Surprised by Grief, Soothed by Korean Television Drama
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My father passed away in his sleep on August 28, 2016. He was surrounded by his two daughters, his youngest sister, and Geraldine, his caregiver of the past four years. Except for the fact that he was in a hospital bed, with a roommate who spent the night expectorating vigorously, his death was as easy as one could hope for. He had taken ill suddenly; he was not in pain; he was quietly fading away in his sleep, and we were keeping watch over him. When he slipped away, there was a choked sob or two, but for the most part this was, for all parties, a good death: peaceful for my father, guilt-free for us. We had done all we could have done. We had no regrets.
This was the fourth time death had entered my life and the first where I felt at peace with its surreptitious incursion. No doubt, death’s arrival was unexpected—we had, until he came down with a respiratory infection, thought our father strong enough to live for another decade—but it was not so unexpected as to shock us. He was eighty-one and a long-time diabetic. I was prepared for an uncomplicated grief.
My emotional ties to my father were lighter and less fraught than they had been with my grandmother and mother. I was fond of him—he was a charming, cheeky rogue—but he did not quite feel like a father to me. In his later years, as blindness had shrunk his world to his bedroom, he seemed more like a mischievous pet that I had been tasked with looking after and spoiling. His world revolved around himself, and I was seldom of real interest to him except perhaps as a source of income—but whatever resentment I had against him, I had dealt with a long time ago. I expected some sadness; I did not expect a spell of madness.
It was not a full-on frenzy, more a startling loss of internal footing. I felt unhinged, unbalanced, unusually nihilistic. As I teetered, I fell down a most unlikely rabbit hole: Korean television drama.
Since 2000, Korean dramas had swept through Asia, becoming massive and addictive sensations. My mother, in Singapore, had been an early fan, eagerly following them till her death in 2012. Even my sister, stationed in Beijing, had capitulated. Academics across the region picked up on the phenomenon, and conferences and edited volumes began to appear, offering explanations for the remarkable boom that ranged from the economic to the aspirational to the essentialist. Some argued that Korean dramas were popular because they had high production values, yet were sold quite cheaply to television and cable stations. Asian broadcasters thought them inexpensive fillers for their schedules, and viewers eventually caught on because of the quality of the writing and production.
The social world presented in these series was also urban and urbane. Populated with good-looking, well-dressed actors who navigated the struggles of modern city life suavely, the glamour of Korean modernity was an exotic siren call for the less developed pockets of Asia. Some thought it was the familiarity of “Asian values” that attracted a large regional viewership. One Hong Kong scholar told me her hunch was that Korean dramas attracted Hong Kong audiences because of their emphasis on family.
This initial wave of Korean drama-mania, however, had passed me by. I watched a few episodes of the latest hit series while at home with my mother or while visiting my sister, but I quickly grew impatient with the melodramatic twists and turns of the plot. My mother, long-divorced from my unreliable father and with time on her hands, was an assiduous watcher and tried to fill me in, but I was boggled by the angst-ridden tales of mistaken identity and random car accidents resulting in amnesia. This was simply souped-up soap opera. I sniffed and sneered, shuffling to my bedroom to read a book when the show du jour came on.
But after my father died, surprised by grief, all I could bear to watch were the romance-driven Korean dramas that I had long snubbed. A part of me was perplexed by this. Another part no longer cared.
Grief wounds differently each time. Pain is a given: those unpredictable moments when you feel fine—and then, just as suddenly, not fine. But grieving for my mother a few years earlier, I had noted something new. I felt the snapping of strings and the flailing of a limb. It was the snipping of my ties to a past. It did not panic me then, for I still had my father to look after, and with that, I still had an identifiable place and role in the universe: that of daughter and protector of an aged parent. But when that last thread broke, as an old man’s heartbeat quietly slipped to nothing, I was overcome. With all strings cut, I should have been relishing my freedom. My filial duties, particularly when it came to looking after an improvident father, had limited my own options in life. Now I could look forward to thinking only about myself and focusing on what I wanted. Yet, as this moment arrived, I was aghast to find myself slumped over like a crumpled, broken marionette. Why did being free feel like free-falling? And why was Korean drama breaking my fall?
