Thursday, January 17, 2019

my ajeossi has passed away

The Korean side of my family is flung far and wide. My mother's older sister ("Emo" or "Imo") and younger brother (John) live in Texas. Emo's husband, my Uncle Ed, died well over a decade ago. Emo has two children, my cousins Marie and Mark. Both have kids of their own. Uncle John also has a wife and two kids, both adults. His daughter married a Chinese-American guy a few years ago. As far as I know, all of John's family is still in Texas. Mom and Dad left Texas for Virginia way back in the 1970s, thus establishing the Virginia branch of our family, which includes my two brothers. My father's brother Pete, Pete's wife, and their four daughters all live in California. The Korean and Caucasian branches of the extended family have never met. My mother's four first cousins, all old and gray now, live in Korea, as I do.

I privately refer to these cousins, in descending order of age, as #1, #2, #3, and #4 Ajeossis. Each one is, according to the inevitable Korean pattern, married and a father. #1 Ajeossi lives in Chang-dong, in the northern part of Seoul, not too far from the Hanguk University of Foreign Studies. I actually have no clue where #2 and #4 Ajeossis live. #3 Ajeossi lived in Garak-dong, in southeast Seoul not far from me, with his wife. Their two sons have been on interesting life-paths; the elder brother studied music in Germany for a while, then came back, got married, and became a professional singer and private tutor. The younger son also went to Germany to study German as well as to live and work in the country; he's become more or less fluent in German, and he's now married to a Korean-German gyopo he met there. Both of these distant cousins have kids.

#3 Ajeossi is the one who was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer last year. I got the news today, from #3 Ajumma, that he had passed away. I don't know how long ago it happened, but I knew back in September that he was terminal. I also feel very guilty for not having visited more often, and part of me is a bit miffed that, even though I had asked Ajumma for frequent updates about Ajeossi's condition, she never once gave them. I'll be visiting her tonight, I hope. Of course, I don't plan to bring up my resentment at not being more in the loop. That would be crass and selfish, and given my own negligence, there's no moral high ground, here. But I'll be doing what I should have done while #3 Ajeossi was still alive: I'll be visiting.

Here's a family pic that got taken when #3 Ajeossi became a granddad thanks to his elder son and his daughter-in-law. This was before the younger son's wife was visibly pregnant; she has since given birth. #3 Ajeossi was a granddad twice over before he passed.

Pictured on the left side, from top to bottom: Gi-yeol (elder son), Jeong-min (wife), #3 Ajumma, baby.

Pictured on the right side, from top to bottom: Jae-yeol (younger son), wife (don't know her name), and #3 Ajeossi.

PERSONAL NOTE: #3 Ajeossi and I weren't all that close, but he was a fixture from my youth, from right around high school, I think. If I recall correctly, the first time I'd ever met him was back in 1986, when we went to Korea as a family for the first time. It was between my junior and senior years in high school, and this was my first time ever traveling internationally. (My month-long stay in Carquefou, France, happened later that same summer, so it was a dizzying, international double-whammy for me.) Ajeossi was quiet and soft-spoken, preferring to listen to conversations instead of participating in them. His wife, my #3 Ajumma, did most of the talking. For the longest time, #3 Ajeossi and his family were the only practicing Christians among Mom's four cousins, but sometime in the 1990s, #2 Ajeossi, the CEO of his own company, suddenly converted, and his family with him. I know some Koreans go Christian merely as a networking strategy (like elsewhere, Christianity is big business in Korea; there's no shortage of rich Christians in this country); it's hard not to be cynical in #2 Ajeossi's case. #3 Ajeossi and Ajumma, by contrast, have been dedicated, pious Christians since I've known them. Ajeossi went from being a deacon to eventually becoming an elder (ironically, in my PCUSA congregation, I became an elder before Ajeossi did; in Korea, a youthful elder is unimaginable); his wife was involved with singing and the decoration of the church with fresh flowers every week; their elder son, a natural singer at a young age, became a member of the choir and eventually was its conductor (he still is, as far as I know).

Back around 1993, when I was visiting Korea on my own for a few weeks, #3 Ajeossi and I did a road trip down to Daejeon to see the Daejeon Expo, a festival of scientific and technological achievements. As we were driving to Daejeon, a dump truck in front of us hit a bump, and a huge clump of dirt bounced out of the truck and landed smack on our car's windshield, cracking it dramatically. Ajeossi, who normally has no temper, gunned the engine, pulled alongside the truck, and waved the driver over to the side. What followed was an agitated conversation once both drivers were out of their vehicles and on the street; it was obvious the trucker didn't know what had happened. I assume the conversation ended with a promise of payment of some sort, perhaps via insurance.

We must have gotten to the expo at a quiet time because the place was a ghost town. Only a handful of tourists could be seen, dwarfed by the large structures and exhibits around them. In the 90s, my Korean was almost nonexistent, so Ajeossi and I said very little to each other the entire trip. It was all a bit boring and very, very awkward. While at the expo, Ajeossi and I rode a simulated roller coaster: the idea was that you go into a domed cinema with a 180-degree projection screen; you sit in chairs that have a limited range of movement to help you feel the twists and turns of the visuals before you. The chair comes equipped with ear-level speakers so that you're immersed in Dolby-quality sound. The visuals included a roller coaster and a spaceship that flew among asteroids and landed in some alien ocean in which, thanks to our chairs, we bobbed heavily up and down. We may have left the cinema and sampled some "international" street food that wasn't all that international. I remember very little else from that awkward, awful trip.

In the years since, I picked up more Korean and was able to say more during family conversations, but #3 Ajeossi was as taciturn as ever. Meanwhile, it was Ajumma who would call me often, and in recent years, she's been texting me. Ajeossi texted me maybe two or three times. I may still have those text messages, in fact; they were little more than cheerfully worded pieces of spam that he had felt it necessary to pass along.

And now, he's gone. I'm still processing this. I knew he was going to step through the Great Door sometime soon, but that doesn't make it any less surprising when death happens. I wonder how Ajumma is taking this. She spent so many years yelling at Ajeossi for being too quiet and passive. That said, I doubt she feels anything approaching relief or vindication now that Ajeossi is gone. If her situation is anything like mine was in 2010, she's feeling as if a limb had been ripped away, leaving a torn and empty space in her very being. And now, she's going to have to deal with the silence that comes with his absence. If she believes in spirits and souls—as I know she does—she might take comfort in the idea that Ajeossi is still, somehow, around. But I've personally never found that thought very comforting. It's no substitute for an actual hug. And when I remember my mother's hugs—how warm she felt, how comforting she smelled, how right the universe was in those moments—the thought that "she's with me now" feels somewhat sad and empty. I don't envy Ajumma what she's going to have to deal with now. As a woman in her seventies, she confronts a new and difficult burden. Ajeossi may have had his faults, but he was a good man—a very good man, with no vices like smoking and drinking and overeating, and he left us all much earlier than he should have.

Pronunciation note: Ajeossi is pronounced somewhere between "AH-jaw-shee" and "AH-juh-shee." Ajumma, meanwhile, is pronounced "AH-joom-mah."


Charles said...

Close or not, I am sorry for your loss.

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks, Charles.

John Mac said...

Condolences. It sounds like he had a well-lived life. I hope the family finds comfort in that.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

My condolences, Kevin.

Jeffery Hodges

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Kevin Kim said...

Thanks, John and Jeff.