Dog

Did I freak you out with the title of this post? 

Remember: this week’s Stories from Easter Island are all about the foods my dad didn’t eat. But let’s face it. It is a notorious fact that Korean people have been known to eat dog meat. When we were together over the holidays, my dad explained to us the background behind this practice…

In the old days, nobody ate much meat. People would eat it maybe just once or twice a year. Farmers, after a season of hard physical labor, would need to eat some meat to recover their strength. But because they were unaccustomed to eating meat, they would get sick as soon as they ate it. It would give them terrible stomach aches. The one kind of meat that wouldn’t have that effect was dog meat. Apparently, dog meat is very easy to digest and never causes stomach upset.

Seeing our long faces, he continued his story…

You know, whenever I would go back to visit Korea, people would always want to take me out to restaurants and treat me to the best foods. They were always trying to offer me dog meat. I didn’t want to be rude to them, but I always declined. I had to explain that my children had made me promise not to eat it.

He imitated us in a high-pitched voice that made us laugh, “Dad! Promise us, you won’t eat dog meat when you’re in Korea!

Even though I didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings, I couldn’t lie to my own children, so I never ate it.

And that’s the last installment of this week’s Stories from Easter Island. I hope you’ve enjoyed sitting in the basement with me, and that you have a wonderful, wonderful weekend!

Snake

When my father was eleven years old, his entire family was struck down by typhoid fever. Only his mother did not get sick, having developed immunity after surviving her own bout with the disease as a child. By the end of those terrible two weeks, my father’s father was dead. He left behind a widow with ten young children and a farm to run. This disastrous change in the family’s fortunes unleashed a whole chain of calamities. But this is the story of triumph over death in the midst of tragedy, and it came thanks to two venomous snakes. Here’s another installment of Stories from Easter Island, as told to me by my dad, whom we call (with great affection!) The Easter Island Head

My second oldest brother was thirteen or fourteen when our father got sick with typhoid fever. He tried to help around the farm, but he overexerted himself and hurt his side. He was completely incapacitated for months. He got so sick, we thought he would die. We lived in the country, and there were no doctors in the vicinity.

It was monsoon season, which is when snakes come out of hiding. There were men who would catch venomous snakes to sell for medicinal purposes. These snake catchers would keep them in boxes that they would carry around on their shoulders. One of those snake catchers heard that my brother was sick, so he visited our home. He told my mother that he could heal my brother with two snakes.

He had an earthen jar with a small opening at the top. These jars were used for boiling herbs or for storing food.

He put one of the snakes in the jar with some water and then he wrapped the jar with a straw rope from the bottom to the top. He plastered mud over the rope so the jar wouldn’t heat up too quickly, and then he lit a fire under it. He slowly, slowly heated up the jar, using just a few sticks of wood at a time. The fire burned for two days. The only time he ever left the fire was to use the bathroom. For two days he ate every meal sitting on his haunches, tending the fire.

At first the water felt warm and good to the snake. But as the water heated up, the snake started to feel uncomfortable and got angry. It started to strike at the walls of the jar, releasing all of its venom into the water.

On the second day, it started to smell like boiled chicken. After two days, the snake had mostly disintegrated. The head and bones were all that remained. The man dumped everything into a hemp cloth to filter out the liquid. He squeezed the cloth so that only the bones and some meat remained. The liquid made up a bowlful of soup.

There was a layer of fatty grease on top of the liquid. I remember that he used hanji, Korean handmade paper, to soak up the grease. He did that two or three times to get all the fat out. He said that if my brother drank any of the fat, he would get diarrhea and become even more sick.

Before he would give him the soup, he very carefully checked his mouth for any sores or open wounds to make sure he would not get poisoned. When he was absolutely sure there were no wounds, he let my brother drink the soup. My brother said it tasted good.

After a one day break, he did the same thing again with the second snake and served another bowlful of soup to my brother. After two doses of snake soup, he fully recovered. Two or three years later, the snake catcher returned and told our mother that it was time for my brother to have one more bowl of snake soup so that he could maintain his good health throughout his life. He was exceptionally healthy, even into adulthood, and it was thought that it was because of the snake soup.

