VIGNETTES OF MY HALMONI
My Halmoni is someone I have long admired. She is strong, feisty, and above all else, the kind of person that always puts others before herself. Sometimes, her selflessness goes to such an extent that it becomes too much. If she prepares a meal for my family, she will not sit down with us until all of the dishes have been cleaned so that she ensures my mother will not have any work to do later when the meal is finished.
When my mother invites her over to spend time with us, she will often start cleaning and before we know it, she is knee deep in laundry and is calling out to us to pick up the clean clothes that belong to us. Often this inability to relax and simply be causes inter-familial clashes. My mother will get upset that Halmoni refuses to just hang out; we have all come to realize that this is simply how she is wired.
Halmoni thrives when she has purpose. She thrives on being a caretaker. She is the ultimate mother, the ultimate grandmother, the ultimate maker of kimchi and mandu and honey-ginger tea.
She loves to walk. She walks every day, she tells me. At 75 years old, she still exercises every day, whether it be hiking, taking a Zumba class at the Y (“I go to Y every day!”), or riding the elliptical. Once I went to the gym with her and as I was finishing my workout she started doing this intense core and arm exercise.
“Halmoni!” I exclaimed.
“Yeah?” She turned to me, confused.
“How are you doing that?! I don’t understand how you are still so fit!”
“Ahh, no, Bella,” she laughed and shook her head.
She lives with vibrancy. When she, my sisters, and I go on walks, she always moves her arms back and forth vigorously, and when we turn back and look at her face, we see that she is grinning ear to ear. When she laughs, she is a little girl again. Amidst this happy exterior, however, I am always conscious of the pain that I know lies beneath.
I learned at a young age that my Halmoni has been through a lot in her life. She found herself stuck in an abusive relationship with my mother’s father, a relationship she entered at the age of just 19. After losing her virginity to this man, who would later stalk and haunt her for years, she felt trapped. It was a different time. She had no other options. She had to marry him. After all, he had taken her virtue, and back then in late 1960s South Korea, that was the way things were.
When I first had the idea to write this novella, it was on one of these walks that Halmoni and I do together. We started talking about her childhood, and for the first time in a long time, she began to open up to me. She told me about how she struggled to make it to America because my mother’s father was following her around. She told me about how she had to sneak into his house just to visit her children, how she had to come up to the fence of my uncles’ school just to get time with them. These stories are ones that my mother was completely unaware of. She had no idea that there was an entire year-long period in which Halmoni was unable to be there for her as a mother. It was also during this time that my mother obtained severe burns on the backs of her legs (that she still has to this day) from sitting on a pot of boiling rice.
Though my mother does not remember exactly how she got the burns, she remembers the aftermath clearly: there was no ice in the house, so her paternal aunt, whom my mother called Gomo Halmoni and had a hunched back, took recently peeled potato skins and laid them across the backs of her legs.
My mother still remembers the way her legs stung with each skin and feeling in more pain than before. She asserts that this lack of care - she didn’t even go to the hospital - is what resulted in the severity of the scars. These scars impacted her mental psyche all her life - during the elementary school swim unit when kids laughed and pointed, throughout high school, and she even ended up writing her college essay about how growing up with the scars had made her a stronger person.
Hearing her relay the story back to me after all these years, I always wonder what would have happened had Halmoni been living with her at the time. Would she have gone to the hospital and gotten more extensive medical attention? Would she have developed scars at all? Would my mother still have developed the fierce and resolute personality that she is known for today?
To the reader –– The stories to follow are structured in a combined style of historical fiction and memoir writing. This collection of short stories, or vignettes, if you will, reflect the present recollections of experiences over time of those that I interviewed. All names and places mentioned are taken from interviews I conducted with Halmoni, my mother, and various other family members. That being said, there were still some places where there were some plotline gaps, so I took some creative license and filled in details in accordance with my research. This was done to make the stories flow more smoothly. Dialogue has been recreated or compressed, scenes have been reimagined, and the order of certain events may have been slightly altered. Whenever dialogue shows up in italics, it signifies Halmoni’s thoughts looking back on a specific incident or topic in the present time. These quotes were taken from interviews this spring with Halmoni.
To my family –– When I realized that there was an untapped well of stories such as this one still living inside Halmoni, I sought to do something about it. Convincing her to speak with me was quite a difficult task. She does not often make herself vulnerable by sharing details of her past, so when she finally agreed to take part in this project, I was a bit shocked, but most of all, excited.
