Archives for posts with tag: Grandmother

Glass shatterer

One day, shortly after the chamber pot incident—which had been my grandmother’s ultimate revenge on her husband’s philandering ways—my grandfather was drunkenly prowling around the house. He was hunting for his wife, who had taken to hiding from him in different areas in the spacious compound: in closets, the servants’ quarters, even the rooms occupied by her first-born son and his family. (After marrying, my parents lived in that house for seven years, following Korean tradition.)

Entering a room, my grandfather thought he saw his wife’s diminutive silhouette through a frosted-glass screen. Sure enough, he thought, she must be sitting quietly behind it, wearing her traditional hanbok with her hair tucked into a demure bun. This was his opportunity to avenge her; he could feel the blood throbbing through his veins and an imminent satisfaction so rich that it felt like a heavy slab of raw meat in his mouth.

Tiptoeing up to the screen, my grandfather took a deep breath and swung his wooden cane with all his might, smashing through the glass. Splinters and shards flew everywhere, a blinding, never-ending shower of crystals. Then, with a gasp, he realized that the woman behind it was not his wife. It was his daughter-in-law—that is, my mother—nursing her baby daughter. Glass covered my mother’s hair and a tiny fragment even made its way into her eye. Miraculously, my sister was unharmed, and my mother would recover from the trauma, although barely.

My grandfather never apologized, because men of his status and generation didn’t waste their words that way with women. But if my mother, ever the dutiful daughter-in-law, brought him a vegetable dish for dinner, he didn’t complain about the lack of meat the way he usually did. Instead of bellowing, “What the hell is this? Am I a COW?” and flinging the bowl out the window, as he was inclined to do, my grandfather just tilted his head in thanks and picked up his chopsticks to eat. As in all Asian families, silence speaks volumes—even entire, unabridged libraries.

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Chamber pot
Like many Korean men at the time, my grandfather Lee had a mistress whom he’d visit in the afternoons. Ignoring his wife’s protests, he’d clench a cigar defiantly in his teeth and march out the door, wearing an Italian fedora on his enormous bald head. My grandmother would continue to scream after him, making all kinds of threats, but he was used to this.

People who had seen his mistress claimed the young woman was so beautiful that a room became instantly brighter when she entered it. She was decades younger than my grandfather but was attracted to his imposing height, debonair style, and the money he lavished on her. My grandmother, a talented but thwarted artist, was beside herself at her husband’s infidelity.

One day, my grandmother came up with the ultimate revenge. She climbed up into the darak, a tiny attic above the front door of the house, and crouched like a coiled snake in the cramped, musty space, waiting for her husband to return from his mistress’s house. Her nose stung and her throat constricted, but she stayed put and peered through the narrow window. After several hours, my grandmother spied her unfaithful husband returning, his gait a little looser, his hat tilted at a more rakish angle.

As he strolled to the front door, my grandmother flung open the window, lifted a chamber pot from their bedroom—brimming with foul contents from the night before—and dumped it onto his head. My grandfather’s blood-curdling scream and murderous curses caused the neighbors to come running. My grandmother then did the sensible thing, which was to scurry away and tuck herself into a hidden spot behind the kitchen. She smiled to herself as he thundered about the house and managed to avoid him for days.

Eventually, my grandfather’s affair came to an end when he ran out of money to give his mistress. The young woman ordered him to leave in an imperious voice. When he didn’t, she hurled a heavy ash tray at his head and barred him from entering her house, which he’d bought for her. My grandmother accepted her husband back with a triumphant smirk and let him know she’d just sold his big, expensive car so he’d never be able to visit that fucking bitch (she used even more colorful words in Korean) ever again.

Arguing couple

Even on their wedding day, you could tell my dad’s parents were not a good match. My six-foot-tall grandfather Lee Dam (whose name sounds like an emphatic curse in English) towered over my grandmother Cho Ah-Young, who stood at barely five feet in her slippers. Together, they looked lopsided and ill at ease—an obvious arranged marriage.

