Ancestor worship

By Y. Euny Hong
Published: May 26 2006 15:28 | Last updated: May 26 2006 15:28
My parents have a very large, very ugly framed photo hanging in their living room. It was snapped by King Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden on one of his famed archaeological visits to Asia in the 1950s and depicts a prehistoric cave drawing of a dragon near the border of China and North Korea. The king presented the photo to my grandfather as a diplomatic gesture. It has been touted as material evidence of the splendour that was my family. I have always found this story odd, but my family has been in decline for more than five centuries, so it is important to cling to these things. This isn’t exactly what one would call raging against the dying of the light.

I can trace my ancestry 28 generations on my father’s side and 26 on my mother’s; in both cases the progenitors were Korean feudal monarchs. Here’s what the family is up to now. An uncle, who was in medical school 40 years ago, is a waiter in a restaurant, as is his son. A cousin began his career as a brilliant architect, but was unwilling to compromise with contractors and clients. While still in his 30s, he gave up on working altogether; he is now an amateur water-diviner. A beauteous aunt, banished by the family for some vague malfeasance that can only be described as excessive commonness, became a hand model in New York before falling in with some dubious rich fellow. She died in a fire in her hotel room. As I grew into adulthood, I came to suspect that she had lit it on purpose. It seems a fitting end for a goddess in her twilight: setting Valhalla aflame and going down with it.

In the US, where I have spent much of my life, most people imagine that the Old World aristocrats living among them lead fabulous lives; that they are like the most popular clique in high school. It was not like that at all for my family or for any of their fellow expat Korean bluebloods who lived here. Most of the ones I know are not gregarious at all; they are antisocial, often agoraphobic.

In his book The Periodic Table, Primo Levi compares his relatives to inert gases, remarking that such gases are also known as “noble” gases – so dubbed because they were thought not to react to things around them; to resist change. Perhaps the metaphor requires updating: noble gases do not live in mortal fear of contamination, whereas noble people do.

Most parents place restrictions on the kinds of friends their children are allowed to have, but few took it to the extremes that my parents and their friends did. From the day I was born until the day I left home for Yale, I never had a friend over at my house for dinner, unless of course their parents were friends of my parents, and they had been dragged along. Birthday parties were one of only a handful of exceptions. My parents’ unimaginative explanation was that they didn’t have liability insurance.

To avoid having to return invitations, they forbade me, on pain of thrashing, to eat or drink anything other than water at a friend’s house. Anyone who started to become close to me was put off sooner or later by my coldness and inability to give or receive hospitality. But no matter, because by early adolescence I had been fully indoctrinated in the belief that anyone outside my family was second-rate. My relatives were my only friends.

I didn’t spend too much time worrying about my future because I was too stupid to understand that while my family might have been symbolically important, it was no longer influential.

Contrary to the common stereotype that all Asian families want their children to become medical doctors, my father instilled in me and my sisters the belief that medicine was a manual trade and therefore far beneath us. He once sniped at his brother-in-law, a physician, “an MD isn’t a real doctor”. By this he meant that only academics should bear the title, as is the case in some parts of Europe. Recently, one of my sisters, somewhat estranged, called my father crying; a debt collector had threatened her with legal action. He bailed her out, as he always did, then wrote to all three of his daughters expressing deep regret for any inculcation on his part that discouraged us to learn a trade.

Also on LKL:  Obituary: Roh Moo-hyun

Upon graduation from Yale with a degree in philosophy, I found myself deeply in debt and, for a good while, unemployable. Reluctant to learn a trade, I often fantasised about being a 19th-century French courtesan, thinking that it was the only profession for which my upbringing, languages and knowledge of opera would not go to waste. Happily, I never pursued that scenario.

It is especially depressing to be an immigrant blueblood in the US if one also happens to be from an ethnic minority. The latter status always trumps the former; a price most of my family were unwilling to pay. My parents first settled here in the late 1960s to pursue their doctorates. They had three daughters, of whom I, at 33, am the eldest. When my parents saw that they had grossly overestimated their ability to live without a sense of entitlement, we moved to Korea. I was 12; my sisters were 10 and eight, respectively. It was a decision that brought extreme misery to us all. My sisters and I all fled to the west at our first opportunity, when it came time to go to university, and to the great disappointment of my father, we never resettled in Korea.