Perhaps it was nothing more than a cotton-candy distraction from the diffuse pain of loss. In the days preparing for the wake and funeral, and in the days after as we sorted my father’s affairs, my sister and I unwound each night by watching an episode of the latest Korean drama before bed. Perhaps it allowed us to feel normal for a brief while, for what could be more ordinary than slumping on the sofa and allowing ourselves to be swept away by the romantic ups and downs of the heroine and the machinations of her lover’s family? It felt good to forget about everything for an hour or so.
Afterwards, back in Hong Kong on my own, listless and unfocused, I found that the soothing pattern of watching a Korean drama became a crutch—and maybe something more. Shut up in my apartment, uninterested in my friends or in any form of social engagement, I curled up in bed and binged on Korean dramas online, devouring an entire series within 48 hours or less. I was losing myself in them, but the act of watching was, at least, giving me a sense of purpose. It was one thing I genuinely wanted to do each day. Cliffhanger after cliffhanger, the narrative suspense was keeping me going. Would Ha-won really walk away from the man she loves because she believes she is the cause of his grandfather’s collapse? Would Young-shin discover that her hapless colleague Bong-soo is actually the mysterious man who keeps saving her time and again? Would Jae-yeol be able to overcome his schizophrenic hallucinations and return to health and his lover? As grief dissolved my life’s plot, I could only cling to someone else’s story.
But if what I needed was merely narrative, I could have settled on any number of American or British television series. I had, in the past, avidly followed the latest BBC or HBO hits; I’d also been a hardcore Joss Whedon fan. But now, none of the most recent Western shows held any appeal for me. Feeling unmoored and unsafe, grief was making me a sucker for happy endings, and I could trust K-drama, with its bent toward romantic comedy, to make a world all awry come aright. Yet the genre does not shy away from difficult subjects: It’s Okay, It’s Love has a schizophrenic hero abused as a child by his stepfather; the hero of Jealousy Incarnate suffers from breast cancer but manages to survive the indignities of mammograms and chemotherapy as a lone man in a sea of female patients; Fantastic follows the heroine as she battles cancer. They all struggle, but eventually find love, acceptance, and healing. If there is a silver lining in the bleak depths of this universe, a Korean romantic comedy can find it.
Many years ago, I watched a BBC documentary on child-rearing in which the narrator called a child a “love-seeking missile.” Recognizing that his mother was cool to him, the small boy turned toward his father for attention and affirmation. He knew where to find the love he needed. My obsession with Korean drama also had the purposefulness of a missile. I hurtled toward it with a force I could not control, my unconscious insisting, Here, here, here is your answer. Equal parts mystified and gratified, I clicked play and felt the air rush back into my lungs.
Though far removed from the English Renaissance, Korean romantic comedies remind me of Shakespearean comedy in that, at the end of each, there is a clear sense of a new generation, a reconstituted family sweeping in to repair the damages of the old. The families at the beginning of each series—fractured by neglect, abuse, corruption, petty jealousies, and class snobbery—find redemption as our hero and heroine fall in love. With that, the family is reformed along new, more progressive lines. The message is clear: finding true love means finding a new family, too.
As my grief deranged me, I gradually realized that that I was staying the course of many a series, brilliant or otherwise, more for the family and group dynamics than for the sweetness and angst of the romantic pairings. I watched as cousins, siblings, parents and children, friends within a self-chosen tribe, squabbled and fumed before finally coming through for one another. I was delighted when the three Kang cousins, often at odds, finally bonded as their grandfather lay close to death in hospital in Cinderella and Four Knights. That two rival ex-wives should decide, on the death of their former husband, to live together for the sake of his only daughter in Jealousy Incarnate elated me. Alone in my flat, I found solace in the way these characters came to understand their place in a larger kinship structure. Their happiness was richly layered, grounded in a deep sense of belonging—first to their beloved, and then to their family, tribe, and community. They had found a place within something larger than themselves.
