Messiah - My Testimony to
by Bo Hi Pak
Chapter One - The Early Years
A group of students dripping with sweat and covered with dust worked furiously in the hot summer sun to shovel dirt from a Korean hillside. They would fill their shovels with the red dirt and then toss it into small handcarts nearby. The heat made the shovels feel all the heavier. The students' teacher, a Japanese man, stood above them on the slope keeping a close watch over their progress.
It was 1941. The Japanese imperial forces were at war with the United States, and the entire population of Japan proper and the Korean peninsula was fully mobilized to contribute to the war effort. Since Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910, Japan's wars had become our wars. I was a 14-year-old student at the Mon-An Agricultural School, but we were students in name only. In reality, we were "student soldiers" who were expected to do our part for the war on the home front. Day after day, we were taken to factories, construction sites, and coal mines and made to work hard from early in the morning until late at night.
On this particular day, our assignment was to shovel dirt. As I worked, my eyes stung from the salty sweat rolling off my brow. It seemed like a long time since I had taken the entrance exam to Chon-An Agricultural. I had gotten the highest score that year, and perhaps for that reason, my name was called out at the matriculation ceremonies to step forward and represent the incoming class in reciting the Student Pledge. Soon after that I became president of my class, and I continued to serve in this position in successive years. I did my best to be a model to other students in everything I did. I was too innocent to think up dirty tricks or to complain. Looking back on it now, I can see that I was something of a happy-go-lucky, well-motivated boy who took pride in doing everything according to the rules. Even when we were told to shovel dirt, I wanted to make sure that I was working faster and more efficiently than anyone else.
Soon, the teacher watching over us, Mr. Kinoshita, blew his whistle to signal a half-hour break. We let out a collective yell of glee, straightened our weary backs, and wiped the sweat off our brows as we walked together to the shade of a large tree. We sank to the ground and began to chat among ourselves and with Mr. Kinoshita.
I was drinking the water in my canteen -- thinking that water had never tasted so sweet -- when Mr. Kinoshita called out: "Hey, Oyama." Under its policy of trying to integrate Korea into Japanese culture, Japan had forced most Koreans to adopt Japanese surnames and decreed that only Japanese could be spoken in public. "Oyama" was the Japanese surname that my family had been assigned.
Apparently, Mr. Kinoshita had been impressed by how I had been pouring myself into the task of shoveling dirt, and he spoke to me kindly.
"Oyama," he said, "where is your hometown?"
"Sir, my hometown is Do-Go township in the county of Ah-san," I replied. Giving him the equivalent Japanese pronunciations to the Korean geographic names.
The town is called "Do-Go'?"
"I see. Do you know how it got the name 'Do-Go'? Do you have high roads there?"
He was referring to the fact that the name of my hometown is written with two Chinese characters, the first meaning "road" or "path" and the other meaning "high." My classmates all chuckled at Mr. Kinoshita's whimsical suggestion
That the name might have something to do with the elevation of the roads in that area.
Our teacher was trying to make light conversation in order to cheer everyone up. I don't think he was quite prepared to hear the answer that I was about to give.
"No, teacher," I said. "It is not the roads that are high in my hometown. Instead, the name derives from the fact that the people who live there have high ethical standards." (The Chinese character for "do" also has a more esoteric meaning that refers to morality, ethics, and a philosophical way of life.)
"What?" he said with an expression of obvious surprise. "High ethical standards, you say? Well. that's certainly an interesting answer."
Four-year-old Recites "Thousand-Character Classic"
During my childhood, I lived in Chung-Nam Province, which is south of Seoul on southern Korea's west coast. I was not born in Do-Go. but in my mother's hometown, in Dang-,Iin County. My mother's father, Back Sang Han, was a wealthy man, but he had no sons and as his only daughter my mother was surrounded with great love during her entire childhood. When she became pregnant with me, she followed the custom of the time and returned to her home to give birth. At the appropriate time after my birth, my mother returned to my father's village with me in her arms, and this is where I spent my early childhood.
I was born on August 18 (or the twenty-fourth day of the sixth lunar month) in 1930. People in the area still kept time by the traditional method, whereby the day is divided into twelve hours and each hour is named after one of the signs of the Chinese zodiac. They tell me I was horn in the hour of the tiger, so it must have been quite early in the morning, and they say that I cried so loud when I was born that a large dog in the courtyard was startled and began harking furiously.
At the time, my parents lived in the village of Foong-Bang in the Yum-Ti section of Alt-San County in a house that they shared with my father's parents. My paternal grandfather was well known in that region as a member of the Yongban, or literati class, and was widely respected as an elder Confucian scholar. Consequently, the main room of the house was frequently used to entertain other scholars visiting from nearby areas.
That room commanded a view of the countryside for miles around, something like a lookout tower in a castle. I remember thinking as a child that the view from that room must be among the best in the world. Grandfather spent much of his time there, sitting on a cushion on the floor and reading from one manuscript or another placed on a short-legged table in front of him. One side of the room opened onto the courtyard, where a few chickens often could be seen feeding on hits of grain and seed. Whenever the noise bothered Grandfather, he would look up from his reading, stare straight at the chickens, and let out a short, loud shout to scare them away. The sound of his voice was more than sufficient to send the startled birds fleeing for their lives. In fact, it was said that Grandfather's shout could he heard within a two-mile radius.
When I. was four years old, I began to study the Chinese classics in Grandfather's awesome presence. Such study was taken for granted for any boy born into a Yanghan family. My studies began with the Chun Ja Mun (Thousand-Character Classic). As the title implies, this classical work is composed of exactly one thousand Chinese characters, arranged in 250 sets of four characters each. I'm told that it took me only about four months to finish this text. To "finish the test" meant that I had memorized the text and could recite it anytime on demand. I don't remember much about the content today, but I do remember wanting nothing more than to be free to play. Grandfather would promise to let me go as soon as I had memorized a particular section of the text, so I would memorize that section as quickly as I could.
"Are you sure you've finished?" he would demand. "Yes, Grandfather. I've memorized today's lesson." "Then let's hear you recite it." he would say.
Even today, I clearly remember how he would sit and listen with a huge smile on his face as I successfully recited the day's assignment. I received much love from Grandfather during the time that I studied the Chun Ja Mun. I carne to see a warm and sentimental side of him that contrasted with his usually stem demeanor.
The village of Shi-Jun where, the author moved with his family when be was in elementary school.
Finally, the day came when I finished my study of the C'hun.Ja .Mun. Grandfather marked the occasion by inviting all his friends and fellow scholars who lived in the area to a feast at our home. He had a large pig slaughtered for the feast. More than a hundred people attended, and the family set up a big tent in the village common so there would he enough room for everyone. All the guests came dressed in their formal Confucian robes and headdresses, which added to the grandness of the occasion.
According to the custom, the guests shared the wine by pouring it into small cups for each other, and the mood became festive and relaxed. Soon, Grandfather addressed the crowd to explain his reason for holding the feast.
"My grandson Bo Hi has finished studying the Chun Ja Mun, he announced. "I have invited you here today so that you might join us in celebrating this occasion. boy grandson is only four years old, but I ask that you give him your full attention when he comes forward to recite the full text."
At that moment, I thought to myself: "Oh, no! What am I going to do now?"
Grandfather called me to his side. "Bo Hi," he said, "do you think you can recite the Chun Ja Mun for these people? I want you to bow properly to everyone and then begin."
z stood up and faced the crowd. The hundred or so guests suddenly looked to me like a sea of people. Everything started to go black in front of me. I decided to close my eyes so that I couldn't see anything, and that helped me to relax somewhat. I began to recite the text in the same way that I had become accustomed to doing for Grandfather. Strangely. the words kept coming out of my mouth without much effort on my part. and I soon finished.
The guests let loose a thunderous applause. Grandfather gathered me in his arms and tightly embraced me. His whiskers scratched against my face. I never saw Grandfather with a happier expression than the one on his face at that moment. I still remember it well today. This was my first lecture and my first public address.
At age seven. I entered Yum-Ti Elementary School. During second grade, my father moved our family away from Grandfather's home in order to set up his own household in the village of Shi Jun, located in the Do-Go area of Ah-San County. I had already become very attached to Yum-Ti Elementary School, and I resisted the idea of leaving. It was decided that I would remain in Grandfather's home until the end of my second-grade year. When I transferred to Do-Go Elementary School at the beginning of my third-grade year, as the new kid in school I went through a time in which it was difficult to make new friends. In time, though, Do-Go became my hometown.
