Who Ate Up All the Shinga?
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Who Ate Up All the Shinga?

An Autobiographical Novel

Wan-suh Park, Young-nan Yu, Stephen Epstein

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eBook - ePub

Who Ate Up All the Shinga?

An Autobiographical Novel

Wan-suh Park, Young-nan Yu, Stephen Epstein

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About This Book

Park Wan-suh is a best-selling and award-winning writer whose work has been widely translated and published throughout the world. Who Ate Up All the Shinga? is an extraordinary account of her experiences growing up during the Japanese occupation of Korea and the Korean War, a time of great oppression, deprivation, and social and political instability.

Park Wan-suh was born in 1931 in a small village near Kaesong, a protected hamlet of no more than twenty families. Park was raised believing that "no matter how many hills and brooks you crossed, the whole world was Korea and everyone in it was Korean." But then the tendrils of the Japanese occupation, which had already worked their way through much of Korean society before her birth, began to encroach on Park's idyll, complicating her day-to-day life.

With acerbic wit and brilliant insight, Park describes the characters and events that came to shape her young life, portraying the pervasive ways in which collaboration, assimilation, and resistance intertwined within the Korean social fabric before the outbreak of war. Most absorbing is Park's portrait of her mother, a sharp and resourceful widow who both resisted and conformed to stricture, becoming an enigmatic role model for her struggling daughter. Balancing period detail with universal themes, Park weaves a captivating tale that charms, moves, and wholly engrosses.

