Category Archives: Korean Culture

The Necklace

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Many years ago, my mother returned from a trip to Korea bearing gifts for my sisters and me. We grew up getting socks, underwear, and school supplies for Christmas and our birthdays, so when my mother gave us necklaces that she had had made at a jeweler, it was completely unexpected. They were simple necklaces made out of polished stones in plain silver settings fashioned from silverware that she had melted down. I’m ashamed to say that my sisters and I regarded our necklaces with vague curiosity that quickly gave way to disinterest. The three of us stashed them away, and it pains me to admit that I’m not sure if any of us ever wore our necklaces a single time. It was only much later that I appreciated how precious they were.

My grandfather came to the U.S. as a young man in the 1950s. One of the places he visited on that trip was Cape May, New Jersey. He was far from his home: another seaside town on the other side of the globe. He had grown up on Jeju Island, where he was raised by a distant cousin. He was orphaned as a very young child, when three generations of his family were massacred in a single day in one of the multiple bloody purges of converts to Catholicism that occurred in Korea. His cousin, an innkeeper who had no children of her own, hid him during the massacre, and raised him into adulthood.

I’m not sure where or how my grandfather met my grandmother. Although they were both from Jeju Island, they came from different worlds. My grandmother came from a family of prosperous merchants, who owned a factory that produced and exported canned sea food and buttons made out of shells. Religion brought the downfall of my grandfather’s family; wealth brought disaster to my grandmother’s. Communists captured her father, beat him, and burned down the factory. The family escaped from Jeju Island and made their way to Seoul.

In Seoul, the family was able to rebuild their wealth by opening up a leather goods factory and store on Myeongdong Street. Besides the factory and store, my grandmother’s family owned an orchard on a huge swathe of land that was next to what is now the Blue House, (the Korean White House). Their own traditional hanok was right across from City Hall and Deoksugung Palace. It was unusual for women of that generation to get a higher education, but my grandmother was sent to Japan to earn her graduate degree in Psychology. She was a cultured, worldly woman who grew up in comfort. When she met my grandfather, he was a poor man with big dreams.

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Six of their children survived to adulthood. Their eldest child is my mother.

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My grandfather was in the U.S., trying to raise money for the university he was trying to build in Seoul. One day in Cape May, he looked for a suitable gift to bring back to his wife, who by that time had poured every penny of her wealth into the school. He brought her back a bag of polished beach pebbles. I imagine the smooth, colorful stones looked beautiful to him compared to the black, pitted volcanic rocks that cover the beaches of Jeju Island. My grandmother took one look at my grandfather’s humble offering and tossed the pebbles into the trash. My mother, that soulful little girl standing in the forefront in the photo above, felt sorry for her father, whose gift had been so callously discarded. She secretly rescued the rocks from the trash and kept them hidden away for decades.

It amazes me to think about how long my mother held onto that bag of rocks. I couldn’t tell you the number of times she’s moved in her lifetime. There have been multiple international moves, and perhaps as many as a dozen moves within the U.S. My parents tended to regard every move as an opportunity to purge and start all over again. My father remembers giving away a television and a car to my mother’s brother, before boarding a Greyhound bus with his wife, two little girls, and a couple of suitcases to begin his studies at yet another school, in yet another city. In another of our moves, we lost almost all of our clothes, because they had been packed in garbage bags that were mistakenly tossed out as trash. My mother is a minimalist at heart. She has always relished giving things away or throwing things out. The fact that her father’s rocks made it through every single move is almost as miraculous and unlikely as his own survival on that terrible day when the rest of his family was slain.

When we were deciding where to spend our annual family summer vacation, my sisters canvassed several possibilities. We could go to Fenwick Island, where we’d already spent two happy summer breaks. We could try another beach in Delaware, or we could go to Cape May. Without hesitation, my mother declared that she wanted to go to Cape May, where her own father had gone more than half a century ago.

“Remember?” she reminded us, “That’s where my father bought those stones that my mother threw out. The ones I saved and made into necklaces for you girls?”

