Trigger Warning: CSA, sexual abuse, domestic violence, gender-based violence
They taught me in church that it is part of our Christian duty to be a “voice for the voiceless.”
I heard it at white church.
I heard it at Korean American church (But we just called it Korean church.)
I regurgitated it and I believed it and by the time I reached my late teens years I was ready to go out and do it.
They praised me, they celebrated me, they paraded me around as the future of the Church.
They did this until the moment I began to dig into this question:
“Who exactly are the voiceless? And what do they need me to say?”
Because it turned out “the voiceless” were actually people like us who had voices of their own. And they didn’t need me to say anything for them, because they were already speaking for themselves.
We simply weren’t listening.
As I started to share what I was learning, the church began to back away from me. I was breaking rank. I was no longer a poster child, because I was no longer using their collective language. As I moved away from regurgitating their voice and began to dabble in using my own, I became less predictable, and that made me a risk.
At first this rejection hurt, but then, it was freeing.
Because, it made me realize that the reason I had been all too willing to agree to speak for others was because it meant that I didn’t have to use my voice to be truly brave. If I was busy using my voice to speak for other people, I didn’t have to use my voice to speak for myself.
I had been taught that silence was safety for so long that I had built a home for myself almost entirely on the foundation of keeping the truth quiet.
“No one can do anything to you that you don’t actually want them to do.”
He told me this while in the act of molesting me. I was eight years old, but it had already been happening for as long as I could could remember. I wanted to run. I wanted to scream. But it was too late. I had already learned long before that my voice had no power.
“He pushed me up against the wall,” I told her. “But it was because he wanted to protect me.” I added that because I wanted to protect him too. I didn’t tell her how the mirror broke when my tiny body crashed into it. I didn’t tell her how I couldn’t breathe with his hand on my neck. She told me it was just between us. But, it wasn’t. And when he found out, I learned just how dangerous a fraction of truth could be. Total silence was the only safe retreat.
“Other people won’t understand,” and, “All families struggle like this, they just don’t show it,” my omma told me. They always told me in church not to lie. But, at home, my omma taught me that lying to protect my family was what good girls did. Because, if I told the truth people could get hurt. People could get taken away. I would be alone. The truth will set you free—unless you are an abused little girl. Then the truth will strip you of everything and everyone you’ve ever known and loved.
By the time I reached young adulthood, I had built a fortress for myself and my loved ones out of my own silence. I had been burying my voice for so long that I had forgotten what it even sounded like.
I left the white evangelical church in America. I left the Korean church in America. And I got on a plane to South Korea.
For the first time in my life I did something just because I wanted to. It was the first time I heard my own inner voice, and trusted it enough to listen. I had a vague hope that I would find a sense of connection and a better understanding of my mother, and that was enough for me to pick up and move.
What I found was that distance from all I had ever known gave me the power and freedom to begin to use my voice— first to speak truth to myself, then to speak it to others.
I had been in Seoul a few months when I was first asked,”Are you Russia saram?” I didn’t understand then but quickly learned that Russian was code for sex worker or sex slave, and that that was code for subhuman creature to whom a man can do whatever he wants. I understood this as the drunk ajjushi chased me home, clawing at my body, and pounded on my door shouting curse words that I only somewhat recognized from my mother’s angry outbursts, until the police came and told him to go back to work.
The only consequence that day was me completely turning inward and bombarding myself with self-loathing and shame.
But, it was that reaction, plus the distance, that allowed me to admit to myself for the very first time that I was not just a trained “advocate” and “ally” for women who had been or were being abused, but I too had been a victim. I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence, and that had had deep effects on me. It was a jarring realization, and I felt like I was being cracked open—a splitting pain but also a relief like never before.
The next week would be the first time I ever said the words aloud to another human being. That was the beginning of my becoming a truth teller— a becoming that would assure that I could never return to “home” as I had known it. But I didn’t know, or care, about that then.
I was a newborn tasting air for the first time.
“We can no longer support you.”
“Your history of being abused makes you unfit to work with women who have been abused.”
“You are being used as an instrument in the hands of the devil.”
“You need to let go of the past, and be reconciled.”
Once I returned to the US and began to speak my truth, I was bombarded by ignorance. But, I really didn’t care. I was finally free, and there was nothing and no one that could silence or hinder me.