The name "Shi-Jun" is written with Chinese characters that mean "persimmon orchard," and the people in that area generally referred to our village by this more colloquial name. Our home was located in the center of the village, and the majestic peaks of Mount Do-Go could be seen beyond it. During my childhood, Mount Do-Go became a place for me to play and to train myself physically and mentally. About midway up the slope there was one fir tree that stood tall above the other trees and could be seen for miles around. Its magnificent presence was more than enough to leave a deep impression on anyone who saw it, whether from far away or nearby. On a clear day, its highest branches seemed to pierce the sky and continue on up into the heavens. The lower branches bent downward under their own weight as they leisurely reached out in all directions. In its majesty, it stood unchallenged as the master of the mountain. The tree seemed to symbolize the spiritual power contained within the mountain itself. Even as a young boy, that fir gave me the idea that a person could qualify as a righteous person if he stood tall among people the way that fir stood on Mount Do-Go.
"That is your tree," my mother would often tell me. "You should become like that tree."
I somehow understood that by comparing me to the fir, she was expressing her great hope for me. Whenever I am able to take time out from my travels around the world and return to Do-Go, one of the first things I like to do is see if that tree is still there and how it is growing. I always feel as though it is glad to see me and wishes I would visit more often.
From Yangban Landholder to Yangban Pauper
My father's name was Dong Hyun Pak. Among Confucian scholars, he was generally referred to by his nom de plume, Duk Cheon. This was written with the Chinese character meaning "bamboo" with a second meaning of "heaven." The name was quite fitting for a man who lived a life that was as straight and righteous as a bamboo plant in heaven.
When the character for "bamboo" is placed above the character for "heaven" in such a way that they are combined into one character, the result is the character meaning "laughter." This made the name all the more appropriate for my father, whose outlook on life was that a person should always strive to do good deeds for others and live life with a smile and a positive outlook.
Father was considerably larger and physically much stronger than the average person, and he had quite a loud voice. Especially when he was young, he cut a conspicuous presence. In addition to his imposing physical demeanor, he had a tremendously loud and cheery laugh that could brighten up any conversation.
My fattier enjoyed spending time talking and drinking with the other men in the village. If he sat down to drink rice wine with a group of people, he would eventually become the center of the conversation. He had a way of guiding the conversation so that everyone there could express their feelings, open up to each other, and feel included. No matter how tense the atmosphere might be, Father had a way of creating a relaxed mood in the room. When he laughed aloud, even people in the courtyard outside would laugh with him. Even now, whenever I make a public speech I wish that my voice were a little more like my lather's.
Father was Grandfather's fourth son. As a child he showed himself to be quite intelligent and of good character. Grandfather had great hopes for him and not only had him study Chinese classics in the village school but also enrolled him in the secondary school in the nearby city of Gong Ju. Such an education was an opportunity reserved for the select few during Japan's occupation and Grandfather must have hoped that my father would someday grow up to he a person who could serve his country in some public capacity.
My father's career at the school in Gong Ju was short-lived however. He never spoke about it with me directly, so I have no way of knowing the details, but during his enrollment there he and some of the other Korean students organized an underground group whose purpose was to promote Korea's independence from Japan. At some point, he became the leader of this rebel organization and began to play a part in the nationwide movement for independence.
In 1919, Koreans across the country rose up in what is known as the "March First Independence Movement." This was a series of rallies across the country in which people exhibited the Korean flag, which had been banned by the Japanese colonial administration, and shouted, "long live Korean independence!"
When this movement reached Gong Ju, the group my father led probably acted as the primary organizer. In any event, the Japanese school authorities had been suspicious about my father's activities for sometime and had noticed his excellent leadership qualities. Finally, the authorities got wind of something that gave them an excuse to expel him. That was the end of his formal education.
Father returned to his home village and concentrated on studying Chinese classics under Grandfather's guidance. Had Father gone on to graduate from the Gong-Ju secondary school, he would have had many opportunities to succeed. Even under the Japanese occupation he eventually would have been assigned to an important government post.
Soon after he set up his own household. When I was a small boy, my father's life changed dramatically. A policy of land reform was instituted across the country, and the traditional system whereby Yangban landlords received income from sharecroppers was abolished. Landlords were allowed to keep only that portion of their land that they were actually able to work themselves. The rest of their holdings had to he turned over to the sharecroppers. Father was left with approximately 3,300 square meters of rice paddy and a few hundred square meters of dry land that surrounded his house. He was transformed overnight from being a Yaugban landlord to being a Yangban farmer. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that he became a Yangban pauper.
Father and Mother faced the change in their fortunes bravely. They were determined to overcome the new and difficult circumstances, but they were not accustomed to farm work, and it was far from easy for them.
A Virtuous Woman
Mother, the only daughter of a prominent family, was from the clan of Han. Her name was Pyung Chun. My parents were married in 1925, and immediately after that Mother took up her responsibilities as a daughter-in-law in the central residence of the Pak clan. Being the wife of the fourth son, she normally wouldn't have been expected to perform nearly as many household chores as were the wives of Father's older brothers. She possessed a great many talents, however, and she had a strong desire to serve her parents-in-law according to the long-held traditions of Chung-Nam Province. While this meant that she received much love from her parents-in-law, it also meant that all the most difficult tasks were piled onto her frail body.
Bo Hi Pak as a young boy
She was quite a good seamstress, and she was given responsibility for making all the clothing worn by the adults in the household. (At the time, people still wore only the traditional Korean style of clothing.) If there was a wedding in the household -- whether a daughter was sent to another household as a bride or a new bride was being welcomed into the household -- Mother had to work through the night many nights in a row in order to complete the preparations.
When it came to weddings, Mother was also a tremendous cook. People would praise her, saying, with some exaggeration, that she could "create a feast for the entire village using nothing more than one chicken." Because her talents were recognized, she was expected to cook all the meals for the adults in the household, to prepare meals for any guests that might visit the home, and prepare the feasts that were held from time to time. The household depended on her to the extent that the adults could not have their meals unless Mother was working in the kitchen. All this meant that Mother was recognized for possessing the traditional virtues of a good wife and wise mother, but it also meant that she was forced to spend her days as a daughter-in-law who served the household completely without having any time for her own personal needs.
Once, when I was in the first or second grade at Yum-Ti Elementary School, I fell asleep in Mother's lap. I awoke in the middle of the night and realized that she wasn't beside me. I looked around the room and found her sitting in a dimly lit area in the coldest part of the room. Her hands were busy with some sort of needlework.
"Mother, let's go to sleep. Please, I want you to sleep next to me," I said.
"All right," she said, "I'll he just a minute. You go ahead and go to bed." Then she touched her cheek to my face and rubbed her hands across my back. As a child, there was no way for me to understand how much she was pushing herself beyond her limits or how heavily her responsibilities weighed on her shoulders.
Matters did not improve after the move to Persimmon Orchard Village during my second-grade year. With the Japanese-enforced land reform, our family was reduced to extreme poverty and Mother had to bear full responsibility for the daily upkeep of the household. She worked in the rice paddies and planted cotton and picked it. She raised silk-worms and processed the raw cotton and silk into thread and then wove it into cloth to make clothing for our family members. In this way she made sure that we could provide all our own clothing. From about this time, it became obvious to me that Mother was growing weaker.
Mother always took very good care of me. I had a sister who was three years older than me, but she mainly lived with Mother's parents in Dang-Jin County and seldom visited our home. Especially after my maternal grandfather died, she kept my grandmother company and helped to care for her. My younger brother was born eleven years after me, so I was Mother's only child during the long period prior to his birth. Mother did not have a specific religious affiliation. In a manner of speaking, though, she did have a religion. Her sons were her religion. She would do anything if it were for her sons' good. She would sometimes go to a Buddhist temple and offer prayers to Buddha because she felt that this might somehow benefit her sons.
In Korean homes, especially before the introduction of electrical appliances such as refrigerators, many perishable foods were kept in large porcelain jars placed in the backyard behind the kitchen. This area, the jang-kwang, was always immaculate and was even treated as a sacred area. In many cases the mother and other women in the family would set up small altars directly in front of the jang-kwang, sometimes using lighted candles and clear water, to offer prayers for the health and prosperity of the family. Mother set up such an altar just outside her kitchen, and I would sometimes see her praying there during the night.
Near our home, there was a mountain pass called Kalti Pass, and a shaman tutelary shrine had been erected there. Once or twice a year, Mother would prepare special rice cakes and cook the head of a pig. She would then take these and offer them at the shrine on Kalti Pass. As she made her offering, she would pray for the welfare of her son.
On these trips to Kalti Pass, I would follow behind Mother with the rice cakes loaded on an A-frame strapped to my back. Once, when we were making the trip to the shrine in the early morning twilight. Mother tripped and fell. She hit her forehead on a rock, and there was blood on her face.
She turned to me and said, "Oh. Bo Hi. We've been cursed because we are unclean. It must he that we have not shown enough sincere faith. Our offering will never be received like this. We have to go back home and start again."
We went home and started the entire ritual over again. Mother bathed in cold water as a symbolic cleansing of her spirit. Then, she cooked more food for the offering with a heart that was even more sincere than the first time. In the evening, we walked to the shrine, where she successfully completed the offering.