In the weeks leading up to our trip to the beach, my sisters and I went on a desperate search for our necklaces. I would lie awake in the middle of the night, brooding over that lost necklace and trying to remember where I’d put it. To my husband’s dismay, I’d leap out of bed several times a night to rummage around in a new spot that I hadn’t already tried before. I kept returning to the same spots too, indulging in magical thinking that the necklace would somehow reappear where it hadn’t been the last time I’d checked. Alas, I never did find my necklace. My sisters weren’t able to find theirs either.

A couple nights before we were to leave for Cape May, I was having my usual late night self-flagellation session as I racked my brains trying to think where the necklace could have gone. A sudden thought crossed my mind. I got out of bed again and rummaged around in my sock drawer. I pulled out a small pouch that my mother had pressed into my hands some years ago. As is her wont, she had gone on a binge of paring her possessions down to the essentials. She had gathered up all her most precious jewelry in a small pouch and had told me to give them to my daughter.

My daughter and I were both horrified to see that she was giving us her wedding ring, and the jewelry that was most precious to her. It seemed to us a portent of something we did not want to face. My daughter cried and tried to hand the pouch back to her grandmother. The poor girl hadn’t lived long enough on this earth to realize that her grandmother’s will is as inexorable as the passage of time.

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My mother’s most precious jewelry isn’t worth much money. The fake pearl necklace is chipping. My father was a poor graduate student when he bought her wedding ring. The watch was another modest gift from him. Their immeasurable value lies in the fact that she wore and treasured them all of her adult life.

As I suspected, the necklace she had made and kept for herself from one of my grandfather’s pebbles was in the pouch.

IMG_4684I polished the silver and wore the necklace to Cape May, where it all began.

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Past, Present, & Future Tense

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Past

A couple years ago when my dad was turning 80, my sister offered to take him anywhere in the world to celebrate the milestone. She thought he might want to visit a country he had never been to such as Italy or England. He said he wanted to go back to Korea. My sister and I accompanied my parents back to their native land for one last visit.

Our home base was Seoul, but early on in the trip we drove two and a half hours south to Yesan-gun in Chungcheong province to visit my father’s last living sibling. As we drove deeper and deeper into the countryside, I asked my dad to tell me about his hometown. Of the place where he spent his childhood he had this to say: There is absolutely no reason why you would have ever heard of it.

We drove past endless rice paddies and greenhouses until we finally pulled into a narrow alley. My father’s brother who inherited the family farm built a more modern house in the place where the old hanok used to be…IMG_3904

His widow (second from the left) came out to greet us. My dad’s older brother and his wife (in the middle) were also waiting for us at the house.

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I didn’t notice it at the time, but at some point during that visit, my aunt gave my mother a bunch of gingko nuts from the huge sack of them she had harvested from her own trees. I imagine they were from trees that were part of the landscape of my dad’s childhood. My parents brought a handful of them back to their home in Arlington, Virginia.

Fast forward a year…Last autumn I was telling my parents about the “Pratt Gingko” planted in 1860 near the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. When it’s in its full glory, it is a magical experience to stand under the leaves as they rustle in the wind and float down to the ground, which becomes draped in a shimmering coverlet of its golden leaves.

“Did you know your dad planted some gingko trees in the backyard?” my mother asked when I had finished rhapsodizing about the tree.  He had planted the seeds from that handful of gingkos they brought back from his family’s farm.

Present

My sister brought my parents down to Charlottesville this weekend for a visit. My sister and I were going to the Virginia Festival of the Book and thought for sure my dad, who loves books more than anyone else I know, would want to join us.

“I’m not going to go to the book festival,” he announced, “I brought the gingko trees to plant for you. Show me where you want me to put them.”

“How about in a row all along the back fence of the paddock?” I suggested, imagining the vision of golden radiance I would one day see from my kitchen window.

“Well, that would be ok,” he replied gently, “But…no one will be able to see them there.”

I had given the Wrong Answer: “Let’s put them wherever you think would be best, Dad!”

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I watched my dad struggling to break through the tough soil in the part of the (FRONT) yard where he chose to plant the trees. I hovered around uselessly, then went to join my mother on the front porch where we sat and watched.

When she saw that he was having trouble standing up, she nudged me and said, “Go! Help your dad! He can’t get up!”

I ran over to him and reached out my hand.

“Can I help you up, Dad?” I asked hesitantly, afraid to embarrass him.

