In 2011, my parents offered to buy me a ticket to Korea. They figured it was time to reconnect their children with their family and friends back in the motherland. The last time my sister and I went to Korea was in 1996. Since then, their son graduated college and got/lost his first job, their daughter was a successful…I still don’t know what she does exactly, something with real estate. I don’t know, she’s been ballin’ outrageous since she moved out of the house.
It’s amazing how huge of an age gap there was between my father and his 형s. He’s starting to show thinning gray hair, but he’s living gracefully as he’s approaching his 6th decade. My oldest uncle is a shade over 80 and has already settled into his role as the hilariously cranky patriarch. I laugh every time he bellows out criticism with the weight of his elderly impatience. I had a beer with him once and he yelled at me for 15 minutes straight. I remember saying that as a writer, I’d probably be poor. He told me that was retarded and I should be rich in 40 different ways in loudspeaker Korean.
My second oldest uncle is different my father and their oldest brother, he’s a very relaxed old man who spent most of his time softly laughing from his wheelchair. I didn’t have the language skills to ask my family how he ended up on wheels, but I didn’t get any sense of regret or resentment from him. Someone who was at peace with their aging body and its slow deterioration. I look at his face and I see someone who’s lived a full life, a complete man who found satisfaction and still squeezes blessings out of every day.
My dad told me that his second oldest brother was also the most handsome out of all of them, and that handsome face got him into a lot of trouble.
I tried to imagine this shrinking old man as a dashing youth. Someone who could charm the pants off of anyone. It was hard, but I managed to imagine my second oldest uncle as a cross between 장동건 and 이병헌. I could see him in his 20s, winking at girls and making them swoon. He would get extra noodles from one of the nearby food stands. He could probably get away with stealing a few extra books and toys from the corner store. I never saw a picture of his wife, but I’m guessing she was just as beautiful.
It’s the same thing with him. I’m not sure what he knows about me. He just asked me if I graduated from 유씨엘애. Again, I didn’t have the language skills to say anything but “네”.
Just as I had to fill in the blanks of my uncle’s life with my imagination, I suppose my uncle did the same for me. I wonder if he assumed me to be some American softass who didn’t know a lick about hard work. Or if I was some scholarly artist type that was bound to curse his youngest brother to a mediocre retirement. Or if he thought anything of me at all. He did have his own brood of children and grandchildren to dote over. How much would he really care for a nephew he’s only seen twice?
At the end of the line, the biggest question remained unresolved: why did I care so much about the opinion of someone I never remembered meeting before?
My entire family tree is filled with silhouettes with question marks covering their shadowy faces. I’ve never met my grandmother. I only met my grandfather once when I was around 8. We talk about family as if it’s this forged bond that we’re born with. In truth, I don’t feel the natural links between me and my uncles, my aunts, and my cousins. I just know that the ideal of family is one I can trust, something that’s thick and sturdy enough to lean on. Familial ties never came natural to me, it’s something I’m still teaching myself to understand.
I guess I value the bonds that I’ve built from the ground up, I really love the process of building a relationship with someone I’ve never met, and I’ve always felt that it’s easier to connect and relate to someone I took the time out to befriend. With family, it’s different. I can’t fully wrap my head around the bonds that were already built for me, and I wonder if that lack of appreciation makes me a bad person.