I was lucky to have spent a great deal of my life with my grandmother. I was born in Korea with her by my mother’s side, and she emigrated to the States in 1980 when I was about 8 years old after my parents settled in Los Angeles in 1975. She lived with my family for most of the years before I left for college, and I still saw her almost every week as I started a family of my own.
Many could consider her life as one of misery and struggle. Living during the time Korea was occupied by Japan, she was born into a country that was exploited, as many Asian countries were at that time. Soon after Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, communism tried to conquer the peninsula, and the Korean War began. Although my grandmother was married to a general in the Korean Army, she fled North Korea on her own with three children all under the age of five. This is a common story told by many of that generation, but what made her story unique was the fact that her husband left her and her children.
This was the most painful part of her life, but it is something that cannot be locked up in silence or shame. In actuality, what made my grandmother an amazing person was the strength she developed as she overcame this hardship. And by strength, I don’t mean sheer physical and muscular strength. She always had perseverance, bravery, courage, confidence, and grit.
It is inconceivable to think of my grandmother holding my mom’s five year old hand along side my uncle’s with my aunt as an infant on her back fleeing North Korea. My grandmother relied completely on instincts to survive, and she did whatever she could to keep her children safe. She told me of the time when my aunt had a fever, and conditions were so bad that she had to grab a bowl of rice out of a man’s hands to try to feed her children. When there was a fork in the road, she had to make an instant decision to travel to the right or to the left, often when the wrong turn would lead to a massacre. The probability of survival was grim, and that feat alone is to be applauded with courage.
The most significant impact my grandmother had, however, was her role in our family business. In the late 80’s, my mother started the first medical supply company in Koreatown, and all family members chipped in to help the business thrive as many immigrant families do.
My grandmother was helping my mom every day in whichever way she could. When I was in high school and got my driver’s license, I would drive around Koreatown with my grandmother to deliver boxes of adult diapers to senior citizens. We would both put large boxes on a dolly or carry them directly to the patients’ homes. To see a 4 foot 8 inch small Korean grandmother lift these heavy boxes to help the family was not only a great experience to share, but it was also inspiring to see the limitless possibilities a woman can do at any age.
Behind the strength of my grandmother was always deep, unconditional love. The root of every decision and action she made was based on her devotion to family.