by Sun Yung Shin
“The words he uttered were no longer understandable, apparently, although they seemed clear enough to him,” Franz Kafka, Die Verwandlung, 1915, The Metamorphosis, translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir, Schocken; 3rd edition, 1975
“You’ve had yourself stolen, haven’t you? There is someone who looks exactly like you, isn’t there?” Kim So-un, “The Disowned Student,” The Story Bag: A Collection of Korean Folktales, translated from the Japanese by Setsu Higashi, Vermont and Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1953
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It is now known that a fetus dreams. Infants make memories, memories not accessible to the older mind, but perhaps to other systems of the body, older systems than our frontal lobe and other parts of our brain that developed later in our evolution. Dreams occur during REM sleep, which, according to Dr. Charles P. Pollak, director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital, is “an evolutionarily old type of sleep that occurs at all life stages, including infancy, and even before infancy, in fetal life.”
As a Korean adoptee who has not been able to find any members of my (Korean) family, I have no access to stories about my so-called fetal life, or to the body of the (my) mother who was the creator, protector, and nurturer of that (my) life. I was with her (here it is tempting to write “Her” due to her personally mythic and unknowable status) until I was about six months old. I was breastfed and I was bonded to her—information I can extrapolate from records made after I was abandoned and ushered into the social service system in South Korea.
I was born in or around May of 1974. I do not know my real birthdate or my name, both blanks which are profound sources of shame and grief and loss, though I understand that the existence of those erasures are hardly the worst thing that can happen to a person. It’s what they represent: unshake-off-able, existential anxiety; permanent emotional disorientation; uncertainty about one’s embedded-ness in a shared time; and a sense of being an object, easily laundered and transferred. Relocated and reassigned. Physically safe, perhaps, and fed and sheltered, but without one’s first essential need: one’s mother, one’s ur-body.
To give some historical context to my birth time, I do know that a few months later on August 14, 1974, Park Chung-hee, the military dictator of South Korea, who had declared himself “president for life,” was the target of an assassination attempt by Mun Se-gwang. This violent incident resulted in the death-by-gunfire of Park’s wife, Yuk Young-soo, and a high school student who was part of a choir performing at the ceremony. My country, a people with a continuous history of over 5,000 years, was left divided since the end of the Korean War. That peninsula-wide trauma resulted in tens of thousands of children being made available for adoption to the West, first to the U.S. The profound disruption of the end of Japan’s colonial occupation, the brutal civil war, and the aftermath orchestrated by the U.S., resulted in unprecedented political and social change.
Perhaps my father and mother were people from the North, refugees to the South, ultimately trapped below the 38th parallel. Perhaps they were married but I was the fourth child, one too many. Perhaps my mother was raped by a taxi driver. Perhaps my parents were involved in a extramarital affair and could not be together. Perhaps my father died, or moved away. Perhaps my mother wanted to keep me but could not find the support. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. . . .
Park’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, now sixty years old, who was a young woman of twenty-two when I was born, was recently elected President of the Republic of Korea, the first woman to hold this office. She, being the daughter of a dictator, among other things, is a figure of controversy. Underneath (or merely behind) the machinery of politics, I wonder what dreams her mother, Young-soo, had while she was pregnant. What maternal stamps and stains marked her, competed or melded with Chung-hee’s heritable contributions? Could they have predicted that the mother, the First Lady of a despot, would give way, in this manner, to the daughter?
I wrote an essay, titled “One Hundred Days in the Cave;” it was published by Cerise Press. It contained this explanation, from Korean sources, of the importance of fetal life:
Koreans count the gestation period as the first year in a child’s life.
It is believed that the mother’s thoughts, behaviors, and feeling during the pregnancy will have a formative influence on the well-being of the fetus, so the prenatal period is called the education period for the unborn child.
A dream may predict the kind of person the unborn child will be.
Someone very close to the child-to-be-born—the mother, grandfather, or other close relative—is likely to have such a significant premonition-like dream.
During the six or seven months of my life outside the womb, in my post-fetal life, I surely dreamed. I also experienced three families, three mothers during that time. A foster family cared for me until I was adopted by an American couple. I was delivered at the age of thirteen months, or, about one year in American time, while, in Korean time, I was over two years old.
I am now a mother, with a daughter and a son. They are growing up quickly, born in 1997 and 2000. I remember well their slow fetal metamorphoses. My sleep was highly interrupted by various expected discomforts.
Did I loan them my sleep? What dreams did I give them?
In the late summer of 2010 I had a miscarriage at nine weeks. I was in Korea at the time with my husband. It was hot. I had been experiencing, as I had before, olfactory sensitivity, fatigue, and morning sickness. At some point, late in our trip, though I kept it to myself, I knew something was wrong. I no longer felt pregnant. Once we returned to the States, I went for my scheduled obstetric check-up, it was confirmed. The nurse could find no heartbeat. The ultrasound tech could find no movement. The doctor delivered news I already knew, but had still hoped was wrong.
