What would a family be without its share of issues? Definitely not my family, or most other’s I know of. I had one friend who I was sure had a nearly perfect family, but her cousin’s family made up the difference when between trips to the psychiatric unit, he decided to try to take a chainsaw to his parent’s house. I haven’t heard about him for a long time, but I hope he’s doing better…
When EunBong and I first started talking about getting married I couldn’t believe her parents would give their consent, but she assured me her family wasn’t normal and her parents only cared whether or not she was happy. She said if she loves me, then her parents will, too. The more I slowly learned about her family, the more my family, extended and step included, seemed like we had nothing to be concerned with. Even my Sicilian family in New Jersey seemed, at worst, on par. (EunBong has given me permission to write this. When I can get away with writing as much about my own family, I will!)
The first thing I learned was that she has three brothers and a sister. Her parents had both been married before and each had two children, her father, Im Young Sup, had two sons and her mother, Kim Young Ja, had a son and a daughter. Young Ja’s first husband was running around with other women and she’d had enough. She met Young Sup at a bar while he was keeping himself busy running around on his wife and they ran off together. When she became pregnant with EunBong, they kept running as far as they could get from Suwon, to the south-west province of Korea, where Young Sup is from.
They went from place to place trying to find what ever jobs they could, milking cows, or what ever farm work needed to be done. Young Ja’s husband was a rich man and the bigger her belly got, the more concerned she grew for the circumstance of her own life. She snuck out one morning and headed across the feild for the road where the bus would eventually go by and take her back to her family. Still a ways away, she saw the bus coming through the hills. Eight months pregnant and all, she couldn’t get to the road fast enough, but managed to wave down the bus driver’s attention. As the bus stopped to wait for her, she looked over her should to see Young Sup coming behind her on an old bicycle as fast as his heart and feet could petal. As he flew through the rice paddy, his front wheel suddenly caught and the bike flipped over sending him into the air head over heels. Somehow, he managed to hit the ground running and caught Young Ja just before she reached the bus. He yelled to the bus driver to keep going, and he did. They kept going as well, and EunBong was born in YeoSu, a beautiful city on the south coast.
They did return to Suwon together and raised EunBong along with Young Sup’s two sons. Since then, her parents have divorced in a fit of anger, and regret it but don’t want to go through all the paper work to get married again. They’re together almost everyday anyway. EunBong’s brothers have both left, not to be heard from since, her mother’s son was never really a part of her life anyway, and her sister has disowned EunBong and her father. When she heard that EunBong was getting married, she threatened to sabotage the wedding and if we went to Canada she would go to the airport and stop us. EunBong’s dad in turn cut off all contact with her and EunBong’s mom has had to call and visit in secret since. By the time we got married, there’d been so many problems in EunBong’s mother’s family that only her one uncle came.
Young Sup’s life seems to has always been difficult. His mother died not long after he was born and his father didn’t know much what to do with his children after. His sister stepped in as the matriarch of the family and raised him along with her own. When he first had a family of his own, there were three sons. His first son was the smartest, most well-mannered son. He was flying a kite on the rooftop of their building and walked over the edge and was gone. Part of Young Sup’s charm, but perhaps also why he gives the women in his life such a hard time, is that he’s 61 years old but still 16 at heart. I wonder how much losing his mother and son had to do with that.
In May, EunBong’s aunt was in the hospital and needed a small operation done. Young Sup asked if we would go visit his sister together before EunBong and I left for Canada, so two weeks before leaving, that’s what we did.
I always enjoy taking a ride into the countryside. I knew this would be a different sort of trip from what i was used to, but I’d enjoy it just the same. It was a few hours driving, and I mostly zoned out from the conversation. It’s pretty much not worth spending the energy trying to understand gossip about her mom’s friends, Yi Myung Bak, or her collection of gold jewelry. Occasionally, my ears would get caught on something though. The first time we stopped for gas, her dad got out of the car and her mom immediately started going on about a beautiful jewelry box she’d seen in Young Sup’s apartment. Thinking it was probably for her, she opened it and found it was full of, “those things that are like balloons.” “What balloon things?” EunBong enquired. Young Ja leaned between the two front seats and whispered, “You know, sexy balloons.”
