Sadness of Having a Third Daughter

Despite all her brilliance, my grandmother initially had two daughters. Not having a son was of course a woman’s issue in those days. The science now shows it is really a man that is crucial to determination of sex, but in those days, people just assumed it was woman’s fault if she could not have a son. When my grandmother was about to have her third child, she was called to her husband’s household to have the child there. Everyone had wanted a son and thought the third child must be a son and therefore should be properly birthed at the family house. Although my grandparents lived in the capital, my grandmother traveled to my grandfather’s rural family holding.

Unfortunately, the third child also ended up being a daughter, my mother to be exact. Having birthed another daughter, my grandmother was not exactly treated well. Normally after birth, if it was the birth of a son I suppose, women are given seaweed soup (helps with blood loss, etc.) and taken care of. None of that happened for my grandmother. She was essentially ignored at my grandfather’s household out in the middle of nowhere. He was not there obviously since he was still studying in the capital. I can just imagine what my grandmother had felt. especially after growing up in a rich household with more freedom than other women and having studied medicine abroad.

Thankfully, my great grandmother came to the rescue. My great grandmother (everyone called her 진진 할머니) bought a very expensive dried seaweed, a package that was about half her body size, and other food items. Then she literally hired a motorcycle man out of nowhere to motorcycle her way into the mountain top household. Entering her daughter’s husband’s household, she took over the kitchen, made the seaweed soup and proceeded to feed her daughter. Normally this would be unthinkable. Usually the mother of the married daughter should act humble so that her daughter does not get mistreated. My great grandmother, although she is the most womanly and motherly person, defied such custom. Needless to say, no one dared oppose her as she stayed with her daughter for a while to take care of her after the childbirth.

Go great grandmother! Maybe I take after both of these great ladies…one can only hope.

Poet Revisited

My mother is a poet and an intellectual, but she spent many years not actively writing because as a married woman in Korea, she did not have as much freedom to do so. As a person who feels the urge to write constantly, I can imagine how it feels to have to block out that feeling. Living in the U.S., I am not as limited by the role of a woman, but the reality regardless intrudes and I am forever pushing my writing behind the day-to-day life. Writing poetry only feeds one’s soul, no? And the reality wins out…

I initially started writing poetry when I was a teenager, but abandoned it because…I am not sure why. Perhaps I felt poetry came too easily to me, which meant I was not good? My reasoning for stopping is very convoluted. Instead of poetry, I spent most of what little writing time I had on writing stories. The result is that I have not written a single poem for many years. Now full of nostalgia, I start again…like my mother who picked up her pen again as she got older.

Below is a short poem written in English, translated to Korean as best as I could.

When I close my eyes,
What do I see?
Faded memories,
Grey and melancholic.
And I hear a song
that I had forgotten.
My heart sings to me,
Of love and sadness.
When I open my eyes,
That song fades away,
And my heart is forgotten.

눈을 감 으면
저에게 무엇이 보일까요?
색이 바랜 추억들,
회색의 향수.
그리고 내가 잊었던
노래가 들려 옵니다.
내 마음이 제게
사랑과 슬픔에 대한
노래를 한답니다.
하지만 눈을 뜨면
그 노래는 사라져 버리고
내 마음은 잊혀집니다.

Noble Family Tree (족보, Jokbo)

In noble families, 족보 (Jokbo, family tree) that recorded the family tree was passed down. Essentially, the first son of the noble family would inherit this. I suppose in the olden days, it was probably an actual book, like family bible in the west. With Korean war and change in society, I am not sure that families still have some sort of old book they keep. However, the heritage, the noble class…all of that still exists today even though Korea is supposedly a democratic society with no class distinctions. All you have to say is which Gim (Kim) or Yi (Lee) you are and well, people know your family history. 

That is, at least up to my generation. I grew up in Korea during the modernization so it is likely that much of this has changed now, but considering that only a few years ago, there was a startling news of “now daughters can inherit Jokbo (family tree)”, I don’t think the society has changed so much. Other than, now it is not only the sons who can inherit the family tree and Korea has finally realized that gender equality is a thing to consider. It used to be that as a daughter, you got literally crossed off (like a red x mark) from your family tree if you got married.

