On Sundays, I would always dread the long-distance calls my father made to our grandparents in Korea. Speaking to our grandfather and practicing Korean was a requirement for my siblings and me, according to our father’s rules. I recall trying to avoid attention by pretending to be asleep and facing the wall in bed. However, my father would consistently insist that I wake up and serve as a positive role model for my younger siblings with his stern voice.
Despite my reluctance, I would reluctantly approach the telephone and mutter a few rehearsed sentences, aware that my grandfather always delivered the same message to me: “Dedicate yourself to your education and become fluent in Korean.” For a long time, I associated my grandfather with a distant man who consistently uttered dull statements and hindered my ability to sleep in on Sundays. However, in 1993, this fuzzy perception transformed into the image of a tall and imposing individual, with unexpectedly attentive eyes that appeared capable of penetrating one’s deepest thoughts.
While on the Big Trip, we visited Korea, our “homeland”. Despite my excitement about exploring Seoul, I was unlucky. Chunju, where my grandparents live, is a small city far from any enjoyable activities and hours away from Seoul. At first, I felt uncomfortable around my grandfather as he seemed unfamiliar to me. Unfortunately, I wrongly believed that he had no impact on my life and therefore didn’t make much effort to talk to him.
Instead, we turned my grandparents’ newly built house into our own playground. We deliberately spoke in English, blasted the radio, and treated the intercom as a toy, entertaining ourselves by singing into it while pushing the talk button. I thought that my grandfather was ashamed of us because he always had a disapproving look on his face. Surprisingly, my mother told me that it was actually the opposite.
My grandfather proudly explained to our neighbors that the noise next door was caused by my siblings and me visiting from America. Throughout the summer, nothing eventful happened until one evening, just a couple days before our departure, when I found myself sitting in my grandfather’s room. We were watching the news on TV while my grandmother slept nearby on a mat. The only source of light in the dark room was the television, which cast shadows around us. As we sat together in peaceful silence, me on the floor and him on the couch, I strangely felt at ease. However, a feeling of sadness came over me as I realized that our visit would be ending soon.
I turned to him suddenly, speaking in Korean about the news program. Despite his serious expression, I could see a slight smile on his face as he praised my improving Korean skills, while acknowledging that there was still room for improvement. Maybe I laughed or smiled in response.
Shortly after, I quietly got up from my chair and respectfully said goodbye before leaving the room discreetly. That night, I felt a stronger connection with my grandfather and started to comprehend him more deeply. Deep within me, I knew that he was proud of me even if he never explicitly stated it.
During my plane journey back home, I had a moment of reflection and realized that the person I am today is directly influenced by the tradition established and passed down by my grandfather. Memories flooded back to me of how he always made it a priority to accompany us to the airport, already sensing our absence. Upon arriving home, I carefully opened a package that contained a delicate scroll crafted from white rice-paper. Inside were written my family’s core values in Korean, penned by my grandfather. The intricate brushstrokes in black ink portrayed: Health, Cooperation, and Diligence. It’s no surprise that these principles have been deeply ingrained in me throughout my life. Sunday mornings no longer bring about feelings of unease.