My grandparents were matched in one thing, however: their fearsome tempers. My grandfather Lee would bawl at his wife in the herky-jerky accent of Korea’s Deep South. She would bellow back in kind, in the same dialect, using even dirtier words. You might say they could finish each other’s sentences.

In their youth, grandparents were both radical student activists. They had each organized a student-led revolt against the Japanese occupation at their respective high schools. On the train going back to Seoul after the protests, my grandfather was arrested and ordered to kneel by the Japanese police. He naturally refused and had his nose broken. Coincidentally, my grandmother happened to be on the same train and witnessed the savage beating he’d received. She had no idea that within a few years they would be married.

My grandparents also happened to be eccentrics. As a young man, my grandfather had run away and joined a touring carnival until his father dragged him back to Korea. My grandmother was a fiercely independent poet and visual artist. Unlike most women of her generation, she pursued her art with a steely ambition, and my grandfather couldn’t tolerate it. He figured that if his wife could put all her attention into brush painting, he could just go find a concubine. With his wealth and debonair mien, he lured one in—a young woman whose beauty, many have said, illuminated the room when she walked in. She birthed three anemic children who were forever barred from my grandmother’s house.

Sadly, my grandparents’ similarities only made them less compatible and more violent. They fought extravagantly, throwing everything in sight, including food, antiques, furniture—even the entire dinner table—at each other. (Traditional Korean tables are small and portable, but they still make a huge mess.) My grandfather would beat my grandmother until she’d scream and hide in a closet or a corner of the yard, where she’d hatch her next plan to get him back. Then she would lie in wait for her husband and dump the contents of a chamber pot on his head or avenge him some other way.

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They hate each other.

The children of my grandparents were no better. My aunts would pull each other’s hair and fight with scissors in the courtyard. My father and his younger brothers unleashed their aggressions at school, using whatever object they could find as weapons. My uncle wrenched off the top of a school desk and caused major damage to a classmate’s head. My dad set fire to a salvaged plank to appear twice as dangerous to his adversaries.

My dad still shudders when he recalls the constant commotion in the house. As a young boy growing up in the 1940s, he often fled to the train tracks, where he would watch the enormous locomotives slowly roll by in the rain. To this day, he still watches VHS tapes of nonstop locomotive footage (there must be a niche market for this), perhaps gaining some long-lost solace from them.

My mother, who was forced to live with her in-laws for years, sighs and recalls, “It was a battleground.” She was a terrified 23-year-old bride when she entered the house of the factious Lees. By the time she had her second child, my mother had dwindled to 84 pounds from the constant upheaval around her. Her wedding ring would barely fit the finger of an adolescent girl.

My grandmother wrote a prolific amount and came to be recognized in certain literary circles for her poetry. Her first book of poems was called Seul-Peun Dong-Gyang, which can be translated to something like “Melancholy Yearning.” Her husband was so ashamed that his wife, a married woman, would have these feelings that he burned the original manuscript. By that time, the book was published and was eventually released in a gold-embellished second edition. My grandfather died in the late ’70s, and his widow lived on to be nominated as a National Treasure of Korea for her poetry and brush painting. Diminutive in her silk hanbok, my grandmother would narrow her eyes with self-pride as she held up another published book or arts award. She’d say, “He never respected this, that bastard. Who has the last laugh now?”

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My grandparents’ wedding in Seoul, 1931
(I think they had my grandmother stand on something to make her seem taller)

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My grandmother and me, 1994

To my four-year-old self, my paternal grandmother was an incomprehensibly old woman with a baffling cross-hatch of wrinkles that divided her brow vertically and horizontally like a waffle. When I visited my grandmother again in Seoul, Korea, at age 19, I was shocked at the resemblance between us. Not only were we physically similar—with tiny eyes, an oval face, and diminutive stature—but our gestures were also identical, even though we had met no more than four times in our lives. We both gave an upper-lip snarl to express contempt and used the same grandiose gesticulations when making an important point. Plus, we both had voices of an uncannily similar timbre, along with a fiery temper that was passed down through generations, an heirloom of dubious value.

