I met my oldest aunt in Korea only a handful of times. Yet I burst into tears when I saw her the last time, because she had changed so much. Her hair had gone stark white, her teeth had fallen out, her figure now a frail wisp of what she had been ten years ago when I last saw her.
We had been staying at my other aunt’s apartment in Seoul and were planning a brief visit to see my “Inchon E-mo,” as we called her, since she lived there in the port city — famous for the Inchon Landing, a key Korean War battle. It was now famous instead for Korea’s new International Airport, ranked number one by the World Airport Awards, and had even changed its spelling to “Incheon” from Inchon. My Seoul aunt hinted to us that we should dampen our expectations, since Inchon E-mo’s apartment was old and small compared to the glitzy apartments in the city.
We arrived at the midrise building, made of white concrete. The building’s hallways were open-air, like many motels back in the States. There was a blustery ocean breeze drafting through as we came out to her room. It reminded me vaguely of an Ocean City hotel I’d visited as a child, where the wind was so strong I thought I would get blown over the barrier and die.
We came in; I was pleasantly surprised. The quaint space was immaculately kept, with charming old-fashioned wood cabinets and an antique-style tin ceiling. If anything the place had more European old-world flair than many hypermodern urban pads. My aunt’s small bed occupied one corner and her son’s the other, with a small table in between. He sighed, my cousin in his late 50s, unemployed and having lost a fearful amount of weight.
It was then that I saw my E-mo in her changed form. I hugged her and said hello, and then quietly excused myself to go to the restroom. I didn’t want her to see me cry.
When my mother grew up in Inchon, it was a quiet if unremarkable small industrial seaport. By the time we visited my aunt for the last time, it had become an edge city to Seoul, with bullet train stops, colorful new midrises, Japanese tourist buses, and billboards advertising it as host to the 2014 Asian Games.
Inchon E-mo was 20 years older than my mother and had acted as a second mother to her. The generational chasm marked more than just years past; a swarm of events cascaded in those fateful times. Inchon E-mo was caught up in the sociopolitical chaos and yet also in a sluggish retrograde tide that left many women trapped in its lurch.
She was born in the midst of the Japanese occupation of Korea, in the late 1920s. My maternal grandparents were a gracious aristocratic couple; my grandmother’s father was the governor of Inchon province (in an old photo he wears a regal mustache and outfit that makes him resemble King Edward VII of England). My grandfather was allegedly descended from the old dynasty’s top royal scholar. I have only seen two photos of my grandparents during their youth, a pair of wedding photos. My grandfather was, quite frankly, gorgeous. His eyes stare at me with familiarity, since they are my own. My grandmother had a delicate round face with kindly feline eyes, framed in the photos by white wedding lace.
Inchon E-mo was raised to speak and read Japanese instead of Korean at school, although she still learned Korean at home. My mother recalls she was whipsmart, particularly at math. But she was frail during her youth from pneumonia and asthma, and a Japanese doctor had predicted that she would die young because of these conditions. She was in her late teens when, having lost World War II, the Japanese left Korea. She had an arranged marriage to a young man of similar social standing, and together they had a baby son in 1950. Then the Korean War happened.
Families all over were split as they desperately ran away from battle zones and became refugees. At one crucial point soon after the Landing, my mother’s family had to leave Inchon. Inchon E-mo was caught in one of many sad, all too commonplace wartime scenarios. She had to choose between staying with her husband and possibly being separated forever from her beloved nuclear family, or leaving him.
She was my grandfather’s favorite, his eldest child. Still wary of her alleged fate of dying young, he had always felt protective of her and couldn’t let her go. So she stayed with them, with her baby. In the ensuing chaos, she indeed lost touch with her husband, and wasn’t sure if he had lived or died.
Fortunately, everyone in our family survived, including all of my mother’s five siblings. A few years after the war ended, my Inchon aunt learned that her husband was alive. However, it wasn’t a happy discovery. He had remarried (albeit illegally) and already had children with another woman.
Thus my aunt’s fate was sealed. Despite being a great beauty, and as my mother put it, “smarter than all of us,” she was considered discarded goods. No one would risk becoming a social pariah by marrying her, a single mother, since she wasn’t even a widow. And in those days, careers and education remained limited only to a few very ambitious women, and were generally frowned upon. She was stuck living with her parents, raising her son and her baby sister. Sometimes, in anger, she would tell them she wished her father had let her go during the war, saying that he had ruined her life.
My grandfather died in the late 1960s and my grandmother shortly before I was born in the mid-1970s. Once, my aunt ruefully told my mother, “If I had to do it over, I would have tried somehow to remarry. Being an old woman alone, I wouldn’t do that again.” Her son also lived a stunted life, essentially married to his mother out of filial guilt. After trying once to reconnect with his father, he was shunned and then called his stepmother a “whore and concubine.” He never spoke to his father again. He lost a semi-successful business during the 1997 Korean IMF Economic Crisis and lived with his mother from then on, unable to find other stable employment.
Nonetheless, the two of them remained as cheerful as possible. My mother’s family has the gift of positive thinking and an optimistic temperament. Although Inchon E-mo stayed in Inchon (about 30 miles away from Seoul, but due to chronically atrocious traffic, more like 60-90 minutes away), she often visited her two other closest siblings (my Seoul aunt and her family, and my bachelor uncle, who became a father figure for Inchon E-mo’s son). The women would chatter away frenetically, my uncles and old cousin chain-smoking and kicking back soju, sitting on the floor playing the board game “Go” for hours on end.
