Boy with the long arms
With father unemployed, our family had to move once again.
We ended up at an old temple site located at the foot of a mountain. Once, a Japanese monastery had been there, but now it was all but abandoned. The place had no running water or toilet, and fifteen families lived clustered together. We were all either day laborers or peddlers, and we considered it a good day if we could sell something.
Poverty was raw and painful.
All around us were sounds of children crying, adults fighting, and the sick dying. What was most difficult to endure was the constant hunger.
The hunger became so severe that it hurt.
Fortunately, our shanty was the least noisy, since the entire family was out working. Despite our collective efforts, we still had no money, and figuring out what to eat was a daily struggle.
During those days, our meals mainly consisted of what we call lees, which is the dreg left behind after you brew rice into alcohol.
Lees was cheap, and this was all that we could afford. As the youngest boy, my chore was to go to the brewery every day to pick up the lees.
With very little money, we could only afford to buy the worst batch. Our family would eat this twice a day for weeks on end; I would walk around red-faced and slightly intoxicated because lees contained alcohol, albeit in small amounts.
In junior high school, some of the teachers even mistakenly branded me as a misfit, since my cheeks and the tip of my nose were always red as if I were drunk (I was).
Taking lunch to school was, of course, out of the question.
While other kids ate their lunches, I would go outside to the water pumps and fill my stomach with water. I remember drinking until I became bloated.
That’s when I learned that no matter how much you drink, water never makes you full. On days when we had to pay our tuition, I would be told to go home and bring back the tuition. Whenever this happened, which was quite often, I would just wander around or go up the hill behind our school and stay there for some time.
I knew that even if I did go home, there was no money I could take back. After some time, I would go back to school and ask my teachers for an extension.
We had no money for school because my father, ever since he had been working in Japan, sent money to his older brother back home so that he could send my older cousin to school.
My father did this for many years, but when the time came for him to send his own children to school, he had no money. It sounds absurd and irresponsible, but that was my father.
I don’t blame him, but looking back, it was a hard time for a young boy. Nonetheless, we never used poverty as an excuse. Instead, poverty strengthened us.
If a poor man sits waiting for handouts, he will never be able to escape poverty. To such a man, poverty will be a festering wound, never able to heal.
On the other hand, poverty helped me and my siblings strengthen our resolve. We were determined to never let poverty smother us.
By the time I was in fifth grade, there was little I hadn’t done to earn money. I sold matches that I made myself by dipping the ends of wooden sticks into sulfur; I made kimbap (rice wrapped in seaweed) and sold them to soldiers near military barracks.
Once, I was caught by a military policeman for selling sticky cakes made of wheat flour and was given a nasty beating.
I was constantly hungry, but I continued to go to school, walking four hours a day back and forth. My body became weaker, and by the time I enrolled in junior high school, my body was nearly broken.
When I was in eighth grade, I became severely ill and was confined to my bed for three months.
I still have no idea what caused this mysterious illness, but my guess is malnutrition. I couldn’t afford to go to the hospital, so the best I could do was lie in bed and hope to get better.
After three months of bed rest, I got up and resumed my daily routine of walking four hours to school and back.
Maybe it was because of this, but of all the men in my family, I’m the shortest at five feet six inches, while my father and two older brothers are close to five-foot-nine.
If I had been able to eat normally, like other growing children, I’m quite certain that I could have become taller.
However, my body made up for my short stature by growing arms that are at least four inches longer than the average person’s.
For this, I was called “the boy with the long arms.”