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Small Father

My Father’s Stories: Number Four – Small Father (Sam Chon).

This is the story of my father’s uncle – his father’s younger brother (small father – Sam (3)-Chon), his wife (my father’s aunt) and his children (my father’s “real” cousins).

I think I better explain a little bit about “chon” numbers in blood relations.

Between father and son = il (1) chon; between brothers = iee (2) chon; So, between father’s brother and me = sam (3) chon; between father’s brother’ son and me = sa (4) chon (in US we call it cousin); and 5 chon (nephew); 8 chon (distant cousin) etc. This is very scientific and logical. However, with 1 chon and 2 chon, customarily we never call our father “1 chon”, or our brother “2 chon”. You calculate and call “chon number” directly to the person only after 2 chon:  “3 chon”, “4 chon”, “5 chon”, “8 chon” etc. However, usually, more than “8 chon” is considered insignificant.

My father also goes on to expound on the scientific and simple nature (no “controversial” words like ‘knife’) of the Korean alphabet (Han-Gul), but I will skip that aside for this story.

This very little known uncle’s story is based mainly on my grand mother (80%), my mother (10%), and me (10%).

Name: Lee, Sang Ho

Date of birth: around 1903

At present: no one knows where he may be or whether he is dead or alive.

Physical appearance: On the tall side, but not as tall as my father and of medium build.

External (facial) appearance: average (resembled  Won-San Go-Mo).

Character: easy going, not serious, not steady.

Occupation: perhaps just pretending to help his father (my grand pa).

Wife: Beautiful woman.

Two children: (1) Girl: Lee, Song Ok, similar to my age, (2) Boy: Lee, Man Woo, couple of years younger than me.

My grand mo said that he (uncle) was a lazy and useless bum who didn’t want to do any thing and just fooled around.

He and his wife had frequent arguments and fights. Then, his beautiful wife, together with their children (my cousins), would come over to our house and complain to my mother, crying. She called my mom “Sung-nim” which is a hybrid word of brother and sister. Usually, between girls or women, they call their older counterparts “Unni”. However to more respectable women, they would say “Hyung-nim” (brother) or hybrid word “Sung-nim”( means close to brother). My mom used to call her “Song-Ok’s Mother”. This is usual Korean custom. When a girl was growing up, people called her by her first name. Then, once they got married and had children, they are no longer called by first name but instead they address her as first child’s mother. Like Yoo-mi’s mother for your mom, etc.

Whenever she came to our house after an argument with her husband, my father called (summoned) his brother to come over to our house (I don’t know where they lived but probably not far away from our place); the three of them went into a separate room and he tried to mediate between his younger brother and sister-in-law. In the usual Korean custom, regardless of who is right or who is wrong, my father has to blame whomever is closer to him – his younger brother, saying “you were wrong brother, how could you argue about these trivial things all the time” and “you should make your home a more peaceful place” etc. “do you understand?” In those days, the younger brother had to listen to his older brother. So, he had to say to my father “yes big brother.”

However, my aunt came to my mother crying and complaining again and again. Then, my mother said “my dear Song-Ok’s mom, I know what you feel. This is not only your problem – all Korean women suffer with these problems. So whatever your husband says, don’t take too seriously, be more patient, think about your beautiful children, and try to be nicer to him. This is the only way to keep your family peacefully together, etc.” This was what my mom told me after I grew up when my mom recalled poor Song-Ok’s mother. She said she spoke to her in that kind of way numerous times.

Whenever she came together with her children (my real cousins – Koreans usually differentiate between father’s side and mother’s side cousins. In those days, they thought that father’s side cousins were almost like real brothers and sisters. It is still somehow like that) we played together with our cousins. There was one place, a wide open area we called children’s play ground in the entrance of this poor people’s village. There were two ways to get to this play ground. One was a regular path and the other was a short cut (not a real path). I explored this short cut for myself accidentally. Whenever my cousins came to our house, I would lead them, holding their hands, and passing through very narrow spaces between the side walls of straw-roofed houses and fences of somebody’s back yard, like a labyrinth. It was real fun. Strange thing is that I don’t know how I (with dumb memory) could remember that because I am guessing my age was 3 or 4. Whenever I think about my cousins I still remember that.

