself in front of me, firmly placing her hands on my shoulders, and gazed into my eyes with mute adoration. We were sitting opposite each other, like mirror images, on the floor of her traditional Korean house. I now realize that this gesture was her best, most affectionate attempt at bridging the significant cultural and generational divide between us. She died a few years later, in 2000, on the cusp of the Millennium, having experienced America only through letters and photos.

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A decade and a half later, my grandmother’s voice reemerged from a letter I found at my parents’ house. She had written the letter in response to two drawings I’d created as a sixth grader and mailed to her in Seoul. My mother translated, “Thank you for the sketch of myself and the self-portrait you sent of yourself. We do look alike. I was so surprised to find out that you drew those. I like to draw too. Yoona, you make your grandma very proud.”

While drawing her portrait from a photo, I had been impressed at the steely woman in dark-framed glasses staring into the camera. Every now and again, approaching my forties, I catch a glimpse of her in the mirror.

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My grandmother never made it to the States, but I reside in Seattle and try to continue her legacy in my own way. Like her, I craft and obsessively refine text and image; her spirit, even across cultures, is unmistakable in my work. Maybe one of these days, I’ll enter her garden. I know she’s already entered mine.

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