With my sister in Singapore, my boyfriend on a different continent, and my circle of friends shrinking, I was haunted by my own sense of displacement. I had played the good daughter out of duty for so long that I hadn’t realized how much I would miss being one. Even more unexpectedly, I missed having a father. For a mad moment, I wished that my family history pivoted on one of Korean drama’s favorite tropes: the family secret. In these shows, often the man you call father isn’t really your father; the woman you love is possibly your half-sister. The childhood love you cherished but were separated from is actually the stranger who has just entered your life, and unbeknownst to you, you are connected to your beloved through your parents in surprising ways. Layers of secrets and long-hidden mysteries can unravel settled lives, or clear the path toward resolution. For the first time in my life, a question that had long been at the back of my mind—regarding my mother and her closeness with a male friend—suddenly felt urgent, and I latched onto it with fervor. I wanted to prize open the closet door and find, not a skeleton, but a father.
My mother died alone in Singapore. No one knew she was dead until her friends were puzzled, then alarmed, at text messages that went unanswered. One of them managed to contact my sister in Beijing. I was in Temple Street market in Hong Kong that night, surprised to hear my sister’s voice on the phone. I had to keep walking as I took her call; in that driving throng of people, you cannot just stop, no matter how heart-stopping the news is. “Be prepared for the worst. It’s not looking good.” My sister sounded matter-of-fact, but there was an edge of strain in her voice. “I’m taking the red-eye flight back. Get yourself on the next available plane.”
I think I knew she was dead even before I arrived. My sister had landed at 6:00 a.m. and had started dealing with the bureaucracy of death. In the few short hours while I was still in the air, she had gone to the morgue; identified the body as our mother; found my mother’s phone, wallet, and ID card; and obtained her death certificate. When I met up with her, she was in full logistical mode, and I was her pale shadow. We needed a hotel room to stay in; we had to arrange the cremation service; we had to let friends and relatives know. I was given her phone and asked to go through her contacts.
There were names I hadn’t come across in decades—my mother’s old colleagues from an American electronics manufacturer, for example, many of whom had been part of my youth. For a time, she was friends with a group of younger men, who were like brothers to her. They hung out, went on holidays to Malaysia together. I was often a part of these excursions, though why I was brought along always struck me as a little odd, a child among a group of adult friends. Memories, long forgotten, flooded back as I started breaking the news to them—Frank, Donald, Uncle Chan. That was the gang.
But there was one more person whom I hadn’t thought of in a long while, someone whose number wasn’t even in her phone: Uncle J.J. My mother hadn’t spoken of him in years, but I thought he would like to know that she was gone. When I mentioned his name, my sister gave me a look: the kind of look big sisters give their kid sisters when they aren’t making much sense, the flicker of an eye roll before a steadying of the iris. We didn’t have Uncle J.J.’s email or phone number. We knew he was living in the US, so it was unlikely, even if we did find him, that he would make it back in time for the service—if he even cared enough to come. Yet I remember feeling that he was the one person I truly needed to tell; my mother would have liked him to be there. Somehow.
I never made much headway in finding him. Fatigue, a multitude of tasks, shock, a eulogy to write, the fact that I couldn’t even remember his last name, the urgent need to tidy up bank accounts and bills and my mother’s things before heading back to Hong Kong. It’s hard to stop the currents of life, even when your heart gives you pause. There are too many pressing matters that jostle and push you on. And if you stop too long, the grief and the guilt, they get you, then break you. Safer to keep moving. I eventually forgot about Uncle J.J.
But when my father died, I thought of him again. I remembered being on holiday somewhere in Malaysia with my mother and a group of her colleagues, including Uncle J.J. I think I was the only child there, probably brought along to signal that my mother was a respectable, motherly figure, even if she was holidaying without her husband and with a group of men. I recall being at a simple eatery gathered around a table for a meal. In this memory, I am sitting next to Uncle J.J. and we seem to be missing something. Perhaps it is cutlery; perhaps we forgot to order drinks. I am instructed to go tell the teenaged waitress, but I hesitate, feeling a rising dread. I am at an awkward age, lean, gangly, and often stricken with an excruciating shyness that makes having to speak to strangers torture. Picking up on this, Uncle J.J. murmurs something encouraging. I pluck up my courage, walk up to her, my stomach churning, and make our request. Because I am nervous, I am more curt than I would normally be and find myself talking with my arm twisted at a strange angle, a clue to my own inner contortions. When I scramble back to my seat, waves of relief wash over me. Uncle J.J. has seen everything and tells me I’ve done well. I break into a grateful smile and it strikes me with sudden wonder: this is what it is like to have a father.
