The First Son

I rarely talk about my father because I don’t have a close relationship with him. He was always more or less a fearful and distant figure in the family. Let’s just say there I can probably count in two hands how many times he’s ever smiled or been nice to me, or anyone else in the family, for that matter. But although I can’t excuse his behavior, I do understand why he is the way he is. 

From a very young age, my father has always had this responsibility on his shoulders. The Korean War happened when he was around nine years old in Korean age, eight in western world. His family obviously fled to the south to escape the war and North Koreans. There was no steady home or employment. Although my grandfather was a skilled carpenter, the family subsisted by selling goods on the market, which meant both his parents worked long and rarely paid attention to home life.

As the oldest child, all the responsibility of taking care of his family was put on him. I don’t agree with this Korean custom, and no matter how many times my grandparents and my father say that was the way things were in those times, I actually know it wasn’t. Not really. None of my father’s friends’ families actually behaved this way. Just my family.

No matter the reason for the grave responsibility, it was my father who had to go wash rice in the cold stream with other mothers, who always complimented him on how well behaved he was. He had two younger brothers and a baby sister, the older one who always followed him to his elementary school. As part of poor public school post war, children received small bread and drink while in school. My father’s brother knew that and would stand outside so he could take my father’s bread. Feeling responsible, my father always gave away his bread, knowing his younger brother wouldn’t even share with his other siblings. My father went hungry regardless.

Let’s say such sacrifice has made none of his younger brothers better men, since they are selfish to this day. But that’s perhaps a story reserved for another day.

Growing up like this, my father had to give up his desire to be a farmer and an artist. He became a pharmacist instead, so he could make money. He was smart, so he attended one of the premier pharmacy schools in Seoul (and yes, it is a big deal to attend a university in Seoul for those living outside Seoul). It probably never occurred to him to question what he wanted. 

The family brainwashing essentially had him work immediately after his graduation. It didn’t matter that he got married and had a family of his own. He spent all his earnings providing for his younger siblings and his parents. And yes, what I was told was… that’s the way it was at that time. Also, false statements.

I still laugh (not a funny one) since my mom, who worked full time to provide for her children (my father’s children obviously) and the household, was the only mom who had actually worked at the time. In those days, in most other households, the father actually provided for the family while the mother took care of the children. But my father’s earnings were reserved for “his family”. He supported both his brothers through university. One didn’t even finish since he could have cared less. He supported his sister through studying abroad. And to this day… even when my father is the one who needs help, they’re not the ones who support him.

But even as I don’t agree or excuse him for his behavior, I do understand why…

I just wish he’d stop saying that “It’s the way things were in those days.”

Mother-In-Laws

My childhood memory starts when I was maybe three or four years old. After my maternal grandmother and her daughters moved to the U.S. and stopped living with our family, my paternal grandparents moved in. According to my mother, my grandfather was a kind and gentle man, although he had a bit of a weakness for alcohol. But he was apparently still relatively a gentleman when he was drunk. He apparently loved my mother and through his influence softened his wife’s sharpness toward my mom. 

It’s strange how so many Korean mother-in-laws are nasty to their daughter-in-laws. You’d think they’d swear to be nice to their own daughter-in-laws after experiencing mistreatment from their mother-in-law. But instead of not repeating the mistake, they equally mistreat their own daughter-in-laws. And the cycle continues. Perhaps they are taking revenge for the time they were miserable as a daughter-in-law. Perhaps they don’t know how else to behave, since that’s all they learned.

Thankfully, my paternal grandmother couldn’t treat my mother too badly. My mother was a highly educated woman from a good family and she was also as much of a bread earner as my father was, especially since most of his salary went to supporting his family of origin and my mother’s salary went to pay for supporting our family. Still, my grandmother wasn’t a very kind woman and, at least for the first few years they lived with us, my paternal grandfather was a soft influence on her.

In contrast to what most people would think, my mother was not happy when I got married. I think she was worried about me experiencing so many difficulties she’d faced as a married woman. I can’t count in my two hands how many times my mother packed her bags and grabbed us from school, with the intention of never coming back. Of course, that would never have worked in Korea since women had absolutely no rights then, even a working woman. I sometimes wonder if my mother would have broken the cycle of mother-in-law abuse if one of her children had been born as a man and had gotten married.

Which hair dye do you use?

My parents run a small neighborhood pharmacy in a residential neighborhood of Seoul. The neighborhood pharmacies in Korea when I was young were not like the pharmacies in America. It primarily served as the first line of defense against the illness for the neighborhood. Hospitals were only places you went if you were truly sick. This was the time before nationalized healthcare, before the battle between pharmacists and doctors (an outcome which you could have guessed, pharmacists lost).

