My mother was full of ghost stories about people but my father’s ghost was a house. A two-story house built out of the magic that was his father.
His father was an architect. As an architect he worked for the state restoring historic buildings. But at home he was modern and the house he designed for himself and his growing family was a house of the future.
The future. Some vagueness radiating from the West. Soon repercussions of a supernova. Destruction/Rebirth.
Like many Western houses, my grandfather’s house had two stories; traditional Korean houses stayed close to the ground and spread lovingly across the land, not up into skies (remember the Tower of Babel). And they did not have basements. My grandfather’s house had two. The first was designed to be a cool pantry, one in which my grandmother could prepare and store kimchis, soybean pastes, etc. But in digging this basement, the workers discovered a spring, so the basement became an enclosure for a well (my father remembers the spring water in summer, cool and refreshing). The second, like so many Western basements, was for storage, and was soon stuffed with bric-a-brac (my father says).
The house was a sensation—for decades, it was the only residential house in all of Seoul to have more than one story. My father was a minor celebrity because of it; all his life people would say, “You grew up in that house!” I didn’t really understand the house. It took other houses, houses described in novels, to understand descent, the turn of the wheel. Fortune.
I ask and my father describes the house. In appearance, it looked very much like a traditional Korean house, except it had glass windows instead of paper. There were really two parts to the house, front and back, and it was at the front where the house was two stories. The back was simply one, but with a roof garden. There, on cool summer evenings, my grandfather played his violin (a very Western instrument for a very modern Korean yangban*). Sometimes, my father and his older sister would use the roof to steal peaches from the neighbor’s garden. My grandfather was furious when the neighbor complained and the two children got quite the traditional Korean beating.
My grandfather’s very modern house was built on a very modern street. Part-residential, part-commercial, the street shimmered with a layer of black asphalt (dirt roads were still the norm my father tells me). And there was electricity. The house was also this strange mixture, the single-story back the living quarters, the two-story front semi-commercial, with my grandfather’s home office on the second floor and my great-grandfather’s small candy store at ground level. My grandfather built the store for my great-grandfather; he was afraid my great-grandfather would become listless in his retirement and the store was a way to keep him active.† My father doesn’t think money was ever made—my father claims he ate most of the candy. For convenience, the store connected directly to my great-grandfather’s bedroom. This was where my father slept because my great-grandfather cherished him the most of all his many grandchildren. My father shyly smiles when he says this.
It was a fairy-tale time, and like all fairy tales, it came to a sudden, abrupt end when my grandfather died.‡ The house was sold, my grandmother became a housekeeper to an American diplomat, and, for a short time, her five children were dispersed. My father was about eight at the time.
*Loosely, a term for members of the ruling class; more strictly, a term for scholar-officials.
†My great-grandfather was nicknamed the Living Buddha. He was kind and gentle and hardly ever spoke, all the hallmarks of great Korean gentlemen. The death of his only son was a brutal catastrophe. Everything belonging to his son he destroyed in one great bonfire of grief. Only two pictures of my grandfather survive.
Everything about this great-grandfather fascinates us. He was seven or eight when he ran away from home; he never returned. What we know: he had a stepmother (again, a fairy tale with a magic number of eight [in China, the number eight is propitious]). Perhaps he had a destination in mind. He walked from Gyeongju, the great capital of ancient Silla, to Seoul, the great capital of modern Korea. Modern, which is a meaningless word, was fin de siècle. Korea’s infrastructure was hardly developed (that is, there were no expressways for cars). Some two hundred miles, up and down mountains (his voyage on foot). For a week. Maybe more. My mother thinks it was Spring—it had to be Spring with its mild, warming weather—he must have met an itinerant merchant, perhaps a person he knew—he couldn’t have traveled alone. Maybe he had; more comforting to think his dead mother had sent him a guardian angel. My great-grandfather, the Living Buddha, rarely spoke about himself: what did he do to survive and what happened once his journey was over? He must have had family. No one survived in Korea without family. And he did better than survive. He must have had important connections because he too worked for the state, specifically, for the last Korean royal family—he seemed to have been involved with the family’s food preparations. He was certainly close enough to the inner court to be given hand-me-down clothing directly from the royal family (clothes were worn only once as was the court custom). We have a single photo of my great-grandfather, attired in court uniform, looking straight out of a costume drama.
(Once, while freelancing as a fact-checker at Vogue, I had a phone conversation with one of the royal family’s descendants, a young woman who was designing scarves. Korea no longer has an official royal family. The Japanese destroyed the Choson dynasty during their occupation of Korea, relocating the royal family to Japan where they were “reeducated”. Surreal, our conversation, like being lifted out of time, how she and I could trace back our paths to that single moment when our family histories intersect. And that too was like a television drama [our modern fairy tale]. One without family/national conspiracies. Without romances. Without fantasy. Merely historic/personal poignancy.)