Pomegranate

Stories from Easter Island, continued

My dad’s fantasies have always been of the horticultural variety. How I wish I could win the lottery and make his lifelong dream of owning a walnut orchard or a cactus farm come true! Having crammed exotic plants into every corner of his own tiny suburban yard, he has begun speculating about the possibilities my yard has to offer. In a recent conversation we had, he mused about the feasibility of moving my house toward the back of the property so that my front yard could be transformed into a fruit orchard.

He’s been fascinated by fruit for as long as I can remember. You know that exotic fruit ghetto in the grocery store? That neglected little corner with strange, lumpy things no one ever buys and wouldn’t even know how to eat if they did? That’s always been my dad’s favorite part of the grocery store. He was always bringing home unusual fruits to try. You’d often find a napkin with seeds culled from these fruits, drying on our kitchen windowsill to be planted whenever he deemed the conditions to be favorable.

Over the winter holidays this year, we ate a lot of pomegranate. The only time my kids and husband and I ever eat this fruit is when we’re with my parents. It’s one of those fruits that I’ve always liked, but not enough to actually buy. For one thing, they’re a royal pain to cut open, though you can avoid some of the squirting and staining issues if you open the fruit in a large bowl of water. Over the Christmas break, my mother did all the hard work for us. Every night after dinner, she would pass around a bowl of the gorgeous, translucent seeds and a teaspoon with which to scoop them out.

One evening, as my dad helped himself to a few of the seeds, he told us this story…

“We had a pomegranate bush when I was growing up. It’s not a plant that’s native to Korea, so it was quite unusual to see one. We were the only ones who had one for miles around. But, I never once got to taste a pomegranate until I was an adult.”

“Every year, there would be only a few fruits, and as soon as they were ripe, our mother would take them to give to women in our village who wanted to have a baby, but were having trouble. They’re supposed to help with fertility. They would be so happy to get the fruit!”

“Gosh, Dad!” I said, feeling sad about his childhood of deprivation, “You didn’t get to eat the sparrows and you didn’t get to eat the pomegranates!”

“Our mother was soft-hearted like that. When my dad was still alive, we didn’t have much, but we were doing OK, so she was always trying to help other people…”

I’ve always wanted to plant a pomegranate…not so much for the fruit, as for the brilliant, flamboyant blossoms that precede it. This spring I’m going to get a couple plants at one of my favorite local nurseries: one for the notional orchard in my front yard, and one that I’m sure my dad will be able to squeeze into his own yard somewhere.

Sparrow

Let’s pretend we’ve just gorged ourselves on Korean food and are drowsily sitting in the basement, sprawled on the couch with distended bellies full of rice and garlicky banchan. Imagine that you’re listening to my dad telling you more Stories from Easter Island. Maybe it’s because there is always so much to eat nowadays, and there was so little back then that the stories are so often about food. Here’s the first one…

DadI always had a dog when I was growing up in Korea, but I don’t like having a dog here. I feel sorry for dogs in America. In Korea, no one kept dogs in the house or on a leash. The dogs would be fed in the morning and then they’d join the rest of the village dogs. They would roam free in the fields all day long…huge packs of them. There would be fifteen to twenty dogs running around together all day long, having so much fun. In the evening, they would go back to their own houses and eat whatever scraps they were given.

All the dogs were mutts, but one of our dogs happened to grow up to look almost exactly like a purebred German Shepherd. He was such a smart dog. He was really good at catching mice and birds. He’d settle himself down in a patch of sunlight and pretend to be asleep. When a sparrow would wander past, he’d suddenly attack and catch it! Just like that!

Roasted sparrow tastes really good. You only eat the breast. They’re so small that they’re just one mouthful. Nobody ate meat in those days. We only had it for special occasions…maybe a little in dduk gook once a year on New Year’s. My brothers and I always wished we could eat the birds our dog caught, but we never got a chance to. Our mother would always take them to give to other kids in our village who had colds, because roasted sparrow is supposed to be a cure for the common cold.

Next time: More Stories from Easter Island.

Stories from Easter Island

My father occupies any space he is in with a stoic, silent, and monumental presence. His impassive demeanor has prompted us to call him (behind his back, but with the greatest of affection!): The Easter Island Head.

