My Sa-Ju (Fate)
I am the middle daughter of my mother’s three surviving children. I eventually learned that my mother bore seven children, but four of them died in infancy. Three were boys, all born ahead of us. The first boy was named Frank and I remember seeing a photo of him when he was perhaps four years old. I asked my mother what happened to my brothers. She always replied: Why do you want to know?
When we were growing up, many things were left unexplained. Perhaps some subjects were too painful to talk about. Then too, it was considered ill-mannered for a child to ask questions, just as it was to laugh too loud. We were told that laughing was frivolous and might bring on misfortune.
Am I different from my mother? My daughter Emily once wrote a poignant story titled My Silent Mother because I never talked about my childhood in Korea, the house where I grew up, my old and distinguished family...Yes, I am different, a different woman with a different life, and now I turn to look back, to tell my story for my children and my grandchildren.
Kyung-nim, my youngest sister, died when she was three. I was there. I played with her at her beside. I saw her gradually turn brown from fever. I tried to stop her from moistening her dried-up nostrils with her own saliva. Even when she was laid in a coffin across the hall, I could hear her straining to breathe, trying to suck some air. For the first time I felt a deep wrenching grief. I no longer asked my mother about her missing children.
We three sisters were born one after another. When my younger sister, Hung-jin, followed me within a year, my mother had to hire a Yu-mo, a wet-nurse, who nursed me, who carried me around on her back... My earliest memory is lying in the arms of this woman in a dim-lit room, and knowing that she was not my mother... After I was weaned, my father gave the Yu-mo’s family a persimmon orchard to live on. My Yu-mo would come back now and then to see me, and my sisters would chant, “Your mom is here!” I would hide, resentful that my mother had given me to the Yu-mo. What happened to her? What happened to the son whose mother’s milk I took ? And to the orchard?
My mother was born at the beginning of this century. She graduated from the fashionable Kyung-Gi High School in Seoul and then was admitted to the U-Eno Music School of Tokyo University. This was unusual, because the Japanese authorities discouraged both women and Koreans from being highly educated. When she came home with her music diploma, she was the idol of Korean society— until she married my father. He did not care for music. He forbade all music when he was around. A sad end to Mother’s career! Neither did he like Mother to visit her friends. One of us always had to chaperone her wherever she went. If she was late getting home, he would become furious and start tossing Mother’s favorite phonograph records into the courtyard.
Father was almost a generation older than Mother, his second wife. He was in his teens at the turn of the century, when Japan was planning to take over Korea. My grandfather, a rich banker in Seoul, decided to send him to America until the political situation improved...but the Japanese occupation lasted nearly a half century! In America, my father was the first Korean ever to land on the shores of Rhode Island. He was also the first to graduate from Brown University. He earned a degree in Economics and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. Then he came home. Although his intellectually formative years were spent in America, his views on social mores remained decidedly Korean. He sent his sons to Europe for higher education, but planned to have his daughters married off soon after high school.
A son by his first marriage, my oldest half-brother Nam-jin, was handsome, flamboyant, the biggest womanizer in Seoul, and also (according to Father) a total spendthrift. Nam-jin was perhaps twenty years older than we were. He was sent to Germany to study, as was customary in wealthy Korean families. He squandered his money on women, and eventually came home with a skinny, blond, blue-eyed German girl named Norma on his arm. Hitler would not allow this interracial marriage, nor would our proud Paik family, so they lived in sin in a handsome house surrounded by carp-filled ponds. My father had their house walled-off from the rest of our compound.
For a while, Nam-jin held a glamorous post in our foreign service, as a diplomatic attach in Seoul, but his salary never covered the expense of the nightly parties and other extravagances. My father kept him on an allowance, and money continued to be a contentious issue between them. Loud recrimination would erupt when Nam-jin was drunk, and shouting matches could be heard all over the compound, despite the stone walls that separated us. They carried on in garbled English and German, and we could never figure out what the quarreling was about. This made me want to learn English and German.