He wouldn’t take my proffered hand and told me he just needed a moment to rest.

Reluctantly, I left to make it on time to the workshop my sister and I were attending at the Festival. I only had time to urge my daughter to get her grandfather a glass of ice water before I had to drive away.

Future

Later, my mother and I walked around the area where my dad had planted the seven baby gingko trees he had grown from seeds. My mama, the drama queen, always ready to devastate her audience with a toss of her head or a tragic line sighed and said, “As I watched him planting the trees, I realized these really are the last days of his life.” In the end, she told me that she and my son had to help him back to his feet and that my son took over digging the holes…

“One day, when the trees are grown,” she said as we inspected the tiny little saplings, “Your children will remember planting them with their grandpa.”

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Command performance for the grandparents…and one supremely unimpressed dog.

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Related posts: 

My Parents’ Journey

Visiting the Gravesite

Lumpy and Stupid

Lumpy and Stupid Visit the Country, Part 1

Lumpy and Stupid Visit the Country, Part 2

In Which Lumpy and Stupid Try Not to Disgrace the Family Name

Last Day in Seoul

Pssst! P.S.: My sister Annabelle Kim recently published her novel Tiger Pelt, a Kirkus Best Books of 2015, partly inspired by stories my dad told us about his childhood. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, & Indiebound!

Weekend Snapshots 42

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My family and I went to NYC this weekend to see my cousin in one of the final performances of Julia Cho’s Aubergine. It’s a play about the barriers to communication and understanding; it’s about the ways in which we try to commune through food; it’s about how we live and die. Our cousin played the part of Ray, a Korean-American chef who is taking care of his dying father. They have always had a tortured relationship marred by the inability to truly connect with one another. As his father lies comatose, unable to utter more than a groaned word now and then, Ray wrestles with the weight of all that was unexpressed between them during a lifetime. The play was beautiful and moving, funny and desperately sad, and so much of it felt very close to home…

Thursday

There were a lot of loose ends to tie up before heading to Arlington, where we would spend a night at my parents’ house before driving the rest of the way to New York. For one thing, we had to make sure the pets were set with everything they needed while we were gone. I did an inventory of their food supply, then handed my phone to my son and asked him to run down to the basement to take a picture of the new kitty litter we’ve been using so we’d remember which kind to restock. Feeling rather smug about my prudent foresight, I strode over to the pet supply aisle in the grocery store and pulled up the pictures on my phone to discover this:

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The Failure of Communication: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts

Friday

The next day my mom cooked my kids’ favorite lunch: tender, salty mackerel with crispy, crackly skin.

In Aubergine, one of the characters talks about how her father would always eat the head and tail of the fish and give her the middle of the fish. One day she serves him the head and tail of the fish and magnanimously announces that she’s giving him his favorite part.

“Rice pot!” (i.e.: Dummy!) he says with exasperation and explains that he had always eaten the head and tail so that she could have the best part of the fish.

As the audience absorbs this revelation, Ray asks, “What part did your mother eat?”

As so often happens these days, my mother was too exhausted by her culinary labor of love to eat any fish herself.

She wasn’t too tired, however, to take care of some other pressing business. Before we left for New York, she handed me a thick envelope. She had prepared an identical one for all of her children. I opened it to see that it was a map and description of the burial plots she and my dad bought for themselves a few weeks ago. She had also included the contact information for two minister friends who already agreed to perform their funeral services.

“We got a 10% discount for buying early!” my mother chirped brightly as she dropped her latest weapon of mass destruction on our heads. “I thought we should be buried right under some pine trees, but your daddy was worried about the roots spreading. So we picked a nearby spot where we’ll have a good view of them. Remember! Put your dad on the left side, and me on the right. We’ll be able to call to each other in the morning and say, ‘Good morning! Have you eaten breakfast yet?‘”

Oh, dear God! Waterboarding? The rack? These don’t hold a candle to the myriad creative and devastating ways this woman devises to torture me.

img_7041We drove up to NYC where we met up with the rest of our family:

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Admiring photos of the grandkids who couldn’t be there…

Saturday

Breakfast of the Champions.img_7022

My brother took my boys to the Pan-American No-Gi International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation Championship at City College of New York. Got that? Pan-American No-Gi International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation Championship at City College of New York! Now say it quickly ten times!

