(4) My soulmate, my ’May Queen’
In college, I had no time for any sort of leisure activities, and my circle of friends was very small. Of course, dating was something that I couldn’t afford.
Even after joining Hyundai, I still didn’t have much money, so marriage was out of the question.
But when I became an executive at twenty-eight, people started asking me if I had a girlfriend and whether I was interested in getting married.
I became a so-called catch in the marriage market, and matchmakers started calling me with prospective brides.
They wanted to introduce me to young women from wealthy families and daughters of powerful politicians. Some even tried to introduce me to famous actresses.
But I didn’t feel rich or successful; on the contrary, I was somewhat intimidated by these women, who seemed to have lived a life completely different from mine.
Once, a woman in her early twenties called my office and asked to speak with me. She sounded desperate, so my secretary put her through.
When I answered the phone, the first thing she asked me was, “Are you the real Lee Myung-bak?”
I said, “Yes, as a matter of fact I am.”
She began sobbing and said, “I was swindled by a man who said he was Lee Myung-bak. I would like to see you so I can find out the truth.”
I was worried; if what she said was true, that meant there was someone who was pretending to be me. I agreed to meet her at the lobby coffee shop.
She was an attractive twenty-something. She told me, “I met a man who claimed he was you, Lee Myung-bak of Hyundai Construction.
"You are the real Lee Myung-bak, right?”
I told her, “Unfortunately, yes, I am the real Lee Myung-bak.”
She kept sobbing. “Then you don’t know that man?”
Unless an impostor asked for permission from the person he impersonated, how could I possibly know who that guy was?
I told her, “Miss, I wish I could find out who he is. I’m sorry, I don’t know. Did he look anything like me?” She didn’t say anything.
A warm-hearted person
My wife, Kim Yoon-ok, and I were introduced by my high school English teacher, who was particularly fond of me.
He was friends with Yoon-ok’s older brother. What I liked most about Yoon-ok was that she wasn’t just someone from a rich family.
Her father had been a public servant with a reputation for being upright.
She graduated from Ewha Womans University in 1970. The year we got married.
And I later found out that she was once voted the school’s May Queen.
She was pretty, but more importantly, she seemed like a good person with a kind heart.
We weren’t able to go out on too many dates.
This was because I was never able to make it on time because of work. Sometimes I would have to call the coffee shop where we were supposed to meet and ask her to wait for me at a restaurant, but then I would be late for the dinner appointment as well.
She ended up having dinner all by herself.
This happened many times. There were days when I was unable to go at all, in which case I would ask my chauffeur to pick her up and drive her home.
When I finally decided that I wanted to marry her, I asked her to accompany me to my mother’s grave.
I wasn’t sure if she would agree to go with me; it would be dark by the time we arrived. We hadn’t gone out on many dates and we hadn’t even talked about setting an engagement date. Luckily, she agreed.
When we arrived in front of my mother’s grave, I bowed my head.
I prayed. “Mom, it’s me, your youngest son Myung-bak. I’m doing fine. I’m working at Hyundai, and I also worked in Thailand. Father’s doing well. I wanted to introduce you to your youngest daughter-in-law. I hope you like her.
If I hadn’t gone to jail, you’d be alive today, and you’d be taken care of by her.”
I laid there in front of my mother’s grave for quite a long time.
That night, I felt happy. I vowed to myself that I would make this woman happy.
I also promised myself that I would do my best to make my mother proud.
And I was thankful to Yoon-ok for trusting me. Yoon-ok never met my mother, but since that day, she has always been aware of my mother’s presence.
She would have been a terrific daughter-in-law. After we got married, Yoon-ok became a devout Christian, just like my mother.
‘Ugly face’ complex
Yoon-ok admitted to me long after we got married that when her friends saw me for the first time, they all exclaimed, “Yoon-ok! What’s wrong with you?
What are you doing marrying a man who looks like that!”
Her friends were appalled that Yoon-ok, who was once voted one of the prettiest girls in school, ended up with a guy who looked like me.
I fully understood their dismay. I had suffered from an “ugly face” complex since I was a young kid.
Even my family readily admitted that I wasn’t such a good-looking kid.
When I was a young accountant in Thailand, I became infatuated with a local Chinese maiden whose name was Chen Ling.
She was the daughter of a Chinese merchant who lived near our office, and I was allowed to go and fetch water from his well.
The only reason he allowed me entry was because he considered me trustworthy and safe.
After seeing Chen Ling from afar and becoming instantly smitten with her, I would go and fetch water all the time.
I couldn’t speak Chinese, and she couldn’t speak Korean, so we communicated using broken English and hand signals.
But we quickly became close friends, dating at the nearby tea house until her father found out and forbade us to see each other. (My water-drawing privilege was instantly revoked as well).
I used to tell Chen Ling that I was too ugly for her. I told her seriously how I wished to go and get my eyes done so they would look bigger.
She became upset whenever I confessed my complex, telling me that my eyes were perfectly fine and that I was a good-looking man.
She was the first person who told me I was good-looking.
Compared to other bachelors I wasn’t such a good catch in terms of my background either.
After Yoon-ok agreed to marry me, she told me I had fooled her in two things.
One was my education, and the other was my family background.
On the former, she told me she never imagined a Korea University graduate could have graduated from a night-school high school.
Regarding my family background, she told me that she knew my family was not well-off, but she had no idea we were that poor.
My father was not able to offer any financial help when we got married.
But, with the cash gifts given to us at our wedding, we managed to find a tiny apartment. We had only the bare minimum of household appliances and furniture. We rented the apartment on a monthly basis.
Hyundai laid carpet in that small apartment as a wedding gift.
The carpet looked out of place, but we couldn’t complain.
Our sole source of income was my salary.
Every six months, our landlord would raise the rent, so we ended up moving eight times in three years.
Until our second move, we would unpack, but after that we decided to unpack only what was necessary.
By our seventh move, we only unpacked our spoons and chopsticks. I remember one time forgetting that we had moved, when I went to our previous home after work.
The first apartment we actually purchased was a small apartment built by the National Housing Corporation.
It didn’t have any premiums attached (Premiums are attached to apartments as they become popular.)
This is how apartments, properties, and villas are dealt with in Korea.
In this case, the house was cheap so there was no premium attached, and we paid a down payment.
The remainder was paid in installments over a period of fifteen years.
Years later, we moved into a Hyundai apartment provided to us by the company.