The Grigsby family’s life in Seoul 1929-1930
From: Dreamer in Five Lands, by Faith G. Norris (Philomath: Drift Creek Press. 1992)
[In reading this account, it should be remembered that the writer, Joan Grigsby’s daughter, was only 12 at the time in question. She was attending Seoul Foreign School and she herself says that her mother systematically excluded her from conversations with visitors. She only set about writing her account of her mother’s life in the mid-1980s, after she had retired, 50 years or more after the events she describes. There were no diaries or documents, there was no-one she could consult to verify the accuracy of her memories. Given all this, and her vivid imagination, it is easy to understand why so much of what she says is inaccurate. Unfortunately, perhaps, she seems to have been fully convinced of the truth of everything she asserts, there is never any sign of hesitation, of uncertainty, she never says “I think this is how it was . . .”
The most obvious error in the passages that follow is her confusion of Albert Taylor (always known to his friends and family as Bruce), Mary’s husband, with Bill Taylor his brother who must have arranged the leasing of the rooms in the Taylor’s house to the Grigsbys. The autobiography written much earlier in her life (in the 1950s) by Mary Linley Taylor and published after her death as Chain of Amber (Lewes: The Book Guild, 1993) allows us to see how very inaccurate Faith Norris’s account of the Taylors’ courtship was, and how utterly wrong she was about the reasons for the chaotic state of their house, Dilkusha, and also about the prolonged absence of Mary Taylor (omitted from this section). e.g. Faith claims that the Taylors met in Bombay while “Bill” was heading for England in 1919. In fact they first met in Japan in about 1915, then Bruce Taylor joined her in India in 1916, proposed, and they were married in Bombay that year. Faith recalls the Boydell family who were living on the ground floor of Dilkusha when they arrived, but cannot give any true information about them. She could never have imagined that they would come back into the loop in 2009 !
The scene of women washing clothes almost certainly took place along Cheonggyecheon, the then filthy stream running through the heart of Seoul, and not (as Faith says) by the Han River, which is several miles away from the limits of the city as it then existed.]
We moved to Korea in January, 1929, because of my father's job. Japan was having a fukaki—a depression—which had led to a drastic decline in the sales of Ford cars and trucks and to layoffs. My father's boss gave him an interesting choice: he could be laid off, or he could go to Korea and be, not an accountant, but a sales manager for the Seoul branch of Ford. The Koreans were not car buyers but the Japanese military in Korea was—they were buying trucks for their impending invasion of China. My mother begged, pleaded, with my father to find another job in Japan. But my father was loyal to Ford. And he would receive a higher salary as a sales manager than as an accountant. He also liked the prospect of a change in work. So he over-rode my mother's arguments that she loved Japan, that she wanted to stay in Yokohama where her friends were, that she knew no one in Korea.
My father arrived in Seoul accompanied by a wife determined to dislike the place. She had heard at the Club [in Yokohama] that the city was cold, dirty, dismal. She had also heard at the Club that the Koreans were a sullen people with disgusting habits: they never washed their bodies and they defecated in the streets.
For her first four months in Seoul, my mother went on loathing it. Then matters changed. Slowly, she came to love Korea more than she had loved Japan. Conversion to Buddhism had made her take several steps away from her Zelda Fitzgerald persona. The lack of any "International Club" in Seoul and the scholarly male friends she made there removed her forever from her "Tea for Two," tennis, tiffin and Tom Collins lifestyle. Not overnight. The change was slow, but it came, and as it did, she became the serious and thoughtful woman who was able to handle the difficult years that lay ahead.
She was to find in what had once been called "The Hermit Kingdom" the inspiration for her most thoughtful, most original volume of poetry. And she was to become a campaigner for recognition of the Korea people and their art.
During my mother's first week in Seoul, her preconceived determination to dislike the city seemed to her to be well grounded. After the mild winters of central Japan, with their infrequent and light snowfalls, she found the weather in the Korean capital "foul, miserable, beastly." And to the end of her life, she was to tell people that the Seoul winters were "as bad as those in Winnipeg." Like many of my mother's statements, this was sheer exaggeration. North Korea, as the G.I.s caught in the war in the 1950s discovered, is indeed a land of bitter winters. But in Seoul, the temperature seldom falls below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. My mother's complaints about the weather may have been the standard ones made by any person forced to leave a familiar place for one unknown.
