Disoriented is an online platform that explores identity in Asia through essays, interviews, and multimedia work. Today on WWB Daily, writer and translator Paige Aniyah Morris reflects on the experiences in South Korea that led her to become one of Disoriented's founders.
The first time someone in Korea asked me the simple question of how I did my hair, it dawned on me how little language I had to express the most essential, obvious facts about who I was here.
In the two years of language classes leading up to the time I would spend in Korea on a Fulbright grant, I had learned to anticipate questions like what my name was and where I was from. I thought I had prepared myself for all kinds of culture shock. I knew to bow in greeting to others, to turn away from my elders at the table when I drank soju or makgeolli. But I didn’t know what to do or say when, inevitably, my presence in Korea raised deeper questions, like why I looked the way I did if I really was an American or why I didn’t seem all that excited to talk about where I had come from.
I spent my first months in Korea settling into life in Changwon, a mid-sized city in South Gyeongsang Province, aiming to find my place at work and in my host family while giving vague answers to questions from friends and family about what life was like overseas. Everyone wanted to know: Was I all right? Were people treating me well?
At that time, I was often at a loss for words. I didn’t know how to explain that the most unsettling moments in my day often stemmed from an acute absence of fear. That there were times I forgot everything I was because, for once, I felt no threat or attack looming because of it. That I feared I may have based my entire sense of self on the way I’d long been perceived under a violent American lens and was no longer sure who I was outside of that context, how I might appear from a different point of view. I felt more and more uncertain that the world was as I’d thought it was, that I was still the person I had long believed myself to be.
My thoughts that year sometimes felt traitorous. Many of the people I knew, in both the US and Korea, seemed much more rooted in specific places and in themselves—how could I explain to them what it felt like to try to hold an identity intact across so much distance? Early on, I became convinced I couldn’t. There was a gulf between the self I thought I knew and the self I was becoming in transit, into which all the language I might have had to talk about that divide vanished. That sense of loss drove me to seek out ways to communicate despite it.
There were eighty people or so in my cohort of Fulbright teaching assistants, and even though Korea is smaller than several US states and far easier to traverse, the occasions when grantees could get together were rare. It seemed that was why every time we got a chance—an invitation to grab dinner with someone teaching in the next town over, a weekend getaway to Busan with other grantees who’d been placed in its surrounding cities—these meetups often devolved into heart-to-hearts that lasted well into the intimate first hours of morning. There were a couple of these talks I had with other Black grantees and grantees of color that made me start to feel less alone.
“We couldn’t talk about the things we most needed to say in the venue that we had.”
Eugene Lee was one of these grantees. We both worked on the staff of Infusion, the Fulbright Korea literary magazine. When I read the first essay he contributed, I was struck by how lucidly he wrote about the thorny, impossible feelings that arose often in his everyday life in Korea. The magazine gave us several opportunities to spend long afternoons in the Fulbright building in Seoul, followed by long nights in restaurants, coffee shops, bars. The stories we exchanged in these places, we realized, almost always had to do with our identities, how our time in Korea was fostering, complicating, and—in some ways—collapsing them. We were often struggling toward similar language to name our very different experiences—his, as a Korean American in his motherland at a time when he had just begun to grapple with his racial identity, and mine, as a once overly-certain Black American starting to feel incredibly unsure what my Blackness meant without the US as a backdrop or catalyst.
I remember one conversation we had the night after a magazine staff meeting—long-winded thoughts on identity and place that we cast up to the ceiling from where we lay on blankets spread out on a friend’s apartment floor. As the conversation wound down, we each revealed that we’d been writing through some of these thoughts lately, trying to find cohesion in them.
“Are you thinking of submitting to the magazine again?” I asked.
Eugene said he didn’t know if the magazine would be the right platform for the essay he was writing: a reflection on what it meant to reckon with his Korean American identity through works of reckoning by Black writers.
He was right. We had to walk on eggshells in the pages of the existing platform. I had been encouraged to excise much of the grief and politics from my first contribution: an essay on finding solace at coin karaoke from some of the more painful parts of my grant year, including the death of a former friend and the outcome of the 2016 US election. I couldn’t imagine what would happen if I submitted an essay about the racial trauma I’d endured in the US that had led me to respond to every situation I encountered in Korea with either a near-paranoid wariness or an overabundance of gratitude. As we discussed our worries, it became clear that we couldn’t talk about the things we most needed to say in the venue that we had. And judging from the other winding, soul-searching conversations we’d had that year, we knew we weren’t the only ones yearning for a space to stretch out and unravel our tangled emotions and ideas. We decided that night to create our own platform, the “radical cousin” of the Fulbright magazine. It was Eugene’s idea to have our platform be online and thus open to global participation.
In the weeks that followed, as we toyed with ideas about what to call the space, Eugene messaged me, half-joking, to ask whether it was ironically apt or in poor taste to call the platform Disoriented. You know, dis-Orient-ed? I rolled my eyes a little at its cheekiness, but the more I thought about it, the more this seemed like the best word I had encountered so far to describe my new normal, a chronically warped state of being. Just like that, we had a name for our blog and something like a name for ourselves.