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Year
2009
ISBN
9780231520362
1. Days in the Wild
I USED TO GO AROUND WITH A RUNNY NOSE. Not the occasional droplet, either, but thick yellow mucus, the kind you couldn’t just snuffle back up. I was hardly alone. Back then, all kids were the same. You can see it in the nickname grown-ups gave us—“snifflers.” Not too surprisingly, when I became a mom, the thing I found most remarkable about my kids was that they never had a runny nose unless they had a cold. And not just mine, but all kids. Children used to have a handkerchief pinned to their chest when they first attended school, but that custom is long gone. At this point, even I wonder why we always had mucus dangling from our nostrils, instead of finding it strange that kids these days don’t.
When I was small, cloth was hard to come by. So was paper. I didn’t even know such a thing as handkerchiefs existed. As the snot got down to my mouth, I’d swipe at it. By the end of winter, the edges of my sleeves would be clotted with a greasy black layer, like thick ointment. One well-padded jacket tided me over for the season. When my mother changed its collar, she’d take advantage of the opportunity and scrub my sleeves to get rid of the gunk that had coagulated, but it didn’t make much difference.
Under the jacket, I wore a skirt held up by a bodice rather than one with the usual opening at the back, and beneath the skirt, drawers with wadding. The fabric was cotton—coarse, dyed in vivid colors, and beaten smooth with iron paddles.
I was born in a village with fewer than twenty households, some twenty ri southwest of Kaesŏng. Its full name was Pakchŏk Hamlet, Muksong Village, Ch’ŏnggyo Township, Kaep’ung County. In the countryside, dye was precious, and my grandfather had to go to Songdo for it. Songdo was what the villagers called Kaesŏng, and for a small child like myself, it was the place of dreams. In addition to dye, that’s where you had to go for hoes and sickles, rubber shoes and kitchen knives, fine-tooth combs and ribbons stamped with gold.
Other families’ women would go to Songdo, but not ours. Only my grandfather and uncles went. There was one other family in Pakchŏk Hamlet that didn’t let its women go to Songdo either. They also had the surname Pak and were related to us. Even though everyone else was from the Hong clan, the village took its name from us Paks. According to my grandfather, we were yangban—aristocrats—and they were commoners.
I’m not sure what the villagers made of my grandfather’s yangban pretensions. People from the Kaesŏng area traditionally didn’t put much stock in class distinctions, so he must have been something of a voice in the wilderness. But even though the women in my family couldn’t visit Songdo as they pleased because of Grandfather, don’t go thinking that they accepted his authority at a fundamental level. One day I asked my grandmother what a yangban was, and she snorted, “A yangban is what you get if you sell a dog.” Grandmother was punning on how yangban sounded like the name of an old-time coin. She spoke bluntly and cracked frequent jokes. But for Grandfather, she put on a show of acting like she was walking on eggshells.
It wasn’t just Songdo that was off-limits. My grandfather didn’t allow the women of the family out to the fields or rice paddies either. This was another difference between other families and ours. Grandfather seemed to think that restricting women’s activities came part and parcel with being a yangban.
And so, in Pakchŏk Hamlet lived two families of aristocrats and some sixteen or seventeen commoner households. This division didn’t correspond to a split between landowners and tenant farmers, however.
Our village nestled between low, gently sloping hills that were free of boulders and commanded an unobstructed view over vast fields. A small river snaked through the broad plains in the center, and brooks were everywhere—“tiny brooks babbling tales of old,” as the poet Chŏng Chi-yong put it. Even a trip to the outhouse for us meant crossing a little stream. When these streams met rice paddies, they often formed pools. We called these pools “bonus wells.” This was to mark them off from the ones from which we drew water. In retrospect, they were more like small reservoirs. The entire expanse of these fertile fields, which hardly ever yielded a bad crop, belonged to our villagers. No one family had a monopoly over the fields; no family had to struggle along without any. They were all diligent independent farmers and had no need to worry about food at any point in the year.
Growing up in a community like this until I was seven, I didn’t have the opportunity to learn that there were separate classes of people known as “rich” and “poor” in this world. Neither did I have much opportunity, when I went off hand in hand with my friends, to visit other villages. Even when we walked and walked through the fields, we never reached one. Only by climbing over the hill behind us could we reach a neighboring village, and there was nothing especially remarkable to me about it. Houses, flanked by vegetable patches, nestled at the foot of a hill, and broad fields billowed in front of the village like a skirt. I assumed everyone lived the same way.
I thought that no matter how many hills and brooks you crossed, the whole world was Korea and everyone in it was Korean. The first name of a foreign country that I heard was “Dutchland.” Only years later did I learn that Dutchland was what we now call Germany, but even before I was able to make this connection, the very idea of a foreign land filled me with wonder.
My grandfather usually went to Songdo for dye shortly before the Harvest Moon Festival or New Year’s. He made a point of saying, “This dye comes from Dutchland,” as he pulled out the packages he’d bought. Marks distinguished the different colors—a red mark for red dye, a blue mark for blue dye. The marks were triangular and about the size of a postage stamp folded diagonally. They were so vivid and shiny that it was as though a brilliant flower petal were embedded within them. Despite my complete ignorance, my heart raced whenever I glimpsed those German dyes. Looking back, I think they must have given me my first whiff of civilization, my first taste of culture.
