An aristocratic mother

Harold Marilyn-2004-A

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.

12 Responses to “An aristocratic mother”

  1. Olga Says:

    We cannot hang on to the ways of the past. We are products of past, but also of our experiences. I did giggle at the admonition to not eat sushi…that’ll show them!

  2. Jan Says:

    What a nice portrait of an interesting woman with a fascinating past. 🙂

  3. SchmidleysScribbling Says:

    Wonderful tale GiGi. I had to laugh at the advice to never marry a good dancer. From my experience, I would say this is good advice. My first husband was a good dancer and a philanderer. David has never danced a step in his life. I miss going to weekly dances, but don’t miss what went with it.

    Yes, the U.S. Was a place you could find an ‘American’ boy who wouldn’t treat you like a servant. I’ve heard more than one foreign born bride express that sentiment.

    I know from research I did at the Census Bureau that Japanese descent people are the least likely to ‘out-marry, although I think that might be changing.

    Years ago, I spoke with Japan’s national demographer and he suggested that Koreans were Japanese, or something like that. I do think that possessive attitude may be changing among the younger generation.

    Again, nice story. Sounds like something Michener wrote.

  4. SchmidleysScribbling Says:

    PS Connie loves the book you gave me.

  5. Christine Says:

    wow interesting history. Thanks for sharing. I think all over the world, this is how things happened, people just trying to survive in the best way they can. Some are more fortunate than others.

  6. mmmm Says:

    My mother married not a Spanish man but my dad was of german background, they both came to the USA to escape a lot of terrible things in Europe, Hitler was going strong..Too bad people say things about doing this and doing that, most people will marry who they want to marry and make a go ot it, my hubs of nearly 41 years is Jewish and I was raised Catholic neither of us pratices our religions of birth, we believe in a spiritual being and tried to instill this in our only child she is open loving and kind..We find people who think hell is in the afterlife, we feel any hell one might feel will be here in man’s inhumanity to man and all the prejudice that people display the lack of love and consideration and all..I enjoy your blog and it’s many interesting notes from your ancestory, you seem so kind and loving, aloha and enjoy your week!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. Linda Reeder Says:

    A very interesting post, Gigi. I always enjoy reading about real people and how they came to be where they are. And this is history I know nothing about.

  8. DeniseinVA Says:

    Your family has a very interesting history Gigi and the good dancer remark made me smile. I liked that last sentence about Hawaii being a great equalizer.

  9. L....w Says:

    I’d say, Hawaii is the great equalizer and melting pot…when Korean immigrants had to work and play with other nationalities on the plantation, including Japanese immigrants.

  10. Lorna Says:

    That is a GREAT story. Thank you for sharing your aunt’s perspective. And I’m glad she has a good marriage!

  11. Flo Miyahira Says:

    I am catching up on your posts and find this story fascinating, especially since I’ve met your aunt Marilyn and uncle Harold. I enjoyed our conversations with them at lunch at Sylvia’s restaurant. They are wonderful, genteel, and personable. The background history of your family is one that I enjoyed reading. Thank you for sharing!

  12. Beatrice P. Boyd Says:

    Glad to read that your Aunt Marilyn followed her heart, Gigi.

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