Planes make people nervous. It’s not just the prospect of disaster or the lack of control. It’s also that air travel means rapid change. Within a day you can go from a humdrum American office to exotic Asian capitals ablaze in neon signs; in another day you could land in a remote alien desert in the Middle East where people set off roadside bombs.Most of us still choose where to fly; sometimes we are adventuresome travelers who have resolved to land somewhere completely, intentionally new. But a flight still feels like a discombobulating transition between dimensions, between different versions of space and time. You worry about losing yourself between worlds as the plane pierces the cloudline and stares down the sun.
On December 11, 1969, a Korean Air Lines flight was on a brief domestic route within South Korea, when a North Korean agent hijacked the plane by aiming a gun at the pilots. North Korean fighter jets also swarmed in and accompanied the flight. The plane was forced to land in North Korea, along with its crew of two pilots, two stewardesses, and 46 passengers. The crew and seven other passengers never returned to South Korea.
As fate would have it, my mother just missed being one of the stewardesses on that flight, Korean Air Lines (KAL) YS-11.
After graduating from Korea’s top university with a bachelors’ degree in nursing, my 22-year-old mother joined KAL as a stewardess, which at the time was considered an elite job for young women . She had to ace a difficult exam and show proficiency in foreign languages. My mother’s peers were all college graduates from the top schools and ready to represent Korea’s best to the world.
My mother attended international routes to Hong Kong and Tokyo. She was even featured in a newspaper ad for KAL—one of three bright, pretty faces beaming, looking toward the future. She wore a trim miniskirted uniform, worthy of mod Twiggy. Ms. Kyeong-Sook Jeong was ahead of her in the stewardess roll call, since her last name was close to my mother’s in the alphabet. They became good friends. My mother can still see Ms. Jeong’s face clearly in her mind’s eye: her delicate, intelligent features, forever young.
For Flight YS-11, two stewardesses were scheduled to accompany the short domestic route. That December morning, one of them chose to call out sick. A list of backup stewardesses was on call for each flight. In this case, there were two alternates: one was Ms. Jeong and the other was my mother. Ms. Kyeong-Hee Seong, another stewardess, was already scheduled to go on the flight. She had gone to the same high school as Ms. Jeong, so they were already close, longtime friends. And my mother had plans for a date with her boyfriend (later my father) that fateful day. So Ms. Jeong, without much ado, chose to fill in for the ill stewardess instead of my mother.
Ms. Jeong had pale skin that matched well with her favorite orangey lipstick. She had medium-length hair, the ends brushed up in a ‘60s flip. Her personality was demure, humble, polite. In contrast, Ms. Seong had unusually large eyes, short hair, and was quick-witted, cheerful, and outgoing. As my mother recalled, both were down-to-earth rather than girly-girl types. Both were intelligent, earnest college graduates, just launching into their lives, at the dawn of a post-war era in Korea.
Immediately after the hijacking, more than 100,000 South Koreans stood outside in protest in freezing weather and burned an effigy of the North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung. Due to similarities in their names, my mother’s photo was accidentally printed instead of Ms. Jeong’s as one of the hijacked stewardesses in the newspaper. Panicked friends called my grandmother and asked what was going on.
After some negotiations in late January, North Korea agreed to return the hijacked passengers in mid-February, 1970, 66 days after the hijacking. Tormented but hopeful families came to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom, the tense DMZ border zone; they waited, flowers and gifts in hand. The hostages arrived. Only 39 people came through the border. For the 11 others expected, the families stood, shocked. Initial joy turned into a cold reckoning. Their loved ones did not appear. My mother heard that Ms. Jeong’s mother’s face took on a look of blank horror, as she realized her daughter was not coming home. Afterwards, my mother was told, she collapsed on the floor. She never saw her daughter again and passed away in 2000.