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My grandmother at age 16 (left); me at age 22 (right)

My grandmother, Cho Ah-Young, was a writer and a visual artist, as I am. A passionate advocate of her own work, she weathered adverse conditions, including two wars and an abusive husband, to create and disseminate her poetry. In the ’80s my grandmother discovered the virtues of the Xerox machine and spent blissful hours at the neighborhood copy place replicating her masterpieces. She would return home with armfuls of duplicates and beamingly distribute them among her neighbors. My grandmother later boasted to us that she had been recommended as a National Treasure of South Korea for her poetry. She also regarded herself as the “Second Greatest Brush Painter of South Korea” (the first being her rival Chul-Gyung Lee). All bragging aside, her talent was palpable, and she was well regarded in Korean literary circles.

Though a natural self-promoter, my grandmother was introspective and seemed to enjoy having her picture taken alone. There are many portraits of her as a young woman, established in her self-identity but searching for something beyond the painted backdrop and the camera.

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My grandmother in her early twenties, Seoul, Korea

Similarly, I have spent late nights drawing self-portraits in front of the mirror, usually during times of crisis or profound loneliness. The only ballast I have then is my own face. While sketching, I seek shelter in the moment and solace in the familiarity of my reflection.

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Self-Portrait with Headphones, 2008

When I visited my grandmother again in my twenties, she heartily confided to me that she used to love drinking and dancing—which happened to be two of my favorite activities. For a woman living in conservative South Korea during the early twentieth century, my grandmother was a radical and irrepressible free spirit. I courted trouble as a teenager by becoming a punk rocker and eventually an anarchist. Like my grandmother, I was outspoken in my political views and attended many demonstrations, including the infamous Seattle WTO protests in 1999.

Even though my grandmother spoke only anachronistic Korean and I spoke late-twentieth-century English, we still managed to understand each other. My grandmother’s method of conveying things to me was to speak as if she were instructing a three-year-old. She repeated phrases over and over with exaggerated pantomime and sound effects. “For pretty lips, put some honey—you know … honey … booong booong [the sound Korean bees make]—on your finger and do this,” she’d say. Then my grandmother would purse her lips and rapidly poke them with her finger, making a sound like “muh-muh-muh-muh.”

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With my grievously limited Korean skills, I could discern little of what my grandmother was saying when she inevitably got on the subject of Korean history. To my ears, it sounded like she was saying, “Big mountain … Korea … war … LOTS of dead people.” Then my grandmother would clutch herself and heave a melodramatic sigh to emphasize the tragedy. It was a bit like watching the Muppet Show, but I would nod agreeably and try to look empathetic.

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My grandmother was famous for her poems about the maudlin history of her oft-colonized country. My greatest regret is not being able to read and fully understand her poetry; it feels like gazing at a walled garden and seeing only the tops of its vivid blossoms. It makes me sad that I will never fully understand the literary decisions that went into her work and, likewise, my late grandmother will never know my writing. But one day I will hire a translator and enter the garden she painstakingly cultivated.

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During one of my last visits with her, my grandmother positioned herself in front of me, firmly placing her hands on my shoulders, and gazed into my eyes with mute adoration. We were sitting opposite each other, like mirror images, on the floor of her traditional Korean house. I now realize that this gesture was her best, most affectionate attempt at bridging the significant cultural and generational divide between us. She died a few years later, in 2000, on the cusp of the Millennium, having experienced America only through letters and photos.

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A decade and a half later, my grandmother’s voice reemerged from a letter I found at my parents’ house. She had written the letter in response to two drawings I’d created as a sixth grader and mailed to her in Seoul. My mother translated, “Thank you for the sketch of myself and the self-portrait you sent of yourself. We do look alike. I was so surprised to find out that you drew those. I like to draw too. Yoona, you make your grandma very proud.”

While drawing her portrait from a photo, I had been impressed at the steely woman in dark-framed glasses staring into the camera. Every now and again, approaching my forties, I catch a glimpse of her in the mirror.

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My grandmother never made it to the States, but I reside in Seattle and try to continue her legacy in my own way. Like her, I craft and obsessively refine text and image; her spirit, even across cultures, is unmistakable in my work. Maybe one of these days, I’ll enter her garden. I know she’s already entered mine.