When he was an active minister, my father would break his silence once a week on Sundays to preside over a Korean congregation in Northern Virginia. For one hour a week, between the hours of eleven and twelve, he would undergo a remarkable transformation. I couldn’t understand the sermons he would preach, but I could practically surf along the dramatic swells and crests that would come billowing into the pews from the pulpit. His animated face would glow and he would gesticulate to emphasize a point. Every once in a while, the congregants would burst into appreciative laughter and I would wonder what he could have possibly said that was so funny. During the hymns, he would forget to step away from the microphone, so his strong, fine voice could always be heard over everyone else’s. At the stroke of noon, the spell would be broken. He would fall silent and the impassive façade would settle back over his features like a mask, and would remain there until the next sermon he gave, or the next class he taught.

Only one other circumstance would cause the stony exterior to fall away to reveal the gentle river of memories and deep emotions that, in truth, have always floated fairly close to the surface. Within the close circle of his own immediate family, my father would often talk about his difficult childhood. Unlike my mother, who buries the unhappy memories of her past in some secret, inaccessible vault to which only she has the key, my father seems compelled to share his personal history through the stories he repeats over and over in an almost ritualistic way. Though I’ve heard them countless times, I never get tired of listening. When my father tells us about his childhood, and about the deaths of his father and siblings in his quiet, measured tones, it feels as if we are partaking in a sacred rite of remembrance to honor family members we would never know.

My father’s family lived in the country. They lived through the Japanese occupation, World War II, and the Korean War. Life was a struggle. Disease was rampant. When he was eleven years old, his entire family was struck down by typhoid fever for two weeks.  Only his mother did not get sick, because she had already survived her own bout of typhoid fever as a child. By the end of those terrible two weeks, my father’s father was dead. He left behind a widow with ten young children and a farm to run. This disastrous change in the family’s fortunes unleashed a whole chain of calamities.

To save grain, the family would skip lunch and only eat twice a day. My father watched three sisters and two brothers, between infancy and second grade, succumb to malnutrition and disease. Of all the siblings he lost, the one he talks about most is a beloved younger brother, who died at the age of four.

Whenever he speaks of this brother, he prefaces everything by saying that he was a genius. He always mentions his enormous head.

“Other than his big head, how could you tell he was a genius, Dad?” I asked, when he spoke of him most recently.

“I would carry him on my back and teach him Bible verses. I would recite a long passage such as Psalm 23rd just once, and he’d be able to repeat it back verbatim.”

He continued, “We had gotten used to the sound of WWII B-29 bombers. But when the communists overtook our village, American sabre jets flew over for the first time. We had never heard them before, and the noise…it was like a terrifying thundering metallic sound raining down from heaven.”

My father’s little brother was already weak and ill, but he thinks it was the noise of the sabre jets that literally scared him to death. When they would pass over, he would tremble with fear. Every time he would start to recover from the shock, another jet would fly over and he would get sick again.

There wasn’t enough to eat, and no one could risk going outside to forage for food for fear of falling bombs. “He would have survived if we had paid more attention,” my dad concludes. After a long pause, he says, “I really wished I could have caught bullfrogs to feed him.”

In the past my mother would try to comfort him when he finally arrived at this sad conclusion. She would say, “You were just a child. There was nothing you could do. It was too dangerous to go outside.” Nowadays, we all remain silent.

This last time, there was a coda to the story. My father told me that he was flying into LA for a conference when they announced over the intercom that the U.S. had just invaded Iraq.

“I was shocked when people started cheering. These people had never lived through a war. I immediately thought of the women and children, who would be terrified. When we landed and were arriving at the airport, everyone looked excited and happy…”

He shook his head in dismay and grew silent.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I thought to myself that if they had ever lived through bombings, they would never be cheering for such a thing.”

Though he only lived four short years on this earth, my father’s little brother lives on through the words of his loving brother, and the burnished memories he has passed on to his own children.

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Related post: Little brown haired girl

 

I love you

Reposted…

Earlier this week, I wrote about how delighted I was to finally get junk mail from my grad school. It was the proof I needed to convince myself that it wasn’t all a dream…that I had in fact gotten the degree I had struggled to earn for far too many years. What finally got me to actually finish the degree long after my heart was no longer in it was a phone call from my mother during which she dropped the most devastating weapon in her arsenal: an emotional nuclear bomb that rained all over my angst-ridden psyche. “Just finish it for your father’s sake. It would mean so much to him. Please. Do this one last thing for him, before he dies,” she said to me over the phone in a quavering voice. It was a bravura performance, which could have won her an Oscar. It spurred me to drag my heaving flanks across the finish line, staggering and gasping all the way. Although my dad was in perfect health at the time, my mother wasn’t exaggerating about one thing. It did mean a lot to him. I wrote this essay five years ago about my father’s reaction when I finally received my Ph.D., but it always felt too personal to share. It still feels too personal, but I’m banking on the fact that my dad will never read this. Besides, after writing about being seen naked by my in-laws, what is there left to hide?