And finally, to Halmoni –– I admire and respect you deeply. Thank you for giving my mother and uncles a new life here. I would not be here without you. Thank you for being such a powerful force in my life. Thank you for sharing your story with me. Though you claim at times it brings you shame, it fills me with nothing but pride.
I love you.
I was thinking... it’s not really special...
I don’t know, I don’t want to show my secrets to people
When I die, maybe the people can read it
I don’t have any good reputation in my life. I just ashamed because I’ve been married so many times…
And I’m not really…
Even though I’m healthy - I’m not dependent on any kids, I live by myself -
But sometimes I’m ashamed of myself.
I’m not politician. I’m not doctor. I’m just normal wife.
So I’m not a good reputation to the kids.
I never thought about it like this, but when you get older, you think so many different things, and oh my god, what I did, I didn’t do anything until now.
But anyway, that’s how I feel.
On an autumn day in Seoul, November 5th, 1944, Kim Hee Ja was born. Her father was Kim Myoung Won, a business owner, and her mother was Lee Soon Duk. they met through an arranged marriage, because that is how things were back then.
Kim Myoung Won was a generous man, and some even called him the mayor of their town. He was rich, despite the fact that he did not obtain much inheritance from his family. He was a hard worker, a trait that Hee Ja learned to revere and value from a young age. He owned a factory that sold building bricks, and had a lot of land to his name. Myoung Won would often house workers in some of his many residences, and was known to give away money to those who needed it on a whim.
Hee Ja was the middle child of five siblings. She was the eldest girl. Two girls, three boys. That was their family. All of the children got along seamlessly. Except Hee Ja’s brother. Something always seemed to be bothering him. Only later would they discover that he suffered from severe depression for the majority of his life, an illness that ultimately ended in his own suicide just five years ago.
The frigid air bit at Hee Ja’s arm like a small dog begging for food. With each gust of wind, she felt as if she was being pushed farther and farther away from her destination – school. Every morning for years, she had made the five mile trek to school. Always with friends, always in their uniform skirts - no matter if it was sunny or snowstorm weather - because they weren’t allowed to wear pants in the classroom. It was just part of her routine. School was fine enough for Hee Ja. She didn’t mind it. She liked learning, and she knew that education was important. Her parents had stressed that since she was a little girl. She also loved the Hyuk Ye Hae event that her school put on every year, when everyone would get together on the field and play games, dance, sing, and run around for the entire day. It was her favorite day of the year.
One day, when Hee Ja had arrived back at home from a long day of school, she saw her brother crying and yelling with their mother in the kitchen.
“What happened to him?” Hee Ja pressed, looking towards her mother for answers. She sighed as she pulled her jet black hair out of its bun and let it cascade down her delicate pale shoulders.
She looked at Hee Ja, concern etched into the lines of her face, “He says that when he was coming home on the bus today, he felt really dizzy and had a headache.”
He had just seemed off lately. Everyone had noticed it. Her brother attended Seoul Middle school, one of the most pressurized schools in the area, so it was not necessarily uncommon that he was feeling under the weather or not obtaining sufficient sleep. It was normal, they had all said – necessity even, for one to get a good education. But that day, had all been too much for him, Hee Ja presumed.
Soon after that day, her brother transferred to a new school. Even after, however, something still didn’t seem to be right with him. He moped around the house, constantly lethargic and dejected. And after a while, this simply became his personality, his way of being. Years later, when Hee Ja learned he had committed suicide at the age of just 50, she was overwhelmed by mixed emotions.
When I got the call...I was really upset, but I’m so happy. Because he doesn’t have to suffer. So everybody was thinking... he got a good decision. He was...I think he was around 50. He didn’t even marry; he doesn’t wanna marry, he doesn’t wanna deal with people, and uh, he just lived on his own.
Hee Ja was six years old when North and South Korea went to war. Though her immediate family was from South Korea, in Seoul, she also had relatives living in North Korea. She would never see those relatives again.
Their family had to escape Seoul; everyone was fleeing. Her parents were overcome with worry and fear. No one could trust anybody at that time. Anyone could be a spy for the other side. No one was safe. Hee Ja’s father was even captured at one point to be questioned. Thankfully, he escaped, but this quick chance encounter with death was enough to spur him to move his entire family away for the duration of the war.