Song-Ok’s mom’s visit to my mom were pretty regular. However, one afternoon, when I got home, Aunt was weeping and crying much longer than usual. The reason unfortunately was that her children Song-Ok and Man-Woo died one after another by infectious disease, probably measles. I felt sad but at that time I didn’t know what exactly death menat. Later in my life when I was growing up, my mom sometimes talked about it once in a while.

This wasn’t bad enough for this beautiful woman. Not long after their children died her husband disappeared. My father inquired in every possible place and finally got information from his elder sister (Won-San Go-Mo) that he had come to Won-San and was apparently living with a different woman. Can you imagine this irresponsible uncle (as my grand mo quoted: “lazy and useless bum”), apparently running away with his mistress to Won-San secretly without saying anything to his wife or his big brother (my father)?

Any way, my uncle lived in Won-San with a different woman. After World War II, when Korea was divided in two, Won-San became a North Korean territory. Soon after that, my cousin brother and his family in Won-San escaped south to Seoul. When my cousin brother was coming down to Seoul, it is unclear whether or not he tried to convince my uncle (his uncle too) to escape together. However, to my common sense, they probably did. (Here, “they” means Won-San Go-Mo’s family. My uncle means mother’s side uncle to my cousin brother and younger brother to my Won-San Go-Mo.)

After my cousin brother’s family escaped to Seoul from Communist North Korea, nobody ever heard anything about my uncle.

My aunt’s visits to my mom were still pretty regular. However, there was gradually less crying. My mom told me one day that after all these unfortunate incidents, apparently she asked my mom if she could adopt one of mom’s sons. (This kind of practice was not uncommon in Korea. Brothers who did not have a child, adopted one of his brother’s sons, usually the second or third or later one; as young as possible.) My mom asked “who do you have in mind.” Song-Ok’s mom said “Sung-Woo” without hesitating. My mom told me that at that time, the status of her mind was: “how come this greedy woman asks for Sung-Woo?” She knows very well that  Sung-Woo is my mom’s first son. And suddenly something like a hateful feeling came up in mom’s mind. All these days, mom tried to comfort Song-Ok’s mom saying very sympathetically “OK, OK, I know how you feel, etc., etc.” “Now, look at her, she is asking for my first son, who will be a pillar to support the Lee family. How can she say that without even hesitation.” However, my mom had a kind, patient, polite and understanding personality. So, mom told aunt “look Song-Ok’s mom, Sung-Woo is our first son, as you know well.” Then aunt said “but Sung-Nim, you have another son and daughters, so many of them, I only ask for one.” Then mom said “if you are really serious about it, you can adopt Jang-Woo (my younger brother) if his father says OK”. Aunt did not say anything like “yes” or “no” because she knew that this was a very sensitive matter.

Her visits were still pretty regular. And as days and months passed, she looked like she was getting richer. Her clothes, jewelry, accessories and her style looked some how luxurious. When she visited mom, although she was only a couple of years younger than mom, she still looked beautiful and I realized that her voice was beautiful too. Like the old Korean saying, she had a rolling-marble voice, which was some how laud. Even from a distance, we could hear her beautiful, unique, laughing voice. My mom said that one day, when she was newly married, she (aunt) came to our house to help mom cook (of cause it was in an outdoor kitchen). She was raising a fire under the big oven, putting in a brunch of wood. The fire was burning; aunt’s face was reddish looking with the reflection of the fire. Then my mom said that even to her eyes (a woman’s eye) she looked very beautiful.

Aunt did not give up her plan to adopt Sung-Woo. One day she came to mom and told mom that she was getting richer, in contrast to us, and one of the other reasons to adapt mom’s son was so that she could leave all her wealth to her adopted son. Apparently she thought that by saying this, she would be able to convince my mom. My mom said that aunt was probably living together with a man but mom never asked about those things in details (about the man who was living with her or how she was getting richer, etc.) because my mom was very considerate. Mom didn’t want to make her uncomfortable by asking those questions. After that, her visits to mom gradually lessened and her adaption idea also gradually faded.