My great-grandfather had only two surviving children, a son and a daughter. Strangely, for the times, he decided to educate his daughter as well as his son (we’re a family branch that loves progress and novelty), sending her to the prestigious Myeongsin Girls’ School (now Sookmyun Women’s University). This was when most of Korea was illiterate and even yangban girls given only enough skills to read books on how to be a virtuous wife. The school was the idea of Imperial Concubine Sunheon who fretted about the future of the royal court maids: how would they survive in a world without kings and queens and imperial concubines? Education didn’t serve my aunt well. Her husband was an alcoholic. Education without opportunity. Wrong place, wrong time, a whole generation smeared with bad luck. My interpretation.
‡My grandfather seems to have had a very short illness. Likelihood: stomach or intestinal cancer (his youngest son died of stomach cancer, leaving behind two young sons, a repetition of gene, faulty repetition of story). My grandfather’s death is linked to a scandal of sorts, something to do with a theft, the theft of a personal seal. The alleged thief: an in-law. With the seal, the in-law was able to sell off my grandfather’s assets as his own, and now his family prospers. The stress was what seemed to have killed my grandfather. Every episode of family history mutating puzzle pieces.
/I am petrified by roads and mazes. I have these dreams, of walking alone through city streets, old neighborhoods, of knowing my way and then abruptly losing my place, familiar roads suddenly muddled and chaotic, buildings pulled and jumbled together from every part of memory. I am terrified of being lost.
Sometimes, if I keep a clear head and bully the dream, I find myself back home, but I won’t have my keys or they’ll be the wrong set or I’ll realize that I’ve moved but can’t remember where, and I’m back being lost, in a kind of molassesy panic.
I lost a self once. I was six years old and there was this shock of sudden experience: unsettling grids of uniformity, blinding-clean colors, relentless babel, fear running live like an electrical current. My second birth. Into the American suburb.
Everything strange. Gone the friendly cacophony of tender old buildings and the irregular roads they lined—no road, no building looked the same where I was from, but here, in this fantastical place, the roads are clean and wide, buildings new and alike, the native people parts of this unsettling uniformity. New rules, new behaviors; the simple, everyday ripped apart and trampled. Instead of walking to school*, I am put on a large yellow bus full of rowdy kids with no idea where the bus will take me or how I’ll find my way back to this new dream-like place with the old familiar name of home.
Home† was temporarily with my aunt, the youngest of my father’s many siblings (she was now an American with an American husband, an American family, our conduit between old life and new), and she boldly asked a neighborhood boy if he could watch over me while I shuttled back and forth on that frightening yellow bus. He was a few years older than me and must have been kind and responsible because I always made it back to my aunt’s house in spite of my perpetual angst and confusion. (I thank him now because I didn’t know to thank him then.)
My nightmares is a variation on a theme composed by a blasé Satan.
A few months later we moved to the town across the river (smaller, more rural, provincial) and the nightmare began all over again. Only, I had this lesson from my aunt: rely on a neighborhood boy. And I was lucky. Right across the street from me lived a boy my age (why did all the girls always live so far away?). Because I couldn’t trust the roads, I trusted him, following the boy on and off the bus. A boy is not a landmark. One day, he got off three stops early—I followed even though I knew it was wrong. I trusted him more than I trusted myself and now I couldn’t trust either the boy or the road or me. The lesson was immediately clear: I had to find a road back to myself.
*School is a fraught memory. In dreams, it’s school I’m walking home from when the road disappears, leaving me trapped by houses. I was lucky with my first teacher in America. Understanding and kind, she did everything she could to make me feel welcomed. Kind teacher, kind pupils. My second teacher was different. She saw me as extra work, a nuisance, and ignored me as much as possible. I disliked that teacher and that school and, from then on, schools in general. My mother says I adored my first American teacher and cried inconsolably when I had to leave. Funny. I don’t remember the adoration, the kindness, even the teacher—nightmares smother memory.
†Home, sense of unease, impermanence, Enrico Fermi with his one bag always packed and ready for flight. I live half unpacked, afraid to buy furniture, cardboard moving boxes bedside tables, my dreams constructed with homes long lost./
A recipient of a Glass Woman Prize, J.A. Pak's work has been published in a variety of publications, including Joyland, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Luna Luna, Atticus Review, Quarterly West and Art/Life. Come visit her at Triple Eight Palace of Dreams & Happiness.