Navigating life as a 21-year-old is always difficult, but often we forget how our story with all of its unique struggles fits into a shared family heritage. Angel B. Lee retells the story of her grandmother at 21, her mother at the same age, and finally adds her own story, linking together the thread of faith that has carried three generations through their journeys.
1959: Hana Is 21
It was a frigid winter in Junla-Namdo, South Korea, a country still scarring from the Korean War. In a dark corner of a semi-outdoor kitchen, Hana silently cried as she rubbed the cheek that had been crisply slapped by her abusive mother-in-law.
The sting was exacerbated by the dread of receiving an even more severe beating from her husband, who would likely return home from work in drunken stupor. She could hear the scorn of her mother-in-law, cursing her for miscarrying her first child. To have a son and carry on the family name was an important duty expected of a married woman, and Hana was ashamed and devastated by the loss.
To have a son and carry on the family name was an important duty expected of a married woman.
Under these layers of grief were unearthed emotions of confusion and disturbance. Though she knew that she might always face a life filled with abuse, she still felt the immense need to scream out to a world that left her silenced.
Hana was never given a choice to marry for love, nor did she ever feel entitled to it due to poverty and societal expectations. She was the 11th of 12 children, orphaned at the age of 3, with only four remaining siblings to call family. After her abusive step-mother forced her out of the house, she sought refuge at a local Christian orphanage where she lived for seven years. There she was given a small cup of bland rice soup twice a day.
Despite these hardships, Hana longed to go to school, a right reserved for the privileged. After begging God for months, the orphanage allowed her to attend junior high school. Though her world mostly consisted of fear, poverty, abandonment, depression, and loneliness, those three years of school were her fondest memories from her bleak childhood.
Her education helped her to dream about a future in which she could become a Christian missionary instead of marrying like most women should and would. She dreamed of the humble lifestyle of giving and receiving love with quiet vigor. She felt hope and safety in this dream.
She dreamed of the humble lifestyle of giving and receiving love with quiet vigor.
But at 21, she was shackled to a man who had pursued marriage for her dowry. He was now chasing other women while beating Hana’s body and killing her soul. The physical and verbal abuse had become a disturbing sport of releasing aggression and internal angst that he could never dare acknowledge as a result of his own tragic upbringing. Until a son was born, Hana felt that she was a failure in the world and would never find reprieve or a purpose for her life.
Unfortunately, not even sons were enough to obtain civility and order. Though she would later give birth to Dul, her first daughter, along with three other children, she was still trapped in a life of abuse and fear. Her foolish adolescent aspirations of becoming a missionary were long gone. Hope was as ephemeral as the flickering bits of ash from her husband’s cigarettes. She wondered if this was all God had for her life, or if He had forgotten her altogether.
She wondered if this was all God had for her life, or if He had forgotten her altogether.
She felt alone and could not foresee what was to come.
1981: Dul is 21
In utter disbelief, Dul stared at herself as she stood in front of the mirror wearing a white, satin, Western wedding dress. She scarcely believed that she was going to have a real wedding and marry someone who would take her to the promised land of America.
Unlike her unlucky mother, she felt blessed that this older man —18 years her senior — was a loving person, antithetical to her father. Flattered by the pursuit of love and the promise of the American dream, Dul believed this marriage was her golden opportunity for a future. So after her marriage, she quickly immigrated to Boise, Idaho, to live the life that she never thought was possible.
Dul believed this marriage was her golden opportunity for a future.
Dul was the eldest of four children, whose imagination and love for each other sustained them during terrifying moments of abuse and poverty. When Dul was 3 years old, her family moved to Seoul where her father owned a successful taxi company. But inevitably, her father’s failed investments led to bankruptcy, which meant an end to his business, the loss of their house, no more favor from teachers, and the end of their façade of happiness.
But the worst loss was the peace between her parents. Eventually, her mother left to seek refuge away from her seemingly demon-possessed husband. Dul dutifully took on the role of her mother by cooking, cleaning, taking care of her siblings, and tending to her father who beat Dul in her mother’s stead. Exhausted, she continued to study and commuted to a distant school where she was shamed for being poor.
Though Dul always sought to bring peace because of her conviction to be a good Christian, the light within her wasn’t enough to overcome the darkness of fear and shame.
At 21, Dul was convinced that her life’s greatest sufferings were now just a painful scar and that her real life would start in America. However, her dreams of college vanished when she quickly became pregnant with Set. She embraced the gift of being with child, while she quietly mourned the loss of her treasured dream to receive an education.
She quietly mourned the loss of her treasured dream to receive an education.
Dul gained little weight during her pregnancy due to extreme sickness. She craved her favorite street foods from Korea, and wept upon seeing the odd groceries from the “American” store. Every day, she carried laundry up and down six flights of stairs. She feared failing to help her husband run his medical clinic. She also faced the emotional torment of loneliness and had no companionship apart from seeing her husband early in the morning and late at night, since she didn’t know how to speak “American” with the white people. She couldn’t learn to drive a car and always stayed at home. Soon enough, home became a prison.
