Preserve of Peace in the Center

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Thursday, September 6th, 2012
Preserve of Peace in the Center

SEOUL, KOREA - As I step through the gate of the Hahn Moo-Sook House, one thought hits me. They used to call Korea the Land of the Morning Calm. They still do, I suppose. That’s how I heard of it. But honestly the name doesn’t really stick anymore. With most of the country’s population living tightly packed in one of the largest cities in the world, and deep in the grip of industrialization, morning calm is hard to come by. Morning traffic, morning subway rides, and morning coffee are easy to see. Morning calm is absent.

Author Han Moo-sook's garden

Author Hahn Moo-sook was an excellent gardener. She created this garden from nothing but ashes after the Korean War.

But it is preserved in one place in Myungnyoon-dong – behind the wooden gate of the family home of Hahn Moo-Sook. The gate could be a gate through time and space, back to the days when flowers bloomed near flowing water in many homes. The first impression is of riotous color – flowers of all shapes and sizes proclaim their colors boldly. They are arranged around a rock and small waterfall, which feeds a tiny pond. The whole area draws the eye so well that one is immediately put into the mood for a story.

“I've got a story to tell you.”

A learned Korean man, Han Moo-sook’s son, speaks to me as we sit at the edge of his home’s garden. He looks quite young for his years. His name is Dr. Hoagy Kim. We sit on a wooden ledge wrapped around a garden in the middle.

“My last daughter is married to a French boy. He's a graduate of one of the best French universities for Electronics Engineering. He is working here, and has for a number of years. His command of Korean is minimal, worse than his 3-year-old daughter. One day I came across a French guy working at a Korean bakery. He was a real French boulanger who works as a freelancer like you, working in different bakeries. This guy spoke fluent Korean. He said he had lived in Korea for approximately the same period of time as my son-in-law. A top-notch university graduate couldn't have a brain any worse than a boulanger - no disparaging thoughts against boulangers. But I thought about the reason why. Eventually I found it out. This guy was also married to a Korean girl the same age as my daughter, but she happened to be be incapable of speaking either English or French, whereas my daughter spoke perfect English and French. There are a lot of people coming from Uzbekistan, the Philippines, and other countries too. These laborers speak Korean in no time, because learning Korean is a matte of life and death to a lot of them. But all of the matters of life and death that my son-in-law has to deal with can either be in English or French. And if I was in the same position I would have the same reaction I think, too.”

The story hits very close to home for me, since my own command of Korean is still inadequate for the amount of years I’ve lived here. Dr. Kim already guessed this, by the twinkle in his eye. It is a key issue in the eternal back-and-forth of inter-cultural communications and relationships. And this place, this oasis of calm and contemplation, is a perfect place to pursue the topic. It would be a perfect place to on about any intellectual topic, actually. I see many hours stretching before us here. But I am here to know more about other things, so I ask him to tell me a bit about his mother.

“She was born in 1918. If she were alive today she would be 94. She passed away 19 years ago. She was born during the Japanese colonial days, and her first novel was written in Japanese. It was after liberation that she started writing in Korean.”

I ask about the novel.

“It was called The Woman Holding a Lamp, and published in the early 1940s. It was about how daughters suffered after being married. I’ll give you a copy. It was written in Japanese.

He gets up, speaks a few words to his wife, and comes back with a second book.

“This is Encounter, the first Korean book ever published by a major US university, the University of California at Berkeley. I regret that this was published twenty years ago, so I cannot get another copy. I would wish to share this with you. The Pope John Paul II read this and sent a letter saying that he was enjoying the book and to pray for the author. However, my mother had been dead for 10 days when the letter arrived. The story itself starts at the end of the Joseon Dynasty and goes through the liberation and establishment of the Republic of Korea. You can see the way that Korean living has emerged through those generations and people’s thoughts, religion, and philosophy.

Han Moo-sook

Anyone who visits Hahn Moo-sook house from Monday to Sunday (reservations are required for weekends) can hear about the history and the literature the house bears from Mr. Kim, the eldest son of author Hahn.

“Korean catholicism was unique among the world. Catholic missionaries were at a loss to figure out how to reach the Korean people, who were in absolute poverty at that time. Jeong “Dasan” was able to understand the Catholic message and adjust it to the Korean mindset. This novel is about his experience.”