On the way home, she said something very significant. "Bo Hi." she said, "there's nothing I won't do if I think it will be beneficial to you." It was then that I realized that the only religion that Mother believed in was the religion of living for her son.
The author (far left) with his sixth-grade friends at Do Go Elementary School.
I wanted to do anything I could for Mother. I could see that her health was not good, and yet she had to perform a great many tasks that demanded physical strength. Both Father and Mother would be extremely tired at the end of the day after we had finished our evening meal. Mother would sometimes lie down, saying she would rest a little while before doing the dishes. I remember waiting until she was sound asleep and then clearing the dishes off the table and quietly taking them into the kitchen and washing them. making sure I didn't create any noise to wake Mother. Nothing made me happier than being able to help Mother in her daily chores.
When Mother awoke from her nap, she saw that the dishes were gone and knew what I had done. "Bo Hi, I don't want to have you washing dishes in the kitchen."
"Mother," I replied, "I want to he able to do all your work for you. It's not just the dishes. Next time, I'll do the cooking for you, too."
As I said this, I could see tears begin to well up in her eyes. For a moment, I tried to keep from breaking out into tears myself, but it was more than I could bear. I ran into her arms and began crying uncontrollably. To me, my mother was the most precious person in the world. She was all that I lived for.
"Mother," I cried, "please live a long life. Please live a long life. That's all I ever want." The tears kept streaming down my face, and I didn't even try to wipe them off.
Mother had set the next day aside for preparing cloth. This involved taking the warp strings, that is, thread that was to he strung lengthwise in the loom, soaking them in starch, and then tying them to the beams in the loom. For Mother, this was extremely difficult physical labor. The work required that a flame he kept burning beside her, so she also had to endure the heat all day long.
That evening. I put on an apron and stepped into the kitchen. I wanted to prepare the evening meal for the family. This was my first time, so I wasn't really sure what I was doing. But I had seen Mother do the work many times, and I was able to work quickly. First, I cooked the rice and then some soup. Next, I boiled green vegetables and flavored them with soy sauce. Then, I prepared the kimchi, the spicy pick-led vegetables that are a part of every Korean meal]. Last, I took some seaweed and scorched it slightly over an open fire. Then, I set the table. Grandmother was also there that day.
About that time, Mother got up from her work, saying she would wash her hands and fix dinner. When she walked into the kitchen and saw the meal I had prepared, she let out a gasp of surprise. Quickly, I told her, "Mother, if you refuse to eat everything I've cooked. I'll have to assume it's because you think it tastes terrible. If you eat everything, I'll know it's because you love me. Please, at least have a taste." Both Mother and Grandmother ate the whole meal and enjoyed it. I was so happy, I felt as though I had gone to heaven.
One day, I realized that my parents were cold at night because there wasn't enough firewood to keep them warm. As soon as I came home from school, I strapped an A-frame to my back and climbed the slopes of Mount Do-Go. It was the first time in my life that I had tried to collect firewood by myself. I loaded the A-frame with a large pile of wood, but then realized that it wasn't going to be an easy job to climb down the slope with such a heavy load on my back. My legs trembled under the weight, and I almost fell several times.
When I finally made the trip back home safely and put my load down in the woodpile next to the kitchen, I was happy and felt great satisfaction, partly because I had opened up a new field of knowledge for myself. From this point on, I did almost all the wood gathering for the family. It was wonderful to see my parents at the end of the day sitting in the room with the ortdo floor, resting after a hard days work.
One day, I got a little overconfident. I stacked too much wood onto my A-frame. As I started down the hill, my legs faltered under the extra weight, and it was all I could do to stay on my feet. I managed to walk down the slope almost to the bottom. I thought that I was out of danger of falling and that I could just walk the rest of the way down with a walking stick to support myself.
That's when disaster struck. I lost my balance and fell down head over heels. I started rolling down the hill with the fully loaded A-frame still strapped to my back. Over and over again. I would be looking up at the sky one moment only to have my face pushed against the ground the next. I rolled all the way to the bottom of the hill, where I fell off a short drop before finally landing on level ground. I hit the ground so hard that I saw a bolt of lightning flash across my eyes. I was lucky that I didn't break my neck.
I lay still for a moment to gather my wits and then checked to see if I had broken any bones. My face was bleeding from several cuts. I didn't want my mother to see me like this.
I set the A-frame down and went to a nearby spring to wash my face. Some of the cuts were deeper than I had first thought. I washed off the dirt and blood the best I could and returned to where I had left my load, but all I could think about was how I could keep Mother from seeing my face. I gathered up some of the wood that had fallen off the A-frame and retied the whole load, strapped it to my back, and walked the rest of the way home. As I went into the house, I tried my best to appear as if nothing unusual had happened, but Mother immediately sensed that something was wrong.
"Bo Hi," she said as soon as she saw me, "what happened to you?"
"Nothing, Mother. I tripped and fell while I was gathering the wood. But it's nothing. Really."
"Come here and let me see your face. My goodness! What's this? What happened to your face? Your face is cut all over! Come here and let me put something on that." She then got the iodine tincture and painted it on all my cuts.
"When did I ever tell you to go gather wood?" she demanded. "This won't do. From tomorrow, I'll go get the wood. I want you to stay home and study. Do you undestand?"
I knew I couldn't stand by and let her take on responsibility for gathering wood. I had to do something drastic, so I said, "In that case, Mother. I refuse to go to school. If you're going to go hiking around the hills for wood, then I cannot go off to school and study. If you go to the hills, then I'll quit school."
I saw tears well up into Mother's eyes. She grabbed me with both arms, held me tightly, and began to cry. I cried with her.
My First Failure
My first failure in life came early. In my sixth and final year at elementary school, our family had to make a decision about how I would continue my education. Sending me to Seoul, where all the best schools could be found, was out of the question. The cost to live and study there was far beyond our means.
In those days, the government gave full scholarships to all the students in schools that trained teachers, so children of poor families attended such schools, even if they didn't intend to go into the teaching profession. I applied to the Jinju Normal School in South Kyoungsan Province, which was more than one hundred miles away, having to choose a school so far from home because my classmates had already filled the quotas for new students at the nearby schools.
The trip to take the entrance exam was my first long-distance journey by train. Traveling with my father, I completely forgot that I was going to Jinju for the purpose of silting for an examination. I was much too fascinated by the changing scenery outside the window. The steam engine train climbed the steep slope to the top of Chupoong Ridge, the highest point between Seoul and Pusan, took a deep breath, and then started steaming down the southern slope. It was more than enough to capture the curiosity of a thirteen-year-old country boy.
We arrived in Jinju, where the buildings and campus of Jinju Normal School seemed grand to me, and I was overwhelmed. Also, my Chung-Nam accent didn't go over well in this strange land and among these strange people. My spirits were somewhat deflated.
I took the examination. When I finished, I didn't think I had answered the questions very well. As I came out of the examination room, Father was waiting for me. "Did you do well?" he asked.
Although I was feeling discouraged, I just said, "Yes, sir."
I returned home with a heavy heart. After a time, the school's official notice arrived in the mail. It was not a letter of acceptance. As I expected, I had failed the exam.
"What am I going to do? How am I ever going to face Mother again?" This was the first thought to go through my mind.
Father and I had taken about seven days to make the train trip to Jinju and back. During that time, Mother offered pure water at the jang-kwang and prayed all through the night every night. I had hoped to make Mother's prayers a reality, and it made me very sad that they had been wasted.
"Oh, what am I going to do?"
I went into a small dark room and sat down. I couldn't stop crying. The tears just kept coming.
I called out in my mind: "Mother, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. What should I do now?" A whole day went by, then a second, and I still couldn't bring myself to leave the room. My parents would call me to come out and eat, but I didn't answer them.
Finally. the door opened, and Mother came in. She sat down and put her arms around me. I began to cry even more loudly. I cried out over and over: "Mother, I'm sorry. Mother, I'm sorry."
The author (far right) at about age thirteen with two of his classmates at Chou-An Agricultural School.
Softly, she put her lips next to my ear and whispered, "Bo Hi, don't you remember how Grandfather taught you the phrase inscrutable are the was of Heaven?" Your failing this exam may actually turn out to have been a good thing for you. Going to normal school isn't the only course you can take in life. Now, stand up. Seeing you discouraged like this only makes me hurt even more. Do you understand?"
I still remember her words that day. The saying inscrutable are the ways of Heaven, which is taken from Chinese classics, has become an important theme in my life.
At the time, I never thought that in a few years it would turn out that I was indeed fortunate for not having been accepted to that school. Mother's words had been a prophecy. If I had attended Jinju Normal School and become an accredited teacher, I would not have been drafted and would have still been teaching when the war broke out. Ironically, my joining the army saved my life. Without exception, my friends who graduated from normal school and then took up teaching positions in our hometown were slaughtered when the area came under North Korean occupation during the Korean War.
