The Ballad of Eun Young-Ki

If imitation is the best form of flattery, then this post was directly influenced by Angry Staff Officer’s lovely memorial to his late grandfather.  I lost my maternal grandfather, Eun Young-Ki, in 2006, at age 84.  I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, since we had essentially lost him to Alzheimer’s related dementia some years before he passed; he also lived in Seoul, looked after by my eldest aunt, too far and too expensive a trip for me to make at the last minute.  According to my mother, my grandfather had his final lucid moment in his hospital room, when the nurse told him all three of his daughters, including the two who lived in the US, were there.

When I was one year old, my parents’ marriage was already on the rocks, a precursor to their divorce twenty-three years later.  Consequently, and in case they moved back to South Korea after they split up, I was sent off to my maternal grandparents.  My great-grandmother took me to Seoul, and I didn’t return to New York until I was almost five.  Side note: I was seriously cute in my first passport photo.

1972 passport

Because my grandparents were the only parental figures I initially knew; because the price of long-distance calls to New York was astronomical; and, let’s face it, because I was just a toddler; I came up calling my grandparents “Appa” (daddy) and “Omma” (mommy).  During infrequent calls to my actual parents, I called them my American mommy and American daddy, without knowing them besides a disembodied voice on the phone.  Three-year-old me thought nothing of the prospect of having two sets of parents.  I just rolled with it.

My grandfather was my north star then, a feeling that carried even into adulthood.  He was strong but quiet, never prone to histrionics like my grandmother or my mother.  He always had some dry remark when the world (at least, as I knew it then) went to shit.  His forbearance and patience eventually informed my own.  I’ve delved into the negative example set by my father here and here, but the one constant positive male role model in my life was my grandfather.  When I returned to the US before my fifth birthday, my grandfather accompanied me.  According to my mother, when we dropped him off at JFK Airport, and I realized he was leaving and I was staying, the word disconsolate doesn’t do my mood justice.

Just before I left for basic training, my grandfather took me to Cancún.  We did the usual touristy things like ruins, beach, and sailing.  We also talked a great deal, since this was ages before a teenager could bury his head in a screen to ignore his elders; for the first and last time, I got to truly know my grandfather.

Eun Young-Ki was born in a village near Osan in the midst of the Japanese occupation.  Like all other schoolchildren in the 1920s, he was forced to learn Japanese, which remained his second language (even better than his excellent English) until he died.  In fact, almost all of the books he brought on that trip were pulp-noir-yakuza novels he’d bought at the Japanese book store near his apartment.  My grandfather had had no electricity or running water, so when both came to his village when he was a teen, he said it was the last time everyone in his family was happy together.

Then the war happened.  Like all able-bodied Korean men, he was drafted press-ganged into the Imperial Japanese Army.  Not as a soldier, mind you – that would’ve been too much of an honor for a colonized people – but as a porter.  My grandfather was sent to Manchuria to build roads, barracks, airfields – anything that required manual labor deemed too lowly for a Japanese soldier.  Don’t get me wrong, the average Japanese soldier had it rough, especially compared to his American or Commonwealth counterparts.  The Korean labor battalions had it worse, though, because the Japanese saw and treated them as subhuman.

By 1942, with the war in full swing, my grandfather, unsurprisingly, had had enough.  He’d been a laborer for two years and hadn’t had any contact with his family during that time.  For the eldest child in a Korean family, the added pressure of having to care for his siblings undoubtedly sent him over the edge.  Eventually, he snuck out of their camp at night with two other Korean laborers.  One fell behind almost immediately, and my grandfather never saw him again.  About a week later, my grandfather lost sight of the other as they fled through a Manchurian forest.  Their roughest guesstimate had been, if they kept moving southeast, they’d find the Tumen or Yalu rivers that separated Korea from Manchuria, then simply trek south until they encountered more Koreans.

What my grandfather hadn’t anticipated had been a band of Korean gangsters-cum-partisans who “owned” part of the border.  Even accounting for my grandfather’s natural reticence, his distant, horrified expression when he recounted this part of the tale gave me chills.  They were Marxists in name only, the teachings of Mao Zedong and Kim Il-Sung but a cover for their lucrative smuggling business.  My grandfather had to join them in order to, essentially, earn his own freedom from them.  Details from him on this time were sparse, but capped by this gem of an offhand statement in English: “No one is a hero in a war.”  He was able to rejoin his family by the winter of 1944/45, after five years’ separation.  By then, he owned the Nambu pistol I described in this post.  His deadpan – and, in retrospect, certifiably badass – conclusion: “I lived.  Many didn’t.”

