Tag Archives: Korea

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!

Tiger Pelt

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I give it 5 stars! Two paws up!

Remember that amazing novel I was telling you about not too long ago? This is just a quick post to invite you to enter the Goodreads Giveaway for an advance reader copy of my sister’s award-winning novel Tiger Pelt.

Gripping, suspenseful, and unflinching, Tiger Pelt is a story of rebirth from the rubble of a savage time and a ravaged place: Korea during the Japanese occupation followed by the Korean War. A farm boy embarks on a quest that propels him on an odyssey spanning the Korean peninsula and crossing the Pacific. In a parallel life, a beautiful young girl is kidnapped and forced to work as a comfort woman for the Japanese military. During a raging monsoon, the two souls will collide in a near-death encounter that will alter the course of their lives. Tiger Pelt was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015.

Tiger Pelt will be available for purchase by the end of the year, but ten lucky winners will get a chance to read it before anyone else does! The giveaway ends in just a couple weeks, so enter now! Here’s the link:

Goodreads Giveaway

 

Good luck!

My Big Sis

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One day my oldest sister and I were discussing our middle sister, Annabelle.

“Annabelle never does things the normal way,” she said.

“When we moved from Texas to Korea and had to go to school and didn’t speak a word of Korean, I threw temper tantrums every day, because I was so miserable and mad at Mom and Dad for dragging us there. Annabelle was immediately voted class president.”

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Annabelle is on the right, wearing her special class president’s badge.

“Instead of just going to any old college, she went to MIT, and made straight As, and then while she was at it, she threw in a masters degree to boot!”

“Instead of just becoming an engineer, she designed a revolutionary, industry-changing water filtration method.”

“Instead of just having one baby, she had THREE at a time!”

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On that note, my very traditional Korean dad once told me, “Well, Adrienne, I used to think you were the lucky one, because you have two boys…but now Annabelle has you beat.” Not only does my sister have a beautiful, brilliant, and accomplished daughter, she has triplet boys. For Koreans, that’s like winning the Mega Millions lottery three times.

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Somehow during those sleepless years when she was designing water plants and raising her family, my amazing big sis also wrote a novel.

As you would expect, it’s not just any ordinary book. Tiger Pelt received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and has been named as one of the Best Books of 2015. Alexander Theroux writes:

A passionate, absorbing novel, Annabelle Kim’s Tiger Pelt with its South Korean backdrop is a seismic tremor of a book. Kim who is a writer with bold insights fixes on two interwoven lives with humane irony, antic imagination, and an unsettling perceptiveness that includes much fascinating lore about that country and her wounded but ultimately triumphant fictional creations. It is a stark, often unsparing book.

One seasoned editor has called it “Pulitzer-worthy.” I’ve read the book from cover to cover at least three times now. Every single time it makes me laugh and weep. The story knocks the wind out of you; the book’s moments of poetry leave you breathless. I promise you that Tiger Pelt is not just any old book. My big sis wrote it after all!

Tiger Pelt is coming out this Monday and is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

Migration

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I miss those gypsy parents of mine. They moved back to Korea a little less than a week ago. I’ve been scanning old family photos and came across a couple that capture my mother at the liminal moment of another, earlier migration – between earth and sky, between two continents, between single and married life.

I believe it is February 1963. My mother is twenty-six. She is getting ready to board the plane that will take her to meet my father in San Francisco, where he is studying. In her suitcase already loaded in the cargo hold is a carefully-folded, white silk hanbok. She will wear it as her wedding dress when she gets married, just days after her long journey to America. I’m guessing it’s her father who is taking photos of his eldest child as she leaves home for the first time – to go so far away, and for who knows how long?

She looks jaunty in her black coat and kitten heels. Her departure was delayed when an x-ray scan revealed traces of the tuberculosis she once had. She was required to wait out a year-long quarantine before being cleared to fly. A year is a long time to wait for the next part of your life to begin. She smiles boldly now as she waves goodbye to her parents.

She has always been a pioneer: the first-born, a big sister and second mother to her siblings:

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She is a drama queen:

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My mother…on the left!

She has always been known for being brash…

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the leader of her pack:

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I imagine she is trying to reassure her parents with that cheerful smile and wave she gives as she walks towards the plane. I imagine she must be filled with anxiety. She has never been on a plane before. She has never been so far away from her parents before. She is flying to a new country where the language is foreign to her, to be married to a man she hasn’t seen in over a year.