The North Korean People's Army occupied my hometown of Do-Go on two separate occasions. When the NKPA would enter an area, their first task was to brainwash and organize the people who were relatively educated. In rural areas, school teachers were respected as great intellectuals. Later, when the Republic of Korea forces began to have success and the NKPA had to retreat northward, they would execute all the intellectuals, because it was impossible to take them with them and they didn't want to leave such a valuable resource behind. This was what happened to my elementary school friends who went on to normal school.
Looking back, I realize that even then I had some sense that God was watching over me. This has been true with every aspect of my life.
Instead of Jinju Normal School. I entered Chon-An Agricultural School. For some reason, this time I scored the highest grade of any applicant on the entrance exam. I had only one reason for choosing Chon-An Agricultural School: It was close enough to my home in Do-Go that I could use the train to go to and from school every day. This way. I could attend school without having to pay for lodging.
I still had to find a way to pay the tuition, though. Just about this time, a benefactor appeared in my life, my uncle, Dong Eun Pak. My father's oldest brother served as a school teacher for some thirty years during the Japanese colonial occupation. After his retirement, he began to receive a monthly pension of twenty-five yen (Japanese currency was used at the time). It wasn't even enough for my uncle to live on, but he gave me the entire amount to cover my tuition. He felt that I had potential and wanted to make sure that I had an education.
My uncle had another, even more important reason for making this gesture. He was the model of a filial son. During the customary three-year mourning period after Grandfather's death, my uncle wore only sackcloth. As the oldest son, he enshrined Grandfather's tablets in his home according to Confucian custom. Twice a day, he would offer a fresh meal of food and drink to Grandfather's spirit and he wept every day as if Grandfather had just passed away.
My uncle knew that Grandfather had raised me with the utmost love. After Grandfather's death, my uncle decided that as a filial son he should love and care for me in the same way that Grandfather had. That is why he decided to use his entire pension to give me the best education possible.
By attending Chon-An Agricultural School, I ended up putting an even greater burden on Mother. Each morning, she would get up at 4:00 a.m. to make breakfast for me. I would still be sound asleep, tired from the previous night's study, and she would have to shake me awake. I would eat breakfast still half asleep, grab the bag that she had prepared for me containing my books and a box lunch, and head out on foot toward the Do-Go train station, about two and a half miles away. I would walk to the station in the dark and take the first train. By the time the train arrived at Chon-An station it would he daylight. I would climb the hill in front of the station to the school campus. After a hard day's work, I would take the same road back to the station and catch the last train. It would he dark long before I arrived home.
Mother was tired herself, hut she would always encourage me and make certain that I had a good meal and that I bathed before going to bed. It was a difficult time both for me, as a fourteen-year-old boy, and for Mother, but she was only concerned that I might become tired to the point of exhaustion.
One day, I was so exhausted that I fell asleep in the train on the way home and slept soundly through the Do- Go stop. A few minutes later, I woke up with a jolt and looked out the window. I had also slept through the stop after Do-Go. "Oh, no. What am I going to do?" I thought. I panicked, but there was no way for me to jump off the train. There was nothing to do except wait for it to arrive at the next station. It was already getting dark when I got off and began walking back in the direction of Do- Go. I soon came to a hilly area. The night was so quiet that it felt spooky. Now it was pitch dark, and I was afraid. Trees and rocks that would seem completely normal during the day seemed to turn into monsters. I didn't know if I was going to make it home alive. There wasn't a single person on the road to keep me company.
I could feel sweat dripping down my back and forehead. Soon, my clothes were completely wet. I was almost certain that I was going to die. After a while, I heard a small voice from far off down the road. Someone was calling my name. Gradually the voice became louder, and soon I could hear it clearly. "Bo Hi," the voice was saying, "are you there?"
It was Mother, calling out to me at the top of her voice. "Mother," I called back, "here I am. Mother!"
I was almost in tears. I ran as fast as I could in the direction of her voice. When I reached her, I embraced her tightly and began to cry loudly.
"It's all right," she said. "I'm here now. We've made things so difficult for you. Don't worry now. Let's go home."
The mountain road wasn't at all scary with Mother holding my hand. From that moment on, the walk was really enjoyable. In my mind, I was thinking how nice it would be if Mother let me stay home from school just one day.
But at 4:30 the next morning, Mother woke me up as usual and I started for school at the regular time. Mother was very strict about school attendance. "You should study. You can't miss school," she would say.
It was largely owing to Mother's strong will that I was able to attend Chon-An Agricultural School.
One Word of English
My most vivid memory, from my three years at Chon-An Agricultural School from 1942 to 1945 is doing so much manual labor we were sick of it. Still, I learned a great deal, including some important lessons in life. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the constant manual labor assignments at Chon-An helped me develop a strong will and the ability to endure great hardships.
During my days at that school, I became accustomed to working with soil. I carne to love nature, and I learned all the skills I would need later on to succeed as a farmer. I was taught the most advanced agricultural methods of the time. These ranged from techniques for raising vegetables in hothouses to growing saplings in a field to he transplanted later. My experience in this school helped me to decide to devote my life to helping my parents on their farm.
I had many unforgettable experiences at the agricultural school. When I began my first year, I noticed on my class schedule that time had been allotted for English, and we were issued English textbooks. So I thought, "OK. I'm going to have a chance to study some English."
The time came for our first English class. It turned out that the teacher responsible for the class was none other than our Japanese principal. His name was Mr. 'Watanabe, and we used to call him "Lightning" because of his short temper. We never knew where he was going to strike, and everyone was afraid of him.
Mr. Watanabe came into the classroom and stood behind the lectern. He turned around and wrote a very large English word. "you," on the blackboard. He turned around, faced the students, and paused long enough for everyone to see his stern expression.
"Everyone, we are now at war with America and Britain. 'Today. I intend to demonstrate to you how uncivilized these two countries really are."
"Look at this word I have written on the board: 'you.' In our language, it means 'anata.' But these guys are depraved and don't know the first thing about etiquette. Look here. For them, the word 'you' can he used to address kings. It can he used to address government ministers. A teacher can he called 'you.' Parents are called 'you.' Even little children and beggars are referred to as 'you.'" Where else would you find such an abominable people? That is why we refer to America and Britain as 'Brutish America and Britain:
"What need do we have to learn the language of such countries? When we have won the Great East Asian War,' then they will have to learn the language of the Great Japanese Empire. Your job is to fight in every way you can for this eventual victory. Do you understand? This concludes your study of English."
When the principal finished speaking, he turned and marched out of the room. This was my first and final English class at Chon-An Agricultural School. I had learned just one word -- "you."
Later in life, when I began to study English more formally, I would often remember this incident and smile to myself.
By the time I was in my third year, it became impossible to commute from home. Our manual labor assignments began early in the morning and lasted until late at night. Thinking back on it now. I can see that this was the time when Japan's eventual defeat by the Allies was growing nearer, and Japan was making its last-ditch effort to survive. Chon-An Agricultural School became more of a military barracks than a school.
In those days, I did not own a pair of shoes or other footwear that could stand up to the work that we were doing. Laborers in that time wore special footwear called Jikatabi that were made of cloth and fit snugly around the foot and ankles almost like a sock. Jikatabi had a thick but flexible sole that protected the sole of the foot and didn't slip on most surfaces. They were subject to rationing, and there was no way that I could receive a new pair.
So, at the end of each day's work, I would go hunting for used Jikatabi that people had thrown away. I would find one that would still be good enough to wear, and then I would look for another one for the opposite foot. Once I had found two that could be worn as a pair, I would wash and dry them and then mend any tears myself. I didn't have the right needles and thread for mending footwear, so I would take a regular piece of cloth and thread and sew it on with several layers of stitches.
The next morning, I would go to my assigned work wearing my "new" pair. But they were never strong enough to last the whole day. Even before evening fell, my heel would be sticking out through one hole and my toes through another. So, at the end of the day I would have to go out and find another pair to wear the next day. During the time that I lived in the dormitory, much of my time was spent hunting for footwear.
The Kindness of a Japanese Friend
There is one other reason that I can never forget my days at Chon-An Agricultural School, and it had to do with a health problem of my father's. He had suffered from an excess of stomach acid for much of his life. To treat this, he needed to carry a bag of bicarbonate of soda all the time so that he could take some a few times each day.
As the war dragged on, however, it became impossible to find bicarbonate of soda in the stores. If Father ran out, his stomach pain would become unbearable. It was very difficult for me to watch him suffer in silence.
One day. I paid a visit a pharmacy in downtown Chon-An run by a Japanese woman. Her name was Mrs. Shibata. I explained to her about Father's symptoms and asked for her help. In exchange for bicarbonate of soda, I offered to work for her. "Mrs. Shihata, I will bring you fresh country eggs every week. I'll sweep the floor of your store and do all the cleaning. I'll do any chore you say, no matter how difficult."
