My Family in Korea, 1975-1980

While home for the funeral, I found some great old pictures of my family, both in Korea and in the United States.

First, my parent’s wedding picture, circa 1975, probably Kunsan, South Korea:

Who’s who? See detail below for family members I was able to identify:


Middle row, L-R: paternal grandmother, dad, mom, maternal grandmother, ?, ?

Top Row, L-R, starting to the right of my mom (the bride): ?, great uncle (the one who I’ve met in Korea and blogged about on several occasions), my aunt (mom’s sister), maternal grandfather, uncle (dad’s brother).

Next: March 1980, sometime around my aunt’s (mom’s sister’s) wedding.

L-R: Uncle (last one to come to the US), uncle (first to come to the US), aunt, grandmother, aunt’s husband

Lastly, my aunt’s wedding picture. Date unknown, but probably around 1980 as well.

Notice how nobody is smiling in any of these pictures. What gives?

For some historical context, here’s what was happening in Korea during this time:

  • 1961-1979: strongman Park Chung-hee guides Korea through a period of rapid economic growth, but strongly suppresses any political dissent
  • 1975, the year my mother and father married: Per Capital income of South Korea, ~$1,000, or about 22% of that of the USA at the time.
  • 1979: President Park is assassinated, and a new military dictatorship takes power.
  • April 1980: Gwangju Massacre results in hundreds of civilian deaths during protests against the military government.
  • 1980, the year my aunt married: Per Capital income of South Korea, ~$3,000, or about 25% of that of the USA at the time.

This isn’t just where my family came from; this is where I came from. I’m a product of this history, whether I’d like to be or not.

An Obituary: Han Soon Song, 1931-2008


(L to R: my grandmother, my cousin, me)

An unfortunate turn of events has caused the focus of this blog to shift from my father’s extended family in Korea to my late mother’s extended family in Atlanta, GA.

On Saturday, June 14, 2008, Han Soon Song died at the age of 76 after a brief battle with liver cancer. She was my grandmother and my mother’s mother.

As I reflect back on her life that spanned seven decades and two vastly different countries, I must admit that I can’t claim to have been close to her, but I always felt affection for her, and now a great sense of loss. For most of the time I knew her, my lack of Korean and her lack of English prevented us from having even a basic conversation. It was only as a young adult did I learn enough Korean to even attempt such a thing. As such, the following narrative of her life is based on what I managed to learn outside of direct conversation with her, through stories of others and the nonverbal communication that often tells more than words are able to. Later I will try to follow up with a more personal account of my relationship with her.

Han Soon Song was born as Han Soon Kim (???) in 1931 in rural Korea. (How rural, or where exactly, I’m not sure, but decades later, my older brother would recall that when he visited this town in 1984, there still was no running water.) She married at a young age to Gi Jun Song (???) and bore her first child, Myung Ja Song (???, my mother), in 1952, at the age of 20.

My grandmother would go on to bear one additional daughter and three sons. I never learned what she or my grandfather did to support the family, but I imagine that her days were spent juggling the responsibilities of keeping house, raising five children, and assisting in whatever enterprise my grandfather did to keep the family fed, most likely small scale farming. In short, she was a typical busy Korean mother.


(My grandmother, second from the right, with two sons, a daughter, and a son in law.)

By this point, my grandmother had already lived through the Japanese occupation of Korea and the Korean War. I don’t know what impact these two national traumas may have had on her, so I can only speculate what if any hardships she may have suffered during her young adult life as a consequence of these events. But many have generalized the experience of the entire generation of Koreans that came of age during this time: it made them strong and prepared them to rebuild their country and their families’ lives.

In 1975, her first daughter (my mother) married Sang Dae Lee (???, my father), and a year later they left rural Korea to pursue their educations and careers in the United States. After establishing themselves in their careers in Augusta, GA, during the 1980’s, they began to bring their families to join them in the United States. My paternal grandmother, Kum Ye Lee (???) was the first to come (she immigrated either in the late 1970’s or the early 80’s), but over the next two decades, my mother’s family took full advantage of the window of opportunity my trailblazing parents had provided. By 1990, my grandmother, grandfather, and my two youngest uncles who had yet to marry in Korea all made the long journey across the Pacific Ocean and settled in Atlanta, GA.

