My mother is dead now so everything I am about to tell you can never be truly verified again- but if she were here, believe me, you would believe every word. If you think I can tell a believable tale, well… if you met her, you would know from whom it sprung…
My mother came from a ‘high’ family in Korea- the Lim family, to be exact. Why do I know that? Because it was pounded into my head all my life.
“You from a high family, Susie…high family!– not low family like, ‘Park’ or ‘Lee’ or ‘Young’. You never see ‘Lim’ name in Korea because we very high family! “
Oh, yes, I know it now. I’ve heard it over and over and over again. If you are Korean out there, forgive me and forgive my mother- but you know exactly what she means, right? In Korea, there is most definitely a pecking order. And you will never find a more racist, class oriented people on earth- again, forgive me. But you all know it’s true- and so do I. Koreans and Japanese still struggle with one another. Blacks and Koreans still struggle with one another. My mother didn’t know any black people, but there was no doubt- black people were lower than Koreans. Heck, white people were lower than Koreans to her. Come to think of it, EVERYONE was lower than Koreans to her! Lolol In marrying my oh, so, white father, she was definitely bestowing him with a gift! Ha! (bless her!)
As I said, she came from a wealthy, high class family in Korea. And she was the ultimate princess within it. Unfortunately for her, her immediate family lived in North Korea as it is known today. Her story is the story of almost all Koreans today. The world says, “North Korea” and “South Korea”, but Koreans just say, “Korea” still. It is not two nations to them. Half of their families are still trapped behind the DMZ, or, the ‘Demilitarized Zone’. Half of my family is still trapped behind the DMZ. My mother’s entire family is trapped there- I mean, her immediate family. I have cousins, uncles and aunts galore in South Korea- but all my mother’s brothers & sisters and their progeny are still trapped- that is, if they are still alive. Almost 3 million people just ‘disappeared’ one year from N. Korea- most experts believe it was due to starvation.
Her life, like that of so many other Koreans, was turned on its ear when China and communism began to spread throughout the Korean peninsula. Actually, perhaps one could say, it began when the United States began to see Korea as a nice place to put one of its military bases. Either way, two powerful nations started eyeballing Korea as a battle ground for their ideology. Americans wanted to keep China and Russia’s communism at bay and they didn’t want America to do that.
China sent in their military soldiers in North Korea and the American government began making love with the South Koreans. We began as far away from China and Russia as we could- we began in the South. Thus, the South Koreans started being wooed first with American treasure, promises of trade, promises of technology, military aid, etc. and the influence spread northward. Likewise, Northern Koreans were being courted by China and Russia with similar promises. Only their promises were aided by ancient ties- as well as a giant fist of a close by neighbor known for brutal retaliations.
My mother, a late teen/early 20’s woman, was caught right in the middle of this.
She had no idea how this would change her spoiled life forever. Her family didn’t live that far north of today’s Demilitarized Zone. I have West Point friends who were stationed there. They tell me that N. Korean soldiers stare across the barren land at them and they stare right back at them. Both sides are bristling with weapons. This has been going on since 1953. Nice, huh?
My mother has experience with that DMZ. Oh, yes, she does. Because she, like so many other Koreans had to run across it with bullets flying. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Like all Korean families, my mother’s family lived in a large compound with extended family all about. She was resisting marriage. She saw how cruelly stepmothers tended to treat step daughters (another Korean thing- watch a Korean video if ever you get a chance- there’ lots of face slapping) and didn’t want to marry and leave her safe, elevated status at home. At home, she was spoiled by her grandmother – if she married, she would lose status and become almost chattel. No way, no how! (Little did she know that she was the first Korean feminist! Lol. I admire her thoughts.) So, she refused to contemplate marriage.
The tension between Communism and Democracy was building- it was affecting her family. Her father had finally taken a political stand- for America. Well, this was the turning point in her life.
One night shortly thereafter, ‘policemen’, as my mother called them, came to the door to arrest her father. That was the last she saw of him. She knew he had been shot to death. So did her step mother. (oh, by the way, her own mother died giving birth to her. She always hated her step mother, but this one deed she was about to do saved her life.) Koreans had a custom of punishing the ‘first born’ of traitors. Her step mother was convinced that this would happen to my mother the very night her father was taken away and shot. She quickly wrapped up some food and sent my mother out into the night- a refugee from the Communist Regime. One day a princess, the next, a nobody fleeing for her life. Such is the life of a human being on this earth.