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Meanwhile, the rest of us wandered around the vicinity of our hotel.

We stopped in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral:

img_1659img_1662Had lunch at Rosie O’Grady’s…

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Then headed over to the theatre to see the play…img_7028img_7037

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That night my four siblings and I spent a few quiet minutes with my parents in their hotel room, just the six of us. We thought we’d just have a casual chit-chat, but then my dad, a man who favors stiff pats over hugs, asked us to all hold hands with each other. He said a prayer for each of one of us and all the spouses and children in our family, asking for blessings for each of us by name.

Damn. Nothing like a good old-fashioned Pan-American No-Gi tag-team loving beatdown from your parents, the reigning champions of the emotional choke-hold. Clearly, this kind of thing should be banned, as there is no possible maneuver by which to escape.

Sunday

We drove back to C’ville. I decided to give my son some much-needed driving practice, and let him take the wheel for the last fifteen minutes of the drive:

img_7046It went pretty well until he almost drove off the side of the road…

There’s a line in the play I can’t remember exactly, but the gist of it was:

In the midst of life, we are in the midst of death…

I texted this photo of his traumatized little brother to my siblings:

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My sister wrote back, “Oooooh. So that’s what faster than a bat out of hell looks like!”img_7050

Despite the plot twists and turns, we made it back home safe and sound.  img_7051

I’m a Korean mother, and I can’t help it.

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When I was growing up, I never experienced a summer of complete freedom. My mother believed in the power of math workbooks as fervently as she believed in the power of the Bible. Every day I would have to labor away doing the prescribed five pages of what she called “Daily Math.” Ugh. I hated it with every fiber of my being. My friends were spending their days at the swimming pool, at summer camp, or just loafing around watching tv. How Korean of my mother, I thought, to ruin my summer by making me do math!

I vowed to myself that if I ever had children of my own, I would let them enjoy their summers unencumbered by scholastic assignments. When I finally did have children, I remembered that vow. I signed those kids up for all kinds of fun summer camps and activities. I’d pull into the parking lot to pick them up, basking in the glow of virtue you feel whenever you do a kind turn for someone.

“Oh, thank you, beloved mother,” I could practically hear them say, “Thank you for letting us go to this magical place where we could work on God’s eyes rather than algebra problems!”

“Thank you, sweetest and kindest of mothers, for letting us frolic with our friends getting bronzed in the golden sun, rather than making us hunch over a math workbook at the kitchen table all day growing as pale as grubs…”

But no. Every day, three slump-shouldered, resentful grouches would climb into the car and inform me that they didn’t want to do “Summer Playground” or “World Cup Soccer Camp” or anything really, other than hang out at home. “Don’t sign us up for any more camps!” was the message I heard loud and clear, and I was actually ok with that.

So this summer the kids basically became feral. I would come home from work to see them sprawled in exaggerated poses of relaxation as if they were posing as allegorical statues of Indolence, Sloth, and Torpor. I bore it for as long as I could, but as it turns out, I’m way more Korean than I thought I was. Their sleepy eyes, uncombed hair, and languid movements began to offend me. I literally couldn’t help myself. I started leaving them lists of things to accomplish by the time I got back from work. Nothing too onerous, mind you! The tasks were on the order of: “Load dishwasher,” “Do one load of laundry,” or “Put shoes away in the mudroom.” But every once in a while I’d slip in a small directive that might require slightly more effort:

  • Brainstorm ways to alleviate the refugee crisis.
  • Come up with an action plan to reunify the two Koreas.
  • Find a cure for cancer.

The other day I overheard my son talking to his younger sister.

“Now when Mom asks me what I’ve been doing all day, I can honestly tell her I really have been working on a cure for cancer!”

Apparently the kid has connected his computer to a massive global project out of Stanford University, which harnesses the collective power of volunteers’ computers to crunch numbers. I can’t really understand the science of it all. (Despite my mother’s attempts to stack the deck with “Daily Math,” all those workbooks did nothing but send me reeling straight into the torrid embrace of Russian Literature). But here’s what the website has to say:

“Help Stanford University scientists studying Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and many cancers by simply running a piece of software on your computer. The problems we are trying to solve require so many calculations, we ask people to donate their unused computer power to crunch some numbers.”

