Portrait of Jungwoong Kim

“She went in the water and picked up shells on the beach. It was wonderful to see my mother touching the water.”

Jungwoong Kim is a dancer and choreographer from South Korea.

36. IMG_0431Photo by Jennifer Baker

In 2005 I got a grant to visit another country to study. I chose to go to New York City for six months. I was interested in contact improvisation. New York is the center for cultural exchange and I had access to learn about contact improvisation. At that time, I didn’t speak any English at all. I only knew the word yes. I am a good dancer and people want to know about me but I could only say yes. By dancing, I get to know people.

Before coming to New York, I went to the Korea National University of Art in Seoul and studied choreography. But I wanted to see bigger space and learn about other cultures. I wanted to find my own way and figure out what I needed to say as an artist. I knew this chance was going to be a life change.

During those six months in New York, I found my future. I found what I like and what I want to continue doing. The second important thing is that I met my wife. Language was really challenging but my brain continued working even though I couldn’t talk with anyone. That place made me more creative. I knew what I wanted but didn’t know how to get there.

One of my teachers in New York would have us do an exercise with closed eyes, everyone solo, and then we would touch everyone and dance together. I feel like I know this woman I was dancing with very well—we travel from earth to sky. Then we separate from our partner and open our eyes. I looked for who I was dancing with and saw a woman also looking around. We became friends.

A year later we performed together for a month in Korea and decided to live there for a year and a half. We also traveled in Europe together and I really liked that she wasn’t uncomfortable in different places. My wife studied Korean so she could speak to my mother. My mother was 69 years old. She lived in the same town, same house, her whole life and does not change easily. We helped her be more open to see new cultures and accept our relationship.

Marion suggested before we left that we have a dinner with friends. We rented a beautiful space near the mountains and had traditional dinner with friends and family and we took a picture all together. We had a Korean dinner with many small dishes, chicken bulgogi, spicy foods. Instead of fork and knife we ate with stainless steal chopsticks and spoons. We kept the memory of the community we had created which was a mix of my family and other foreigners (Japanese, American, Colombian). During that year, these people were very important as we all learn how to bridge our cultures with Korean families.

We moved here in 2008, first to New York and then to Philadelphia. That year we invited my mother to come to Puerto Rico where we planned to have our wedding. On December 24 we got married. We invited my mother, my sister, and my sister’s daughter. It was a beautiful wedding next to the beach. It was her first time in another country. She came to New York first and it was the first time she saw so much snow. There was lots of snow that winter. Then we went to Puerto Rico. Summer in winter. It was her first time wearing a bathing suit. She went in the water and picked up shells on the beach. It was wonderful to see my mother touching the water. She was like a teenager. She had a new experience. It was a gift for her. We went back to New York and took her to the airport and she cried, “When will I see you again?” One year later our son Ari was born. My mother wanted to see him so we all went to Korea.

It was a difficult time in Korea when my mother was born in 1948. If you could eat, that is good. Every day was just survival. Our choices are so different. She tries to keep an open mind when she is with us and we try to learn from her.

When I came here my first impression was that I felt lost. But I feel more free to do my work here. An immigrant can figure out every day, “What is my identity?” I cannot go back to Korea, my life has changed. Asking this question makes me stronger as a person and as an artist. But I continue to question if I can live here all my life. When I die, where do I go? I am Korean but I am not Korean. My son is half and half, what is his identity? I need to put my anchor here so my son’s identity will be more stable. I figure out how to teach him Korean language and culture and wish for him to grow in his curiosity of my heritage.

A few times I think I will go back. I miss my friends and family. It is hard to have a baby with no family around. I reach out to connect with Korean friends but continuity sometimes becomes difficult as I have moved several times. Marion and I work together. I teach her Korean, she teaches me Spanish, we have a trilingual home in Philadelphia. For some people it is strange to hear us talking in all three languages in every conversation but that is our support system and we are comfortable with this multicultural daily experience. We never know all about the other, always new things to learn, this is interesting. We’re getting older but we continue to develop together. In the US, I follow my heart to make friendships and extended family, it doesn’t matter where they are from.

Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition June 25–28, 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.

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