I spent most of my childhood running around on my own, prowling the neighborhood when I got older. I also spent a lot of time with my grandparents who piggybacked me as a baby or held my hand as we walked to the park. My grandparents are my superheroes.
When I was growing up my grandpa would sometimes leave his dentures in a cup. They were almost a full set of teeth- just missing 4 teeth in the corners. I never knew why my grandpa was missing so many teeth until I asked him when I was older.
He had been captured to fight for the Japanese army during WWII and the night before they were to be shipped out of Korea, he pulled out almost all his teeth to escape. The army found him unfit to serve and let him go. My grandpa told me about how he was starving and barely surviving. How he had to shoo a dog to get some grains of rice that were in someone’s vomit on the ground. He told me a very nice woman took him in and nursed him back to health. My grandfather joined the Korean army and studied all night to pass an exam to be a doctor or nurse.
My grandmother was the youngest child in her family. She told me that her parents were very old and grandparents so her oldest brother was more like her dad. Her family could not afford to take care of her so she had to be married. My grandfather was that suitor. They got married and my grandmother shared with me a story of how she lost her wedding ring and how she searched everywhere but couldn’t find it. She was terrified of her mother-in-law’s reaction and I don’t think she got a second one.
My grandparents grew up in colonial Korea- when Korea was a Japanese colony. They taught Japanese in school.
Korean was my first language. I had to take ESL in school even though I was born in the United States. However, I was so surprised when I learned that the Korean I had learned was different from modern Korean. Many of the words I took for granted as Korean were actually Japanese. The best example is the word for stairs. My grandparents taught me GA-E-DANG for stairs. When I needed to find stairs in Korea, no one understood me because the Korean word for stairs is GYE-DAN. GA-E-DANG is Japanese.
One of my friends said it best. She was studying abroad from Korea and she visited my hometown Flushing in New York City. She said it felt like a frozen piece of history- a slice of Korea from the 1970s or 80s. It was like the immigrants rebuilt the Korea of their memories.
These were all clues when I was trying to figure out who I was. I spent half my time at home in an old Korean culture where even the language was outdated and the other half in American culture. Korean and American culture do not go well together.
Anyway, I loved spending time with my grandpa. He was my hero. I remember whenever I was walking with him anywhere, he would always stop to pick things up off the ground every trip. A bottle here, a tossed box of cigarettes here, some weeds here, some acorns here, some super smelly fruit here.
My grandparents made so much food from weeds and trash they found in our neighborhood. I did not know that they were weeds or trash at the time or how weird it was until I recently started sharing with my friends.
I remember that my grandpa would pick up hundreds of acorns, wash them, crack them, and grind them so my grandmother could make a super delicious Korean side dish called MUK. Acorn in Korean is DO-TO-RI so my grandmother would make DO-TO-RI-MUK.
My grandpa would pick up weeds growing out of cracks in New York City sidewalks called SOOK (or wormwood) and later that night we would have SOOK rice cakes for dinner. DUK is rice cake in Korean so SOOK-DUK for wormwood rice cakes. I remember that every time this happened we would have rice cakes for days. They weren’t my favorite but in hindsight now that I know that I will never be able to taste one that my grandmother made ever again, I love them now. I hope that someday I will be able to learn how to make them too so I can remember the taste from my childhood.
My grandpa would also pick up these really rank, nasty fruits from ginkgo trees at Astoria Park. The smell of these fruits on the ground were overpowering. It smelled like shit. I remember standing yards away as my grandpa picked up dozens of these fruits and put them in a bag. Ginkgo nuts smell terrible but they are delicious when you roast them. It is one of the best and healthiest snacks I’ve probably ever had in my life.
I didn’t understand when I was younger but today I am amazed at the wisdom and knowledge that my grandparents had. How many people today could make delicious delicacies from acorns, nuts, or weeds in New York City from scratch?
When I share these stories, my friends look a little disgusted. However, I feel pride. Unlike many Koreans I know and met, my grandfather is always humble. He held political positions in the Korean-American community, was written and photographed in the news, won many awards and medals, and he never brags about it.
People would come up to him and shake his hand but he still had absolutely no problems picking up empty soda bottles off the ground or fighting squirrels that ransacked his garden in our 7th floor apartment’s balcony. He was also pretty OG. Once he grabbed a flying bird out of the air. It was like straight out of the Karate Kid which I thought was a Hollywood trope! I have no idea how he grabbed that bird or even held onto that bird as it tried to fly away.
My grandpa always did what he loved and he was never ashamed of it. He never boasts. He has a quiet, strong pride. He is always temperate and the best human being I’ve ever had the fortune to know in my life. He is not a rich man in terms of dollars but he is a very rich man in time and love. My grandpa has taught me a lot and continues to teach me every day through his actions.
Rich people tend to worry about legacies. I will always protect and pass my grandfather’s legacy.
My grandfather taught me the importance of time. Time is always more important than money. Money can be easily made or lost but time with the people you love will be what lasts after you or they are gone. Time may be the greatest or most generous gift.