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.

A Place to Encounter Best Grilled Fish in Seoul

Grilled fish (mostly mackerel, 고등어) is a very popular dish in Korea. It is popular so many restaurants have it as an option, especially in the touristy area of Seoul. However, one thing to note about Korean restaurants in Korea is that most authentic and good ones are very specialized. They don’t usually have a menu composed of all kinds of different foods, but specialize in a single topic. So if you want to find the best grilled fish, you go to a restaurant where the primary topic of their menu is grilled fish related items. Also, there is usually a spot where many restaurants all congregate and specialize in grilled fish. It is strange how that works since you’d think grilled fish restaurants would open far away from each other, but for some reason, many of these places are right near each other.

One such well-known grilled fish place in Seoul is Honam Jip (호남집). It is near Dongdaemun (동대문, east gate) at the busy marketplace there (specifically, Dongdaemun subway station stop exit 8). Be prepared for one of the best tasting mackerel (with rice and accompaniments of course). Do not worry if your partner is a vegetarian and/or not into fish. There are other things on the menu, but if you don’t taste the grilled fish, you are missing out.

신사임당 (Sin Saimdang), A Woman Who Defied Her Time

As Korea has been for many generations, a patriarchal society, one does not encounter too many notable ladies of noble descent. There are a number of common class ladies who were Gisengs that defied their time, but defying the traditional role as a noble lady was difficult. With transmission of Confucianism, a philosophical idea that holds appeal as a pure form, but one that I have hard time liking due to its often misogynistic nature, a life of respected noble ladies in Korea was confined to being a wife and a head of the inner household. Even if some noble ladies were well educated and accomplished through the aid of their fathers, once they were married, their life had to take a back seat to their husband’s. 

신사임당 is one lady who defied that, partly with help of her father who chose a husband for her who would let her flourish, although at the end, he also became jealous and did not act as a supportive husband. She was considered an ideal lady by Confucian standards, yet she did defy the custom of being overshadowed by her husband and male-oriented society. Her extremely accomplished poems and paintings still remain to this day.

Korean Proverbs

I spent most of my childhood hearing Korean proverbs from my grandparents and my parents, but I rarely paid much attention to them. I understood and knew many of them, but they were not something I actively thought of. The only time I actively paid attention to them was during one winter break while I was going to elementary school. Our homework was to collect at least fifty Korean proverbs and learn their meaning. Obviously as an elementary student, I promptly forgot most of the proverbs I collected after the assignment was over. Strangely, these proverbs have been appearing in my head more and more often of late. I am not sure why, but as I was describing them to my husband in English, I thought perhaps others might enjoy the wisdom of these Korean proverbs.

I mention three here to begin with, just to wet your appetite.

  • 수박 겉 핥기: In literal translation, this means “licking watermelon surface”. The older generation usually say this to the younger generation when they are doing something with no depth. Essentially, if you are reading headlines of news without really delving in to what’s going on, you have done this. It is telling you to put more effort in as your understanding is shallow.
  • 도토리 키재기: In literal translation, this means “measuring height of acorns”. Usually people say this when you are trying to make distinction in things that really make no difference. This is often said when people are arguing about something that really makes no difference.
  • 그림의 떡: In literal translation, this means “rice cake (Korean kind) in a picture”. This is said when you have something you can see and perhaps even touch, but you can’t really have it. Essentially envision that you really want that bar of chocolate, but if you can’t have it than it becomes just a thing in a picture.

Historical Women of Art and Poetry (Giseng/Kiseng, 기생)

Hwang Jin Yi

Historically in Korea, only two types of women danced professionally, 기생 (Giseng or Kiseng in old way of transliterating), and 무당 (Moodang). Moodangs were like shamans. Gisengs were like Venetian courtesans of the 16th century, except even more legitimized. They were not part of the noble class, rather, they were part of the lowest class in Korea, yet they were women of power. They were women of intellect and poise who could compose poetry better than any poet, know politics better than any politician, danced, played instruments, sang, and participated in diplomatic relations. 

One very famous Giseng named Hwang Jin Yi, often portrayed in various dramas, was so desired that one noble man who visited her when she was very old apparently fell in love with her with her beauty, which perhaps came from her intellect and poise since she by then probably had lost all her bodily beauty.

It is true that not all so-called Giseng were of this caliber. There were several tiers of Giseng and the lower tier Giseng were more like the modern-day call girls. The top tier Gisengs, however, were registered as part of government and not even high level nobility could easily touch. Gisengs started their education early in their life. Not all Giseng are born from a mother who was also Giseng, but some chose that life because perhaps they craved freedom or they had no choice because their family, even if noble, was too poor. 