Many of my parents’ high-born Korean colleagues who had emigrated to the US as students repatriated to Korea shortly after we did, out of similar disgust.

Having at one time lived in Germany for several years as a freelance journalist, I find the continentals much more accommodating than Americans of minority bluebloods. Though Europeans are often defensive on this matter, they still take for granted the difficulty of changing one’s status, for good or for ill. They accept, with surprisingly little paranoia, that my background, education and so forth entitle me to certain privileges and opportunities, irrespective of race. Especially indulgent are the French, who coo over the fairy-tale exoticism of a petulant young Korean woman speaking their language. Not that Europeans are less racist than are Americans, mind you; but they have very small east Asian populations; I am never mistaken for a cab-driver, a job-stealer or a terrorist.

My friend Harold (not his real name), a fellow Korean-American, is distantly related to the last Korean royal line. His family is very well known in Korea, and is far more illustrious than mine. His entire family prepped at Andover (the school that moulded the Bushes) and attended Ivy League universities; they are financially comfortable but discreet about it, genteel and well-mannered. Harold now lives in Manhattan. A few years ago he entered a friend’s office building and was stopped by the concierge, who assumed that he was a Chinese-food delivery boy and told him to re-enter the building through the back door.

Families like mine and Harold’s are approaching obsolescence in our home country as well. My family’s heyday, in fact, had ceased by the time the last Plantagenet breathed his last.

It’s not modernity’s fault that my family has a poor work ethic. And despite all my father’s claims, there was never a time in the history of the world when our way of doing things would have fallen into the category of how ladies and gentlemen should behave. My family is belligerent with subordinates; we make waitresses cry.

After my family lost their feudal monarchies hundreds of years ago in some sort of skirmish with rival lords, they became court advisers to subsequent kings. Confucianism, which was in full swing by the 16th century, was the second big blow to my family line. Confucianism heavily emphasised scholarship, and consequently government posts were determined by exams. Fortunately for my ancestors, it was not a true meritocracy: one had to be of noble birth to sit for the exams. So my family was still protected, somewhat. Within a very rarefied environment, they were able to survive.

When the Japanese colonised Korea in 1919, it was not by invasion. At the time Korea was being courted by several world powers simultaneously, it had to choose one coloniser, or have the choice made for them. People like my ancestors advised the Korean royal family to hand the country peaceably over to Japan. Many Korean nobles believed they stood a better chance of retaining their power under the Japanese than the west. The Japanese government rewarded my relatives by giving them positions as viceroys, legal advisers and so forth, but with greatly limited autonomy.

Also on LKL:  S Korea watchdog tries to rein in cartels

When, at the end of the second world war, Japan relinquished Korea, the latter formed an independent republic. The new regime branded many of my ancestors as traitors; some were hanged, lynched or kidnapped. Very fortunately for me, my paternal grandfather was just unimportant enough to survive. Under the Japanese he had been a viceroy for a remote province in what is now North Korea; offing him just wasn’t worth the bother.

My grandfather had a stroke of luck. The purging left few people qualified to run a government, so imperial loyalists like him had to be given posts in the new government (a fate that also befell post-Third Reich Germany). He became a presidential cabinet minister.

Still, democracy proved the bluebloods’ greatest nightmare. My mother’s family lands were seized by the government and redistributed to the poor. Faced with the prospect of competing with the public at large, my family found itself unequipped for the battle of life.

My father failed two classes at the elite Seoul National University. The way he tells the story, he did it deliberately. “It was called a double-holster,” he would say. It was a way of distinguishing himself from the common upstarts who had been admitted to university based entirely on their exam scores. Those poor slobs would have to endure the humiliation of interviews with strangers in order to get jobs; my father and his family had never had a job interview in their lives.
There was just one problem: he wanted to go on to graduate school in the US. He was rather shocked to learn that the Americans did not recognise the symmetry and sublime gentility of two “F”s. American brahmins did have a tradition known as the “Gentleman’s C”, but it didn’t apply to foreigners, and at any rate an F is not a C. With some dues-paying, he got his doctorate and became a reasonably successful economist, first in the US, then in Korea. Still, he has always considered himself a failure. He is inconsolably upset that he can’t have the words “cabinet minister” chiselled into his tombstone after he’s dead.