At the door of the plane she turns back for one last look. Her father takes one last photo of his daughter before he loses sight of her. She thinks she’s far enough away so that her parents won’t see that she’s crying.

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By the end of the year she will be a mother. In no time at all, there will be four of us – too many children for a graduate student to support. My mother will take us all to go to Korea to live for a couple years while my father finishes up his degree. My father must be miserable to see his family depart, especially his beloved, long-awaited son – finally born after three girls:

He sends postcards like this one in which he enjoins his infant son to be the man of the house and to take good care of his mother and sisters:

And though my parents try to bridge the great distance with letters and by mailing audio tapes back and forth, our father will become a stranger to us during those years.

In this photo we’re getting ready to board a plane to reunite with him at long last. He has found his first teaching job in Florida. We will meet him there.

 

Old Photos

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A few months ago, I offered to put all of my mother’s old photos together in an album for her. I was finally able to hand her the finished album the last time I went to visit my parents in Arlington.

There were photos I hadn’t seen in years, including this baby picture of me:

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In almost all of my baby pictures, my hair is soaking wet, because in its natural state it looked like this:

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My mom told me she burst out laughing when the doctor handed me to her for the first time. Who could blame her?

And then there’s the one my sisters refer to as my refugee photo:

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When I was eight months old we moved to Korea from America for a year or two. The pile of shoes at the door in this photo is the telltale sign of a Korean household. I especially love the two pairs of classic Korean pointy toe rubber shoes to the left.

Scan 1My sisters explained to me that in this photo, they are both wearing school badges. The sister sitting next to me on the right is wearing a special badge, because she was class president.

As my oldest sister put it, “Even then she was an overachiever.”

This photo was the biggest surprise:

Scan (1) I puzzled over it for a while, trying to seek out a familiar face. I was expecting to find my mother or one of her siblings in the photo. All of the oldest family photos I’ve ever seen are from my mother’s side of the family. For all these years, I thought the earliest photos of my father were taken when he served in the army:

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My father grew up in the country. His family, like all Koreans of his generation, struggled  through the privations of war and occupation. When he was eleven, typhoid fever struck down almost everyone in his household. His father did not survive. His mother was left with young children and a farm to run. Time and money were scarce, and there was certainly none to spare for picture-taking.

I showed the photo to my mother, thinking that she would be able to help me figure out who was pictured there. She glanced at the photo and shook her head. She handed it back to me and suggested that I show it to my father, who might know something about the picture.

When I showed it to him, I was dumbfounded when he said, “That’s my elementary school graduation photo.”

He pointed himself out to me. He’s in the third row from the top facing left.

“Do you know why I’m standing like that? I knew I couldn’t ask my mother for money to continue my education. I understood that we couldn’t pay the school fees. I was so downcast and ashamed I couldn’t even look at the camera.”

At the age of thirteen, my father ended up striking out on his own. He put himself through another year or two of schooling by working in a watch factory. As a young man, he made his way to the U.S., where he earned a Bachelors Degree, multiple Masters, a Doctorate, and a J.D. Eventually, he became a professor.

This photo, the only existing one of my father as a child, captures a moment of despair in his life when that future was unimaginable.

Jook & Jeju Island

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This is what we’ve been eating almost every day for breakfast (and sometimes lunch and dinner too!) since Thanksgiving.

I tried jook aka congee aka rice porridge for the first time sixteen years ago in a hotel in Jeju Island. I had never tasted it as a child. My mother never cooked it, because my father wouldn’t touch the stuff. He’s probably the unfussiest eater I know, but jook reminds him too much of the thin gruel he had to eat as a malnourished child growing up in war-ravaged Korea.

As for me, the taste of jook was a revelation – a mellow, homey, cozy dish that tastes like a warm hug from someone you love. I have dreamt about it all these many years. I don’t know why it took me so long to finally try to make it, because it’s dead simple, really. It’s the perfect winter comfort food. It would make a great baby food, because it’s so easily digested. In fact, it’s sometimes fed to convalescents, because it’s so mild. Finally, it’s an easy way to use up the remains of a Thanksgiving turkey or a rotisserie chicken, bones and all. Have I convinced you? I’ll share the recipe with you at the end of this post, but first – Jeju Island.

