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Jason Chon

An Unexpected Journey
The story of my Grandfather's Life and Travels

By: Jason Chon
College Now Course - BSS 1

Some people complain of having too many family members; others, that they do not have enough. In my case, I have family literally all over the world, but I do not know very much about them. That is why when we do get together, I take the time to learn as much of the rich history behind my families relatively short but widespread diaspora around the globe.

Many years ago, I had heard bits and pieces of my grandfather's (Maternal side) past and immigration to this country, but never had the motivation to dig much deeper then what I already knew. This project inspired me to ask more questions behind why my grandfather left his home and family to travel to a country thousands of miles away that he had no connections to and very little information about. Over the Thanksgiving break, I had the opportunity to sit with him and hear his story; one of determination, daring, and long sought after happiness, a tale that began nearly eighty years ago in a small rural community in North Korea.

Born to a privileged family, my grandfather was the eldest son in a family of respected government officials in North Korea. This meant that he was raised with special advantages; he was educated, well cared for, and pampered, while the rest of the population starved, died and were left largely to fend for themselves by the corrupt and evil government.

Of course, his upbringing meant he was exposed daily to the propaganda prevalent in the times, and while can now look back and scoff at the sociological ideas that he was brought up to know as correct, it was the only form of government and life that was known to him. Still, whenever he was off of his families estate, wandering around the country side seeing first-hand the destruction and death wrought by corrupt politics and failed government systems, he could not help feel a sense of inherent wrongness. There he was, living, if not in luxury, then comfortably, while his countrymen starved and were killed indiscriminately by the people who were supposed to serve and protect them. The hypocrisy angered him, and he was left deeply troubled with concerns for his future in such a bleak and oppressive world.

At around sixteen years of age, he began to actively seek ways of escaping the country to South Korea, where he had heard rumors that others had managed to flee to in order to escape the tyranny of life in North Korea. He was, however, left at a loss at how to do so. Not only that, but if he did leave, what was he to do about his family? If the government ever discovered that he had fled, his family would be held accountable and sent to prison camps, or worse. Eventually, however, he quietly slipped away without informing anyone, in order to leave no one he knew and loved accountable for his actions. He did not intend to leave them forever, but merely make an excursion to the outside world, and see what "the other side" had to offer. That fateful night, he snuck out of his families manor and ran into the woods, not looking back. That would be the last time he would see his brothers and sisters, mother and father, ever again.

There were of course, guides; daredevil underground railroad type people-runners, who, for the right price, would help sneak you across the border. However, many of these people were not running these services for altruistic purposes. Indeed, many left their charges to die and fled at the first sign of trouble. Wary of such con artists and backstabbers, my grandfather set off alone across the wilderness, crawling through minefields, sprinting across battlefields and harsh terrain, until finally he crossed over onto South Korean soil. What he saw didn't impress him very much at all. South Korea had long suffered under Japanese colonial rule, leaving it little better off than the dirt-poor North. This was not helped by the fact that the area he had stumbled into was a poor province of subsistence farmers.

Already home sick, my grandfather decided that he should simply return home, when the Korean War came to a climax, and the current border between the North and South Koreas was established. This border, heavily guarded and well patrolled, was an impassable barrier to a teenager with nothing to his name but the clothes on his back, leaving my grandfather stranded, alone in a strange society with no friends and no family to help him.

Fortunately, my grandfather would eventually come across a US army base, where he quickly struck up a friendship with an elderly captain. This captain, on his last tour before he retired, was a kindly old man with a heart of gold. He taught my grandfather english, and some basic skills needed to survive in a free market world. In the year that followed, they became as close as father and son, and eventually, in the few weeks before his tour ended and he was free to return to the States, the captain announced his intentions to legally adopt my grandfather. He had never had children, and he and his wife were far too old to begin considering to do so now. It came as only natural to him to take this orphaned youth back with him to the land of opportunity and new beginnings. However, my grandfather, still clinging to the hope of one day reuniting with his family, declined, and the two parted as merely good friends, the captain reminding my grandfather that he would always have a home back in America, in case he changed his mind.

In the years that passed, my grandfather made a living as a mechanic, fixing cars in a rapidly industrializing economy. He witnessed first hand the boom that would come over time, South Korea becoming the highly developed, trillion dollar economic superpower that it is today. It was also in this period of time that he would meet and fall in love with my grandmother, and begin planning a family.

Unsatisfied with the relatively slow paced life in Korea, he and my grandmother would come to America, ready to start a family and join the rising number of success stories that would often be heard from those that had already made the transition. Arriving in Seattle, Washington (I'm not quite sure of the year-though my grandfather was in his mid twenties at the time), my grandfather fully embraced capitalism, casting aside years of indoctrination to become the owner of a string of restaurants, clothing stores and retail outlets in several states. Decades passed, my mother and her two brothers, my uncles, being born in the meanwhile, and life became peaceful for him, though rough patches came in abundance, from catastrophically bad investments to phony lawsuits again him. Through it all, he persevered with the only value he kept from the propagandic teachings of his youth - good, honest hard work.

There were a few loose ends to this story, as there should be, considering that my grandfather is still going strong in his seventies. He may be retired and old, but he has no intentions of giving up his full life any time soon.

My grandfather still has no idea what became of his family, as North Korea today remains tight lipped about the many deaths within the ruling class after the war. He fears the worst but hopes the best for his siblings, and wishes that he had had the chance to say a proper goodbye to his parents before he left home. The kindly old captain that had so helped my grandfather in his youth passed away along with his wife peacefully in their sleep a few years before my grandfather managed to find out what happened to them. Now retired, my grandfather lives in Pennsylvania where he can be close to watch his grandchildren, my two young cousins, grow up. My grandfather calls this, his life story to me, the product of his unexpectedly long foray into the world. Now that I am recording his progress in life. I call it his Unexpected Journey