Jeremy Kim Hunter College HS New York, NY 10th Grade
Some of the fondest memories from my childhood are the stories my grandfather told me of his life in Korea. His stories were always thrilling and moving, and made me feel like I was being transported back through time and space to witness the episode right as it happened.
Once he told me about his experience as a soldier in the Korean War. “It all started when I was a young boy in Korea. It was after World War II had ended, and the country was in ruins. My family, like many others, was very poor. Korea was just beginning to recover from decades of harsh rule by Japan when the country was torn apart by a civil war between North Korea and South Korea. I remember the day when forces from the North invaded the South, and it quickly became a vicious conflict that engulfed the whole country.
“I was walking home from high school one day when some soldiers zoomed by in a jeep. The jeep screeched to a halt, and one of the soldiers asked me my age. I told him I was seventeen. Then, before I could think, he grabbed me by the collar of my shirt and shoved me in the truck. I was terrified. “The soldier said, ‘The country needs men for the Korean War.’”
As my grandpa spoke, the world around me seemed to dissolve from the living room of my grandpa’s house to a bleak, makeshift army camp. “I loathed the training camp I was sent to. Each morning I had to wake up so early. The drill sergeants barked their orders and put us through endless rigorous exercises to teach us to survive in the battlefield. I had to cover my face in mud so dirty that pigs would have felt right at home in it. My platoon had to crawl under endless fields of barbed wire. All I could see was a sea of sharp spikes.”
My grandpa continued, “After weeks of the horrendous drills and eating the mortifying food in the camp, I was fighting in the Korean War.”
My grandpa said dramatically, “We were thrust into combat in a field. As I kept my head low, I heard bombs exploding all around me. They shook so hard that I felt the earth was splitting open. Bullets also whizzed by like deadly missiles, inflicting mortal damage when they found their target. I burrowed down into the ground, where the dirt and mud got into my mouth, nose, and eyes.
“As I crawled out of the trenches,” my grandpa continued, “my eyes stung from the acrid smoke from the bombs that had exploded nearby. I also saw and smelled the rotting stench of the bodies of soldiers and civilians everywhere- in the fields, hills, and on the sides of the dirt roads. The battle was deadly but I had survived. One more day alive, and another day closer I was to seeing my family again.”
My grandpa continued on, “The conflict stretched out endlessly. After each side had some success in driving back the other side, the North and South sides became locked in a long-running stalemate. After what seemed like an eternity, a cease-fire was declared and the country was split along the 38th parallel, with a demilitarized zone created that remains to this day. The heavily fortified border is a stark symbol of the separation of Korea. Because no peace treaty was ever signed, the two Koreas technically remain in a state of war.”
Through my grandfather I have gained a strong sense of my heritage and the meaning of my identity as a Korean-American. I could empathize not only with my grandfather’s personal ordeal as a soldier, but also with the painful and tragic ordeal that the entire Korean people experienced through this conflict. I learned that many families were separated during the Korean War and could not see each other afterward, and that most of these families remain separated and each year the chances that these families will ever see each other again decreases as family members grow old and die.
It is in this context that I often think about what it means to be Korean-American living in the U.S. today. When I think of my grandfather’s history, I see and appreciate the connection between his roots in Korea, and my life today. It is often noted that Koreans are one people, united by a common language, history, and culture, and that it is a tragedy that South and North Korea remain separate. At the same time, tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are at a high point and there is increasing talk of war. As a Korean-American, I feel we can play a role to play in helping to find solutions and ease tensions, whether through working with elected officials or helping to facilitate the exchange of views between the different countries.
My grandfather passed away several years ago, at the age of 82. I am grateful that he shared so many of his stories with me while he was alive. These allowed me to have a strong personal bond with him, as well as a connection to my heritage and family history. Through my grandfather, I have gained a great sense of pride in being Korean American. Because of my grandfather, I am inspired to think deeply about my ethnic heritage and family history, and to be proud of my heritage and being a Korean American.
[경운장학회 영어웅변대회 Third place Winner]
<Jeremy Kim Hunter College HS New York, NY 10th Grade