On a road trip from Albuquerque to Phoenix with my parents this past February, I heard some of my dad’s oral history. Afterwards, he was not only hoarse but emotionally spent. Yet, I think it was good for him to tell of his days growing up in Korea: things he remembered of his parents (my grandparents whom I never got to know), what it was like to be a refugee during the Korean War, how he met my mother, and his early days as an immigrant to the United States. To have someone listen and their understanding of you grow by the glimpses they receive from those windows into your past can be as fulfilling as it is draining.
I take after my father in many ways. We like to tell stories, and we are not satisfied with the bare-bones version. We feel a need to describe the details. We want others to get as much of the picture as possible: to see what we saw and perhaps feel what we felt. In light of this, my dad could not start his story of “how I met your mother” (what he likes to call “a true love story”) with the day they met. He had to go back years before. He felt this prologue was important for me to know.
In Korea especially at the time my dad was in high school, students were expected to spend their time studying. There was no time for dating. His own parents had an arranged marriage and did not meet until their wedding day. For his and his siblings’ generation, arranged marriages had evolved into less rigid forms of matchmaking. Still, it was common to involve a 3rd party when the families deemed the time was right for considering marriage. Falling in love and even dating as we know it in the Western world was a rarity for most good boys and girls. To do so in high school could be downright scandalous.
In 10th grade, Dad first noticed her out in public one day. Tall and pretty, she caught his eye in the busy crowd. He saw her again at a later time in her school uniform. High schools were all-male or all-female and had their own uniforms. They also had rankings and reputations based on how difficult they were to get into through testing and admissions. She was wearing one of the top female high school’s garb, so he knew she must be smart. She lived close by and also took the same bus route to her school every day. For an entire year, he deliberately waited just to see her at those daily bus rides to and from school. All he did was look for her and observe for an entire year.
Finally in 11th grade, he got the courage to write her a note suggesting that they meet up at a certain place on Saturday. When he bravely gave it to her, she had had no idea he had been watching her for so long. She said something to the effect of, “What kind of guy are you?!?” He did not think it would go well but still went to the designated spot at the designated time. There was no reason to believe she would show and yet he anxiously and hopefully waited regardless. She showed up.
For a full year they met like this on Saturdays when their families thought they were studying or doing something else. It was never physical. They never even held hands. The only time they touched was when Dad was running late for one of their secret rendezvous. There were no cell phones to text an explanation. He arrived breathless and boldly took her hand to his chest so she could feel his rapidly beating heart as evidence to his intense exertion to get there on time. (For that time and culture, it was a huge move. Imagine the fireworks exploding with such a simple act.)
They wrote letters to each other until these letters were discovered by both families. Her family had notified Dad’s school; Dad got called to the principal’s office and was commanded to stop the relationship. This was illicit behavior; studying was to be the only focus for students then. It was not out of order for the school officials to interfere in one of their students lives like this. Her family forbid her from continuing the relationship. His family forbid him. Her nickname was Koala, and Dad’s siblings (he was the youngest of 6) had fun teasing him by singing “Koala” songs around the house. When his dad instructed him to get rid of all the letters found in his drawer, he hid them behind a picture frame. When his dad, who meticulously cleaned the house, found them hidden behind the frame, he ordered Dad to burn them. Dad burned most, but still managed to save a handful that he hid even more securely. He kept those letters with him and reread them from time to time.
During college he met a couple other women. One was through a friend of a friend. Another was just from going out with the guys when his best friends said, “Hey, let’s go out and meet some girls!” He informally “dated” them both at the same time throughout college. (What a player!) Again, nothing was ever physical. It just involved meeting up on the weekends for lunch or tea. Even though he maintained those relationships, his heart was not stirred like it had been in high school. When he was graduating college, there was a commissioning send-off service for the ROTC men. He knew he was in trouble because both ladies were coming to see him off. Somehow with the help of his best friends, he managed to say bye to them both separately. Separating from them was not difficult; it definitely could not compare to the forced separation in high school when his heart was undeniably broken.
To be continued…