My Youth & Joy Are Yours, As Well

September 12, 2020 / Eunjae Kim

In honor of those who came before me, with much love and gratitude.

With all due respect and affection, my grandpa is, at first glance, not a remarkable man. He stands only a couple inches taller than me, with a slightly large head sitting on his square shoulders. His voice resembles the sound of gravels gritting together at the bottom of a riverbed. Smiles rarely adorn his face; his mouth seems to be permanently set in a grim line, emotionless and calculating. All of it is insignificant, but his eyes are different. His eyes are striking, not in their appearance, but in their piercing gaze that makes you stand a little straighter and uncovers your carefully concealed flaws. I’d always been scared of those eagle eyes because they seemed to follow my younger self and notice my every misstep. What I saw as enjoying my childhood, he saw as unnecessary.

Initially, six-year-old me didn’t understand the reasons behind his disapproval. The bounce in my steps and my lack of interest in my education seemed to baffle and even offend him. What was so wrong— didn’t all kids carelessly leave trails of muddy footprints on the floor after a day of collecting rainwater and mud on the soles of rain boots? Wasn’t it normal for a kindergartener to protest against going to school? Whenever I had these “incidents,” my grandpa told me that he expected more than this childish behavior because I had to be someone great that would make my country proud. The burden was too much for my frail shoulders to bear. I only understood why we never saw eye to eye years later, when he told me the story of his grim upbringing.

My grandpa told me he was robbed of his youth, like many Korean men and women his age. He said he doesn’t remember much of his father, who never returned home from World War II. By his fifth birthday, although World War II was over, the Korean War began. Once the North Korean soldiers closed in on his hometown, he was forced to flee with nothing but the clothes on his back. With the trains at full capacity, my grandpa made his treacherous journey across the country on the top of a train roof, pressed against a sea of other bodies. Pushed by the crowd and harsh winds, heaps of asylum seekers around him fell to their deaths. As his small stubby fingers desperately gripped onto every groove of the train top that they could reach, he prayed that the train would outrun the North Korean soldiers that were bulldozing their way through the Korean peninsula. He was penniless, fatherless, homeless. A child born in times of war. That was the harsh reality for my grandpa’s generation: fleeing or fighting for survival amid the Korean War, no sight of childhood innocence to be found.

As for me, I grew up in a war-free Korea, now one of the most prosperous countries in the world. I did not see starving and dead children lining the streets, their mothers clutching their blueing corpses close to their bony chests. I ate three meals daily, sometimes four or five, if I was bored. I had a home all throughout my life, both parents to look after me, and the freedom to live without fear. It wasn’t long before the guilt set in ⁠— the guilt of living comfortably when my grandpa and most of my ancestors suffered from poverty and pain for the majority of their lives, barely scraping by in a country whose history was etched in blood, war, and misery.

That feeling of guilt amplified ten-fold when, just a couple weeks ago, my seemingly invincible grandpa was diagnosed with a rare gallbladder cancer. It didn’t seem fair ⁠— he suffered so much during his youth, and it seemed like fate didn’t plan on blessing him with peace during the last stage of his life. The core of my being crumbled in on itself when I received a call from my grandpa. It took all my willpower not to burst out crying when I first heard his gravel voice reduced to traces of sand faintly blowing through the desert. My heart ripped into two pieces when I heard the fear in his now weak voice, when I heard him rush through all his words, as if he thought he had to tell me everything at that moment because there would be no next time. He made two points that day: don’t work my life away, and more importantly, to enjoy my youth while I still could. I’d been told the latter before by my parents and the countless coming-of-age movies that I binged watched throughout middle school. However, this time, I truly realized the weight of that message.

Aging is set in stone, much like how the sun rises in the early morning and sets over the horizon in the evening, giving way to dusk. However, unlike the sun greeting us with its warmth the very next morning, once our youth is lost, it remains lost in the winds, only surviving through fragments of distant memories.

The burden of happiness is heavy still, but it serves as a reminder that I’m fortunate enough to be the first in generations upon generations to truly be able to enjoy the days of my youth. Its beauty lies in our freedom to make mistakes without fear of the consequences, to explore the possibilities of our futures, to dream and build our own destinies. I’m not living just for myself. I’m living for all those who came before me ⁠— those who suffered, but suffered in the hopes that their future children might have a better childhood and future than they did. By savoring my youth, I celebrate and honor those who gifted me with a legacy and an identity as a daughter of survivors.

So when you see me, see in my eyes the piercing gaze of my grandpa and the somber stares of my ancestors. When you hear me, hear in my voice the gravels that dance in the riverbed and the defiant cries of my unyielding forefathers. For my youth and joy are not mine alone; they are theirs, as well. ■

This article was written as a part of Spark Writing’s first annual summer workshop series, Words With Friends: A Spark Writer’s Summer!

Graphic By:
Jennifer Jimenez
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