As it happened, Mrs. Shibata's husband was in the military and had been deployed to the South Pacific islands, so she didn't have a man in the house to help her do the chores. She accepted my offer very graciously. She was a kind. middle aged woman who had an air of noble birth.
"Pharmacies, too, can only get bicarbonate of soda through the rationing system. It's delivered to me twice a month. What I'll do is not sell it to other people, but put it aside to give to you. I think it's wonderful that you are trying so hard to help your father."
From that time on, I visited Mrs. Shibata's pharmacy every opportunity I had. I did whatever task she gave me, and I also looked for things that needed to be done. If I happened to be coming from my village, l would take her eggs, vegetables, and fruit. Father never ran out of bicarbonate of soda again.
Sometimes, after the store closed for the day, Mrs. Shibata would invite me to stay for dinner. She served me Japanese miso soup with delicious rice. To me, it was as sumptuous a feast as I could have received if I had been a guest in the court of the Exalted Emperor Shihuang of the Qin Dynasty of ancient China. Mrs. Shibata showed me photographs of her husband and her family in Japan. As time passed, she became an important benefactor to me, and I became like a member of the family to her.
Mrs. Shibata, the Japanese woman who befriended the young Bo Hi Pak.
As the war was reaching its climax, Mrs. Shibata had become concerned that aerial bombing by Allied B-29s might increase to the point that Chon-An would also become a target, so she asked one of my classmates to store some of her valuables in his home in the countryside near Chon-An. When the war was suddenly over, she wanted to retrieve a few of those valuables to take with her to Japan, and she asked my friend to get them for her.
My friend returned to his home but soon came back empty-handed. He said the people in his hometown would not let him take the items. When I heard this, I could feel the blood immediately rush to my head. I grabbed my friend by his lapels. I was so furious that I might even have seriously harmed him had I lost control.
"What!" I demanded. "You good for nothing scoundrel! This woman wants her own belongings back! Who dares say that she can't have them? I don't care if Japan lost the war. She's committed no crime. It'll be to the shame of Korea if she doesn't get her things back. A shame on Korea, I tell you! You'd better stars acting like a real Korean!"
I didn't know how to console Mrs. Shibata, who was about to lose all she owned, and this frustration made me all the more angry at those who were taking advantage of her plight. Mrs. Shibata surprised me, though, by stepping in to stop me from fighting with my friend.
"Oyama-san," she said to me, "I want you to stop. I can live without my belongings. I'll just pretend I lost them in an air raid. The Japanese have committed many crimes. I, too, have to accept punishment for that."
Still, I couldn't suppress my anger. I started to plead with my friend. "Listen, let's go together to your village and see if somehow we can't come back with her things. You have to feel sorry for her. How do you think we can get them'"
But my friend shook his head. He explained that the people in the village had already divided up everything among themselves. I burst out in tears. There was no way for me to help Mrs. Shibata. I was so disgusted that I grabbed my friend again, this time with both my hands around his neck. He cried out for help, and there might have been a serious incident then if Mrs. Shibata hadn't intervened.
"I appreciate your concern for me. But, please, don't hurt anyone."
A few days later I visited my village. When I returned, I brought a bag with ten eggs to give to Mrs. Shibata on my final visit with her. Her face was pale and you could see her resignation and insecurity. She seemed very happy to see me.
"I've come to say my final good-bye," I said.
She invited me in, and once I was inside her home, she handed me a paper hag. Seeing my look of confusion she explained: "Take this to your father. It's a bag of bicarbonate of soda. I received one last ration delivery, and I'm giving it all to you. Oyama-san, I want to thank you for all you've done for me over such a long period. I don't know when we will see each other again. I'm really going to miss you.`
She took out a handkerchief and wiped the tears from her eyes. I wanted to ask her to take care of herself, but there was such a lump in my throat that I couldn't say anything. I just stood there, barely holding back my tears.
No words can possibly describe how grateful I was to Mrs. Shihata. The bag she gave me contained enough bicarbonate of soda to last Father a year and then some. As a going away present, she had given Fattier an extra year of life without pain. Finally, I was able to say to her: "Please, forgive me that I couldn't do enough for you." Then, I couldn't hold the tears back any longer.
It's been many years since that day. I've never heard what happened to her. I suspect she may have passed away, and so I sincerely pray for her soul. I still have a small photograph that she gave me. There is no doubt that she is one of the most important people in my life.
August 15, 1945 -- Liberation
Liberation! Finally, on August 15, 1945 we arrived at the day of our long-awaited liberation. After thirty-six years under the rule of imperial Japan, we broke free of our chains.
This was something that we had not even dared to imagine. Japan's imperialist rule had seemed iron tight. We thought that it would take a colossal effort for us to defeat it. But less than four years after it attacked Pearl Harbor. Japan was finally forced to its knees by the military might of the United States. For Korea, this was the hand of God, reaching out to save us.
No longer did I have to he known as "Oyama-san." From that day on, I was Bo Hi Pak, a proud Korean.
The joy of liberation enveloped all of Korea in one great storm of ecstatic triumph. We could shout "Long Live Korean Independence!" as much as we wanted without having the Japanese police trying to stop us. For the first time in my life, I had a country.
I could speak my native language in public without worrying about being punished for it anymore. Although the Japanese had outlawed the Korean language, I had sometimes used it outside our home. But when I did I had to be careful not to be overheard by anyone who might report me. How many times had the Japanese authorities beaten me saying, "You used Chosen-go [the Japanese word for the Korean language]!"
Mother never learned to speak Japanese. I grew up in a household where the Japanese language was given no quarter. Mother had taught me my mother tongue in its purest form. With that language, she also imbued me with the spirit of Korea. Just as my father had been a patriot who resisted the rule of imperialist Japan, Mother also was a patriotic Korean. She taught me Korean and raised me to be a Korean.
My paternal grandfather had an even greater influence in training me in the Korean spirit. Starting when I was just four years old, Grandfather taught me to read Chinese characters, and he spoke to me frequently about our history.
"Your ancestor who founded the clan of Hamyang Pak lived twenty-eight generations ago," he would teach its. His given name included the Chinese character meaning 'goodness' and he was a very good person. The Pak clan first originated with Great King Pak Hyok-kose, who founded the ancient kingdom of Shilla. The Great King Pak was born from an egg that was brought to earth by a white horse. The egg was shaped like a pak [gourd] and radiated light." This means that you are descended from heaven and from royalty. Do you understand?' From the time I was four. I was taught to recite from memory the names and posthumous titles of all of my direct male ancestors as far back as twenty-eight generations.
'There was a Chinese character text titled Doing-mun Sunseub, which I studied immediately following the Thousand-Character Classic. This text had been used to educate the sons of Korean Yangban for four centuries. Grandfather taught me: This text was authored by Pak Setif, who is your direct ancestor of fourteen generations ago. 'Ibis Doug-moat Sunseub is a historic text that has been used to teach human relations and morals to great men during the past four centuries. Can you understand how great your ancestors were?"
Sometimes I thought I might develop blisters on my ears from listening to him talk about our ancestors. I was very young at the time, and I was always trying to figure out some way that I could break free of Grandfather and go play. Looking back now, though. I can see that these lectures gave me a solid spiritual backbone as a Korean.
Father taught me hangul, the native script created by Great King Sejong that Koreans today hold in pride. For this reason I, unlike many other children, had the opportunity to read hooks and short stories written in hangul even before our country's liberation from Japan. Even so, liberation had a decisive effect on my life as a student.
When I entered Chon-An Agricultural School while Korea was still under Japanese administration, it offered a five-year course of study. Soon after liberation, however, changes were made in the country's educational system, and Chon-An now offered a three-year middle school course and a three-year high school course, for a total of six years. I found myself about to graduate from the middle school.
I decided against going on to high school. I was a young man of fifteen. When I thought of my beloved parents, I couldn't bring myself to he the kind of son who would try and persuade his parents to support him through high school.
Instead, I returned to my native village. I took with me a bundle of textbooks from the Agricultural School, and I was confident that I could succeed at agriculture. I wasn't going to watch my parents suffer any longer. From then on, I was determined to do all the farming.
I wanted to try to use the modern farming methods I had learned at school to become a successful farmer on the strength of my own abilities. I dreamed of becoming a model farmer who would then help all the other people in the village to succeed as well. I was sure I could do it. There wasn't any shadow of doubt in my mind.
One bright moonlit night, I sat in a meadow listening to the crickets and dreaming of what I was about to accomplish. The full moon seemed brighter than I had ever seen it before. I found myself singing a children's song about the moonlit night:
The moon! The moon! The bright moon!
The moon where Li Tae-Back once played!
There! There! In the midst of the moon
You can see a katsura tree.