Except for these words, from my mother, my halmoni and my emo: “But, he is still your family. You have to honor him.”
I refused to see him. I had made my peace. I had decided that he was old and ill enough that he was not a risk to other girls so I would not waste my time in the courts. I was done with him.
So everytime they would meet with him and tell him what was going on in my life, I felt my agency and my voice being stolen again. He did not deserve the access that they gave him, and it was a clear transgression of boundaries that I had finally learned to set. Besides, he was related through my father’s side by marriage and even my father no longer had any contact with him. Why would they continue to hurt and betray me this way when they knew what he had done?
These were the women who loved me most in the world. They had been my sustainers. To them, I had always been and would always be the most precious thing in their lives. They love me with a kind of burning passion and depth of affection beyond my comprehension. They had always been fierce in their protectiveness over me.
I just couldn’t understand what was missing. How could they love me and still hurt me this way? Would we ever understand one another?
More than six years passed before I returned to Korea again.
I had spent those years re-learning how to speak. Getting to know my own voice, deconstructing and reconstructing it again and again, and little by little mining out gems of truth that had been hidden for far too long in that old home-turned-prison called silence.
In those years, I burned that prison to the ground, cell by cell. And while I now found myself free, I also found myself uprooted and homeless. I often wondered if that would be my new reality, and had decided that I would be okay with it if it was. Home had never been a safe place, anyway– if it had ever even existed at all.
This time when I moved to Korea, it was for work. I was now nearing thirty, married, and confident in my identity as a biracial Korean American woman — a nomad living in the in between spaces in nearly every area of my life. But, I still carried with me the old familiar hope that this move would bring me deeper connection and understanding with the women in my family. The women who loved me but, who were in so many ways beyond my comprehension.
The community that I formed in Korea started with my work in the red light districts, and spilled over into the community of young Korean women activists who asked myself and other foreign women residing in Korea to come alongside them in their fight for gender justice.
I had arrived in Korea at a moment when the fight for gender equality and taking a stand against gender based violence was a tide beginning to swell. It was a moment where things that had long between whispered between women, behind walls, in the darkness, were spilling over into the light. Those whispers were collectively forming a roar, brought to a head by the murder of a woman in a public restroom by a man whose only criteria for targeting her was her female body. The momentum would later be spurred on by the rising tide of the burgeoning global #metoo movement.
In this context, a small group of women and I found one another. We were diverse, a mixture of Korean born women and expats from different ethnicities, nationalities, backgrounds, belief systems. And we decided to do a bilingual Korean and English production of the Vagina Monologues.
As we met, practiced, shared, I found elements of myself yet undiscovered. I found it especially among other women with Korean mothers and grandmothers and aunts who loved them, and who silenced them. Who chose their brothers first, who ignored their cries, who couldn’t protect them, who wanted only for them to be strong and to survive. I also found it among Korean women of my mother’s age, who were unafraid to embrace me and to call out bullshit, regardless of cultural norms and expectations.
In our shared commitment to storytelling as activism, I realized that my voice, intertwined with the voices of each woman who shared her story, and woven together by the voices of the women whose stories we heard and held, had formed into roots. Rather than finding my roots, I had in fact taken part in creating them.
Before then, my voice alone had been a powerful force in setting me free, but had left me without a sure footing. But now, our voices together formed a power even greater; our voices together were connection, they were community — and what are those things, if not the foundation on which home is built.
And the wonderful thing about a home with roots, as opposed to one with walls: it expands and grows as you do.
I saw my mother again last year. Bolstered by the strength of the roots I had grown, I had the courage to be vulnerable enough to tell her exactly what I had suffered, and without my usual protective defenses up, how she had hurt me. And through tears she told me things that showed me that she actually understood from experience more than I had ever known.
We are still reaching out to one another for connection, one revelation at a time.
It is hard. It is messy. And I have great hope.
Now that I am secure in my voice and my place, I am able to hear her voice more clearly; and not only that, I am content to carry between us all of the things that will likely forever be left unsaid.
Because finding the words to tell the truth can be one of the hardest things we will ever do. It is also one of the most freeing and sacred; for no matter how long we are silenced, none of us is voiceless. And none of us have the right to rob another of the chance to discover that for themselves.
Elizabeth is currently most likely to be spotted exploring South East Asia with her husband Marc and her dog Mr. Chi.