THE LONG ORDEAL OF MRS. TAK
Once she had a home near the Manchurian border and life was as predictable as the June rains on the paddy fields. Now a war she doesn’t understand has taken her home, her husband, her baby, and tossed her up like driftwood on the crowded Pusan hills
MACLEAN’S ARTICLE EDITOR
PUSAN, SOUTH KOREA
PUSAN, the great seaport of South Korea, looks like a city that has never had enough elbow room. It clings to its gummy red clay hills like a sailor to a mast and the grey tile roofs of its houses jostle each other so that the streets cutting through them like ruts often seem to vanish in a choppy sea of buildings.
Even in the days before the war when Pusan held 600,000 people it was crowded enough. Now it teems with 900,000 souls. One family out of every three has no home at all, only a cave under the hills or a cardboard shack above the city.
You cannot escape the tragic shacks of Pusan. They straggle along the benchland in long wretched lines. They cluster by the thousands on the water’s edge and along the railway. They hug the craggy promontories in silent accusation.
In one of these shacks, high above the city at the head of a broad tier of stone steps worn down by the sandaled feet of generations of kimono’d women, overlooking the harbor where the grey merchant ships unload the endless paraphernalia of war, there lives a soft-spoken little widow of twenty-seven named Tak Sook Kyun.
Her home is one with the thousands that crowd the hills. It is made almost entirely of cardboard squares from C-ration cartons supported on a flimsy matchwood frame, the roof covered with straw mats. The cracks between the roof and walls are stuffed with old pieces of burlap. The mud floor is partially covered with rice matting. There
is one old board used as a shelf, with a little bedding on it and a line strung across a corner from which hangs some faded grey-and-mauve clothing. There is a pot imbedded in baked clay which serves asa stove, an old Canadian Club whisky bottle which serves as canteen, and at the doorway a neat row of little slippers. There is very little else.
This house is seven feet long, five feet wide and four and a half feet high. In it eight people live and eat and sleep: Mrs. Tak and her two little
daughters, her mother, her sister-in-law and husband and their two little boys. When I visited them they had been living in this way for three months.
Their diet is made up entirely of rice with an occasional dish of hot peppers. The children get some lunch in addition to morning and evening meals, but the adults eat twice a day and are always hungry. None of them has ever tasted milk. They sleep in a huddle under two blankets, locked in each other’s arms. They live on the profits the children make selling rice candy, which Mrs. Tak buys wholesale. None of them ever owned very much, but by now they have lost everything they
ever did possess. In their lives, and i L lives of three million other refugee people in South Korea, there is not much left to hope for.
A Western woman would have been crushed long ago under the staggering burden of tribulation which for the past year has rested on the deceptively frail shoulders of Mrs. Tak. Although she has been cast up on the slag heap of war, she does not look more than ten years older than she is. Make-up could make her face quite handsome, for it is still unlined behind its mask of quiet resignation. Her voice has the softness of the wind sighing in the rice shoots, and she speaks almost without inflection. The wretchedness of her lot, which might easily have jarred the reason of a less primitive woman, has simply endowed her with the tranquillity of the grave. She sits cross-legged on the tatami matting of her house of cards in her soiled satin blouse and dark mon pei pantaloons, looking into a future that always ends at the midnight of her day.
His Wife In All But Name
Once her future seemed as sure as the coming of the June rains to the thirsty paddy fields. She was born into the measured ways of Korean peasant life in the village of Nam Poo Dong -a cluster of grassy huts which has the misfortune to be just south of the Manchurian border near the point of the United Nations’ farthest advance on the peninsula. Her father was a farmer and his father before him, and so on back perhaps even to the days of Tangoon, the mythical father of her country. She lived in a two-room hut with mud walls and thatched roof. She had no education, and almost from birth her breath was acrid with the smell of kimchi, the Korean national dish.
She was married at twenty to a nineteen-year-old villager. This is unusual, for most Korean boys are married at fourteen to girls of twenty-two or so. It is necessary that a boy prove himself a man as soon as possible, but it is also necessary that his wife be old enough and strong enough to work.