However, the shadow of evil fortune refused to leave this poor woman who lost her beloved daughter and son and whose husband ran away with his mistress.

One day, when I came back home from Uganda for an inter-term vacation, my mom told me that Song-Ok’s mother had died. I was surprised to hear that news and asked “when?” Mom said “last year, when you were in Uganda” which was in 1967. I asked mom again “how did she die?” Mom said “she was murdered” and mom told me the following story.

One day, last year, a police detective came to our house and asked mom if she knew this woman. She saw the name and photo produced by the detective and said “Oh! Yes, she is my sister-in-law, Dong-Sou, my husband’s younger brother’s wife. What about her.” Then, detective said “she was murdered.” The detective said that she was registered as a widow only. Apparently she removed her previous husband’s name from her status. Rather, put it this way – she removed her name out of the Lee’s family registry. Perhaps that was allowed legally after a certain period had passed without hearing of one’s husband. The police said that after the murder report, they searched her house and found a lot of jewelry, valuables and solid gold bars, etc. The police said that the intruder’s motivation could have been for those valuables. Then the detective asked my mom a lot of questions, like when was the last time mom saw this women, any suspicious person mom could suggest who could have killed her, any other information mom could provide, etc. My theory was that an intruder came into the house to steal something valuable and my aunt resisted vigorously (this could be the psychology for a woman who lived alone to protect her valuables) then killed her and ran away without getting much. And another thing was that the detective said to mom that during the murder inquiry, one of the neighbor witnesses told the police that they saw a suspicious man in army uniform  near that house around that time. So, the police asked mom that if anybody in our family was in military service. Mom said that my second son is in active army service. Later, my mom learned that the detective came to Jang-Woo’s place. At that time, he was a supply regiment commander with a rank of major colonel. A few days later, I met my brother Jang-Woo too. He asked me if I heard that news about our aunt’s death. I said “yes I heard that news from mom. Isn’t that a sad story?”  Then, my brother Jang-Woo said “yes indeed” however it was unpleasant to him that the detective came to him and inquired about alibis and if he had anything to do with aunt’s murder. I said to my brother “wasn’t that detective a real crazy one?” “Forget about that detective.”

My mom mumbled as if she was talking to herself that old saying “미인 박복” “美人 薄福” “misfortune follows beautiful women”. Mom said again to her self “she was one of them.”

Big Aunt

My Father’s Stories: Number Three – Big Aunt (Kun Go-Mo).

This is the story of my grandfather’s elder sister and her husband.  My father does not know his Kun Go-Mo‘s name – he was not told, and he did not ask.

I saw her only a few times when I was a small child. I have only a vague memory of her.

This story is based on the information given mainly by my grand mo who was her mother (70%), my mother (10%) and my own, eye witness (20%).

Year born: around 1898

Year deceased: around 1947

Cause of death: unknown

Physical appearance: Medium height and medium build

External (facial) appearance: average

Character: Super strong personality and out spoken (probably got it from her mom, my grand mo)

She married a real gentle man who owned a furniture manufacturing store or company (how big? I don’t know) in Won-San City, (now in North Korea). Because of the name of the city she lived in, we used call her Won-San Go-Mo. Won-San is located about 150 miles north east of Seoul; a port city, facing the East Sea; their beach was famous. (At that time, Korea was one. The Lee dynasty united the kingdoms into one Korea. South and North Korea was only divided right after World War II, like Germany, by the world superpowers.)

My Won-San Go-Mo-Bu (Won-San Go-Mo’s husband) made frequent business trips to Japan to purchase special, tiny, half spherical-headed nails, special glues and various accessories necessary to make furniture. On his way to Japan, he had to pass through Dae-Gu by train from Won-San to Pu-San and then ferry to Japan. Perhaps his strong wife told him, rather ordered him: “you should pay a visit to your mother-in-law in Dae-Gu, you got that?” Whatever the reason, he visited our house to see my grand mo and my father (his brother-in-law) once in a while. He was a polite and nice guy too as far as I remember. I recall one time when he was in our house, I was opening a door and about to enter a room, I saw he was opening his brown leather suit case from a distance. It was a side view but I remember that suit case was full of paper money. So, I did not go in that room and just closed the door right away and pretended that I did not see anything else. Later on, I just told my mom about it but nobody else. I was about five years old I think.

