I don’t have a lot of memories of my late maternal grandmother, but I do have a few. The clearest memory I have is from when I was eight, shortly before my parents and I immigrated to the U.S. She asked me a question–this was at her house, I think–and I didn’t know the answer, so I responded by shrugging. My grandmother gave me a sharp look and told me that it was rude to shrug to older people. Then she told me, “When you go to America, make sure you combine the best of what you learned in Korea with the best of what you will learn over there.” After I left for the U.S. a short time later, I never saw her again, though I always remembered what she said to me that day and the chocolate bars she used to buy me all the time whenever I visited her house.
Why am I bringing up this up? Well, today, my mom, two aunts and uncle had lunch with my grandma’s younger brother and his wife. My mom really wanted to see him (her uncle) while she’s visiting, and she asked me to come, too. To be honest, I didn’t really want to go, seeing I didn’t really know him very well (I had met him two or three times over the last few years at weddings and such but never really talked to him at length), but I finally relented. As it turned out, I’m very, very glad that I went, as I ended up hearing things that made my head spin. Actually, my head still feels like it’s out in orbit as I’m writing this.
My grandma’s brother (he was younger than her–by twelve years–so I think in Korea, I’m supposed to call him “Little Grandfather”) is eighty years old now, but he’s still full of vim and vigor, and he just seemed like a very good-hearted man. He was chatting with my mom and aunts about this and that over pork galbi, and I was sitting with a boredom-concealing smile, and then the talk turned to the past, and I was soon listening to everything with my mouth hanging open, absolutely riveted.
As it turned out, his (and my grandmother’s) parents both grew up in areas that are now parts of North Korea. Their father (my great-grandfather) passed away at some point, and my grandmother went abroad to Japan to study. Once she returned, she moved to what is now South Korea and started working as a teacher. Then my grandmother’s brother decided to move to South Korea, too. However, this was not a simple matter. This was at the time right after Korea had finally regained its independence after years of being occupied by Japan. Everything was still kind of unsettled, so the U.S. and Russia came over to help Korea get back on its feet, with Russia supervising the North and the U.S. looking over the South. Of course, this would soon lead to the Korean War breaking out, but even before that, people were guarding the North-South border closely, and people couldn’t cross without official permission. My Little Grandfather walked for days and days–he described it as a “very hard” journey–and somehow came up with a fake ID to be able to cross the border.
Soon afterwards, war started, and all hell broke out. By then, my grandmother had married and given birth to the first three of her six children, including my mother. The oldest son (my uncle) died during the war. My second uncle and my mom survived, but both still carry scars from that time–I guess from shrapnel–my mom on the back of her leg, my uncle on his wrist. I asked them if they remember anything from that time, and my mom didn’t, but my uncle did. He said he remembered an explosion happening and then he ended up with his head being stuck between two pillars that had collapsed, and he cried out for someone to come and save him, and finally his father came and sawed through a pillar to save him. Also, during this time, all young men were being forced into fighting in the war, but my grandmother hid her younger brother in her house so that he could be safe (a la Anne Frank). The irony of that is years later, he ended up becoming a soldier voluntarily and did a tour of duty in Vietnam during the war there.
After the Korean War finally ended, the North-South border was of course completely blocked off. As a result, my grandmother and my Little Grandfather never saw their mother or their three other siblings ever again, as they were all in North Korea. My mom said that she remembered my grandmother crying very often from loneliness. I also remembered my aunt once telling me that my grandmother used to start crying and tell my aunt, “You look so much like your oldest brother did,” talking of the son she lost during the war. Losing a child, losing hope of ever seeing your mother again, same for three of your brothers and sisters… I shuddered to just think of it.
Like I said, it all just made my head to spin. I had heard parts of the story before, but to hear the full scope of all the tragedy my grandmother had to go through, it made my heart ache for her and wish we had more time together. For now, I can only admire her for her strength and perseverance and be proud to have her blood running through my veins. Grandma–aw, crap, the tears are coming now–sarang-hahp-ni-dah.