Despite the lot in her life, Dul was a natural idealist to the point she could no longer differentiate between optimism and denial. Whether her Christianity gave her true strength or false hope, it was hope nonetheless. As she stared at her pregnant belly, the fear that her new life would fail her was forcefully buried under her will to believe that the impossible was possible.
Whether her Christianity gave her true strength or false hope, it was hope nonetheless.
But even then, she felt alone and could not foresee what was to come.
2003: Set is 21
The thick, dusty air layered with the putrid scent of body odor and spices was almost too much to handle on a scorching summer day. But Set couldn’t be happier schlepping her broken bike and speaking broken Mandarin with the angry Chinese man selling fake designer bags.
She chose to study abroad in Beijing and Seoul during college, hoping to learn Mandarin and perhaps become a successful international businesswoman (her father’s dream) while being a missionary (her grandmother’s dream). But she also wanted to flee the frustrations of her life back in the U.S.
She was determined to make sense of her confusion and was convinced that the solution would be found in a vocation that was something other than medicine, law, or getting married.
She was determined to make sense of her confusion.
Having been born and raised in Idaho to two immigrant parents and being aware of their tragic, impoverished backgrounds, Set resolved to find great happiness and success in order to be worth the sacrifices that her parents made. Though she felt it was her duty to be grateful for the things she didn’t have to face as an “American”, she was tormented by the lack of articulation of conflicting emotions.
When she compared the American world outside of her Korean home, the differences left her feeling ashamed, misunderstood, and ostracized. While the “American” kids received hugs from their dads and ate home-baked cookies, she was spanked for failing at long division (at the age of 6) and ate stinky kim chee. She naturally learned to be the chut jae (eldest child in Korean) and took on responsibilities that carried little meaning, but held the great burden to protect and provide for her family.
In addition to the lack of ethnic diversity and empathy as a minority, her so-called simple life felt extremely polarizing. The call to Eastern conformity and repression of emotions conflicted with the ideals of Western individualism and self-actualization. Her legalistic view of earning God’s love via performance conflicted with her deep desire to be loved without condition. Her longing for friendship and acceptance clashed with her desire to be independent and self-sufficient.
Her legalistic view of earning God’s love via performance conflicted with her deep desire to be loved without condition.
Regardless of the internal conflict, Set believed that there was more to life if one worked hard enough to obtain it. Whether it was achieving a sense of beauty at the cost of almost dying to anorexia, or becoming valedictorian at the cost of a social life, she learned to make her own version of costly sacrifices. However, this philosophy of acquisition did not heal her deep loneliness.
After joyfully leaving Idaho to attend college in Southern California, with Asian Americans who would finally be her empathetic soul mates, her expectations to belong were quickly shattered. Though she learned to emulate and assimilate into the Asian American Christian culture, she felt ostracized by “her people”. After the painful realization that she did not belong in this enclave, she turned to what she knew best: work for a better life elsewhere.
So here she was in Beijing, at 21, trying to make sense of it all. Since Set was spared from the woes that her parents had faced and from her own eating disorders and depression, she felt the polarized mix of guilt and gratitude. Sprinkled into the circus of thoughts were her feisty energy, deep curiosity, and desperation to rid herself from so much that she couldn’t even explain. Thus, she learned to embrace her intensity and sought to find adventure and meaning in survival.
Eventually, long after receiving a degree in economics and math with mediocre honors, Set moved to New York City. It was there that she found many answers to the daunting questions of her youth, and then found new questions to ponder as she began a new journey as an artist and designer.
But even then, after finding her vocational calling, Christ-centered purpose, the freedom to be different, acceptance of her baggage, and flourishing relationships, she felt alone and could not foresee what was to come.
Today, Hana, Dul, and Set all live in Los Angeles.
Hana did the unthinkable and divorced her abusive husband. She moved to the States and eventually settled in Koreatown. Though she never became a missionary, she finds contentment in daily morning prayer meetings and being the oldest choir member at her church. Her simple life is more than enough.
After having two children, Dul earned a degree in education and served at a Korean church in Idaho. After 36 years of marriage, she reluctantly divorced her husband who could no longer commit his remaining days solely to her. Amidst her tragedy and shame, she finally found courage to leave and start over in Los Angeles. She still smiles a lot, especially when she is in public. However, she has also learned to be more honest and self-aware via exposure to Western culture.
After eight colorful years in NYC, Set moved to LA in an attempt to reunite her family, knowing what little time she had left with her father. To her dismay, her father instead estranged himself from them. Despite the continual struggle to belong, Set independently and passionately runs her design business while engaging in a vibrant urban lifestyle, enjoying a childlikeness that she didn’t get to embrace in her youth. Underneath her layers of busyness and style, she still wrestles with the tension between not being “normal” and being fearfully and wonderfully made.
Hana, Dul, and Set see each other when they can and enjoy eating, laughing, and quietly dismissing unspoken cultural barriers. Despite the gaps and continued tragedies known and unknown, they still often feel alone but know undoubtedly that God is incredibly near. No matter how many decades of pain they will continue to face, they have learned to find the beauty in their brokenness. And their ultimate happy ending will come one day.
They still often feel alone but know undoubtedly that God is incredibly near.
Until then, they are also wondering if there will ever be a Net (Number 4).