I know some American genealogy enthusiasts might be overjoyed by the concept of Jokbo and I do agree it is nice that you can trace your lineage far (well, if you have a certain family background). But Jokbo is not just so that you can trace your family history. The matchmakers (and yes, they still do exist at least up until a few years ago) used it to weed out certain health issues, or to make sure the match had this and that features. As a matchmaker, you wouldn’t recommend a woman for a marriage if she had too strong an astrological sign,had family history of not being able to birth a child (especially not able to birth a male child), or other issues in mental and physical health of the family. Essentially, Jokbo enabled what I would call eugenics. Feeling as though I’m a product of eugenics in my history sometimes makes me feel a little strange.

No Two Lee-s Are Alike – Korean Last Names

Some people ask me how it is possible for Koreans to marry each other as the majority of Koreans have the same last name. Obviously that must mean they are all related. I sometimes only smile at that. It is not sad enough that most Korean names have been badly anglicized, but well, now they are all the same just because they happen to sound the same?

It is true most Koreans have last name Kim (actually pronounced Gim – 김) or Lee (actually pronounced  Yi – 이), but hidden behind those single syllable last name is an origin of where that Kim or Lee came from. Most Koreans (well, at least my generation) know what kind of 이 or 김 they are. And yes, some of them are related if they come from a family tree, but most of them are not. 

For example, my last name is 이, but I know I am 평창 이씨 (Yi from Pyong Chang). Just by knowing that, you can trace your family tree (your ancestry) back hundreds of years. My mom’s last name is 김, but she is 경주 김씨 (Gim from Gyungju). She has an illustrious family tree that goes back to the era of three kingdoms (roughly 1st century B.C.E.). Well, actually there was a fourth kingdom of sorts, but the history labels this era as three kingdoms. Gyungju Gim line comes down from the king of Shilla (one of the three kingdoms) that unified Korea.

Since I have always been told of my ancestry that goes back hundreds/thousands of years, genealogy really has not been much of an interest to me like it is to many Americans I met. I had completely taken it for granted. Yet as I see my family history disappearing with my parents, I now feel I should record something of a recent past. It is one thing to know that I can trace my ancestry far back into the past, but another to actually know who my grandparents or great grandparents were.

Success Through Husband

My maternal grandfather was apparently a romantic soul. Having grown up as a second son to a very prominent family, he was not at all realistic, but loved poetry and knew nothing about earning a living. My grandmother was always perplexed why he would send her love letters as she was more like a man than a woman in that sense. In early 20th century, she was a woman who went to study at a medical university in Japan during the age of Japanese occupation in Korea, despite the discrimination. Unfortunately, her family lied to her about her grandfather being sick so that they could bring her home to marry her off.

That was the life of a woman then. 

My grandmother halted her medical study after a year and the only way for her to succeed was through her husband whom she thought was smart, but terribly unrealistic. While raising two daughters and working as a teacher, my grandmother pushed my grandfather to become a lawyer. Then, as he was somewhat useless as one (accepting chicken and whatnot as a fee for representation rather than money), she pushed him to become an interpreter, using her own large dowry to pay for the exams. That is how my grandfather came to be an interpreter to general Hodge, who was the military governor of South Korea under the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK).

Sadness of a Second Daughter

I have mentioned before, the Korean tradition of putting importance in having a male child since a female child could not inherit the family tree. That was changed only a few years ago. Now I suppose I could carry on my family tree (족보) if I feel inclined, except the honor would then fall to the first child and I am certainly not the first child of my family. I would like to blame this sexism on the acceptance of Confucianism into Korea, but the importance of men in the society started much before Confucianism. Things just got worse for women after the Confucianism.

My grandmother was a second daughter of a prominent rich family in the North. Her younger brother had died and she only had an older sister. Having no son from the legitimate wife in the family, my great grandfather’s son from his concubine had to be brought into the legitimate family tree. As my grandmother was quite an independent character even in those days, I can only imagine how she had felt about that when she had single-handedly fed her entire family after the war even though all of the lands and possessions became the adopted son’s possession.

Last Train out of Seoul

On 25th of June 1950, Korean war started with the invasion from the North. After the temporary American military government left several months before, Seoul had already been full of northern sympathizers. My mom was only about five years old, but she remembers the invasion. She recalls seeing tanks, but I am not sure whether that is a real memory or the memory of what she thought she had seen. My grandfather had already been taken by then, a story for another post. There was my grandmother and her three daughters, my mom being the last child.

