The Three Sisters of PyongYang

A look back at the bold women of her great-grandmother's generation helps a Korean-American understand her own atypical upbringing in Ohio.

The Three Sisters of PyongYang

One day in junior high, I was walking in the mall and noticed a cute toddler being pushed in a stroller toward me. I smiled at him, but as he and his mother went by, he pushed himself up from the stroller and twisted his torso around to stare at me. I wondered why—and suddenly realized that I was probably the first Asian person he had ever seen. This is what it was like to grow up Korean-American in Youngstown, Ohio.

While jarring moments like this made me realize that I was often perceived, even by babies, as an outsider in the very city where I was born, on the other hand, my home life wasn’t very Korean at all. In fact, I knew little about Korean culture, and my parents—my mom was a pharmacist and my dad an accountant-turned-stockbroker—didn’t help. They didn’t speak Korean to me, and the only reason I had any Korean friends at all was because when I was nine, my aunt and uncle brought me to a Korean church. I wanted to keep playing with the Korean-American kids I met there, so I begged my parents to take me back.

As I became closer to my Korean friends, I gradually realized that even though the wider world could only see my family as Korean, the reality was that my parents were not like other Korean parents. For example, when I was a young teenager, a Korean-American friend’s mom said that “all” Koreans hated the Japanese. I’d never heard this from my parents, and when I asked my mom about it, she scoffed and said, “maybe” it was like that in the old days. I was completely bewildered that my friend’s mom would say “all” Koreans felt this way and that my mom acted like no one did.

Other friends would talk about how “all” Korean parents watched Korean television dramas in marathon all-night viewing sessions. I’d never even heard of a Korean drama. Friends commented that I was “lucky” my parents were not “typically Korean” and that they didn’t pressure me to study all the time. Unlike most of them, I had no curfew and even had big sleepovers at my house that involved all my friends—girls and boys. My parents also didn’t care what race any future husband of mine might be, in contrast to some friends’ parents who only wanted them to marry other Koreans.

In college, a close Korean-American friend said something about how her brothers were more important because they were boys. Though I had long known Asian cultures prized boys over girls, for the first time it occurred to me to wonder whether my parents were disappointed that they only had me and my sister. I gathered up the courage to ask my dad over spring break a few months later, bracing myself for his answer, which was, “No, what would I do with a boy? I don’t like sports.”

But not all my peers envied how unconventionally Korean my parents were. My first two roommates in New York City happened to be Korean-American too, and both, in small ways, let it be known that they looked down on my parents for having raised me so ignorant of Korean culture.

Me, left, and my younger sister, during a family trip
Me, left, and my younger sister, during a family trip

Even I, at times, questioned it. For instance, at a birthday celebration during my junior year of college, some Korean-American friends told me I hold my chopsticks incorrectly. My parents had never bothered to teach me the proper method. This one thing embarrasses me to this day.

But I say all this with the clarity of hindsight. For the most part, in high school and college, how Korean my parents were or weren’t wasn’t something I thought about, and it never really occurred to me to wonder why so many people thought they were different.

Then, sometime in my early twenties, three of my mother’s four sisters came to visit from Korea, and I heard a number of incredible stories about my mother’s family, beginning with the fact that my great-grandmother was the second woman in Korea to graduate from college. More recently, my aunts and uncles, the oldest of whom are in their eighties, have approached me about writing my family history, and I’ve started conducting interviews with some relatives. Because most of my mom’s siblings live in Korea, and because my mom herself is reticent to talk about the past, I began gathering information about my father’s family. Then last year Youn Mijai, whom I call Kun Emo, which means “oldest maternal aunt” in Korean, emailed me from Seoul to say she planned to come visit in order to relay our family’s history to me. On two sunny, blustery days in October, she told me the stories she had researched over the previous several months.

