The strength of poverty
The Uncharted Path
In August 1945, with Japan defeated by the Allied forces, Korea finally gained independence after thirty-six years of colonial rule imposed by the Japanese. In November of that year, my family ― my parents, four older siblings, myself, and my younger sister - packed our belongings, ready to head back home from Osaka, Japan.
We had some old clothes and a small amount of money that we had managed to save.
This was all that we had to show for the years of humiliation, servitude, and hardship that we endured during our time in Japan.
We arrived at Shimonoseki, a port on the southwestern coast of Japan, and boarded a ferry headed toward Busan, Korea’s largest port city, on the southeastern coast.
We were all excited to leave behind a life of misery and dread. We were also worried, not knowing what to expect.
The ferry was teeming with people like us. The mood became more raucous and cheery as we got farther away from Japan and closer to home.
Many of us suffered miserably from seasickness, but that didn’t dampen our joy.
We were just grateful to be going back home alive.
Unfortunately, our overloaded ferry was shipwrecked as it neared the island of Tsushima, 33 miles off the coast of Busan.
Everyone had to jump overboard. Luckily, everyone was rescued, but all our belongings were lost. We were home, but with literally nothing except the clothes on our backs.
I was four years old at the time, so I have no recollection of my sea voyage or the shipwreck. Instead, my very first memories are of my hometown and its marketplace, the pungent odor of fish entrails, the smell of the sea, and excruciating poverty.
Poverty clung to my family like a leech, and it would be many years before we were able to free ourselves from its miserable grip.
My father, Lee Choong-woo, was born a few miles from Pohang, where we eventually settled. He was the youngest of three sons.
My grandfather was a farmer, but he didn’t own much property.
As was the custom back then, my grandfather gave the small plot of land he owned to his eldest son and the rest of his possessions to his second son.
Penniless, my father left his hometown at an early age, wandering, looking for work, and scraping by on menial labor.
He wasn’t the only one.
Under Japanese colonialism, many young men at his age couldn’t find proper jobs and had to do with whatever they could find.
It was during this time that my father became a farmhand, learning how to raise cows and pigs.
Soon after, he decided to try his luck abroad. With a few of his friends, he set off for Japan and settled near Osaka, where he was hired to tend a farm.
Life in Japan was arduous.
The back-breaking farm work was hard enough, but he also had to endure the deep prejudice that many Japanese held toward Koreans.
The humiliation was painful, but he did what was expected of him and even saved some money.
After some time, my father was able to save enough money to come back home briefly to get married.
His bride was a woman from the Chae family who came from a town near the city of Daegu.
After getting married, my parents went back to Osaka and had six children.
My youngest brother, Sang-pil, was born when the family moved back to Korea.
Upon returning to Korea, our life remained difficult.
My father was able to secure a job before the Korean War broke out in 1950.
He was hired to manage a farm that was owned by the chairman of the board of a local high school.
Although the job was nothing much, it beat roaming around the countryside looking for work.
Besides, my father knew a lot about tending livestock and had good managerial skills, so the job suited him nicely.
My father was a traditional man steeped in the teachings of Confucianism, which emphasized respect for elders and for others.
Not surprisingly, he was a man who said very little. He showed us how to behave properly in different circumstances, such as the right way to bow.
His teachings instilled in us the importance of adhering to and abiding by these various social customs.
My siblings and I understood at an early age that such responsibilities are not a burden, but something that should be treated with respect.
It is always a challenge for any father with limited means to teach his children such values or to exercise and command respect within the family.
Often, poverty will beat a man into submission; a beaten man often turns to alcohol or neglects his family altogether.
However, my father did his best to keep his integrity intact. Despite being poor, my father never lost his pride or his self-esteem.
While my father was working at the farm, our big family was able to enjoy some semblance of stability. We were not well-off, but we had the basic means to carry on. And we managed to stay together.
Unfortunately, when the Korean War broke out, our stability was shattered once again.
Pohang soon became the scene of a major battle between the South Korean and United Nations forces and those from communist North Korea.
And when Pohang fell to the communists, we were forced to abandon everything and move to another town farther south.
My father, however, decided to remain in Pohang so that he could take care of the livestock. It was a foolish (not to mention dangerous) decision, but he refused to leave.
The owner of the farm was already gone, but my father considered it his duty to take care of the farm and the animals.
When our troops re-took the city of Pohang, the rest of us returned home.
To our great relief, father was safe. But the farm was destroyed. He was jobless and we were broke, once again.
With my father out of a job, I was forced to work at an early age.
I tagged along with my father to nearby markets.
This was my first foray into the world of business.
One of the many jobs my father did was selling fabric, a job he was able to obtain through the patronage of a North Korean refugee. In this business, profit depended on how one measured the amount of fabric.
For instance, a widely practiced trick was to basically double-count slightly when measuring the fabric and to throw in the remainder as a bonus.
Doing so leads the customer to believe that she is getting a few inches of extra fabric when in fact she is being shorted.
When my father was told of this trick, he refused to go along. In fact, he measured out exactly the amount he was selling, and then he would throw in a bit extra.
He would also let customers buy from him using credit.
Unfortunately, my father never kept a ledger of any sort, so he had no way to keep track of who paid him and who didn’t.
Also, it was usually women who came to buy fabric, and for an austere man steeped in the teachings of Confucianism, it was unthinkable to ask a woman her name, let alone her address.
If some of them failed to pay him back, he would soon forget who owed him money.
When my father was a young man, he attended church.
However, when he was twenty-eight years old, he stopped attending after an argument with his pastor.
During those days, churchgoers who had no cash would often bring food and other goods as offerings.
One day, when the pastor singled out the people who gave offerings and said a special prayer for them, my father became very upset.
“Why is the pastor saying a prayer only for those who gave offerings? Shouldn’t he be praying earnestly for those who want to give but can’t?”
In my father’s view, the pastor was distorting and tainting the teachings of Christ. Nonetheless, my father allowed the rest of the family to attend church.
He also said nothing about my mother’s deep Christian faith.
Decades later, my father came back to the church.
He told us he disliked big churches, so he decided to attend a small one.
Although my father didn’t have much, he later donated a portion of his wealth to the church and also became good friends with the pastor.
He would often invite the pastor over for a game of chess, and did volunteer work at church. Shortly before he passed away, he was baptized by his new friend and pastor.