My mother often spoke about hunger as I grew up. It would infuriate her to see us kids not complete a meal or complain about food. She would say, “You never know what hungry mean!! You so spoiled kids!” She spoke of hunger because, for the first time ever, she knew real hunger as a refugee. She came to know real cold, real desperation, real poverty and real humiliation. She didn’t have the name of Lim to protect her- it had become dangerous to her. She didn’t have wealth- she had taken nothing. Her food had run out. As a woman, she was completely vulnerable. I now wonder, as a raped woman myself, was she ever raped on that journey? Is that how she came to be so disdainful of men? I will never know now. She is long gone.
But she told me such stories of her time on the run- the most poignant being the time that communist planes flew above the refugees shooting bullets into the dirt- just like you see on t.v.- only it was real life to her. She told me that she really did dive under the proverbial donkey cart full of straw! People died when this happened. People groaned on the street when this happened. But my mother survived, unscathed. And she just continued to walk south, south to the rest of her Korean family, south to safety, south to America. Eventually, she did make it south; she did find her southern family; they did welcome her with open arms and guess what they did, first thing? Take a wild guess. You got it! They tried to marry her off to a nice, rich, Korean boy!!! Lol.
Well, if that harrowing journey did anything for my mother’s personality, it only solidified it. Her original feelings against marriage had grown into a full out rebellion. Her journey had, in some ways, set her free. After all she had lost, the only thing she had gained was her freedom. No way was she going to let go of it now. Instead, she defied all family authority, custom and culture and did the unthinkable: she got a job for the U.S. Army. The family went into a complete uproar. She was completely dishonoring them. First, a woman didn’t work and second, they didn’t disobey their family. She was saying that the family couldn’t provide for her and she was showing herself to be close to a whore by showing herself in society that way. They. Were. Horrified.
My mother had a plan- and it wasn’t just to get a job- it was to go to America- she wanted the Dream. She wanted to marry a soldier and go to America. And she found one. Dad, enter stage right. Me, enter stage left. Many a marriage has been created under worse premises, but this one act of rebellion is what brought down the ultimate punishment of the Korean Family: the Disowned Her. (cue ominous music).
White, ‘uneducated’ soldiers were terribly embarrassing to the ‘high’ class Lim family, apparently. The Lims are all about education. My mother told me that my great (or great-great) grandfather was actually involved in the creation of the ‘Korean language’. I’ve looked into this and have verified some of the truth of this. I believe my family actually originated from China. ‘Lim’ is a Chinese name. The Chinese aristocracy sent their sons to Korea to rule the Koreans. I believe this is where my family comes in. Korea was a backwater province- still struggling to define their language and customs. My family did play a part in all that. She proudly proclaimed that all Lim men have always had the ‘highest education’. Again, my apologies to all Koreans out there. You understand her meaning- most don’t. This is a big bragging point- most Koreans have a history of poverty. My mother’s point was that her family was influential and very rich and powerful- only these types of families could afford to educate their sons in this manner in ancient Korea. When she married my father, she understood what she was doing to her family- but her goal was to get to America and find her freedom- she had no intention of being anyone’s slave. And as bad of a mother as she was to me, I highly admire this side of her- I can’t help it. She is the rebel in me. I give credit where credit is due.
Well, the Dream never came true for my mother. She was terribly disappointed with America. She found herself to be a foreigner in a foreign land. She could only get a job as a bagger in a grocery store. White ladies looked down on her, she always said. She came to know Jesus and it was she who introduced me to him. She was disobedient to him in almost every way- but I know she is in heaven now. I forgive her for every mean thing she ever did or said. All that is left of my feelings for her is complete admiration for the woman she was. How can I repay a debt for introducing me to Christ at such a young age? How can I repay a debt for the iron rod of strength running through my blood? How can I repay the debt of her incredible story and what it means for me today? I am my mother, the ultimate Rebel. I love her. Because of what she did, I live. Because of what she did, I do have the Dream. I know she never got to have it and I know we didn’t part as friends. But I do know that she can see me today with joy. Now she knows that even though she never got the American dream, her sacrifices and bravery gave the dream to me. And I think she smiles about that. And that, my friends, is how this particular Rebel came to be.