My grandfather, age 94, is in the hospital for a hip replacement. My grandmother, age 87, hasn’t visited him once. It’s been almost two weeks now.
Many of us dream of finding someone to grow old with. Not many of us dream of growing old with someone we hate. But my grandmother has hated my grandfather for 69 years–and counting. Theirs was a relationship forged under circumstances entirely foreign to most of us today.
My grandfather, Young Choi, was born in 1917, during World War I. By the age of four, he had already lost a parent. (His father, rushing home from work, had grabbed onto a train that was pulling away from the station and slipped onto the tracks, getting crushed under the wheels.) After being widowed, Young’s mother sold her late husband’s business and used the money to purchase a modest plot of farmland on the southeastern coast of Korea. That’s where my grandfather was raised. There was little to do but study, and my grandfather excelled in school. Eventually, he got a university scholarship and earned a degree in economics.
My grandmother, Ok Park, was born in 1924. When Ok was seven, her mother died, leaving Ok to be raised by a stepmother whom Ok hated. Ok’s father was of little comfort. He was busy managing his business, a successful wine factory in northern Korea, and largely absent.
In 1942, when Ok was 18, she was told that a husband had been found for her, a man seven years her senior. That was Young Choi, my grandfather. Ok was distraught. She did not want to marry this man. She even considered running away, but she had nowhere to run. In that era, Korean women could barely graduate from high school, let alone college.
My grandfather didn’t want to get married, either–or at least not to Ok Park. He was an economics major, fluent in Japanese and Korean, with a love of Tchaikovsky and books. (He was also in love with someone else, although it never came to anything more.) Ok Park was an unschooled, unfriendly and callow teenager.
But neither party really had any choice. The courtship game of Korea had simple rules. Parents of the groom chose a bride-to-be. If the bride’s family consented, the marriage was set. “Get married” was as final as “go clean your room.” Once married, a bride was expected to leave her family and live with her new husband and his parents, cooking and cleaning and bearing children. Daughters-in-law were chosen largely based on how strong and healthy they appeared to be. Apparently, my great-grandmother viewed Ok Park as a healthy-looking girl. In 1942, Young and Ok were married.
I think Ok must have decided from the start to make a mental note of everything she hated about her new husband. Today, it’s a list of almost infinite length, encompassing everything from manner of eating to habits of door locking. One of its cornerstones is that Young, at least in Ok’s opinion, was responsible for the death of Ok’s brother.
The incidents surrounding the death of Ok’s brother took place during the Korean War. In the summer of 1950, the North Korean People’s Army kicked off hostilities on the Korean peninsula. Civilians in the path of the invading army picked up whatever they could and fled to the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. Young and Ok, however, could not flee. Young had just gotten his appendix removed, and Ok had only recently given birth to a son. They stayed in Seoul.
One day, in the middle of the wartime mayhem, Young was seized with a craving for candy and wanted to head outside to get some. Ok yelled at him not to leave the house, that it was dangerous, but Young didn’t listen. Surely, he told her, the invading soldiers wouldn’t bother a man who’d just gotten his appendix removed. Unfortunately, the North Korean troops had a different opinion on the matter. Young and his candy were seized and taken up to the north. He would remain in captivity for several years.
That’s when Ok’s brother came into the story. He’d found work as a translator for the American troops. At one point, the U.S. military decided to send him on an assignment that would take him to North Korea. Before leaving, my grandmother’s brother promised her that he’d bring her husband back. But this never happened. A few weeks after Ok’s brother left for the north, he went missing. Then Ok received a letter informing her that her brother had been killed. How and why it happened–or whether it had anything to do with my grandfather (although almost certainly not)–is something no one knows. But Ok blamed Young all the same.
Eventually, American troops pushing northward captured Young and took him into custody as a suspected ally of the communists. Young was now shipped south, where he remained in detention until the end of the war. Finally, after three years, Young was freed. When he returned home, it was to a wife who considered him to be the cause of her brother’s death.
After the war, my grandparents had almost nothing. They struggled to provide for their children, three sons and a daughter. They couldn’t afford to eat eggs, fresh fruits or vegetables. Instead, they ate mostly white rice, kimchi and chicken soup. Ok’s children skipped classes to help her sell rice cakes outside of their school.
