Grandpa

A story before I forget

You never really realize how many major events happen in the course of your life, because you forget and replace, memories get displaced by more recent ones and you get caught up in your busy life, so whatever happened in the past, no matter how significant or scarring, gets lost in the present.

It overtook my life as an elementary schooler, and probably will be the most dramatic thing to have happened in my life. I didn’t think I’d ever forget — in fact, I’m pretty sure I tried to forget at the time and could not for heaven’s sake.

Now, more than 10 years later, I’m sitting here, dumbfounded, that it happened, that it was my childhood, and that it was completely lost in my memory. It’s almost a depersonalizing experience as I try to recall — as if it was someone else’s story. As if I’m reading a novella written in third-person-perspective. To be fair, I’ve not completely wiped it from my memory until now, it’s something that comes up vaguely in my mind intermittently, but I somehow block out as soon as a more present matter comes up during my day.

I feel that I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my grandpa. Flashback to when I was first born into the blinding light of surgery table in University of Seoul Hospital and brought into the incubation room full of crying, fragile Korean babies. The nurse came through the double doors to where the Nam family sat in a nervous huddle (outside of the surgery room).

“The baby is healthy and so is her mother,” squealed the nurse, “She’s a beautiful, healthy girl”.

Boom. She dropped the gender bomb. To be more accurate, the girl-bomb. As most old, traditional Asian people would have been, my grandparents were devastated. How could the eldest child of their first son be a girl? Nevertheless, a baby is a baby and they celebrated. They’ll always have another chance for a boy (and yes, they did succeed in achieving a boy after one other girl was born).

I suppose Grandpa never really thought he’d love me as much as he did, especially when I was a girl. Or maybe he never did really love me and just pretended the whole time. I’ll never know. But he definitely wanted to see his three grandchildren, as he always required that we come over to his house (which, thank God was also in Seoul) every weekend. From an age when I was able to walk to when we started wanting money over toys, we woke up at my grandparents’ home every Christmas morning, scurrying over to the Christmas tree to find wrapped up boxes we tore into. And when there are presents, that’s where you find kids’ heart at — so we didn’t mind being there almost 80% of our childhood. Materialism at its finest.

Although he wanted to see all of us and was probably proudest of his grandson (my brother), I was his favorite. Before you accuse me of being a little arrogant brat, I’ll try to reason by saying that even my parents explicitly told me that I was his favorite, and there were times when he’d only take me on trips or have only me over. Looking back, this probably sound hellishly creepy and unfair (bad grandparenting, even), but I was just a kindergartener or at most a 2nd grader, so I don’t think I recognized the injustice.

I was never sure why I was his favorite though. Perhaps it was because I always bragged to my friends about the new Sailor Moon wand he bought me, or I wasn’t afraid to state out-loud the next toy I wanted, and he felt a sense of self-pride as a grandparent. Perhaps it was purely out of my being eldest, or because I was old enough to meet his request to massage his legs and shoulders (this is very common in Asia, I swear). Or maybe it’s because I just tried to impress him, and relatives in general, because even as an elementary schooler, I was already concerned with my self-image.

I could go on forever about all the snippets of memories I had with him. Of how he brought me to all his favorite, exotic restaurants like the fried-eel place. Of how he took me to the amusement park with grandma and rode the Viking Boat ride, which should have been way too thrilling for a man of his age. Of how he bought me my first mp3 player and Gameboy color at Yongsan electronics (which has some questionable practices on pirated appliances but I’ll let that pass) but I had no idea how to operate any of them, leaving them to rot in my desk drawer. Or how he used to have a tiger hide rug with glowing eyes in the dark which almost made me pee myself when I was sleeping over at my grandparents’ place. Or the most memorable of all, how he tried to teach me how to pee in the woods, but failed to realize that I don’t have a penis, and I peed all over my pants.

Grandpa was a big man. Both physically and in his presence. He was much taller than an average Asian man of his age (Or was it because I was a small child?), with a wide, almost balding head and large, thick frame. He had narrow eyes but a broad mouth that only turned up and down in the corners to indicate any emotion.

I don’t really know much of his life before he became my grandpa, and I regret that I had not asked him about it when I had the chance. It always feels so weird when I hear my parents say that he had crossed over from North Korea — I mean, I’ve never even met a North Korean before. He had crossed over to the South with his little sister (my small-grandma, as a direct translation from Korean) on his back, just before the war broke out. After that, he attended a South Korean high school, and built himself up to become a CEO of a major cement/construction company. How he did this, I will never know.

Then, he married grandma, mostly based on arrangement. They never really had a happy marriage, as I remember thinking this even as a child. I once wrote a card to my grandparents, reading…

“Grandma, Grandpa, please don’t fight! Love Youjin”

They joked about it at the time, but I’m sure there was a little guilt behind the laughter. Apparently, the marriage has been especially harsh for my grandmother, who suffered from a strict, hard-to-please mother-in-law (my grandpa’s mother). She was given ridiculous amount of house chores all to herself, never really recognized for all her work, and just generally treated pretty shit. Having to live in the same house with all extended family members only made the matters worse.

I suppose grandpa was not particularly a good husband to grandma either (all the fun from being a wife in old-school Korea). I remember when my mom told me, under her breath, of how he once threw a crystal cigarette tray at her head during an argument, leaving a permanent dent on her head, just months after their marriage. Being young, I didn’t realize this was a sign of an abusive relationship; I only looked at him funny for next few hours and soon forgot.

I guess, in a way, he was the patriarchal figurehead, a pillar that held up the family tradition. Every extended family member gave him the respect he demanded and followed through his unspoken rules.

We would gather as a whole family every New Years, pay respect to our ancestors by preparing food for them and bowing down in front of their pictures even when so many other families have ditched the tradition. We would celebrate any ‘adult’ of the family’s 70th and 80th birthday by renting out a whole hotel conference room for a big feast. We would go to our ancestors’ graves in the mountains once in a while to mow down the weeds and bow down, once again. We would always go to the same restaurants that ‘he knew’. We would never switch the channel of the TV show he was watching. We would always come back to his house after eating out for fruits and desserts before returning to our homes.

Food prepared for honoring ancestors
Ancestor’s graves in Korea. This one looks exactly like the ones from my family