Their Love Story

This is my parents’ love story picking up from the prologue post you can read here.

After Dad graduated from college, his assignment for military service in the Korean Army was at an English language instructional school (training for military interpreter services) in Daegu, a city in the southern part of the country. He went there for a 12-week training course. While there, he read an article in the local paper about the May Queen of a nearby women’s college, Keimyung College (now Keimyung University). The May Queen was like the school’s Homecoming Queen except instead of being elected due to popularity or prettiness, one was officially appointed by the school, probably for being a role model student. Something must have piqued his interest because for some unknown reason, he clipped it out and saved it.

Later, one of the assignments for his English course was to write a letter. He decided not to write any random letter just to fulfill the requirement, but to write a letter to the May Queen from the article he had clipped and saved. In the letter, he introduced himself and said he had read about her in the local paper. After the assignment was returned to him, he boldly sent the letter off to her in the mail. His excitement in getting a reply soon turned to disappointed confusion. All he received was another article about the May Queen from the college paper that was lengthier and more detailed. There was no personal note included, just the clipping. He did not know what to think of that and decided to forget about it. She must not be that interested or willing to risk it with a complete stranger. He finished his 12-week course and returned to Seoul.

Because he did well in the course, he was assigned to return as an instructor in Daegu for the remainder of his mandatory 2-year military service. In Korea, all men are required to serve at least 2 years in the military. As an ROTC graduate, Dad advanced to an officer (lieutenant) during his years of service. In that era before speed trains, the trip to and from Seoul and Daegu took about 7 hours by train. An older officer at the time advised Dad to find a local girlfriend instead of trying to maintain anything in Seoul from that distance. He remembered the May Queen and decided that he would try and write her again, this time in their native Korean language. His repeated gamble paid off. He received a personal letter from her in return and thus began their written correspondence.

After a few letters back and forth, he suggested they meet each other for the first time near the train station before he left for a visit back to Seoul. Dad sat waiting at a bakery. The designated time came and went. An employee of the bakery called out, “Is there a Chong Woong Kim here?” The May Queen had called to relay the message that she would be late. At the time, she was living with a professor’s family as the children’s tutor in exchange for room and board. The children had an exam the following day, so she had to work late to prepare them.

Dad waited at his table anticipating his image of a beauty pageant queen: high heels, fashionable attire, made up face, and well-groomed hair. He pictured a glamorous model from the cover of a magazine. Finally his daydreams were interrupted by the sense that someone was standing over him. He looked up and saw a simple white blouse tucked in a sensible black skirt, flat shoes, and a plain completely make-up-less face. Maybe he thought May Queen meant something akin to Miss Korea and neglected to think that she was probably the most obedient scholar at a Christian college founded by Presbyterian missionaries. He felt undeniable disappointment but went forward with cordial conversation. Despite the lack of glamour, that first meeting grew into regular weekend appointments at restaurants, tea rooms and bakeries across Daegu. He came to realize that his initial pageant ideals were not the definition of actual beauty. He discovered that she was naturally and truly attractive in the ways that mattered most. She was the real deal.

As things progressed, he found that his heart was no longer dormant but awakened again. As far as he could tell, she reciprocated those feelings. Was this true love? Was he just bored and lonely being away from his family and friends? Was she really someone who could be his partner for life or simply an enjoyable distraction while serving out his army time? He wanted to be sure. He had a 2-week leave from the army coming up and planned to go visit his home in Seoul. Before he left, he suggested to her that during his leave they take a break and not communicate at all. She reluctantly agreed (not sure if she really had much choice).

When he finally returned back to Daegu, they met up in a park. He started telling her the story of his young love in high school. He spoke in great detail about this other woman and their relationship. Maybe the May Queen thought he had reconnected with her back in Seoul. Maybe she wondered how a simple girl from the countryside could override a cosmopolitan woman of the country’s urban center. She might have known not to underestimate the strength of first love; she knew the power of it seeing as how he was her first love. He continued with his story and confessed that he still had those saved letters after all this time. In fact, he pulled them out and showed them to her. He let her read every single word. After she had finished, he placed them in a pile before her. He took out his lighter and dramatically set the worn out papers on fire until nothing was left but ashes. The time apart had not diminished his strong feelings; it had only fueled them forward into confirmation that she was THE one. Once he knew, he was so inpatient to see her that he cut his leave in half and returned a week early. The May Queen, my mom, had completely extinguished the dying embers of first love and taken her rightful place as his heart’s true love. Burning those letters was, in a way, asking her to be his lifelong partner.

July 27, 1968

July 27, 1968

I think Dad considers their story a “true love story” because it stands in contrast to the typical matchmaker introductions of his generation. I cannot imagine my father (a Korean Rico Suave) having it any other way. Through a little newspaper clipping, my parents met and got married. They are celebrating 47 years today. Those years have not always been easy. They still fight and get on each other’s nerves. (They also still hold hands and laugh at each other’s jokes.) They still grumble at each other on a very regular basis. (And she still cooks dinner for him; he still washes the dishes for her.) They continue on in their covenant and in this way demonstrate the fulfillment of LOVE: unconditional commitment that forgives, extends grace, and promises future presence in spite of all the annoying habits and discordant personality traits that come with that promise. I am thankful not just because I am a direct result of their story, but also because I get to have their example in my life so personally.

Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad!

Keeping love alive

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