For the first ten days we stayed in the elegant Cho-sen Hotel, run by the Japanese tourist agency, a Western-style building near the quadrangle of impressive Japanese government offices. My mother's exploration of the city during that time led her to decide that, aside from the hotel and the immediately adjacent area, Seoul was as dirty and dismal as Club members had said. The streets close to the hotel and the enclaves of the various foreign consulates and government offices were wide and clean. The rest of Seoul in those days was a tangle of narrow alleys littered with garbage, nauseating from the odor of the favorite Korean pickle, kimchi, and from the stench of feces, both animal and human. The Korean houses, made of stone and whitewashed mud and roofed with dirty-looking thatch, depressed my mother. They were such an abysmal contrast to the neat, wooden, houses of Japan beside their immaculate sandy lanes.
In those days Seoul was a fair-sized city, with a population of around 500,000. But, with its one-story houses all huddled together on either side of the noisome alleys, it seemed smaller. From our bedroom in the hotel, my mother could look over the dirty mushroom-like Korean houses and see the granite mountains which ringed the city. But my mother did not find these peaks appealing. Unlike the forested, volcanic slopes of Japan, they were bare, harsh, denuded of trees except for a scattering of twisted pines. There were no "apple-green bamboos, no brooding cryptomerias," she wrote to her sister Eleanor. It took her some weeks to decide that the gray mountains around Seoul presented a beautiful contrast to the dazzlingly blue Korean sky. And to discover that the mountains had something unique to offer her—a medieval city wall.
The wall which had once encircled the city is no Great Wall of China. Even before the building of the high-rises of the last twenty years and the increase in pollution, one could not see it clearly from downtown. But once my mother discovered its existence, it fascinated her. She came to love the way it snaked its way for eleven miles up and down the granite ridges. Though much of it was long gone even in 1929, it was still impressive. In places it was thirty feet high with a crenellated top. Throughout its still-extant length it had slits for archers to send their arrows through at armies advancing from China, or from wherever invaders were coming to threaten Seoul. When my mother at last found it, she wrote to Eleanor that a walk up to and along it was "a real delight." It had made her "have a real sense of the country's past the way the ruins in India" had done for Eleanor. But that delight lay some months in the future.
The Hotel's guidebook informed us that the wall had been pierced by eight gates and that the double-roofed towers of the largest gate, the South one, were in "a remarkable state of preservation." My mother went to see the South Gate and returned dismayed. A narrow, dirty street, lined on both sides with mud houses, led up to it. And this congested street, jammed with people and bony donkeys, was made even more crowded by the Japanese-installed trolley cars which ran down the middle of it and around the medieval gate. So much for the "quaintness" of the South Gate. It now stands surrounded by a small park, but in 1929 it was but a dingy reminder of the city's long-gone splendor, a testimony to its 20th century squalor.
In her first few days of exploring Seoul in the "Winnipeg cold," my mother's most disturbing experience was her discovery of the plight of Korean women. At the entrance to one of the alleys she chanced to meet a Presbyterian missionary, a teacher at the Ehwa Christian School for Girls. The missionary told her that women in Korea were far more repressed than those in Japan and China. Their lot was "pitiable." Concubines still existed among the rich; women of the middle and upper classes were confined in separate quarters; lower class ones were mere "wretched drudges."
The missionary suggested that my mother walk over to the Han river to see a glaring example of what Korean women had to endure. In those days the Han wound its sluggish way through the very outskirts of the city. My mother took the walk and was appalled. On the riverbank hundreds of women, old as well as young, were washing the white jackets, white blouses, white skirts and trousers then worn as daily dress by the majority of Koreans. The women laundered these pieces of all-white clothing by dipping them in the river's icy water, then laying the clothes out on icy stones and beating them with wooden paddles to remove the dirt.
The laundresses seemed to be chattering cheerfully, but my mother could see that their hands must be frozen, and their faces looked weary. And after the clothes had been thus washed, the missionary had told my mother, they were "ironed" by being beaten with other wooden paddles. In one of the few Korean poems in Lanterns by the Lake, my mother refers with horror to the late-night sound of women "ironing." When she came back to the hotel after her walk to the Han, she told my father of her "utter revulsion" at the sight of these washerwomen at the river, And this "degradation" of women continued to horrify her to the end of her time in Korea.
