Mal Du Jour

Many of you who come here regularly may have noticed that my entries have become listicles, rants and quick, somewhat glib takes on current events. The reasons for that are pretty varied: end of the semester work, thesis season before that, preparing students for thesis season. Also I am closing in on the end of my novel. But in the middle of this, I lost my grandfather, who passed away in April after a long season of Alzheimers, and he died before I was able to visit him. This last is something I’ve pushed pretty far down, and I don’t think I’ve even told any of my friends. He died in Seoul, he was my last surviving grandparent, and I loved him desperately. He was the basis for the grandfather in my novel, Edinburgh, and in particular, his having been forcibly sent to Japanese schools, how he dreamed in Japanese still, in his old age, and his often funny habit of speaking in a kind of broken, Army-Base Officer’s Club English. I had organized my professional life to try and get to Korea to some extent this year, because I feared that what happened would in fact happen: that he would die and I wouldn’t get to see him again. And so yes, I’m angry about some of the detritus of what passes for the political life of this country and its discourse, I’m angry about the war, angry about the economy and the destruction of the middle class and how artists are paid, but I’m also angry that part of what that means is that I never had the spare change for airfare to Korea and by the time I do have it, it will be to go and visit his grave.

The last time I saw him was 1999. My brother was working in Tokyo, in finance, and his company gave him plane tickets for all of his family to visit him once per year. I flew out for Thanksgiving, and as soon as I arrived my brother told me, Don’t get comfortable. We’re back here in the morning.

We were going to Seoul. My brother had been tasked with seeing if the Four Seasons there would be a good acquisition for his company, and so we had to go and stay there and find out. It was the first time we were there on our own. In previous visits, we were always inside the temenos of our family’s estate and the protection of our grandfather’s bodyguard. We were on the famous kidnapping list at one point in Korea’s troubled political history, and even as a small child living in Seoul I was never allowed to go outside the compound of our family except in the protecting arms of an adult, arms that would put me inside a car with a driver who had a gun. So it felt very free to walk around, to be told I couldn’t use the hotel gym because of my tattoo, to be able to buy sweet potato fries and dried squid from the carts, and to generally just be a visitor, instead of a Chee. It also felt beautiful to be able to call my grandfather, and surprise him.

I have a photo from this visit, of him in his office, dressed in a three-piece houndstooth suit. He was an impeccable dresser his whole life, and some of the nicest clothes I have, I have from him. He was a great man, and I’ll be writing about him in other ways, but I can tell you he was the architect of the ocean boundary around Korea, for example, which he did with Harriman and MacArthur, and that he loved to watch Sumo wrestling on TV and laugh at it.

I’d seen him the year before that visit, in 1998, when he had made a big deal about fearing that this would be the last year he was alive and he was sure he was going to die that year, he said. So he asked us to come. We did, and found him playing golf 3 times a week, healthy and happy. We laughed about it and yet it made us love him more. On that trip, I felt confident enough about my career that told him I was a writer, and he said, Well, you’ll be poor. But he was happy for me and proud. I was young enough to be glad of that on its own. And not to know that this meant I wouldn’t be able to see him as much as I’d want, if at all.

All of this is to say, if I seem strange to you now, it’s because I’m strange to myself.


  1. It’s hard, losing someone you care about so deeply. It strikes you in ways you never imagine, and the resonations can last a very long time. It’s good, though, Chee, that you talk about it frankly. And, for me, that you do it so beautifully, bringing my Gram to mind, my greatest loss.

    I’ll be thinking of you. Like a hand on your shoulder.

  2. I’m sorry for your loss. I have the deepest respect for that entire generation who lived through the occupation and the war and then built the foundations of the modern nation. Your grandfather sounds like a remarkable man.

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