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.”

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.

Parachute Undergarment

As I am a totally lazy information consumer, I do information consumption via email, basically in the form of email digests of news, science, history, medicine…whatever I can subscribe to. Well, mostly you can guess that the news is about nowadays. But occasionally, I do find some snippets of interesting factoids of history, science, etc. that I have never known and sometimes it connects with my Korean background.

And that’s what I found a few days ago…

It was a story about how World War II soldiers carried hidden silk maps so they could aid in escape as scraps of cloth could be easily hidden.

So here’s a related story about my grandmother. Unfortunately now that I’m starting to tell the story, the silk map for escaping is not at all related to what I’m about to tell you, but it still reminded me of the story my grandmother told me so you’ll just have to bear with me.

After escaping Seoul, my grandmother and her children (my mother and her sisters) landed in Busan, the last stop on the train (for how they got there, read my blog entry on Last Train out of Seoul). As you can imagine, all they had were whatever it was they carried with them, some clothes, paper money (which was useless by this time), and numerous gold and silver rings that traveled with my grandmother. My maternal grandmother’s household was rather rich so she had thought to bring all jewelry she had with her. And in those days, many people collected gold and silver rings as preserving wealth.

Jumeok-bap by CCkorea Seoul

My grandmother tells me that for a while, she literally exchanged a silver or gold ring, an item of great value for a single roll of Gim-bap (Rice with vegetable and maybe some meat wrapped with seaweed) or Jumeok-bap (Just seasoned rice shaped into a ball). She had been lucky since most people who had escaped from Seoul were not even able to get that much.

Gim-bap by ayustety (a flickr user)

As my grandmother was quite enterprising, she soon started the business of selling whatever she could so she could support her children. One of the items that she sold happens to be women’s undergarments made out of parachute cloth. I never thought about it, but I suppose numerous soldiers during the war time were air dropped into the war zone. I assume the parachutes were discarded and the soldier went toward wherever they needed to. My grandmother harvested many of these parachutes. They were made out of extremely durable Nylon fabric that apparently made several lovely undergarments she could sell for a great profit.

I sometimes wonder how she thought to do that…considering when she first got married, she couldn’t even properly make clothes for her husband and mother-in-law, which was custom in those days. But that is another snippet for another time.

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.

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