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  • Im Soo Han

Only One Fond Memory of Korea

Updated: Apr 1

I unfortunately have only one fond memory of Korea. The rest is of sadness. Korea was very poor when I was born there in 1967. The outhouses in the middle class neighborhoods were good examples of Korea’s poverty as it tried to climb out of the destructions from the devastating war when the north invaded the south. My current fear of porta potties may stem from these early memories of our outhouse. It’s the smell - the smell of poverty and of the lack of any sense of human decorum — that makes me reflectively gag. I still avoid porta potties when ever and how ever I can.

My one fond memory of Korea was of a day in autumn when the winds carried away the bogginess of summer and the air was fresh and crisp. My grandmother was making a large batch of kim chee in the courtyard stuffing a concoction in between salted cabbage leaves and then placing them in clay pots to ferment. I was keeping her company, and for my reward, she gave me cabbage leaves filled with radish, garlic, salt, and red pepper. The combination exploded in my mouth with spicy and salty flavors. My mouth still salivates thinking of that day.

While chewing and gulping with my eyes closed, a gentle breeze cooling my face, my memories lapsed for that brief moment of my parents who had left us to start a new life in the United States. My brothers and I were left behind under the care of my grandparents. Our parents were to retrieve us once they settled in America. I don’t remember them saying good-bye to me. I’m sure they did, but I don’t have any memory of the good-byes. I woke up one morning and they were simply gone.

Once they left, I was forever branded a “wool bo” or “crybaby” by my extended family. I was just five years old. And I was embarrassed by my lack of courage over my emotions. I am certain I would still be a wool bo but for my antidepressants. The antidepressants changed me in a substantial way — I became brave, even cut-throat, and yes, sometimes mean to those who lacked emotional control. I know it’s the pills and not me because when I forget to take them even for one day, my anxiety builds and I want to hide out in my bed. It’s remarkable how such a small thing could give you so much courage, but it does and I am unfortunately forever under the pills’ spell. I cannot imagine living a life without them.

So the one good memory of that day did not end with the kim chee snack. My grandmother, who had no caretaker tendencies other than to feed and clean, did something unusual that day. She favored me over my brothers for one moment. I may sound bitter, but it is no secret in my family that my older brother is the family’s favorite, simply because he was born the eldest son. Something about that position brings with it, extras, extra portion of fish for dinner, extra calligraphy lessons, extra school supplies… But for that one day, my grandmother decided to skip over my older brother, who was in the middle of his calligraphy lesson, and favor me. How wonderful, and how unusual.

When she heard a bellowing vendor, carting steamed snails and marinated silkworm pupae, nearing our house, she conspicuously whispered in my ear while slyly pressing a coin in my hand. She grinned at me and almost winked when she saw my eyes and mouth open wide in surprise. Before any invisible force could stop the transaction upon realizing that I am just a granddaughter to be married off and did not deserve a treat, I ran. I ran after the cart to get myself a newspaper cone filled with silkworm pupae. The brown gravy dripped out from the bottom of the cone, warm and slick, onto my hand. There was no better feeling than sucking the gooey mess from each of my fingers slowly and methodically. As I sat against the outer wall of our complex chewing, sucking and licking the silkworm pupae, I felt that maybe all will be okay; that I will stop crying and be brave. That was my fondest memory of Korea.

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