뒷간 (Room in the Back)

뒷간 literally means a room in the back. Of course, it is not literally just another room it the back. This is an old way of saying toilet. When I was growing up, the older generations still used this word, but younger generation would never use it as it was considered somewhat uneducated/uncultured. This word also has a double meaning. A room in the back makes sense of course, but the back also implies “behind” or “hidden”. So essentially it double means as room in the back, but also means your behind so to speak.

If you look up what is toilet or restroom in Korean, you’d most likely encounter the word 화장실 (this is the proper word by the way). If you ever ask someone where 뒷간 is, someone my age would be able to tell you where it is (pointing to the restroom of course), but would also laugh at you (well, not to your face, but definitely when you are far enough away). I don’t think anyone who is younger than me would generally know what this word means unless they’ve watched historical drama.

So why the talk of toilets?

Well, let’s say the house I grew up in, which was properly inside the city limit of Seoul in a decent part of the city, had this so called 뒷간 until my teenage years. Needless to say, that experience left a lasting impression on me. It is the worst thing to have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, especially when it is below -10 degree Celsius in the winter. You have to not only bundle up, but also need to carry a light, then shuffle your way across the small courtyard to go to this literal hole in the ground. The hole is thankfully disguised minimally with attached porcelain squat toilet super structure, but you can still see the hole and if you are a child, you really have this giant fear of falling inside!

For those of you who wish to experience “authentic” old Korean, never fear, there are still places you can experience this for yourself.

My Great Great Grandfather

My maternal great great grandfather, my grandmother’s grandfather, is a figure shrouded in myth for me. He is said to have been over 6 feet tall. 6 장신 is the term my mother and grandmother use to describe him. So what is 6 장신? I had no clue when I heard the term. From the descriptions I heard, I gathered that it meant over 180 cm tall, which is around 6 feet, which was quite tall for a man in Korea in the 19th century. 6 ft tall was quite tall for a person even when I was a child.

I actually looked up what is as I got curious writing this so click here to read a short digression on that topic.

It could be a family tall tale (that was a totally inadvertent pun since I still don’t get pun whatsoever) that he was that tall, but honestly, I believe it. My maternal grandmother who was born in 1915, was 163 cm tall (give a centimetre or two since one shrinks with age). That is very tall for a woman of that time. I heard that she was taller than my grandfather. Of course, as I write this, I had to verify. And no, she was not taller than my grandfather whom I had never seen. I was able to get a copy of their wedding photo and will write more on that in a different post.

Before I further digress, I want to go back to the topic of my great great grandfather. What do I know about him besides that he was considered a very tall man. Well, I really meant it when I wrote he was like a mythical figure.

To summarize (which I might or might not elaborate on my later posts):

  • North Korean: Well, in those times, it was all just Korea. He just lived in a region which is now in North Korea.
  • Landowner: He owned vast area of land where you could roll continuously for a day and not reach the end (yes, this was the literal description my grandmother gave me).
  • Banker: He acted like a community bank. In those days, people didn’t necessarily have “money”. They owned livestock, field goods, perhaps some jewelry, and maybe very few had money. And none of these people had vaults or somewhere they could safely deposit their precious items. So my grandfather’s house acted like a bank vault. People would bring bags of rice and such and deposit them at my grandfather’s house, which had huge storage. They were then able to withdraw or deposit as they they needed. I have a feeling little more were withdrawn as supposed to deposited.
  • Owner of local 양조장 (essentially a brewery): I heard this is one of the reason why he was so rich.

척 (Length measurement)

척, what the heck is it?

It is a length measurement like cm and ft and I’ve heard this often enough when I was young, from my parents, grandparents and also read in folktales. Yet I had no idea what it really meant in realistic terms so I looked it up. Going down the rabbit hole so to speak.

There were various interpretations of what 척 means. According to current Google (yes, seriously, Google seems to track everything!), 1척 = 33 cm so 6척= 200 cm which would be approximately 6.56 ft. That seemed a little overblown. This was very different from a blog written by someone who analyzed height measurement written in 삼국지 (three kingdoms). According to that blog, 1척 = 23 cm, which means 6척 = 138 cm. This was way off the mark. 삼국지 after all is from hundreds of years in the past and not even in Korea. After more searching, I found another blog that analyzed what 척 meant during 조선period in Korea, which is the time period my great great grandfather lived. That page indicated 1척 = 31 cm, so 6척 = 186 cm. If you can read and understand Korean, click here to read more.

Journey Begins

Genealogy is a well-loved hobby of many around me. When I share glimpses of my personal family history, I am often encouraged to write. Yet I have hesitated because my feelings toward my family history is complex and so are my feelings toward many family members. It seems I have a love and hate relationship with my own family history. As an observer, I wish to record them. As a person who has experienced some of it, albeit distantly, I sometimes wish to put it in a box and lock them away. But love and hate I’m told are essentially two sides of the same coin. Does that mean I hate all of my family history or love them? I have no answer to my question or many questions that I have inside. All I know is that time is perhaps always running out if I ever wish to write them down. 

So I start my journey here.

The snippets of story I wish to share are not chronologically ordered. They are just stories, little snippets of my family history shared in little pieces. Some might be able to piece together the chronology of them all, but I will not do so here as the way I heard these stories was just the way I am hoping to tell them, in pieces, out of order, colored by other memories that have clouded them.

2020-07-24

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