Janice Chung is a Korean-American. She was born in Queens, NY and until 2014, she had never been to South Korea. “Please Come Back Soon” takes place when Chung meets a part of her family that she had never met before, in a place that she had never been. As an effort to wrangle many unknowns together, Chung turns to the camera to let it translate the foreign feelings.
Tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you got into photography?
My name is Janice Chung and I am a Korean-American photographer. I’ve grown up as the daughter of Korean immigrant parents living in the suburbs of Queens, New York City. I was immersed in a large Korean-American community and spent a lot of my childhood in Korean summer schools, academies, and church. It was my parents way to keep me occupied since they were working long hours at their bodega in Corona, Queens. Although you wouldn’t know it based on my Korean language skills, my culture was ingrained into me so I learned to have respect for my elders and grew a desire to support my family.
I started taking pictures when I was high school. I didn’t have my own camera back then so I would constantly be borrowing my friends’ point and shoot cameras. I think my mom bought me my first camera which was a lavender Kodak point and shoot that we got at Target. When we came home with it, my brother yelled at us for investing in something I didn’t research about (I bought it cause it was lavender.) Turns out it was a terrible camera but I grew to have a love-hate relationship with it. After that, I sort of just kept going. I think as a kid I didn’t talk very much especially at home so it seemed natural for me to pick up a camera which would become my tool to communicate.
Tell us a little more about your project “Please Come Back Soon.”
It was the first time I traveled to the motherland, Korea, and my mom’s second time visiting since she immigrated to New York City in the 80s. The first time she visited Korea, I was in the fourth grade, and she almost never came back. I still remember my nine year old self feeling anxious about her being in Korea. Anyway it’s been about ten years between her previous trip and this one. So it’s been about ten years since she has seen her family. It was strange for me to see my mom in this new environment in Korea. She was an older sister to her brothers and a daughter to her mom and dad. I only really saw her as mom. There was something bittersweet about the whole experience. It was great to be all together in one place, to sleep in the same home, to eat at the same table, and to watch TV on the sofa together. But not knowing when the next time this would come, or if it would ever come made me want to capture the whole experience all the more. There’s a whole part of my mom’s life that her parents missed. In a sense it makes me feel guilty because my brother and I are the reason she couldn’t be with them. My grandma sometimes says, “If your mom never married your dad, she would have never moved away, but if she never moved away, we would have never met you.”
How did you feel when you arrived in Korea for the first time?
Excited. Anxious. Exhausted. We rode a United flight which took 16 hours due to a layover (never again). Korean Air was too expensive so we opted for the cheaper alternative. It definitely took a toll on us, more so on my mom than me. Korea had this air of familiarity and unfamiliarity at the same time. It sort of felt like a ginormous version of home back in Queens, New York. Everyone looked like me, allowing me to blend into the sea of Koreans without anyone knowing who I was. Of course anytime I opened my mouth, it was clear I wasn’t from the neighborhood.
I loved the anonymity I had in Korea because of my appearance but I also felt like I didn’t belong. As a Korean-American, I always feel like I’m in-between.
Why did it take so long for your family to reconnect? What led to the decision to finally make this trip to Seoul?
Traveling to Korea is expensive. A lot of my friends would go every summer to visit their family. I feel like I grew up not really realizing I had a family in Korea because my mom never really spoke about them. We just couldn’t afford the trips. After I graduated school, I starting working a lot more. One day my mom made a joke about how we should travel to Korea. I took it seriously though and booked the flights right on the spot. I guess I never grew out of my impulsiveness.
What were the things that surprised you the most, especially culturally when you spent your time in Seoul?
People were so rude in Korea. I couldn’t understand how a people influenced by Confucian values could be so ill-mannered. At the markets, the ajummas (aunties) push and shove you without batting an eyelash. The young people do that on the subways even towards the older folks. The whole thing just felt so backwards. It drove me nuts for weeks and weeks. At a certain point though, I gave up being angry. I realized that Seoul was too hard to live in. It’s a big fast-paced city, where it’s hard to survive and make a living. In some ways, I could see why people stopped caring about each other.
Another time my grandma scolded me for doing a one shot of soju during dinner. I didn’t know it was rude to do that in front of your elders and “only gangsters do that” (literal translation of what my grandma said). I suppose I picked up some bad habits in college.
How do you reconcile a part of yourself that still feels somewhat foreign to you?
I think that’s why I returned to Korea a second time recently. It’s like I need to assert myself there. As long as my family is still there, Korea will always feel like my second home. I feel like I have an extension of me there. I’m not physically there but emotionally and mentally, I feel myself there. There’s no escaping who I am and where my ancestors came from.
How did your family respond to being photographed during this time?
I had been photographing my mom for a couple years now so she was totally used to it. My grandma was definitely weirded out by it. It amused her but also intrigued her. Especially with a lot of older people, they start to not like the way they look. My grandma was quite beautiful when she was a young girl and so she immediately was against being photographed since she’s now “old and wrinkled”. She would shoo me away but I’m a pretty tenacious person so she eventually gave up and accepted her fate. It helped us to grow closer together. My grandfather, surprisingly, is quite sweet and open-minded. He was nothing what I expected he would be — cold, stern, unavailable. In fact, he was the opposite. He was always open to getting his picture taken. He would feel silly but would never say no.
Did photographing your family change the dynamic during the trip?
It forced me to grow closer to them and spend time with them. It also eased up moments that felt awkward or tense.
What were some of your challenges when you were photographing this project?
I went to Korea with little to no expectations on making pictures which made photographing easier for me. It was just something that was part of my routine there. I took the whole experience very lightly.
Did being in Seoul change your perspective of America, or being American?
I understood the duality of my identity and being in Seoul only further deepened those feelings of being other. Being in Seoul did make me realize though that the New York City subway is the most atrocious thing ever.
What does it mean to be an American to you?
Being American is being a daughter of Korean immigrants, being the hyphen and owning it. Being American also means that I have the privilege to eat Korean pork blood sausage, souvlaki, fish tacos, chicken tandoori, and pho all in one day if I wanted to.
What were some of your favorite moments from the trip?
I loved seeing my mom being a kid, goofing off with my grandma. I loved sitting together eating a box of fried chicken and drinking beer with the whole family. I loved sleeping on the floor with my mom and my grandma even if my grandma snores. I loved waking up to the smell of freshly cooked rice and a hot bowl of ox tail soup. I loved taking a walk with my grandpa on the neighborhood trail even though we couldn’t really speak to each other because of language barriers. I loved my grandma cutting persimmons for me and my grandpa cutting apples for me. I also loved eating everything. As you may have noticed, I really like to eat. A lot.
When was the last time you spoke to your grandparents? How has your relationship with your distant family members evolved since the trip?
The last day was December 10th, 2017. It was the last day of my second trip to Korea. My grandparents don’t have computers or smartphones so we can only communicate via long distance phone calls. Now, I feel much more comfortable around them especially after this second trip. I’m not good at expressing my love towards my parents. But for some reason I’m always giving my grandparents the finger heart and hugs. I want to make sure I can visit them and see them as much as possible. Of course my mom will come too.
What is important to you as a photographer? How does this affect your practice and approach?
Photography keeps me grounded. It reminds me of what I truly value in my life. I remember when I first photographed my mom. It was probably the worst picture I’ve ever taken of her. You wouldn’t even think it’s the same person. Now, I can’t imagine if I’d even be doing photography if I never started photographing her.