The first day in my memoir is 13 August 1948, the Independence Day of the country where I was born—South Korea. After achieving independence, the country celebrates patriotism, a
sort of oneness in the country. But the situation is very different in my little world of a family of seven members: my papa, Sung-ho, my mamma, Jiyeon, my elder brother, Suk-hwan, my elder sisters, Min-seo, Yun-seo and Ji-woo and the youngest in the family, three-year-old Jie-won—that’s me.
After 43 years, the country has become independent of Japanese rule. The entire
country is celebrating with flowers and fireworks. One-page newspaper, Telegram, showing pictures of the new leaders, are distributed free in the streets. Telegram is the best means
of communication from new leaders to the people of the country. TV sets haven’t been
available in the market yet; even radio sets are available only to a very few. Offices are closed, trams and buses aren’t plying, the whole country has come to a stand-still, relishing and rejoicing the independence. I’m looking at the pictures in Telegram; my sisters Min-seo and Yun-seo are reading the paper and showing the photo of the leader, Syngman Rhee, to
me. Another sister, Ji-woo—five years old—is at the window, looking for revelation in the street. Mamma is doing something in the kitchen. A few minutes ago Min-seo was there
too; 10-year-old Min-seo has learnt how to arrange wood sticks, coal and charcoal in a coal-fired stove. Seven-year-old Yun-seo hasn’t started cooking yet; she is explaining to me how better off we would be after independence. My 14-year-old brother, Suk-hwan, isn’t home.
At this hour he is possibly playing with his friends.
Mamma is a bit surprised to see Papa returning so soon.
‘What happened?’ she asks. ‘Didn’t you go for the tutoring job?’
‘No, they won’t take any lesson today, the country has become independent; they
like to take a break.’
‘Why don’t you go to the shops please, and bring me some groceries?’
‘I’ve no money, Jiyeon. Do you have some?’
‘No, I don’t. I’ve given you yesterday whatever I had.’
‘I thought I’d get the tutor salary today, but got nothing because the students
wanted a holiday.’
‘Shall I give you my gold ring for pawning?’
‘Those shops are closed too.’
‘But I need to cook something. What will I dish out to my children today? I’ve some
rice, which I’d cook, but I’ve nothing else, not even lentils.’
‘Do you have any money left anywhere with any one of these children? Have you
ever given them anything to keep in their purse?’
‘No Sung-ho, I can’t think of anything.’
‘What can we do? Should we fast for the day?’
Papa’s eyes are wandering around the house looking for anything he can use to buy
food. He notices an improvised carom board. Suk-hwan plays carom on that; 19 jeons are
resting on that board. Suk-hwan uses these jeons as carom coins.
Papa raises his finger to point at those jeons. Mamma and Papa walk to Suk-hwan’s
carom board, not far from where Min-seo, Yun-seo and I are engrossed with the Telegram.
As Papa bends to pick the coins off the board, Yun-seo cries out: ‘Please don’t touch, Dad.
Suk-hwan will be upset. Yesterday, he scolded me when I put my hands on the red painted
Mamma says, ‘Leave these coins if you can; everyday Suk-hwan plays with them’.
‘I would if I could,’ Papa says, ‘but I’ve nothing else to buy groceries now’.
I could never forget the day South Korea became independent, nor would any of my
siblings, Suk-hwan, Min-seo, Yun-seo and Ji-woo, nor would my parents, Mamma and Papa.
Since then, whenever Independence Day is celebrated, I remember that day and the coins
being taken off Suk-hwan’s carom board.
I never blame my parents because they’re not rich enough; I never blame them for
having a large family in spite of being very close to the poverty line. Had they opted for a smaller family, I wouldn’t have been brought into this world, and I wouldn’t get any chance to criticise them. In the days of my parents, abortion was never an option; selective
reduction wasn’t even dreamt of.
Papa never tried to plan his family; he didn’t consider whether he and Mamma were
emotionally or financially ready for five children. Before he started his own family, he had to take care of his five brothers and two sisters. When Papa’s father died, his youngest brother was yet to be born and among his other brothers, most were in school—although one of
them was too young to go to school. At that time, he’d just appeared in the degree
examination. He got a clerical job and took charge of his parental family. The results of his degree exams were published a few months after he started working; he had achieved a
Bachelor of Arts degree. I don’t remember living in Papa’s parental home. Not long after my birth, Papa rented a flat leaving the parental house to his brothers and sisters.