He explains that approximately half of the characters in Encounter are fictitious, but those with dates of birth and death listed in the appendix are real historical figures, not only in Catholicism but also in general Korean history. These figures greatly contributed to modernizing Korea as it is today. In fact, he brings up the point that both books are about a modernizing Korea.

He describes the general character of his mother’s writing with great affection.

“She was called by many the Korean Virginia Wolf, because of her description of the inner thoughts of the human mind... However, Dostoyevski and Thomas Mann were the two literary giants who most influenced her. I still have fond and bittersweet memories of talking about Dostoyevski and Thomas Mann with Mother so frequently. Influenced by Mother, I also read every book of these two writers I could find. The characters of those books were too numerous and intermingled for this ordinary man to follow and remember. But I was lucky to have a genius with photographic memory as Mother; every time I lost the track of a long novel my problem was instantly solved by Mother's memory. Much like Dostoyevski and Thomas Mann, Mother sought to describe these fundamental aspects of humanity through her literary endeavors. A devout catholic, she believed that ultimate salvation can be obtained through Christianity. She was not a narrow-minded bigot, however, as manifested by the friendship between Dasan and the Buddhist monk Hyejang described in her novel Encounter.”

I ask him if he writes himself.

“I write my diary. I will not publish it, but maybe my grandson will. My grandfather kept his diary for 50 years. When we were little we used to amuse ourselves by reading it. Somebody should keep an eye on it. Now it is all scattered. That’s why I am trying to keep this house as a museum.”

And we finally come to the crux of the matter. This house is being preserved as it is for a reason. I ask him to tell me more.

“This house is rare, maybe unique, in that it is a residential house transformed into a museum in memory of Hahn Moo-Sook. This house is unique in that not very many families ever lived here. In fact, our family were the third set of residents for this 80-year-old house. And this next year will be the 60th anniversary of when we moved in.”

I ask him if it looked just like this when he moved in.

“No. Wooden structures don't last long, particularly since it was nearly abandoned in the Korean war. Everybody took refuge down south. We went to Busan. When we got back, the house had been partly bombed. It was in a terrible state. We had to renovate a number of times. People, youngsters, very few of them have ever seen a Korean house. The basic structure is intact, although we changed many parts of the house, largely because the wooden structure fell down and rotted, and also because of a change of modus vivendi and usage of energy. When we first moved in we resorted to firewood. We had to make a wood fire every day to cook and heat the ondol [heated floors]. But change was very rapid. In a few years we moved to charcoal, and oil, and now natural gas. There is a little danger, but it is very useful and convenient. Now, this part that we are sitting next to is very modernized with air conditioning and everything, but the other part is wooden and doesn't have air because it is too costly. Over there, that part has been westernized completely. In the old days I went to the US for my university studies, and I lived for 6 or 7 years in Paris as a diplomat, and when we raised our kids we raised them in Gangnam in a modern apartment. There are many inconveniences in living in an old house, but now I would never want to leave.”

I don’t want to leave either. There is something right about the garden in the center, surrounded by three wings of a house in a C shape, with a fence near the front. I am reminded of Spanish haciendas, Roman villas, and how they are so similar to this traditional Korean Hanok style dwelling. There is peace in the center. He goes on.

“When many now-successful authors were starving students, a lot of them lived in this house. And I had a very dear friend of mine who visited her many times. He was a GI. He passed away from Leukemia. H visited Korea after 40 years absent and literally cried to see the change. He felt great to have served in Korea as a GI. His name was David Sutton, long-time editor of the Chicago Tribune. His father was too. He was writing for the US Army daily newspaper called the Stars and Stripes back then. He had a relationship with our family that lasted his whole life.

“So this is not only a museum in memory of a great authoress, but also a museum of the history of Korean way o living. Because we have to renovate little by little, according to the different ways that we get our energy, you can feel and explain how the society itself as changed through the past five or six decades.”

I look up and see the neighboring buildings towering over the little one-floor Hanok. I know what is like to live in a Korean apartment forest like the one growing around this place, and I would prefer to live here. It is a secret garden. It is a place of thought and creativity. It is a museum of the past and a preserve of Morning Calm.

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