It is still the same holiday. We are all hiking uphill to a waterfall. There is a narrow trail, but the vegetation is dense and the path is matted with snaking tree roots and studded with rocks. I’m stressed; I’ve never done a hike like this before. I’m carefully watching my step, trying not to slip. It’s hot and uncomfortably humid within the jungle. I’m out of breath, and blindly grabbing branches and using neighboring tree trunks to help steady myself. Uncle J.J. is behind me and he calls my attention to where my hand is. I look up and see that I have just missed grabbing onto a thorny branch. “Be careful,” he tells me. I’m a little too shaken to thank him.
There is one more flash of him in my hazy recollection of that vacation. We are on a beach; it’s the late afternoon and the shadows are beginning to lengthen. I am hanging back awkwardly, not quite sure what to do with myself and resentful that I’ve been dragged out for this walk. Ahead is my mother, chatting animatedly with Uncle J.J. They look good together. My father is a good three inches shorter than my mother; she usually has to sit in photographs to avoid the rather obvious and slightly embarrassing height difference. Here though, she stands tall and comely, shoulder-to-shoulder with a trim, deeply tanned man with a lean face and a sweep of long hair slicked back. I cannot deny that he has a certain charisma. Nor can I deny that she is happy and excited, basking in his attention. In my memory, they disappear behind a sand bank for a short while. I know enough to linger where I am until they come and find me again.
Now it was my turn to find him. His last name came back to me rather suddenly one day and I put my Google skills to work. I hunted down an email address. No luck; it was defunct. But then one of my mother’s old colleagues, Frank, emailed me out of the blue to let me know that one of the old group of friends had passed away unexpectedly. I took this opportunity to ask if he knew where Uncle J.J. was. Frank didn’t, but he knew who to ask and, within a day, I had the email address in my hands.
I wrote to him. I told him about my mother’s passing. It turned out he already knew. He emailed me old pictures, including a group photo of the beach vacation I remembered. There I was, standing dead center, behind a seated Uncle J.J. My mother is at the edge of the group. There are other women and children there, too, a group of roughly twenty. In my memory, it had been a more intimate holiday. I sent him a photograph of myself with my mother and sister. He was happy to hear from me. In his staccato messages, I could hear his distinctive voice. He was going to be in Singapore over Chinese New Year. Was I going to be there too?
Was I? Should I?
I came to my senses. I was pleased to hear from him, but I had an inkling that my own search for a father was futile. Years ago, Uncle J.J. had felt to me like the closest thing to a father, but who was I kidding? What was I expecting? That he would embrace and acknowledge me? Adopt me? He had been good friends with my mother; perhaps they had even been lovers once, but that was now more than thirty years ago. He had last seen me when I was barely a teenager. He had his own family. What did he really know of me?
This was no Korean drama where a connection buried in the past is unearthed with intimations of destiny at work. Past ties are no guarantee of future happiness. I cannot conjure up a father and a family as easily as Korean drama protagonists do. The family I had has disintegrated. There is no renewal; there will be no re-making of family. I remain—and will remain—fatherless.
I still watch a few Korean dramas, though no longer with the instinct of a missile. There will still be moments when a series will consume me, but my craving for it is certainly waning. It is now merely a pleasant entertainment, not salvation itself. That edge of desperation has lifted. The needy child in her grief yearning to fill the fatherless void within has receded. Returning to myself, I remember that not all voids need to be filled. In fact, I have come this far in life without the father I felt I needed to thrive. The hole remains a hole, and some days it makes me feel empty, but life now also feels airier. I am learning to breathe in this new air.