For the first time in my life, I found out my maternal grandparents’ names, saw photos of them, learned that my mother could have been born in Pyongyang (I had thought all my life that both my mother’s and father’s families were from Seoul and was shocked to find I have ancestors from the area that is now North Korea), and was surprised to uncover that my family’s early history even connected back to Ohio, my birthplace and parents’ home for the past forty-two years.

These stories also helped explain why my childhood was not typically Korean—because my mother wasn’t, even when she was living in Korea. If my father’s family epitomizes the traditional Korean society that existed before the post-Korean War cultural transformation, my mother’s family, which has long been influenced by Western culture, was a harbinger of that change, a half-century before it began. It is inspiring to me, a journalist, and to my sister, a fashion entrepreneur, to learn our family has long been full of strong, independent, career-oriented women, not only unfettered by tradition but openly pressing to remake it. Since my mother is, as my father jokingly calls her, “The Decider” in our family, her atypical Korean childhood likely set the tone for my upbringing.

Youn Shim Sung, “The Rich Widow”

My great-great-grandmother, last name Kim, in a traditional Pyongyang-style hat, and great-great-grandfather, Youn Suk Ho
My great-great-grandmother, last name Kim, in a traditional Pyongyang-style hat, and great-great-grandfather, Youn Suk Ho

My maternal great-grandmother, Youn Shim Sung, was born in Pyongyang in 1894 to two people already influenced by Western culture. Her father, Youn Suk Ho, was a kind, gentle man who had been converted to Christianity by missionaries. Her mother, whose last name was Kim (in those days, Korean women did not have first names), was bright, strong-willed, and the dominant figure in the family. She worked for a Western female doctor who had opened a hospital in Pyongyang.

With the influence of Dr. Hall and the missionaries they had befriended, my great-great-grandparents decided to educate all three of their daughters (and of course, their youngest, a son). They sent my great-grandmother, the eldest, to one of the new Methodist missionary schools that were attracting the children of ambitious Koreans. Shim Sung became the first graduate of her junior high in 1908. Then, when she was fourteen, her parents sent her to Ewha High School for girls in Seoul, where she was valedictorian of her class and went on to join only the second class of women to graduate from Ewha Womans University, where she then taught math, physics and English.

At that time, having a college degree and being unmarried in her mid-twenties made my great-grandmother very unusual among Korean women. (In contrast, my paternal grandmother, born several years after Shim Sung, did not go to school at all, entered an arranged marriage in her teens, and gave birth to nine children, seven of whom survived.)

My great-grandparents, Youn Shim Sung and Shin Duk, with my grandmother, Shin Sook Hwang
My great-grandparents, Youn Shim Sung and Shin Duk, with my grandmother, Shin Sook Hwang

My great-grandmother attracted a similarly singular mate: Shin Duk, the only son of a family that was so wealthy they had twenty thousand bags of rice (which was how wealth was measured in those days). Educated in Japan and at the University of Notre Dame, he wanted a wife who could speak English so he went to Ewha, where he met Shim Sung. When she went to his hometown Andong to meet her future in-laws, as she stepped out of the gama (a carriage carried by people on foot), her mother-in-law fainted, overwhelmed by Shim Sung’s tall stature, modern hair style, and sophisticated dress, which was influenced by the fashion from Hong Kong.

On April 24, 1919, my great-grandparents had twins. The elder died, leaving my grandmother, Shin Sook Hwang. When she was seven years old, her father passed away during an operation; he was in his thirties, and my great-grandmother, thirty-two.

According to law at the time, only men could inherit, so my great-grandmother had to adopt a son who could inherit the family fortune, as was common practice at the time. During the funeral, relatives began fighting—right in the funeral room—over whose son would become the heir. This upset my great-grandmother, who informed her late husband’s family that she didn’t care who inherited the money; she just asked for the portion that was due to her and declared her intention to live in Seoul with her daughter, my grandmother. Later, my grandmother jokingly complained to her mother that she should have stayed and fought to get the fortune for herself.