Interestingly, she had never commented adversely on the sight of old Japanese women bent double as they worked in the chilly water of the rice paddies. Or on the sight of Japanese women wading into the sea to collect seaweed for sushi. Those aspects of life in Japan she had found "picturesque." But that was Japan.
The accidental encounter with the missionary from the Ehwa School was important not only because it introduced my mother to the Korean washerwomen. It had also led her to modify to a slight degree her prejudice against Protestant missionaries. In Japan, she had all but ignored them. First as a Catholic and then as a Buddhist, she had disapproved of them for trying to "force" on the Japanese a religion which she thought must be unappealing to a people who worshipped at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in all their beauty. And as a member of the Yokohama International Club, she had subscribed to her fellow members' prejudice against missionaries in general. Missionaries, they agreed, were narrow-minded bigots. Why, many missionaries disapproved of dancing, and most of them disapproved of smoking and drinking.
In Yokohama, she had heard stories of Protestant medical missionaries who did "good work" in Chinese and Korean leper colonies. She was not sure if she believed these tales. But she really had no way of knowing, either about the good the missionaries did or whether the prejudices of the members of the Club had any basis in fact. She had arrived in Asia in 1924 and it was not until this January day in Seoul that she had first actually talked to a Protestant missionary. The woman from the Ehwa School impressed her. "Maybe," she said to my father, "missionaries did do some good." She was to meet other missionaries who were to impress her even more. But that experience lay some months in the future.
In January, 1929, my mother's major concern was with the defects of "Dilkusha," the curious house containing the apartment into which we moved. My mother had been reluctant to rent it, for good reasons. To reach it one had to walk up a steep hill via one of the garbage-strewn, stinking alleys. The alley was too narrow to allow passage for a small cart, let alone anything bigger. Our furniture had to be carried up to the house loaded onto wooden jiggis on the backs of Koreans desperate for a few extra won. My mother was troubled at having to inflict such bestial labor on human beings. She also did not care for the prospect of going to and from downtown Seoul by way of this alley. Just as it was slippery in winter with frozen puddles of urine and slops, she anticipated that it would be hot and stinking in the summer.
But she had no choice. The missionaries, who made up over ninety per cent of the Caucasian residents in Seoul, lived in brick compounds which belonged to their churches. When one missionary family went home on furlough, its place was taken by another family. There was no place for us at a missionary compound. The few Consuls in Seoul also lived in brick compounds owned by their governments. Ironically, the most impressive Consulate building in Seoul—built of stone, not brick—was the fortress-like structure housing the gray bureaucrats from the U.S.S.R., which dated from the mutually by-gone days of Korean independence and the Tsars. For the most part, the handful of transient Caucasian businessmen lived in pensions or hotels. The Cho-sen Hotel was comfortable but expensive. The few other hotels and pensions were cheap but undesirable. My father wanted a "permanent" home. My mother agreed. A house would be better than a pension: the family's stay in Seoul, unlike that in Kobe, was to be "permanent." It was Dilkusha or nothing.
The place had one positive aspect: its grounds were spectacular.
After we toiled up the narrow, dirty alley and went through the iron gates, we entered on a new world, a world beautiful even on a cold January day. The house stood in the midst of five magnificent acres. In the 12th century these grounds, with their view of the city five hundred feet below and the winding river Han in the distance, had belonged to a group of Buddhist monks. The monks had planted a tiny gingko sapling close to an icy spring that mysteriously welled up out of the granite plateau above the city. Drawn by the peace of the plateau and the miraculous spring, the monks had not only planted the tree but also built a temple and a monastery.
By 1929 all that was left of the monks' handiwork was a granite
altar with faint traces of carvings. The gingko tree was still there, vast
after eight hundred years. The five acres were rich with an exotic variety of
trees, shrubs, and flowers. My mother at once fell in love with the gold gingko
and the orchard of chestnut and apricot trees. They were bare on her first
sight of them but her vivid imagination led her to "see" the bloom of
spring, the fruit of summer. She also looked forward to picking berries from
the large strawberry patch. And she liked the Italian-style garden with its
cypress trees and fountain. But her favorite was the English-style garden with
its box hedges, a sundial, and tree roses imported from England.