My grandfather didn’t waste much time after reuniting with his family, and promptly resumed the education that had been denied him by the war.  He matriculated at a teacher’s college that would later become the Seoul National University of Education.  An arranged marriage to the daughter of a wealthy Kwangju family was followed by three daughters.  First a set of twins, my mother being the younger of the two, then my younger aunt.  And because the good Lord has a sense of humor, another war.  They fled south to my grandmother’s family’s walled mansion in Kwangju, somehow avoiding North Koreans during their brief occupation of that city, then avoiding patrols from South Koreans who were involuntarily impressing young men into military service; they had apparently learned well from their former Japanese occupiers.  Luckily for my grandparents and their growing brood, the war and much of its attendant misery moved north and stayed there.

Until the ceasefire, my grandfather taught at an improvised school for his wife’s extended family.  He was press-ganged again immediately after the war, this time willingly.  The nascent Ministry of Education sent a hundred rising educators to the United States for their master’s degrees, seed corn for the Republic of Korea’s educational system.  Those were hard years, he told me, away from his family in a foreign land, communicating with them only by letter.  I’ve only been away from my wife and kids for a week at a time for business, and shudder to think what two straight years would do to my psyche.  Eun Young-Ki found himself in Nashville, of all places, earning his ME from Vanderbilt.  One probably well meaning person told my grandfather he didn’t have to use the colored water fountain.  My grandfather’s typically laconic response: water is water, the colored water fountain is closer, but thanks anyway.  This understandably gave my grandfather a view of America that he never shook: a wonderful and expansive country, but ultimately self destructive in its appetites and prejudices.

Once back with his family, now settled in Seoul, my grandfather began two parallel careers: one as a middle school teacher and, eventually, principal; the other as an advisor and ombudsman for the Ministry of Education.  It wasn’t a lucrative field, education rarely is, but it was the one he chose, a rarity during a time when the government used test scores to determine your future field.  Education gave my grandfather the kind of stability he’d longed for since he was a slave in Manchuria.  By the time I arrived in early 1974, my grandfather was pretty well established.  It was the confidence borne of this stability and accomplishment that made me gravitate more towards him than my grandmother.  It is the kind of confidence to which I still aspire, forty three years later.

His two younger daughters, my mother and younger aunt, eventually emigrated to the United States, as did thousands of their peers in the early 1970s.  Many Koreans saw America, despite its polarization over race and Vietnam, as a wellspring of better opportunities than could be had in President Park’s South Korea.  Since these daughters were leaving to pursue their master’s degrees, my grandparents took the loss in stride.

My mother, God love her, was not a great judge of character then.  My grandparents disapproved of their middle daughter’s marriage to this chon-nom (bumpkin) from Taegu.  Why, he wasn’t even Catholic!  NYU-Stern student?  Meh, still a bumpkin from Gyeongsangdo Province.  Amazingly, this prejudice is still alive and well in Seoul.  Imagine, if you will, the daughter of a buttoned up New England headmaster.  Now picture her marrying into a family of Southern evangelists who worship, talk, and eat loudly.  My father worked hard to soften his natural Gyeongsangdo accent, especially when speaking with my maternal grandparents.  I also know its occasional return grated on my mother until she finally divorced him.

As the father of three daughters, my grandfather loved having a male toddler around, all the more since I was also his first grandchild.  I learned from my own experience that a grandchild, specifically a firstborn male grandchild, can bridge many in-law chasms.  I suspect this was the case for my father; later still, both of my uncles, whose own first children were boys.  Looking back, do I feel sorry for my less fortunate cousins for the vagaries of birth order – yeah, nope.  I knew I was my grandfather’s prince, and still was until dementia took his marvelous mind thirty years hence.  After I returned to the US in 1978, I only saw him sporadically, about once every three or four years, when my grandparents came over from Korea, or vice versa.  One of my favorite photos of him was during a visit to Korea in January 1986.  If I’m beaming, it’s because I’m sitting next to my grandfather.  My cousins were relegated to the side across from us, and what I remember most clearly is that I had his undivided attention through the entire dinner.

IMG_2569 (2)

What did I learn from a man with whom I only spent a week as an adult?  Plenty, I’ve come to find.  Almost by osmosis, I picked up on an empathy that can and has served me well, in both the public and private sectors.  Like my grandfather, I tend to listen closely first before speaking.  Koreans have almost a cultural phobia of showing emotion, and my grandfather conformed to this, at least outwardly.  In private, however, he was demonstrative, quick with a laugh, and loving.  If you ask my kids, they’d probably say the same about me now.  If that is Eun Young-Ki’s legacy, then I’m more than happy to carry that on.  He was my grandfather, and my hero.


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