I wish I knew my maternal grandfather better. We would spend time together when we went to Korea during my summer school breaks. Once a year at first, then less frequently as time passed. He enjoyed his Soju and his Baduk.
He was elderly then and would sit in his chair most days, either napping or observing. He was a quiet man, though quick to laugh. I took him for granted when he was alive.
All I have now are other people’s stories of him and snippets of past conversations.
They say he had a brilliant mind. He grew up under the Japanese occupation of Korea. They had a medical school for the colonisers at the time, but they had to let him in. There were only two Koreans in his year. He was one of them. They couldn’t refuse him because his test scores were so high.
I asked him once if studying during that time was difficult. He said some were kind, but some bullied him because of his shoes. He still wore the traditional shoes made of twisted straw, instead of the expensive western leather shoes his classmates wore. That was it. That was all he said.
He later became an eye specialist and worked as an army surgeon during the Korean war. And at the end of his career, he retired to work at a small hospital in Aomori prefecture, Japan.
But it’s the story of the letter that sums him up the best.
Military service is compulsory in South Korea. One of his sons was stationed at the demilitarised zone. Right near the North Korean border. There were stories of operatives coming across and slitting the throats of soldiers. His son wrote to him in desperation, asking him if there was any way to get transferred out of the place.
Weeks later a reply came. It wasn’t a letter of comfort, or one that promised a transfer. It was a list.
My grandfather was working at a busy hospital in Seoul at the time and the letter simply listed all the fatalities he saw that day. At the end of it they tell me he simply wrote, “Son, you’re no safer here than you are over there. Do your duty and come home.”
It’s an extraordinary letter to write. I think I would have fought every instinct to have my child home by my side.
When he passed away, my mother tells me his body was donated to science. It was his last request.
He visited us in Tasmania a couple of times. We were at a beach once where I saw a lifeless penguin washed up on the shore. I was young and it made me cry. He didn’t say a thing. Just walked away. When he returned he had a soft toy in his hand. It was a penguin I could hug.
“Here. Take it,” was all he said. His eyes were kind.