Operation Ton Hyung

A grandson decoding his grandfather's war stories for a new audience.

On Ethnicity and Social Anxiety

For all Harabeoji fought for, I wonder what he’d think of the dynamic now.

The following is a repost of a post I made on Facebook earlier today. Apparently it’s too important for me to bottle up, so I feel the need to repost it somewhere.

I make every effort to make it look otherwise, but I am a socially anxious person. I had a tendency to view any attention I got as negative, that people were making fun of me, even for something as innocuous as cheering my last name (which, as you saw last month, I actually take well now). For the longest time I didn’t know why. Now, at least, I have a theory, and this article helped me formulate it.

I remember it ever since…oh, I don’t know, 1st grade? 2nd grade? Elementary school years, that much I know. While I was never explicitly told to “go back to [my] country,” as children thankfully had a bit more tact than that, it always bugged the hell out of me that I was asked, “Are you Chinese or Japanese?” every. single. blinking. time. It was as if Korean, my ACTUAL ethnicity, wasn’t even an option. Then when I found someone who had actually heard of Korea, the inevitable next question is, “North or South?”

What, you expect me to nuke your ass into oblivion if I tell you I’m from the North? (That’s another discussion, though. And no, I won’t.)

Now I’ll admit I’m not exactly the most stellar example of a Korean person–my Japanese is much better than my Korean (and my Spanish is MILES better than both put together). The fact that I speak Spanish at all is apparently significant enough. But I don’t go around asking a white person, say, “French or English?” as if there are no other options. For one, I’d tire myself out if I tried to pose that question to everyone. I’d probably forget anyway due to information overload. It’s just easier to pick on the Asian person because, as it was in the classroom anyway, there is strength in numbers.

I’ve had kids make squinty-eye faces at me, or to pull the skin around their eyes back to make them look narrow. I’ve had people try to “speak Chinese” with me, as if I understood the “chings” and “chongs” that fell rather ungracefully in various combinations out of their mouths. I’ve been labeled the wrong ethnicity too many times to count.

This isn’t attention that I asked for, or that I deserved. It pushed me into that dark place in the back of my mind where I questioned whether people would ever see me for more than just my Asian heritage…and whether they’d ever get it right, to boot. Eventually, it turned into a simple equation in my mind: that any attention = just another person making fun of me and my ethnicity, that they’re probably going to get wrong anyway.

So I withdrew as a result, to keep myself from blowing up against such people. The aftereffects are arguably still causing me much consternation today. I prefer to stick to a familiar group of people, and I’m still rather uneasy in new situations that don’t involve game shows, martial arts, or Pokemon.

Perhaps it goes both ways, too. Even in Korea, people don’t know quite what to do with me; they recognize I am of Korean descent, but I don’t fit into their definition of “Korean.” Perhaps I’m overthinking it, but I always get a sense of, “he was raised by Korean people, he should know what being Korean means” from more than one citizen of Seoul (or any other Korean city I’ve been to, for that matter).

Thankfully, I *have* found enough people who see me as a person and not just an ethnic group to where I don’t feel as anxious as I used to, and I certainly don’t get the squinty eyes and the faux Chinese as much as I used to. But it didn’t come without a struggle in learning how to invalidate the negative thoughts in my own mind as a result of others’ ignorance. And I’m still figuring out graceful ways to deflect remarks like this.

Like I said, luckily, I haven’t gotten them nearly as much as I used to; that indicates there’s been some progress made, I’d like to think. But when stuff like this happens in the year 2016, I find it unfortunate that there’s still a long way to go.



“People keep telling me that, when I die, I should be buried in a military cemetery in Korea, as a war hero. I reckon that, at the very least, the Korean government would want to hold a memorial service once a year, to honor those that protected the freedom of what is now South Korea. But would my children (and grandchildren) really come all that way to come visit me there? They live in the U.S. now. It is much too far for them.”
–Rough translation of part of the prologue to Harabeoji’s memoir

Read the rest of this entry »

Dreading the Fourth of July

Yesterday was, as I’m always quick to point out, the anniversary of Harabeoji‘s death.

