Both Sanctuary and Wasteland
The DMZ between North and South Korea is a powder keg that is also a haven for thousands of endangered birds
The DMZ (demilitarized zone) is a 155 mile stretch of land between North and South Korea across which opposing armies have all manor of weapons pointed at each other. This narrow strip of land is only 2.5 miles wide. It follows the 38th parallel because some American who had never even been to Korea picked this number on a map.
Fenced off with barbed wire and riddled with land mines, it is free of humans and other large mammals, who can’t enter, or perish if they do.
In the absence of such predators, about 5000 species of birds and plants, like the endangered white-naped crane, have made their home in the DMZ. Even though North Korean propaganda music blares in some spots, there are quite spots where birds take sanctuary, oblivious to the reason for this protected space.
My father’s childhood home is on the the Northern side of the DMZ. He lived there before it was called the DMZ. He used to be able to cross through this stretch to get to his cousin’s house. The thing I didn’t know about borders is that they are often they are temporary checkpoints — they close, they open, they are permeable. Until one day someone across the ocean declares that the border closure is permanent. And a nine-year old child is left on one side, with his parents and home on the other.
At age nine, my father took care of his four year old sister. For food, they dug sweet potatoes left behind in the harvest out of the frozen ground. They slept in an abandoned windowless, hut with no heat or water. When his sister cried for her mother at night, he tried to comfort her until he got tired and did what you’d expect a nine-year old to do with an unconsolable sister who won’t listen to reason — he punched her.
How did he survive? The facts spill out randomly. In response to my toddler son’s refusal to take a bath, my father laughs, “When I was a kid I only took a bath once a year, in the river.” I remind my father that we have heat and running water, and I will bathe my son more than once a year.
When my children are 11 and 8 we send them across the country unaccompanied on a flight, and they are picked up by my in-laws on the other end. “Habbi, habbi — we flew all by ourselves!” Eli tells him breathlessly upon their return.
“Did you have a ticket?” my father asks, unimpressed. “When I was your age I snuck onto trains without a ticket, hiding behind women with big skirts.”
There is little space to be a daughter of someone who grew up like this. There is no room for regular teenage complaints, like, “Why can’t I go to see a movie with my friends?”
Because my father grew up without his parents, we always tiptoe and only move with his mood. Because my father grew up with out his parents, he doesn’t really know when his birthday is, so birthdays are not a thing for him.
That’s why when he calls me on the morning of my fiftieth birthday to leave me a voicemail, I learn when I sit down to listen to it over coffee that it’s only a record of frustration about the cancellation of the flight I bought for him. Of course that’s why he called.
Because there is no space to be a daughter to someone who lost his parents this way, I can’t be sad that my father doesn’t remember my birthday. Instead, I wonder what it would be like to be able to expect your father to think of you this way. Like a person, who is aging, and isolated, but still someone’s child.
The space to be a daughter is so narrow. And always about to explode.