That was a long time ago. After World War II, his son, my cousin brother, (much older than me) grown up and together with his aged parents, escaped down to the south (Seoul) from the pro-communist government of Kim, Il Sung. So I had a chance to meet him after I grew up too. Once when I went up to Seoul to take my pre-medical college entrance examination, I learned that my Won-San Go-Mo (my father’s elder sister) had passed away couple of years ago. Of cause my mother might have told me about this when she died but I forgot about it, I think. So my Won-San Go-Mo died. Second and last time I saw him (Won-San Go-Mo-Bu) was when I was in second year of pre-medical college in Yon-Sei University, right after the Korean War erupted, and Seoul had fall to the North Korean army in three days. In that super-chaotic time, I met him in their house. He was pale and bed ridden; nobody was in the house except him and a maid with some reserved food. A few weeks later, he died. I cremated him together with a church member’s help as a family representative. My cousin brother was a pastor in that church too.

My cousin brother was a different type of pastor. He was a theological scholar and leading philosopher. Was this the last time I saw him?  I will write more about him when I write my story.

Grand mo

My Father’s Stories: Number Two, Part B – Grand mo.

My father’s grandmother was named Suh, Yun Iee.  She was born around 1877 and died around 1947, around the age of 70 – a long life for someone at that time.

According to my father, his grandmother was slightly petite; pretty; quite; had a tremendous memory and a strong character; was not afraid to talk to anyone, anywhere; walked fast; and was an unconditionally faithful wife, as we saw in the story of his grandfather.  She had two sons and two daughters, breaking her husband’s only-son-for-three-generations cycle.  For that alone, she must have been valued.  Apparently, she was a pretty optimistic and happy woman, except in her husband’s later years.  Her childhood is unknown – either she did not speak of it to my father, or he doesn’t remember.

Her children:

(1) Female (N/A): my grandfather’s elder sister (big Go-Mo = kun Go-Mo)

(2) Male     (Lee, Sang Oup): my grandfather

(3) Male     (Lee, Sang Ho): my grandfather’s younger brother (small Sam-Chon or small father = zakun Abuji)

(4) Female (N/A): my grandfather’s younger sister (small Go-Mo = zakun Go-Mo)

Interesting that my father does not know or remember his aunt’s names…

My grand mo liked me and loved me a lot because I was her first son’s first son (first grand son of her husband from her first son).

I remember that I asked grand mo to tell me stories of the old days all the time. I used to sit on grand mo’s lap under her chin and ask her to tell me a story. “Grand mo! Grand mo! Tell me a story will you?” Then Grand mo would say “eyee! how come this little one like stories so much” while she spanked my forehead lightly. Then, I would ask her repeatedly “tell me a story will you” while I was shaking my shoulders and repeatedly beating her chest lightly. Then she would say “I already told you all the stories I know, I don’t have any more story left.” Then I would think momentarily and say “then tell me the story of Shim-Chung again.” Then she would start to tell me the story. “Once upon a time there was a —.” She had an amazing memory and she repeated the same story in exactly the same way with amazing details while I had almost forgotten the story. (At that time I thought: Wow!  Grand mo remembers everything very well,” and I felt like I was a dummy.) During her story telling, she would say she was busy – she had to clean vegetables for diner. Then, I would follow her wherever she went and kept asking her “and then what happened grand mo?”

When I was young, she accompanied me wherever I went (moved). (I will tell you more of this later when I write the stories of myself.)

She did not care much for her daughter’s children.

She was very faithful to her first son’s (Lee’s) family. After grand pa died, she was a great ambassador to her daughter’s (my father’s sisters’) places, holding a big S.O.S. sign and saying that our Lee’s flag ship (grand pa’s first son’s) is sinking. Grand mo ran up and down but had limited results.