It’s never sat well with me that the rest of the country is celebrating while I’ve been mourning–through no fault of anyone else, of course–but I’ve always been quite bitter about it. It’s easy to say that it’s been 11 years and that I should be more or less moving on by now, but even after so long a time I am still reminded of why I came to dread the Fourth of July.

Taking part in a traditional death ceremony doesn’t help matters, either.

Korean tradition dictates we hold a brief memorial service (jesa) for the deceased on the anniversary of their death, and typically all the surviving male descendants (minus in-laws) take active part. It basically amounts to setting up a small table for the soul of the deceased to “eat” with us and the descendants bowing several times. I’ve taken part in this tradition for the last couple of years now.

This year, we somehow forgot Harabeoji‘s portrait, which typically sits on the table along with all the food prepared for the occasion. After beating ourselves up over the fact that we did something so foolish, we were almost prepared to do without it; maybe it would’ve been the most awkward jesa in history, but then I reminded myself that Koreans did this even before cameras were invented.

And then one of us got the brilliant idea to spring for a digital alternative.

Luckily for us, Harabeoji is the most minuscule bit of notable in Korea for writing his memoir, and we managed to find an exact copy–in rather poor quality–of the portrait we typically use by doing a simple Internet search. The juxtaposition of the traditional décor of the dishes and the blatantly modern-looking tablet stand was quite odd, and yet had me wondering if this had happened to anyone else since the advent of the iPad.

We might be the first Korean family to have propped up an iPad bearing the image of our deceased at the jesa table.

Frozen in Time

My friend sent me this link the other day–it’s a collection of photos found on an old roll of film someone bought on eBay. The buyer developed the film himself and discovered a series of pictures of life in Korea from the Vietnam War era. I’ve reproduced one photo below from the article (with apologies to petapixel.com and Ben Larsen, the developer):

This reddit thread ascertains these photos are from anywhere in between 1965-1971. (There’s a bunch of other great historical info in there as well; definitely worth the read if you have time.) This was the Korea in which my parents lived, several years after the Korean War ravaged the peninsula. This was the Korea they knew as children.

And this was the Korea they ultimately left behind, because their parents thought they could make a better life in the United States. Harabeoji left Korea for the United States in 1968, right in the middle of the potential date range of these photos.I wonder how he reacted to Korea’s changing landscapes every time he went back.

Something my paternal grandfather said a few years ago has stuck with me: we were walking with my dad in the streets of Seoul to find a specific place to which my dad hadn’t been in years, and he asked his dad, “How do you still know how to get there?” To which he replied, “Everything above the ground may change, but the stones we walk on have remained the same.”

A Guilty Stomach

“What little food I ate consisted of barley mixed with white rice. Nowadays barley rice is considered a health food, but in those days, we ate barley all the time because there wasn’t enough rice to go around. The barley didn’t taste as good as the rice did, though. But I could only wonder what it would’ve been like to eat nothing but barley until my stomach was completely full.” –Harabeoji

Earlier today I was watching several episodes of the original Iron Chef. I’ll never tire of Chairman Kaga’s theatrical antics, the Iron Chefs ascending into the studio, and the bizarre-on-paper-but-decadent-in-practice combinations of ingredients everyone in Kitchen Stadium creates. Who knew that it would become such a spectacle?

I bring this up because of something I posted the other day:

“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Watching Iron Chef while hungry is probably the worst thing you can do to yourself. So why do I keep doing it?”

I couldn’t have imagined that I would be eating my words when working on this latest chapter. Needless to say, I’ll never complain of hunger while watching any cooking show ever again.

This wasn’t the first time Harabeoji had mentioned being hungry while on the job; earlier he wrote that he once felt so hungry that he couldn’t stand up straight because his stomach was flatter than flat. The muscles in his stomach were actually restraining him from standing at his full height, because he hadn’t had much to eat for days. This was around the time he was resorting to begging for food as a 19-year-old artillery private. And there wasn’t much to go around, either.