We kept driving until we reached a part of the highway I remembered from a previous trip. For quite a section the highway, the surrounding hills are covered in Chestnut trees. I was looking out the window at the hills when I heard EunBong say something about marijuana and her father shouted back a bit of a rant. EunBong told me she said to her parents that when we’re in Canada she’s curious to try marijuana. I couldn’t believe she’d told that to her parents. In Korea there’s little difference seen between marijuana, coke, or heroin. He father basically told her not to because it’s so much trouble and it will ruin her life. I told him that in Canada it’s really not much trouble unless you’re selling or have a lot of it. He told us that in Korea it’s a lot of trouble and that a while back his father sold most of their land and invested it in marijuana. He ended up in trouble, beaten up badly and lost everything. I wondered what an old man in Korea in the 60’s or 70’s would have been doing investing in marijuana. It was never that popular in Korea, even then. Her father kept talking, then EunBong told me her father said something about the red flower marijuana has. I started to answer, “Marijuana doesn’t have a red flower.” Then, I let out an, “Ooooh! It wasn’t marijuana, it was poppies! And yes, that is a lot of trouble, in Canada too!” My mind went back to when I first met Young Sup and he warned me that EunBong’s family has no money, now I know what happened to the family fortune!
We made our way around JeonJu City and starting winding up the side of a mountain. Near the top, we saw a temple gate and pulled up the steep driveway. The was one shrine and the monks quarters. The head monk was sitting on a platform beneath a persimmon tree. EunBong’s father joined us in the temple and we did three bows together. Her mom sat with the monk and smoked a cigarette.
Not much further we were in a valley and just about in Imshil. We stopped at a small convenience store along a row of small, one storey, run down, old houses with tiled roofs to by a dried fish and a bottle of alcohol to bring to Young Sup’s father’s tomb. The man initially gave EunBong and I a stern look, probably not used to seeing mixed couples, but lit up when he saw Young Sup come in. It was his childhood friend and sister’s neighbor. It gave me a different sense of the place to know this is where Young Sup grew up.
EunBong’s aunt’s house was a small, traditional, one-storey building part way up a steep slope, surrounded by her Korean yellow cattle and tobacco fields in front and the lush hills behind. Her aunt was there, in front, to greet us. Before I could get out of the car, she’d already grabbed Fina from EunBong’s arms and, with her hunched posture, quickly wadled back into her house. In five summers in Korea, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a cold day in June, and that day wasn’t any exception, but EunBong’s mother and aunt were convinced the baby was going to get cold. She had her regular baby clothes and a thick set of pajamas on over them and was sweating, but I was yelled at everytime I unzipped her. I pleaded with EunBong to say something to her family but, thanks to Confucius, I was told I had to listen to them because they’re older. I eventually rocked Fina to sleep in my arms and set her down on a pile of blankets so we could climb the hill behind the house to EunBong’s grandfather’s tomb and pay our respects.
There was just enough of a path through the vegetation and haze to show the way. We followed Young Sup up the hill until we arrived at a group of small tombs. I asked which one was her grandfather’s but EunBong told me that these weren’t her family’s. Young Sup told EunBong he he’d sold the land a while back but really regretted it now because now there is no place for his family to have their tombs. There had been a peach tree there, when he was a boy, that the new landowners must have cut down. He pointed up a few meters past the tombs to his fathers tomb, in the shadows of the treeline. He broke the dried fish up into a few pieces and tossed them around each corner of the tomb and splashed the bottle of traditional ale around until it was empty. Young Sup bowed in the soil to his father father and EunBong and I followed after. In contrast to the well kept and green tombs just below, this one was in hard shape. A small grey pile of mud and clay with no grass growing from it at all. The ferns and shrubs around it were taller than the tomb itself, nearly blocking it from view. EunBong told me that in Korea, if you don’t take care of the father’s tomb your family will have lots of misfortune. She wondered if it might have something to do with the state of her family now and her absent brothers. I told Young Sup that when I come back from Canada I’d really like to come back with him with and fix his father’s tomb. I don’t know if he believed me bit I meant it and really hope we do. I don’t know wether or not I believe it will bring her brothers back, but it’s worth the effort.
We decended back twords the house and when we got there the women had Fina wrapped up on the floor like a corndog in sticky, old winter blankets. Regardless of protests from the elders, I unwrapped her and didn’t let anyone near her for a while. A week and a half later the heat rash finaly faded from her skin. EunBong’s aunt and parents went to visit the tomb of her aunt’s husband and we stayed behind with the baby and cows. It was interesting to look around the property, at the tools in the hay shed, the outhouse that I almost fainted holding my breath in, the sliced vegetables drying on the porch. They had inversted in dogs (for soup) but they all died of illness, they invested in chickens with the same result, most of their farm land had been sold, all they had were a few cows, some tobacco, and a modest rice paddy.
They returned from the tomb and we ate watermelon, then it was time to leave. I saw her aunt digging in her purse and count out a pile of cash and stuck it in my hand. I tried to give it back but she wouldn’t take it. I asked EunBong to give it back but she turned the other way. Finally, EunBong’s dad was standing next to me, so I handed the money to him and motioned with my hands to give it back to his sister. He looked at the money and without hisitation stuck it in his shirt pocket. EunBong let out a gasp and told me we’d never see the money now! At least it paid for the gas and Young Sup was happy to pay for our supper on the way and that was the end of it!