In spite of her modern education, Mother enjoyed palm-readers who told one’s fortune (Sa-Ju ). The lines in our palms and on our faces were examined by these visitors, and then the grown-ups discussed our Sa-Ju right in front of us, oblivious to the fact that we had ears, and that we made our own interpretations from what we overheard.
My Sa-Ju was always bad! I was destined to go far from home, cross a large body of water, and experience many hardships. I resolved that I would never stray from home, and especially refuse all invitations to cross water. When the time came, of course, I left home without hesitation, without tears, and eagerly crossed the Pacific. Much later, I realized that being aware of my Sa-Ju actually helped me to survive alone in a foreign land. I had accepted my lot and was willing to meet the challenges laid out for me.
My Sa-Ju was not my only problem for the grown-ups. My appearance worried them. “She is so plain. Who would marry her? Best thing is for her to become a scholar.” Secretly, I was planning to become a dancer. When I confided this to my maid, she immediately reported to my mother. I was told that the dancing profession was for the low-class people. “Absolutely not! You should be ashamed of even entertaining such an idea.” Later, when I had to declare my major for college admittance, I selected Astrophysics, a subject about which I knew nothing. It just sounded impressive. When I presented this election to my father for his approval, he crossed it out and wrote Medicine.
I was made to feel that I was less presentable because I had slanted eyes. None of my sisters inherited this trait. I looked at all my relatives but found no slanted eyes. How did I acquire this genetic fault? How could I remedy it, so that at least my children would not have my eyes? In sixth grade biology, we studied Mendelian genetics. From it, I deduced that by selecting a mate with almond eyes, my slanted eye gene just might go under. I resolved then that I would to marry a guy with very round eyes.
Genetics aside, I was even more fascinated by the ability of science to explain human physiology. I learned that organic compounds were by definition entirely consisted of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and that at the end of metabolism, they always turned into water and carbon dioxide. This news was hugely satisfying to me, since it explained with a single equation why we urinate liquid and pass gases. This is what started me in science.
Father spent most of his adult life waiting for Japan to crumble. He refused to change our Korean name to Japanese, although 99% of the Korean population had done so. At our school, our name stuck out in the sea of Japanese names. He refused to learn Japanese. He could get away with that because we owned so much land that he was financially independent. When Japan was finally defeated, my father immediately went into politics, campaigned for a seat in the Korea’s first political governing body, the National Assembly, and was elected. This event coincided with my effort to be admitted to the highly competitive medical college of Seoul National University. It was rumored that my father spent a tremendous amount of money on his campaign. Some said he bought the election. Indeed, his campaign would prove to be a disaster for the family. A combination of swindling by the campaign manager— my father’s son-in law— and the economic anarchy during the Korean war led eventually to a sad decline in the fortunes of the Paik family. As for me, I was one of two girls admitted to the traditionally all-male medical school. They called us The Two Red Spots. They whispered, “She got in because of her father.” I was seventeen.
Our triumphs, Father’s and mine, lasted but two months. When North Korean tanks clattered into Seoul early one morning, we were utterly surprised. Friends urged Father to leave and hide in one of the many houses he owned. He said, ”How could I leave this place, with all these things? Where would I go?” One day the North Korean military police came to arrest him and his son Nam-jin. They were taken away. We have not seen or heard of them since.
When it was clear that North Korean armies were coming down a second time, we left Seoul and headed to Pusan, the southern-most town in Korea. Mother bought a modest Japanese-style house which we shared with her close friend’s family. I did not grieve over my father, but I pitied my mother deeply. She was only fifty. I assumed that her life was finished because she was lacking an influential husband.
That year, all my original medical school classmates from Seoul evaporated. They were either conscripted into South Korean Army or, enamored of Communist ideology, suddenly went north. The hastily-recruited new classmates from the local area spoke a strange Pusan dialect. Only a handful of professors remained. The make-shift medical school was set up in a warehouse. We had to squat on a cold concrete floor covered with dirty straw sacks. I felt my medical education was standing still.
