Thursday, August 26, 2010

a 91 year old in 25 frames

My grandmother was born in 1919. That makes her 91 years old. She has led an incredible and interesting life, and I enjoy spending time with her and gleaning little snippets about her experiences. Life hasn't always been easy for her, but it is a great joy and inspiration to see her in good health and spirits.

My grandmother is a North Korean refugee who currently resides in South Korea, as are many Koreans of her generation. In the mid 1940s, the Soviet-backed Communist government started to seize personal property, so many people just decided to sell what they had and headed south. My family was one of them. My grandmother's account of escaping the North with three children is very sobering. I can visualize her walking in the darkness carrying her youngest, an 8 month old, on her back, and holding the hands of her other two small children. Hiding during the day, sleeping in stables, moving at night, paying guides, bribing border guards, the story of my grandmother's escape is something that I can hardly relate to, but it is an undeniable part of my family history. An arduous trek like that doesn't come without its share of losses, and my grandmother quietly recounted the last time she saw her younger brother. Somewhere between Pyongyang and Seoul, she lost her brother. For a while she had hope that he might be alive somewhere despite first-hand accounts of his death.

Through these images I hope to share a different type of refugee experience. While there may always be an innately human longing for "home" in all of us, I find the plight of refugees who long for a home that no longer exists particularly tragic. However, surviving and adapting successfully is a beautiful part of a refugee's story. As I learned more about my grandmother's story, it was hard for me not to sit in awe. How could such a small 91 year old woman have experienced and endured so much?

As an American, I relate more to the Jersey Shore than anything happening on the Korean peninsula, but I still like to understand my past and pay respect to the threads of history that are a part of my fabric. As I embarked on this photography project, I knew it would be hard to separate my personal emotion and respect for my grandmother from a clear critique of these images, but I have tried my best to select my favorite 25 frames.

On a rooftop in the heart of downtown Seoul, my grandmother has been pushing the green movement long before it was fashionable to do so.

I used to work for a humanitarian aid organization, and during my travels, I was able to bring back a stone from where my grandmother's home used to be in Pyongyang. She touches the stone each night before she goes to bed and sleeps with it under her pillow. It is the closest she will ever get to seeing her home again.

[On the Road]

When she woke up from her nap, I was pleasantly surprised to hear my grandmother suggest that we head out to get her hair done. My grandmother has been very adamant about not using canes to get around, but at the equally stubborn behest of those around her, she has started to utilize the canes once in a while. It is hard to fault my grandmother for her stubbornness and pride, because it is probably that resiliency which allowed her to carry on through the adversity in her life. Now I know where I get it from. You call it stubborn, we call it resilient.

[Waiting at the Hair Salon]

The hair dresser had stepped out for a bit, so we decided to head back home.

Narrow streets litter the landscape of Seoul, but if there is room for a truck, there should always be room for a 91 year old woman.

[Back on the Road]

To my unborn child, my grandmother wanted to share the following:

1. Study hard
2. Grow up to be strong

I found the order of this a bit interesting, and I pressed her to say more to my kid. She responded that she would like to see my son one day before she says more. I hope they both get that chance.

I don't know how many more times I will get to see my grandmother, but I feel fortunate to have spent quality time with her thus far. Though I have many memories, the following prose will always capture my favorite moment.

Sleeping next to my grandmother is priceless.

She lays out a blanket and pillow for me in her room. While visiting, jet lag often keeps me from sleeping well at night, so I will glance over at the rhythmic rise and fall of her little frame. I find it strangely therapeutic.

At the end of one of my humanitarian aid monitoring trips, I brought my grandmother a bottle of Pyongyang soju, a traditional Korean liquor from her hometown. My grandmother does not drink, but she poured me a shot. I returned the favor. She carefully lifted her cup, and I followed. She softly cried out, 'as I think of my home....' and then downed the contents. Her face immediately scrunched up due to the strength of the alcohol.

I will never forget my grandmother's face in that moment, the picture of unquenchable yearning. I was able to momentarily feel that longing she had for a home that she could never return to, a home she has not seen in over 50 years. I quietly listened to her dwindling hope that maybe, just maybe, despite word-of-mouth reports to the contrary, her younger brother was alive somewhere in the North. I will never know this kind of sorrow. But I unfortunately live with the knowledge that my grandmother's hometown no longer exists, as it was obliterated during the War.

The night gently wraps us like a blanket. I close my eyes and listen. I synchronize my breaths to hers. When she gently exhales, she breathes as if to push life into my still and quiet body.

I dare not breathe too deeply in fear of taking more than she is capable of giving and as not to disturb this delicate balance of tranquility.

This is peace.

This is life.


  1. i absolutely love this pot

  2. sam this is a really touching post..loved reading and seeing the pictures of your grandmother. thanks for sharing

  3. you have anonymous pot smokers posting comments?

    I bet your grandma, at 91, can outdrink you even at your best...

  4. Amazing. Simply beautiful.

  5. these are amazing photos and an amazing story