But I digress. I was trying to say, although the pharmacies were primarily where pharmacists prescribed medicine, they did sell some of the other items you might think to find in normal pharmacies in America, like hair dye.

Why do I mention hair dye? Well, I was just reading an article about how Korean women’s hair transformed economy through wigs (https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/women-hair-wigs-south-korea), and it reminded me of how when I was young, my mother was frequently asked by a customer, “What color hair dye do you use? Give me that one.”

My mother has never used a hair dye so you ask why would someone ask that? Because instead of jet black hair that most Koreans are known for, my mother has naturally dark brown hair, which is just slightly wavy, and lots of it. My grandmother on my maternal side was the same way. Long, long dark brown, slightly wavy hair. Both me and my sister have that too. I guess we won the hair lottery since it is heavy, never stops growing (my grandmother had at one point grown it down to her ankle and turned it into a hair ornament for her mother).

I digress again. My mom would sort of smile and recommend a brown hair dye we had on the shelf. I mean, when she first started helping my father out at the pharmacy, she’d tried to explain that it was her natural color, but no one would believe it. So later she’s like, why not? Might as well sell the hair dye.

Why do I bother with this story at all?

First to point out, Korea has always been a society that, as nice as people are, has had a hard time accepting people who are ‌different. And to show how, over the years, we become inured to this push to conform to societal norms, at least outwardly.

Memory of licorice flavored jelly

Several years ago, I asked my dad what he’d like me to bring from the US. It’s a typical thing, when I visit Korea, I typically try to bring items from the US that my parents want. Initially it was because there were many things here that didn’t exist in Korea, but later, it became more for my parents to be able to tell their friends and acquaintances that their daughter brought something. They are very happy when they can pass out small pieces of dark chocolate, candy or coffee direct from the US.

So when he asked me to bring back black jelly that has something like the fragrance of 5 spices, I was thinking…what is that about? My dad tells me often he doesn’t like sweets (even though he does), but I had no idea what black jelly was. Well…I figured out that it is licorice flavored jelly. 

It seemed like a strange request since I think flavors like licorice or root beer are a bit of an acquired taste. If you aren’t exposed to it when you’re a child, you don’t tend to like it. I personally haven’t been so I don’t like either of them. Licorice flavor isn’t a common thing in Korea (at least up until my childhood) so I was wondering how my dad got exposed and was wanting this? So I bought the best licorice flavored jelly, the more high end kind that’s all natural, etc. When I brought this, he looked at it funny, took a bite and said this is not what he’d asked for. 

At this point, I’m perplexed. Was there some other kind of licorice?

He explained why he wanted this jelly. The memory goes back to post war time. After the war, there really wasn’t much to eat, which means dessert or sweets were not even part of the picture. But my dad remembers the American soldiers he’d met. They’d have these small packages of round flat disk fruit jellies (ones that come in different colors and covered with sugar) that come with their food packages. And the soldiers would often hand these out to the kids they meet. These candies were untold treasures to children and they’d savor them. The reason licorice flavor was what my dad wanted most was that it was not a common one in these packages. So it was like a treasure when he’d get one. 

And even now after so many decades past, my dad is still seeking a little piece of sweet memory, which he could only find in the fake licorice fruit jelly, not the real licorice jelly.

Mother’s Poem

My mother has always been a poet. Constantly scribbling, yet unable to spread her wings most of her life due to life’s obligations. I’d love to introduce you to one of her creations here. I only hope I was able to do justice in translating it.

비내리는 날의 일기 ㅡ 소귀골(牛耳洞)을 걸으며…  
– 수목원

옛목간통으로 가는 
골목길은 
멀고도 가깝다는 
표현이 맞겠습니다

돌아오는 소귀골
(牛耳洞)엔
장맛비가 억수로 
골목 어귀를 채우고,

비에 젖어 즐거운 듯
가지를 흔들어대던
굵은둥치 호두나무가 
나를 보고 반가워
가을을 기다린다고
얘기를 나누잡니다.

나의 로망은
기다리는 작은 기쁨, 
기다리고 있는 소망,
가을 기다림으로 해
여름더위를 이겨내는
작은 열매를 보는 거,

그렇게 소소해서도
마음이 충만해짐을
갖는 순간입니다..

Diary on a rainy day – Walking Soguigol street
– Soo Mok Won

So close yet so far
Is how I would describe the twisted backstreets
that leads to the old bath house

As I walk through Soguigol street,
torrential rain fills the mouth of its alley

The thick old walnut tree waves its arms
with the joy of soaking summer rain
It is delighted to see me
And urges me to chat about the coming of the fall

My inner romance is in
A tiny joy of waiting
A tiny hope of longing
And seeing the tiny seed of overcoming the summer heat
Through waiting for the fallAlthough perhaps it might be trifling,
The moment fills my heart with fullness.

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.

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.

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