Although the war wrought terrible dislocations on us all, I gradually realized that it also brought me my personal freedom. My father was no longer present to tell me what I could or couldn’t do. Now I could decide and choose what I really wanted. Why not go to America and continue my education, as he had done? I knew nothing about existing rules and regulations pertaining to my goal. I see now that my ignorance actually helped me. If I had known beforehand that there were too many obstacles, I probably would never have embarked. For instance, I didn’t know that our government did not allow civilians to go abroad. There was no passenger ship in which to travel, no way to exchange money, no postal service to send mail to America. The American consulate had no instructions on processing Korean students going abroad to study.
I don’t remember exactly how all these problems were solved, but somehow they were. I needed an affidavit of support in America; a friend of my mother brought me one from Dr. Robert Oliver, advisor to the President of the Republic of Korea, Seung Man Rhee. I was admitted to Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, and Wellesley colleges, all on full scholarships. I wrote back assuring each college that when my father returns from North Korea, he will certainly reimburse my scholarship.
I chose Bryn Mawr over the others because a U.S. Army captain told me that at Wellesley I would have fun, but at Bryn Mawr I would really have to study hard! Bryn Mawr sounded like just the place where I should be to bear the hardships that my Sa- Ju predicted. My mother feared she might never see me again. She had her seamstress sew two dozen Korean gowns in taffeta and silk for me, as if I were to be married in a far, far off place. She packed them in three newly tailor-made leather suitcases and gave me a few thousand dollars. That was the extent of the Paik fortune I carried to America.
Six other students and I boarded a military freighter that headed to Okinawa before turning north. After two seasick weeks at sea, we landed at the port of Seattle.
My first year at Bryn Mawr was humbling. College treated me just like every other freshman, not as a refugee just off the boat from a war-torn country. For the first time in my life, I was faced with school work that was terribly hard for me. It was not the language so much; it was a kind of culture gap. In English composition class, I was summarily told to write about the imagery in T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. Even today, I can’t do that!
I quickly steered away from the humanities. The sciences required far less background in Western thought. Chemistry was home, and to my surprise, I graduated with honors in chemistry and received the American Chemical Society award.
Toward the end of my senior year, my mother suddenly appeared in California. She had arranged for a group of Korean war orphans to go to Hollywood so that they could appear in a movie. In return, she got to come along, and so I met her in Los Angeles, after four years. As I realized that Mother had seized this first opportunity just to see me for a few days, my smoldering resentment about the Yu-mo faded away.
I had grown up in a household consisting entirely of females. Mother, my sisters, and a fleet of maids--a head maid, seamstress, cooks, cleaners, laundress, all lived in a quarter enclosed by high stone walls that separated us from men. No male cousins ever came to see us. No male visitors or vendors ever stepped into our courtyard. Men were expected to go to “the other gate.” My father, of course, had a dwelling separate from us and would come to visit daily, using the internal gates that connected different quarters. We were sent to an all-girls’ school, Sa-Bum Elementary, Kyung Gi High. We thus grew up in an environment devoid of males and without contact with any masculine peer group. We were only allowed school textbooks. Extracurricular readings were severely curtailed and, if discovered, the offending books would be ripped up by my father. We had very little notion of what boys our age were really like. We assumed that boys were naturally superior and would know what to do.
With such an upbringing, I was quite comfortable at all-girl Bryn Mawr College. On weekends, Korean men would sometimes turn up at my Denbigh Hall doorstep, looking for me. They were interns and residents at the various hospitals in nearby Philadelphia. They seemed to know who I was, but I had no idea who they were, and they didn’t bother to explain why they had come. I thought they were merely wasting my time. Clearly, these men were not for me. None of them had round eyes.