During her first years in America, my grandmother experienced the mix of joys and sorrows that would define the rest of her years here. Surely she was glad to see her first daughter, her son in law, and her grandchildren integrate themselves into the fabric of American life, but neither she nor my grandfather spoke any English. She couldn’t even communicate with her grandchildren (myself included), who didn’t know what to make of these strange relatives with strange languages, strange food, and strange customs. Her daughter and son in law had stable professional careers, but their youngest sons, having chosen the typical entrepreneurial path of Korean-American immigrants, did not find success in their first venture, a gas station/convenience store.

But just as my grandmother saw her sons find success in their new dry cleaning business, tragedy struck. In 1994/5, my grandfather’s beer and cigarette habit finally caught up with him in the form of a debilitating stroke. My grandmother gave him the constant care and supervision that he needed until he died in 1996.

Now a widow, she depended on her children for support. Fortunately, her sons’ dry cleaning business took off, and the younger one began his own real estate venture. They both married and started their own families while keeping my grandmother close by. As if to fill the void, a new wave of relatives began to make their way to America. I’m sure she was glad to see her sister, her second daughter, her first son, and their children all join her in Atlanta; though I can only speculate on their circumstances in Korea that led them to leave for America, but at least on the surface it seemed like a joyous family reunion. By the early part of this decade, she had three sons, one daughter, five grandchildren, a sister, and a nephew with her in Atlanta. They all struggled to adapt to their new surroundings, but at least they were together, both as a family and as part of Atlanta’s growing Korean-American community. All around them, more and more Korean owned businesses popped up on Buford Highway. My maternal and paternal grandmothers both lived in close proximity to other Korean senior citizens and were not lacking for company or activity. And in Birmingham, her daughter’s family was still close by, her grandchildren growing up, attending colleges, and starting promising careers.

But again, tragedy struck. My grandmother’s first daughter, my mother, was diagnosed with late stage stomach cancer in June 2004. The diagnosis came as a tremendous shock to the entire family, but my grandmother, upon learning the diagnosis, suffered a mild stroke of her own and was thought to be at death’s door. She was able to make a full recovery–by itself a minor miracle–but her daughter was not so lucky. As the summer progressed, so did the cancer’s progress through her body. My grandmother visited as often as she could during those final months; each time she came, she saw her daughter get sicker and sicker until she breathed her last on October 21, 2004, at the age of 52.

Any mother would be grief stricken beyond words to lose a daughter at any age, but my grandmother, having already lost her husband at a relatively early age, must have felt as if she were at the locus of a maelstrom of loss and tragedy. It wasn’t supposed to work out this way. She had left her home country of Korea to see her children and grandchildren prosper in the American dream and gain something of that for herself. That had certainly happened to varying degrees, but so much of that dream had been taken away from her with the combined losses of her husband and her daughter.

She lived the rest of her years close to her family in Atlanta. More grandchildren came, and she delighted in helping her children care for them. Although her family was still concerned about her health, she was still able to live independently and showed no signs of serious ailment. She was diagnosed with late stage liver cancer in the spring of 2008. It seemed at first that her condition would slowly deteriorate over time, but she took a sudden and unexpected turn for the worse. She passed away the morning of Saturday, June 14, 2008. Her funeral was held at the Korean Martyrs Catholic Church, the same church she and her family helped build over the last two decades, on Monday, June 16. She was buried next to her husband at Georgia Memorial Park Cemetery in Marietta, GA. A large group of friends and family bid their final farewell by her graveside.

A life that began in the rice fields of Korea ended in the red clay of Georgia.

She is survived by one daughter, three sons, one sister, one nephew, one great-nephew, and ten grandchildren (all but one were able to attend the funeral). I was one of those ten grandchildren. I think I can speak for all of her grandchildren in saying that we all remember the devotion and kindness with which she smothered her children (our parents) and her grandchildren, as well as the sadness that we all knew she carried behind her twinkling eyes and bright smile.