The Mongolian caravanThe snobbishness that Faith identifies in her mother obviously survived the journey from Japan and she recreates vividly her mother’s initial prejudiced attitude toward the Boydells, the Australian family living downstairs in Dilkusha, about whom we now know so much more than Faith ever dreamed of. Like many other British snobs of her time, the Australian accent seems to have awoken in Joan Grigsby a stereotyped image of rough, uncouth and uneducated folk devoid of social skills.
The Orchid Door
The Taylors arrived for sherry to be greeted by all three Grigsbys. As a general rule, my mother did not allow me to stay around during adult conversation. To the old belief that children should be seen but not heard, my mother added her mother's stern conviction that "frae the mouths o' bairns" came nothing but "a wether's baa." This first evening with Bill and Mary Taylor was an exception: I had been so intrigued by Mary's "fairy princess" looks that I had begged to be permitted to stay-with the needless proviso of "not a word."
Within an hour of the meeting over sherry, my mother and Mary knew that they would be close friends. And they were—to the end. They liked the same fiction, the same poets. They both loved Japanese prints; both were interested in the theater. They enjoyed one another's accents, my mother's Scots, Mary's faint Irish. They were both given to being inconsistent and could laugh at one another for that trait. And they were, of course, both romantics. They agreed that "far and away" the best thing about Dilkusha was its Buddhist past and the ancient stone altar near the well that bubbled up under the leaves of the gingko tree.
For both couples, that first sherry meeting was a great success until ... That afternoon my mother had seen "a remarkable sight" and she mentioned it. In downtown Seoul she had watched two Japanese police officers herding a long line of Korean children and adults into a big tent. She had asked me to find out what was happening. The Japanese officer to whom I had spoken said that the Koreans were to have yobochusa—vaccinations—for chochiftisa—typhoid, My mother was impressed. She hadn't thought about the matter before, but now she understood why younger Koreans had clear complexions whereas so many of the old had faces hideous with pock marks from smallpox.
Really, the Japanese were doing "marvelous things in Korea," she said to the Taylors. They were reforesting the barren hills near Seoul; their railway and telegraph systems were so efficient; and there they were protecting the Koreans' health. Wasn't it “great” that the Japanese had taken over the country in 1910?
There was a long silence. Mary Taylor looked at her husband. The answer, he said stiffly, was "Yes and no." The "Japs were a Godsend" from the point of view of his mines. The railway system they had built from Pusan at the south tip of the Korean peninsula all the way north to make a connection with the Trans-Siberian railroad made it possible to ship gold "to Moscow or to Maine." Their telegraph system was superb. But "the Japs were brutal tyrants." Why, when the Koreans had staged a "peaceful demonstration" in 1919 against these "imperialist monsters," the Japanese had flogged and then massacred over ten thousand people. Two of his best foremen had been killed. His letters to his partners in England and the States had been censored. His dislike of the Japanese overlords had been one of his reasons for setting out for England in 1919. At that time he had not been sure he wanted to return to Korea. And he been sure he wanted to come back only when Mary agreed to marry him, and he had realized he could find a "place of peace" in his gardens at Dilkusha. Beneath his hard surface William Taylor was another romantic. He smiled at his just-returned wife.
My mother did not smile. She looked shocked. It was as if she had just been told that her friendly, dog-loving neighbor had turned out to be the long-sought-for criminal who had raped, and then murdered, thirteen adolescent virgins. She protested that “all” the Japanese to whom she had talked—Nobu San, the young officer in Kobe, the old scholar who had provided her with literal translations of Japanese poems—had been "gentle people."
Too interested and too excited in an adult conversation to stop myself, I interrupted to say that Nobu San had told me about how, in 1923, right after the big earthquake, thousands of Korean residents in Yokohama and Tokyo had been shot for fear that they might loot or rebel. Instead of chiding me, my father pulled out his pipe and added that he had heard the very same story at the Club. Somebody had put the figure of Korean dead in 1923 at eleven thousand. My mother's look at both my father and me was stern. She just could not believe "such a silly, sensational story."