The summer I graduated from Bryn Mawr and before I was to enter Yale graduate school in the fall, the chemistry professor with whom I did my senior honors thesis asked me to continue the project. I was very much taken with this professor because he was an excellent teacher. His father was a physician and his mother a concert pianist. Unlike my father, this professor loved music and even played the clarinet with his friends. His Caucasian heritage could improve my gene pool. The study we were doing involved the photochemical conversion of an azo-compound from one conformation to another upon absorbing a well-defined light energy. We had to be in a darkened room together, to make the spectrometric measurements. I was twenty-two. Anyone could predict what happened. At the end of my second year of graduate study, we were married at Dwight Chapel of Yale University.
Yale was a big change. If Bryn Mawr was for ”the privileged girls only,” Yale was its male counterpart. In my days, Yale had so few women graduate students that no dormitory was needed. Once again, I was one of two girls in a physical chemistry graduate group. If I had any little success in a course, boys unfailingly snickered, “the professor thought you were cute.”
Yale was famous for its undergraduates, whose college life seemed to be a perpetual party. Graduate students were only onlookers. Once, standing outside Mory’s, I watched a strange ritual through the window. A group of boys were passing a huge beer-filled tankard around and around their table, until one of them carefully emptied it over his own fair head. What was that all about? Years later, my daughter Emily would become a real undergraduate Yalie and would join the Elizabethan Club at Mory’s.
After I married my Bryn Mawr professor, it never occurred to me that I could remain at Yale to finish. I came back to Bryn Mawr and continued my graduate study while babies were arriving. My first son, Landis, was born right away. Two years later, when I was finishing my doctorate degree, my first daughter, Emily, was conceived. Looking back, I cannot honestly say that I was really enjoying having babies and raising children. I was vaguely dissatisfied at being derailed from the mainstream, out of touch with the academic world. I imagined my Yale classmates busily building careers out there while I was home doing dishes, packing diapers, preparing the next meal. Although I was too compulsive to neglect my chores and children, I definitely was not enjoying it. When children started to take music lessons, entire Saturdays were consumed going from one teacher to another, and I remember thinking sadly, is this all there is for me in life? Is this why I came to America?
We bought a house across from the beautiful campus, a vision of Gothic towers and huge, ancient trees. I felt fortunate to have landed in the midst of these stunning environs while my children were growing up. My youngest daughter, Louise, would later attend Bryn Mawr. Her decision was, for me, a living confirmation of my admiration and faith in this college that had done so much for me. What a joy to see her swing her own Bryn Mawr lantern and sing “Sophia” on Lantern Night. She would burst into the house and greet me with Greek chants that I remember so well. If, for some reason, I were ever urged to leave Bryn Mawr, I would also have said, “How could I leave this place, with all these things? Where else would I go?”
From the beginning, I wanted my children to attend a local private school where the entrenched conservative Main Line families were sending their offspring. I thought our children would receive a superior education in these schools, develop a comfortable relationships with the natives, and be more readily assimilated into the American mainstream. Above all, I wanted my children to be completely American. They experienced little Korean culture while they were growing up. We had virtually no Korean friends. I did not dwell on my past. I was “My Silent Mother.”
My husband took 15 months of sabbatical leave with Guggenheim fellowship and we all went to England. Shortly after coming back, we had two more babies, David and Louise. My dissatisfaction with staying home continued to fester. When Louise was only four, I called an old college rival who had been doing full-time research at the University of Pennsylvania. She too was married and had four children, but never stopped working since she graduated from Yale. I joined her in her research group at Penn.
The atmosphere at this male-dominated medical school was not congenial or nurturing toward the careers of women and minorities. More than anywhere else, I felt in these first years at Penn that I was working through the stint of hardship laid out in my Sa-Ju.
After a decade of apprenticeship, I became a research faculty member, a preceptor to highly motivated young physicians and postdoctoral fellows. I specialized in biochemical research elucidating the role of a protease in physiology and pathology. My own research projects, in recent years, has been funded by The National Institutes of Health. Even more gratifying for me, my eldest son, Landis, trained as an investment banker, has returned to Penn and placed in charge of the University’s endowment.
