[KS] A US-Korean blueblood's wry lament

Jiyul Kim jiyulkim at fas.harvard.edu
Mon May 29 16:23:28 EDT 2006

Yes, a self-indulgent, wishful, and delusional twaddle it is. What 
complete nonsense! Unfortunately she is publishing a novel this summer 
(Simon & Shuster) along a similar vein.

Jiyul Kim, one of the millions who supposedly claim link to the blue 
blood Kyongju Kim clan

will pore wrote:

> Dear List,
> Probably even the most broadminded of the American university 
> undergraduates in the Korean History course I taught  last semester, 
> who entered the course "cold," i.e. without any prior exposure to  
> Korean langauge, history or culture (and I would certainly hope after 
> taking the course) would have smirked at Ms. Hong's delusional twaddle 
> about what she considers Korean "blue bloods." But, at least she 
> didn't call them aristocrats!
> Will Pore   
> On 5/28/06, *Afostercarter at aol.com <mailto:Afostercarter at aol.com>* 
> <Afostercarter at aol.com <mailto:Afostercarter at aol.com>> wrote:
>     Colleagues may be interested in this from the Financial Times.
>     Apparently Ms Hong is a well-known journalist in the US.
>     Despite a shaky grasp of dates and a certain oddity of tone,
>     hers is an angle one doesn't see that often.
>     A wider issue is how far, at least in the US, the ranks of those
>     who pronounce on Korea include not only academics but also
>     novelists, autobiographers et al of this ilk. I wonder which kind
>     are, or will be, more influential in shaping public views of Korea?
>     cheers
>     Aidan
>     Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea, Leeds
>     University
>     Home address: 17 Birklands Road, Shipley, West Yorkshire, BD18
>     3BY, UK
>     tel: +44(0)  1274  588586         (alt) +44(0) 1264
>     737634          mobile:  +44(0)  7970  741307
>     fax: +44(0)  1274  773663         ISDN:   +44(0)   1274 589280
>     Email: afostercarter at aol.com <mailto:afostercarter at aol.com>    
>     (alt) afostercarter at yahoo.com
>     <mailto:afostercarter at yahoo.com>      website: www.aidanfc.net
>     <http://www.aidanfc.net>
>     [Please use @aol; but if any problems, please try @yahoo too - and
>     let me know, so I can chide AOL]
>     _______________
>     http://news.ft.com/cms/s/d1b73802-ed1d-11da-a307-0000779e2340.html
>     Sat 27 May 2006
>     Ancestor worship
>     By Y. Euny Hong
>     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.
>     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 [sic], 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.
>     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.
>     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./

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