My grandmother knew they had to flee the city as the North Korean army was very close to the capital where they lived. Before 28th of June, my grandmother was contacted by her cousin who worked at the Seoul train station. My grandmother’s family had been quite rich and influential then so she was able to secure a place for her family on the train leaving Seoul.

My mom remembers packing her small rectangular suitcase, a foreign import that not many people could afford then. Once at the station, my grandmother’s cousin provided them with sitting spots inside the train. My mother remembers sitting on the train seat with her suitcase under her feet. So many others had piled in standing up or on top of the train. Even those people on top of the train or holding onto the side were lucky as everyone else had to flee the capital on foot.

So one of the last trains from Seoul left with my mom and her family, crossing the river on one of the few bridges across Han river.

And on the 28th of June, at 2:30 am, Korean army blew up the bridges across Han river in a desperate attempt to slow the invasion. Only, no Seoul residents were told that there would be no escape for them afterwards…

Pigeons in the bathrooms

I don’t have many stories of my dad’s younger years as he has never been a talkative man. The only stories I have heard repeatedly are mostly stories from the three mandatory years he served in the military. Korea had and still has a compulsory military system. In my father’s days, they had to serve three years. Now I believe it is closer to two. So there are just a few stories that I know about my father besides the ones about his military years; one of which is the story about the pigeons.

My father hates pigeons. He generally likes animals and I thought he had a fairly fond spot for birds. I mean I had a veritable zoo of birds when I was young which I had to feed and maintain so I assume he liked birds. I figured he just didn’t like pigeons for some reason. I don’t like them either since they are a bit like rats with wings. So I didn’t really think much of my father’s reason for disliking them. Then one day out of the blue he told me the reason why he hates pigeons.

My father was around nine when the Korean war started and he had to flee his home with his family. I am not totally sure where exactly his home had been nor where they had to flee to. I think his home was somewhere near Daejeon (mid-ish part of South Korea) and he had to flee to somewhere near Pusan (only area not at one point taken by the North). As there was not many places to put so many refugees, he and his family had to spend their “refugee period” at a temporary shelter, which was a public school. That made sense since public schools tend to have lots of rooms and bathrooms.

He told me that there were so many corpses from the war that they could not bury them fast enough, which meant they had to be put somewhere until the burial. Unlike now, there were really no morgues or cold houses so the place people piled up corpses ended up being the bathrooms (coldest place I guess) of these temporary shelters. My father remembers having to go to the bathroom at night, alongside these piles of corpses and the only sounds he had heard had been the sounds of pigeons. So to this day, the sound of pigeons gives him the creeps (literal translation). Some experiences stays with us forever it seems.

Child bride

My great grandmother was a child bride. That is not to say that she married an older man and had to be an actual bride like it is sometimes done in certain countries. It just meant that my great great grandfather found her when she was about ten and brought her into his household and designated her as the bride for his son. It was a custom that was sometimes practiced in the olden days. There were older brides (woman 10-15 years older than the man) who married child husbands and there were child brides who came into the household at an early age, but the actual marriage did not occur until the child husband or child bride were much older.

Having literally married into a family at a young age, my grandmother was probably not from a very prosperous household. But she would not have been brought into such a rich family if she had not been exceptionally bright and if my great great grandfather had not thought she would bring luck and prosperity to the household. Although she was loved by great great grandfather, her life was definitely not easy. She was in a strange household with no family to support her. She had to work very hard and help out with everything, cooking, making food, whatever household chores that were needed. I heard that at times she worked so hard that she’d get spontaneous nose bleeds. Yet she survived and eventually married my great grandfather.

She did bring much luck to the household. The family prospered and everyone came to love her. Unfortunately, her husband (my great grandfather) was not so enamored. I don’t think he hated his wife. It was just that she had not exactly been his choice. He probably resented that he had not been given any choice by his father. Of course, that was the way things were in those days, but I think something of the resentment toward his father made my great grandfather not love his wife so much. More to come on what such feelings lead to…

Three Sauces Nostalgia

Here I go again! Another post about Korean food. But it’s really hard to avoid topic of food when talking about Korea and my childhood memories.

There three main essential sauces in Korean food: 된장 (Doenjang, soy paste sauce), 고추장 (Gochujang, red chili paste sauce), and 간장 (Gangjang, soy sauce). My paternal grandmother used to make these from scratch each year, starting from soy beans as all three sauces come from the same source.