Fast forward to February 1952, when Harabeoji was still in basic military training. He says the food service workers cut an oil barrel in half and transported rice in one half, soup in the other to the trainees. Trainees would be served, and then were told to place their bowls on the ground. To foster a sense of unity, however, nobody could eat until everyone was served and a commanding officer would issue a command to start eating.

Bear in mind that this is February, where it’s still cold enough to freeze the ground upon which they stand.

Harabeoji writes: “Usually, two minutes was more than enough to finish a bowl of rice and a bowl of soup. We learned to swallow without chewing; a whole grain of rice gave us a greater sensation of fullness than a single chewed-up grain did.”

While Harabeoji and the rest of his class were waiting for their soup and rice to get cold, their advisor–an American lieutenant colonel–happened to be there on that particular day, and was going to eat with Harabeoji’s class. He had just barely unpacked his lunch when he looked up and saw the entire class just about ready to get up and leave because they had already finished eating. To say the least, the man was stunned.

“We start quickly, and we finish quickly. That’s just our nature, I guess. […] Here was a man who had probably never been short of food in his life. We, on the other hand, had been trained to withstand hunger because there was so little food to go around in this country,” Harabeoji writes.

I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty about my Iron Chef binge-watching marathon when I read that. Here I was, complaining about being hungry as I watched chefs throwing around such delicacies as foie gras, truffles, lobster, and caviar with almost reckless abandon. I could get up from my desk and fix myself a reasonable meal any time I wanted if it got really bad.

One particular episode I watched was a chestnut battle that never aired here in the States. The challenger, a Chinese chef, created a stock with minced chicken, sea cucumbers, shark’s fin, among other delicacies. As he plated the chestnuts, which had been simmering in that stock the whole time, the commentators discovered that the challenger was simply going to extract the chestnuts and discard the rest. He ultimately saved the sea cucumbers, but the rest was simply thrown away.

Reading Harabeoji’s account after having seen that display made me feel slightly sick to my stomach, especially after reading that there was nothing else for him to eat other than barley and rice. He didn’t have the same option I did to walk to the kitchen and make himself something whenever he wanted. And he couldn’t afford to waste a single grain of rice, either…

How he was able to withstand a training regimen on such little food is beyond me.

Paying Respects

N.B.: While the project isn’t dead, it’s been a while since I’ve been able to work on it (what with work and other personal matters interfering in the offing), which hopefully does a little to explain my six-month absence.

That being said, I should offer up a confession.

Even though it’s been ten years since he passed away, I haven’t been able to visit Harabeoji‘s burial site.

It’s somewhat understandable when you consider he’s buried on a mountain in a relatively remote part of Daegu, but it’s always been a sticking point for me. Perhaps I’ve always been concerned that I’ve besmirched his memory just because I haven’t visited his grave in the ten years since he left us.

That has only now occurred to me because I drove my grandmother (Harabeoji‘s wife) all the way from Irvine to Culver City to the cemetery where her mother is buried earlier today. She died five years ago at the ripe old age of 94.

It took us a while to find her headstone (partially because Grandma hadn’t visited in a while and couldn’t remember), conveniently located on a high hill in the cemetery near a statue of Kim Taegon, the first Korean Catholic priest.

Granted, I didn’t know my great-grandmother all that well, but that’s not to say I had no contact with her at all. That being said, I was surprised she had an English name–and an uncommon one, at that. I wonder where they got “Colomba” from.

She had a difficult life in the early going–losing her own mother at six years old, married at 15, having the first of seven children at 19…at least, I think it was seven. This, by the way, was all during the Japanese occupation of Korea–I could have some of the finer details wrong but I do know that, at some point, she moved to Japan for a time in the hopes of a better living situation, then moved back to Korea around 1945 or so, when Grandma was ten.

She was able to come to the United States thanks to Grandma’s prudence; Grandma had saved enough money to buy the ticket to bring her mother across the Pacific. This was the source of some surprise for Harabeoji and some guilt for Grandma, apparently; upon his mother-in-law’s arrival, Harabeoji was surprised to see that the plane ticket she showed him was purchased in Garden Grove, California. How he never made the connection, I’m not sure, but Grandma never told him that she purchased the ticket. “I didn’t want him to think I used his money to bring my mother to this country,” she recalls.