So many Korean people during war; we don’t know who is spy and who is good people, who is bad people. So during wartime, some bad people and rich people, education people, they (individual bad people -- connected with North Korean people) grab them and they kill them. So my father actually, once they caught him, grab him, took him somewhere. And then he stayed there about two or three days, and then he ran away somehow.
They moved to a cave, as Hee Ja explained it to me later. No - she interjects - it was a bunker. In the countryside. Though she doesn’t remember a lot, those months in the country were filled with memories of playing outside and sprinting back to the bunker to hide at the softest rumble of an airplane.
After the war was over, they were able to come back home. When they arrived at their house, the grass in the front had grown almost as tall as Hee Ja.
I don’t remember nothing. So after war we came back home. The grass growing a lot. Like my half size of grass. And everybody was crash the house, everybody was so hungry...
Park Sun Ming
It had been a calm day at school at Hee Ja had just arrived home. It was spring. She was now a senior in high school, and her graduation day was fast approaching. As she walked towards her room to get started on her homework, she realized that there was an unfamiliar face in her home – a young man clad in a soldier’s uniform. His face was stern but handsome, beautiful even. Hee Ja’s heart couldn’t help but skip a beat.
“He is here running an errand for his supervisor,” Hee Ja’s father explained. The young man’s lips curled up into an ever so slight smile as he looked Hee Ja up and down. She blushed, feeling embarrassed and excited all at the same time.
The young man was Park Sun Ming. He was a soldier stationed in Hee Ja’s neighborhood, and several years her senior. He was born in North Korea, and had traveled over to South Korea with his father and brother at the age of nine. He was raised by his aunt, who happened to be a hunchback, because his father was always working.
The young man would later become Hee Ja’s lover, abuser, and ghost. But that would all come later.
“Would you like to go get some ice cream?” Park Sun Ming asked aloud, starting intently at Hee Ja. His eyes were so filled with hope, Hee Ja couldn’t help but say yes. Her father seemed to have no issue with the young man, so they left together into the balmy afternoon.
And so it began. Hee Ja’s first love affair. She was just a teenager, and easily influenced by Park Sun Ming’s charm and affection; she had never felt so much attention before. Park Sun Ming would walk by her house nearly every day, coming up to her window and whistling her favorite Japanese song to her. That became their secret code. When Hee Ja heard him whistling the song, she would sneak out of her window to meet him.
Her parents were livid when they discovered what was going on. Her father did not approve of Park Sun Ming. Her mother did not approve of Park Sun Ming. In fact, they hated him. An ice cream date was one thing, but a serious relationship was another. Especially at that time. He came from a low class family and had nothing to offer their daughter in terms of financial security. But Hee Ja was blinded by love.
At least, she was in love with him for a short time. Before the beatings began. Before she realized he was an alcoholic. Before she realized how violent of a man he was.
I’m so ashamed. At first I really love him. Because I am so immature. Because I live in the cage, with parents, and I never explored anything. And then all the sudden I met this guy. And he got so many experience.
When her parents found out about their relationship, they would lock Hee Ja inside the house. They hid her shoes so she couldn’t go outside. Her father even communicated with Park’s superior, the head soldier, so that Park would not have to come by the house to do business errands anymore.
But if Park Sun Ming was anything, he was persistent. Any chance he got, he would walk by Hee Ja’s window. Whistling, whistling, waiting. Waiting for her to give in.
They continued to see each other, off and on, for years and years. He was the first man Hee Ja slept with. He became the father of Hee Ja’s three children.
At that time, the woman did not play around other man. If you’re not virgin, you can’t marry. I don’t know, not like new modern life.
Hee Ja knew that once she had lost her virginity, she was essentially ineligible to wed anyone but Park Sun Ming. She felt trapped in her relationship, and she felt tied to him despite the mental and physical pain he caused her. Hee Ja quickly grew disillusioned to Park Sun Ming’s initial charisma. He was violent. He was aggressive. On the slightest whim – perhaps a dish was out of place, perhaps he didn’t enjoy the dinner Hee Ja prepared – he would beat her mercilessly. It did not take long for Hee Ja to realize she had made a horrific mistake.
Already I lost my virginity .. so I thought I could not find any other man because I lost virginity to him. Because I so stupid. So I want to get away from him. But, oh, I don't know what to do. So always I dragging from him….Then after I got pregnant, I marry him. I didn’t like him. But I had no choice.
After Hee Ja had her three children, Phillip, Won, and Melinda, my mother, she started thinking of ways to get them and herself away from Park Sun Ming.