Papa always appreciated formal education. He was a graduate while most of his
friends and relatives were hardly educated, if not illiterate. He started Suk-hwan’s education well in time and used to tutor him regularly. However, education wasn’t so much
encouraged among girls in those days, mainly because they were married off to another
family. In many homes, including ours, girls were considered second-class citizens; they
participated more in the household chores, so that they were trained before they got
married in their teens or early twenties. They weren’t expected to join any profession and earn money for the family.
Papa cut corners to save the cost of education of my sisters. When Min-seo turned
nine, Yun-seo six and Ji-woo four, Papa got all of them admitted in the same class—Class I.
Papa bought two sets of textbooks for his three daughters, as all of them needn’t study the same book at the same time. He considered he made the best use of his meagre income
under the prevailing social circumstances while saving whatever he could to get his
daughters married in time. Paramount importance of suitable marriages was implanted in
the brain of even a child like me.
Probably because she was older than most of her classmates, Min-seo excelled and
was the top girl in the class. Yun-seo was doing well in studies, but she found more interests in extra-curricular activities. Ji-woo was underage in her class; it was rather difficult for her to cope with classmates. In a class of 30 girls, Min-seo ranked first, Yun-seo fourth, Ji-woo twentieth.
When my three sisters were in Class IV, Papa admitted me in Class I of the same
school—coeducational for Classes I to IV. The youngest in the family, I enjoyed love and
affection of my parents and my siblings. Papa convinced me that I wouldn’t miss much by
going to school, because only Mamma would be home during the school hours. When Papa
took me to the school, I demanded to be in the same class as my sisters so that I wouldn’t miss their company while at school. The very first day I joined the school, I realised that I wouldn’t be allowed to sit in the same classroom where my sisters were, so I declined to go to school anymore. My parents, Suk-hwan and sisters couldn’t convince me that I must go to school for my own benefit.
When I was continuing at home instead of going to school, Suk-hwan passed the
Intermediate Science exam in the first division. Before Papa knew, he applied for the
admission tests in the University College of Engineering and Technology. Papa wasn’t very happy about it; he wanted Suk-hwan to get a degree in commerce/accounting and join the
Auditor General’s office, following Papa’s line. Papa told Suk-hwan that he could get the commerce degree in two years and start working, whereas it would take him at least four
years to pass an engineering exam, if at all. It was a tough exam. Suk-hwan said that he
would tutor students to pay his course fees and help Papa in whatever way he could.
Though I didn’t go to school for a year, I used to listen to my sisters when they
studied at home. My sisters were doing well in their studies, while Suk-hwan was a brilliant scholar already. He’d passed the Intermediate Science exam in the first division and secured letter marks in four subjects. Whenever Papa or Mamma met their friends and relatives,
they would boast of their kids’ achievements and regretted that I hadn’t been going to
Next year, when Papa offered me the opportunity of going to school, I readily
agreed. Papa didn’t want me to start in Class I as he had already paid the admission fee for Class I and didn’t like to pay the fee for the same class again. He requested the headmaster test me for Class II. Both Papa and the headmaster were astonished to find that I passed the test and qualified for Class II.
Though I still aspired to study in the class of Min-seo, Yun-seo and Ji-woo, I remained
in my own classroom and worked well. Keeping with the reputation of my sisters, I stood
first in the class for three years of my stay there. My classmates in this school were mostly girls; the class monitor, Geu-rin, was very strong, both physically and mentally and kept the students well under control. One day, Geu-rin coerced me and Noo-ri, a girl of my class, to act as newlywed husband and wife in a mock wedding ceremony. Geu-rin mobilised the
students of the class to enjoy the fun of having a child groom and a child bride. In a class of mostly girls, there were five boys, including me. Of these boys, Do-gyu remained close to me during academic life and also later on. Another boy, Kyu-won, stormed into my notice later on for his revolutionary activities.
Over and above working at a government office, Papa used to tutor in the mornings
and evenings. He had hardly any time left for us. I spent most of my days with my mother
and sisters, and sometimes with Suk-hwan, but I relished the few hours I used to get with Papa on Sunday afternoons, when he used to take me to the park or to the city. Holding
Papa’s hand, I beheld the decoration in the city: lights and banners of advertisement. I liked to watch Lipton’s advertisement showing tea being poured into two cups from a fully filled kettle; when the cups filled, the kettle was empty and ready to be filled again with tea.
I cherished the 15 minutes I used to get every morning from Papa; in these 15
minutes Papa used to shave before going out for the morning tution. I used to tell him how I’d translated a piece of text from my dialect to English. I used to read the text, sentence by sentence, before and after translation. Papa would listen to me and correct my text if
necessary. On some days, Papa taught me maths and grammar as well, mostly by listening
to my answer to the questions, while his hand was busy with shaving razors.
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