Despite her childhood doctor’s premonition of doom, Inchon E-mo lived peacefully in the latter half of the century. My earliest memory of her is when I visited Korea as a child in the early 1980s. My physician father gave her an IV plasma infusion at her apartment, which Koreans felt boosted their energy. She swore that she felt cured and energetic afterwards. I remember her looking somewhat severe compared to my mother and her other sister then, with a faintly depressed air. She must have been in her 50s, just having hit menopause, realizing her one womanly “talent” of youth was now gone.
When I saw her later in the 1990s, ironically she seemed younger and more cheerful. I could see how she was once considered the beauty of her family; her eyes were rounder and her face was somehow more striking, different than her siblings. Even her name was different; she lacked the traditional matching “syllable” that all the other siblings had in their names, a typical naming convention in Korea. She and her sisters laughed and talked nonstop during our visits; they wore different colors of the same casual homedress, looking like a set of three cheery parrots.
Later, I visited Korea alone in 2000, freshly graduated from medical school. I saw Inchon E-mo once at a family banquet. I only said hello to her briefly, but I loved her and thought she looked luminous then, in her early 70s, finally exuding some of the regal air along with her natural intelligence and maturity that could have been nurtured even further if she’d been from another generation. She said I was beautiful, and told me to be well.
A decade went by, during which I finished residency training and continued to work in a tough hospital setting. The years whirred by as I spent late hours typing in order after order for this drug or that drug, for this lab test or that lab test. I treated hundreds of people—tired, sick, dying, hallucinating, crying—but felt it was my duty to succeed, to use the brains I was born with, to take charge of my own destiny while also doing something for others. My aunt’s fate would not be mine.
In 2010, I ditched a brutal academic career and a taxing boyfriend, giving up on a life I had built in the rough, glorious Big Apple. Licking my wounds, I was ready to reboot, back where I had grown up in Maryland. Before starting my new job, I visited Korea again with my mother. It was then that we stopped by Inchon, and saw my E-mo for the last time.
Separated by half a world and a half-understood language, my Korean family history had largely been a mystery to me. To compensate, I became a British royal history buff, following back centuries of filial rivalries, political gaming, broken hearts, and formidable leaders. I had always envied people who had a full sense of their family roots and ancestral tales. Here I was, finally, alone and grown up, with my oldest aunt once again, and I wanted to know more. I asked her about our family, and was rewarded with an interesting story of how their once-regal family had fallen into a comfortable but relatively modest middle-class existence after the War.
“Our grandfather, the governor, used to own what is now a large park and high school in Inchon. After our grandmother passed away, he remarried another, much younger woman. In his old age, he became demented and easily influenced. She manipulated him into signing over all his money to her. She also later remarried after he died, and they renamed the lands and school and left no trace of his having ever owned them or having founded the school. Technically we might have a claim to the place, but after all these years, it wasn’t worth it.”
I felt a touch of fury. “We should sue them, go for it!” My mother and her sisters laughed me off, and thanked me for my righteous loyalty. But on some level, I wished I really could. It was my only tie to something grander and older than myself, some trace of tradition, an old claim, a birthright. But as in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where Tess sees the tombs of her once aristocratic ancestors, time and fate can render such traditions moot.
And some traditions are better left behind. Here, now, in America, my intellect has been allowed to thrive, my right to pursue any educational and career pursuits fully nourished. Unlike my Inchon E-mo, who got caught in circumstances beyond her control and was still punished for it, I have been allowed to live as a professional woman, to support myself in my career without shame or helplessness. I still run into significant issues with sexism in the workplace, but at least I am there to fight the good fight. However, while Korea has changed, in some ways it remains less progressive regarding the role of women. Hopefully, as prosperity takes root there (though it comes with its own untoward consequences), more smart and driven women like my aunt will find fulfillment in their own purpose and calling, be it motherhood or academia or business or a combination thereof — with the societal freedom to seek and live up to their true potential.
As we prepared to say goodbye and leave Inchon E-mo’s apartment, I got up and realized that my skirt had folded into a wrinkle. She deftly smoothed it out for me, a last quick, loving gesture.
We went outside; she looked at us as we walked to the end of the hallway. We went down to our car in the parking lot. She was still outside, waving a handkerchief at us. The ocean breeze swarmed around the building, and around us, reminding one that we were at the edge of the land. It took our breath away.
A year later, on Inchon E-mo’s birthday in August, my mother got the call that Inchon E-mo had quietly passed away at the age of 84. We wept, and I felt a sudden surge of anger at her husband, who left her for dead so many years ago — left her and her son to live alone, while he lived according to his own whims, wealthy and indifferent. And perhaps I even felt a twinge of anger at my beloved E-mo, that she got passively swept by history’s riptide, that she could not find the will to swim out of it, even if the forces at work were larger than anyone could control. With everything that happened that century in Korea, my brilliant, beautiful aunt didn’t know she had it in her all along, that her life should have been in her own hands. But her story helped me find myself, and let the past rewrite the present.
Jean Kim is a psychiatrist and writer working in the Washington, DC area. She received her M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins, is a blogger for Psychology Today, and has written for The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, and other publications.