Was my career worth it? I believe now that my absorption with research was not helpful to the two later children, who were too young to be without mother for most of the day. I still hear little David’s angry question, “Why do you have to work?” I know I missed out on much of their growing time, and on their school activities. I should have enjoyed those hours with them instead of glancing at my watch. On the other hand, if I had never gone back to the laboratory, I would surely have become a frustrated, disgruntled mother. In our time, most women want to work and so we have to make some hard choices. And there is always a price for the choice.
Un-Jin P. Zimmerman, PhD, Professor Emerita, University of Pennsylvania.
My Aber-Ji (Father)
In all these years, my father has never appeared in my dreams. He was taken away from us on July 1950, leaving behind his wailing household. I wonder if the threads holding us together are just too thin even for dreams?
When I was about to be born, Father had a dream foretelling that this newborn would bring him even greater fortune. So pleased was he by the omen, that he went out and bought large quantities of Bank of Korea stock. I thus became, momentarily, the single largest shareholder of the Bank. But I know I did not bring him a greater joy. I turned out to be another girl, a runt, and always sickly. “Oh no! you are not sick again?” he would say, glancing down at me in bed as he passed by to his quarters. In those days, babies frequently did not survive their first year. Any 100-days-old baby was indeed important in Korea, deserving a big cerebration, a more important landmark than the first birthday itself. But my mother had too many babies who did not survive these 100 days, and along the way my father developed a profound distaste for dying babies. He would simply disappear into the night, leaving his frightened young wife to carry on the death-watch. Next morning, her lamentation and reproaches of my father filled our household.
Mother honestly believed that the source of all our illness was the food we ate. So the preparation of meals was carefully monitored, and she fed us only miniscule amounts of the most bland food—a bowl of rice gruel and a few pieces of boiled radish. Even with this meager diet, mother scolded us for gulping food too hastily. Her paranoia left us in a constant state of hunger amidst plenty. There was much ado about my little sister stealing a piece of fish patty from the kitchen and eating it in a far corner. One chilly evening after my usual dinner, I was holding on to my Yu-mo (wet-nurse) in the courtyard looking into a brightly-lit room. My parents were dining with guests. Steaming dishes were being brought in and laid on an already groaning table. “What's going on ?” I asked Yu-mo. She said, “It’s your birthday, silly!” My starvation diet eventually took a toll: I developed an unsightly bloated belly. Mother’s favorite sharman told her that she should feed the child with roasted frog legs for at least one hundred days!
We were groomed, dressed, and taken to school in our private rickshaws. A maid always accompanied us. During the recess, she would be waiting in the hallway to see if I wanted a drink of water. She would whip out my cup and push me away from the communal tin cup chained to the faucet. One day at school, I became aware that she forgot to dress me an undergarment. I couldn't get on the swing. I could not squat to build sand castles. I knew that everyone was looking at me for not wearing panties. I decide to run home. Halfway down on a busy thoroughfare, I was grabbed. “Aber-ji!” But I could not explain to father why I was running away.
Father would be seated at the warmest part of the ahan-bang (bed-sitting room) and have his dinner served at a separate table attended by my mother. She would have hers alone later. We children had ours at the other end of the room, sometimes at the same time as our father. When the warm weather came, one of us had to fan him while he was having dinner. When I was called, I fanned until I felt my arm was dropping out, but never could ask to be excused. After his dinner, father went back to his sa-rang (men’s quarter) for the evening. But in the morning he came over to our quarter to do his toiletry. He sharpened his razor on a tough leather strap by vigorously slapping alternate side of the blade while one of us held one end tout. When it was my turn, I would gradually be pulled, and slide into him, no matter how hard I tried to hold my position. Every time that happened, father would loudly cluck his tongue in dissatisfaction. One afternoon, we were gleefully running around the courtyard chased by a noisy pack of our dogs. As usual, I was last in line. In the excitement, one of the dogs caught up and bit into my leg. Shock, wailing, bleeding. Father marched out, kicked the dogs off, picked me up, and carried me off to dress my wound. He even washed my tear-stained face, clucking his tongue all the while.
