“I loved going to school,” my grandma always says when she’s about to recount one of her favorite and oft-repeated memories of her elementary school years. Signaling to me with her hand softly grasping mine, and a nostalgic twinkle in her eye, my halmoni is letting me know she’s about to transport the two of us across oceans and generations to a moment that, to her, feels like just yesterday–not nearly eighty years prior.
The story always begins with my halmoni setting the stage for the drama. Her story occurs in the middle of an unusually hot summer even for Seoul, which is experiencing the political turmoil of Japanese occupation and the looming threat of war on a global scale. Amidst the unrest brewing in the air, my halmoni was a young and excited nine-year-old for whom this particular day was an important day in history. Today was the day of her fourth-grade field trip.
She always pauses here to note that she was lucky to have been encouraged by her parents to attend school and excel academically. Girls in rural areas might not even have gone to school in their elementary years because they were expected to work on their family farm and support their family. And eventually, it was expected for all young women to be married off to a suitable partner.
But my halmoni, in her own words, was lucky, and she attended an all-girls school several kilometers from her home outside of Seoul (though there was an all-boys school not more than 500 meters away). Every morning she walked and rode the train, traveling for hours on foot, for the opportunity to get a formal education.
On field trip days, she woke up even earlier than usual, before the sun had even rose, and put on her uniform that was ironed and bleached a crisp white for the special day. She ran to the train station, rode the train to another town, and ran even further to the designated departure point to be able to make it on time. My halmoni, an exuberant storyteller, describes how by the end of her journey her once-white sneakers always turned a yellowish mustard-brown, or how as she got closer and closer to the meeting location, she felt her heart leap out of her chest, and the sound of her metal silverware clanging around her dosirak lunch container full of homemade kimbap and kimchi seemed to announce her imminent arrival –please, wait for me! I’m coming!
The end of the story is always the same. My halmoni arrived at the meeting location from where her class was supposed to depart, and the class without fail would already have left. The meeting time had been 7:30AM, and there had never been a chance that she would have made it to the departure point that early even after boarding the earliest train.
As she tells this story, my halmoni always laughs at the end, as if the story was a fun and happy memory, not a story that I’ve always perceived to end in sadness and disappointment –a sign of futile effort and missed opportunity. I’ve often wondered if the laughter that followed and her continuous re-telling of this story has been a way for her to make light of a situation that was outside of her control. A way to remind her grandchildren to be grateful for the opportunities that we have growing up in a time and place so unrecognizably different from her own, and a reminder that our own youth and excitement with which we viewed the world was also limited.
But another part of me has wondered if this memory actually does hold more than just the frustration and disappointment that I feel as the onlooker into my halmoni’s childhood. In many ways, her elementary school years were a time in her life when she was still hopeful and running towards not away from something. The efforts and energy she put into running kilometers to make her school field trip were for herself and herself only. There was not yet a pressure coming from behind, no pressure of a younger sibling or vulnerable child depending on her for their survival. I think she tells this story again and again because it reminds her of the years right before she would lose everything –her home, her husband, her dream of pursuing higher education, due to a war that was far more hopeless and outside of her control than a missed field trip.
Alongside the stories that my halmoni tells over and over again are the stories that I’ve only heard through careful prodding and pleading. The stories that often go omitted or are told more through their silence. I believe these stories that go untold tell us as much about our history as the ones that we choose or are able to tell. Because not many years following my halmoni running to catch her class leaving for an innocent school field trip, she was running carrying her younger sisters on her back from Seoul to Busan as she heard the sounds of descending bombs and gunfire growing closer and closer mere meters behind her.
In many ways, her elementary school years were a time in her life when she was still hopeful and running towards not away from something. The efforts and energy she put into running kilometers to make her school field trip were for herself and herself only. There was not yet a pressure coming from behind, no pressure of a younger sibling or vulnerable child depending on her for their survival.
The stories following the war of my halmoni losing her husband to a stroke and opening her home to be a bed-and-breakfast for soldiers and strange men as a widowed single mother of four, were always accompanied by an uncharacteristic weeping, and at times wordlessness, from my halmoni who I knew to be jubilant and full of life in the face of life’s hardships. These were the stories of pain and utter hopelessness, stories of trauma and poverty, and memories of running away from the harsh and indiscriminate effects of oppression.
As I hold both these stories –the ones we choose to tell and tell again, and the ones we omit out of pain or a lack of answers to our most honest questions, I’m learning to embrace the fullness of my family’s story.
My halmoni clearly lived under the constraints of patriarchy and poverty that often left her powerless and prevented her from pursuing the education that she so loved. But at the intersections of these oppressive structures, my halmoni was also a strong, independent woman who ran with her teeth clenched, heart leaping, and shoes muddied, with the defiant belief that she could and would have to survive all that she faced to care for those around her. So here I am, walking down this path and beginning to grapple with very real stories of immense suffering in my family history –ones that have often been suppressed or cast aside, unspoken and unprocessed, but attempting to hold them and lift them up alongside the stories of hope that I’ve also inherited. And in doing so, it helps me to remind myself that even in her omission, my halmoni’s life does tell a story –one of a resilient spirit, defiant hope, and relentless strength in the face of overwhelming injustice.
About the Writer: Danielle Hyesu Kwon (she/her/hers) is a Georgia native and progressive, Korean-American Christian, who often finds herself getting lost in her thoughts on race, place, identity, and justice. She currently resides in Washington, D.C., where she works on social policy research at the Urban Institute and is a member of Christ City Church, located in Northeast DC.