Working on My Second Novel

When my grandfather passed away, my parents placed me and my older sister under the care of my grandmother so that she didn’t appear abandoned. My parents and my younger sister continued to live in a city where my father was the bank president. I was ten, old enough to understand my father’s decision.

I actually have many happy memories of that time—chasing grasshoppers with friends, fishing for little carp in the stream, eating cotton blossoms, and sucking on sugar cane in a neighbor’s fields. In that small farming village, I often heard old clan women gossip. They usually talked about their lives and lives of others who were not present, and even their ancestors’ lives that had been told before more than once.

One day I overheard them talk excitedly about a woman from Seoul who was brought to a house of a minor clan man in his forties to be his wife without any wedding announcement or ceremony. They said the woman was beautiful and looked as though she had some money. Even though they didn’t say it aloud, I could tell that they wondered why such a woman would marry him, an unremarkable widower. It seemed a relative of a distant clan woman arranged the marriage.

I passed by the widower’s house at least once a day to take a look at the widower’s bride. When I finally saw her, even I knew at age eleven that she was a very different kind than what I was used to. A woman of beauty was rare in that sun-splashed village where people’s skin took on a coloring of scorched-rice. Not only was she beautiful with pearly smooth skin, but also was poised like a noble woman in her manners and dress. Why indeed would such a woman come to this sleepy village to live with a man who didn’t possess looks, status, wit, resources, or close relations?

Before I could learn more about the woman, my sister and I joined our parents in a city. When I visited my clan village again the following year, no one talked about the woman. No one said so but my hunch was that she no longer lived there with the widower.

The title of my next novel is The Woman Who Came on a Night Train. I am having fun letting my imagination stretch to weave a story about a woman whose sudden presence in a small insulated village stirs the villagers and changes three lives.

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I am Working on My Second Novel

When my grandfather passed away, my parents placed me and my older sister under the care of my grandmother so that she didn’t appear abandoned. My parents and my younger sister continued to live in a city where my father was the bank president. I was ten, old enough to understand my father’s decision.

I actually have many happy memories of that time—chasing grasshoppers with friends, fishing for little carp in the stream, eating cotton blossoms, and sucking on sugar cane in a neighbor’s fields. In that small farming village, I often heard old clan women gossip. They usually talked about their lives and lives of others who were not present, and even their ancestors’ lives that had been told before more than once.

One day I overheard them talk excitedly about a woman from Seoul who was brought to a house of a minor clan man in his forties to be his wife without any wedding announcement or ceremony. They said the woman was beautiful and looked as though she had some money. Even though they didn’t say it aloud, I could tell that they wondered why such a woman would marry him, an unremarkable widower. It seemed a relative of a distant clan woman arranged the marriage.

I passed by the widower’s house at least once a day to take a look at the widower’s bride. When I finally saw her, even I knew at age eleven that she was a very different kind than what I was used to. A woman of beauty was rare in that sun-splashed village where people’s skin took on a coloring of scorched-rice. Not only was she beautiful with pearly smooth skin, but also was poised like a noble woman in her manners and dress. Why indeed would such a woman come to this sleepy village to live with a man who didn’t possess looks, status, wit, resources, or close relations?

Before I could learn more about the woman, my sister and I joined our parents in a city. When I visited my clan village again the following year, no one talked about the woman. No one said so but my hunch was that she no longer lived there with the widower.

The title of my next novel is The Woman Who Came on a Night Train. I am having fun letting my imagination stretch to weave a story about a woman whose sudden presence in a small insulated village stirs the villagers and changes three lives.

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Korean History Very Briefly Told

Do you wonder how the people of the world came to look the way we do? My theory is that we all looked the same when the first humans started migrating from Africa. I can understand the reasons for the varied pigments of our skin, eyes, and hair, but why do Koreans have the smallest eyes and the Japanese shortest legs? I read this somewhere by the way, but what purpose do these attributes serve?

Back to Korea: One group of early humans continued to migrate from Africa to East Siberia then toward the Korean peninsula. Along the way, they got friendly with the Neanderthals for a time and mixed with another group of people. About half a million years ago, they arrived on the Korean peninsula during the early phase of the Stone Age. In 2333 BC, Korea was founded under the leadership of Dangun. The legend goes that he was the grandson of heaven and the son of a bear. His mother was said to be a tiger. It is likely that he was an offspring of a leader of a bear tribe and she an esteemed daughter of a tiger tribe.

Throughout its 4,300-year-old history, Korea has been repeatedly attacked by the ruling dynasties of China, the Mongols, and Japan. During the Japanese occupation (between 1910 and 1945), there were many independence movement leaders. Rhee Syngman and Kim Ilsung were the two most notable leaders. After Japan surrendered, Korea was divided along the 38th parallel line. Kim Ilsung founded North Korea backed by the communist USSR (now Russia) and Rhee Syngman became the first president of South Korea backed by the U.S. Before the Korean War, North Korea was wealthier than South Korea, but it was decimated by the allied forces during the war. Now South Korea is the 10th largest economy in the world and the 4th in Asia in 2021. My novel, Sonju, depicts Korea’s struggle to become economic power in the world we see today. 