He openly favored my younger sister. To be sure, she was quite pretty. Her singing voice was so sweet, and so perfectly in tune that she sometime sang on the radio. On the other hand, she was far from an “A” student. My father told her that she didn't have to show her report-card if she didn't wish to. He gave mine only a cursory glance while I, I had so much to show. A day never passed without my little sister's Po-Po (kiss) on his cheek before leaving for school. Father never suggested that we do the same.
Occasionally, we had visitors who wished to see our living quarters done in classical Korean architectural style. My father would point out various features--the graceful roof upturned at the four corners, layered and capped thick earthen tiles supported by the massive wooden pillars placed squarely on the chiseled granite foundation stones. He would indicate the traditional arrangement of rooms all facing the courtyard, blah, blah, blah... At the end of the visit, the guests often wanted to have a group photograph taken at the front steps of Father's sa-rang. Invariably my father picked up my little sister and held her up.
We did not have a separate bathroom for bathing. A sizable tin tub would be brought into our ahan-bang and a maid filled the tub with hot water heated outside. When father was ready to undress, we were all banished from the room. One time, my older sister decided to peek. Next day, she confidentially whispered to her best friend at school that Father had a big apparatus. This secret spread rapidly among her tittering classmates. My mother was summoned to school and requested that henceforth my father be more discreet at home.
My sister also peeked at school during the morning assembly--at the enshrined portrait of our Japanese emperor. Among the sea of bowed heads, only my sister's face remained upturned. This time the offense was so grave that our school authority demanded a full apology from the head of our household. But would my father apologize to Japanese authority? Mother went and smoothed feathers.
My father intensely disliked the Japanese and anything connected with them. He avoided learning to speak Japanese and was downright scornful of the language. My grandfather sent him away to America to spare him the political turmoil that followed the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1900. In the early twentieth century, so few Koreans came to America that my father was literally the first Korean to land in Rhode Island and to graduate from Brown University. Although he excelled academically, he was a rarity on the campus and his classmates did not get to know him—nicknaming him “The Jap”! One Christmas recess, he was staying alone in his college dormitory. Fearing to go out into the dark cavernous hall at night, he urinated from his room window.
When he returned to Korea, he found the Japanese occupation well underway and thriving. He took teaching positions at Yonsei and Bosun Colleges, both of which were privately endowed by Koreans. Throughout this period (1923-43), he accepted no salary and published three textbooks—Economics, Principles of Logic, and Public Financing. At one point he was asked to become the president at one of the colleges, but declined. He served as the president of Korean Red Cross Society and of the Rotary Club. Father supported education but only that backed by Koreans. He himself founded the first school of nursing, which still flourishes today, the original building now much dwarfed by recent additions. Paradoxically, father sent us to academically superior and prestigious public schools run by Japanese government. But, to our discomfort and embarrassment, father made a major contribution to our arch-rival school, Ewha, founded by American missionaries and privately endowed by Koreans. He then became the chairman of the board of Ewha. His dichotomy extended even to my small favor to finance ping-pong balls for our school team, of which I was the captain. It fell on stony ears.
Every morning we lined up to take leave but then remembered that we had to bring some money to school. Father would reply, “Do you think I am a bank? Go tell the school that they are charging too much. Ask if they could do better.” Then he always added, “Just try to get a penny out of a stranger. See yourself how difficult it is!” His frugality and miserliness were, I learned later, well known among his friends and other members of our household. He rationed the daily amount of rice we consumed. He marked our firewood to foil a manservant suspected of selling wood to outside customers. Once I had a chance to see a copy of Father’s tax return and noticed the astronomical sum he owed. No wonder he claimed he had to borrow the money to pay the damn tax! “They” were indeed bleeding him to death! Years later, I learned the wisdom of his attitude. One must be prepared to haggle always—Father was right—it is hard to get money from the research grant agencies.