At first, we planned to use the space to record some of the thoughts and conversations we had been having during our time in Korea. We had a general mission—to create and curate work that took an introspective approach to understanding how our identities operated now that we were living outside their source context. We wanted to rupture the “easy” answer to questions about our time in Korea, which meant actively refusing to reinforce the lazy, imperial line that is often drawn between “the East” and “the West” as a way to explain experiences of difference. We wanted nuanced conversations about transnationalism and what it had done to us and our sense of ourselves. Essentially, we each wanted to know what the other and the many other “others” we knew—our fellow Fulbright grantees, friends completing similar grants in other countries, writers, photographers, makers, and doers at various ends of various routes—were thinking, whether some of our own experiences might be in conversation with theirs.
“Even when I struggled to name my own emotions, I found comfort in how other people chose to name theirs.”
To that end, we first came up with a “roundtable” editing format that paired up potential contributors to serve as initial readers and editors for one another. Our early editing process took the form of email threads that could reach upwards of thirty rounds of correspondence. Conversations about where a paragraph had been placed could uncover other stories and asides that might flesh out an essay or a poem. I remember having the most wonderful exchanges with Erin Wong, whom I edited, that lasted months after we ran her moving essay on the expectations placed on Chinese Americans in China. And I’m sure Eugene learned even more about me through editing my essay on space and feeling as though I took too much of it by merely existing in Korea than he had over the sum of those staff meetings and nights in Seoul.
Reading and writing for Disoriented gave me so much of the language I had felt I was missing to name my experiences of being everything I am, in transit. And even when I struggled to name my own emotions, I found comfort in how other people chose to name theirs. When EJ Mitchell’s stirring dispatch from Beijing went live on the blog, I related instantly to his struggle with what it means to find home elsewhere as a Black American, especially in an elsewhere that widens the extant rift between oneself and one’s family by several thousands of miles. So much of Gisele Pineda’s reflection on her time in Korea, the strangeness of finding belonging in “a culture completely removed from the inner turmoil that was [her] own identity,” resonated with me, as did the language she used to name the challenge of finding a sense of place in her expanding world: ni de aquí ni de allá.
Earlier this summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to converse with Allison Markin Powell, Shuchi Saraswat, and M. Lynx Qualey about building communities for translation as part of the Translating the Future series hosted by PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. When Allison first approached me about speaking on the panel, I was quick to point out that I didn’t see Disoriented as a translation project in line with my work as an emerging literary translator. But over our subsequent email exchanges, I began to reassess the platform. Inherent in our mission, I realized, was a call to reckon with language, to make attempts at translating ourselves as we were constantly being translated and treated accordingly. Some of our contributors quite literally translated themselves, including Gina Beach in her poems about cycling through Laos as a white foreigner and Natalie Sun in a reflection on finding the language for a hyphenated identity. Other contributors used visual media to convey their experiences, as in Cindy Trinh’s photojournalism on Vietnam and Rachel Rostad’s short film about a Korean American adoptee returning to her birthplace for the first time.
From the beginning, we intended for the platform to prompt conversations. And that it did. New acquaintances and former contributors offered to get involved in editorial roles, which expanded the size of our team and the range of experiences we could showcase. Eugene and I, along with our first-generation editorial team, remained involved in different capacities as contributors and editors for a while as we transitioned into our next stages of transit: our post-Fulbright lives. The work we have done since is a testament to the conversations Disoriented allowed us to take part in. Eugene started law school and now runs the incredible Divided Families Podcast, which tells the stories of people whose lives have been shaped by borders and separation. Meanwhile, I began translating Korean literature in earnest, as well as continuing to feature transnational stories in my own writing as I navigate life as a new emigrant to Korea. The generation of editors that came after us picked up the conversation we started and broadened it, bringing in wonderful voices and contributions from Japan, Nepal, the Philippines, Taiwan, and more.
Though I am no longer involved with the project in an editorial capacity, I have been awed time and time again by how the platform has grown and flourished over the years. Snatches of the conversations that initially shaped the blog continue to appear as echoes in conversations I’ve had since about writing and translation, the hard work of crossing languages and collapsing borders. While Disoriented has been on hiatus for much of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the platform has continued to receive an outpouring of support from people and organizations invested in these discussions of our lives in a global sense. Disoriented will soon partner with Asian American student organizations based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for its post-COVID relaunch with the aim of creating an even more sustainable space for the project in the future. I look forward to seeing the stories that will emerge then, from a time that has forced us all to embrace a sense of total—what else?—disorientation. For now, I take some comfort in knowing that we are all a little out of our elements, all at a loss for words. But this doesn’t mean the dialogue has to end. After all, one only needs to utter a single word, in any language, to begin a conversation again.