October 20, 2013

OH: My Great Grandmother’s Legacy

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A few days before fall break, I received an iMessage from my parents, informing me of the passing of my great grandmother. At the age of 97 and with severe Alzheimer’s, my great grandmother’s death was hardly surprising. She stopped recognizing her great grandchildren years ago and couldn’t differentiate her grandchildren from one another. Toward her final days, she even failed to recognize her one and only child, my grandfather.

I was initially incredibly disappointed. I was secretly hoping that she would live to 100, giving me the bragging rights associated with having a 100-year-old great grandmother. As my rationale began to kick in, however, I felt relieved, even happy, for my grandmother who had been changing her diapers and giving her baths for last two decades. I was glad that she would at last retire at 74, freed from her filial obligation of serving her parents-in-law under Korea’s Confucian ideology.

As I was driving down to New York City for fall break, however, I once again began to feel  a certain emptiness, a void inside of me that reminded me of my humble presence in this vast world. I became transfixed on the implications of her death and the gravity of belonging to a family tree.

Born in Japanese-colonized Korea, my great grandmother’s childhood was characterized by a constant struggle for survival. Married in her late teens, Korea’s independence in 1945  followed by Japan’s surrender in World War II, was a mixed blessing for her. Her husband was found dead the day after independence, drowned in a creek under a footbridge, presumably having consumed too much alcohol with his buddies while celebrating. Left with her 3-year-old son — my grandfather — she would be a single mother for the next 70 years.

Endangered by tensions around the 38 parallel line, she migrated to a small farming community on the southeast tip of Korea where she could raise her child in peace.  However, she was exiled once again when the communist North Korea had conquered the entire south, except small patches of land near Busan. After the war ended, she returned to the site of her demolished farm house, forced to rebuild everything yet again.

Having barely gone through elementary school, my grandfather married a girl next door, my grandmother.  He was apparently quite a lady’s man and abandoned my grandmother for a younger woman in the next village, leaving her with four children.  Without a man in the household, two generations of women — my great grandmother and grandmother — put my dad and uncles through grade school by selling noodles at a food stand.

Graduating at the top of his class in high school, my father decided to bring all of his younger siblings to the capital city, Seoul, to access more educational opportunities. He put  all three of his siblings through college by working for the Korean Railroad Company. With the high-quality education they received, my uncles and aunt were all employed by banks and, at that time, small companies like LG and Samsung.

Utterly clueless of our family’s rather tumultuous history, all my cousins, my sister, and I grew up in relatively affluent households, eating whatever appealed to our appetites and wearing fashionable clothes. My parents and uncles sent their children out into the world to receive even better educations; this is my seventh year studying in America and I have two cousins studying here, as well one in Canada and one in New Zealand.

Staying at my former Cornell roommates’ luxurious apartment by Battery Park during fall break, I took advantage of all of the amenities New York had to offer: I watched an opera at Lincoln Center, was inspired by exquisite collections at the Met and MoMA, went out on a date to Central Park under vibrant fall foliage. I celebrated being alive in arguably the greatest city of modern civilization, reminded of the gift of life.

As I was partaking in a worship service at Trinity Church on Wall Street, I was suddenly struck by the stark contrast between generations. In my short 20-some years of life, I have lived in four different countries, learned to speak several languages and was taught to appreciate cultural heritages around the world. I write columns for a college newspaper in a language incomprehensible to my parents and grandparents. Sometimes, I wonder if there’s any significant connection between us anymore.

Despite my periodic doubts, I can’t deny the empowerment that comes with appreciating one’s heritage. I have lived my life based on the principles of Carpe Diem, taking every opportunity presented. Although I try not to use this mantra to justify my impulsive, irresponsible choices, it now has a whole new meaning to me. Rather than taking advantage of present opportunities in my selfish, hedonistic pursuit, I can recognize my given privileges, discover my role in this generational context and honor my lineage. This is the legacy of my great grandmother.