And yet, in many ways, he was generous. When we traveled, we traveled en masse. The entourage nearly filled every seat of the first class section of the train. He took us, Mother, our maids, all of our half-siblings and their children and maids, and my parents’ latest “best” friends. Sometimes even Father’s current mistress and her friend would come along. The Japanese railroad conductors usually double checked to make sure that all these Koreans were indeed paying for first class.
In winter, my parents’ favorite haunt was Baeck-Chun hot spring in the south but before the 38th parallel separated us from North Korea, my favorite vacation was to go to Wonsan beach in the summer. I remember the pristinely white sands separating our house from the glistening water and cerulean sky beyond. I remember the deep pine forest behind the house and its enchanting fragrance when it rained. Carefree late night promenades among the lanterned woods, running around helplessly giddy, mingling with other summer folks and looking into every little shop. I remember the swim in the sea with Father. He carried us on his back, lumbering and swishing around in the shallow water on his hands and knees, grunting all the while. We were laughing silly. I wonder what happened to the house?
I also remember our excursion to the nearby Keum-Kang-San, the diamond mountain. Even to a child's eyes, the multiply-stacked, breathtakingly huge rhombic crystal forms looming in the distance were unforgettable. So moved by the majesty of the towering mountains was Father that he purchased a piece of land in the foothills for each of us. My mother on her death-bed told us to hang on to those deeds. “Perhaps, one day, you could reclaim it.” Recently at the Metropolitan Museum I accidentally spotted an old Chinese painting of mountains. It so reminded me of Keum Kang San that I could not help exclaim, “There it is!” An accompanying Chinese poem told us, “If you are born, you must see Keum Kang San before you die". I was very fortunate to have seen it once. I long to see it again.
As the Second World War neared its end, Father clearly was marked as an anti-Japanese activist. The authorities wanted my father to show his good faith in Japan and forced him to attend weekly indoctrination sessions where he learned nothing since he didn’t know Japanese. For days, army recruiters insisted that my half-brother, who was lying in a hospital bed with consumption, sign up for the Imperial Army. At first opportunity, Father hid my brother and us in a mountain house outside of Seoul. One lazy summer afternoon, my brother was idly picking out a tune at the piano and half-listening to the radio. He suddenly stopped and motioned us to come over. From the radio came a very faint voice—the words so archaic that we could hardly understand, almost like the emperor’s decree we recited at morning assembly…Oh my, it was the emperor speaking! Our emperor was telling us that the war was over.
After Japan’s 1945 surrender, my father actively went into politics. He became a prominent member of the Provisional Korean Commission in charge of preparations for Korean independence, establishment of the first democratic Korean government, and election of the first head of a free Korea. It was a heady time. He was delegated to travel to Inchon to meet and welcome General Hodge on an American flag ship signaling the arrival of the American Occupational Force. When he returned, father brought several American soldiers with him from the ship. While waiting for their promised Korean meal, these soldiers proceeded to lie flat out on ground in the court yard, greatly alarming the servants. We learned that the touch of solid earth was what they wanted most after many days on the sea. These prostrated figures were my introduction to Americans.
Three major contenders to the Korean “throne” were, in order of public popularity, Rhee Seung Man, Kim Koo, and Kim Kyu Shik. Since my father and Rhee knew each other from their days in America, Rhee naturally expected Father to support him politically and financially. But Kim Kyu Shik was father’s childhood friend. When Kim Kyu Shik and his family returned from exile in China, Kim had no financial base. So my father provided it. One day, Kim’s daughter Pauline came to say good-bye to my father. She was leaving for America to attend Wellesley College. She walked straight in without bothering to take off her high heels. She conversed in fluent English, and only with my father. She was totally unaware of us watching and secretely marveling how sophisticated and Westernized she seemed. I promised myself that some day I would speak English just like her. (When the Korean War broke out, we were forced to evacuate to Pusan, the only town that hadn’t fallen. I wrote to Pauline from there, asking her to tell me how to apply to American Colleges.)