I'll cut it down with a golden ax,
Chop it up with a pearl ax,
Build a house with three rooms and a thatched roof,
And invite my parents to live with me there.
We'll live there a thousand and ten thousand years.
Well live there a thousand and ten thousand years.
The poem expressed my heart perfectly.
"That's right," I told myself. "I can do it. My parents are getting on in age, and I can't let them suffer any longer. I will support the family, and we will live together forever and ever. Forever and ever."
It was a new beginning for me: the life of a fallen Yangban as an impoverished farmer.
A Young Farmers Agricultural Revolution
To succeed in farming I had to have good compost, and to get good quality compost, I had to raise livestock. I knew that pigs were best for producing lots of manure. So I went to the market and bought a young pig that looked like he might have a large appetite and not be too particular about what he ate. I built some pig shelters and gradually increased the number of pigs from one to two, then three and finally six.
Next. I decided to raise chickens because I had learned at agricultural school that chicken manure makes the best quality fertilizer. I built the chicken pens and soon I had dozens of chickens producing plenty of eggs. On market days, I would carefully package the eggs in sets of ten and go to market to sell then. It was my only cash income.
After I began to raise goats, the next step in my "agricultural revolution" was to become the first in our area to plant sweet potatoes. For this, I needed to build a hotbed in order to prepare seed potatoes for transplanting. A hotbed would also he useful for making good quality compost. Building the hotbed in our backyard was very difficult work, but I had learned how to do it all at school.
I was making such a commotion with my books and my new ideas that finally even Father lost his temper.
"Bo Hi." he admonished me, "who in the world ever heard of a farmer doing his chores while carrying an open book in one hand? You're making much too big a commotion. You're going too far. Why can't you farm without making such a fuss?"
I answered him, saying: "Father, please bear with me just a little longer. It's just for the first year that things are a bit confused. From next year, things will settle down. I'm sure you will be pleased when you see what I accomplish."
I decided to go ahead with my plan. I went to Onyang, a town about eight miles away, and bought a sack of seed potatoes and carried them all the way home on my back. This was how the first sweet potato farm in the history of Persimmon Orchard Village got its start.
Every morning, I would get up early to cut grass to feed the pigs. The more I fed them, the more compost I could have. Soon, I had a huge pile of compost in the compost shed. Also, I took time each morning to check the village roads for any cow manure. It was a way for me to add to my compost and to help keep the village roads clean. Father wasn't the only one who thought that I was acting oddly. Soon, just about everyone in the village had decided that I was definitely very strange.
After harvesting my first crop of sweet potatoes. I gave some to everyone in the village so they could see for themselves how good they tasted. From that time, sweet potato farming became popular in our village.
Soon, this one-man campaign for agricultural reform came up against a serious crisis. My pigs that had been eating so well came down with a disease. They refused to eat any feed. Soon, some of them started to die. I had studied animal husbandry, but I was not a veterinarian. There was nothing I could do. I even tried to open their mouths one at a time and force-feed them, but it was no use. The pigs just kept dying. I took the dead pigs in my arms and cried. It hurt as much as if I had lost a brother.
I refused to give up. The rice paddies and the fields and the meadows were my stage. Nature is very honest. It always finds a way to compensate a person for at least the amount of effort he has put into it.
From Farm Boy to Boy Teacher
One day, there was another major change in my life. I received a visit from the principal of Do-Go Elementary School, where I had studied as a young boy.
This is what the principal said: "Our school is having a lot of difficulty replacing the Japanese teachers who left after liberation. I know you must be very busy with fanning, but I wonder if you wouldn't help us out a little at the school. It would be a great service if you would come and take responsibility for some of the students."
I was more than a little surprised. "I'm honored that you would make such a request," I said, "but what qualifications do I have to teach?"
You don't understand. Because you completed three years of middle school, there's no problem in our hiring you as a contract teacher. I will make sure your work at the school doesn't interfere with taking care of your parents. So, please, take some time out to help the school."
"It's a great honor, but I need to discuss the matter with my parents before I can make my reply."
When I reported the conversation to my parents, Mother was the first to express her support. Although she understood that I was helping Father by taking full responsibility for the farming, she was frustrated seeing me spend all my time on the farm from dawn to dusk. She felt certain that I was not destined to live my entire life as a farmer. She seemed to think that the offer from the principal would lead to other opportunities that would open a new future for me.
Father was also in favor, but he did have reservations.
"You're still only seventeen (sixteen by the Western method of counting ages]. Who are you going to teach when you yourself still have so much to learn? I'm ashamed that I'm not able to give you the support you need to continue your own education. Perhaps if you become a teacher, it will give you a chance to learn as well." He said this and then gave a deep sigh.
In my own mind, farming was still my primary job. My teaching job was nothing more than a way to help my old school deal with an emergency situation. I called on the principal and told him that I had decided to accept his offer. He immediately assigned me to a teaching position.
There was a problem, though. I had nothing to wear that was suitable for a teacher. I still had my clothes from my days at agricultural school, but I didn't have a Western-style suit. So Mother went out and borrowed a man's suit from a neighbor. She was such a skilled seamstress that she could take any piece of clothing and create something exactly like it from scratch.
The author (far right during his years as a teacher at Do-Go Elementary School with his father mother and brother, No Hi.
Based on the suit she had borrowed, she made a suit for me from cotton and silk cloth that she had woven herself. Then, she borrowed a necktie from a neighbor and sewed one for me exactly like it from nylon cloth she bought at the market.
I put on the suit and necktie that Mother had sewn for me and bowed deeply before her.
I said to her: "These clothes are totally your creation. There isn't a suit or necktie in the world that I would rather have. I'm tall and I have a solid build, so in this suit I look older than seventeen, don't I7"
"That's right, son," she said. You look like a very fine teacher. You look good. Very good."
Mother watched with an expression of great satisfaction as I left home for my first day at work dressed in the suit and tie that she had made for me. It was the first necktie I had ever worn.
At school, I was placed in charge of the third grade. It was strange to hear the students refer to me as "Teacher," and it took some time for me to get used to this. "Teacher Bo Hi Pak" was introduced to the entire student body at the morning assembly.
In those days, children didn't necessarily begin attending school at a particular age, and some of the sixth graders were quite tall. I was very surprised to discover that some of the girl students were actually older than me. Somehow, I had to maintain my authority as a teacher based solely on the fact that I was taller than any of them. I couldn't help but blush with embarrassment whenever a young woman old enough to marry would call me "Teacher."
"Do-Go" -- Mountain of High Ethics
For the next two years, I continued to teach at the elementary school wearing the suit that Mother had made for me. I found my life with the young, innocent children to he quite rewarding. At one time, I was in charge of sixth graders. This was a particularly important position, because it meant I was responsible for preparing them to continue their education in secondary school.
When I taught sixth grade, I had to learn along with the students. All of my education had been during the period of Japanese imperialist rule, and there was much about Korean geography, history, and language that I hadn't been taught. In order to teach these subjects properly, I first had to study about ten times harder than the students themselves. Looking back, without being forced to study these subjects along with my sixth graders, I might not have been able to meet the challenges that came to me later in my life.
When I returned home from school, I would change into my farming clothes and begin my chores. On Sundays, I scooped out the school's septic tanks. I would take a long-stemmed dipper and scoop the manure out of the tanks and into my manure buckets. Then, I would place the buckets on the two ends of a long pole and lift the pole across my shoulders. I carried the buckets to my family's fields and spread the manure so that it would fertilize our crops. It gave me such joy on a bright sunshiny day to be able to spread beautiful gold-colored manure over shoots that had just managed to break through the soil. Many people tell me the smell makes them want to hold their noses, but to a farmer it is one of the sweetest of fragrances. In this way, I was able to kill two birds with one stone -- I could take care of emptying the school septic tanks without having to pay someone to do it, and I could obtain plenty of good fertilizer for my fields.
One time, a couple of my students saw me hauling the manure buckets down the road. They gave me the required greeting, "Hello, Teacher," but I could see from their expressions that they weren't quite sure what to make of me.
I immediately said to them: "Oh, it's good to see you. I want you to understand that labor is a sacred thing. I do all kinds of work, from teaching you to hauling manure. Nothing is dirty to a person who loves his work."
The next Sunday, several of my students were waiting for me on the road. They followed me as I hauled the manure to the field, where they helped me spread it over the crops. It was a moment of great joy for me, because I felt that through this rather smelly task, I had given the students an important lesson about life. Even if the fluid splashed and a drop flew into my mouth, I never felt that this was something dirty.
My family had a long tradition of following Confucianism. When I was young, I had studied the Dozzg-mun Sunseuh and learned about the three fundamental principles and five moral disciplines in human relations.10 This was the full extent of my religious education. From about the time that I went to work as a teacher, however, I began to feel a certain yearning for the mystical realm. I wanted to believe in heaven. My favorite proverb became "sincerity moves Heaven." The idea that faith can move mountains was becoming the fundamental philosophy of my life.