But Mary Taylor nodded. It was true. And in Korea itself, Bill Taylor said, there had been another brutally suppressed riot only three years back—in 1926. My mother, Mary added, "simply must" meet Dr. Horace Underwood, the most influential, most respected American missionary in Korea. She should also meet Father Hunt, a British missionary. Both of them would confirm Bill's judgments. She would introduce my mother to the two as soon as possible.
My mother still appeared troubled. My father said tactfully that the Japanese people were one thing, the military, another. He reminded her of how Eleanor had written about what British officials in India were doing to Gandhi. Thanks to Eleanor's eloquence, my mother had become a Gandhi admirer. Amenities returned. For the rest of the visit the conversation dealt with India and its problems. So the two couples parted in harmony. My mother was not to realize it at the time, but it was a social occasion that was to affect the rest of her time in Korea-and the remainder of her life.
A few days later, Mary told my mother that the introduction to the missionaries unfortunately could not occur for several weeks. British Father Hunt had gone off to work at a school in the country. Dr. Underwood and his family were away at their summer home on the banks of the Han.
The news about Dr. Underwood served to convince my mother that the armor of her prejudice against American missionaries would remain intact. Mary's answer was that maybe it was true of some American missionaries, but it was not true of Dr. Underwood. His uncle, John, had invented the Underwood typewriter, and the fortune that John had amassed from that invention had all gone to Dr. Underwood's father, a pioneer missionary in Korea, a co-author of the first Korean-English dictionary. And with that fortune the Underwoods, father and son, had founded Cho-sen Christian College in Seoul (now Yonsei University).
Dr. Underwood, Mary said, did have a comfortable house in Seoul and a summer house near the Han with one bedroom built around a tree. But neither place was ostentatious. For a man of his inherited wealth he lived quite sparely. He was an educator, an idealist. He could have spent his wealth on luxurious living in America. He preferred to use his money to give young Koreans a practical and spiritual education in Seoul. With a laugh, Mary added that his home in Seoul was "infinitely less elegant" than Dilkusha had been when first she had come to it. My mother had already heard from me that the Underwood sons were the "nicest kids" at Seoul Foreign School. For what that was worth. So she said to Mary that she would wait and see.
It took only one evening at the Underwood home to convert my mother. Dr. Underwood, she decided, was "one of that rare breed," an American who was quiet and charming. He smoked a pipe like my father's, he had a fine library and enjoyed talking about where he had purchased some of his books. He was also eloquent on the subject of the Japanese. He granted that they had done a great deal to improve certain aspects of life in Korea. They had introduced a school system where there had been none. They had achieved wonders in improving public health and sanitation. They had introduced a sound banking system. They had rid the country of its corrupt officials.
At the same time, he said, their administrative personnel were "insensitive despots." The building housing the Japanese Governor-General's office had deliberately been erected in its concrete, fortress-like grandeur so as to completely conceal the former Korean kings' palace with its beautiful artificial lake. Every year, the bureaucrats celebrated the anniversary of Japan's 1910 seizure of Korea with flags and parades. And the Koreans had lost their identity as a people: Seoul was no longer Seoul but "Keijo." The country was no longer Korea but "Cho-sen." In school, Korean children were forced to learn Japanese. Even at Cho-sen Christian College, there was a limit on the amount of "Christian studies." The Japanese government kept a wary eye on the curriculum. "Christian education" was an elective.
As for the future, there seemed to be no way to throw off the Japanese yoke. The military would crush any attempt at revolution. All that a good missionary could do was to give his Korean converts spiritual comfort and a sense of pride in their country's past. Medieval and ancient Korea had produced beautiful poetry and art, he said. Koreans could be proud of these treasures and of their invention of the printing press, their ancient stone observatories for studying the stars, their creation of an alphabet simpler than the Chinese ideographs.
When my mother was about to leave the Underwood home, her host pressed on her a book by "a grand old pioneer missionary," Dr. J. S. Gale's History of the Korean People. Dr. Gale had lived in Korea from 1888 until his retirement in 1927. He had not only spoken fluent Korean, he had also been able to read and write the language. With Dr. Underwood's father he had been a co-author of a Korean-English dictionary. In addition he had translated the Bible into Korean and Korean folk tales into English. Dr. Gale was a Presbyterian, but he had been a friend of, and co-worker with, Bishop Trollope, an Anglican missionary and dedicated scholar. And Dr. Gale had worked on translations with the German Catholic priest, Father Eckhardt. It was a shame that my mother had arrived in Korea too late to meet Dr. Gale, Dr. Underwood said.