I lived in Korea from the age of 8 months to about 3 years. About 16 years ago, my parents took me back to Korea for the first time since we moved back to the U.S.  We visited Jeju Island, a tropical island off the southern coast of Korea with dramatic lava formations, gardenia bushes taller than humans, and citrus and palm trees. It’s the traditional honeymoon destination for Koreans and a favorite vacation spot. Dutch sailors are known to have shipwrecked on the island in the 17th century. This perhaps explains why there is a distinctive, more Caucasian look to people from Jeju Island. My mother’s family has roots here. Her maternal grandfather owned a factory there that capitalized on its natural resources; it produced buttons made out of shells and canned sea food for export to China.

We traveled all over the island in a rickety old tour bus hung with ratty floral curtains of indeterminate vintage. Our tour guide told us that Jeju Island is famous for three abundances – wind, rocks, and women.

At a Stone Sculpture Garden, we saw plenty of rocks:

and creative depictions of the culture of the Jeju of old…

The Dol Harubang is the symbol of Jeju Island. They were carved out of the plentiful black volcanic rock and strategically placed around the island to scare off demons or invaders.

With their suggestive shape, they are also considered a symbol of fertility. Rub the nose for a boy, or an ear for a girl.

During the Joseon Dynasty, Jeju was used as a penal colony for political exiles and as a place for horse-breeding. One of the stops on our tour took us to a horse ranch. While all the other chump tourists donned doofy looking hats and red vests to ride, I settled myself on a comfy bench next to my mother, and prepared to watch.

My mother nudged me and said, “I think you should ride.” (N.B. – She did not suggest that we should ride).

“Hunh?! Really?” I asked, “Why?!”

“When else will you have a chance to ride a horse?”

I’ve never been a horse person. In fact, horses scare me. I had had opportunities to ride before, but had always declined them. My mother’s suggestion that I ride, delivered so earnestly and with a slight undercurrent of urgency, was so surprising to me that I, as if under a spell, got up off the bench and suited up. No matter that I was wearing a long sundress and had never been on a horse in my life, my mother’s wish was my command.

The horses lined up for what I thought would be an easy amble around the track.

Suddenly, a scrawny man in a wife beater rode up on a moped, and started blowing a whistle. The horses took off running:

I clung to the horse’s back as we whipped around the track. I miraculously managed to stay on my horse, but the next day I felt like I had been hurled down ten flights of stairs and had then been trampled by an angry mob all wearing soccer cleats.

“Moooom! I’m like a sack of broken bones. I can barely walk!”

My mother complacently listened to me complain about the pain for days.

The most illuminating discovery for me was that Jeju Island is known for its strongly matriarchal social structure, which is unusual for Korea. The women of Jeju Island are famous for their strength, indomitable spirit, and iron wills. Another revelation which explained so much!

Our tour guide explained to us how this social structure came to be. Men who fell out of favor with the king were banished to this tropical island paradise. And then – oh, the cruelty! – they were forbidden to work. Instead, they were forced to sit back and watch their spouses work. The women became “pearl divers” or haenyeo. These women were mythologized as mermaids:

…but in fact, diving is a hard and dangerous job. You can still see haenyeo bobbing around in the ocean these days, but the profession is dying out with the last of the elderly women who practice it. For centuries, the women have dived underwater for minutes at a time with no breathing apparatus.

We probably ate some of their catch at one of the restaurants we went to:

Waitresses kept bringing plate after plate until the long low table we were seated at was covered with seafood. Some of the seafood arrived at the table ablaze; many of the dishes were so fresh, that the creatures were still wriggling. As uncultured as it may seem, I couldn’t eat a thing and had to avert my gaze for the entire meal.

Luckily for me, I was filling up every morning with jook, a daily staple of the breakfast buffet at the Hyatt Regency:

Jook

Ingredients:

1 cup rice

6 cups water or broth

1 turkey or chicken carcass, bones and any leftover meat

Sesame oil

Soy sauce

Roasted, salted seaweed

Scallions sliced thin

Bring to a boil the rice, water/broth, and the turkey or chicken carcass. Lower heat and simmer for about an hour. Remove as many bones as possible. (I can never manage to get them all out, but the kids have become adept at discreetly fishing them out while eating). Put in a dash of sesame oil and a dash of soy sauce. Sprinkle a little seaweed and scallions on top. That’s my bare bones version, but the possibilities are endless. The hotel restaurant had lots of other things you could sprinkle on top such as shredded marinated beef and abalone.