Every morning before going to work, I would climb to the top of Mount Do-Go to offer a prayer to the sun at the moment it came above the horizon. It was a majestic sight to watch the sunrise from the mountaintop. The air was so clear, and the sun looked like a ball of magma rising up out of the earth. It was a mystical moment that inspired reverence in me throughout my body and soul. I would put my hands together and offer a bow to the sun. Then, I would express my desires in a kind of prayer. In these experiences, I never neglected to pray that my parents would enjoy tranquility and long life. In particular, it pained me to think of how Mother was finding it increasingly difficult to do her work. In the evenings, I would hike up Mount Do-Go again. It was usually too dark to climb more than halfway, so I would find a quiet place on the slope where I could bow down. I felt the urge to how to the spirits of the mountain and offer a prayer.
I don't know whether this was the beginning of a religious mind, but just as Mother's religion was her sons, my only religion at that time was my parents. I wanted to come face to face with some kind of mystical power and express my filial piety as a form of religious piety before Heaven. Mount Do-Go was my place for religious training, and I wanted to inherit the life force of that mountain. I believed Mount Do-Go was, literally, a mountain of "high ethics" that would elevate my soul.
I find Calling
After two years as a contract teacher, I was hired as a full-time teacher in Chung-Nam Province. I was assigned to the Do-San Branch School, which was for first and second graders who lived in isolated mountain communities and found it difficult to cone to school in Do-Go. Since the children couldn't come to school, the school sent its teachers out to them.
The branch school was located in the village of Do-San, about three miles from my home in Persimmon Orchard Village. It was one of the most isolated places in that area of the county. There was just one classroom, and two teachers worked there to teach the two grades. The school was a humble thatched-roof house, but in my own way I was able to feel an important purpose in my work there. My students were country boys and girls who were completely unspoiled. Their intellects were just beginning to sprout, and I felt it was my mission to help their minds grow and to plant the seeds of love in their hearts.
I became completely immersed in the world of the children and actually became one of them. I held hands with them as they played. I learned together with them and ate my meals with them. When a child became sick during the day, I would carry him or her home on my back.
One day, we had a sudden rainstorm during the school day, and the mountain creeks began to overflow. The water was flowing very fast on the mountain paths. If the children were sent home by themselves there was a danger that they might be struck by falling boulders. So I divided the children into a number of teams, according to the general direction of their homes. Then I escorted one team at a time in the direction of their homes to a point where they would he out of danger. When we came to a creek on the way, I carried them across one by one on my back. After I sent them on their way, the children kept looking back and shouting "Thank you, Teacher" and waving good-bye over and over again. As I. watched them disappear in the distance, I felt that I had found my life's calling.
I said to myself: "I've really found a job that is worth doing. This is my life's calling. On the outside, it may he just a humble thatched-roof schoolhouse with a teen-aged teacher, but my heart is filled with a sense of purpose and joy. I want to raise those children so that they become pillars to support our nation. Surely, this is the calling that I've received from Heaven."
Spring was always the time of year when food was scarce. Every day when it came time to eat lunch, there would he several students who hadn't been able to bring any food from home. Then, I would open my own lunch and share it with them. One day, a student suddenly raised his hand to ask a question.
"Teacher. I have a question." he said. "Why do we have Sundays? Do we have to have Sundays? We want to come to school every day. We get so bored on Sundays."
"Oh, I see," I replied. "Then, shall we start a school that doesn't close on Sundays?"
In unison, they all shouted, "Yes! Yes!" and clapped their hands. I could see then how much they enjoyed their lives at school. They were really having fun. I thought that this must be the result of my having poured love into their hearts. I was just a village teacher. but I felt infinitely happy that I could give so much love to the children.
Winter came, and the mountain paths were hurled under several feet of snow. It was a difficult task to hike through the snow each morning to the schoolhouse. My shoes and socks would become soaking wet. I certainly couldn't afford to buy good quality socks. Mother had knitted the socks I wore, using yarn that she herself made from raw cotton. In the cold winter weather, though, I frequently needed a new pair.
One evening, as I was reading a book after the evening meal, I noticed that Mother had fallen asleep while knitting a new pair of socks for me in the dim light. She must have been exhausted. I could see gray hair, and her complexion was pale. Already her face was covered with wrinkles. As I watched her, I couldn't stop the tears from welling up in my eyes.
"Mother has grown so old," I thought to myself. "She should live much longer. When, and how, will I ever be able to give her an easy life? As a good Korean son, I should be able to do that."
I went over to where she sat and softly called: "Mother." She awoke immediately.
"Mother," I said. "I was reading a book recently about a good way to keep from getting colds. Can you guess what that is? The book said that the secret to not catching a cold is to go all winter without wearing socks. It said that if you do this for just one winter, then you will never catch another cold. I think I'm going to try that. Mother, please don't knit any more socks for me. From now on, I won't wear them even if you knit them. I'm going to give this method for staying healthy a try."
From the next day, I went without socks. Mother did everything she could to convince me to go on wearing socks, but I stubbornly refused and insisted on beginning a life without socks. When I had to hike through freshly fallen snow on the way to school, my legs and feet would turn bright red and looked like a pair of oddly shaped red radishes. It made me happy, though, to think that I was doing this for Mother's sake. What surprised me was that what I had told Mother about not catching a cold actually turned out to be true. I went the whole winter without the slightest illness.
"Mother, I told you so, didn't I?" I said to her the following spring. "I have graduated from wearing socks."
I continued this custom of not wearing socks until the day that I left home to enter the Korean Military Academy. Mother no longer knitted my socks.
Three years passed from the time that I was sure that I had been called by Heaven to become a teacher. The gods of fate, though, were not content to let me continue this happy, pastoral life. One morning, my world was turned upside down with no warning. I received a military draft notice in the mail.
It was the autumn of 1949. The government of the Republic of Korea had been formally established a year earlier, and it was decided to institute a draft in order to fill the ranks of the newly established ROK military. Draft notices were sent out to all men born in 1930 (accredited teachers and certain other professions were exempt). I was twenty years old, by the Korean method of counting a person's age.
One morning the postman delivered my draft notice ordering me to report for a physical examination. At that moment, I couldn't help but feel somewhat bewildered, like someone who had suddenly awakened from a deep sleep. "Do I really have to join the military?" I thought.
Finally, the day came for my physical and I reported to the county seat in Onyang. The examiners found nothing wrong with my body. In fact, I had a larger than average build and all that farm work had made me quite strong. At the end of the examination, I went into the head examiner's office. He looked at my papers and announced, "Bo Hi Pak, you pass in the top category." He then stamped my back with an ink stamp to indicate my draft category. In those days, anyone with at least a middle school education was assigned to the navy. So it was that I found myself headed for military service in the navy.
Suddenly, I felt concerned for my family. "I'm on my way to joining the military," I thought to myself. Who is going to serve my parents?" As the bus traveled along the gravel road back to my village, I found myself lost in thought of my family's future. My older sister had married and had a family of her own to take care of. At home, there was only my younger brother, No Hi, who was still just nine years old. By this time, it was obvious to everyone that Mother was growing weaker.
"Mother, please forgive your son who is so lacking in filial piety." My heart was filled with agony that somehow I couldn't take better care of my parents.
"Didn't I set out to become a successful farmer? What's going to happen to that work? What about the teaching that I have been called to do? How am I going to say good-bye to the children I've cone to love so much? If only my younger brother were at least old enough to have graduated from middle school, then I might feel a lot better about leaving home."
My heart grew heavier with each passing moment. I muttered: "Mother, please forgive your son who is so lacking in filial piety." Then, I looked up and noticed an elderly woman about Mother's age. She was standing in the bus, trying her best to keep her balance as the bus traveled along the bumpy road.
I quickly stood up and offered her my seat. I also offered to hold the bundle she was carrying. It was a bundle of cod fish wrapped in wet newspaper.
Suddenly, my eyes became fixed on that newspaper. In the corner of the page was an advertisement that said: "Applications Now Being Accepted for the Korean Military Academy." Any other time, I wouldn't have given the ad a second thought. On that particular day, though it caught my interest. With the old lady's permission, I carefully tore the ad out of the newspaper. It smelled of fish, but I folded it carefully and put it in my wallet.
Back home. I took the ad out, dried it off, and read it again and again. "If I have to join the military," I thought, "then I may as well go to the Korean Military Academy so that I can become an officer and make Mother happy. Also, it will give me a chance to resume my studies." In those days, the Korean Military Academy offered a four-year college-level curriculum that led to a bachelor's degree in engineering. Students could expect to be commissioned as second lieutenants in the army at the time of graduation.
But this dream seemed impossible. According to the ad, to qualify to take the entrance exam you had to "have at least a three-year high school education."
