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☞ Issue 115
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Tae Guk Gi and Stars & Stripes: Life Between Two Worlds (2)

Lost Pages from the Family Album

Melissa Hahn (2008/07/13 17:34)  

Today the setting is the Sonoran Desert, a vast expanse of heat and dust dotted with native cacti and transplanted palm trees. Advertisements blaze across billboards in Spanish, children splash in backyard pools nearly a month before summer officially begins on the calendar, and Christmas lights draped around mighty saguaro twinkle brightly in the winter. Still a wild-west boomtown of sorts, it remains a magnet for those seeking a better life beyond the horizon. Families and retirees flock to Phoenix from much cooler corners of the nation, lured by year-round sunshine, awe-inspiring magenta sunsets, a total lack of snow, and relatively inexpensive housing prices. For the woman known to me as Halmoni, however, the draw was more personal: the only family she knows in the world have relocated here.

Family Wedding in Tokyo, May 1918

In the senior years of a bittersweet life, she appears on the surface to be doing quite well. She maintains her own apartment in a senior living complex, has a cadre of friends at the Korean Salvation Army church, cooks her own meals after her daughters drive her to the grocery store, and perhaps most significantly of all- has lived to see her only grandson graduate from university and marry. And yet, in the quiet hours of the morning, does her mind wander back to the days before the Japanese Occupation ended? To the precious years before the Korean War unleashed its fury across the peninsula? To her blissful schoolgirl daydreams of the life that lay ahead?

Impossible to imagine now, that such a different world once existed. One wonders how a single generation could adapt to so much flux and so little peace, how one’s spirit could survive such a bewildering torrent of tragedy and heartache, and how the vanished realm of the old life could ever be reconciled with the new. Almost blending seamlessly with her surroundings as she sits smiling unobtrusively in the corner of the kitchen, the depths of her eyes betray the artifice of her present-day life. Her heart, cut off forever from its desired path, has never stopped yearning. Her old life dissolved, her new one disconnected, she is the forgotten older generation of Korean immigration.

When she was born some eighty years ago, Halmoni had likely never heard of the American desert southwest with its tamales and rodeos; she would have certainly never expected to be living out her senior years in such a hardscrabble and foreign environment. Sifting through the few black and white photos to have survived so many turbulent years, my spine tingles as it makes an ethereal contact with her fascinating life. Halmoni- a glowing, pearl-skinned young woman in a white hanbok, seated next to her military dressed brother. A sterner, thinner Halmoni standing grimly on a lakeshore during the worst of the war. A smiling Halmoni in western dress with her son, now a university professor, and his wife, at a temple many years later.

Mom and Grandmother(1955)

The life between these scattered photos is a mystery yearning to be untangled, yet locked away with the past. A past perhaps wishing to be forgotten, lest its pain intrude on today’s generation. And yet, I cannot help but ponder its tale, begging the photos to reveal a clue to my curious heart. For the secrets of Halmoni’s life are the key to understanding my husband’s, and therefore my own family’s heritage.

Born in Japan to Korean expatriate civil servants, Halmoni’s childhood, in retrospect, seems to be filled with joy and promise. Photos show a large family gathered for a wedding in Tokyo, the groom dressed stylishly in a black suit and cravat, the bride in an elegant white gown complete with a veil and a large Japanese hair pin. The twenty-five guests look comfortably warm in thick woolen coats and fur caps; one elder wears a silk brocade kimono, another combines a dark, suit-like kimono with a western-style handkerchief and High Street top hat. 1918. Barely the end of the First World War in the West. A time of great expectations in Japan, and in the Park family.

Along with kimchi and Korean lessons, she learned Japanese and ate udon. Just how Japanese her childhood must have been was evident this past Mothers’ Day. Enjoying a family meal at a local Japanese restaurant, she delved into lengthy half Korean-half English explanations about which foods were most suited to which seasons. She reminisced, through Emo’s translations, about her summer evenings eating cold brown noodles, reflecting that her sister never cared for them.

“Where is her sister?” I asked, suddenly realizing that I had faultily assumed her to be an only child.
“Oh, she is still in Japan. Her son lives there too,” Emo said. “He only speaks Japanese now.”
Seeing my surprise and pain for her reflecting in my eyes, Halmoni’s glistened and she lowered her head slightly.

My husband surrounded by his mother, aunt and grandmother in 2001

In the relaxed atmosphere of sushi and soju, I wanted to inquire further, but just then Halmoni began chatting with a young waitress. In Japanese. An uncharacteristic sparkle radiated from Halmoni’s eyes as the young woman bowed courteously and began speaking in the polite form to her elder. Domo-aragato. Yokohama-des. Hai. Both seemed to me as lost souls, making a living in a strange land, far from the dignity and grace of their old lives. Halmoni suddenly emerged as much more complex than even the photos had let on. Far from simply being my husband’s smiling grandmother, she became emblematic of the social cleavages, historical rollercoaster, and unrealized expectations for the future of the pre-war era.