______________________________________________________________________________________

The words “I love you” have never, not once, either on purpose or by accident, ever fallen from my father’s lips. It’s not that he doesn’t feel genuine love. I think he worships my mother. His children know that he loves them deeply in his own way. It’s outward, obvious expressions of love that make him uncomfortable.

When we were little, we used to always give my mom and dad a goodnight kiss. One day, when I was about five, I kissed my mom, and then went to kiss my dad. As I drew near, he said, “You don’t have to do that,” and fended me off with a stiff arm. I froze in mortified hurt and wordlessly slunk off to bed. We never touched each other again until the day I went to college. My parents were about to drive back home after helping me unload my things and dropping me off at my dormitory. My mother gathered me into her arms as if I were five rather than seventeen. She kissed me and then hugged me for a long time as if she never intended to let me go, all the while tenderly whispering into my ear all of her hopes and dreams for me. When she finally did let me go, she wiped the tears from her eyes and urged me to give my father a hug. Deeply embarrassed, I tentatively approached him and awkwardly held out my arms to him. He patted me stiffly on the back and turned to leave with an “O.K., well, see ya.”

My mom is a woman who almost always gets what she wants when she wants it. One day she summoned all her considerable powers of persuasion to get my father to say the three words she’d never heard from him.

“Just say it,” she cajoled, “I won’t even look at you. Please, just once.”

My dad remained uncomfortably mute.

Never one to give up a battle and completely unaccustomed to failure, my mother tried a hundred different ways to get him to say those words.

Exhausted and demoralized, she tried a final tactic. “I’ll say it first and then you say it back to me…I love you.”

There was a long silence, and then finally he mustered a sheepish, “Me too.” She gave up. It was the best he could do.

Shortly after I defended my dissertation and was finally awarded my Ph.D., I got a letter from my dad addressed to Dr. Adrienne X. It was written on pages and pages of his favorite yellow lined pads. It must have taken him ages to write that letter. In his barely decipherable handwriting I read very formal words of congratulations and advice about my future. In those words I know he was really saying: “I love you. I love you. I love you.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

 I love you too, Dad.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Happy, Pt. 1

For many years my dad was the minister of a Korean congregation that was part of a much larger American church in Northern Virginia. Listening to my dad, (a.k.a. The Easter Island Head), give a sermon was always something of a revelation. Six days out of seven, he was a soft-spoken man of very few words. Behind the pulpit, however, he would transform into someone we barely recognized. His voice would thunder, swoop, and dive. He would gesticulate, he would lean forward, he would hiss. Even his silences were mesmerizing. My siblings and I could only understand a few words of Korean here and there, but such was his oratorical prowess that even we would be swept up in the dramatic ebb and flow of his sermon along with his enthralled congregation of native speakers.

One Christmas Eve he was asked to preach to the American congregation. The large sanctuary was overflowing with families dressed in their festive Sunday best. Their eyes shone in the candlelight and their cheeks were rosy as they squeezed into pews draped with ropes of fragrant fir boughs. There was a palpable sense of joyful anticipation as the congregation settled in to hear the familiar and well-loved Nativity story. As for me and my siblings, we were glad that we would at last have the opportunity to understand every word of our father’s sermon!

My dad has always been an iconoclast. Never was this more obvious than on that Christmas Eve, when he eschewed the Bible passages one might reasonably expect to hear on such an occasion for something far more unconventional…No glad tidings of great joy, no babe lying in a manger, no lion lying down with a lamb for my father. Instead, he chose the passage from the book of Revelations that talks about the breaking of the seven seals and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. You know, the one with flaming swords, earthquakes, cataclysms, blood and slaughter? In short: all the ingredients for a heartwarming and uplifting Christmas Eve service! One memorable line in particular will forever be etched into the very marrow of our bones. We invoke it at suitable moments to this day. At the climax of my father’s sermon, we heard in the thunderous intonation we knew so well from his Korean services: “Where in the Bible does it say you have to be happy?!