I won’t deny being there with Grandma as she paid her respects to her departed mother was a special moment. I don’t have a whole lot of experience with bereavement, but there’s something to be said about the sanctity of visiting someone’s final resting place. Grandma spoke with her mother as if she were sitting there with us. It was a precious moment, one that opened my eyes to how the departed live on through those they leave behind. So as long as their memories are alive, the departed never truly leave.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve always felt guilty about not being able to visit Harabeoji‘s gravesite–my belief that me not having been there to clean the headstone, or to leave flowers, or to spend a moment to speak with him again, desecrates his memory. I’d like to think, though, that he would understand why I haven’t been able to go.

“People keep telling me that, when I die, I should be buried in a military cemetery in Korea, as a war hero….But would my children (and grandchildren) really come all that way to come visit me there? They live in the U.S. now. It is much too far for them,” Harabeoji writes.

If I can’t make it to his final resting place, then at least grant me the opportunity to bring his story to a new audience.

Big Brother Figures

Lieutenant Kwon Young-gak was a year older than Harabeoji when they were both in middle school. When Harabeoji went off to officers’ training school in the summer of 1951, Lt. Kwon was there with him. As far as I can tell they were never in the same class at training school, but they would always see each other in between classes.

“One of his endearing gestures towards me was a firm pat on my belly as he passed me in the hallways,” Harabeoji writes. “Although we didn’t talk much, getting that pat on the belly from him reassured me. He was definitely a big brother type to me…”

When he graduated from training school just ten weeks later, a familiar face greeted him at graduation–Sergeant Ahn Do-song, the same man who threw a party at the base when Harabeoji and a handful of other soldiers were the sole survivors from his unit of a brutal attack at Ildong.

“Somehow he got wind of the fact that I was graduating and drove halfway down the peninsula to come see me…It may have just been carrying out orders for him, but the mere fact that he was there made this occasion all the more special.”

While he doesn’t go into much more detail about his relationship with these two men, Harabeoji undoubtedly learned a great deal from them–I don’t think I’d be taking too many liberties by saying that. I’ve always thought of him as the perennial big brother–he was, after all, the oldest of seven children–so to see him as the little brother figure for once is somewhat humbling. It serves as a constant reminder to me that even the big brothers need someone to look up to once in a while.

I myself am also a big brother, and while the jury’s still out on how effective a big brother I actually am (though ask my sister and I’m sure she’d tell you everything I’m afraid of hearing), I suppose I always held myself to a standard of being the role model.

It always felt funny when I was the one being trained, or the one who had to look up to somebody, but it’s something everyone needs to experience at least once.

I was recently trained in a new position at work, one for which I hope they’ll keep calling me down the line. It was quite the reassurance when my mentor told me how I was doing as I progressed through my training, so I could spur myself to do better.

A few days into the new position and I can only hope I’m doing a job my mentor would be proud of…but, of course, one does not simply rest on their laurels.

In Which The Author Strides Down Memory Lane

Or, Why I’m Glad I Was a Contestant Before Social Media Was a Thing

This week (and next) on Jeopardy! is the annual Teen Tournament, which was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me. It’s probably why I’ve taken to lauding all the players on social media (and especially assuaging the victims of the harangues of Twitter trolls); I was there. Solidarity! Isn’t that how it works?

Maybe it’s the power of social media, but I’m amazed at some of the stories of this year’s players. One contestant lived in three different countries. Another is reading 101 classic novels. Yet another, a fellow writer, competed on the show with anxiety disorder (a subject that touches home for me, but that’s another story for another time). And there’s still six teenagers that have yet to play, as of the time I write this.

But when you’re on the show, you get maybe 30 seconds to explore these things that make these people who they are. The other 29:30 of the show–minus about 12 minutes for commercials–does not respect the individual as a person.

And, sadly, that’s why a lot of folks like to hate on the less successful contestants.

