As I was commenting on a question from a reader about the recent N. Korean threats against America, I suddenly realized that my family has been involved in Korean politics for hundreds of years! And now, so am I! Is this a coincidence? Or is something else going on?
It all started (as far as my mother told me) with an ancestor who came from China to govern an area of Korea. He was also a scholar who was influential in the formation of the Korean language. That would be during the late 1400’s to the early 1500’s according to my research. He would have been in the Yangban ruling class as they were the only ones allowed to study. My mother would often talk of our family, the Lim family, as being a ‘high family’ in Korea- she would stress the fact that our family had always been highly ‘educated’. And she would brag that ‘Lim’ was a rare name in Korea- that only ‘high’ families were called, ‘Lim’. I never got it when I was little- big deal! Didn’t everyone go to school?? And who cares about a last name! But her statements verify the historical facts of early Korea: they were highly class oriented and aristocratic positions were inherited through the male line. The Chinese only sent royal sons to Korea to rule. A family’s destiny was never changeable- the powerful & rich stayed powerful & rich and the poor remained the poor. My mother’s clear disdain for ‘lower classes’ also speaks to the Korean culture in which she was raised. Additionally, ‘Lim’ is more of a Chinese name than a Korean name- this, too, confirms her story.
Since him, generations passed which are completely unknown to me. (I wish I had been more curious!) My mother only picked up the story with her own father.
It was simply called Korea then. Korea considered itself the ‘Little Brother’ of China. Like my own ancestor, China sent politicians and scholars to form and educate Korea society. Eventually, however, the Western mentality, via America became popular in Korea- especially in the southern part. It caused a clash of ideology within the Korean population. China had changed too- its revolutions had demolished the aristocracy (of which my ancestor must have been a part) and replaced it with a military communistic regime. Communist Russia stuck its fingers in the Korean pie too. They didn’t like America either.
Like many Korean families, mine had spread to both the North & South of Korea (it’s not a large country). My grandfather remained in the Northern part of Korea- near the current day DMZ. He openly criticized communism and attempted to persuade his community to move toward the Western ideas of government that America represented. Communist China tightened its grip on Korea as they viewed America and the Western mind set to be the enemy of communism. They also suspected (probably rightly) America’s desire to establish military bases to strengthen American influence in Asia- this was shortly after WWII. One peaceful night at home, my family got a knock on the door. My grandfather was dragged from his home and brutally shot.
My grandmother immediately sent my mother (about 18 years old at the time) packing, right there on the spot, because the next step for the communists was to murder the first born of political dissidents (it’s an Asian thing). My mother was the first born. So her mother packed a little food in a towel and my mother fled into the night. She starved as she walked, on foot, to her southern relatives- she literally dove under hay carts as planes flew overhead, strafing the refugees with bullets. My mother had been a spoiled, rich brat and had never suffered before. She had a wild streak even then- she was the darling of my great grandmother who felt sorry for her because her biological mother died while birthing her. She was rarely scolded or corrected.
She used to talk a lot about her journey south and about my ‘high’ Korean family. She used to get bitter when she considered her new role in America- that of a housewife to a lowly, ‘uneducated’ private in the U.S. Army. (lol!) But she married her soldier with her eyes wide open. I don’t feel sorry for her.
Her southern Korean family didn’t want her as a burden and so tried to marry her off as soon as possible. She had balked at marriage even in N. Korea because she saw how her grandmother treated all her sons’ wives (they family lived in a big compound together). Being unusually spoiled for a Korean girl, she didn’t want that role for herself. But, with her grandmother gone and being alone as she was, she felt pressured to marry. But, her prior life of ease & prestige and the forced migration south during a dangerous war- had changed her. She became intractable as ever! She rebelled (lol!) and did the thing that no girl of any ‘high Korean Family’ would do: she married an American soldier *gasp* and even worse, an…..UNEDUCATED one! Needless to say, her family did the quintessentially Korean thing: they ‘disowned’ her. But she didn’t care. (Her stubborness was such that she never so much as called them back in over 20 years!)
She saw my father, a young private, and saw her way out. Marrying him would at least give her a choice (they still had arranged marriages then) AND she would go to America- the land of freedom! She threw caution to the wind and embraced the unknown.
Of course, the reality didn’t match the dream. Being a soldier’s wife just didn’t square with her..um.. picky tastes and ultimately led to anger and sadness. But, it also led to me. I am so grateful to be an American citizen. Even though my mother was extremely,…well… difficult, I have to admire her strength to live, survive and ultimately to face the complete unknown rather than become mundane in her own eyes. She wanted greatness! And she leapt after it. Her life didn’t see the fruition of her faith. But I know I am glad she did it. She died never knowing this- but her leap of faith into the unknown, her decision to make her own fate- was a great gift to me. One for which I never got to say, “Thank you.”
Through the course of answering a reader’s political question, I came to realize that I represent a long line of people who made bold decisions. Decisions that really cost them something. But their lives were interesting and relevant. Makes me glad to be a rebel. Politics is literally in my blood. When my mother said, “Remember that you are a Lim!” with that fierce ‘look’ in her eye, it always elicited a rolled eyeball from me as a child. But now, in my own struggle against tyranny, I get it. We need to remember who are are. What we’re made of. We are a country of rebels. All our ancestors threw caution to the wind- they risked everything for a dream of greatness. We are America. And we need to choose our own destiny. Come hell or high water.