Guest Column: Grandmother

Dr. Stan Chung - Photo submitted
Dr. Stan Chung
— image credit: Photo submitted

When I was in grade five, my grandmother died. This was the mid-seventies.  She came to Canada in 1972, a small but stocky sixty year old woman who spoke little English.

She stayed with us in Williams Lake for less than a year, and then she found a second story apartment overlooking Main Street in Vancouver.

The neon from the car dealer flashed into her apartment at night. It wasn’t the greatest area, but she rode the electric buses, found a part time job, and waited for our visits.

At the age of eleven, I believed I was the only one who could understand my grandmother. The anger boiled inside her, and it didn’t take much for her to start pounding the floors and walls while using the most exotic of swear words.

After these episodes, I would sit in my room, wondering if I should go to her, hold her hand, and listen to her. But I did not.

“Your father is useless,” she would yell. “He’s supposed to be a minister, but he can’t even take care of his poor mother!”

Over the years, these memories, cloudy and confused, have made me dizzy. The four year old in me wanted to believe that she tried to separate me from my parents.

The year I lived with her in Korea, after my parents had left for Canada, did something to me because I thought we had been abandoned.

When she lived with us in Williams Lake, I treated her very poorly.

We talked about her behind her back. We talked about how loudly she chewed her food. We made fun of her broken English. We greeted her old country cooking with mock horror.

I was probably the worst, because I feared her so little. I was rebellious, disrespectful, and spoiled.

My grandmother grew up in a small peasant village on a volcanic island between Korea and Japan. She spent most of her life under Japanese occupation.

Living under occupation, as most Koreans of that generation will tell you, strengthens your identity but you pay the price.

My grandmother, Bong Choon Chung was an illiterate single parent and a born-again Christian. She survived in Korea by growing vegetables and taking them to market on weekends. She was married twice.

My grandfather died shortly after my father was born. The second man she married, left to work in Manchuria, not long after my uncle was born.

It used to all seem so long ago.

When we heard grandmother had died, we drove down to Vancouver. It was a seven hour drive that passes through many geo-climatic zones.

We passed 100 Mile House, Clinton, Yale, Chilliwack, and finally arrived in Vancouver where the air was moist and faintly smelling of cedar and ocean.

She was buried in Vancouver on a cold day. The funeral service, the first for me, was attended by Korean families throughout the lower mainland.

Today, there is a huge population of Koreans, but in those days, it seemed we all knew each other. The day after we arrived my father’s half-brother, an electronics businessman from Chicago, burst into our hotel room and blustered promises to us.

“You kids. You study hard. I pay for your university. Your grandmother was murdered by bad doctor, and I make sure he pays. Tomorrow, we go shopping and I buy you anything you want.”

Of course, none of these things happened. My grandmother died as a result of a gall bladder surgery complications, and my uncle didn’t hire or know any hit men.

I don’t even know where my uncle is now. I hear he is keeping a low profile in the Pacific Northwest after he scammed a large retailer out of a cheque large enough to retire on.

Korean funerals are a little different. First of all, there is the custom of envelope giving. People lined up at our hotel room and slipped my father thick envelopes. Afterwards, I saw my father count up the stacks and stacks of cash, and to me, it seemed like a scene out of a Hollywood movie.

The next day, we sat in a long white limousine and arrived at the church. I sat in a hard pew beside my little sister. My parents entered behind the casket and that’s when I heard the long low and nearly hysterical cries of my father.

I had never heard that sound before and I’ve never heard it again. Then my mother joined in. Her cries filled the church and she collapsed. I hung my head and closed my eyes.

Seeing our mother cry, made my sister and I cry, too. I wondered if my grandmother was watching us.

Our sadness, our sorrow, our guilt.

There were so many things to cry for, but who really understood what it was like for my grandmother.

Later, we drove to the cemetery. I was amazed by the long row of cars behind us. To be the centre of attention in this way was strange. People who I didn’t know, bowed to my parents and embraced them.

I stood in the distance. Nobody shook my hand or clapped me on the shoulder. Finally, a relative stood beside me, and I felt better, at least someone recognized me.

On that cold November day, I found no tears for my grandmother. I blinked hard and tried but the wind cooled my eyes, and I kept looking up for snow. A bit of frozen rain moved diagonally as people put up their black umbrellas.

There were a lot of people there, but it was very quiet. The sleet hit the ground and bounced. For a moment, I could see snow on Grouse Mountain and then the cloud cover came.

There was a lot of mud around the casket, but the ground was hard. I waited for my uncle to do something hysterical, but he stood with his hands in his pockets and kept pushing up his glasses.

My parents wiped their eyes.

We never visited my grandmother’s grave except maybe once, the following year, and for some reason, all I can remember is my mother putting plastic flowers next to her bronze marker.

It has been many decades now and I have not visited my grandmother. I know her grave sits at Ocean View Cemetery, and I try not to wonder about what kind of person I was and have become.

After all, I am too busy. I am a father now with children of my own. My own parents have passed on and left us alone.

It is nearly spring, and my daughter will soon turn eighteen. Clementine still cries when I am hard on her. She loves her parents still.

I wonder how old she will be before she becomes cold like me. How long will she love me? And what, I ask myself, have I done to deserve her love.

I think about tears, the tears in my daughter’s eyes, the tears in my own, and the frozen tears in the sky the day my grandmother was buried, and I think about how it must have been for me to lose my parents for that year while they settled in a new land.

And how it must have been for my little sister at two years old who believed she’d never see her parents again.

And how it must have been for my grandmother who stayed in Korea to raise us, and love us, and who is now nearly forgotten.


Stan Chung,  PhD is the author of I Held My Breath for a Year available at stanchung.ca and Lotus Books.

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