To this day, it remains unclear what happened to some of the remaining 11, whether they lived or died. Most of them simply disappeared; one passenger’s son, Hwang In-Cheol, now 47, continues a desperate one-man campaign to advocate for their return or to learn their whereabouts. It breaks my heart to know these people and so many others, sisters and brothers of a sort, remain encased in the both literal and figurative prison of North Korea: that dark real-life manifestation of Panem in The Hunger Games — with its twisted, garish capital Pyongyang mocking the intense poverty of its outer precincts, which show up pitch-black on satellite images of an otherwise twinkling planet. It breaks my heart to know that two hopeful young stewardesses vanished from home, never to return—that the choices that would later shape my mother’s life and mine would never be available to them.
My mother married my father later that year. They took another plane and emigrated to America. Back then, Korea was still recovering from a post-war depression with a sluggish economy. When the U.S. opened its immigration floodgates for resident physicians in the early 1970s, my father decided to follow the wave of his peers and go for the American Dream.
My parents landed at Bradley International Airport to start their new life in the small New England town of Manchester, Connecticut. My father was beginning a medical internship there. Tragically, my mother never saw her mother again after flying from Seoul. My grandmother passed away three years later, right before I was born. At least for my grandmother, she saw my mother leaving for another land with some sense of hope and opportunity.
I wonder what life must have been like for my newly emigrated parents: shifting so quickly from a clannish, small Asian country, still recovering from the legacy of a devastating war only 20 years prior, to the placid quaint WASPiness of early ‘70s New England, with its spacious, tree-lined highways, old colonial homes, and boat-like sedans. Despite what must have been culture shock, my mother speaks happily about those initial days as a young couple. Everyone was exceedingly kind to them, an old-fashioned gentility she never found in America again after she left New England a few years later for the urban grit of Baltimore.
According to rumors over the years, Ms. Jeong and Ms. Seong were used as propaganda symbols by the North Korean government and became radio broadcasters. They were also supposedly paraded around to various Soviet Bloc countries during the ‘70s, as cultural “ambassadors” for North Korea. They were made to renounce their former home, to demonstrate that they had “voluntarily” converted to a better society. The hijacked pilots possibly ended up serving the North Korean Air Force, and the others (who were all highly educated, prominent professional men in South Korea) were likely milked for their knowledge and used as “advisors” for various industries.
In 2001, during a brief thaw between the two countries, Ms. Seong participated in one of the Reunification sessions and was briefly allowed to visit her mother at the border. (She is the only hostage of the 11 known to have officially been witnessed as alive as of 2001.) She told Ms. Jeong’s brother that Ms. Jeong was doing well also, and they were still good friends, had married and borne families of their own. But one could never be certain of the truth with North Korea, notorious land of human rights nightmares.
Like the well-worn Robert Frost poem, I sometimes wonder about the road not taken, the vagaries of personal will conspiring with quizzical fate to steer us along our given paths, to give us the shapes and souls that mold our genetic makeup. I remember thinking about this wistfully when Elian Gonzalez, the little Cuban boy, was sent back to live with his father in Cuba, after his mother had drowned trying to bring him to America. How wretched it must have been for his American relatives to know that he would never be the Elian Gonzalez his mother had died dreaming about, the one parading in Florida sunshine, enjoying Disneyworld and beyond. But his fate was settled; he became a faithful Castro disciple, dressed like a boy scout even in his teen years. At best, maybe he found his own brand of happiness in the humble rhythms of his country. Cuban life is largely a mystery to us, but given his mother’s fate, one remembers it isn’t exactly known for liberty.
I too almost made a reverse emigration, of a very different sort. My father, unhappy with his job and identity in America, thought about moving back to Korea in 1983. On the surface, he should have been happy. He bought a beautiful new home in idyllic suburban Maryland, was a Johns Hopkins-trained anesthesiologist, doted upon by his lovely kind wife and two healthy, overachieving little girls. But he carried demons, insecurities from his post-war upbringing, from climbing out of a poor family to the top prep school and later top university in Korea and being raised by an emotionally cold mother.
A perfectionist, he felt chronically embarrassed and uncomfortable at work, because he could not communicate in the English language like a native. He would try to say hello in the elevator to various doctors and get coldly ignored, like the invisible foreigner he was. The pressure, the sleeplessness, the social awkwardness all colluded to make my father an unpredictable, angry storm.
