[KS] A US-Korean blueblood's wry lament
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?
> AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER
> Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea, Leeds
> 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
> [Please use @aol; but if any problems, please try @yahoo too - and
> let me know, so I can chide AOL]
> 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
> 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
> 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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