I had my fair share of embarrassment for having lost in the fashion I did after my game, which I’ll cover a little later on. If there were people attacking me on the Internet for my dumb answer in Final Jeopardy! (and I’m sure there were), I was blissfully unaware of them at the time.

You see, back when I was a contestant, the supermassive black hole that is social media didn’t exist, and Internet trolls couldn’t infect my then-11-year-old innocent mind with their sordid, pernicious slander.

Buzzer troubles, incorrect responses, losing, failing badly…I’ve seen it all. I’ve been up there too; I blew the game from first place. I screwed up a Daily Double about my home state. I got beaten to the button more times than I care to count.

And believe me–I can’t tell you how many people at school I wanted to shank the Monday after my show aired.

“Mr. Potato Head? C’mon, man, you didn’t watch Toy Story when you were a kid?”

“How did you miss that clue about X?”

“You lost to a girl!”

Yeah, it’s disappointing, in the immediate frame of mind; you’re disappointed that you couldn’t put forth a better showing. That’s just the way Jeopardy! is, though; not everybody can win. But what I’ve told a lot of people preparing for any game show: think of how many people sitting at home wanted to be in your spot (those hateful Twitter trolls come to mind–you beat them already!). You beat out all of them. The hard part’s over! The rest is just gravy.

There is, of course, that part of me that wishes that Harabeoji could’ve seen me win on a game show, not just get up there and lose. But judging from the picture we took on set after the show, I don’t think he minded too much. He just enjoyed the moment.

Harabeoji, right, and the author, then 11. Taken August 26, 2003.

Harabeoji, right, and the author, then 11. Taken August 26, 2003.

My Other Job Came Calling

Forgive the lack of updates, the other career had me a little occupied for the last two months. I plan to get back to translating Harabeoji‘s story very soon, but if you’ll pardon a little blatant self-promotion…

I’ve been a freelance journalist for a little while now, and one of the projects I had the pleasure of working on was with the sustainability desk for the public radio show, Marketplace. It’s called We Used to be China, where we look at China’s rampant air pollution now and compare it to that of the United States in its earlier eras–namely, 1950s/60s Los Angeles–and look at what they can do to rectify their issue going forward.

I encourage you all to check out not just the stories, but the interactive timeline I built and, if you’re feeling particularly bold, to submit photos to our user-generated content initiative, #marketplacesmogcheck.

And I’ll be back with more of Harabeoji‘s story in a short while. I promise.

Photographic Context

Yesterday I had the opportunity to view a photo exhibition of the Korean War that was being displayed here in Los Angeles, which helped contextualize a lot of Harabeoji‘s story–the parts I’ve gotten to, anyway.

I was able to see the jeeps he rode in as his convoy went from place to place, the scenes of war-torn Korea he wrote about, the ordinary people picking up and leaving their lives behind so they can survive. (I didn’t think it proper to be taking photos of such an exhibition, and as such do not have any to display here.)

Speaking of picking up and leaving, my paternal grandmother was also there, and she told me of her exodus from her hometown of Seoul to Icheon (note the spelling). The evacuation wasn’t even formally declared by any authoritative organization, as far as I can recall her telling me; they just picked up and left. She carried several of her family’s possessions on her head (as was customary for women to do at the time), walking the entire trip. That’s 32.3 miles. You can’t even think about walking even ONE of those miles these days without cramping up.

One photo that I can still see in my mind as I’m writing this entry is from 1950, when a young girl and her younger brother are scouring rubble for, as the caption read, something to eat. The girl can’t be more than 10 years old; her brother, probably no older than five. I couldn’t even spot the younger brother at first, because he was rummaging through the rubble practically face-first.

It’s easy to forget, even in the midst of Harabeoji‘s story, that there were more moving parts than just the war itself. Ordinary folks had a whole host of other challenges and struggles. It’s easy to get caught up in the fact that there are lives at risk on the battlefield, but it’s hard to remember the people at home for whom soldiers like Harabeoji were fighting at the time.

And in many ways, it’s their story I’m preparing as well.

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