A Seon San in Seon San
There is a small forested mountain in my father’s hometown of 선산 (善山, Seon San) in South Korea where our ancestors are buried. It is common in traditional Korean burial practices, particularly among the rural gentry, for the deceased to be interred in mounds called myo. My grandmother and uncles still live in the area, and each time I visit, I am taken by an uncle to pay respects to my late grandfather.
Much of Seon San transforms in keeping with the developmental rhythms of South Korea, and the few remaining sites of fixity have become mnemonic nodes for the ritual of my ancestral pilgrimage—the town’s aging bus terminal; the bedroom in my grandmother’s home where I sleep (the same bedroom where I last saw my grandfather on his deathbed in 1996); the mountain where he and our ancestors are buried; his burial mound before which I bow and pour a glass of soju in his honor. Coincidentally, if you google ‘선산,’ the image results show Korean burial mounds—Seon San is alphabetically and phonetically identical to 선산 (先山, seon san), a term for the place where your ancestors are buried.
I have not been back in nearly a decade now. Occasionally, perhaps out of some subconscious attempt at remote filial piety, I find this seon san on Google Earth and try to discern from its grainy satellite images the myo of my ancestors. It is impossible—between smatterings of trees there are myriad identical mounds dotting the mountain. I called my dad to ask for additional details about its location, but his memory is worse—he has not been to South Korea since 2005. He tells me that the whole mountain belongs to the extended clan, so our direct lineage could be anywhere. He also reminds me that one of the plots on this seon san actually sits empty.
My great-great-grandfather was a traveling doctor. One winter, at the onset of the Japanese occupation of Korea, he was in Manchuria when he disappeared during a snowstorm. My father tells me that it is imperative to have a body to bury, but annexation, the 1945 partition, and the Korean War effectively made searching for any record of his disappearance impossible. So today, there is a missing myo—a figure of absence to embed a multigenerational reminder of our filial impiety, a failure that my father’s family believes actively curses our lineage until restitution is somehow made. Of course, stories of lost and missing relatives during this time abound across Korea. The fact that our family can even mark this loss with an absent myo is itself a privilege of class, not a curse.
Indeed, my patrilineal family history is filled with stories of privilege (they were landed nobility, after all) and luck. Seon San and the broader city of Gumi of which it is a part were and remain today a bastion of conservative politics and military involvement. The most famous child of Gumi today is likely Park Chung-hee, the military dictator of South Korea who was assassinated in 1979. Many military men came from Seon San and Gumi, including my grandfather’s best friend and an early mentor of my father. He recruited my father to study under him at the Korean Military Academy where military officers were trained. But when my dad sought my grandfather’s permission to enter officer training, my grandfather asked him, “If you go, who is your enemy?”
My father changed course and quite literally dodged a bullet. The recruiter was Kim Jae-Gyu, who would go on to become director of the KCIA under Park. In 1979, Kim assassinated Park in a botched coup attempt; Kim and his associates were arrested and executed shortly thereafter. Given their close relationship, had my father attended the KMA, it is likely that he would have been among their ranks.
Instead, my father became an engineer and pursued a personal dream to move to the United States and work with computers. His many routed business ventures in this field certainly seemed cursed at times, but given the alternative, he leads a lucky life. In 1990, he got his first US job at MasPar Computer Corporation. War still found him there, he tells me. He was hired by MasPar to work on a defense department contract during the George H.W. Bush presidency, using their computers to analyze satellite imagery of Iraqi deserts in search of WMDs and long-range ballistic missile compounds during the first Gulf War. The project was apparently canned and my dad ultimately fired as they were unable to find what they were looking for—but the specter of another missing Iraqi WMD program would of course return a decade later. Like father, like son.
We hang up. I pan across this seon san in Seon San one more time and close my laptop, unable to find what I was looking for as well. Like father, like son. I suppose much of my family’s history is a non-history. It is someone not buried, someone not killed. It is something not found, something not done. But it is nonetheless shaped by these non-events along the landscapes of war.