Archive for April, 2010

My Father’s Grandfather

My Father’s Stories: Number Two – Grandfather and Grandmother [my great grandparents]

[My father writes “grand pa” and “grand mo” to refer to his grandparents.  I will leave the “mo” as is.]

Time (political): Last emperor, Gojeong of Lee Dynasty (500 years).

Part A:  Grandfather

(This story was told mostly (99%) by my grand mo. My mother did not want to talk about my grand pa and my father didn’t talk about these things – he was very authoritative.)

His name was Lee, Kyung Soo.

Date of birth: not known

Date of death: not known.

However, according to grand mo, he died after my elder sister’s birth in 1927 and before my birth in 1930. So, it means he died between 1927 and 1930. When I consider my grand mo’s various stories, he died close to my birth which probably means 1929. How old was he when he died? My grand mo died at the age of around 70 when I was around 17. Considering these numbers and if he was a few years older than grand mo he probably died at age of mid 50s. And by the same calculation, he was born in around 1874.

He was an only son of third generation.

You can hardly imagine what this meant at that time in Korean society. If there was no son in the family, they thought their family was finished, ruined, collapsed, and when they died, they could not possibly face their ancestors when they met them in heaven.

Therefore, even government policy, (I don’t know about now) for those who are only son of more than third generation were exempt from military duty when they reach 18 years of age.

Therefore, we don’t have distant relatives.

He was a good man.

He was tall and big.

And he was very, very handsome and good looking.

How do we know? We did not see him and this was his wife’s (my grand mo’s) view but it may be so because of the following reasons.

(1)   My father was handsome.

(2)   My mother displayed my father’s photo on the wall of living area wherever we moved, like the North Koreans displayed  Kim Il Sung’s photo. One day, when I was coming home together with a couple of friends from school (Junior High) my friends saw the picture of my father and every body said at the same time: “Wow! Who was he? Was he a movie star? Very handsome” etc. My grand mo heard that. After my friends left, my grand mo told me “your grandpa was much, much more handsome than your father and if you compare with your grandpa there is no comparison”.

Occupation: Merchant (modern term – Businessman).

He was very rich.  (Probably inherited considering his lifestyle.)

Grand mo told me thousands of times that he owned thousands (?) of acres of fertile rice fields and dry farm land. Koreans usually separate wet farm land for rice (more valuable) and dry farm land for barley, wheat, vegetables, etc.

He had two commercial buildings in West-Gate market. This was a famous only market in Daegu city at that time and they said that you can not find anything without finding in this market. (Is this English?)

Thinking of West-Gate market, when I was preschool age, my mom was going to that market. My mom asked me if I wanted to come with her. I said “OK mom, I’d love to” because I thought it might be very interesting to look around in the market. When we got there, I was fascinated by so many interesting things. I stopped by the live fish selling corner.  In a live fish tank (large wooden made half barrel sort of tank) they kept live Tilapia, Carp, Catfish, eels in water, and clams, crabs, etc. too. Fish were jumping and slapping the surface of the water with their tails and make water splash. I was somehow euphoric, and then mom pulled my arm and went to the food selling corner. Wow! It smelled good. In one corner, they sold green bean soup. In Korean food culture, they developed many kinds of soup as a meal. I was thinking back on how this was developed. Historically, the peasant class (the general population, other than the special royal class – the so called Yang-Ban) of Korea was so poor. Whenever spring came, their harvested food crops from the last autumn had run out. There was nothing much to eat. Girls and women had to go out to the mountain hills and dig newly grown edible herbs – like wild greens – in early spring. They put this plus a few crops in a lot of water and make various kinds of soup and eat them as a meal in order to fill their hungry stomachs. By the way, there was also some love story about these spring-wild-greens-digging-girls and cow boys on the hill of mountain. These cow boys were different from Texas cow boys who feed and lead hundreds of herds of cows. Korean cow boy means they feed only one cow or two of their (farmers) possession.

Now, coming back to green bean soup, we (my mom and I) sat on the wooden made simple bench (no back support) in front of the green bean soup cooking oven. My mom asked the old soup selling lady to give her a bowl of green bean soup. Mom got that steamy yummy looking green bean soup and passed it to me to eat. I was looking up to see mom’s face and asked “how about you.” Mom said she was not hungry and also her stomach was hurting a little and she told me to eat it before it got cold. I ate it. It was so good – really good. It was too bad that mom had a stomach problem. At that time I was barely 5 or 6 years old. Yet, I still remember that scene clearly. While I was growing up, when I looked back at my childhood days, we were so poor then that my mom could not even afford to buy another bowl of soup which was one of the cheapest food in that market. When I think back about my mom, I still feel the love that my mother gave me.

