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December 22, 2008


-- Travel --

Making sense of my family's wartime struggles

By Minha Lee

Correspondent, Youth Journalism International


Savage, Minnesota, U.S.A. – When the survivors of a tragedy are unwilling to share their experiences, the tragedy gets erased as the generations go by. This happens to every war and every genocide, events that get remembered by dates and important figures, maybe some gruesome pictures, but as the survivors leave this Earth one by one, their stories, the real human history, gets forgotten by most people. 

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The persimmon tree in the front yard of Minha Lee's grandparents house in Seoul, Korea.

Minha Lee/Youth Journalism International

I feel like that is happening to the Korean War (1950 - 1953), a civil war that tore my country into two separate, but connected entities.

The North and South are literally connected by the land, but are more deeply connected by the stories of thousands of replaced homes, misplaced people, separated families, and dreams that were forced amiss.

These collective tragedies are the real history that I, a Korean, do not fully comprehend because what I know about the war are from books and third-person stories. I’ve never heard it directly from people who have experienced it, most importantly, my grandparents.

The cultural reason for not passing along these stories is about one’s honor and living life beyond tragedies. It's my understanding that my grandparents would rather pass on the stories of their ancestors' past glories and the proud achievements of their children and grandchildren, than the stories about the hardest times of their lives. 

Yet unlike my grandparents, I know that there are many grandparents who are willing to share their stories of hardship with their grandchildren. It all depends on how the individuals want to be remembered and how they have dealt with their past.

My grandparents would have never met if it wasn't for the war. My grandfather on my father's side grew up in the northern part of the country, contrary to my grandmother. My mother told me that when he was young, he used to take care of pigeons as pets with his siblings. From my guess, he led a pretty normal life, and when he got older, he married a woman to start his own family.

But soon, what became normal was the war. Since my grandfather was the oldest son in his family, his parents wanted him to take a boat to the southern part of the country to escape and to save the family name, since it was uncertain if everyone would live to see the future.

He had no choice but to leave everything behind except for his memories and his will to live.

Like many, my dad’s mother was orphaned by the war. All I know about her past is from my mother. She told me that my grandmother’s family used to be quite rich because they owned some mountain land, which they profited from through logging.

But her childhood ended one day when my grandmother saw her parents get shot by soldiers from up north. The emotions she went through are unimaginable, but to me, such adversity seems undetectable on her often pleasant and smiling face.

After the shocking incident, my grandmother, her brother, and her sister were all taken in by a Buddhist temple. They started a new chapter of their lives there. Religion guided her through numerous hardships and her prayers still reach me everyday.

My grandparents met through a matchmaker. After my grandparents got married, they started a rice shop to support their family. When they had made enough money from the rice shop, they moved to the capital city, Seoul, and built a two-story brick house there.

And like all the trees, vegetables, and roses of their garden, they continued live there.

I understand why they wouldn't want to pass on these stories directly, for knowing might hurt, and sharing might hurt even more.

It becomes an unspoken – maybe just a one-way – pact, to allow someone to individually dwell upon his or her past. This is what is euphemistically called being considerate. We are to move on.   

Yet I choose to move on by learning about my grandparents in the best way I can. For that to happen, all four of them have to be considered.

My grandparents on my mother’s side are harder to reach due to their sickness and less frequent visits, but they are equally important to me. 

Their families were not separated by the 38th Parallel and that made surviving less painful.  But nonetheless, they were also affected by it in more ways than I can imagine.

For them, what was more horrendous was the monster that gave birth to the Korean War, World War II (1939-1945), and the period in Korean history called the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945).

My mother's family was able to survive the effects of the Korean War better than most families because for some time, my grandfather owned a construction company which built structures like bridges that still stand today.

Her family was more financially secure because of that and also, her home town remained relatively intact. Still, during the most dangerous time of the war, they had to go hide in the mountains for about a month till the chaos calmed down.

My grandmother's mother was a housewife and my mother did not tell me much about her beyond that. My grandmother's father was a teacher and a farmer of the old world, where being a teacher meant receiving students of mostly wealthy families and being solely responsible to teach them how to read, write, and think until they have learned all that one could offer.

My grandmother received the start of the new world education, where all students went to a bigger school with grade levels and more than one teacher of different subjects. She could have gone to Japan to study because she was brilliant, but her father said no, mainly because in the past, people were more sexist and usually did not send girls off for higher education abroad.

Instead, she married my grandfather and gave birth to almost eight children. The almost-child might be alive now if my pregnant grandmother was not ordered to search around the mountain all day by the Japanese soldiers who were looking for my grandfather, whom they wanted back for their army.

Fortunately on that day, my grandfather was out on some business, and they never came back for him. My grandmother soon gave birth to a baby who did not breathe. She lived to give birth to more children, including my mother.

My grandfather was a well-educated man who was taken as far as Manchuria by the Japanese during WWII because he spoke some English. They gave him a high rank for a Korean since he was ordered to translate American and English information about the war.

When he heard that the Japanese army lost, he realized that the Japanese soldiers would not share that information with their captives, sex slaves, and soldiers – mostly Korean people, but also people of other Asian countries like China and Taiwan. So he faked a serious and even contagious sickness by pretending he was unable to get out of bed and acting mad.

That led to him coming back to a hospital in southern Korea and to his family, all the way from Manchuria.

If he was just a regular soldier, he would not have been sent back. Like almost all people who were taken by the Japanese, he would have died on foreign soil, far away from the ones he loved. He was lucky enough to make it back and avoid the Japanese army.

Ultimately, all these unfortunate stories of my country's history led to my existence. 

The most valuable gift my grandparents gave me is the appreciation of how I came to be and the realization of how the future cannot be created without the knowledge of the past.

Knowing my grandparents’ past, even a little, makes me and my country feel a bit more complete inside.

Even though I will not be able to completely understand the painful history of my country, I know enough to realize that the tears some Koreans shed when singing the national song hold stories that propel us forward.


Read all of Minha Lee's pieces about her trip to Korea by clicking here.


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