Even though my great-grandmother only received a portion of the wealth, it was still substantial enough that she became known as “The Rich Widow” in Seoul.

A son was eventually officially adopted, but he squandered the fortune on concubines while traveling in Manchuria, Japan and China, leaving various children in his wake. My aunt recalls: “When I was in high school, [the adopted son] visited my grandmother and was loud and drunk. And he was speaking in a dialect, and we hated the sound of it. He must have died a long time ago, but we don’t know how.”

Youn Shim Duk, “Korea’s First Modern Woman”

Youn Shim Duk
Youn Shim Duk

Next eldest after my great-grandmother was her sister Youn Shim Duk, the first professional soprano in Korean classical music history. Two movies have been made about her life, including a 1991 film called “Death Song,” for which the director won the Korean equivalent of an Oscar. But, as my aunt says, “She is famous, but based on wrong information. My grandmother was so upset about this fact, and she said, ‘One day, we have to clear up what she was.’”

When she was eighteen, Shim Duk went to Tokyo University on a scholarship as the first Korean woman to enroll in a Japanese music school. At that time, Korea was a colony of Japan and suffering under its rule, so the Korean students in Tokyo met to think of ways to help their country. One of those students was Kim Woo Jin, a bright and wealthy young man from Mokpo, a city in the southwest. At first Woo Jin, a quiet, academic, philosophical person, didn’t like Shim Duk, who had an open, joyful personality, which was, in that time and place, considered masculine. As my aunt says, “He thought, ‘What a woman.’ Women in those days were supposed to be shy.” He himself had been placed in an arranged marriage at age ten to an uneducated woman who was still in Mokpo, raising their children.

In 1921, the group decided to tour Korea during their summer vacation, performing dramas and music to raise money to support Koreans. During their travels, Shim Duk and Woo Jin got to know each other and began to see what Korean society was really like—largely uneducated and rural. During the Japanese colonial period, about three in four Koreans were farmers, and although education was expanded from four to six years in 1922, by the mid-1930s, fewer than one in six Korean elementary school-age children were enrolled in an officially recognized school. Because of their chosen pursuits, Shim Duk and Woo Jin were struck by the fact that Koreans mostly knew nothing of drama or classical music. As outsiders, they bonded, and he invited her whole family down to Mokpo for a visit.

In 1922, when her seven years of study in Japan were complete, Shim Duk toured in Korea. Tall, stylish and beautiful and with her unconventional personality, she created a huge sensation. She would wear a long dress with a red rose and sing opera arias, even though at that time, classical music had never been heard in Korea. Men packed recital halls just to look at her, Korea’s first real “modern” woman.

A Korean newspaper article about Shim Duk
A Korean newspaper article about Shim Duk

But Shim Duk was depressed. A bookworm who owned hundreds of tomes, she was reading a lot of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and, as my aunt put it, “Pessimism was kind of in fashion.” Shim Duk would read intellectual books and cry about the state of Korean society. “They don’t understand my music,” she would lament. People were fascinated by her, but they didn’t really appreciate her music or talent. At Woo Jin’s urging, she tried her hand at acting, but the play wasn’t successful because she wasn’t an actress.

Woo Jin, due to family pressure, returned home after his studies to take up the family business. To appease his father—his mother had died when he was four, and his father had married six times—Woo Jin spent his days logging how much rice they had produced and sold, but his ambition was to write plays. He would frequently receive packages of English-language books at the post office, and at the end of the work day, he would run home to read all night.

In 1926 or 1927—sources differ as to the exact date—Nitto Records, one of Japan’s major labels, invited Shim Duk to make an album in Osaka. With her younger sister Sung Duk accompanying her on the piano, she was to record twenty-six songs on fourteen records. Before they completed the album, she asked to add one more called “Psalm of Death.”