Life was unremittingly hard, and everyone dreamed of a change. Then a vaguely plausible hope of leaving Korea began to dawn. When Young was in his late 40s, the United States relaxed its immigration policy. Under the new guidelines, quotas for non-European immigrants were going to be more generous. After a great deal of discussion, Young decided to try his luck at age 50. He filed the necessary paperwork in January 1967. Two years later, a letter came from the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship granting Young approval for admission to the United States.
In 1970, Young sold the family house in Korea (it was the only way to pay for the airfare) and left with Ok and their daughter, the only one of the children still under 18, for the United States. The three of them landed in Pennsylvania in the winter of 1970. After a brief and difficult time in the east, Young found an accounting job at a Los Angeles department store called the Broadway. The family of three moved west.
In 1972, the three older boys who’d stayed behind in Korea got permission to move to the United States, too, and the family was reunited. Ok took a job as a seamstress in what became the garment industry of downtown, and her three sons went off to work odd jobs. Her daughter worked part-time and attended UCLA. The six of them crammed themselves into a one-bedroom apartment on Vermont south of Ninth Street. They had no car and barely any savings.
For the next twenty years, Young and Ok did almost nothing but work. There were material improvements. The family grew. There were grandchildren, of whom I, the third daughter of their third son, was one. But Young and Ok stayed compulsively busy. Save for eating dinner together, they rarely saw each other. They were too exhausted by the end of the day to converse, let alone argue. For a marriage made up of two non-loving partners, it was an ideal arrangement.
Of course, even if she’d had time to indulge her feelings fully, my grandmother would never have allowed divorce to cross her mind. There is a saying in Korean: Nehgah cheghim jikkae. It literally means, “I will take responsibility for you.” In many ways, it is even stronger than the words “I love you.” Marriage is a responsibility. A woman, traditionally, is a wife and mother to her husband and children, and a man is a husband, father, and provider for the family.
What my grandmother did faithfully do, however, was add to her list of “Million Things I Hate About Your Grandfather.” Even after sixty-nine years, the list continues to grow. Recent additions include his slowness in getting out of the car, his poor hearing, and his oddball compulsion of counting the number of times he chews his food. I can see her blood rising to a boil when her husband starts to speak. Not surprisingly, my grandfather has become a man of few words.
I used to tell my mom that I wanted to be swept away someday by a tall, dark Italian driving a Vespa. All she’d reply was that love is but a moment’s passion. Why wouldn’t I prefer the loyalty of a husband who was obligated to me by law? “White people say ‘I love you’ like it’s ‘Hello, how do you do?’” my mother complained. “They love everyone! How do you know he will love you the most and want to stay with you forever?”
And my parents wonder why I don’t want to get married.
Of course, I understand why my parents view marriage as they do, but their notion of the ideal spouse runs completely counter to the sort of person they raised me to be. They taught me to sell lemonade when I was 5, buy stocks when I was 10, and weigh my retirement fund options before I’d even started working. (Conveniently, they’ve also decided on medical school for me). They sent me to institutions that encouraged me to speak my mind and challenge others. That’s hardly likely to make me into someone who’ll simply relinquish her freedom and independence.
When I consider what my elders went through, I’m profoundly happy to live in a society that’s free of the sort of expectations of their generation. Still, I can’t deny the potency of those expectations in forging cohesive families. The sense of duty that binds my grandmother to a man she hates–a sense of duty that drives women in Korean society half-insane–is also the sense of duty that gave her the resolve to put in sixty-nine years of work to keep a household going. The spousal obligations that keep South Korean women so suppressed and Korean society so patriarchal are also the obligations that make a Korean mother’s bond with her child so strong.
Whatever the benefits of a sense of duty might be, though, they start to feel slight when I spend time with my grandparents in the same room. What’s strangest to me about my grandmother’s feelings towards my grandfather is that she combines such fierce love for her children with such fierce hatred toward the man who helped create them. How can you love someone who embodies half of the person you most hate? But apparently you can. When my grandfather’s eyes wander to a nearby table of women and my grandmother yells, “Just eat your food instead of looking at that table next to you,” I have to marvel at the power of her resolve. I suppose loyalty, compared to love, really is more powerful. It’s just far from beautiful.
Elaine Choi is an intern at Zócalo Public Square.
*Photo courtesy of Graela.