by Kris KeySun Lee March 10, 1992
In the Orient, probably one of the world’s most intriguing places, forty miles west of Japan, lies the small peninsula of Korea, a land rich in culture and tradition. This country had long been the home of kings, queens, and yahngbahns (the wealthiest of the Korean caste system), yet it has also been the battlefield of powerful warring nations. Although ripped apart and brutalized by the destructive forces of war, one thing remains constant, the people, proud and fiercely loyal to their Korean heritage. One such person who has seen her country torn apart by war and domination and then rebuilt once more, is my grandmother, Chang Soon (Yoon- maiden name) Lee. She is a descendent of the founders of the Koryo Dynasty, from which the name Korea is derived. This paper will answer questions about her intriguing life, which included living though periods of World War, Japanese domination, the Korean War and then later through years of struggle in a country that was recovering from the destruction of war.
Chang Soon Lee was born March 12, 1906, to a wealthy landowner in the tiny country of South Korea. Being the first daughter born into her family, she matured quickly into womanhood, fulfilling all the hopes and aspirations of her loving parents. She was married at the youthful age of sixteen and the first of her eight children at the age of eighteen.
As a young child, my grandmother lived through hardships of World War. She survived a World War and the tragic circumstances of Japanese domination that accompanied it, only to face another war in her native land. With the close of World War II, the Japanese were forced out of Korea. Korea was again growing into the once proud nation it had been many years before, and a hope of peace and harmony seemed conceivable in the mind of this young wife and mother. These hopes were thwarted as North Korean troops invaded her country. One wonders what kind of a person could endure such a life of trails and hardships as difficult as these. Through the following interview you will see the courage and determination of one such person.
KL: What is the event in your childhood that you remember most vividly?
CL: The childhood experience, as I recall, was that I liked to work. I worked when I was very, very young. I worked to please my mother and my father and my grandparents. I did those things because I wanted them to like me. In order for them to like me, I thought that I had to do things to please them. Work was the way to do it.
KL: What kind of an education did you receive? If you didn’t, why?
CL: Well, I did not receive my education in the sense of the type of school that you see today. There are a few reasons that it is so. First of all, young ladies were growing up in a society where there was a caste system. We were not allowed to depart from our home when we were about eleven or twelve years old.
During that time the Japanese empire came into Korea. And although there was a public education system, they were taught Japanese and were not taught Korean.
Another thing which I was told by my parents was that I shouldn’t learn to read or write, because once I get married and go away from home they were afraid that I would write letters to them and complain to them about the lifestyle which I may be living. That would have caused them to worry more. I didn’t really learn to read or write until I was in my mid-sixties. This is when I learned to read in write in Korean. I was taught by a foreigner, an American (my daughter-in-law), who taught me to read and write.
KL: Who is the person who had the most influence you when you were a teenager and why?
CL: Well, the most influence which was put upon me was by my father and grandfather. They really loved me a lot. The influence which they had upon me was that they took care of me and made me feel secure and provided a loving atmosphere. For instance, every time my father would go to the market, he would always bring me back something nice. He brought me candy most of the time. Also, my grandfather always made shoes for me. In Korea, there were no leather shoes as I was growing up. They had to make shoes out of hemp and straw. He would take the finest straw and materials and he would make my shoes. He would also paint figures, plants, and animals and make them pretty. I never went without a nice-looking pair of shoes to wear wherever I would go.
KL: What was an average day in your childhood home like?
CL: An average day in my home was doing work. I would get up in the morning and wash my face and clean myself up. I would make my bed by folding it up. Then I would start to help around the house and do my sewing.
KL: What did your father do to support the family, what was his occupation?
CL: My father owned a large tract of land and was very well to do. Actually, his father owned a lot more land than he did and one of my uncles sold a lot of it. Yet, my father still had a great deal of land, which was passed down to him. He would hire a lot of people to farm the land and to support the family.
KL: How did you get the necessities of life like food, water, and clothing when you were young?
CL: Like I mentioned earlier, we had a very large amount of land. We planted crops on that land so we never really had to worry about food. As for clothes, my mother made all of the clothes that we wore and as I got older I too learned how to make clothes.
KL: How did you meet your husband?
CL: Well, I was around fifteen years old when my husband’s relatives sent someone to talk to my parents about arranging a marriage. When you are about fifteen during that time and you were not married, you were considered an old maid. Most of my friends were married when they were around twelve or thirteen years old. In any case, the individual that came to make the arranged marriage insisted that I marry my “future” husband. Of course we knew nothing about him so we told him we were uncertain and that we didn’t have an answer.
