Growing up, I had heard my father talk about Sohn Kee-Chung (손기정). Sohn was the first Korean to win an Olympic medal, and it was gold. At the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, he set a world record in the marathon. So it wasn’t surprising that when the 1988 Games were held in South Korea, Sohn had the honor of carrying the Olympic torch into the Seoul Olympic Stadium.
My parents beamed with pride as they watched the 76-year-old Korean hero leap for joy and run around the track to thunderous applause. They knew what I had not. When Sohn won his gold medal in Berlin, he had to compete under the Japanese name of Son Kitei. Korea, at that time, was part of the Japanese Empire. The bronze medal went to his Korean countryman, Nam Seung-yong (남승룡), who also had to compete under a Japanese name (Nan Shōryū).
My father was about 10 years old when Sohn won his gold medal in Berlin. He remembered how proud Koreans were of the win, but also how bitter they felt that the world wouldn’t know that the winner was Korean, and not Japanese. One Korean newspaper, the Dong-a-Ilbo, tried to right this wrong. They altered the photo of Sohn on the medal podium, so that the Japanese flag was no longer visible. Retribution came quickly. Eight newspaper staffers were arrested and the publication was halted for nine months.
When I was in high school, one of my best friends was a Japanese-American girl. At the time, we knew nothing about what our parents had lived through, or why her parents were initially hesitant about meeting mine. Because of the complicated and brutal history between Korea and Japan, they feared that my mother and father would be uncomfortable around them. They told their daughter, “You and Jae are from a different generation and can be good friends. But her parents may not want Japanese friends.” They were wrong, of course, and ended up socializing with my folks. My dad, in particular, enjoyed speaking to them in Japanese.
My parents grew up speaking Japanese and, until recently, I didn’t realize that I spoke some, too. And then it all started to make sense. The time we were in Hawaii and the Korean waitress couldn’t understand what my Korean mother was requesting. The time I was in Korea and had a difficult time being understood by 20somethings–until I spoke in English. The time my young Korean cousin was visiting us in the U.S. and couldn’t understand me when I asked her, in Korean, to put some cups on the table. I was speaking Colonial Japanese, more than half a century after Korea had won its independence.
© 2013 JAE-HA KIM