Life style of grand father: Womanizing and Gambling


Grand mo told me so many times that he was so popular with women and that he had so many mistresses everywhere – in every town. He bought houses for them and paid expenses for them. Amazingly, when my grand mo talked about this, she showed no sign of jealousy or hatred, rather she was kind of proud that her husband was so popular among women and had so many mistresses. In those days, one could legally have only one wife (this was very strict) but mistresses were widely accepted for those who could afford to have them.


He was a frequent big gambler and later he was addicted to it. Grand mo said when he went for gambling, he loaded a huge amount of threaded coins on the back of the horse and took his aid to pull the horse. (Regarding horses, Korean native horses are small and gentle and may be slightly bigger than donkeys in size.) About currency in those days, they used large metal (brass? nickel? I am not sure) coins with square or round holes in the center of the coin. When they carried or stored them, they threaded those coins with string – 10, 20, 50, 100, etc. together in a bundle.

Morphine addiction:

When he gambled, he lost more than he gained and gradually suffered more and more losses. Grand mo said he sold all those fertile farm lands one by one, got depressed, started using morphine, got addicted, expanding debt, sold businesses, sold the house (which may have been our original address) and finally moved in to a straw-thatched small house in the northern outskirts of a poor neighborhood where there was no sewer system.

Final days:

He was bed ridden, became uselessly ruined man, all his women and friends left him. Grand mo said when his morphine effect wore off, he started shouting loudly,” I am dying, I am dying, do some thing for me”. Grand mo answered back and said my dear husband you sold everything – we have nothing to sell any more. Grand pa shouted more loudly, more hysterically and continuously, “I am dying, I am dying, please do something for me” while crawling all over the bed room, and slapping the bed room floor with his palms. Grand mo was such an amazingly faithful wife that she was so sympathetic to her husband. She opened any chest or any drawer, even my mother’s, looking for something valuable, such as jewelry or clothes or even hair pins and took it to pawn places. My mother rarely talked about this but one day, when she came home, she saw her mother-in-law, who is my grand mo, opening my mother’s chest, and looking for any valuables. My mother could not say anything because she knew she could not stop it even if she argued for it.

After grand pa got morphine, he looked peaceful. While she was watching him, grand mo was tearful because once he was a big, tall and good looking proud man. Look at him now – emaciated, shrunken and miserable looking.

The final day approached slowly and gradually. One rainy day evening, under the influence of morphine, he stopped breathing, stopped shouting and fell asleep for good and forever. Exhausted family. No tears, no crying.  The whole house was quiet; the whole universe was quiet. What a way for a good man to end his life. This is how an irresponsible head of house hold could ruin the family he once loved. The rest of the family has to survive, but how?

The good part is that the worst is over and tomorrow morning, the sun might rise brighter than ever on the horizon and on the roofs of the straw-thatched, poor neighborhood.

Although many years passed, my mother did not want to talk about grand pa. (Generally, it is considered unethical for a married woman to talk about her husband’s family negatively, especially about her mother-in-law and father-in-law). But not only that, she really did not want to remember it. Even when I asked her about it, she tried to avoid it. Usually, she never avoided my questions. Whenever I asked any questions, she usually answered honestly and sometimes in detail. I can only imagine how much hardship she endured after grand pa ruined our family.

Later, I heard a piece of her memory. She said she could tolerate it for herself, but what she could not tolerate was the fact that because of grand pa, her (my mom’s) children faced so much hardship.

Amazing Laughter

Are you smiling yet?  Coming upon this installation in Morton Park (Triangle) near English Bay Beach in the West End district of Vancouver is like, as visiting friend Smita Patel says, coming upon a laughter club in a Delhi park – you can’t help but be happy, if for a moment.

A-maze-ing Laughter” is part of the Vancouver Biennale 2009-2011, one of 28 sculptures based on the theme “in-TRANSIT-ion” installed along walking and biking routes, the new Canada Line and other mass transportation lines, and at the Vancouver International Airport.