It was no love match and indeed it is doubtful if Mrs. Tak knows exactly what romantic love means. Her marriage was arranged by her parents and her husband’s parents who consulted the village sajú, a seer who lives with many spirits and advises
on such things. Some marriages are arranged before the birth of the principals.
On her wedding day Mrs. Tak wore a new cerise chi-ma and a rich blue skirt. There was no honeymoon. She moved into her father-in-law’s house and went to work. She did not take her husband’s name, for Korean men are afraid that this might give their women some claim on their inheritance or their children. Mrs. Tak called him “master,” which is synonymous with husband in Korea, and she asked his permission for everything she did. She never stepped outside the house without getting this permission and she never looked, much less smiled, at other men, for this would mean a beating. Her entire'life was dedicated to the single concept of duty to the man who owned her.
A year after their marriage her husband moved out of the family home and rented a two-room mud house and tiny rice paddy from a wealthy Korean. A spirit named Sur-g Doo also went with the house and Mrs. Tak had a little bell hanging from the ceiling which she would ring occasionally to please him. She bore her husband three girls and when any of them grew ill it was her habit to go into the hills with an offering of cooked rice and pray to Sung Doo, always finally returning with that portion of the rice the spirit did not eat.
The family lived simply, toiling in the fields by day and squatting at a low table with their chopsticks to eat kimchi and rice and vegetables. About twice a month they had meat and in April,
fish. On holidays, such as the Chinese New Year, the women dressed in their best and the little girls played kun-nuh, the seesaw game, and the men drew up sides and gleefully threw stones.
Late in 1945 the Japanese, whom Mrs. Tak had seldom seen and knew little about, ceased to be the masters of Korea, and not long afterward the North went Communist.
The new regime made some startling changes in the little village of Nam Poo Dong, where for seven centuries Confucianism had been the way of life and what was good enough for the father was always good enough for the son.
The most earth-shaking change was the emancipation of the women.
She Could Write Her Name
The Communists decreed that from then on women would be on an equal footing with men. They were to have the vote and they would no longer be slaves in their own homes. If they were mistreated by husband or in-laws they could seek redress in a special court.
With this, most of the women in the village became Communists. Most of the men became anti-Communist and some talked of moving to South Korea where democracy reigned. The village elders were disgusted with the new regime but were afraid to speak out about it. Many women took to marketing without permission and strolling aimlessly in the streets, thus shocking the old people. But Mrs. Tak stuck strictly to the old ways which she felt to be the true ways.
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The Long Ordeal of Mrs. Tak
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changes. Every illiterate adult was sent to school for two hours a night to learn to read and write and Mrs. Tak for the first time in her life was able to sign her name. Two new schools, an elementary and a high school, were opened to supplement the single elementary school. Electric light was installed in the town and Mrs. Tak’s house was graced by a single naked sixty-watt bulb. This cost fifteen won a month, which was a little less than she had been paying for vegetable oil for her old lamp. The installation was paid from taxes.
The Communists also abolished the old New Year for the Western New Year but the little girls still played their seesaw game on the old date, though they were afraid to dress up for it.
Under the Communists Mrs. Tak’s husband became the nominal owner of his own house and farm. They charged him two thirds of his rice crop as taxes during the first year to help pay for the house, and after that one third each year almost, but not quite, as much as he had been paying in rent as a tenant farmer.
At election time Communist speakers stood out in front of the polling booths at the People’s Committee Building and told the people that they were perfectly free to vote as they pleased - but added that the names of the real patriots could be seen on the ballot list.
Mrs. Tak did not know any of the candidates and she wasn’t sure exactly what an election was, but when the names of the real patriots were pointed out to her she circled them in red and went home.
She does not know how her husband voted but remembers that he got into the habit of dropping into the Democratic Propaganda room on the way home from the fields because of the free barley tea that was provided.
Mrs. Tak heard about the war four days after it began. The People’s Loving Youth notified the citizens to gather at the primary school and here a fifty-year-old woman named Lee Hwa Shik, a member of the Provincial Committee, told them that South Korea had violated the land of North Korea by invasion, that things were going badly for the North Koreans but that in the end the invader would be repulsed.
She Broke Rock for Roads
From that moment on, Mrs. Tak recalls, “life became tremendously harsher.”