I always knew when she started this process as the house would be full of the smell of steamed soy beans when I come home from school. She usually bought a very large sack of soybeans in the fall and steamed them all at once. I have no idea how she managed to do that since her steaming process always happened while I was in school during the day. All I know is that by the time I came home mid-afternoon, she would have steamed and somewhat cooled the large sack of soy beans already.

Image by 온맘으로

And the fun begins!

Both my grandmother and I would stand on the large steamed sack of soy beans and start smooshing them under our feet. It is a bit like those videos of wine makers who are crushing grapes with their feet although the beans were inside the sack and mushier. I often got really enthusiastic and jumped up and down on the sack and thankfully nothing splattered. Every time you step, there is this smell of steamed soy beans everywhere. As much as I associate that smell with my childhood, I did not like the smell when I was stepping on them. I just liked crushing the soy beans with my feet.

Eventually you do need to take the soy beans out of the bag and make sure they are paste-like. There are always some larger chunks of bean here and there (that’s part of the charm), but essentially you should be able to shape it like a clay. The shape my grandmother usually made was a cube, about 10 cm (or close to 5 inches) on each side. Of course, me being the child, I often made 2-3 chunks into cones or other fun shapes. My grandmother usually let me make whatever shape I liked for a few of them although I now know that some of those weird shapes were not optimal for the fermentation process. These shaped soy bean pastes are called 메주 (meju).

These meju pieces are then dried very carefully. My grandmother would usually set them carefully under the shade right outside the back of the house, protected from the rain (rain and freezing is a no-no). And there they sat until the weather started to get cold. She treated meju like her pets. Once the weather got cold, the meju pieces would come right back inside the house and take up very prominent places right next to 연탄 난로 (Yeontan stove – Yeontan is a coal briquette that was commonly used in Korea for heating when I was young). That and heated floors (more to come on this).

Around February is when the next phase starts. It is still cold out, but not completely frozen over. My grandmother would take these cubes and put them inside a large 독 (dok, Korean clay pot) and fill it with sea salt water. Sea salt is very important. Even though I was young, she made sure to tell me we never use just any regular salt. Don’t ask me why not…something to do with it being natural? Some kind of aid in fermentation process? No idea.

I don’t know how the magic happens, but once the cubes starts floating in the water (initially they stay at the bottom), the water turns dark. This is essentially beginning of soy sauce. I am sure I have forgotten some little process that happened while I wasn’t paying attention, but this miraculous sudden floating of cubes and dark water in the pot was what is left in my memories.

My grandmother would then fish out the the wet meju and divide them in half. The soy sauce would be used as soy sauce of course. Why divide the now again soy paste (but fermented) in half? Well, there are 2 other sauces to make. To make doenjang, one half of the paste is put into another dok and covered with sea salt to ferment further. It should be done in a month or two although you can let it ferment as long as you like. There are “young” doenjang and “old” doenjang and anything in between and are used for different dishes.

The other half of the paste is mixed with red pepper flakes — Preparation for this is a whole another story. Essentially, my grandmother would spend weeks drying red pepper on our balcony. You cannot go near this balcony while peppers are drying since it is so hot you will start crying — and rice flour (and there might have been some barley flour in it, etc. But mostly the 3 main ingredients are meju, red pepper flakes, and rice flour. This mixing process happens in a gigantic bowl. My grandmother used to have a wooden spoon that was about 3 feet tall. I used to stir the bowl by walking around it holding the spoon.

These three sauces are just basic, but they take 6+ months to make. If you buy soy sauce, I recommend you always looking for “naturally fermented” and ones without some kind of additives or wheat in it. The sauces are fermented so the preservatives are not necessary. I do not understand why companies that make these sauce nowadays add just random stuff. Needless to say when I go shopping for these sauces, I literally spend more than half an hour reading every brand’s ingredient so I find the right one with no preservatives, naturally fermented, and no additives.

Another note…I introduced just three sauces here, but within each 3 sauces, there are incredible variety of sub-sauces. There are soy sauces for soup, dipping, cooking, etc. (all different, I know!). There are dozens of different kinds of doenjang and gochujang for different occasions.

As this post is getting long, I will have to introduce you to the incredible Korean pots (독, dok) that behaves like a refrigerator in my later post. Stay tuned…