In fourth grade, I started to feel this tension more than ever. I wasn’t allowed to talk back or be assertive, or he’d yell at me for acting too “American.” I began to absorb his feelings of not belonging, as I felt more awkward and self-conscious at school. I grew rapidly taller than my peers; my teeth grew in crooked, requiring braces, and I wore increasingly thick glasses.
We travelled to Korea in October 1983 to visit family and friends, just a month after KAL Flight 007 was shot down by the Soviets on the same route we would have travelled. Rattled, our family ended up switching airlines out of fear. I saw the Baltimore Orioles win the World Series (the only time in my lifetime so far) on the American military TV channel that I watched religiously while I was there, since it was the only one in English.
At Kimpo Airport, before we boarded to return to America, my dad unrolled a piece of paper and showed it to me. It was a job offer, written in crisp Korean calligraphy, to become a medical professor at a top university in Korea. There, his good friends from college and his elite high school were procuring the plum spots and becoming the big shots in Korean society. In America, despite having trained at Johns Hopkins, he was just an “FMG,” foreign medical graduate, inferior to American doctors. With this job offer, he had the chance to reclaim his lost social status in Korea. But my younger sister and I would no longer be Americans. He had told the Korean university he would make a decision shortly.
Back at school in America, I began to socially withdraw. I became increasingly aware that I was an oddball, a social misfit. Kids were meaner to me and vice versa. I remember a previously friendly girl asking me to move over in gym so she could sit next to her best friend. For some stubborn reason, I said no. She whispered sharply afterwards that she hated me. I continued to have similar encounters thereafter. Perhaps I was acting out some of my dad’s confusion, thinking I might as well alienate myself from these people I was never going to see again.
But a few months later, my father sat me and my sister down and said he had declined the job offer. My parents decided that they wanted to stay in the U.S. for good. They were worried about how my sister and I would adjust and what sort of educational and career opportunities there were for us. (They could not have predicted that the 1988 Seoul Olympics would trigger an economic boom that rushes onward to this day, when South Korea is a modern, wealthy country.) Maybe they felt that they had come here on a mission to make a better life, and that life was meant to be in America. Maybe they were too proud to rush back to Korea with their tail between their legs. They also admitted that they liked America better in some ways: the wide spaces with forests and fields, the bigger houses, the breathing room. They commented once to me that there was nothing that equaled the sensation they felt the first time they drove down a large American highway through the countryside, the rush of openness all around. The freedom.
But my new self-perception as a misfit never left me. I became a full-fledged nerd, obsessed only with my grades, and then a misanthrope, prone to arrogant, hurtful comments to my peers, while alternately being painfully withdrawn and shy. In middle school, I’d think that wide swaths of American culture were for idiots; I listened only to classical music and refused to play sports. In high school I went the other way, I’d also eventually listen to alienated, angry music like Public Enemy and Nirvana. I loved watching Beavis and Butthead, perhaps the lowest common denominator of American youth culture.
I remained in a sort of limbo of personal identity, even in a free country that I supposedly belonged to. Perhaps I took it for granted that I could choose who I was to become. But perhaps, between conforming to the pressures of my parents’ old world ways, and not really fitting into mainstream America’s views of normal living, I wasn’t all that free yet in my mind. I wasn’t a blonde cheerleader happily dating jocks and partying with gobs of friends. I never even saw anyone who remotely resembled me on television while growing up, except maybe Connie Chung. In turn, I also felt the weight of filial duty; to make my parents’ journey to America and their decision to stay worthwhile, to prove I was their version of a success story here. My choices were not my own yet.
In John Ford’s great 1956 film, The Searchers, the iconic American hero, John Wayne, storms off on a years-long journey to find his kidnapped niece, who vanished after a troop of Indians raided the family homestead and slaughtered them save the young child. The search eventually becomes about more than just finding a tragically lost loved one; it is about obsessively pursuing grief and revenge, about undoing the past even as the present is ever-changing. By the time you find what you were looking for, the goal is no longer there, has also transmuted, changed. Natalie Wood plays the then-teenaged niece, now fully integrated into an Indian tribe, fluent in their language and hesitant to leave her captors. John Wayne even considers killing her, horrified that she is now “one of them.”