In her impulsive fashion, my mother began reading Dr. Gale's book the moment she got home that night. She found it "scholarly, marvelous." For most people with a serious interest in Korea, however, Dr. Gale's work is far from being a definitive history. It is a curiosity. It covers Korean history all the way from the 5th century B.C. to the 20th century A.D. in a mere 370 pages. And many of these pages are given over to Gale's accounts of romantic stories of Korean heroes, to his re-telling of Korean folk tales and fables, and to his translations of Korean poetry into 19th century- style English verse. At one point when Gale is describing the insomnia of a Korean ruler, he breaks off his narrative to quote a page-long passage from Henry IV Part II in which Shakespeare has the ailing King Henry brood on his sleeplessness. And, sad to say, Dr. Gale's work is both wordy and often inaccurate.
None of its defects bothered my mother. She admired Presbyterian Dr. Gale's sympathetic treatment of Buddhism, loved his romantic tales about rival queens and concubines, his discussions of Korean folklore and recounting of superstitions. And she was interested in his many translations of ancient Korean poems, the oldest dating from 17 B.C. Her one criticism of his work was that he had a tendency to include Shakespearean quotations in his English versions of old Korean poems—tags from Hamlet like, "Ah, there's the rub."
Dr. Gale was a Canadian, but he had chosen to retire in Bath, an English city which had long fascinated my mother because of its ancient Roman past. She obtained Dr. Gale's address and at once wrote to him to say that he had made her "love" Korea, the "old" Korea, a land still extant only in his book and in my mother's dreams.
Dr. Gale did more than convert my mother into a "lover of old Korea." He aroused in her a desire to do in her way what he had already done—to turn literal translations of old Korean poetry into English verse. She wanted to re-do poems he had already done and turn other old Korean poems into verse that she thought better conveyed the spirit of the Korean poet's thoughts.
My mother told Dr. Underwood about this desire. Dr. Underwood was encouraging but insisted that she would have to learn some spoken Korean to do a competent job. She would also have to know something about ancient Korean pictorial art. He introduced her to the German Catholic missionary, Father Eckhardt. And Mary Taylor introduced her to the Anglican Bishop Trollope and his co-worker, Father Hunt.
The Anglican missionaries, Bishop Mark Trollope, and the Fathers Hunt and Drake, had a lifestyle radically different from that of the American missionaries. The three Englishmen were celibates, Anglo-Catholic priests, who lived in Spartan conditions in a Korean-style house near their unfinished Anglican cathedral. The trio shared a shabby, but comfortable, "common room" but each man had his own bedroom, best described as a narrow cell. All the same, the Anglican fathers did enjoy life. Unlike most American missionaries, they smoked and drank. And they swallowed endless cups of their favorite beverage, their one luxury, tea imported from India.
With their fervent enthusiasm for Korean art and literature, Bishop Trollope and Father Hunt turned my mother into an apprentice scholar. They agreed that Dr. Underwood was correct in insisting my mother would have to learn to speak Korean to be able to appreciate the mood and the sound of the literal translations on which she would be working. Father Hunt had a student who spoke fluent English. The student would give my mother lessons twice a week. So my mother, the woman who had refused to learn Japanese, began her lessons in Korean in mid-summer, 1929.
Father Hunt also became a family friend. Tall, red-faced, and a trifle over-weight from his starchy Korean diet, Father Hunt was an imposing figure in his black cassock adorned with a gold cross and corded at the middle. Unlike Bishop Trollope, he was more interested in ancient Korean art than literature. In particular, he was a serious student of Korean Buddhist art of the ancient past, mixed as it was with images reflecting the early Korean belief in animal spirits.
He took all of us—including our dog Turpin—on a number of excursions to visit Buddhist temples. He was not a pedant but, with great care, he would point out how the paintings or the carvings in these temples mixed animistic symbols with Buddhist. These excursions were among my mother's happiest hours in Korea and led my father, as much as my mother, to a deep love and appreciation for Korean art.
