The Denial of Death (Part 1)
I am studying Korean. Why?
My Korean is not very good. My grammar is horrific, my vocabulary is worse than the 5-year olds at my church and my comprehension is no better than my Chinese and Japanese classmates who just started learning a few months ago. However, the one area of Korean I know decently is food. This has much to do with when I grew up, my grandmother lived with our family.
My grandmother who I refer to as 할머니 (korean for grandma) always made me food. Most of the time, it would be something simple: a plate of fried rice with a fried egg on top 옴우라이스 (omurice), or maybe a cold bowl of spicy noodles 열무국수(yulmoo gooksoo). When she made American dishes she would do so with what she knew; I remember loudly complaining every time she cooked my pancakes in sesame oil 참기름(chamgirum).
I wasn’t particularly kind to my grandmother. If you cannot tell already, I have the tendency to be a bit petulant and childish. I remember the intense embarrassment I had when I saw her picking acorns off neighbor’s yards to make 도토리묵 (dotori mook) or when I had to explain to a friend’s mom why my grandmother was pulling out what seemed like strands of grass to make 부추김치 (boochoo kimchi). Other stuff though tasted fine, was just downright nasty. For instance 청국장 (chungookjang) required fermenting soybeans in blocks. The resulting product makes a fine base for a soup, but smells like a combination of unwashed feet, feces and a really good cheese.
By the time I went to college, I realized how much I missed her food when I had to eat cafeteria food. I soon found a few Korean restaurants and what they lacked in quality, I decided to make up in quantity, as a I became the proverbial college fat ass. During this time, my grandmother grew increasingly weak and by the time I graduated and started work, she was no longer able to live with us at home, needing the care provided at an assisted living facility.
I was only able to visit perhaps once a month, if at all, due to work. As she grew more and more weak, her comprehension of my Kon-glish lessened severely. Often, I would just sit by her side as she would ask questions and I would answer yes or no. I eventually was laid off from work, which made for a rather depressing time. Nonetheless in hindsight, I am glad that I was able to spend more time with her during her last moments on earth.
For me, everything revolved around food at that point. The few words I knew well enough in Korean were all foods that she had made me. I would say in Korean, “Halmoni, you remember when you made this for me?” She would nod her head and stare at me as at this point it was too difficult for her to speak. Also, she simply wasn’t eating food anymore; an occasional spoonful of papaya was all she took at this point. This was a maddening thought to anyone who saw her feed her extended family for so many years. Even when I became older and was more than capable of making food for myself, she always insisted on doing so for me.
I will do my best here to learn what I can and honor the language that my grandmother spoke. Nonetheless, in many ways, I failed her. Unable to communicate to her in any significant way, bothered me afterwards. We say “live to have no regrets”, this world is too imperfect for any of us to truly be able say such a thing. I know coming back in a few months my Korean is not going to suddenly become immaculate, but I certainly hope I can improve. Even if I become a Korean language scholar, it won’t change the fact I wasn’t able to communicate to her well before she passed away. In that respect, there is no way around it, I failed her.
Our thoughts are filled with collective doubts, fears, worries and regrets, and we have nothing to hope in if death is merely the final stamp. This can be demoralizing and with respect with my grandmother I perhaps failed her quite a bit. Yet broken bits of “Konglish” wasn’t the only way that I communicated with her. Through her food, she demonstrated a sacrificial love that I am sure many of you could relate to with family members of your own. This language of love was probably the best way she communicated to me.
I want to honor my grandmother in learning what Korean I can even if its not perfect. My goal is not a unique one; I am sure many of you have relatives or friends whose lives you want to honor in your actions. There’s that phrase, “Love begets love” and in this case all of us hope to carry out the same loving kindness we received and saw in our loved ones who passed. Even though death hurts and is painful, we hope our actions in love can last even longer than the lives that live; that we can leave a legacy that is more worthwhile than the simple things we see here on earth. We hope this power can transform us for better. Our whole bodies ache for redemption.
As a Christian, the starting point is very similar. We look at the death of our Savior and we respond to it. We honor the legacy of our God who demonstrated the ultimate sacrifice in love by dying for us. While failure seems to be an integral part of human existence, Christ seems to tell us our failures don’t make us who we are. But there’s hope in this death; one that says if we believe in the promise, if we honor this death, we can transform in love and turn impending death into life. We hope to honor this life, by living like Christ and learning what love really entails.
There is something miraculous in seeing people who once lived only thinking about themselves; practitioners of malice and deceit, who practice love and life. People seem to respond to love though, we’ve seen this transformation in people who we would have otherwise dismissed as a lost cause. You are right if you are thinking, that doesn’t prove anything. But maybe this a clue and key to our future. That the ultimate act of love was not just a promise of change on earth but points to redemption against even death itself.
I believe I will see my loved ones again. You see, as cynical as I am, I believe in the power of love. Not my own love, focused on my own worries and needs; but the love of Christ outward focused and wholly selfless.
I believe this power can redeem the most selfish of souls; even my own.