In December 1962, Korea underwent one of the harshest winters and worst harvests. People struggled to feed their families and find work. My family was one of the victims of this tragic period. I distinctly remember, eating the same grain day after day – millet. At the time, I only saw it as a way to fill my stomach. But years later, I now realize that we were blessed to eating one of the healthiest and highly valued grains in the world.
A vivid memory I have of poverty as a boy is when I went to Seoul for the first time. I was with my mother and older brother who was a proud student of Seoul University. At the time, he rented a small room by his university. My mother wanted to help organize his room. So at the break of dawn, my mother, brother, and I headed to Ui-Sung train station in the midst of a blizzard.
When the three of us arrived, my mother only purchased two tickets to Seoul, one for my brother and one for herself, none for me. Rides were free for children who were 6 years old and younger. Let me take this moment to say that despite being 11 years old, I looked like I was 6 – I was a late bloomer. So my mother used my youthful appearance to save money on one ticket. While one ticket may not seem costly to most, it was enough to help our family find our next meal. But my memory of poverty does not stop here. In fact, it began at 10:30AM – the time our train arrived.
Hundreds of people scurried through the narrow doors and within seconds the limited seats were taken. My brother, mother and I opted to stand as the train took off. Hours later, at 8PM the train finally arrived at Chung-rang-lee Station in Seoul. With weary eyes, I looked around and noticed the conductor punching the tickets. One by one, he checked all the passengers and made clicking sounds as he punched their tickets. Eventually, he asked my brother for our tickets. Since I was still young, I did not quite understand what was going on. But I noticed their expressions. My mother and brother seemed uneasy and were trying to explain why I didn’t have a ticket. They lied that I was 6, but the conductor was not convinced.
As we squeezed through the crowded halls, I tightly held onto my brother’s hand. I was confused and worried. Finally, we met the director. Within seconds, the director looked at my brother and I with piercing eyes, and slapped my brother’s face. I was shocked. The conductor insulted my brother, calling him a fraud. He scolded him for attending and wearing a badge from a prestigious school, yet committing dishonesty. My brother only replied with, “I’m sorry, Sir”. My heart was broken as I saw my brother being torn down. I looked back and saw my mother witnessing everything with horror. After 52 years, I still have feelings of agony and guilt for my mother and brother. At the time, I didn’t know what to do. And quite frankly, as a kid, there was nothing I could do. When I saw my mother, even from a distance, I could see tears streaming down her face. She rushed over to us and knelt down in front of the director and begged for forgiveness.
She apologized, saying “I’m sorry, Sir. I’m the one who told my son to lie. He’s not guilty. I am. So please punish me instead.” She trembled as she sobbed with fear.
The memory I have watching her fragile shoulders, shaking with so much pain, still breaks my heart to this day as a 63 year old man. And even now, I can still see my mother’s trembling shoulders.
Written by Chris MoonKey Nam / New Star Realty & Inv.