I was later told that a fortuneteller was solicited by my husband’s side to see if this marriage would be good. The fortuneteller took information concerning the month of birth of my “future” husband and compared it with mine. Other background information from both of us were also considered. For example, I couldn’t marry some one whose social status was lower than ours. Things like that were compared and we were found compatible for each other.
We found out later that my husband’s second oldest brother, and some other lady that he brought, would hide behind a hill by my house. During the day they would watch me and see what kind of an individual I was. This went on for several weeks and then they came and asked again that I marry my “future” husband. We didn’t have them an answer for about one month. Then they came back and offered again. It was agreed that we were to be married. We had about a one-year engagement during which we didn’t see each other, and then we were married.
The day I was married, I was dressed in a very colorful robe. Brides, in those days, were not supposed to smile and were required to keep their faces toward the ground with a straight face. The entire village was invited to attend the wedding ceremony and reception. The preparation for the reception took several days. Usually, several animals were slaughtered for the wedding. A great deal of fruit, cake, and other sweet condiments were prepared. When the wedding was over, since there were no automobiles and I was not allowed to walk, I was taken in a very colorful, hand-carried wagon.
KL: What was the process that you went about getting married in Korea? Was it a legal process or was it purely traditional?
CL: Well, it’s both. It was a traditional and legal process. Traditional, in that an arranged marriage is not like the system you have now where dating and things as such would take place. There was no such thing as dating. It was an arranged marriage. However, after you were married it was recorded on legal documents at the county level.
KL: I understand that you went to Japan to live for some time, why?
CL: My husband and I moved up to Seoul and lived there. During the day time we found a job in a tobacco factory, packing cigarettes. In the evening, my husband attended college to get an education.
One day, we went down to the countryside to visit his parents. After our visit, we were going to return to Seoul to continue with my husband’s education and to get a better job. As we were ready to depart, his parents’ home, my husband’s second oldest brother begged him not to go. He wanted my husband to stay and help him farm the land, which his parents owned. My husband denied his brother and told him that he had school to finish and a job in Seoul he had to get back to. When his brother heard this, he said that since he, my husband, wouldn’t listen to his elders, he was going to commit suicide by drowning. He then started to run towards a river and was ready to toss himself in. My husband stopped him and told him not to do it and that he would stay and help on the farm. His brother told him that he didn’t have to physically do work but he wanted him to stay and run the farm for him. Reluctantly, we stayed in the country and while we were there my husband learned to gamble.
He was really disappointed that he couldn’t go back to Seoul so he started to gamble. His mother constantly tried to stop him from going and doing what he was doing but failed each and every time. Anyway, as the land was harvested, his brother would come in the afternoon after the harvest and haul away whatever he needed. For three years he did this.
One day, my husband took a trip to an area called Moon-San and upon returning he thought about going to Japan. At this time it was fall in the late 1920s and the family was preparing food for the upcoming winter. My husband just said, “Pack your things, we’re moving to Japan.” At the time his brother tried to convince him not to go. However, he still wanted to go, so he went to a place called Tae Chon. Upon processing the paperwork to go to Japan, which took one week, he returned for my oldest son and me.
The only reason we got to go to Japan was because of my friends. In order to get there she had to tell the authorities that I was her sister. We lived in Tokyo, the Japanese “Washington, D.C.”
KL: What things did you like and dislike about Japan?
CL: Well, basically there was nothing I really disliked about Japan. The Japanese neighbors we had were very kind towards us and we never had problems with them. Initially, when we went over, since it was a foreign country, we weren’t used to it. It took us a little while to get adjusted to living there. It took about two years. The Japanese neighbors, when they found out we were leaving, didn’t want us to leave at all.
KL: When did you go back to Korea and why did you leave Japan?
CL: We left Japan because the American troops were beginning to invade Japan. It was during World War II when this happened. It got to the point where almost daily the Americans would send aircraft with bombs over Japan. We felt it was unsafe so we wanted to depart from there. The trip back to Korea took eight hours by ship just as it did to get there. On the way back to Korea we got a chance to stay down on the lower deck where there was a big window. I remember being able to see out the window looking into the sea and seeing all kinds of huge fish.
KL: Can you tell me about what you remember about the Korean War and the times before and after?
CL: Before the Korean War we had plenty to eat, life was pleasant. We lived very comfortably. When the Korean War came we lived in Seoul, the capital city. It was June 25, 1950, at the crack of dawn we stared hearing the noise of exploding bombs. In the late afternoon of that day, the North Koreans began to invade the capital city. We didn’t know what to do initially.
When the North Korean arrived they took all the men in our district and questioned them to see what they had done. If there were any village leaders or district leaders, they were either executed or they were harmed in some way. My oldest son was taken. During that period he worked as a barber and a carpenter. He was taken away and when he came back we saw big strap marks on his back and on his legs. Apparently, he was beaten severely. (He joined the South Korean Army in 1952 during the war and was killed in action, leaving a widow, daughter and son). At that time, he and my oldest daughter were told to take North Korean flags and go out and pass them throughout the town, to wave them and praise North Korea.