You can check it out for yourself here:

http://folding.stanford.edu

and here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folding@home

As far as I can tell, the boy has discovered a way to plug into an astonishing feat of alchemy by which supreme laziness is transformed into something rather enterprising…It’s genius, really, and it makes this Korean mother so proud!

Related post: Amadeus and my own preternaturally precocious offspring.

Oh deer.

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foxIt’s a wild kingdom in my backyard. First, this fox appeared. Since spotting him, I’ve been trying to convince my daughter that this is a pretty clear sign that keeping pet ducks is not a good idea. So far, she’s not buying it. It’s true the fox hasn’t done a thing about the fat, lumbering groundhogs that have taken up residence under the barn and run-in shed. We saw our adopted kitty lurking around one of the huge holes they’ve made, but at half their size, I can’t imagine what she could possibly do to deter them from their destructive burrowing.

And then there are the deer. Recently, a whole herd of deer has been camping out in my backyard. Today I counted ten of them. Just looking at them makes me feel itchy. Almost every one in my family has been treated for Lyme Disease at one time or another, thanks to deer ticks. Once my husband stopped his car to let a deer cross the road. Instead of saying “thank you” and going on his merry way, the deer rammed into the car and put a huge dent in it. Furthermore: I find their eating habits deplorably rude. The yard is lush with weeds. I wouldn’t mind one bit if they ate those, but instead, they go for the plants I’ve bought and lovingly cultivated. They treat my garden like an all you can eat salad bar. Which is all to say: I don’t like deer.

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Oh sure! Make yourself at home! Can I pour you a drink?

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If only they could do something useful, like graze in straight rows…

I’m trying to live with it. It helped to read up on deer symbolism in Korean culture. Because they are beautiful and gentle (except when they are ramming into the side of a car), they are considered to be holy animals. Deer are often portrayed in Korean art as one of the ten symbols of longevity along with the sun, mountains, water, stones, clouds, pine trees, turtles, cranes, and mushrooms of immortality. They are associated with longevity because their antlers are ground up and used medicinally and because when they’re not greedily helping themselves to my garden, they are supposedly adept at finding those mushrooms of immortality. Finally, deer are associated with friendship because they travel in herds. When they move from one location to another, they turn their heads to make sure they don’t leave anyone behind. I’m not so sure I’m going to make friends with these deer, but as long as they stay in the paddock, I think we can maintain a cool civility.

 

 

Weekend Snapshots 41

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Saturday

We set our alarms for 5 am. My oldest and youngest were playing in a soccer tournament this weekend in Lynchburg, which is about an hour and twenty minute drive from where we live. Getting up at the crack of dawn to drive to Lynchburg brought back a lot of memories. I used to teach Russian language and literature at what is now Randolph College, but back then was Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. I think I owe my life to audio-books, which kept me awake during the interminable drives back and forth. During the years I worked there, I had a constant eye twitch from fatigue that only went away when I stopped commuting. When I was pregnant with my first child, I would get so tired on the way back home, I would have to pull over at the Nelson County Wayside to have a fifteen minute cat nap before driving the rest of the way home…

My son’s first game was at 8 am, and he was supposed to be on the field by 7 am for warm up. Fortunately for their personal chauffeur and cheerleader, my children were playing at fields that were only a five minute drive away from each other.

We spotted this car on our way to dinner at the Depot Grille:

Sunday

Another early start:

My daughter gave me a makeover while we were waiting for her brother’s game to start:

Both kids’ teams were knocked out, so they only played one game on Sunday. We went to lunch at the Liberty Korean Market and Restaurant, which is run by the parents of an alumna of the university where I now work:

My daughter declared their bulgogi the best she’d ever had!

After our huge Korean lunch, I found myself slipping into food coma on the way back home. Fortunately, the good old Nelson County Wayside was still there:

I closed my eyes for a few minutes to rest, with my son sitting in the passenger seat next to me. I thought about the last time I was here with him. Now he’s a strapping 6 foot 2 inch sixteen year old, but back then, he was just a little dream floating around inside me…