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How I Used Photography to Connect with the Family I’d Never Met

In her photo series “Please Come Back Soon,” New York native Janice Chung meets her Korean family for the first time.

“Please Come Back Soon” is a series of photographs capturing my first visit to Korea and first meeting with my mother’s family. My mother immigrated to New York City from Seoul with my father in the late ‘80s. Since then, she had only visited Seoul a few times after her marriage. She left Seoul at the young age of 25 and is now 55.

After I graduated college, I was able to afford to take my mother and myself to visit her family.

We actually did not have my grandma’s phone number or anyone else’s currently in Korea but we decided to go anyway in hopes that we would somehow figure out a plan there. In September we packed our bags and left New York City for Korea.

We arrived at Incheon airport, took a bus, then a taxi to an Airbnb near the town my grandma lived in. Immediately upon arrival, my mom attempted to dial all the numbers of her family members she could find. The only number with a dial tone was my uncle’s, so we called multiple times but received no answer.

We decided to give up for the night, but at that moment, our rented phone started to ring. My uncle on the other end shouted, “Who the hell are you that you called so many times in the middle of the night?” My mother retorted, “It’s your sister, you fool!”

My uncle picked us up early in the morning the next day and dropped us off at my grandma’s apartment. We lived together for about two months.

In America, my mother did not talk very often about her family in Korea, and very rarely would I hear her talk to her own mother through long distance calls. I never thought much about my family in Korea and what their life would be like. It never occurred to me that they might be thinking of us in New York City.

When I had arrived at their apartment, my grandpa took me to a room and led me to his dresser where there were framed photos of myself and my brother when we were children. I guess my mother had sent them a long time ago. There were also photos of my mother right before she left Seoul.

One afternoon, I took a walk with my grandpa on the town trail. My Korean is really awful so we could not communicate very well. We did not exchange many words. After about an hour of walking, we reached the end of the trail and headed for the lake. There I took several portraits of him.

I sat beside him on a bench when he took my hand in his and asked me if he would ever see me again. He asked me if he would ever see my mother again. I said nothing. We walked back home again mostly in silence.

I ask my mother once a month when we will return to our home in Korea. I often check the flights from New York City to Seoul but never buy tickets.

Since then, my grandma calls me once a month and tells me to take care of Mom and to be happy. She expresses concern about my health and asks me why I must always carry heavy cameras with me everywhere.

Janice Chung’s Online Portfolio
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