As the daughter of a civil servant working in Japan, her perspective on the occupation is most likely archaic and unpopular in Korea today. One can imagine that, in her own childhood view of the world, she simply accepted the world the way it was and assumed it would remain that way throughout her lifetime. Literate in both Japanese and Korean, she continued her studies at the university level, and was working towards a degree in art at the worst possible moment in history. As the Second World War drew to a close with the apocalyptic bombings and air raids over Japan, the only life she had ever known disintegrated around her. Perhaps to save her life and provide some semblance of a future, her father arranged for her to be married. Seemingly overnight, her life was upended from one of education and cosmopolitanism in urban Japan to one of marriage, duty, and famine in the impoverished Korean countryside.

The culture shock would be minimal compared with the cataclysmic unleashing of the civil war a few short years later. Born in 1950, my husband’s mother’s earliest childhood memory is of being carried on Halmoni’s back during a long refugee march as they fled from the North. In the few photos to survive the period, the transformation in Halmoni’s face and eyes is haunting. Gone were the sharp and sparkling eyes, the milky and iridescent skin, and the aura of hope; replacing them were a gaunt chin, empty eyes, and a defiantly proud posture rigidly imposed on a frail body.

Poverty-stricken, a stranger in her own land, and a foreigner in her own marriage, Halmoni rebelled back against the world. Behaving erratically and shamefully, she left her husband and three children behind and made a reverse-evacuation to Seoul. Perhaps she was seeking shelter in the familiarity of an urban environment filled with foreign service elite and bureaucrats. A striking and well-spoken young woman, her future ripped from her in the prime of her life, she sought solace in the arms and promises of men who might somehow protect her and transport her back to the life she had thought she was living, far from the torment that had become her own.

My husband’s mother recalls painfully the stigma of being the only child in the village, and perhaps all of Korea at the time, with parents who had divorced. A Cinderella story unfolded, with the eventual happy ending of my husband’s mother marrying his American father. For the thirty years in between, his mother would toil as the full-time cook and maid at her stepmother’s home, forgoing her own education as she worked to pay for her mother’s sins and then her brother’s university tuition. Escaping to a US military base, she found work as a waitress, determined to make a life for herself. Starting her own family in Phoenix, she vowed to release her son from his family’s nightmare. With her son married to an American girl, both of their university degrees framed on the wall, she can rest at ease. She has succeeded.

For my husband, it is not nearly so simple. Having lost his Korean and Japanese abilities- a gift from his grandmother when he was very young- upon his return to the US, he has lost the ability to communicate with his own extended family whose English skills lag behind his. With his mother as the only English-Korean go-between, prying into a dark past that she’d sooner forget is exceptionally delicate. But as he contemplates the future of his own children, he has a greater urgency to know himself and his ancestors.
Upon learning that he may have cousins in Japan, he feels his heart pang with the loss of previous generations. His grandfather long ago moved on with his life in Korea, surrounded by grandchildren related but unknown to my husband. He has always been the only one- the only son, the only nephew, the only grandchild. The only Korean-American, left to put the fragmented history of his family back together like a jigsaw puzzle missing half of its pieces.

Much excitement is rightfully felt in Korea and abroad over recent progress towards peace with the North, as well as improved ties with Japan. To varying degrees, every family with Korean blood has experienced irreconcilable grief due to the sorrow of the previous century. Many families have missing branches on their family tree- whether through abductions, twists of fate holding members on opposite sides of the DMZ, or immigration as a last resort. Each of these mystery branches create holes in the family’s heart, and represent the plight of the Korean people-so many families and lives torn asunder, so many question marks and unknown addresses.

Rebuilding lost ties can be daunting, but we should recall Sung Si Kyung’s advice in his popular song, “Try to Remember”. Just as his flowing melody harkens back to a simpler and more innocent time among the beauty of nature, inviting the listener to find tranquility in their hearts, we can reflect on our family histories and somehow make peace with that which has been lost. Some bridges may never be rebuilt, and some stories may never be retold, but we should not let that sway us from attempting our own reconciliation. The future of our families- and the ultimate unity of Korea- will depend on the progress that we make.

  reference news
Tae Guk Gi and Stars & Stripes: Life Between Two Worlds (1) Melissa Hahn [05.25]
Tae Guk Gi and Stars & Stripes: Life Between Two Worlds (3) Melissa Hahn [09.17]

U.S.-DPRK Relation

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