This poem originally appeared in Alaska Women Speak.
A Greeting at Imjingak
She ambled off the tour bus,
like she was crossing over rocks
in a rough river,
one half step at a time.
Glancing outside at the concrete building
like a child greets an amusement park,
she wore at least seventy years
in the lines of her smile,
a face that remembered a time
before the Forgotten War,
when the Koreas were one.
She bows her head,
she says to the young American couple,
the visiting airman and his wife,
stationed at Osan Air Force Base,
who were there because the war
never really ended in peace,
but in an armistice,
a pause in play,
a forgotten war,
between two Cold War superpowers:
one of which no longer exists;
the other whose boots still remain,
generations after they declared victory.
You both stumble and trip in your speech,
over the barbed wire that ties your tongue
and stings your stomach as you attempt
to return the formal, honorific
form of the greeting she used.
Inside you wish you were not there
so maybe she would not be there either.
The South Korean tourists come to Imjingak
to see what they cannot touch,
what they cannot feel,
who they cannot see in the flesh,
of a land that was once theirs,
the men and women who they once knew,
and decades later,
The Americans come to see the plaques
from each state that gave men in combat,
that mark their success that divided
the Korean brothers and sisters
and repelled Communism to the 38th parallel.
They want to see the Bridge of Freedom
over the Imjin river
that returned their POWs
and ended their battle in the Korean War.
They want to glance at the forbidden land of North Korea,
beyond the fields of tank traps and mines
bearing three languages of warning:
Korean, Chinese and English,
to the concrete no-man’s land created
to keep the fragile peace and division.
Nothing could prepare your gut for that smile,
that glow that greets you at the bus,
the one which seems grateful,
rather than spiteful,
for your continual military presence,
the generation who still wants
your boots on their ground.
You stumble over the wires
that tangle your tongue:
you cannot say it well in Korean;.
you cannot even say it aloud in English.
You are sorry she is there,
and that you are still there,
and the Bridge of Freedom
did not set her free.