Speaking of Women's Rights: The Extraordinary Ordinary: One Korean 20th Century Life

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Extraordinary Ordinary: One Korean 20th Century Life

By Janet Chung

This piece is part of a Women's History Month series of profiles and personal reflections—written by Legal Voice staff and volunteers—about women of color who have shaped history... or are on their way to doing so.

You wouldn’t know it, to look at her. This tiny, wizened, polite lady, with age spots on her face and hands. She loved to dress in the fanciest suits for church, her size 5 feet clad in fine Italian leather. She ate slowly, precisely, like a bird, carefully selecting each bite with chopsticks. Unfailingly patient, she tended her African violets, turning snips from one plant into many more, until they covered nearly every windowsill.

You wouldn’t know that those hands had washed thousands of grains of rice. That those feet had walked hundreds of miles, from village to village, escaping encroaching Communist soldiers. That there were many days that a small bowl of rice was a blessing.

Born in 1910 in Japanese-occupied Korea, she probably could easily escape notice, as the second girl in a family with five children. Nothing in particular was expected of a girl in that time, in that place, but to get married. Maybe it was that ability to be hidden in plain sight that got her, at age 14, on a boat to Japan, determined to get an education.

Some dozen years later, she was a widow with a young daughter. Her husband’s family, in keeping with tradition, was obligated to provide for her. She could have spent her days among the other females in the family, consumed by the daily chores as part of a large multi-generational household. But she knew her daughter would be far down the pecking order among the many cousins when it came to resources.

So she worked, for pay, outside the home. This world was unknown to most of her women kinfolk, who rarely had occasion to leave the house or interact with strangers. The stories came out slowly over the years, the exact chronology uncertain. Your grandmother was a tutor to her brother’s children in Japan. She worked at a U.S. Army base, helping cook for the Korean workers. She was a telephone switchboard operator. She taught at a local school. She was secretary to the head of the largest hospital in Seoul. And somewhere in there, she managed to get a pig, fatten it up, and sell it for extra income.

Slowly, slowly, she squirreled away her paychecks so that she could send her only daughter to school – so she would have more opportunity than what her gender and her fatherless state would otherwise have allowed.

There were no stories about my grandmother in a dramatic moment – fighting off an attacker, giving a rousing speech, or even having a confrontation. I can’t remember a time when she so much as raised her voice or had an argument.

So this isn’t a story about your typical heroine. No one will ever make a movie about my grandmother. In point of fact, Eun Soon Lee was quite ordinary. But the life she led was also extraordinary. There are probably many like her, now, then, throughout history: each life unique in its details, but sharing the plot line of survival.

Eun Soon Lee with Janet's son (2001).
There is an aspect of the Korean character, a cultural and psychological characteristic widely accepted as central to “Korean-ness,” called han. Described as “a national torch, a badge of suffering tempered by a sense of resiliency,” han manifests itself at the social and national level, as well as the personal. It is a deeply felt sense that some injustice has been wrought. On the one hand, it is a “mixture of angst, endurance and a yearning for revenge,” yet also, “a sense of hope, an ability to silently endure hardship and suffering.” Han is also the name of a major river flowing through Seoul that has played a major role in Korean history.

My grandmother’s life was replete with this Korean essence, this han. She didn’t choose the circumstances that befell her – born into an occupied state, subjected to early widowhood, living through two wars resulting from forces well beyond her control. Yet she retained agency over her own life and, like a river, created a path that moved inexorably forward. That backbone, erect as ever, even well into her 90s, must have been forged of pure steel – strong, yet tempered by resiliency. Han.

Janet Chung is Legal & Legislative Counsel for Legal Voice. She did not inherit her grandmother's green thumb, but tries to channel her work ethic and steady persistence. She is passionate about removing barriers to opportunities for women through her advocacy for health care access and employment justice.

Photos courtesy of Janet Chung.