Which brings us to the present day: we are finished.

Korea is now in its Fifth Republic, though it has only been a democracy for two decades.

An uncle in Seoul continues to wear a tiepin with the logo of his elite secondary school, though the school has long ceased to exist; it is his defiant “piss off” to the changing world around him. But he, like the rest of us, is a museum piece.

The Korean presidential election of 2002 was the most recent, and possibly final, cut of all. Lee Hwe-Chang, the fellow who lost, had gone to the same schools as my father. In fact, my father served as an ancillary adviser to Lee during his campaign. The Korean people, however, found Lee too patrician. When he lost, it was the shot heard round the world. Around my family’s world, at any rate.

President Roh Mu-Hyun, who won and who still occupies that post, is a man of the people. He very nearly wants to tar and feather families like mine. He has suggested dismantling Seoul National University, the school that educated most of my family for generations, on the grounds that it fosters an oligarchy. If he gets his way, the school will be split up and lose its grande-ecole status, as it were. My father saw the new regime as a sign of our family’s permanent disenfranchisement. He fell into a deep depression from which neither he nor the rest of my family will recover. To fill the void, he took up and dropped various hobbies. At one point, he suggested to my mother that the two of them fill their lives by taking in foster babies. (My mother’s horrified response: “We’re too old.”) He finally got out of his funk by burying himself in the writing of an economics textbook.

Also on LKL:  S Korean farmers look further afield for brides

Still, we will never be the same. Evidence of my family’s acceptance of defeat is that no one seems to care any longer whether any of the family newborns are boys. My eldest male cousin, who would have been the head of the family for my generation, died of cancer 10 years ago. His father had placed many of the family holdings in this son’s name, because this practice seemed to have the magical effect of making the properties rise in value; using any of his other children’s names seemed to make prices stagnate. Because of a legal technicality, and the Korean tradition of honouring common law over personal wills, my cousin’s widow received a great deal of my family’s property, including the family cemetery. This would not be such a serious problem except for the fact that she has cut herself off from the Hongs. She eventually ceded the cemetery, after my father gave her a very hard time. So occasionally, the family bullying tradition does have its merits.

Still, having the cemetery is less important to my father’s generation than ensuring that someone will maintain it and organise the rituals of ancestor worship. There’s no one left. The next male in line is the aforementioned water diviner, who seems to have become Christian, which precludes it. The male after that is from yet another estranged branch of the family; the father-son waiter duo. The rest of my cousins are in the US. As for my generation, everyone keeps popping out girls – which, some say, is what happens to the weak. Our family line, in many ways, is finished.

In theory, the way our family has handled such tragedies is by convincing itself that bad luck was somehow a good thing. Whenever I have a setback of any kind, my parents repeat a fable they have been repeating since I was a child. The story tells of a farmer with a wife and son. One day a beautiful stallion wandered into their grounds; they kept it, and the villagers cried, “How lucky you are!” Then one day, the farmer’s son fell from the horse and was crippled, and the villagers cried, “How unlucky you are!” But soon a rival feudal lord came around to the village to recruit all able-bodied men into his army. Because the farmer’s son was crippled, he was left alone. “How lucky you are!” the villagers cried. The story has no end, in theory. Its veracity was borne out by several family anecdotes.

One of these is the aforementioned story of how my grandfather’s low bureaucratic rank under the Japanese prevented his execution in the subsequent Korean republic. Another is the fact that my father missed out on speculative investments in Korea for which his friends got in on the ground floor. This distressed him greatly; he blamed my mother for delaying our repatriation to Korea; if not for her, we would be making a killing, he said. It turned out, however, that the investments were fraudulent, and some of his friends are now in prison.

The lesson that my sisters and I were taught to draw from this are: (1) only idiots get excited about things, for good or for ill, and (2) good luck is actually bad luck, and vice versa.

So what happens when good luck is really bad luck, and fair is foul, and foul is fair? All words are emptied of meaning. A family can only pretend for so long that it has a healthy appetite for the absurd; soon indifference begets the desire to cease to be, and then the noble really do become inert.

Y. Euny Hong’s first novel, “Kept: A Comedy of Sex and Manners”, based partly on her family, will be published in the US by Simon & Schuster later this year.

This entry was posted in Euny Hong, FT and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *