On Your Journey, What Does Home Mean?

I just finished reading The Manchurian Tales by Nick Hahn.  Let’s get a couple of things out of the way right now: Yes, that’s my dad.  And no, this isn’t a book review.

My father’s own journey is loosely detailed in this book.  And I found myself crying as I read the last f  It is not a sentimentally written book.  Perhaps I can blame this week’s lunar eclipse for an emotional mood.  But… I will bare myself a little here… it’s the first linear view I have into my father’s childhood and the journey that has shaped who he is.  And it is a revelation.

The stories woven in The Manchurian Tales are not ones you will find anywhere else – not in any history book, not in any novel.  It covers a small, unknown ethnic group through four generations directly impacted by global events.  This tight-knit group, known as Russian-Koreans or uhl mah zeh, break apart and cross paths repeatedly through the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the rise of the Soviet Union, the Korean War and Vietnam, as families fled imprisonment and torture from Harbin to Seoul to Tokyo and eventually, San Francisco and Hawaii.  Their journeys were of soldiering, of hiding, of starving, of gambling, of building, of rebuilding and ultimately, of surviving.  The uhl mah zeh were forcibly moved from their homes and scattered, many remaining stateless, without a home, through the end of their lives.  What happens to your identity, your sense of self, when you have no home, no citizenship, and you are forever surrounded by foreigners?

My father did not write his book to be an inspirational tale of overcoming life’s most excruciating trials, although you can certainly take that away from it.  He is capturing a small piece of unknown history that dies when he does.  This book is less a series of tales and more a collection of letters written for my brother and me.  There is a part of my father’s life we simply have no affinity for. For anyone whose father is an immigrant, you know what I mean.  There is a life and a culture that exists before becoming American.  And for those of us who are the offspring of these immigrants, the only life they want us to know is the American one.

But as the child of an immigrant, I felt the pull to the more exotic culture, the family history that was always such a mystery to me.  I read all the books my father talked so much about, I took as many history classes as I could, I studied his native language and I reached out to my grandfather, who remained “stateless” in Japan and whom I had never met.  All an attempt to bring me closer to knowing my dad and feeling part of family history.

Which makes it funny to me – now – that in the years I was studying Russian, I would come home to practice with my dad.  One night, as I was rehearsing a short speech I had to give in class the next day, I was struggling over a particular phrase.  After coaching me for about fifteen minutes, my father finally through his hands up in exasperation, “You speak Russian like an American!”

And all I could do was stare and say, “Um, yeah. Whose fault is that?”

Reading this book trumps all my efforts.  Because it includes a very personal piece of my father, however unintentionally.  I have a benefit over most readers – I can hear his voice, I know his phrasing, and having this in black in white, in detail, brings a closeness to him and my heritage that I have not felt before.

When I look at my own journey, how can I be anything but grateful?  My own path has been from the coast of California to Japan, Greece, Ecuador, Paraguay, Massachusetts, Indiana and Florida.  I am the privileged daughter of a Foreign Service officer with an Ivy League education.  Despite all the moves, I always had a home.  My identity was tied to my country – no matter where in the world I lived, I was (am) an American.  My sense of self was tied to my family and my family history.  And my home was where ever my parents and brother happened to live at the time.  The hardships on my journey include one very cold winter in Boston when Harvard refused to cancel any classes and a year of living off ramen and eggs when my husband and I first married as poor graduate students. The hardship of being an Army wife in modern America (my husband has been deployed six of the past 12 years) is only as tough as interrupted Skype calls, dying cell phones, the kids’ school events competing with work meetings, and occasional bouts of loneliness.

I am not belittling my life.  I am in awe of it.  Because this life was only possible through the incredible journey traced by my father in The Manchurian Tales.  And by the sense of self, and the home, he provided through his own amazing journey.

Happy Birthday, Dad.  And thank you.


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