Uncle Harold and Aunty Marilyn in my home, 2004.
Many Koreans immigrated to Hawaii during the early 1900s. Most fled poverty; others – including some of high status – were motivated by political reasons. My aunt’s mother, an aristocrat in her homeland, was one of these.
A century ago in Korea, the land of my ancestors, citizens of high birth and low struggled under the tight control of the Japanese. Many upper-class Koreans were eager to escape – so eager, in fact, that they willingly registered for plantation work across the ocean in Hawaii. Little did they know, their delicate hands would soon be covered with calluses.
Aunty Marilyn’s father, Pom Surk Lee, was one of the yangban (male scholars) who immigrated to Hawaii in 1904 in search of a better life. Although highly educated, he lacked the will to succeed either on the plantation or in the Western business world. He went on to live a modest life with his wife, who came to him via an arranged marriage from Korea.
Marilyn’s mother, Wi Poon Yoon, belonged to the Pa Pyong Yoon clan, which was well-known in Korea for producing seven queens – among them, Queen Min, who was assassinated by the Japanese in the 1890s. Wi Poon was born in 1890 to a relative of Queen Min, but she was orphaned at age eleven. American missionaries cared for her until she left Korea.
As a young woman, Wi Poon worked as a nurse’s aide at Severance Hospital in Seoul. During this time, Korean girls were being trapped into becoming “comfort women” – sex slaves – for the Japanese. So when Pom Surk’s family offered to have Wi Poon marry their yangban son in Hawaii, she gladly accepted. Initially, the missionaries she stayed with discouraged her from marrying a man she had never met and from going to a place she knew nothing about. But, she bravely went ahead with her plans. Wi Poon was twenty-one years old when she arrived in Honolulu in 1911, and she slowly assimilated into plantation life and marriage.
But Marilyn’s mother never forgot the past. She hated the Japanese so much because of their atrocities against the Korean people, she forbade her children to wear Japanese rubber slippers or eat sushi.
“Above all,” she counseled her children in Korean, “don’t marry Japanese.”
She also told her six daughters not to marry Korean nationals, because they would expect their wives to wait on them hand and foot.
“Marry local Koreans, instead,” she said. “And don’t marry good dancers, because they always turn out to be gigolos.”
Heeding this advice, Marilyn was very happy when she met and married Harold, a local Korean who doesn’t dance well.
Despite her mother’s racial biases, Marilyn accepted, and even embraced, her ancestral enemies. She has many Japanese friends, enjoys Japanese cuisine, and buys Japanese-made cars. In fact, one of her sons-in-law is a local Japanese. And, in a turn of events I’m sure Wi Poon never expected, Marilyn grew to be more cosmopolitan than her aristocratic mother.
Hawaii is truly the great equalizer.