Excerpt: Chapter Two

Chapter 2: My Russia-Korean Babushka

“People don’t alter history any more than birds alter the sky; they just make brief patterns in it.”
– Terry Pratchett

My paternal grandmother, Bya-ok (“White Pearl”), was born on January 8, 1915, and christened with the Russian name, Olga. As a young woman, her hair was jet black, her eyes radiated pure love, her skin was the color of a lustrous white pearl, her lips were full, her smile was irresistible, her voice was soft and pleasant, and her touch was gentle. Her laugh was inspiring and contagious. Her children called her “Mama” and her husband, my grandfather Alexander, called her simply “Olya.” To me, she was always my loving babushka.

In the cold autumn of 1900, after a poor harvest and famine in Korea, White Pearl’s parents, Elena Hvan and Tyan Sen Guk, had come to Russia to pursue a better life. They arrived at Sakhalin Island in the far eastern part of Russia. White Pearl told me, “My parents were country people, affable and down-to-earth, and of course hard working. They were poor like everyone else, but poverty back then was not depressing as it is today. My parents had neither electricity nor plumbing, neither bath nor shower. In order to stay clean, they melted snow in the winter to wash themselves. In the summer, they swam in rivers or lakes. They used kerosene lamps and were considered rich by their neighbors.”

My great-grandparents were the first generation of what we call Koryo-Saram, which means “Korean person,” the people who came to Russia during the Joseon (also Choson or Chosun) Dynasty. Chosun is an ancient name for Korea that means “Land of the Morning Calm.” As early as 1861, thirteen Korean families applied for permission to settle in Russia. Most of them were very poor peasants who faced death, hunger, and freezing winters. The weather was severe, not unlike it is today. They kept their Korean lifestyle, cooked Korean food, spoke the Korean language, and wore traditional Korean clothes.

Read Chapter Three Excerpt

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