My father was good at lending money to people and losing it, but he was not good at collecting debts. If he borrowed money, however, he would honor the pledge to repay, even if it meant selling the family cow or even removing one of the pillars from our home and selling it at market. He always said, "You can't change the truth with trickery. Anything that is true will not be dominated by a small trick. Anything that is the result of trickery won't go more than a few years before it is exposed." My father had a large stature. He was so strong that he had no difficulty walking up a flight of stairs carrying a bag of rice on his shoulders. The fact that I am, at age ninety, still able to travel around the world and carry on my work is a result of the physical strength I inherited from my father.
My mother, whose favorite Christian hymn was "Higher Ground," was also quite a strong woman. I take after not only her wide forehead and round face but also her straight forward and high spirited personality. I also have a stubborn streak, and there is no doubt I am my mother's child. When I was a child, I had the nickname "day crier." 1 earned this nickname, because once I started to cry I wouldn't stop for the entire day. When I cried, it would be so loud that people would think something terrible must have happened. People in bed sleeping would come outside to see what was going on. Also, I didn't just cry sitting still. I would jump all around the room, creating an uproar. I would bang myself on the walls and objects in the room and injure myself all over, to the point that my flesh would break and there would be blood all over the room. I had this kind of intense personality even when I was young.
Once my mind was made up, I would never back down. Not even if it meant breaking a bone in my body. Of course, this was all before I became mature. When my mother would scold me for doing something wrong, I would talk back to her, saying, "No. Absolutely not!" All I had to do was admit that I was wrong, but I would have rather died than let those words out of my mouth. My mother, though, had quite a strong personality as well.
I don't remember how old I was when this happened. A boy gave me a bloody nose and ran away. For a month after that, I would go to his house every day, and stand there, waiting for him to come out. The village adults were amazed to see me persist, and finally his parents apologized to me. They even gave me a container full of rice cakes. This doesn't mean I was always trying to win with stubborn persistence. I was physically much larger and stronger than other children my age. No child could beat me in arm wrestling. I once lost a wrestling match to a boy three years older than me, and it made me so angry that I couldn't sit still. So I went to a nearby mountain and stripped some bark from an acacia tree. For the next six months, I worked out on this tree every evening to become strong enough to defeat that child. At the end of six months, I challenged him to a rematch and managed to beat him.
Each generation in our family has had many children. I had one older brother, three older sisters and three younger sisters. As a child, I had many siblings. If these siblings got together with our first and second cousins, we could do anything. Much time has passed, however, and now I feel as though i am the only one remaining in the world.
I once visited North Korea for a short while, in 1991.1 went to my hometown for the first time in 48 years, and found that my mother and most of my siblings had passed away. Only one older sister and one younger sister remained. My older sister, who had been like a mother to me when I was a child, had become a grandmother of more than seventy years. My younger sister was older than sixty, and her face was covered with wrinkles. When we were young, I teased my younger sister a lot.
I would shout, "Hey, Hyo-seon, you're going to marry a guy with one eye.
And she would come back with, "What did you say? What makes you think you know that, brother?" Then she would run up behind me, and rap me on the back with her tiny fists.
In the year she turned 18, Hyo-seon met a man with whom one of our aunts was trying to arrange her marriage that morning, she got up early, carefully combed her hair and powdered her face. She thoroughly cleaned our home inside and out, and waited for her prospective groom to arrive.
"Hyo-seon," I said to tease her, "you must really want to get married."
This made her blush, and I still remember how beautiful she looked with the redness in her face showing through the white powder. It has been well over ten years since my visit to North Korea. My older sister, who wept so sorrowfully to see me has since passed away, leaving just my younger sister. It fills me with such anguish. I feel as though my heart may melt away.
I was good with my hands, and I used to make clothes for myself. When it got cold, I would quickly knit myself a cap to wear. I was better at it than the women, and I would give knitting tips to my older sisters. I once knitted a muffler for Hyo-seon. My hands were as big and thick as a bear's paw, but I enjoyed needle work, and I would even make my own underwear. I would take some cloth off a roll, fold it in half, cut it to the right design, hem it, sew it up and put it on. When I made a pair of traditional Korean socks for my mother this way, she expressed how much she liked them by saying, "Well, well, I thought Second Son was just fooling around, but these fit me perfectly."
I actually had four other younger siblings who were born after Hyo-seon. Mother gave birth to 13 children, but five did not survive. Her heart must have been deeply tormented. Mother suffered a great deal to raise so many children in circumstances that were by no means plentiful. In those days, it was necessary to weave cotton cloth as a part of preparations for the marriage of a son or daughter. Mother would take cotton wool, place it in a spinning wheel to make the thread. This was called to-ggaeng-i in the dialect of Pyung-an Province. She would set the width at twenty threads, and make twelve pieces of cotton cloth, thirteen pieces of cotton cloth, and so on. Each time a child would marry, cotton cloth as soft and beautiful as processed satin would be created through Mother's coarse hands. Her hands were incredibly quick. Others might weave three or four pieces of to-ggaeng-i fabric in a day, but Mother could weave as many as twenty. When she was in a hurry to complete the marriage preparations for one of my older sisters, she could weave an entire roll of fabric in a day. Mother had an impatient personality. Whenever she would set her mind to doing something, she would work quickly to get it done. I take after her in that way.
Since childhood, I have always enjoyed eating a wide variety of foods. As a child, I enjoyed eating corn, raw cucumber, raw potato and raw beans. On a visit to my maternal relatives who lived about 20 li (8 km) away from our home, I noticed something round growing in the field. I asked what it was, and was told it was "ji-gwa3" or "earth fruit." In that neighborhood, people referred to sweet potatoes as "earth fruit." Someone dug one up and cooked it for me in steam, so I ate it. It had such a delectable taste that I took a whole basket full of them and ate them all myself. From the following year, I couldn't keep myself away from my maternal relatives' home for more than three days. I would shout out, "Mother, I'm going out for a while," run the whole distance to where they lived, and eat sweet potatoes.
Where we lived, we had what we called, "potato pass" in May. We would survive the winter on potatoes, until spring came and we could start harvesting barley. May was a critical period, because if our store of potatoes was depleted before the barley could be harvested, people began to starve. Surviving the time when potato stores were running low and the barley had not yet been harvested was similar to climbing a steep mountain pass, so we called it "potato pass."
The barley we ate then was not the tasty flat-grained barley that we see today. The grains were more cylindrical in shape, but that was alright with us. We would soak the barley in water for about two days before cooking it. When we sat down to eat, I would press down on the barley with my spoon, trying to make it stick together. It was no use, though, because when I scooped it up in my spoon, it would just scatter like so much sand. I would mix it with gochujang red bean paste, and take a mouthful. As I chewed, the grains of barley would keep coming out between my teeth. So I had to keep my mouth tightly closed.
We also used to catch and eat tree frogs. In those days in rural areas, children would be fed tree frogs when they caught the measles and their faces became thin from the weight loss. We would catch three or four of these frogs that were big and had plenty of flesh on their flat legs. We would roast them wrapped in squash leaves, and they would be very tender and tasty, just as though they had been steamed in a rice-cooker. Speaking of tasty, I can't leave out sparrow and pheasant meat either. As I roamed the hills and fields, this is how I came to understand that there was an abundance of food in the natural environment given to us by God.