Despite having much more freedom and power compared to other Korean ladies, Gisengs were still women of that era. Those who were born to Giseng could not be anything else. They were not allowed to marry a man of a noble class. And they were forever relegated to a life of a caged bird who sang for their life. There were many poems that survive from the famous Gisengs throughout history. Their poems are often poignant and sad.

More on the poetry of Giseng on my next post…

Personally I wonder what I might have done if I were born in that era. I am from a noble family root, and even though I would have had a life of privilege, my life would have been one of gilded cage. Would I have consented to life of being another’s life, life hidden away into a household? Or would I have chosen to be free and found a life of Giseng more preferable…?

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…

생태 식해 (Saengtae Sikhae, Spicy fermented pollock)

The fondest memories I have of my grandmother is helping her with her yearly food preparations. 생태 식해 (Saengtae Sikhae, Spicy fermented pollock) was one of my father’s favorite dishes so of course, my grandmother made it every year.

She would usually go to a fish market to get the freshest pollock early in the winter as that is the season they are of the best quality. She would never use a fish that was ever frozen as that affects the taste. She then washed and cleaned them thoroughly and salted them for several days. After a number of days, they would be cut into smaller fishes then put in the traditional Korean pot with spicy pepper powder, cooked millet, and shredded radish. The dish was ready to eat after a week or two. As Korean winters are fairly cold, Sikhae would last a fairly long time just outside in the pot. But often, we would put it in the refrigerator to make it last longer.

Sikhae is often made with many different kinds of fish, but my grandmother only used pollock as that was the one she thought that was the most quality fish. So every year, preparation of Sikhae was one of the early winter rituals we went through. The day fish was prepped, we would usually make spicy fish soup with the leftover parts of the fish. I would sometimes help her clean the fish or prep them for salting. For some strange reason, her Sikhae always tasted so much better than the ones that were store bought. I am not sure what secret ingredient she put in as I don’t think there was anything out of ordinary. It is probably that she only used the best and freshest fish, and used her own prepared red pepper.

Why sons?

You learn about gender inequality early in your life in Korea. The idea of male superiority infuses into your life, almost as you are born…as people questioned my mother why after having a second daughter and the last child she will be able to have, my mother was still happy to have me.

My father was the 5th first son of the generation of first sons, carrying on supposedly an important noble lineage (although not as famous as my mother’s ancestors). That meant he needed to have a son, and if he did not, adopt a son of one of his brother’s children as his own. Even at a very early age, I was aware of these questions. When I was very young, I remember my sister telling me I have to be like a son to my father because he did not have one. As though not having a son is such a bad thing. A message received…being born as a girl is something to be unhappy about.

Thankfully my father never adopted any of my uncle’s sons and he did at least send a message to his daughters that women are equal to men, at least his daughters I guess. Of course, what he preached never really showed in his behavior toward my mother. So the next message received…wives were indeed not equal to husbands.

Then there are messages from your schoolmates in the elementary school, those who will tell you that boys are superior to girls. Sadly so many girls truly believe that by then, since that is how they grew up. If a girl has a brother, the treatment toward the younger or older brother is so obviously better that it is hard to ignore. When girls receive top marks, which I have done often, it is often because they are lucky or they are still young so when they grow up, things will change. Another message received…boys are indeed superior to girls.

I have received so many messages in my life, and not just as I was growing up in Korea. I am glad that I escaped to a country with more equality although I have experienced rampant sexism in the U.S. as well. At least my life is not all about getting skinny and finding a husband, a pattern which even very accomplished and smart ladies of Korea seem to fall into.

What is strange is that, at many points in Korean history, there were queens, and women of extraordinary abilities who were never forgotten. What has happened to our society to change that?

I am still waiting to receive that message…

Un-belonging

Perhaps it is time to speak a little more about myself. Obviously, I can talk endlessly about the Korean culture, family history, food, etc., but ultimately and eventually some presence of myself has to be left on these pages. Many labels can be made to a person like me: a Korean transplant living in America, an immigrant, a Korean American, a first generation Korean living in America…whatever label happens to fit at any given moment, there is always one persistent feeling inside me.

That is…the sense of un-belonging.

I have no place I really call home. I am a Korean who has lost the country she knew as that country is forever etched in the imprint of history. The Korea I know, learned, and admired no longer exists. That Korea only exists in my memory. The Korea I visit often to see my parents is not a place I belong anymore. I am a Korean who is a foreigner in her own land. Yet in America, I am an immigrant. No one who sees me will ever consider me just an American. I am first and foremost, a Korean in everyone’s eyes and that is confirmed with my accent, which is not even really a Korean accent. 

So where do immigrants like me belong? Not the country I am from certainly as they do not consider me part of that society any longer. Yet not this country either as I don’t really belong here as I come from somewhere else. Hence, I become like many other immigrants. I live here and I am successful here. Yet where I belong is perhaps in those past etchings of the Korea of the past.