All women in the village were mobilized to make uniforms for the North Korean army. Mrs. Tak’s quota was five uniforms every three days. It left her little time for anything but sleep. Meanwhile tanks and trucks began to rumble down roads that had felt only the wheels of ox carts for a thousand years. Soon one able-bodied adult from each family was required to do night work on the roads. At first Mrs. Tak’s husband did this work, but later when he got his mobilization orders to join the Democratic People’s Liberation Army he fled to the hills, coming down only at night for food. He had heard that nine out of ten soldiers were dying at the front and that the new troops did not eat as well as the regular army. Besides, he pointed out, “I would simply be unable to stand the hard training.” So Mrs. Tak replaced her husband on road work.
She worked all night in thirteen-
hour stretches, breaking rock and filling in ruts. In addition she made uniforms. When soldiers came for her husband she told them that he had already joined the army. As they had no way of checking this they left her in peace.
Each day the Communists reported that “Victory is sure victory is certain,” but the villagers began to doubt this when the airplanes came over. Each time they came they destroyed fifty of the little mud houses. Mrs. Tak had built an air-raid shelter in her garden on orders from the village officials, but the children refused to enter it. The Communists threatened to fine the parents of such children ten days’ rice ration, so Mrs. Tak forced her little girls into the log-covered shelter and waited for the planes to go away.
One day she heard that Seoul had fallen and later that the city of Shinan-ju, just nine miles away, had been captured. Four days after that she heard artillery fire in the distance. The People’s Committee left, announcing that it was going back for ammunition but would return.
Mrs. Tak couldn’t imagine anything worse than what had already happened; she decided to hold her ground. She burned the North Korean flag she had made it wasn’t very good because it had the wrong number of stars—and traced a South Korean flag on a piece of cardboard. She remembered it well from the days after the Japanese were unseated in Korea and the whole country was under one flag. She had no blue coloring so she used black and hoped it would suffice. She had heard that the foreigners had much love for children, so she put her baby on her back and gathered the other two about her; holding her flag she stood by the roadside for five hours waiting for the Americans.
Gruel for Hungry Children
The Americans came through swiftly in jeeps and didn’t even notice the little woman and her flag, but kept right on going. Mrs. Tak returned to her mud house, grateful for being allowed to stay.
That night her husband came out of the hills and with others who had been in hiding formed a “Self-Defense Corps” to round up people who had helped the Communists. They caught two men who had been messengers in conscripting people for road work, and they shot them to death in the main street.
A week later American and ROK troops came back through the town, heading south in retreat, and Mrs. Tak and her family made haste to bundle up their possessions. She hid her valuables in the air-raid shelter, which she then covered in, dressed the children in their warmest clothes, packed two blankets and three days’ rice and started out. Her husband came too and her seventy-six-year-old mother and her husband’s sister and spouse and their two boys. They were told the village would be retaken in three days.
For twenty-four hours they walked without sleep until they reached Shinan-ju. When the children sobbed that they could go no farther, Mrs. Tak, with agony in her heart, spanked them and told them that they must go on. When they reached the ice-cold ChonChung river, which was too deep for the children, Mrs. Tak picked them up, and with the baby on her back and her possessions balanced on her head forged through the breast-high torrent. Her husband walked beside her but carried nothing It took fifteen minutes to cross the river in the chill December wind. The nexi day it began to snow.
In Shin-an-ju they stayed at the
home of a friend who had once lived in their village and now had a tworoom frame house with a tile roof. He had a family of four and the fourteen of them slept together on the floor of one room. When her rice ran out Mrs. Tak went into the fields around the town and gleaned grain which had been missed from the fall harvest. She made a thin gruel of this to feed her children.
Eighteen days later they were told j that the Communists had been chased from their village again, and the long , journey back began. They walked quickly, without stopping to eat on the I way. They broke ice on the shoreline j of the still open river so they could I wade out from the edge.
They found their house a mess. It had been riddled with machine-gun bullets and it hung lopsided. Mrs ; Tak set to work to try to push it back in shape. Her husband, as a member of the Self-Defense Corps, went off to help wipe out Communist sympathizers. He headed north and she never saw him again.
