My great-grandma is approaching her 99th year of life. Soon, it will be time for the annual birthday phone call, when my mom has long conversations with her in Korean and they laugh together. All I can do is chime in with awkward English, “Happy birthday, Great-Grandma!” But there’s so much more I want to say.
When I took introductory Korean for a semester, I was ironically the slowest learner there despite being the only student of Korean descent. A lifetime of western languages has instilled me with a mind that naturally picks up French and Latin but can’t seem to wrap itself around the language that my grandparents grew up with.
Great-Grandma understands some English, thanks to her nine years living in Oakland, where she worked as a nanny after my great-grandfather died. Still, even though I’ve seen her at family gatherings over the years and sat by her and held her hand, I have never had a real conversation with her.
But my grandma, her daughter, has told me all about her. I know that my great-grandmother was an only child, rare in patriarchal Korea at a time when most parents would have kept trying until they had a son. Her parents broke tradition again when they allowed their daughter to go to college, although she did end up leaving her job as a schoolteacher to enter an arranged marriage at the age of 20.
Fleeing the ravages of World War II
I know that she had six children. And when my grandmother was just a toddler, WWII swept into Japanese-occupied South Korea, and the family had to flee the city. When they came back, their house had been pillaged and what was left inside was in shambles.
Then, during the Korean War, they had to run for their lives again as the North Korean army marched down the peninsula. This time, my great-grandmother made most of the journey on foot with a baby on her back and several children in tow – my grandma, aged 10, was the oldest child. Every day, the family walked for hours. At night, they slept in houses left behind by others who were also fleeing south; once, they slept in a chicken coop. When my great-grandfather split off from the group to look for a truck to transport them faster, she looked after all six children by herself until he made it back.
She continued to demonstrate her independence even after the war ended. She was widowed early and has now been a widow for longer than she was ever a wife.
Research shows that family stories like this are preparing me, and many others in the younger generation, for a better life. Having a heritage and a concrete family history to be proud of has benefits for children including decreased anxiety and higher levels of self-esteem, according to research by Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke, psychology professors at Emory University.
“On the basis of more than a decade of research on resilience in children and families, we found that the single best predictor of resilience and adjustment in kids was their knowledge of their family’s history”
“On the basis of more than a decade of research on resilience in children and families, we found that the single best predictor of resilience and adjustment in kids was their knowledge of their family’s history,” said Duke in an interview. Although their research only proves correlation and not causation, the results showed that the relationship was “strong,” according to Fivush.
Finding the heroes in my family
When I told Duke about my great-grandma, he immediately pointed out that I’ve described a heroine.
“Knowing that there are heroes in one’s family, it’s extremely empowering,” he said. It’s even better than having a superhero to identify with because it’s “someone in your own family.”
Just as important as the stories themselves is how I’ve heard them. According to Fivush, family stories are “springboards” for conversations over meals or in the car. “I think that personal communication is really critical,” she says. Duke calls this step a “hidden variable.”
Often times, in my personal experience, I’ve heard these stories about Great-Grandma late at night. Her daughter–my grandmother–and I are the only night owls in the family, and on many visits we’ve sat together at the kitchen table until 11pm. Usually she sips hot water from a mug and I help myself to a second serving of ice cream. My grandma has lived in the U.S. for over 50 years, and her English is fluent.
These stories have helped fill the silence between my great-grandma and me – the gap between what I want to say and what I am able to.
This way, when I do get to see her, I can say hello, anyeonghasaeyo, in stilted Korean but filled with a tremendous appreciation for her strength and perseverance.
Even though I have only experienced a miniscule fraction of the adversity she has, it means a lot to me to know that I was made of strong stuff. The more I hear about what my grandma and great-grandma have been through, the more the First World problems in my life—delayed buses, malfunctioning iPhones, bad haircuts—fade into the background. I don’t need to worry about those—I have gained the perspective of two incredible women who have dealt with so much more.
And I know that my grandmother keeps Great-Grandma updated on what’s going on in my life. When she calls Korea, I can hear in her voice the upturned voice of a daughter: “Umma?” Mom
Madeleine Joung is a staff writer for the magazine of The Harvard Crimson.