The women in our house—my grandmother, my mother, and my aunts—fell helpless before those dyes. The air of dignity that Grandfather exuded would reach its peak when he brought them home, and the respect his daughters-in-law held for him became closer to servile flattery.
Not that their respect always came wholeheartedly. Sometimes they laughed at him. To be irreverent about it, Grandfather seemed almost flighty when he vented his fury and dashed into the inner quarters. At this omen that a violent outburst was in the offing, his daughters-in-law would drop whatever they were doing and exchange furtive jokes, awaiting the impending thunderbolt.
My mother was the most talented at these wisecracks. “Hey,” she’d whisper in my aunt’s ear, “looks like rice is burning in the kitchen.” Auntie practically became apoplectic trying to stifle her laughter. My mother didn’t mean that rice was really burning in the kitchen, of course. Grandfather had been nicknamed “Rice Scoop” because that’s what his flat, jutting chin looked like. His whiskers sprouted in sparse clumps instead of growing long, which only heightened the impression. And so I suspect that the awe my mother and aunts expressed before him when he brought German dyes actually had little to do with his character, but simply reflected what people nowadays call a taste for imported goods.
I wasn’t afraid of my grandfather, and I never acted as though I were. My father had died when I was two years old, so Grandfather treated me with special affection. Even at my age, I could tell he felt some intense spark of emotion toward me. His eyes normally had a stern, upward slant, yet they would relax a little when he gazed at me. Maybe pity softened him, but I could tell that I’d latched on to his fatal weakness. I was confident he’d take my side no matter how naughty I was. I never went out of my way to cause trouble because I could count on his support, but when he wasn’t around, my spirit drooped.
Once my grandmother nagged him for being so soft with me and spoiling me rotten. She mused about whether he realized how pliant I became when he was away, and he blew up: “Oh, so it gave you a little thrill to see her feeling down when she had nowhere to turn, did it? I’ll bet it did!” He screeched at her, wagging a finger right in her face.
But Grandfather did go on frequent trips. In addition to visits to Songdo, he represented the family at virtually every function that relatives or friends held. His all-white garb meant a lot of work for the women, especially those traditional socks, which must have been a horror to mend. I would awaken to see my mother and aunts patching tattered stockings beneath the dim lamplight and speaking in low tones. Those socks were big enough for me to wear on my head, which I actually did often enough.
Once Grandfather left, he could be gone for several days, but looking forward to his return was my greatest childhood pleasure. The outer quarters of our home consisted of two rooms. In front of them, facing an open yard, ran a long veranda divided by a post. As I sat with an arm wrapped around it or leaning against it, I could see the wagon path stretch beyond the village until it grew indistinct and disappeared around the hill.
That white clothing had a wonderful quality to it. In the evening, smoke billowed from every thatched roof, and as it spread slowly like ink into the heavens, it gently erased the borders between the paths, the paddies, the fields, the forest, and the hills until everything blended together under an ash-colored sky. But even then, it was easy to make out a white-clad figure rounding the hill toward us. Although all the villagers dressed in white, especially for outings to Songdo, when they decked themselves out in spotless garb, I never mistook anyone else for my grandfather.
I can’t quite describe it, but there was something unique about Grandfather’s gait that acted as a beacon to me. “Grandpa!” I’d think and shoot off to the entrance to the village. I was never wrong. I’d huff and puff, clinging eagerly to his coat. The edge of it was cold and like a blade, its stiffness a product of arduous paddling. The coat smelled of Songdo, a scent I adored. Immediately, Grandfather would hoist me up, saying, “All right, all right, my baby.” His arms were trustworthy, and his breath was warm and redolent of alcohol. I liked my grandfather’s warmth and that whiff of liquor.
After putting me down, he’d rummage through his coat pockets and press some treat into my hands—amber-colored candies in yellow paper wrappers, perhaps, or sweetened rice balls and tiny cookies he’d sneaked into his pockets from a party table, while turning a blind eye to dignity. My spirits rose as high as the sky as I let go of Grandfather’s hand and skipped on ahead, savoring those goodies. Grandmother would scold me for acting like a spoiled brat. I’m sure I cut an unpleasant figure in her eyes with the special patronage I enjoyed, but I simply felt that I was getting my proper reward for waiting.
My patience was not always rewarded, though. Sometimes others appeared on the path rounding the hill, or no one showed up at all, and I would choke up with sorrow. When the weather turned cold, I’d shiver wildly. But I refused to budge, no matter how often people came out of the house to fetch me. The grown-ups said I was wallowing in self-pity, and Mother would cluck her tongue and order me to stop acting so miserable. Grandmother would even rap me on the head with her knuckles. I put up with it all, vowing to myself, “I’m going to tell on you to Grandpa. I’m going to tell on you.” But I never tattled. All that was just part of the pleasure of waiting.