Artist Yue Minjun uses his own face in a state of hysterical laughter as a signature trademark.  Additional photos by Dan Fairchild, the official photographer of the Vancouver Biennale, can be seen on the Biennale Blog, which also gives more information on the sculpture and the sculptor, including this historical context of the artist’s work in China:

Yue Minjun was a leading figure in what became to be known in the 1990’s as Cynical Realism, an artistic movement that emerged in China after the 1989 student demonstrations in Tiananmen and the suppression of artistic expression.  Humor, cynicism, repetition and an emphasis on the individual are common characteristics of this artistic movement.  Yue Minjun was one of the first artists to translate this new ironic view of contemporary life, one that is expressed in the nihilistic hilarity at a time when little was funny.

In Vancouver, the irony is not apparent.

The Original Address

About 2 weeks ago, I asked my father if he would send me some stories about his life and the life of his family in Korea, most of whom I do not know.  He demurred.  But because my youngest brother also expressed a desire to hear the  stories, my father has labored to send one every couple of days.  I will present the stories here, edited for gross grammatical errors, with little commentary of my own.

My Father’s Stories: Number One – General Information

True to form, my father began the first of his recollections from “the beginning.”  No haphazard stories sent as he remembered them; he would start from as far back as he could and work his way to the present.

First, he wanted us (his three children) to know that we are “ordinary” people.

As far as I know, we did not have prominent figures in our family. This is just an ordinary people’s story.

Second, he gave our “original address,” as well as some background information to put that address into context.

Korea is a tiny country in the far (north) east, as you know. We have a continental climate – severe winters because it is influenced by cold low pressure jet flows formed from Russia near Lake Baikal pushing down to our area. Geographically, it is a peninsula. The northern border of North Korea is bordered by China (Manchuria region) and Russia in the north east corner near Vladivostok. The southern part is close to Japan, separated by the Korea Strait.

Korea’s history goes back 5000 years (? They always said so). Mountainous, under developed and very poor for 5000 years because there was always fighting among the kingdoms in the Korean peninsula until recent years. Korea was liberated from 36 years of cruel Japanese rule after the Second World War in 1945.

Korea has one language, but because of primitive transportation systems in olden days plus the fact that it is a mountainous country, many areas were isolated and consequently developed unique dialects, customs, foods etc. in each province.

South Korea had 8 provinces, with 5 in the South. We are from Kyungsang-Do (Do means province). It has subdivisions of north and south.

Kyungsang-Do is located in the south east part of the Korean peninsula. (Chulla-Do is located in the south west part of Korea.)

Now, Daegu (city), about 200 miles south of Seoul, is the capital of Kyungsang North Province, the third largest city in Korea after Seoul and Pusan (a port city; the capital of Kyungsang South Province).

Daeshin-Dong is located in the north west part of Daegu city.

Our original address (which does not change for the entire life of every member of the whole family), registered during  grandparents’ days, or even before:

68 Daeshin-Dong, Daegu (city), Kyungsang Book Do, Republic of Korea (South Korea)

(Dong means smallest section of administrative area, Book means north and Do means province). We never lived there but perhaps my grand parents and/or great great grand parents lived there.

We have written this original address thousands of times during our life time to fill up all kinds of documents, like applications etc. along with name, age, gender and present address.

Recently, Korea abolished this original address system because it created so many problems and we now just write present address only. Those problems all stem from provincial discrimination: some individuals don’t like the people from certain provinces – politicians utilize this for their votes; some parents discourage their childrens’ marriages because of this; when some companies hire people, they check the applicant’s original address; and even Presidents, when they form cabinets, try to get members from the same province, etc.

This has really been nonsense – ridiculous – and a lot of critics and thinkers were crying to eliminate the origin of this problem, which is the original address. It was also about time to remove it because unlike in the olden days, all of Korea is a one-day living circle because of a convenient, modernized transportation system.

By the way, among our past 9 Presidents, 6 were from Kyungsang-Do, 2 from Seoul metro and 1 from Chulla-Do (most unpopular).

I guess this part is boring. Next time, I will start to write about my grand parents – older generation first, then to the younger, as far as I can remember.