Like for many pregnancies, forever throughout human history, those fetal dreams never made it outside the womb. The making of a human—our large brains, those frontal lobes, that capacity for memory, planning, and cruelty—is an energy-intensive and complicated, though automated, process.
Apparently, many embryos “know” there is something wrong with them and thus efficiently self-destruct, making way for the next embryo that may have a better chance at survival outside the womb’s plush red palace.
In Greek mythology, dreams were thought to exist close to the underworld. When I looked up Morpheus, the god of dreams who is winged and can take any form, Wikipedia (don’t tell my students I visited this forbidden resource) offered this:
“According to the Orphic Argonautica (line 1142) the land of dreams (δῆμος ὀνείρων) was located somewhere in the underworld, presumably near the domain of Night and her children. Poets often referred to the two gates leading from the dream realm. One gate was fashioned of sawn ivory, the other of polished horn. False dreams were said to pass through the gate of ivory, while truthful, prophetic dreams winged their way out through the gate of horn. There was also said to be a wilted elm tree in Morpheus’ domain, upon which the dreams fashioned by the Oneiroi hung, with the appearance of winged phantom-shapes.”
As I task my memory-organ to re-member my life in Korea, I breed dream after dream. False dreams? Truthful dreams? Hanging? Phantom-shaped? They drop like ripe fruit, then disappear before hitting the ground. Dreams are ephemera and have no body to violate, no flesh to decay. They can remain fresh as the wind, recycled like hot vapor rising from the ocean, into frozen clouds, and back into the crashing black water—the source of all dreams, the living body of our planet.
A few years ago, I had my first dream, that I could recall, that was set in Korea. Everyone, including me, was speaking Korean. A grandmother and a hut and a doorway figured prominently. There might have been a fire. There might have been daylight.
I woke up changed, an altered person. Transformed. But not visibly.
In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, awakens one morning to find that he has become a monstrous vermin. We are not privy to the transformation itself, nor to any rational explanation for the radical change. It can be read as, among many other things, a metaphor for the arbitrariness of punishment in an indifferent, hostile universe. Though there is a hospital right across the street from his room, no attempt is made to either bring Gregor there or fetch a doctor.
Late in the story, a large, bony, wild haired “char woman” (a stand-in for the archetypal witch, although bemused and practical rather than wicked and rapacious) addresses Gregor as “you old dung beetle.” I learned that dung beetles live on the dung from other animals and can roll dung balls many times their own weight. Some dung beetles also eat decayed vegetation. Gregor found he preferred rotting food to the food he used to enjoy in his previous form. A metamorphosis (the Greek words for “change” and “form”) is one of the dung beetle’s life stages. A dung beetle may begin its life as an egg inside a dung ball. The egg hatches and the larva eats the dung until it emerges from the ball a fully formed adult—a singular evolution.
In Kafka’s tale, Gregor devolves. He is transformed during sleep, during the time of dreams. He spends the rest of his life in his bedroom. Its furniture irrelevant as Gregor enjoys crawling on the walls and ceilings, since he can no longer lie comfortably in bed, cannot sit on his settee or at his desk. By the end of his sad, solitary life of working to pay off his parents’ debt (the German word schuld means both debt and guilt), he has shrunken, and his body is placed into a small box. A paper coffin, like a grave made of something as flimsy as words. Easily hidden, buried, burned.
Abandoned then re-en-familied, and re-kinned, I, as an adoptee, am many things, including, I would posit, both a form of ongoing transit and a re-territory, a re-form. This form takes on different meanings depending on the place, the language, and the people who are looking, listening—or not there to listen, or there, but not able to understand.
How important is memory?
The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say about memory, an explanation of its complexity that comforts me and somewhat affirms my preoccupation with my fetal psychic amnesia:
“Remembering is often suffused with emotion, and is closely involved in both extended affective states such as love and grief, and socially significant practices such as promising and commemorating. It is essential for much reasoning and decision-making, both individual and collective. It is connected in obscure ways with dreaming. Some memories are shaped by language, others by imagery. Much of our moral and social life depends on the peculiar ways in which we are embedded in time. Memory goes wrong in mundane and minor, or in dramatic and disastrous ways.”
My fetal dreams, my memories, while un-worded by me, and mundane, minor in the scheme of things, coalesce to form something: the abandoned, a student of my-self, a stranger, a double, one disowned and re-owned, winged, made of polished horn, in debt, haunted by guilt, monstrous, arbitrary, punished, rewarded; nameless and re-named.
All of us dreamers, past, present, and future—this is us, sleeping, waking, through time, through the gate.