How I Learned to Live With Ghosts

According to my paternal grandmother, I’ve always been receptive to spirits. She likes to remind me how I would wake her up in the middle of the night, hyperventilating as I tried to explain that my spirit had left my body, that I had found my nose pressed against the ceiling as I hovered above my bed; that I had lost my eyes and couldn’t see. Back in my body, I rubbed my arms and wrapped them around my legs, not sure if I had actually returned. For many nights, I continued to jolt awake, crashing back into my body as if dropped from a great height.

My life was haunted by what my family would not say, by the silence cloaking my life like a specter. My grandmother spoke, but mostly about the Bible. Later in her life, Christianity became a stronghold that she turned to as a form of protection and that she passed on to me. It was also the way she avoided speaking about our family’s history; but the more you try to dismiss your ghosts, the more aggressively they will seek you out. In the case of my family, and countless others, this unspeakable and forgotten past still haunts the present, bound in the brutal history of the Korean War, which is ongoing given the lack of a peace treaty.

Koreans have maintained a long tradition of remembering the dead and acknowledging how they once ushered our lives forward, nurturing our bodies and spirits: jesa, or ancestral rites honoring loved ones who’ve passed. Though jesa is performed as a ceremony on specific occasions, it can be practiced as a daily mode of being. It is an acknowledgment that we live with ghosts every day and that a fulfilling life is one that honors our connection to them, and thus to one another. Our health, and peace, depend on the feasts we can make of memory, the nourishment it provides both the living and the dead; if not, we run the risk of having starved lives, in this one and the next. In the jesa ceremony, we prepare a large table brimming with food, invite our ancestors to eat and pour them a glass of makgeolli, an alcoholic rice beverage. They partake in the feast. We commune with our dead, showing our respect by bowing to their portrait set before us. After we feed our dead, we, too, are invited to eat. The first time I practiced jesa was at my childhood best friend’s home on the anniversary of her grandmother’s death. My mother found it endearing that I participated.

I don’t believe the dead are waiting for us to arrive; they are already with us, waiting to be seen.

My grandmother was furious. She always taught me that our reunification with loved ones is deferred upon entry to the Kingdom of Heaven; ancestor worship was a sin that jeopardized my access to that prize. My grandmother told me to never get involved again. After all, the worst thing that could happen would be missing this opportunity to reunite, knowing your family is out of reach if you are condemned to hell. Rather than reflect on my family’s history, I was told to not look back, to pray and move on. But I imagined our family I would never know: hungry, restless and lost. Who has not been accounted for? I imagined empty tables uprooting walls of fence stretching for miles across the DMZ between North and South Korea, blooming to reach every corner of the Korean Peninsula. What would it take to keep our spirits fed?

My grandmother never spoke to me about the war until 2018. Inspired by peace talks between the two Koreas, she recalled how the entire peninsula was devastated by war — a result of indiscriminate bombings by the United States, which dropped well over half a million tons of napalm and explosive ordnance combined, contributing to more than four million causalities, more than half of whom were civilians. My grandmother, who was 9 when the war started in 1950, grabbed her sisters and ran out of their home while bombs dropped on their village. She and her sisters avoided the fate of their cousin, who died when the force of a blast knocked over a ceramic medicine jar that crashed on her head. I don’t know this cousin’s name, for my grandmother will not say it. But I think about these family members I’ve never met — the parents of my grandparents, their parents and beyond — and what they survived.

Whether we believe in ghosts or not, they beckon us toward what cannot be forgotten. What they endured became the foundation and promise of our lives. I don’t believe the dead are waiting for us to arrive; they are already with us, waiting to be seen. Understanding that this reality — that our loved ones’ memories and histories suffuse our world and continue to shape our lives long after they have departed — may help us begin to heal all they have suffered in this world.

Through reading and writing, an experience not too different from the shock of leaving my body as a child, I’ve traced the contours of my family’s ghosts. I pass through portals and find them, waiting for an occasion for them to speak through me, though I must also let them go and eventually come back to myself. The practice of jesa has taught me not to fear ghosts, or death, if I can make a feast and invitation of my life. Perhaps we can all, if we are alert enough, make enough room for their presence, and find a way to relish this life for us all — so we may all keep living on.

Joseph Han is the author of the forthcoming debut novel “Nuclear Family” (Counterpoint Press, 2022).