On this Father’s Day, we pay tribute to all the persevering Ajummas who raised children on their own - working multiple jobs, cooking, cleaning, and trying to provide a stable life in an unstable world. Here is the story of one such Ajumma - Chung Rye Han - from the perspective of her son, Sung Seu in the Detroit area.
Sitting here and looking at my Umma, I have so much love and respect for her. At the age of 79, she has endured and persevered through unimaginable heartaches and pain in her life. She's way beyond a superwoman in her own ways.
As a child, Umma witnessed the gruesome deaths of her parents during the Japanese occupation in Korea. She never had the chance to even finish elementary school. During her teenage years, she lived in poverty and fear with her three siblings throughout the Korean War, running and hiding in the mountains. A few years after the war, she buried her older brother who stepped on a land mine. Fortune was not on her side.
Umma finally found some happiness and security for the first time in her life when she married my Appa, whom she met while walking on a nearby mountain. My parents lived off the land as farmers with two chickens and a cow in a remote village called Munsan, situated between two mountains near the DMZ. Umma was incredibly resourceful, making extra money knitting for an exporting company.
While serving in the South Korean military, Appa’s legs became horribly frostbitten. This was back in the 1960’s when there was no modern medicine available in rural areas of Korea. Left untreated, the frostbite developed into gangrene, and about a year after I was born, Umma watched the love of her life die a slow, painful death. I don’t remember anything about my father, but since then, she’s done everything she could to be both a mother and father to me.
Umma never wanted to leave Korea despite having relatives willing to sponsor us. We spent most of my childhood in Munsan. Our village was so remote, I walked for more than an hour over a scary trail through a nearby mountain to attend elementary school every day. I remember our outhouse and our village well where we would get our water and Umma would do the laundry.
During those years, Umma would often carry me on her back because I was terrified of the dark. It was also a way of expressing her love, and possibly, keeping me as close to her as possible. It was so comforting, and I felt so safe. That’s how I remember leaving our village for the last time - on her back. Though she’s a very small woman, about 4’11” and less than 100 pounds, she had herculean strength, carrying me across a mountain while dragging a suitcase to the train station. We took the train to Seoul, which was like going to another world because I had never left the countryside. I was 9 years old, and on my way to our new home - Detroit, Michigan.
We arrived in Detroit in 1978 with only a suitcase full of clothes and have been here ever since. For the first 6 months, we were actually homeless, but with help from the Salvation Army and my “second Umma” from our Korean church, Umma was able to get a car and job.
Umma worked full-time at a factory so that we could have insurance, and she also cooked at a Chinese Korean restaurant for over 20 years. She is an excellent cook, whipping up the most amazing jajangmyeon and homemade kimchi. She just worked all the time, but she always made me feel special. I never felt like we were poor. She cooked every night, I always had new clothes. As I grew older, I realized she made so much sacrifices to make ends meet. She would starve just so I can eat. She never bought anything for herself.
As an adult, I can probably count on one hand, the number of times my Umma uttered the words to me, “I love you, son.” Instead, I grew up hearing these phrases over and over from her:
“Are you hungry?”
“Did you eat yet?”
“What did you have for lunch?”
“I made your favorite kimchi.”
“Aigoo, eat now!”
“Korean food good for you.”
“Umma cook all day for you.”
So when I was mature enough to understand, I realized that in her own Korean way, she’s been saying “I LOVE YOU!”
Today, Umma is retired. But she still cooks everyday. People from church beg her to make kimchi, which she happily makes with love. What I mean by that is that she takes her time, uses the best ingredients, and mixes everything with her bare hands. You can taste the difference between Umma’s kimchi and store kimchi. I think kimchi making is an art, which makes Umma a master artist.
I am blessed that after all that she’s been through, Umma is still healthy. She walks about 2 hours everyday, and she loves going out to sporting events with me - including watching wrestling! She’s an avid gardener, and an expert in knitting and crochet. I swear, she can knit an entire sweater in one day.
I’ve learned so much from Umma. She often says, “No matter how long you live here, you’ll always be Korean. Never lose our customs, culture, and always respect elders.”
Thanks to Umma’s sacrifices, I graduated from Wayne State University, and today, I work at Chrysan Industries, a Korean-owned global auto supply company. I want to make sure that on this Father’s Day, Umma knows how much I honor her. I know my Appa would be so proud of what she’s accomplished.
Now that’s she’s retired, I just want her to relax and enjoy life. Just as she used to carry me on her back, now it’s my turn to carry her.