I had other ways to have fun while anticipating his arrival. I’d count off syllables by touching my thumb to my fingers one by one in an old children’s game, saying, “Ch’ŏk ch’ŏk, thumb stop, middle finger, if Grandpa’s at Black Kite Hill.” If my thumb didn’t stop where I wanted it to, I’d just change my chant: “Ch’ŏk ch’ŏk, thumb stop, middle finger, if Grandpa’s at Wardrobe Rocks Hill.” I knew the names of lots of hills and streams, even if I didn’t know exactly where they were, so it was fine for my thumb and middle finger to come together at any old name I chose—just as long as they came together. Once they did, I would stealthily follow Grandfather in my imagination from that particular point as he climbed hills, passed through fields, and crossed streams.
Sometimes my grandfather traveled a pitch-dark path, sometimes a path brightly lit by the moon. Even at the new moon, with no illumination but the twinkling of stars, the fluttering sleeves of his coat gleamed so brightly that I had no worries about losing him. With his quick strides, he would arrive at the village entrance in a flash. I’d picture running after him, panting, as I anxiously waited.
But sometimes Grandfather made no progress and never appeared around the hill. After pursuing him in my imagination, I would watch for him impatiently until my concentration slackened and I began to drift off. When the adults came to gather me in their arms and bring me inside, I’d pretend that I’d fallen into a deep slumber.
This era of anticipation, which occupies the bulk of my early memories, did not last long. One day Grandfather collapsed in the outhouse. He shouted for help, unable to get up, but our outhouse lay at the edge of our vegetable patch. To get to it, you had to climb down three stone ledges, traverse the outer yard, cross under the surrounding mulberry trees, and ford a small stream. A passerby eventually heard him and rushed over to tell us. Everyone dashed out and, with difficulty, managed to carry him back to the outer quarters. People said he’d had a stroke, a condition for which there was no cure. In particular, no one doubted that a stroke that came upon someone in an out-house lacked a remedy.
Like most scholars in those days, Grandfather had a better-than-average knowledge of Chinese medicine, so he personally prescribed medicines for his children and collected herbs to make his own pills. These he kept in a chest and dispensed to villagers when they needed urgent treatment. Nonetheless, he gave up treating his own malady early on and simply became short-tempered instead. Whenever my grandmother took Grandfather’s chamber pot out from the men’s quarters, she would mutter a litany of his misdeeds, from his itinerant lifestyle to his fondness for drink and even for friends, as though to suggest that he deserved what had happened. Dark clouds hung over the house, and I fell into a sorry state, like a fledgling whose wings had been clipped. I remembered nothing about my father’s death because I had yet to turn two then, but witnessing Grandfather’s powerlessness after his stroke was tantamount to losing a father for the second time.
To make matters worse, that year Mother left for Seoul to care for my brother. He had graduated from the four-year primary school located in the seat of our township and gone on to Songdo to finish the six-year elementary-education course of the revised school system. My uncles also had graduated from the local primary school, but since they were the only ones in the village blessed with such modern education, Grandfather regarded the two additional years of schooling my brother received in Songdo as genuine erudition. For my brother to go to Seoul to pursue his studies not only drained our finances, but clashed with the expectations placed on him as eldest grandson to carry on the family name.
Both my uncles were married and lived in my grandfather’s house, but neither had children yet, which was far from usual. Grandfather often likened Brother and me to his jewels. After his stroke, he must have hoped to keep his only grandson near him and marry him off early, rather than send him out into the world. That way he’d be able to instruct him in his duties—continuing the family line with male offspring and tending the ancestral tombs.
Without consulting my grandparents, however, Mother sent my brother to a commercial school in Seoul. Given that there was a similar school in Songdo, this constituted major rebellion on her part. The event threw the whole house into turmoil. That a widowed eldest daughter-in-law would neglect her duty to care for her in-laws with the excuse of her son’s studies was absolutely unheard of, and it dealt my grandparents a severe emotional blow. More importantly, it meant a loss of face for the family. Even in a tiny hamlet like ours, if Grandfather wanted to play yangban, he had to run his household in line with what was expected of an aristocratic family. It didn’t matter if anyone else acknowledged it; Grandfather believed we had a responsibility to set an example. He was furious. And so when Mother cast aside her obligations to the family, she wound up having to cast aside far more.
Mother harbored an almost religious determination to raise Brother and me in Seoul. Changing her mind would have been impossible. She was convinced that if we’d lived in a city, my father wouldn’t have died so young. When I grew older and learned more about life, I had to agree. Father was said to have been the sturdiest and healthiest among his brothers, and he never fell ill. One day, though, he began to writhe in agony with a stomachache. Grandfather consulted his medical tomes and treated Father with nothing but various herbal remedies; Grandmother arranged for a shaman ritual to ward off evil spirits. Meanwhile, Father’s condition grew steadily worse.
Only when he was on the point of death was Mother able to muster enough authority to have him taken to Songdo on a wagon. What had been appendicitis led to peritonitis, and Father’s abdomen became riddled with pus. Despite an operation, his infection continued to fester; since this took place before antibiotics, he died in the end. Mother refused to simply wave it away as fate. She was sure that countryside ignorance was to blame, and she wanted at the very least t...

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