She had surgery for a breast lump by Dr. Sohn who was a family friend of grand mo’s family and their family when my grand pa was rich. He, Dr. Sohn, was working at the Dong-San (Presbyterian) Hospital’s department of internal medicine where I worked after I became an M.D. At that time, she was so poor that she could not afford to go any doctor, let alone any surgeon. Grand mo almost begged to Dr Sohn to perform that surgery. In those days, doctors were not very specialized and any physician, regardless of their specialties, could perform miner surgeries at their offices. Finally Dr. Sohn reluctantly agreed to do it at his office but not at the hospital because hospital rules were that an internal medicine man could not perform breast surgery. The procedure was done under local anesthesia at Dr. Sohn’s office. Grand mo asked Dr. Sohn to remove not only the very tumor but also to pull out the whole root of that tumor (like a vegetable root, she thought). And then she told me that when the doctor was pulling out the roots of the tumor (apparently he told grand mo that he was pulling out the whole root together with the tumor), she shouted and screamed like crazy as if she moved heaven and earth (that’s what she described to me). After the surgery, before heading home, she told the doctor “thank you Dr. Sohn, you know I don’t have anything to pay you, bye!” Of course Dr. Sohn did not expect any thing from her. A few weeks later, she bought a man’s necktie (I don’t think it was an expensive one) and went to Dr. Sohn’s house and said “this is a special necktie, I spent the whole afternoon to buy this” as if she was doing a favor to Dr. Sohn “ and said “here it is” proudly. Was it a benign tumor or malignant? I still don’t know. It was probably benign because I did not hear anything about her hospital visit related to her breast tumor.

[I wish I knew.  Whenever I’ve been asked whether there is any history of breast cancer in my family, I’ve always said: No.]

Later in my life, of course after grand mo passed away, when I started work  in Dong-San (Presbyterian) Hospital, I was thinking back about her beast surgery. Ironically, my poor grand mo, she still doesn’t know that I, her beloved grand son worked in the same hospital, in the department of surgery (not the department of internal medicine, as Dr. Sohn did).

However, as grand mo got older, she started getting health problems:

  • Chronic eye infection (Trachoma): she had eye discharges all the time.
  • Chronic respiratory illness: probably it was a chronic bronchitis and/or chronic bronchiectasis. Because of this, she would cough and produce sputum all the time.

My mother worried about me a lot because grand mo was somehow unhygienic in my mother’s view. Grand mo wiped her eyes with her handkerchief frequently and also wiped her mouth after her cough and sputum with the same handkerchief and with that handkerchief handled hand, she sometime grabbed fruit or rice cake and gave it to me to eat, sometimes put it into my mouth. When my mother’s feelings reached intolerable levels, she worriedly and cautiously said to grand mo “Mother! Please don’t grab those things with your hand, instead please use a fork or chop stick and give it to grand son”. Then grand mo answered back to mom “you are pretty strange, what’s wrong with my hand, my hand is clean.” In those days, it was very unethical for a daughter-in-law to argue or fight with her mother-in-law. She would not get any sympathy from anybody and she was viewed as a bad woman. So my mother could only worry and worry and worry about that but she could not do much about it.

In my grand mo’s later life, a few years before her death, she fell into Alzheimer’s disease. She was loosing her amazingly sharp memories; starting to get confused. All her ailments – eye infection, coughing and sputum – were getting worse and lastly she could not control her bowl movements for about a year. Can you imagine how much hardship my mother had to endue with all those problems?

One day, my first year in high school, I came home for summer vacation. The name of my high school was Kim-Chon Junior & Senior High School in Kim-Chon city. The school was located in the northern hill of Kim-Chon city and my parents’ home (my father’s church) was located in the southern outskirts of the city. The distance was about 5 to 6 miles across the city south to north. So grand mo asked one lady who lived close to my high school to put me up in their house for my schooling. That lady was my grand mo’s maid when grand mo was living well. Grand mo arranged for her to marry a nice guy; she paid for wedding expenses, etc. The lady called my grand mo “mother.” Apparently the lady could not refuse to accept me in their house. They were not rich and did not have enough room for me to sleep separately. I shared a room with their son. I ate meals together with them. They had a daughter that was about the same age as me, in the women’s Kim-Chon high school, pretty close to her house and she tried very hard to comfort me. She carried food for me, reheated my cooling soup, etc. However, to tell you the truth, I was not comfortable. I stayed there may be less than a year and then I walked the 5-6 miles to school.