Johnny Nash: The “GI Lover”
Enter Johnny Nashe, an American soldier stationed in Korea. Hee Ja was recently divorced and desperate to start a new life where she could be far away from Park Sun Ming’s influence. During this time, Hee Ja was working in a tailor shop. One day, Johnny entered requesting to get fitted for a suit. There, he saw Hee Ja. Her boss, who was also a family friend, knew that she was trying to get over to the States, and he knew that Johnny was a single man. It seemed like a perfect solution. My Halmoni, pictured above with the man who owned the tailor shop in Korea she was working in when she met Johnny Nash.
As I songwriter, I have often drawn upon the experiences, or stories I have heard, moreover, about members of my family. When I released a collection of songs last fall, the final track was called GI Lover. The song encapsulates an epic love story: a GI falls for a woman while stationed overseas; they make plans to travel back together but they are torn apart by the war; the woman becomes pregnant but the GI must leave her….it is an understatement to say that the song was loosely based on Halmoni’s story, because I took liberal creative liscence with it. Perhaps the only thing Halmoni’s story had in common with my song is that it follows a woman who wants to come to America, and there is a GI involved. When I spoke with Halmoni about her marriage to Johnny Nash, however, I realized just how much I had romanticized my lyrics. I had created this glamorous image in my head of what their relationship was; I pictured them as two star crossed lovers, when in reality, their arrangement was much more for practicality and function than it was for passion.
Melinda - Not Your Typical Korean Name
My mother was born Won Shidi Park. When she came to America, she was five years old. Typically – at least this is how it went down in my family – Koreans who immigrate simplify their Korean names in some way and change the spelling to make it more Western. For instance, my two uncles were born Won Pilli Park and Won Hongie Park; they changed their names to Phil and Hong, respectively. But for my mother, the English transliteration of her name would probably be closest to Shiddi, or Shid pronounced with the slightest “t” sound. Not even realizing all of the horrific nicknames that could be spawned from that name in rural Oregon in the 80s, my Halmoni decided that it was time to pick a new name for my mother.
Halmoni’s first job upon arrival in America was working in food services at Providence hospital in Oregon, and found a community there among her coworkers. At this time, she and my mother had already been brainstorming what her new name should be. They had been looking at lists of American names, and my mother had already decided upon a few favorites: Tina, Susan and Stephanie. Halmoni had to get a second opinion, though, as they had just landed in a new country, and she of course wanted to pick the best name possible for her daughter. So one day, she brought a huge list of names to the hospital, asking each of her coworkers what their favorite name on the list was. After interviewing that vast majority of them, she found there was a pattern in their top pick: Melinda. Halmoni walked out of work that day feeling accomplished. In her eyes, picking a new name for her daughter had been the last thing stopping them from assimilating into their new community.
“Hello Melinda!” Halmoni exclaimed as she swung upon the door and walked into Johnny’s house.
My mother turned to her, perplexed.
“That’s your new name. Melinda.” Halmoni repeated with a smile.
“Meh-lin-dah.” She said once more, slowly as to emphasize each syllable.
My mother scrunched up her face; she had much preferred Tina. Almost reading her mind, Halmoni rushed to reassure her: “All of the people at work like Melinda. It is the best name.”
My mother shrugged.
I guess I’m Melinda now, she thought to herself.
“She has told me that Greg was the love of her life,” my mother says as she stifles a slight laugh. “He had a lot of charisma. So I think that she was in love with the idealism behind what their relationship could’ve been. ‘Cause he was kind of the epitome of what, for her in her eyes, was just a gold mine of an American guy.”
Over the years, I have heard quite a bit about Mr. Gregory Warne. He was Halmoni’s final husband, and the utterance of his name has always carried with it an air of intrigue and mystery. Growing up, I knew a few key facts about him:
He was an Aussie man by birth, and grew up in a rather small family; he had one brother.
He owned a rifle business at some point - Kimber rifles it was - and Halmoni actually worked there for a while when they were together.
He had children of his own and a wife before he got together with Halmoni.
But what I did not know was the extensive mental anguish their relationship bestowed upon my mother, who was just middle school aged at the time that they first met.
“Greg was a philandering womanizer,” my mother continues, “He was married. He had a whole family…”
Confused, I ask, “So Halmoni and him were together while he was still married?”
“They lived in sin and had a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship. They didn’t get married until I was in college,” my mom states with quite a bit of distaste in her tone; her mouth scrunches up like she has just eaten something bitter.
