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Letters About Literature

Dear Ms. Lee,

This summer my grandparents flew from South Korea into Seattle for a month-long stay with my family. It was the first time I had seen them in four years. We rarely visit my extended family in Korea, but somehow, I was simultaneously excited and terrified by their arrival. At first, I wasn’t sure what to say or how to act around them. How did one interact with people so closely related but so distant? I feared that I might remain aloof for an entire month. But as I spent more and more time with my grandparents, I was reminded of your story of respect and sacrifice, and I soon gained a new respect for both my grandparents and my parents that forged a deeper connection between us.

As a Korean, you know our customs on special occasions, one of which is the ceremony called “jeol,” in which the younger generation performs a special bow for the generation above, as a sign of great respect. My family agreed that my grandparents’ safe arrival was such a special occasion. So we gathered in the living room with my grandparents sitting cross-legged on the floor. My parents and I bowed as one, and as I prostrated myself before my grandparents, kneeling slowly with my head down, hands joined, I began to wonder: how could I, who have only spent a tiny fraction of my life with my grandparents, come to respect them for any other reason than because they are my grandparents? Not having given much thought to my limited relationship with my grandparents, I now desperately wanted to make sure that I didn’t lose my already tenuous grasp on my culture, the story of my family.

I was reminded of your book, Quiet Odyssey by one of the stories that my grandfather told me in between the halves of a World Cup soccer match. He told me about the rest of our family in North Korea; my grandfather was studying law in college in Seoul when the Korean War broke out and he was unable to return to his family. Much like the isolation my grandfather faced in Seoul, you had to start from scratch in America, without the foundation of family or someplace to genuinely call home. Nevertheless, as you say, your family showed “a strong, quiet courage in the face of danger”. I admired your struggle to live isolated from your extended family and as an outsider in a foreign country. Your father always found some work to do, no matter how exhausted he was, whether it was picking fruit, or mining for quicksilver. You realized the value of your own education and were willing to wake up before the sun did in order to finance it. And all the while, you never forgot your family, and recognized the sacrifice that your father made when he was slowly poisoned by the mercury in the mine, when your husband became ill from his strenuous work in the rice fields. Through your stories I began to understand my own grandfather’s struggle to live without his own family and that brought us closer together.

At the same time, your story helped me to understand my parents’ struggles and shed light upon a gap that I never knew existed. Before reading your book, I hadn’t given a thought to the journey my parents made from South Korea to America. Even though they arrived without having to endure the same hardships that you faced, I was nevertheless able to hear my parents’ story deep within yours. My parents left behind a foundation of comfort in which they could have stayed for a place where they would be far from their own family and friends. You and your parents departed from your pioneering grandmother, for a land completely foreign and strange. I have yet to fully understand my parents’ sacrifice at all, but now I recognize that the path to my life in America was not easy, that my parents and their parents gave up much to give me what I have now.

Through your story, Ms. Lee, I was able to make sense of the great odyssey of life, complete with the struggles that must be overcome and the sacrifices to be made. Your family could have given up, tired of moving around and not finding better work, but you pressed onward, just as my parents and my grandparents did when they found themselves beset with isolation and sadness. The knowledge that people so close to me continue to forge on in their own odyssey, keeps me going when I feel defeated and discouraged, for it is as you say: “a good firm foundation has been laid on which our future generations will find it easier to build their dreams”. Thank you for helping me to become closer to my family’s quiet odyssey.

Sincerely,

John Kang