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How I Became Interested in Writing

When I was ten years old, my older sister and I moved to my clan village without my parents after my grandfather’s passing. At that time in Korea, it was customary for the oldest son to live with his parents. My father was a banker, which necessitated that he move with some frequency as he was promoted to higher positions in different cities. He could not leave his job, so to save face, he sent his two oldest daughters (my brother was in Seoul attending high school) to live with his newly-widowed mother.

In my clan village, I had a teacher who introduced me to a writing teacher. This writing teacher excused me from doing homework and instead had me write five stories a day. He critiqued those stories every day after school. After nine months of his coaching, I was sent to a province-wide writing competition for elementary students. I won the competition and made my whole school proud. I decided to be a writer then and even studied Journalism at Ewha Womans University. But, as every good story goes, life got in the way of my writing.

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An Important Female Family Member

The Chang family started in China about 2,000 years ago. One branch of the family fled China and came to Korea in the late 800 AD. My family records are largely intact since that time. It appears that the Chang clan split and my branch of ancestors came to my clan village about 400 hundred years ago. There is a low hill in my clan village where our early ancestors are buried. In one grave an ancestor from about sixteen generations before me is buried without a head. This is how that happened:

My grandfather’s female cousin was known widely for her precociousness. One of the King’s advisors was searching for a wife for his widowed son with two young sons and heard about this young woman from a farming village in Chungnam Province. After being tested along with other candidates whose stations were above hers, she was chosen. She later made it possible for her brother to obtain a minor title, which raised the status of the clan.

When she came to the clan village, often with many bags, the whole clan made a fuss to honor her. Outsiders might have assumed she brought bags of money. One day shortly after such a visit, her brother received a ransom note demanding a large sum of money for the skull of one of our ancestors. Sure enough, a grave was disturbed and a head was missing. It was a bad omen to disrespect dead ancestors, so the money was dropped at the designated time and place. Servants waited in hiding with bats to beat up the extortionist. The extortionist never showed and the head was never recovered.

More about this lady

She managed her husband’s household and wisely raised her two stepsons to adulthood. Her visits to the royal court led to her understanding that a changing tide was coming and the future was in Western education in science and technology rather than Chinese literature and philosophy.

Not having children of her own, after being widowed, she poured her energies into educating the boys of her clan in the best schools in Seoul. Under her supervision, all the core clan sons received a modern education in science, medicine, law, finance, and engineering. One of the boys wanted to study art, and she gave him permission only after he made a promise to become the best artist in the nation. His name and a picture of his painting were in my middle school textbook. His paintings still hang in museums in Korea.

I saw her once when I was a child. She was old then. In my clan, thanks to her, daughters are not slighted.

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I still have a Korean accent

My family history goes back 2,000 years even though it’s sketchy that long ago. This is detail in my father’s handwriting written in Chinese.

I came to America after my vocal cords were firmly set to speak Korean. To this day they refuse to yield to a foreign tongue so I talk and sound funny in this country. I haven’t spoken Korean for decades and now I find myself competent neither in Korean nor in English. When I started my middle school, I was determined to do well in English, unlike many other students who excelled in every subject but English. My efforts paid off. In my high school years, my goal was to memorize all the words in the small English dictionary that I carried with me every day. I didn’t succeed.

I still have problems with articles, prepositions, tenses, idioms, and the pronunciation of certain sounds. That’s why it took me over ten years to finish my first novel. When I give a speech or a presentation, I just tell people to ask me to explain if they don’t understand my English.

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My Earliest Memory

Korean Rice Field. Photo by Loifotos for Pexels

My earliest memory is of the Korean War, a little talked about war in which so many Americans died fighting. Because I was so young, I don’t have many clear memories about the war. The only thing I vividly remember, from the lens of a young child, is endlessly walking a narrow path between two rice fields. My mom, two sisters, and my brother and me were returning home to our clan village after having been evacuated because of the war. As a teenager, I witnessed the horrors of the bloody revolution in the streets of Seoul. After a coup d’état a year later came a military junta. Until I left Korea, I had lived under dictatorships so I appreciate our freedoms here in America no matter how bad things get. My younger sister who came to America at age 19 (chain migration) and attended college during the height of Nixon’s Watergate, asked with disbelief, “Can people say those words about the president?”

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Introductions

Hi, I’m Wondra. I am an immigrant from Korea, the country which became famous in recent years for K-Pop, K-Drama, and K-Beauty. I came to America when I was 24. I have now lived in the United States longer than I ever lived in Korea, yet I speak with an accent. I married an American man (then divorced that American man 22 years later, but that’s a different story) and had two children, who are now adults and have children of their own. I have 6 grandchildren between my two kids and am happily remarried. I live in San Antonio, near downtown. I prefer living in a large metropolitan city as it reminds me of Seoul. In this blog, I will share with you stories from my life growing up in Korea as well as my journey as an immigrant in the United States. 

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