Archives for the month of: November, 2015

The progressive pyro
Book burning
So my paternal great-grandfather had his share of bad days, dragging his son around by the hair and trying to set fire to his own home. But believe it or not, he was a successful and well-educated landowner. In fact, the Korean government (who were actually Japanese, since it was during the occupation*) was so impressed with him that they sent him to Tokyo to study economic systems and policies. His task was to come back with suggestions for the betterment of Korea—because obviously Japan was a very enlightened country with progressive ideas, like the best ways to brutally occupy lesser nations.

My great-grandfather came to Japan, saw, and was conquered (already), and he returned to Korea with one major recommendation: abolish slavery for good. (Yes, Japan supposedly disavowed slavery as an institution, even as it was busily establishing systems of forced labor for comfort women, POWs, and Korean civilians. Go figure.) Large landowners in Korea, including my great-grandfather, still owned slaves—mainly impoverished Korean peasants and farmers—in spite of earlier reforms.

Great-Grandfather Cho decided to set an example by liberating his own slaves, to much rejoicing and confusion in his household. Then he marched over to the town hall, where he collected all the official slave registry books. Carrying these heavy ledgers to the center of town, he dumped them on the ground and set them on fire.

Many Koreans were emancipated that day, but it took 35 years—and larger fires—to ultimately free Korea from Japanese rule.

*The language of the colonizers still lives on in the home of my parents, who were barred from speaking Korean in their childhood. They still unthinkingly use the Japanese words for common household objects like toothpicks, onions, and underpants … and as their child, so do I!

The shoes
Shoes by lake

In his later years, my great-grandfather took exceptional delight in his shiny Western shoes. When he walked, they gleamed from underneath the traditional white robe that he wore on a daily basis. He enjoyed hearing the enunciated clopping noise they made, which the traditional Korean rubber shoes (gomushin) could not rival.

Great-Grandfather Cho enjoyed a life of luxury as a wealthy landowner until 1950. When the North Korean Communist army invaded South Korea and began to burn farms and kill the owners, my great-grandfather knew his days were numbered.

So he drove to a nearby lake, took off his beloved brogues and set them neatly, side by side, on the bank. Then, hitching up his robe, my great-grandfather sauntered into the lake and never came out again.

My great-grandfather In-Suk Cho was a walking paradox. He was a man who loved Korea enough to bring back methods from Japan to improve it, a slaveowner turned abolitionist, and a man who favored fire as a means of terminating things—slavery and even his own family line—but who ultimately chose water to end his own life.

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My dad always described his father’s side of the family as a bunch of sociopaths and his mother’s side as just plain psychotic. I thought he was exaggerating until I heard this story, which has been proven by various witnesses to be true (that is, you can’t make this shit up).

My great-grandfather Cho—my paternal grandmother’s father—was a hulking man with a stringy beard, perennial dark circles under his eyes, and a stare that could be described as visionary or simply unhinged. He was the chieftain of a small southern village in Korea called Young-Yang. One day, in 1932, he received a visit from his new son-in-law—my paternal grandfather—who had come to pay his respects after the wedding.

My grandfather was only 20 years old, and was intimidated by this large man. However, he got a warm reception and was shown to a guest room in the large Cho family homestead. The next morning my grandfather woke up to a wild commotion. He cautiously slid the rice screen door aside and looked out across the courtyard to his father-in-law’s private quarters.

A small crowd from the village had gathered in front of the door to peer in, so my grandfather joined them to see what all the hubbub was about. Inside the elegantly furnished room, Great-Grandfather Cho was screaming and kicking his son, a handsome young man clad in a fashionable Western suit. To my grandfather’s horror, he grabbed his son by the hair and proceeded to drag him all around the room. “This guy is completely insane,” my grandfather whispered under his breath. But the fun had only just begun.

GGF dragging son

The abused young man was the college-educated eldest son of the proud Cho clan. He had incurred his father’s wrath by abandoning the plain-faced wife that had been arranged for him and instead eloping with a beauty from a remote village up north. On top of that, instead of delivering a large dowry to my newly married grandparents as asked, he had used all the money for his own expenses. When Great-Grandfather Cho found all of this out, he went berserk.

After mopping the floor a few times with his son, my great-grandfather dashed outside to gather a bundle of pine boughs. Returning to the room, he dropped the branches on the floor and set fire to them, exclaiming that his family’s honor had been destroyed, so the homestead had to be burned down as repentance. Flames leaped up, abrupt and glorious, and my grandfather watched from outside, wondering whether to flee or to help.

As the room filled with smoke, the villagers snapped into action, retrieving buckets of water and dumping them on the fire. They were all close relatives who had grown accustomed to the Cho family’s theatrics.

News quickly traveled to the Chos’ youngest son. Distraught and racked with shame, he made his way to the house and rushed into his father’s room, hauling a burning pot of charcoal that he promptly dumped on the floor. As flames rose once again, he begged my great-grandfather, “Father, will you die with me to repent for such familial disgrace?” Fortunately, the ad hoc rescue squad was on hand to extinguish the blaze again.

GGF son with brazier

After witnessing the melodrama of his new in-laws, my grandfather was appalled and became very worried about his own future with his new wife. (He had very good reason to be concerned.) He also fretted about his future progeny, since they would carry some of the crazy (another legitimate reason and one that my own father would lament, when raising me).

My grandfather gave an excuse to leave shortly after the event, and made the long journey back home, shuddering the entire way. For years afterward, whenever he was drunk in the evening and in a good mood, he would always begin, as if speaking to himself, “My wife’s father is a real madman …” My grandmother would immediately jump up and storm out of the room, even if it was the middle of dinner. My grandfather would just smile and brace himself for another battle.

Grandparents' wedding mkupAnd to think that it had all started out so nicely. Back row (from left): the deranged great-uncle who tried to set fire to the house; the handsome great-uncle who got dragged around by his hair; and my pyro great-grandfather. (My paternal grandparents, as bride and groom, in front row.)