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  • Cynthia Landesberg

Artificial Habitat

Growing up, I lived in one of those unremarkable suburban neighborhoods everyone has seen and no one remembers. Two-story houses. Well-manicured lawns. A driveway leading to a garage filled with bikes for the 2.5 kids living in the house. An asphalt paved bike path ran by these cookie-cutter homes and around a man-made pond, a gazebo sitting pretty to the side. This pond was the farthest I was allowed to bike without an adult and so I came here often, putting as much distance as possible between me and the vibrational tension of unhappily married parents that filled what was supposed to be home. I sat on the grassy hill, back propped against a rectangular metal box that filtered the pond, and watched the geese float about. I wondered why the geese chose this place to make their home, a pond with a view obstructed by houses set to the constant humming of electricity. They voluntarily lived in water littered with Fritos bags and Slurpee cups, an inorganic home not worthy of them.

Did someone pluck them from their families and drop them here, like what happened to me? I was 6 months old when the Korean government stamped the paperwork authorizing the erasure of my Korean citizenship, all 13 pounds of me, too heavy a burden for a government to bear. I soared across the Pacific Ocean, across the land of the free and the home of the brave, 14 hours to Washington, D.C., to a Jewish couple, to my new unnatural habitat.

I watched these geese, their brown feathers preened perfectly, their black necks imperial in posture, and as their necks click a few degrees to look around. Then, without warning or apparent reason, the geese begin to paddle faster and their wings lift, an invisible force turning them into marionettes. Their necks stretch, their backs elongate, their beaks point just a bit more towards the sky. And, like magic, an orchestra of noise beats as their wings flap, their feet tuck in, and they fly. Free. Untouchable.

I always wanted to be those geese, to escape, to lead a life as different as possible from my parents, with their paper-pushing government jobs. I fantasized about living in New York City, melding seamlessly into the throngs of people walking along First Avenue each morning, hustling to my job as a doctor or a lawyer. Anonymous in the best of ways, the crowd would act as a bulwark from the smothering feeling of being an object of curiosity all the time—an adopted Korean Jew.

But then, for no clear reason at all, the geese tilted their wings in succession and circled back down. All of their movements in reverse order was like watching a video as it rewinds. Beaks down. Backs contract. Neck curves. Wings shrink. There is a brief eruption of flapping, a slight splash, and then they are floating again in the same place. They look satisfied, peaceful, and regal. They are the monarchs of their artificial habitat once again. 

I would always leave after they returned, never understanding why they came back, feeling angry at them. They could leave but did not. Now, in my late 30s with three kids and a garage full of bikes living just a handful of miles from that same artificial pond, I realize that despite a brief stretching of my own wings, I nestled right back where I started. I could have left too, but did not.

I made no conscious choice to build my life this way, so close to the landmarks of my childhood. Instead, an unspoken force kept me close, daring me to stay, daring me to make this contrived home my own, daring me to be happy, here. My personal redemption simply could not have happened in New York City, a lovely place to hide but not to be found. As ridiculous as it sounds, my life as a suburban mom is an act of defiance, an act of power, an act of resilience. It is a message to that baby who was placed here, in the most artificial of habitats, that she belongs. Like the goose with his head held high, I am the queen gliding on her fake pond, daring anyone to tell her, especially the voice in her head, that she should go away, that this is not home.



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