April 2, 2015

TBT: August 27th. My Uncle. Korea.

 // The back of the photo says "8월 27일 찍은 무전실 에서" and something written in Chinese letters, perhaps a name? My uncle's name? But the Korean reads --> Taken August 27th at the Communications Post{I guess a communications post inside an army base when he was serving, which is mandatory for men in Korea}. The year is missing. // 

This is my uncle. His name is Seung Il {first name} samchoon {uncle}. He is my mom's older brother, the youngest of the boys in the family. He was the closest to my mom who was the youngest out of all the children, although she was born many years apart from them {her oldest brother was old enough to be her father}. I guess naturally the two of them, my mom and Seung Il samchoom, were close since they were the closest in age. But perhaps because they both shared the love of drawing. My mom would later go to college for fine arts and work for a Japanese company until she married and gave up oil painting for good. She used to tell me how Seung Il samchoon was so much better than her. That he had a great imagination and a way with a pencil. He was inspired by Japanese manga and wanted to be a cartoonist or "manhwa jak ga" in Korean. His dream was heavily objected by his mom who said he wouldn't be able to make a decent living out of that occupation. Afterall it wasn't a career that was deemed dignified. 

I mentioned in a small passing here about how my mom's brother also suffered from mental illness. This is him. I also mentioned my favorite cousins previously. Well, he was my favorite uncle. He was both my brother and my favorite uncle. 

Although he was my favorite uncle, unfortunately I don't have too many memories of him except for one particular incident that left me terrified of him. 

When it became evident that my uncle was suffering from a mental illness, my mom pleaded with her siblings and other family members to take him in and care for him. When her last hope, her older sister, ddoong ddoong ee emo said she couldn't, my mom asked my dad if he could come stay with us for a little while. Oh I remember seeing my mom crying in frustration and saying how her siblings were horrible people for letting down their brother.

But Seung Il samchoon came to stay with us in our three bedroom apartment in Jamsil. He played with me and my brother and made us laugh. One day when he was babysitting us while my mom was out grocery shopping, Seung Il samchoon, out of the blue, yelled "Hey! The bastard hiding in the bathroom! Come out now!" There was no one in the bathroom. It was just us. I think even then, my young self knew what mental illness was and that he was suffering from it. I just remember thinking this was his illness and I didn't let it scare me. But it was what happened on one morning that left me shaken. 

I woke up to bottles breaking against the wall. I was still sleepy and and not fully awake and when I came out of my bedroom and turned to go into the living room I saw my mom sitting on the sofa with my uncle just a few yards in front of her. He as throwing empty glass bottles at her face. The broken pieces that were flying all over the place were scratching her face and she was bleeding. He was yelling at her and he sounded furious. I was so scared I ran back into my room and didn't come out. I think back and wonder why I didn't yell or tell him to stop. I don't remember what happened after that. I think I told my brother and my mom about what I saw and I vaguely remember them telling me that I must've been dreaming. My brother said how he was in the next room and he didn't hear anything.

I'm not sure if it was shortly after this incident, but Seung Il samchoon didn't stay for long. I don't know why. For the longest time I thought it was my dad who told my mom that it was becoming a little burdensome, that it was not safe for us and for him and that he had to leave. Maybe. Or maybe not.

I remember Seung Il samchoon would give my dad 90 degree bows every time my dad left for work in the morning. I hated seeing that. I think my dad felt a little uncomfortable too. He bowed a little stiffly and his morning greetings sometimes were said without meeting my uncle in the eye. I hated that my samchoon felt like he had to put himself down because he was being a "burden" by living with us. And I remember my little self being disappointed in my dad that he didn't bow 90 degrees back to him to show the same level of courtesy.

After many years since immigrating to the US, my brother and I began to receive cards and letters from Seung Il samchoon here and there. Maybe just 6 in total. A couple of times my mom made me and my brother write a letter back to him. Yes. It's embarrassing but she had to make us write them. We were both in our teenage years by then and we were being 100% teenage brats. The letters were coming from mental institutions in Korea where he was housed. I think he was being bounced around from hospital to hospital because I think I recall my mom saying how the return addresses kept changing.  And then the letters stopped altogether. 

I wonder what happened to him to this day. I wish I can find him or learn about his life trajectory after my family, his trusty younger sister, my mom, left for the US. I can't bear to think of the hardship and loneliness he must've faced. I can't undo all the terrible neglect on my part as a niece who once called him her favorite uncle, but I hope that other family members came around for him. But you know, as much as I want to find out what happened I am also scared to know. Sometimes Yangkyu finds me lost in thought and every once in a while it's about my uncle and I bite my lip and think.. if he was your favorite then why didn't you show him love when he needed it the most. And then I think.. this is what regret feels like.

I don't dare mention him to my mom to know more about what happened. I know it'll trigger a lot of bad memories and thoughts for her and it will lead to one of her more difficult episodes. But it's really stories like this that make me want to go back to Korea one day and retrace the steps of my mom and her loved ones and put together the pieces myself. 

 // Linking up with Want / Need

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