After she finished recording, Shim Duk called Woo Jin. By then, he had given up his inheritance and, penniless, moved to Tokyo. He was staying with a friend while making plans to study drama in Germany. After Shim Duk’s call, he went to Osaka. Later, the two of them boarded a ship bound for Korea. At four o’clock in the morning on the voyage’s first night, Shim Duk and Woo Jin jumped off the ship in a double suicide. All that was found was an empty cabin.

According to my aunt, headlines across the country declared that the famous soprano Youn Shim Duk and a rich man committed suicide because of love. But, my aunt says, while they may have been lovers, the main reason for their suicide was that they were both in such despair over their lives: “Society was not ready for them yet. They were born too early.” Shim Duk was twenty-nine.

The last song she added to her album, “Psalm of Death,” became her most famous, and Korea’s first widely popular song. Sung to the tune of “Waves of the Danube,” the lyrics, which she wrote, go:

You are running in the vast wilderness

Where are you headed?

In the lonely world, rough sea of bitterness

What are you after?

Will my death end

this world full of tears?

You, who are looking for happiness,

What you will find is sadness

Youn Sung Duk (a. k. a. Mary Charr)

Mary Charr in a photo she sent from Los Angeles to her brother
Mary Charr in a photo she sent from Los Angeles to her brother

The third sister, Youn Sung Duk, is probably my boldest ancestor. In 1922, after she graduated in Ewha’s eighth class, she began teaching at the university. She then had the distinction of being the first scholarship student from the college to get her master’s degree, which she received in vocal music from Northwestern University.

She returned to Korea Americanized. Famous for her style, she wore blush in a country that didn’t know makeup. She could make a Western dress with a pattern and a sewing machine in a day in an age when most Korean women wore hanboks, the Korean traditional costume. In 1928, as a professor at Ewha, she formed a glee club of about twenty honors students; it toured around Korea, and possibly the world. (It continues to this day, though as a course.)

Then, in 1939, after a glee club performance, she had an opportunity to meet U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. Upon meeting him, Sung Duk told the president she wanted American citizenship—and, unbelievably, he granted it to her. (My aunt, who heard this story from her grandmother when she was a little girl, doesn’t know where she met him, or how to verify if it is true.)

She immediately quit her job as a professor at Ewha, moved to Los Angeles, and adopted the name Mary. There, she married a Korean postal employee named James Charr. Kun Emo says that she stopped by Los Angeles once to meet Mary, who, by then, had a daughter named Betty who was a good singer, studied French, and was about the same age as my aunt.

They Called Apples ‘Apples’

With a grandmother and mother so Westernized and educated, my aunt, my mother and their siblings had an unusual upbringing in Korea.

My Great-Grandmother, The Rich Widow, and My Grandmother at Kum Gang San, a mountain in North Korea. They traveled there in a carriage carried by four men.
My Great-Grandmother, The Rich Widow, and My Grandmother at Kum Gang San, a mountain in North Korea. They traveled there in a carriage carried by four men.

“Grandmother and mother wanted us to speak English because they were educated by American missionaries,” says my aunt. “So they would put us all around in a circle and say, ‘Stand up, sit down,’ and we would stand up and sit down, or they’d say, ‘Shut the door,’ and we’d have to run and shut the door. And we never called apple sagua [the Korean word for apple]; we called it ‘apple,’” she says.

Their grandmother, who spoke beautiful English, always listened to the American broadcast program in the morning. My aunt says that in high school, she was supposed to attend an English academy, but sometimes she would skip, and her grandmother would go instead. After the Korean War, their grandmother used her English to negotiate to get the family house back from the U.S. Army. As my mother put it in one of the rare times she’s discussed her childhood with me, “No one else’s grandmother could do that.”