Ramachandra Guha’s “Ten reasons why India will not and must not become a superpower”

On 13 April 2010, Ramachandra Guha gave his:  “Ten reasons why India will not and must not become a superpower” lecture, presented by the International Development Research Centre and co-hosted by the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the Canada-India Foundation, at the Asian Centre at UBC.  (The talk can be seen in its entirety in the video above.) Since an initial essay published in the summer of 2008 giving seven reasons why India would not become a superpower (referenced in this article in India Together), Guha has expanded his reasons to ten:

  1. The rise of left-wing insurgency in Central and Eastern India (a brutal civil war between the Maoists and the Government of India).
  2. The rise of right-wing religious fundamentalism (BJP/RSS).
  3. The decline and corruption of the democratic center (particularly the conversion of political parties into family firms).
  4. The degradation of public institutions (such as universities, law courts, hospitals, civil services).
  5. The growing (spectacular) gap between the rich and the poor.
  6. The rapid pace of environmental degradation (air pollution, dead rivers, depletion of groundwater aquifers, disposal of toxic and nuclear waste, etc.).
  7. The superficiality of the mainstream media (or “the Indian media’s complicit worship of wealth, celebrity and super-stardom”) and abandonment of commitment to serious environmental reportage.
  8. Political fragmentation and the instability engendered by multiparty coalition governments (price of support is the most profitable ministries).
  9. Unreconciled borderlands (Kashmir, Nagaland and Manipur).
  10. Unstable neighborhood (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka).

Guha seems to have greater cachet as a lecturer in the West and greater credibility in critiquing India because of his all-India education: St. Stephen’s College, Delhi School of Economics, Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta.  He has been nominated by Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines as one of the world’s one hundred most influential intellectuals and by India Together and BusinessWeek as one of the fifty most influential people in India.  He is a 2009 recipient of the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honor.

Guha speaks passionately and knowledgeably about the environmental degradation taking place in the pursuit of “growth” and the displacement of a voiceless tribal population of 90 million living in forests (on top of natural resources and by rivers) that the Government of India is looking to exploit, primarily through public private partnerships. (Guha is one of three academics that have filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India against the activities of Salwa Judum, a state-supported vigilante group killing and displacing the tribal population in the state of Chhattisgarh in pursuit of the Naxalites (Maoists).)

Guha contends that the pursuit of superpower status detracts the Government of India from addressing the problems listed above.  Rather, India is uniquely placed to be a “bridging power” – to be a greater influence in culture and ideas, and promoting the ethic of democracy and diversity from which other countries can learn.  “The Indian national experiment is the dream – we should fulfill it.”

National Volunteer Week 2010

April 18-24, 2010 is National Volunteer Week in the U.S. organized by Points of Light Foundation to celebrate “ordinary people doing extraordinary things to improve communities across the nation.”

Find out about more about events at HandsOn Network.

Volunteer opportunities can be found at 1-800

Get inspired and share stories, videos and photos here.

The Ever-So-Magical Quigly

The ever-so-magical Quigly

As Emma, a fellow volunteer, and I walk out of Pacific Spirit Park after our work session hauling holly, we notice a little birdie in a nest set on a moss covered tree stump near the trail head for Lily of the Vally trail.  The note under the nest reads:

this is the ever-so-magical Quigly. a beautiful bird born of prestige. Quigly enjoys afternoon teas and listening to Bach. he resides on the extended pinkies of sophisticated individuals. if you are one, please give Quigly a home.

Quigly's note

As I’m trying to decide whether I should come back later to take a photo of this joyful gesture, I see a man walking towards us with a camera hanging from his neck.  Filthy, and with an armful of ivy (another invasive species that is handled separately from the holly), I accost this poor man:  “Where are you walking?”  “I don’t know” he stammers.  “Would you take a picture for me and email it to me?” I ask, too directly.  “Sure” he quickly agrees, afraid to say “no.”  I rush him down the path, turn into Lily of the Valley trail and point out the little toy birdie in its nest.  He takes a picture and shows me the image in the camera’s display.  I’m not satisfied.  “Can you take a closeup?” “I have to change lenses” he says.  And he proceeds to take off his very clean, new-looking backpack, which is specifically made to carry a camera and lenses, and sets it on the dirt trail.  He’s got two other lenses in the backpack.  He looks at both, chooses one, then proceeds to switch lenses. I make small noises about being sorry for being so much trouble. He takes a few more photographs, makes sure I’m satisfied, before closing up his backpack.  .