[Here it is: walked 5 miles to school, uphill!]

So, to get back to the story, I came home for summer vacation from that lady’s house. My mother was expecting me to arrive; she was outside of the house, waiting for me. As soon as she saw me, she approached me and said in low voice and cautiously “grand mo died.” I felt like I was hit in the head with hammer and said “when.” Mother said in the same low voice “three weeks ago.” My immediate reaction was “ why didn’t you inform me” with my voice up and looking at mother’s face. Then mother started to explain the reason why she didn’t inform me, with a voice as gentle as possible, that she did not want me to get shocked and disturb my study — maybe she said those words. While mom was talking, I could not hear anything; I was in shock. However, I suddenly thought that I should not hurt my mom’s feelings – whatever has happened she did for my benefit. Then, I interrupted mom’s talk and said as gently as possible “I am sorry mom, of course I know why you did not inform me, it’s alright, I am alright mom.” I really didn’t want to hurt my mom. I know very well how much hardship she endured for grand mo. Then, I went into the house. I saw grand mo’s room was empty. I felt like the whole house looked empty and the surrounding neighborhood and the trees seemed like leafless winter trees; I saw only gray branches under a gray sky. I went out of the house and went for a walk. I passed the houses, hills, farm land, and rice fields and reached the river. Not very big but not small river. I sat on the bank of the river, looking at the flow of the water without focus and was thinking about my grand mo. I realized that tears were dropping from my cheeks. Good thing that nobody saw this. I stood up and grabbed a river bed stone, and started to throw it in to the water, one after another. I started looking for a flatter and rounded stone to throw on the surface of the water to make repeated jumps on the surface of the water in order to stop my tears. The sun was setting; birds were flying in groups toward or to find their resting place. Dusk was start to covering the river water, rice fields, farm land and nearby villages. Smoke was visible through the chimneys of nearby villages and started to mix with dusk and gradually you could not differentiate which was smoke and which was dusk. I started to walk toward home. I saw in the sky so many stars appearing and starting to twinkle toward me. I saw some were grand mo’s and some were mine. Grand mo’s stars were smiling toward me saying don’t worry about her, she is in good hands, good nature’s hands, there is no more suffering and it is peaceful over there. Stars representing me were twinkling for my tomorrows and my future life, giving me a great hope. It looked amazingly bright and I never realized that stars were so beautiful. I realized that I had come a long distance away from home. I hurried my steps toward home because mom might worry about me. When I reached home, mom was waiting outside. She had a worrisome expression and asked me “are you alright.” I said as softly as I could and even showing some smiley expression “of course I am all right mom.” She did not ask me anything further because she knew her son wanted to be left alone. After that day, I started to overcome gradually the sorrow of grand mo’s death. Also after that day, we (mom and me) did not talk about grand mom’s death for about a week until my emotions calmed down. Then one day, I asked mom about grand mom’s funeral and the site of her grave. Then she told me the following story.

Grand mom had been suffering from all kinds of illnesses plus Alzheimer’s disease in her later life. In those days, Korean life expectancy wasn’t that long and people rarely lived like my grand mo did. Alzheimer’s disease (No-Mang means ruin of old age) is considered to be a shame in one’s life. Many Korean people thought and openly said that they did not want to live so long that they got No-Mang. So, my father and mother decided that the  funeral had to be absolutely private without having an open funeral ceremony. Another, bigger reason for that was that my father did not want to involve church members’ labor or the church’s expenses for my grand mo’s funeral. In those days all suburban churches faced difficult times monetarily after supporting a pastor, especially in war time (World War II) under Japanese occupation. So, my father decided to cremate grand mo, put the remains into a wooden box, and went into a mountain. My father knew one place that was a prayer house which was combined with a retreat for pastors and church leaders in a deep mountain. He went there and climbed up  the higher streams of the valley where my father used to pray once in while. He prayed to God and then he scattered the ash into the cool water stream of a mountain valley. Perhaps, he pray to God while he was scattering his mother’s ashes “Oh! My merciful God in heaven, please accept my mother in your almighty hands, and please take care of this poor woman’s soul.”

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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