My Harabuji

January 19, 2012
By Caroline Park BRONZE, Bethesda, Maryland
Caroline Park BRONZE, Bethesda, Maryland
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

Extend the aftermath of Katrina from Louisiana to North Dakota. Then push it west, to California and east, to Maryland. Imagine all of America like New Orleans after the deluge. That was the Korea of my 20-year-old grandfather, Byung-hak in 1953. His father was dead, his entire family depended on him to survive, and around him was desolation. He stood up from those ruins and made a wonderful, meaningful, beautiful life for himself and all those around him. You can't imagine how much I love and admire my Harabuji.

As I packed to go to the U.S.A., I thought back on my peripatetic life overseas as a military brat, and what it meant to be an American abroad. I knew it started with making a place for all other people, even former enemies, and always looking for the good and learning from it. That was the unspoken message I got from my grandpa during my most important experience in Japan, our trip to Hiroshima.

I remember being excited. The “night sleep train” to Hiroshima was my first long trip in Japan with my Harabuji. He was everything I strived to be: calm, thoughtful, brilliant, hardworking. Years before, in Korea, he became a schoolteacher, earned a masters in education from SNU at night, and later won a prestigious scholarship for PhD study in Japan at Hiroshima University. I couldn't help thinking about the strength of his forgiveness when he told me he overcame animosity between Koreans and Japanese by dedicated study and patience, impressing his fellow students and sensei (teacher).

Hiroshima's station was old and dusty, and that afternoon we visited the widow of my grandfather’s sensei. She still kept a large portrait of her dead husband, placing letters, rice, and side-dishes beside it and speaking to him, as if he were alive. My grandfather's eyes were shining at that moment, and I, too, was deeply moved.

Later, we went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, and, in the hush, saw the visitors' sad faces and the remnants of the atom bomb – charred children’s clothes, a small tricycle – which made me and my brother cry. But as much as the thousands of paper cranes in the peace garden commemorated the souls of those who died, so did the reverence and humanity I saw in my Harabuji's eyes for the victims of that terrible day.

My grandpa is an imposing man, but the only thing I ever feared about him was his disappointment. I wanted to please his dazzling character, to make him proud to be my grandfather, just as I was to be his granddaughter. I often wondered to myself, when could I be like him? Can I make the same decisions, sacrifices he had to make to get to where he is now? Of course, he and I lead vastly different lives, but my respect derives more from his attitude towards life. He embodies the tenacity, generosity, and hopefulness I've been aiming for all 16 years of my life. But it was his struggle, his constancy, and his goodness that made him a great yangban (scholar) and man, and made my "different" life possible.

Somewhere along the way, in my search for becoming more like him, I've found a meaningful balance between my own lessons and life experiences and the ideals he represents. But I will never stop learning from him.

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