In remembering the upcoming anniversary of 6-25, referred to as yuk-yi-o (June 25th when the Korean War started in 1950), I’ve decided to share my story on how the war had shaped my family’s lives. Oh yeah and how the war gave birth to one of my favorite dishes, the budaejjigae (army based soup). Watch Anthony Bourdain loving some budaejjigae. He eats so deliciously.
On my dad’s side, the war had changed everything for them. His dad was captured by the North Koreans, so I never had a grandpa growing up (my mom’s dad died before I was born). As a kid, I always wanted a grandpa. It seemed so cool when seeing other kids with their grandpas. Whenever I’d see a grandpa with no grandma, I’d ask my mom if we can take him home (as if he were a stray puppy or something lol) so that I can have my very own grandpa too.
Dad lost two sisters during the war. One was the oldest of five, and the other, the baby (an infant at the time). Both died from starvation. The remaining siblings and my grandma knew what STARVING actually meant, -not like the way I think that I am starving every single day. People actually starved to death because food was scarce and they were busy fleeing.
During the tragic times of such a sad war, a delicious dish was born, the budaejjigae. It is one of my favorite dishes to eat when drinking at a K-bar. Using items brought from American soldiers (such as canned beans, sausage, SPAM, etc.), Koreans started adding their own ingredients to make it Korean. This dish really does have such a sad history to it. People were creating something out of nothing with little that they had. Sometimes the items were even expired. I guess this was the time SPAM was introduced to Korea. Koreans love SPAM. And yes, SPAM can usually be found in the pantry of most Korean homes. We make SPAM versatile and use it in a variety of dishes.
The movie, Taeguki (based on the Korean War) was a huge hit when it came out some years ago. I understand that some of the older generation (that actually lived through it) could not bear to watch the movie because it felt too real for them. The movie is pretty well made. It’s a tear jerker. It will give you a better idea of the severity of famine that people went through. OMG I would not have lasted one day. The movie is GOOD. And there are some hotties (dudes) on there.
When the war ended, life was never the same. Korea was never the same. But life had to go on. My dad almost became one of the many orphans as a result of the war. Forced to work for the first time in her life, my grandmother found work at the home of a wealthy household, as a maid. I understand that my grandmother had grown up in a family that was well off. But she became one of the many victims that had lost everything. She had lost an eye, a husband, two children, and the financial means to survive. My uncle was a bit older, so I heard that he went to go live with some family while my dad and his sister stayed at an orphanage.
At some point, a wealthy family wanted to adopt my dad because he was “so smart and adorable”. But my grandmother wouldn’t hear of it. She told my dad and aunt to be patient because “soon mom is going to come for you and we will be able to live together.” And years later, they did. By then, my grandmother wasn’t working as a maid but selling dduk (rice cake). She’d carry a big load on top of her head as she passed through the streets, hollering to buy dduk. I have memories of my grandmother always carrying things on her head. It all makes sense now why carrying things on top her head just seemed so natural. I’m sure she’s not the only Korean grandma from that era that did so either.
Some time in the 1960’s, my aunt met and married an American soldier. She followed him to the states and started a family here. My dad met my mom in fashion school, got married, then had me. They wanted to escape the oppressed society of Korea at the time and decided to follow my aunt’s footsteps and immigrate to the states.
Although Korea now is a booming nation, back then, there was little hope for regular people like my parents. They wanted more….they came here in search of more opportunities and with hopes of achieving that “American Dream”.
But, years later, after failed attempts after the next, we finally arrived. We settled in Koreatown, the place all the Korean immigrants settled at during that time. For about a month, we crammed into a one bedroom apartment. It was my aunt, two cousins, my parents, grandma, and me (at ten months old). When things got a little settled, we moved to the downstairs apartment.
I couldn’t imagine what my cousins were eating every night, what without their mom being home to be able to cook all the time. So it was good for them too that they got to eat a comforting meal everyday.