Sometimes I feel a weary burn inside when I think about the absurdity, in this day and age, of being kidnapped by a country and not allowed to leave. How insane would it be if my mother had been on that flight YS-11 and had become a North Korean puppet, part of a bizarre cult that still horrifies and taunts the world, that still revs up the news with their outlandish threats, nightmarish gulags, and paranoiac society? For one thing, I would never have existed, literally. And I would never have been free to think, to explore the strange cultural interworld I have grown to inhabit, to embrace.
I’m not sure what would’ve happened if we had flown back to Korea for good in 1983. Relative to America, South Korea was still fairly conservative. I’m pretty sure that I would have been married with kids already, since there is strong societal pressure in that regard. I don’t know if I would’ve even attended graduate school or had a job. Yes, women have careers in Korea now, but not to the same extent as here. I might have been like many upper-middle-class peacocks there, dawdling away my days by riding huge free buses to the local shopping megacomplex, where I would pore over glittering rows of shoes, dresses, and purses that dwarf even the best Saks Fifth Avenue displays in Manhattan. I would tweak my features with various bits of plastic surgery, all too common now in South Korea, and obsess about having porcelain perfect skin. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills have nothing on the Real Housewives of Seoul.
Here in America, I did spend many years in a state of confusion. My father took out his own alienation and anger on us. My father kept my mother on a tight leash; maintaining his sense of Korean fiefdom meant putting her down in a cruel, chauvinistic way. Isolated from her family and her homeland, she did not see any alternatives and wasn’t encouraged by him to use her training as a nurse or stewardess for work. She stayed at home, lovingly devoted to her children, keeping the house clean and hot meals ready when my father came home from work, angry and tired. He’d grumble that the food was too salty or too sweet, even though my mother is an amazing cook. Depending on his mood, he would scream at her, even hit her.
I would try to make everything right again. For everyone’s suffering, I needed to make it work. I was drilled from an early age that we came to America for a reason, and that was to succeed. I was happy to oblige on some fronts; for whatever reason, I got that immigrant hunger, to ace my tests, to pursue a secure job path. It’s ironic that despite my father’s chauvinistic tendencies he was obsessed with seeing me follow an ambitious career track. And succeed I did. I graduated with straight A’s and got into Yale.
I went through a crisis my sophomore year of college though as I struggled with disliking my cutthroat, tedious pre-medical courses. I also felt ambivalent about the airy-fairy brilliance and impracticality of my humanities courses, which spoke to my soul but left me feeling never quite elegant enough to join the elitist Mad Hatter’s Party of my uber-intellectual peers. I didn’t know what to do with the rest of my life. Sometimes freedom is also terrifying.
Slowly, I found my way. I went to therapy, a largely Western art, which helped me find my own legs, let me feel less guilty about being American. My doctor also had her foot in multiple cultures, having grown up in Romania as a Jew and immigrating to America in her teen years. Once I heard her Ingrid Bergman-like lilted accent, I felt an instant hopeful trust, that she would at least somewhat understand how it felt to be an outsider.
I learned from her to be assertive, quietly confident, to find my own American self. That it was okay to speak up for myself sometimes and be more independent. I became a psychiatrist and therapist also; I ended up in a career that gave me satisfaction, since I was devoted to helping people in pain, in need, people who were in various states of limbo, falling between the cracks of society. I realized it was a strength to come and go between different places, different frames of mind, to gain that overarching perspective and wisdom. I was proud about my Korean heritage now too, as I saw good things in its earthy homogeneity, the knowing humor that arises from people with the same neuroses, and the tang of red pepper and garlic in the food. And I loved that I could keep a skeptical eye on either world, any world — the deepest, most beautiful thing really, about being American.
Sometimes we cannot choose what world we are born into. Sometimes we are even stolen from our world, like the people on Flight YS-11 and the many thousands of others kidnapped, tortured, murdered by the dystopia north of the 38th parallel. Sometimes we choose to leave our world, to seek out something different — the terrifying prospect of change. To follow a straight track might seem convenient, even reassuring for some. To jump into the unknown may be the best choice for others. But one thing I have learned, in the midst of a complex world: it always needs to be my choice. In America, it can be my choice. And I choose to be free.