What I Learned From: My Grandfather

I don’t remember much about him, but what I do remember: a booming voice that carried across a room, an unafraid voice, a voice from a generation unaccustomed to the idea of phones.  Whenever he picked one up, he yelled into it, unsure if the other person could hear him.  He spoke Korean with a northern, Pyongyang-tinged dialect, a lilting one, rendered harsh by Siberian winters.

He was an expansive man, moving in abundance and generosity.  Some of my favorite memories of him were when he came to visit, asked us if we “needed” anything from Toys R Us, and proceeded to order my father to drive us there.

He was born in 1923, at the height of Japan’s colonization of Korea.  He was fluent in Japanese, studied at Keio University, then returned to Pyongyang to work with his family of industrialists, capitalists, and landowners.

Also, they were Christians, which basically meant that there were at least four reasons the Communists wanted them dead.

Kim Il Sung’s goons came for him once, but he hid himself in the wardrobe – my grandmother standing at the door, chills running up her spine, her voice shaking as she remembered identifying the dead bodies of her cousins at the police station.  He wasn’t home, she said.

She sold it well – they went away.

Things got worse, and the war broke out.  He carried my oldest aunt, 7 at the time, on his back the whole way from Pyongyang to Busan.  They rode trains, took boats across rivers, and mostly walked.  The flood of refugees was so chaotic and compressed that sometimes babies were mistaken for luggage and thrown off the tops of trains.

They bundled all the money they had around themselves, but after carrying it thousands of miles, discovered that everything besides the gold was worthless paper.

In Busan, they became food stall peddlers.  Then they sold leather, coming home every night reeking of hides and dye.

Some of my most vivid memories are of my grandparents counting money.  They would take a wad of bills, fold it in half, lick their thumb, and rapidly flick the wad like human money counters.  They were in their golden years so I always associated it with prosperity, but I realize now that it was probably from their days as merchants.

They moved frequently.  A few years after the war, looking for startup capital, he wandered the city for a week.  My grandmother said the only time she saw him cry was when he was turned down by some people for loans.  These were “friends” who owed him the money to begin with.

I always try to measure myself against him.

When he was 30, the Korean War was on the verge of ending.  Having lost everything, he was just scraping by.

And then – for two decades, he just worked.  At one point, he saved enough to sublet space in a shoe factory near Daejeon.

This was his big break.  Before the war, his family were a clan of manufacturers.  And though they had to abandon all their property, including factories, my grandfather did have one thing left: knowledge of the precise method to make rubber.  In the desolate post-war landscape, not many other people had the knowledge.

And being sublet in the shoe factory had its advantages, because they had a ready customer for rubber soles.

By the 1970s, when my grandfather would have been 50 or so, he had completely reestablished his family’s business, with a factory churning out rubber soles for all sorts of uses.  He was on a council of a hundred businessmen personally advising Park Chung-Hee, the strongarm dictator of the decade.

They were prosperous enough that they were able to hire drivers, with a Ford Mustang and Jeep in the stable.  This was to the enormous chagrin of my father and younger aunt, who begged to be dropped off a block away from school.

And from his 50s until he passed away, just before the age of 70, my grandfather became the picture of a prosperous businessman.

Those are the outlines of his life, and that is all I know.  He died when I was 10, before I had a chance to ask him anything about life or business.  I’ve wanted to ask him so many questions.  What was the war like?  How did you go from having nothing to a KOSPI-listed company?  What did you tell himself, day after day, while struggling for decades?  What advice would you give?  What guidance?

I wish I knew more, but over the years, I’ve come to accept that maybe, he’s taught me what I need to know.

He was generous with his wealth, boisterous, loud.  He was playful, always shadowboxing with me, a big fan of “pro” wrestling, and outspoken and outgoing to a fault.  I remember him going up to complete strangers at Six Flags or Disneyland, striking up conversations in barking English monosyllables and gestures, and asking random people – usually blondes – to take pictures with him.

He came from a world where business was mostly conducted in person, and on the back of envelopes.  He carried around a little black address book, and lots of pens.  Decisive and quick, but sometimes wrong.

This made him not so good in other areas, such as principles of managerial succession, and those of finance.  With lots of debt, and no competent middle- or even senior managers at the company, it was made quick work of during the Asian financial crisis.  At some point, it was delisted.  And a few years after the AFC, it was completely liquidated.

He wasn’t alive at the time it happened.

My last memory of him was in 1992, when I held his warm, dying hand and looked into his eyes before they pulled the cord on his life support.  Only 10 at the time, I didn’t know what was happening.  I didn’t realize he was dying.  Surely after a few treatments, he would get better.  Because that’s how medical care works, right?

As a kid, no one tells you anything, especially in Korean families.  So I thought I was just there to say hi, and when my uncle told me later that he had passed away, my first reaction was disbelief and denial.

What I saw in his eyes?  They recognized me.  His grasp was light but warm.  His eyes were still very much alive.

It is a matter of family legend that his company had faced a credit crunch right before I was born.  It was an issue, again, of a loan.  After I was born, whatever the issue was, it resolved itself, and so it was the reason my grandfather prized me so much, his only grandson, because I was a good omen.  Or so it goes.

But I like to think it’s more than that.  Maybe it’s because he recognized something in me.  Maybe he wanted to pass something down to me.  Or, maybe it’s that I recognize something in him.  Maybe something he wanted me to have.

I saw a picture of my grandfather as a young man once.  He must have been in his late 20s, early 30s.  It must have been taken shortly before or after the Korean War.  It was his whole clan, his five brothers and a sister.  He was the fifth brother, and he stood at far right, the shortest one, a gaunt, almost hollow face above a wiry frame, in complete contrast to the thick, booming man that I had known.

It was a revelation about what those years between 30 and 50 must have been like.

Because his face was intense and his eyes were burning with hunger.

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