Upon his graduation from Washington University, Greg started working as a certified public accountant at a company called Price Waterhouse. The job required that he travel extensively, and he often took trips down to Costa Rica for work. Greg’s father was the CEO of a chainsaw company in Oregon (The most good chainsaw company!, as my Halmoni put it). After some years, Greg lost interest in his job, and ended up going into business with his father. Together, they started a company, Warne manufacturing; Greg owned the sector that manufactured rifles, and his father controlled the sector that produced the scope mounts, which Halmoni explained to me is an essential mounting accessory that one needs to properly use a rifle.
It was after he was endeavoured in this rifle business when Halmoni met him for the first time. Halmoni was driving at night with her friend, Pyeong Fulk. It was Pyeong’s mother’s birthday, and Halmoni was driving around town trying to find their house. They got lost, so Halmoni pulled over and went into an office building where she saw a light was still on.
And in my mother’s words, “She pulled over into the parking lot and she tap tap tap went into his office.”
Mr. Warne was unable to help her get directions, but their exchange resulted in Pyeong landing a job at Kimber, the rifle company of which he was of course the CEO. As Halmoni explained to me, “So I told him, she’s my friend, she need a job can you give her a job? I just tell him. And he said, okay, and then he gave me a card. But after that, I forgot [about Greg] because you know, I have husband.”
But Greg never forgot meeting my Halmoni that night. He somehow obtained Halmoni’s contact information from Pyeong, or so my mother believes, and one day, he invited her out to coffee. Halmoni assumed that Greg only wanted to take her out so that they could talk about her friend and see how she was adjusting:
“I thought maybe for her job. So we meet together, him and I just together, without her... I didn’t think anything [of it].”
“Was there a connection at first sight?” I ask her.
“Oh no no no. I never thought about anything. When you see someone you can't just fall in love.”
That connection blossomed over the next several years, however, while Greg was still married to his first wife.
“When I met him he’d been married. He was with wife. So I told him, ‘I don't wanna really close together with you because you have family.’ I don't wanna hurt his wife and families. He always said, ‘I never loved her’ you know, I don't know if it’s truth. So then one day, they got big fight, and he got away, he got divorce.”
Leading up to that day, however, things were not so simple. Halmoni was living with her three children - my mother and two uncles - and Greg would split his time with her family and his first family. It was a confusing time for all the children involved, and my mother was especially affected, as she felt she had lost her father in leaving Johnny.
To say that there were tensions during this time is a massive understatement. My mother has later described this time of her life as when she felt most neglected by her own mother. It was during these years that she began to drink, smoke, and use drugs with quite a bit of regularity, and she has never shied away from attributing that usage to the neglect she felt from her mother.
My mom first found out about Greg and Halmoni’s relationship one day when Greg called the home phone. My mother was about 10 or 11, and in middle school.
“So he said, ‘Hi, is Hui there?’ And I picked up the phone, like, ‘Uh, yeah.’ I put the phone down. And then she gets this phone call, and then she leaves. And Johnny comes and asks me, ‘Who was on the phone? Where's your mom going?’ And these phone calls started to collect, it was like a series of them.”
My mother didn’t know what to think. She was so young. But slowly, slowly, she began to put the pieces together. She started to understand what was going on. It was hard for her to comprehend why her mother wanted to leave Johnny, because Johnny Nash had essentially raised her. She never knew her own birth father and never had a relationship with him. Johnny was the only father she had ever known, and then Halmoni went and broke things off with him, almost without an explanation.
But Halmoni had a rationale:
Jonny Nashe - good man, good heart. But he’s landscaper. [Among] asian people, low class they marry low class. Middle class middle class. High class people high class. But when a woman have the education they wanna have high class people. So when I met Johnny Nashe he was a good man, but he cutting grass people’s house! So I thought oh my gosh! I was thinking, when I wanna come to United States with Melinda, I wanna bring my two kids, that's why I came! Maybe I was bad woman. The reason I marry him; I wanna come to America somehow. … that's my purpose… to bring my other two kids. That's why I came.
Why wasn’t Halmoni there for my mom? It seems shocking to imagine that Halmoni, a woman who always puts others before herself, was unable to provide the emotional support that my mom needed at the time. Love, lust, and an idealized image of the better life that Greg could provide with her seemed to take over - she was fully shrouded in rose colored glass, oblivious to the pain my mother was experiencing.
I really love Greg. I loved him a lot. Anyway, I loved him. We were crazy.
To be continued….