In the ensuing political battles, Rhee emerged victorious by systematically eliminating all his opponents one way or another, not excluding assassinations. Under Rhee’s presidency, my father was persona non grata. As luck would have it, John Muccio, a Brown alumnus, was posted to Seoul as the first American Ambassador to Korea. He and Father became fast friends. The Brown Club was founded—just the two of them. Muccio strongly urged Father to run for a seat in the first National Assembly and thereby gain a legitimate voice against Rhee’s regime. Although my father was a member of Representative Democratic Council, he ran as an independent from the rather obscure Chang-Dan district. Why did he not chose one of the Seoul districts? What was wrong with our Chong-No district where we were born, where my father and his father were born? We always prided ourselves as being the residents of Seoul, harking back two hundred years. To this day, I do not understand his decision.
My father poured money into the district. His secretary carried back money from his daily visit to the bank. In his haste, a few bundles of money would literally spill from the satchel and he wouldn’t even notice. I heard that the money was to provide free lunches for the entire Chang-Dan populace. But besides free lunches, what did my father promise to Chang-Dan people? What was his vision for the district's future? I never knew. We were not allowed to come to Chang-Dan. I never heard him speak. On the election eve, campaign workers returned and sat around Father in the center hall, all facing and staring at the single telephone on the wall. We were there too, but in their mounting anxiety, grown-ups didn’t notice us. Periodically, the telephone would ring and somebody would jump up and grab the phone. Early incoming numbers were not “looking good.” My father was sitting there, utterly silent. Uneasiness in the hall was palpable. In the early dawn, his number started to climb. By the morning, his numbers far passed his opponent’s. He had won!
One benefit of all this campaign madness was that I began to take care of myself. I decided that I would need some proper Western outfits before I started my medical studies. Until this time, I wore uniforms at school and Korean outfits at home all made by our seamstress. On one occasion, she even fashioned my running shorts for me to wear at an upcoming interschool event. She incorporated many, many fine pleats into the shorts so that it would be stylishly round and full. When the 100 yard dash began, I felt all the pleats billow out and catch the wind. That pretty much ended my 100 yard dash at Seoul Stadium.
I asked my school friend to introduce me to the proprietor of a dress shop I had seen. “This is Paik's daughter.” I picked a fabric and selected a style from a fat catalogue. I could hardly wait for the dress of my dream. Pleased with the outcome, I ordered another dress. And another, and some more. I would not have another chance to do this once my parents came home from campaigning. All throughout, the proprietor was very courteous and patient. Not a hint of payment. I carefully stored all my new dresses in mother’s Jang (clothes chest) after empting out her stuff. When mother came home, she was surprised to find her best Korean Jang filled with strange Western dresses. I was surprised to be told that the shop was one of many on that street that Father owned.
Only a few months after Father’s successful bid for National Assembly, his ambitions and aspirations were forever shattered by the surprise attack of the North Korean Army. Early one June morning in 1950, Seoul residents awakened to the strange rumbles of North Korean tanks rolling down the thoroughfares of our capital city. Seoul fell without resistance. Rhee had fled the night before without warning anyone, and after crossing the Han river to safety, Rhee had demolished every major bridge, trapping the entire populace of Seoul inside. My father was arrested at home in the very early days of the occupation. He was marched out, shoved at the gun point at every faltering step, in front of horrified children and a household beseeching for mercy. We never saw him again.
Much later, rumors circulated that he had been taken to North Korea. We could not be sure, but it is what we wished to believe as a thread of hope. At least he was not slaughtered in a department store basement as most hostages were. During the last stages of the war, in the retreating panic and chaos, North Korean military simply shot all hostages. But his body was not among the massacred.
A decade later, urged by Rhode Island Senator Theodore Green, the International Red Cross did make a fact-finding search in North Korea and informed Mother that Father had died in captivity. Where and when? They never gave us details. We shall never know. And, my father will never know where all of us had gone away.
(Un- Jin Paik Zimmerman, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of Physiology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA, March 2, 2000)