My grandmother and great-grandmother
My grandmother and great-grandmother

In contrast, my dad’s mother, who lived the final three decades of her life in the United States, never learned English. In fact, she never received any formal education at all except the Korean alphabet. Once when my father’s mom was staying with our family, my mom was shocked to discover that her mother-in-law didn’t know Arabic numerals. She had told my mother she wanted to make a phone call and pulled out a notebook in which, instead of 1-212 …, for instance, she’d written “one two one two …” in Korean letters. Her lack of education was typical of Korean women of her generation—and it was nothing she was ashamed of. Unlike my mom’s family, my grandmother was a woman of the traditional aristocratic yangban class, so she was very proud of the fact that she had had seven children and had run a large household with many servants in Seoul.

But the fact that my mother’s family was so different probably explains why, when I ask my parents about an aspect of Korean culture, my dad will often finish his answer with, “Your mom wouldn’t know about that.”

The Ohio Connection

In 1970, when my dad moved to the United States, he first stayed with his older brother, my Uncle Paul, and his wife, Aunt Susie, in Lima, Ohio. (Uncle Paul and Aunt Susie had followed a friend there after years working at a U.S. Air Force base in Korea.) My mom arrived a few months later, and they got married soon after. Kun Emo, my mom’s oldest sister, came from Indiana, where she was getting her master’s, to serve as the maid of honor. When Aunt Susie met my Kun Emo, she expressed surprise and went off to get something. When she came back, she held out a photo of Kun Emo, another Korean girl and two older Westerners on the Ewha campus from a few years prior.

My Kun Emo, second from left, with descendants of the Ohio missionaries who had persuaded my great-great-grandparents to educate their daughters
My Kun Emo, second from left, with descendants of the Ohio missionaries who had persuaded my great-great-grandparents to educate their daughters

Kun Emo asked Aunt Susie, “How did you get this photo of me?” Susie explained that the church she attended in Ohio had sent missionaries to Korea in the late 1800s, and a recent delegation returned a few years previously to try to find the descendants of some of the people they had converted. And who were those people? My family, descended from Youn Shim Sung, the young girl whose parents had been convinced by missionaries to educate their daughters.

In my high school and college years, when I grappled with the fact that my heritage was Korean but I knew little about it, I tried several times to learn Korean and even contemplated taking a year off from college to live in Korea and learn the language. In discussing the possibility with my mom, she asked, “Why do you want to learn Korean so badly? If I were you, I’d focus on Spanish. It’s so much more useful.” In that one moment, I let go of the internal pressure I was putting on myself to learn my parents’ native tongue.

From then, I felt free to pursue my own personal interests. During my twenties, I lived in Indonesia, I learned Argentine tango, I took up yoga, I learned Italian. And all the while, I also pursued my passion: writing.

This is not to say that I completely let go of my Korean-American identity. While I may not speak Korean or know a lot of the customs, when I’m sick, the only food I crave is a hearty Korean soup. When Koreans are in the international spotlight, I feel pride. When I visit my parents, I ask my mom to teach me how to make Korean food; my dad and I talk about North Korea.

The author
The author

But these are really my own interests, and I engage my parents in them. For the most part, they have let me follow my own path. In college, people teased me for the uselessness of the major that I chose: Modern Thought and Literature. (Soprano Shim Duk would be proud; I wrote my thesis on Nietzsche.) One of my best friends, who is Korean-American, laughs at how her father adores me but how, if I were his daughter, he would never have let me do any of the things that I’ve done with my life—i.e. choose that major, or, most importantly, become a journalist.

But my life centers around the dreams I have as a writer. And so last fall, when my aunt told me about the strong, passionate, ambitious and creative female ancestors in our family, I finally felt the connection to my heritage that I’d been lacking all along: it was the simple realization that their spirits live on in me.

* * *

Author’s Note: These stories have primarily been sourced by my aunt and her research. Where possible, I have corroborated facts online and from Korean history books. For all Korean names, I’ve followed the Korean convention of putting last names first. Special thanks to Chan K.P. Gillham for translating an excerpt of the lyrics to “Psalm of Death.”