Three days later enormous crowds of people began trudging through the village on their way south—women by I the hundreds with huge bundles on their heads, old men with white beards and long staffs and black bird-cage hats which means they are retired, young men with A-frames on their backs loaded with kimchi pots and women pulling ox carts of furniture with blackhaired, button-nosed babies clutched to their shoulders.
Mrs. Tak didn’t speak to any of them, for they were strangers. She did not have to, for she knew very well what it all meant. That night she and the others joined the tragic line of refugees straggling south. Before it was over there were three million of them.
In five days Mrs. Tak and her family walked fifty miles. They found the people in the houses en route surprisingly generous with shelter. The Korean peasant is a self-centred man by nature, but these people were packing to leave and it no longer mattered when strangers invaded a house already doomed. Mrs. Tak had brought more rice this time and she cooked small ! quantities of it each day after the owner of the house they were in had finished his meal. In addition she gave ! her sister-in-law two small mals of rice
— about thirty pounds—to keep in case ; of greater emergency.
It snowed most of the way and the : cold increased as they climbed higher into the mountains. The red mud was : deep on the roads and, half-frozen, it clung to them like glue. Mrs. Tak wrapped the two blankets around the children’s feet. She wore only thin cotton socks and low rubberized slippers. At the end of fifty miles, two thirds of the rice supply was gone
— not counting the emergency ration which she had vowed not to use. It
; was snowing blizzard strength and the : children were sobbing. For the first I time in her life Mrs. Tak realized that, i it was actually possible to die of cold. She knew that they could not go on.
Beside them a convoy of Korean army trucks was moving through the storm at a snail’s pace, splashing mud on them. Quickly, Mrs. Tak ran out in front of one of the vehicles and shouted to the driver to stop. She took her remaining rice and held it out.
“Either kill us or take us in your truck,” she said. “Take our rice. Take our possessions. Take everything. But take us.”
A military policeman said it was quite forbidden but when the two little boys got down on their knees in the mud j and began to pray and sob the soldiers i took them aboard. They also took j i Mrs. Tak’s rice, which they cooked and j ate en route, occasionally giving a '
bowlful to the children. Sometimes Mrs. Tak and the other adults got a bowl of soup from villagers, but most of the time they went hungry. They were afraid to leave the truck when it stopped in case it went off without them, so they slept right on it. It was jammed with soldiers and quite open to the snow which never ceased.
They were a week on the truck before it reached its destination a short distance north of Seoul. Not far away, standing in the fields, was a train loading rice. Mrs. Tak and the others I sneaked aboard a flat car and rode into the city in it. They were cold and wet and little two-year-old Yung! Soon, the baby on her back, was i sniffling constantly.
In the Seoul station Mrs. Tak provi! dentially met a friend who knew where her aunt lived and directed her to the house, five miles away. Mrs. Tak’s ! aunt was married to a trader and quite i wealthy by Korean standards. She lived in a six-room house and she loaned Mrs. Tak money and food. The next day the group decided to go to the railway station and try to get a train to Pusan, some three hundred miles away at the southern end of the peninsula.
Death in a Cold Theatre
They were fortunate that they had arrived in the city before the great exodus to the south gathered momentum. After about five hours in a queue they got aboard one of the free refugee trains and, in a pressing mass of humanity, again resumed their journey.
They spent four days on the train. Their accommodation consisted of an open flat car on which several hundred people had been crammed. Often they had to get out and walk along miles of ruined track to where another train was waiting. The snow mercifully had stopped, but the wind was bitter in the mountains. Mrs, Tak squatted on the floor with her children clutched in her arms under one blanket. For hours at a time she sat this way, never moving. Only once did she smile and that was when little five - year - old Yung-Hi piped up: “We are all refu-
gees now because of those toinan.” The word is a traditional Korean epithet for the Chinese, meaning roughly “wild beast,” and it made Mrs. Tak smile to hear such a small girl use such an adult phrase.