During the war, I witnessed many terrifying things. I saw a bomb explode only a short distance from where I was standing, killing several people which included a mother and her child. Then I heard the zinging noise of live ammunition and also saw the large caliber of bullets flying past me. Some of these bullets hit people and they died instantly.
The North Koreans caught my husband and were about to proceed with his execution because of his being a district chief. In the city there are several districts that made up Seoul and he was the leader of the Shin Dahng Dong district. So as they took him to be executed, they asked the towns-people about my husband’s background. One of the families asked this question had nine people in their family. They were always without food and clothes; and my husband had helped them with grain, clothes, and other materials which they didn’t have. So they told the communist North Koreans that my husband had done all these things for the poor people in the village, so they allowed him to live. He was not executed.
KL: What about after the Korean War?
CL: The war’s end was a very, very happy occasion. Although the war had ended, life was still just as difficult. You have to remember the Korean peninsula was marched up and down several times. During the Korean War many things were destroyed. It was difficult to even find one meal a day. It was hard to deal with, especially since we were used to three meals a day prior to the war.
Since we didn’t have a farm, after the war, I had to bring home some sort of income. My husband had cut his leg badly and couldn’t work, so it was left to me. What I did was, I gathered up little knick-knacks and traveled great distances selling them. With the money I earned, we tried to buy some land where we could grow wheat and things.
My husband had an accident just prior to war and without doctor’s treatment during the war, caused him to lose one of his legs and so he had great difficulty with mobility. Eventually, his leg had to be amputated because gangrene had set in and the wound would not heal.
KL: Were the American soldiers kind to you and your family when the Americans occupied South Korea?
CL: When the Americans came to Korea, our family left Seoul and went to live in the country. Let me explain what happened. When the North Koreans left our area, in the evening we decided to go down south. We went with, or as, a group of refugees down south to escape the war-torn capitol city. On the way down we found out that there were only two bridges that linked Seoul to the south over the Hahn River. One was a railroad and the other was a plain wooden bridge. Both bridges were blown up; and the Hahn River, at that time, was about one mile wide, making it very hard to swim across.
With the money we had we decided the best idea would be to go down to a place called Inchon, which was about twenty-five or thirty miles westward from where we lived. We left our household with whatever we could carry. At that time we had an infant who was only four years old. [That infant was your father.] I had to strap him on my back.
When we arrived at Inchon, we found a boat, which was ready to sail, and we bought a space. It was a small fishing boat and it was packed with people. If you could imagine, it was like people packed in a cart with the people riding on the roof and clinging to the side of the cart. There were so many people, some were hanging off the edge of the boat. As we got on and sailed down the west coast of Korea, there was a big wind that came and we thought that our lives would end right then. The wind was so strong that it ripped the sails and broke the poles.
We made it down south to a place known as the Choong-Nam province (South Choong Chung) and from there we went to the area where I was born. The entire trip took us a total of eight days. Nowadays, if you took an automobile, it would take you about an hour and a half.
Your questions about the Americans, when they came in. Yes, I recall when the Americans came in. The night before they came, the North Koreans mysteriously disappeared. They had retreated. It was very quick, the way they had packed their equipment and left. Before they left, they again gathered up people from the village and took them to this mountain which was nearby. Those people who were taken were never seen again nor were their bodies found. Of course when the Americans came we were very happy. We were glad to have the Americans because… Well, as I think of it, if it wasn’t for the Americans most of us would have starved to death.
Because of the war and the famine, a poor harvest resulted. We had close to nothing to eat. During that time there must have been mass-support which was coming from the (United) States and other parts of the world. We didn’t have a lot of food, but we had enough food and clothes and everything we needed to sustain life, thanks to the American soldiers.
KL: Why did you want to come to America and how did you go about coming?
CL: I never really thought about coming to America. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t until my youngest son and his wife insisted that I come to the States that I came. In 1960, I thought I had lost my thirteen-year-old son, who is your father, and my daughter (SoonSung) who married an American G.I. They left Korea for America and I thought that I would never see them again. When my youngest son left Korea, it was as if he had died. I went through a long period of mourning. Fourteen years later, my son returned to Korea as an American Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. As he completed his tour in Korea, he begged me to come live with him and his family. I had an attachment for my grandson and I couldn’t bear to lose him as I had given up my son fourteen years earlier.
KL: What was the first thing you noticed when you entered the United States of America?