At this point, I’m anxious to get back to the work shed and the Holly Hauling volunteer leaders, since I don’t know what to do with the armload of ivy I’m still carrying.  One thing left – to give this man my email address.  He initiates it by taking out his iPhone.  First he wants my name.  He shows me his screen.  First name:  I start spelling out y-o-o and he writes w-e-e… “No”, I say, “it’s y-o-o” and he backspaces and writes w-o-o… “No, ‘y’ not ‘w'” He finally gets the first name down.  The last name is easy.  Then the email address.  I start rattling it off, since it is just my name, but he says:  “I need my glasses for this.” By now, I’ve assumed that all the other volunteers, including the leaders, have already left.  Still, after he’s got my email address saved, I thank him and start to run.  Five steps later, I turn and ask:  “What is your name?”  “Adilson.”  (I’m guessing Spanish is his first language.)  “Would you like some of my other pictures?” he asks.  “I had the telephoto lens on to shoot eagles.”  “Sure, I’d love them” I respond, and resume my run down the path.  I make it to the shed just as the volunteer leaders are about to lock the gate, and am able to dump the ivy.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Thank you to the former Quigly owner for the pleasant find. And a huge thank you to Adilson for engaging in the photography project so unequivocally.

I hope Quigly gets a nice home.

Capturing My Father’s Stories

I’ve been thinking of my father quite a bit these days. His 80th birthday (in American years, as he likes to remind us) is approaching in a few months, and I can’t shake this niggling feeling of unease that keeps growing every year as I postpone spending time with him to capture some of the stories of his life.  The impact of the few stories I’ve heard him tell are still vivid, but I no longer remember the details.  And I’m afraid, neither will he.

My father wanted to write an autobiography, even as recently as 20 years ago.  I believe that he wanted to document the war (Korean) years and his wrongful imprisonment by the Americans in a POW camp.  (Where was that?) But as dates and other details faded from his memory, he didn’t.  My father is precise, exact, factual.  He was a surgeon.  His mother had a photographic memory.  Forgetting one date would have killed the entire autobiography.  I know how he feels – I’ve inherited the tendency towards precision.  Ironic, since my own long-term memory is so bad. (Did I get that from my mother?)

My father’s story has all the ingredients for a terrific historical novel.  But it is my history.

  • Growing up poor as the eldest son of six children
  • A bully of a father (a minister, no less) who died young
  • Going to university in the big city, carrying a sack of rice (on a bus) as the only offering for the cousin who housed him
  • Tutoring other students to put himself through medical school
  • Sole supporter of the family, drafted during the Korean War while still a medical student
  • Misidentified as a North Korean soldier and taken as a prisoner-of-war by his own allies
  • Leaving a war-ravaged country for the “Pearl of Africa”
  • Playing God as a surgeon in Uganda
  • Immigrating to the U.S.A. to educate his children
  • Guilt and remorse for the family left behind in South Korea

My mother claims to have no family left in South Korea and I am not in touch with my father’s remaining family – two brothers and two sisters and their children and grandchildren.  My father’s oldest sister passed away before his mother did some years ago.  (Again, the dates escape me.)  So, my father is my only access to this story.

Rather than wait until I see him in a few months, I emailed him to see if he would begin the process via email.  This is his (somewhat edited) response:

I do not know what inspired you but I was surprised to hear that you are suddenly interested to know about our family stories. From a father’s stand point, it is definitely a welcome and proud news. However, for me, in this stage of my life, writing a letter or stories in English is a big headache because my memory is rapidly deteriorating on top of my poor Basic English ability as you already know. These days, when I write something in English, I have to struggle to find a proper word to use. Same with speaking and even reading ability has become very slow that I have to repeat reading same sentence twice or three times to get meaning of it.

So, if I could avoid your request, it will be a big relief for me. However, if you seriously want to know these things, how can I refuse your beautiful request?

May be, like you said, I write one story in a few days or a few weeks if you don’t have limited time frame.

I even couldn’t say when I could start.

PS: About book writing: When I was in 60’s, I was thinking that when I retire and have nothing much to do, maybe I write a book about my elder sister’s checkered life, my story I faced during Korean war or Ugandan life etc. But after I retired, I changed my mind. Reason # 1: Who will be interested to read my story? Reason # 2: I had a doubt about what for? For my self satisfaction? Or for whom? I remember Buddhists teaching said everything is useless, don’t be persistently attached to worldly affair. These things are all useless.

As I get older I agree with these things more than when I was young.

My father sent this response to my two brothers as well.  My youngest brother wrote back to say that he would also love to hear these stories.  Let’s see what, if anything comes our way.


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