In Pusan the refugees were quartered in a bare unheated theatre. Three hundred people slept on the floor of one large room. There were no facilities and it was bitterly cold. The government gave Mrs. Tak and her group three mal of rice and four thousand won. With this money she bought rice,
! corn flour and sweet oil with which she made bars of rice candy. These the two boys sold on the streets at I one hundred won a bar. On her initial investment she made a profit of a thousand won, which is about seventeen cents in our money.
With this slim profit Mrs. Tak bought straw mats and another blanket, for it was now January and the cold was almost unbearable. Little Yung-Soon’s I sniffles grew worse and she coughed with a tiny hack that shook her frail body. Mrs. Tak cradled the baby in her arms and used her failing stock of won to buy her fruit. The baby’s face grew hotter and her little black slits of eyes became red with the running cold. On their twentieth day in Pusan, YungSoon died in her mother’s arms and lay there like one of the Korean dolls sold in Pusan’s souvenir shops, with their white wax faces and their jetblack rice-bowl haircuts.
Mrs. Tak hadn’t the strength or the courage or the will to bury her last-
born, so she turned the tiny body over to a courier—a man with a long white bag on his back who moves from town to town carrying messages and merchandise and sometimes corpses. For four thousand won, almost all she had, he took little Yung-Soon away into the hills. Mrs. Tak doesn’t know where the grave is, nor does she want to know. She only knows that somewhere among the large round bee-hive mounds that dot the slopes outside the city there is a smaller mound peeping above the mushrooms and azaleas.
No Shelter From the Rain
Now she knew she must get out of the terrible cold of the theatre. It took her ten days to find a rich refugee who lived in one of the cardboard houses on the ridge above town and who was getting ready to move to a better home. He was willing to sell his hovel for sixty thousand won, which represented a small fortune to Mrs. Tak. She spoke to her sister-in-law who had been carefully husbanding their emergency ration.
“The time has come to sell the rice,” she said.
For the rice they got twenty-four thousand won. They made up the rest by selling most of their clothing: their extra pairs of voluminous mon-pei and their extra chi-ma with the long ribbons that tie in a bow over the right breast and hang gracefully down, sometimes to the knee.
When Mrs. Tak stepped through the red mud and swung open the cardboard door—first carefully removing her slippers in the entrance—her heart sang a little for again she had a place of her own.
Here, she and the seven others are still living. The police have announced that the ugly shacks on the hill will have to be torn down, but so far nobody has made a move to destroy them.
In Mrs. Tak’s crowded community there are more than a hundred of the huts jammed together in wavering lines. They are very cold to live in and the eight people in the cardboard house huddle together at night. When it rains the cardboard is apt to turn to mush and water pours through the
roof. Then Mrs. Tak moves the straw mats overhead: the water just pours
through another hole.
Her neighbors on either side are just six inches away through a double thickness of cardboard, but Mrs. Tak does not know them, does not know their names or where they are from and indeed has never spoken to them. She lives with her relatives in the same firm isolation that once gave her country the nickname of the Hermit Kingdom.
Besides her relatives she has only one other friend in the world and that is her God. When the Communists came to her village they told her it was fantastic to believe in spirits or devils or gods and absolutely forbade any sort of worship. But Mrs. Tak secretly continued to believe, even though she was afraid to ring the little bell that hung from the ceiling.
Something to Cling to
“I believed,” she said, “because I wanted to believe in something.”
But when she came to Pusan she left Sung-Doo behind in the wobbly, mushroom-shaped hut which, by the tenets of Korean Shamanism, will always be his home.
In Pusan her sister-in-law, who had learned of Christianity, took her to the Presbyterian church and both became Christians. Now each Sunday they go to the church meetings and pray. Mrs. Tak now knows that her little blackhaired Yung-Soon has found a heaven and she bikes comfort in the knowledge that when her own hard existence finally comes to an end there will be a place for her to go.
In her pathetic little home on the hill, with two tiny pieces of glowing charcoal taking the chill from the air, her sewing in her lap and her feet tucked under her, Mrs. Tak explains in a sentence why she has taken the foreigners’ religion. Her face, softened by the last light of day filtering through the paper window, does not change expression as she speaks, but in her voice there is something bordering on emotion.
“It is so very necessary,” she says, “so very necessary these days to have something to cling to.” it