CL: The first thing I noticed was that all of my children and grand children were eagerly awaiting my arrival. As we left the airport, I couldn’t believe the open space which this land had. I couldn’t believe that the houses were so far apart. In Korea we had small villages with the houses so close the walls almost touched. In the cities especially, the buildings which were adjacent to one another were extremely close. I realized that this land was a land of plenty because of the signs of wastefulness, such as many recyclable items which were left scattered along the highways. But when I first came to the States, the first thing I noticed was that this was a big land.
KL: Have you ever wondered about what you would be doing if you still lived in Korea? If so, what?
CL: Most likely, I would be doing the same thing I’m doing here in America. I would be with my other son and I probably wouldn’t do as much work as I do here. They probably wouldn’t even let me baby-sit their children. I probably wouldn’t do anything but sit around.
KL: Is there a great amount of difference between the way children treat their parents here, in America, from that of in Korea?
CL: There is a lot of difference, but I cannot say which system is good or bad. In Korea, parents are highly respected by their children. For instance, at an early age children are brought up to respect, not only their parents, but all elders. This is a part of the Confucius ethics which were instilled in all Korean children. In America it seems to be slightly different, but I cannot fault the American system because that’s the way it is here in the new land.
KL: What things do you see around you now that you never expected to be invented?
CL: Well, as I recall several years back, I remembered when the first radio came out. During this period, I knew then that this was no miracle. I knew that there would be many more inventions to follow and I was right. However, I never thought that I would live to see a man reach the moon, but it happened. I am thankful for inventions which make life easier. Inventions I am really grateful for are washing machines, showers and bathtubs, stoves and ovens, irons, air conditioning and heaters. During the winter time, clothes had to be washed in cold streams, food had to be cooked in a cold annex to the house. Taking a bath in the cold really makes me appreciate the hot water which is available nowadays. In the years which have just recently passed, so many inventions have come about.
KL: How are things distinctly different here in the U.S. than in Korea besides the language and the way the country looks?
CL: When I compare things that took place in Korea with that of the United States it all seems very strange. I want to tell something about old Korean traditions. In the olden days, when food and things were prepared, it was a tradition to take the food to your parents or grandparents while walking on your knees bowing your head. After you’re done serving the food to them you don’t turn around and show your rear end to them while leaving the room. You would walk out backwards on your knees, to show respect.
It was also a tradition, before you go to sleep, to go into your parents’ room and bow before them and wish them a good night sleep. In the mornings, we would get up early and do the same but ask them if they had a pleasant night sleep.
When we would do the laundry we would take two sticks and beat on the clothes to make them soft, and then we’d present the finished product to our parents.
To show that you are concerned about their hunger, in the evenings, you would take little snacks to your parents and ask if they would like them.
Because we were well to do, the people we hired to work would come in early in the morning. The first thing they did was come in and bow their heads to my parents. It was a way of reporting in and saying that they were ready to work.
One of the difficult things about being a new bride in a family is that there is a whole lot of work to do. You have lots of laundry for your in-laws because you live in the same household. You would sew, do laundry, prepare meals, and all kinds of things four your husband to please him. Life is very difficult, very harsh.
Now I want to tell you some things about me that you probably don’t know. When I was young I had my own room, I didn’t share it with anybody else. As you may know, in Korea, one room is often used by many people, but I had my own room. When I was eleven years old I started sewing things for my father and when I was twelve I would make Buh-sun, which were Korean stockings, and other clothes for him. His friends would always ask why was it that his clothes were always clean and his socks mended. He would often get complimented. It is very difficult to mend or sew stockings, and his friends would always ask who did it for him, and he would say his oldest daughter, me. By the time I was thirteen years old, I could make any kind of Korean clothes there were to make. By the time I was fourteen or fifteen years old, I had all the skills I needed to get married.
Through the course of this interview I have learned many interesting facts about my grandmother which I had never before known. As I did the interview, I watched my grandmother as she reminisced the times in her life that have passed. Although life has been harsh I believe she has found the rewards to have outnumbered the disappointments.
As my grandmother gets older I continually wonder what I’ll do when she is gone. The question, “Do I know her?” often enters my mind. My grandmother has lived with me all my life, yet I thought she was our “live-in” maid up until I was around eight years old. My parents always told me she was my “Harmonee,” which I thought was her name. It actually means grandmother in Korean. I’d always wondered about her life and who she was besides a kind, loving grandmother. Hearing her voice, and especially her laugh at a time in her life when she is plagued with extreme pain and illness, is a most heartwarming sound. I will always remember this change I had to “meet” my grandmother as an ordinary person. She is courageous, honorable woman who has earned my utmost respect and admiration. I hope she has gained yours too.
Transcriber's note: Chang Soon Lee passed away on November 27, 1993; approximately one year and eight months after this interview was obtained. She currently rests in the Trinity Cemetery in Waldorf, MD, USA