In my grandfather’s world, having a grandson was like looking into the future. In my unclouded brown eyes he saw his dreams made flesh. So he took my hippie-dad to the registrations office in town and had me registered with one of his name choices. Everything’s “in town” when you live in the country.
My mom and dad wanted to name me Han-Eul which means “sky” or “heaven” in Korean. Told you they were hippies. Instead, Grandpa’s insistence on tradition won out in the end and he named me Hyong-Nam which means “bright man.” Corny, even by nineteen seventies’ standards. I like to think he must have seen something in those baby-brown eyes when he held me for the first time. He needed something bright and untainted to get through the occupation years.
When he was a young man, the Japanese came looking for Grandpa because he was an intellectual and therefore considered dangerous to the Japanese Empire. So he did what any sensible grandpa in that situation would do: he hid in the mountains. Grandma told me that she would slip out of town by cover of darkness and make her way, on foot, into the nearby mountains where Grandpa was hiding in a series of caves. Even then, she wouldn’t linger to see him or to touch him. She would leave a stash of food wrapped in one of her sashes under a rock and walk away home, not knowing if Grandpa had gotten his food or if bears or tigers had eaten it. She walked all the way home not knowing if her husband was going to eat that night or be eaten himself. But she dared not look back for fear of being followed or watched. The Japanese had informants everywhere – most of them Korean.
One of her neighbors was taken away in the middle of the night by armband-toting sympathizers. She never saw that neighbor again. She used to run a little convenience stand which had the only bananas for miles around. Grandma liked her and bought bananas from her whenever she had any extra money left over from grocery shopping. But, like I said, she never saw her again and a different Korean woman – not from the neighborhood – took over the stand. Grandma didn’t like her. She always had to be careful what she said around this one. Besides, she never had any bananas to sell.
Grandma had to be cautious. Always cautious. That’s why she had no idea if Grandpa was still alive and eating her food until she found her sash, empty, neatly wrapped and tucked away under the same rock the following week. She cried then. I like to think that Grandma’s sash was covered with a few salty drops from Grandpa’s eyes too. He lost more than comfort and dignity in those caves though. Later, after the Japanese left, he went back to those mountains to retrieve titles of land that he didn’t want to fall into Imperial hands. Until the day of his death, he never could find those caves again and so Dad’s legacy is still buried somewhere in the cold mountain ranges of southern Korea. How Grandpa must have wanted to exchange that memory with that of my brown-eyed bright future. Perhaps he saw in me a new legacy – one that cannot be buried or bayoneted.
Fast-forward four years. Grandpa suddenly realizing that that future would play out in southern California and not in South Korea. In the Korean zodiac – which is identical to the Chinese one – I was born in the year of the tiger, an auspicious year for Koreans. I soon found out that in America, I was born in the month of Taurus the bull. I also found out that none of that mattered. In America, no one cares for what sign you were born under or how many generations your name has been carried, in one form or another, from countless fathers to sons. The only thing that mattered now was fitting in – which is kind of hard when every white kid with an attitude calls you a “chink.”
Grandpa’s bright brown-eyed future got clouded by racism. Dad, Mom, and I were fighting our own war now. America is not for the weak. She tests you at every turn, sharpens your wits and breaks your bones every time you let your guard down – all the while dangling that gold carrot called The American Dream in your face. She’s demanding too. Her love is never free. You’ve got to do things her way, start fresh from the bottom or your offerings go the way of Cain. So it wasn’t long before Dad found Jesus.
That phrase always struck me as funny: “found Jesus” as if he was lost like the Ark of the Covenant and in need of an adventurous, whip-snapping archeologist to find him before the Nazis do. So, one day we started going to church where Dad found his calling and entered the ministry. By the time I got my citizenship papers Dad, now an ordained minister, designated me “Paul” after the apostle in the bible of the same name. Paul means “small rock.” Corny, even by mid-nineties standards. When it came time to sign my papers and take my oath I realized he had forgotten to designate a new middle name for me. Realizing my opportunity for expressing my independence/causing mischief, I took the reins of my destiny into my own hands: I grasped the pen and, in the space titled “Middle” I wrote “Simon.” I don’t know what it means, but to me it will always mean choice and freedom. And let us not forget that Paul Simon is an American singer-songwriter-genius.
Grandpa’s dead now – so is Grandma – buried side-by-side on a hill, at the foot of a mountain, in their hometown on the edges of a forest. I like to think that it’s the same forest where Grandpa took refuge all those years ago. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. One day, though, I’d like to take my child there and show her that the legacy lives on.
Posted by Paul Yim