Father Hunt was a frequent visitor to Dilkusha. He enjoyed having tea and cake with my mother and Mary Taylor. In a Platonic way, he liked pretty women. He also enjoyed a change from his Spartan Korean diet. Unlike Bishop Trollope, Father Hunt was not a dedicated scholar. He did, however, speak fluent Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. What his Chinese accent was like I couldn't tell, but I did find his Japanese somewhat tainted by his Oxford accent.
His Chinese may also have been tainted. For, if my father, my mother, Turpin and I were all fond of Father Hunt, Wu was not. Father Hunt's various attempts to speak to Wu in Chinese won only scowls and mutters. When Wu opened the door to admit the priest, he would always announce, "She come." Whether it was the cassock, the cord, the cross, or an Oxfordian Chinese that annoyed Wu was not clear. But to the end, he obviously felt for Father Hunt nothing but contempt. And this despite the fact that none of my mother's other guests exhibited such an appetite for Wu's cakes and frosted cucumber and salmon sandwiches.
Turpin loved Father Hunt. Maybe that was the reason.
In the long run, as far as my mother's poetry was concerned, it was the severe-seeming, taciturn Bishop Trollope, and the distant Dr. Gale, who helped her much more than the cheerful, garrulous Father Hunt. Bishop Trollope kept her at her studies of spoken Korean, corrected her pronunciation. Dr. Gale wrote long letters encouraging her in her work at re-doing his verse. And it was Bishop Trollope who first urged her to do something Gale had not done—to work on two or three "songs" by anonymous female Korean poets rather than the Korean male scholars that Dr. Gale had concentrated on. These anonymous lyrics, unlike those that Gale had translated, dealt exclusively with love, happy and unhappy. One of them, for example, describes a woman's grief over her lord's departure for war—a universal theme and one, to my mother, of real meaning.
In 1926 Dr. Gale had concluded his History of the Korean People with the gloomy observation that Korean literature was a thing of the past. Korean culture was dead, a victim of "modem Westernization." Dr. Underwood and Bishop Trollope said that this contention was invalid. Under the oppressive rule of the Japanese, they said, Korean literature had enjoyed a renaissance analogous to the flowering of Irish literature under the repressive British at the beginning of the 20th century. Within the limits of government censorship, Korean poets, short story writers and novelists had turned out a mass of work in colonial Korea. Dr. Underwood found many of these contemporary works "more interesting, more significant" that those of the past. Both he and Bishop Trollope urged my mother to deal with this 20th century material. Apart from anything else, it would be linguistically easier for her. But once more, my mother went her own way. She preferred to deal with the past, the romantic matter of the long ago and far away.
The Orchid Door, her fifth volume of poems, subtitled Ancient Korean Poems, was an ambitious undertaking. She worked on it steadily in the fall of 1929 and the winter and spring of 1930. Through sheer hard labor she did learn enough spoken Korean to comprehend fully both the meaning and sound of the literal translations which she wanted to turn into English verse. She practiced spoken Korean not only with Father Hunt's student but also with Bishop Trollope, Father Hunt and with Mary Taylor. She even managed to teach a resistant Wu a little marketplace Korean. She also tried to teach an even-more-resistant me and my father. Both of us refused to learn more than a few words. Our Japanese, as my father put it, was sufficient to see us through. Our refusal annoyed her but she abandoned the attempt after a few tries.
My mother studied Korean history, art, and over and over, the language. After her death, my father remarked to me that one of his most vivid memories was the way in which she had filled so many of her days and evenings in Korea working on the language of the country which at first she had loathed.
Despite the fact that she had begun her study of Korean only a year previously, Bishop Trollope felt that by the fall of 1930 she had mastered the nuances of the language sufficiently so that he could honestly say her English verses were "superior to Dr. Gale's in style and mood."
The most striking example of the difference between Dr. Gale's and my mother's versions is to be seen in the difference between their handling of what Gale describes as "a little song, dated 17 B.C., the oldest piece of Korean composition extant." In a forward Gale tells of how its author, King Yoori, suffered when his favorite queen ran away, of how he followed her but failed in his attempt to make her return with him and of how, resting on his way back to his palace, he sat beneath a tree and watched "a pair of orioles delighting in each other's company."
Gale's version is:
O lilting, joyous yellow bird
You mate to live and love each other
While I, alas, unloved, unheard
Have lost my everything, sweet brother.
My mother's version is:
In yellow sunlight on the golden road
I stand alone.