That evening, I brought the issue up with my parents. I told them that it would be wonderful if I could enter the academy, but that I had decided it was completely out of my reach.
Mother had a different opinion: "Aren't you being a little hasty in giving up? You haven't even tried. A person never knows how something will turn out until he's at least given it a try. When is the exam? Why don't you go ahead and go to Seoul?" Father was also very much in favor of this.
As quickly as I could, I sent off for the application and recommendation forms. I needed at least three people to recommend me to the academy. The head of Do-Go Township, the local police chief, and the principal of my school agreed to do this. I didn't have an academic transcript to attach to the application. The requirements said l had to at least have a high school diploma, but I had not even gone to high school. I attached my teacher's certificate from Chung-Nam Province instead.
All applicants were to appear in person in front of the army headquarters in Seoul to turn in their applications. Immediately thereafter, they were to take written examinations in eight academic fields. Those who passed the written exams would be called in for interviews, where the final decision would he made on who would enter the academy.
For me, it was a process more difficult than trying to climb Mount Everest. In fact, common sense would have said that I was not even qualified to take up the challenge. I decided to follow Mother's advice, however, and give it a try. To encourage myself, I recited the following poem to myself:
They may say that Mount Tai is high,
But compared to heaven,
it's just another hill.
f I climb and climb, and keep on climbing,
Then who's to say I won't someday reach the summit?
People gather around, not even trying to climb,
And make a mere hill seem like a mountain.
"Just Give Me a Chance"
Finally, the day came when applications to the Korean Military Academy were being accepted. I took a big sack normally used around the farm for carrying crops and filled it with rice. I put on the suit that Mother had made for me and headed off to Seoul.
I got off the train at Yong-San station and headed over to army headquarters where I saw a table set up in the court-yard and a sign next to it that said: "Applications for Korean Military Academy."
People were already lined up in a very long single-file line. From the student uniforms and caps they were wearing, I could see that they all attended the most prestigious high schools in Seoul. I took my place at the end of the line.
Immediately, I became the object of much curiosity. Looking back, I can imagine how strange I must have seemed to the people around me. I was the only one not dressed in a student uniform. Also, it was obvious that I had just come from the country. Around my village, my appearance may have passed as more or less proper. In the big city, though, my clothes seemed worn and faded. Also, there was the heavy sack of rice on my back. I did my best to ignore all the stares and maintain my composure.
As I came near the table, the people standing in line in front of me began double-checking their papers, and this gave me a chance to take a peek at some of their letters of recommendation. I saw one that said "Speaker of the National Assembly, Ik Ili Shin." It was signed with Speaker Shin's distinctive strong signature. Others had letters from the interior minister, the mayor of Seoul, and various members of the National Assembly. It was enough to make me dizzy, and it made me even more discouraged. The only people recommending me were local officials.
Soon, I found myself standing at the table. The soldier in charge of the proceedings mechanically sifted through my application papers as if he were looking for something in particular.
"Hey, this person doesn't have an academic transcript," he said. "Graduated from Chon-An Agricultural School. That's not enough to qualify. Step aside. Next!"
He then quickly began processing the next applicant's papers. I was pushed aside without a chance to say even one word. In that moment, Mother's face flashed before my eyes. I knew I couldn't just give up and go home. I thought that if I stood in line again and pleaded with the soldier, then I might get somewhere.
So I went back to the end of the line. Another two hours passed, and I again stood at the table. I handed my papers to the soldier and then tried to say something, but I couldn't find the words. The soldier looked up at me, and said, "What's this? You again? You're a real troublemaker. I already told you that you don't meet the requirements. Now, get out of here!"
He became angry and threw my papers to one side. Helpless, I ran to pick up my papers. again without having said a word. I began to walk dejectedly back toward Yong-San station. Again, though, Mother's face flashed in front of me and my disappointment was suddenly replaced with burning anger.
"There's no way I'm going home like this," I thought. "I've been pushed aside again without even a chance to speak. This is not acceptable."
I headed back toward the army headquarters with an angry stride. Again, I stood at the end of the line. This was the third time. Another two hours passed. The sun started going down in the west.
This time I was a different person. I was angry, and I felt as fierce as a lion. As soon as I came to the table, I opened fire. I glared at the officer and placed my Chung-Nam Province teacher's certificate on the table and said, "Listen here. A certificate as a full-time teacher is the equivalent of a high school diploma. There is no reason for you to refuse to accept my application."
He jumped up and took me by the lapels. "What? What did you say? You'd better stop causing me so much trouble." He looked as though he was about to raise his fist.
I quickly grabbed hold of his lapels and shouted, "Who gave you the right to decide who gets into the academy? Why won't you even let me take the exam?" It became quite a scene, and finally a sergeant who seemed to be in charge of' the whole operation came over to see what was going on. "What's going on here?" he demanded.
"Sir," the soldier began, "this man doesn't meet the requirements, but he refuses to leave and keeps trying to cause trouble."
I quickly stepped in front of the sergeant.
"I came from Chung-Nam Province. I am a full-time teacher certified by the province. Please, I'd like to take the exam."
The sergeant leafed through my application, and said. "From what I see here, he doesn't stand a chance of passing. But since he's come such a far distance, let him go ahead and take the exam."
Finally, I was able to submit my application.
That evening, I went to a rooming house where one of my classmates from elementary school was staying while he attended Seoul Engineering College. I offered to share my rice with him if he would let me stay with him during the few days until the day of the examination.
That night, I spent time looking through a collection of questions similar to what was expected in the Korean Military Academy exams. Since I hadn't taken any high school courses, I could see that I would have great difficulty with many of the eight areas on which I was to be tested. I would do my best on the exams in Korean language, history, geography, and essay. I didn't know anything, though about English, math, physics, or chemistry. I had learned only one word in English from my Japanese teacher (the infamous "you"). I didn't have even an introductory-level knowledge of calculus and trigonometry. About physics and chemistry, I knew only a few things that I had picked up on my own.
My friend told me it would he a good idea to memorize a few calculus formulas, and he helpfully wrote some down for me. He also explained to me some of the basic principles of trigonometry.
The day of the exam came, and I reported to the examination hall on Ulji Avenue in Seoul. The first subject was English. I had decided from the outset that I might as well give up on English. I turned my answer sheet over and started writing a desperate plea on the back in Korean. I explained how poverty had prevented me from continuing my studies and how, if given a chance to prove myself, I would show myself equal to anyone. My young heart was almost bursting with desperation as I continued to write on the back of the answer sheet. I felt resentful that I hadn't been able to study more.
Everyone else was busily writing in English, and I was the only one writing Korean characters. Every time the examiner came by my desk, I covered my paper so he couldn't see what I was doing. For the whole hour, I felt as though there was a huge weight on my chest. Finally, the bell rang to signal the end of the exam. I quickly folded my paper, took it to the front, and stuck it in the middle of papers that had already been handed in. Then I left the room as quickly as I could. I struggled to keep this had experience during the first hour from robbing me of my determination.
The second subject was mathematics. This was another subject I had given up on. When I saw the questions, though. I was pleasantly surprised. There were just four major questions, and two of them called for me to write down the formulas that my friend at Seoul Engineering College had just taught me. Fortunately, I have a pretty good memory, and I was able to write down all the formulas. These two questions were like gifts from Heaven. I had no idea how to answer the remaining two questions. Still, I figured that I could score fifty points, and picking up fifty points for free is pretty good.
The other six subjects were ones where I could try my best to answer. I was particularly confident in answering the essay exam during the final hour. The assignment was "Discuss the phrase 'Recovery of Lost Territory'." I knew that this referred to our country's ability to recover the territory north of the 38th Parallel that had been lost to North Korea. I wrote very frankly about my desire to see the unification of our fatherland.
During the train ride back home, my mind was empty of all thoughts. The classical Chinese phrase "Let man do all he can, and then wait for the mandate of Heaven" is appropriate for just this type of situation. I had done everything that I could, and all that was left was to place my fate in Heaven's hands. I let out a long sigh.
A few days after returning home, I was surprised to receive a notice in the mail -- I was accepted! I jumped up and down with joy. I will never forget the name of Col. Hun Chin Hwang, whose signature was on the notice. I credited this victory to Mother's faith, which had been strong enough to move a mountain.
"Thank you. Mother," I said to her. "Your prayers at the jang-kwang were not in vain. This is the happiest moment of my life. Mother, I still have a second exam to pass, so please pray for me again."
Mother had demonstrated how faith and sincerity can move mountains. In the end, I was able to pass the interview phase of the examination as well.
An unknown teacher from the countryside had succeeded against everyone's expectation and created a kind of miracle. But who would have guessed what terrible trials awaited me at the Korean Military Academy? For the moment, I was thrilled. Seeing the joy on Mother's face gave me the greatest happiness of all.
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