All, all are mine-the rice fields and the golden road.
All but the one thing I desire.
In a tree by the road two yellow birds are mating.
Why must they sing so gaily?
Serious scholars of Asiatic literature may complain that in none of my mother's version does she convey the rhythmic pattern of the original. But she does suggest the understated mood of loss in a variety of lyrics about the departure to another country, or to death, of a beloved friend or child, or, in the just-quoted case, of a concubine. And to reproduce the moods of scholarly Korean poetry was all that she had originally set out to do. But had she had time, as she had hoped, to learn written, as well as spoken, Korean, her work might have been different. Time was something she was not to have.
My mother's absorption in her language studies and in Korean poetry was the excuse she gave for not going on an expedition dreamed up by Father Hunt and Dr. Underwood. A pretty teacher at the Seoul Foreign School, Margaret Harries, was about to return to live in her home in Atlanta, Georgia. Father Hunt was fond of this young woman with blonde hair and a soft Southern accent. And both Dr. Underwood's oldest son, Horace, and I loved her laughter, her skill as a photographer, and her spirit of adventure. She had been our favorite teacher.
Father Hunt said that a "Georgia Peach" could not possibly go back to Atlanta without having been to see the Diamond Mountains in the northern part of Korea. She simply must climb Manmulcho, "The Peak of Ten Thousand Resemblances," and photograph the waterfalls and the temples there. He also proposed that she take Horace Underwood and me along as companions and, "of course," my mother.
Horace and I went but my mother stayed behind. She said stiffly that she had too much to do, and the expedition sounded "too arduous." But during my absence on the trip, my mother was not too busy to return to Japan, to write some columns for The Japan Advertiser and to take several extended hikes in the Japanese Alps with Lillian Miller and Mary Taylor. It was the old story. She was letting her prejudices get in the way. She did not care for Southerners and Methodists. Margaret Harries was both. There may have been another reason: Father Hunt had once failed to come to tea with my mother and Mary Taylor because Margaret Harries had begged him to speak to her music group about old English carols. She was a most attractive young woman and my mother was probably jealous.
We three who did go to the Diamond Mountains returned exhausted but excited. My mother was preoccupied and listened with only one ear to Horace's and my reports of having seen a bear and-maybe-a tiger. But when she saw the photographs that Margaret Harries and Horace had taken, my mother realized to the full why Father Hunt had wanted her to make the trip. The waterfalls, the lakes, the mountains with their strange jagged pinnacles, like granite stalagmites, looked spectacular. But for my mother what was really compelling was the fact that picture after picture showed a tiny Buddhist temple or monastery clinging to a narrow ledge on some sheer rock face. Some of the temples, she said, looked as if they "had been blown there by the wind." And one photograph showed a bas-relief Buddha, forty feet high, carved on a granite mountain side. Next summer, my mother decided, she would indeed go to the Diamond Mountains. Horace and I, and maybe my father, would accompany her.
But in the summer of 1930 my father had to go back to Japan on business, and then to Shanghai. I wanted to go with him. Like my father, I was interested in seeing old Yokohama friends, and I was also eager to participate once again in the Fourth of July sports day at the Club. I was after another piece of silver. And I was eager to accompany my father to Shanghai, to see that vast city and the great Yangtze River. Mary Taylor said that she had found the Diamond Mountains beautiful, but getting there was "simply too ghastly for words." My mother went to the Diamond Mountains alone.
At first, my mother thought Mary Taylor was wrong about how difficult the journey to the mountains was. Like the three of us the year before, she found the six-hour trip to the northeast coastal town of Wonsan a delightful experience. The Japanese train was excellent, the scenery lovely. And Wonsan was charming. She understood why it was a favorite place for some of the missionaries to escape to from the summer heat of Seoul. From what she called its "long, golden beaches" she could see the jigged peaks of Pirobong, the highest of the Diamond Mountains, and of Manmulcho, "The Peak of Ten Thousand Resemblances." As the crow flies they were only fifteen miles away.
My mother, unfortunately, was not a crow. The Japanese were working on a branch railroad line to the little town of Ononji, gateway to the mountains, but it would not be finished for two years. When Horace and I went with Margaret Harries, we had rented a private car with a chauffeur to take us to Ononji. My mother decided that a private car was what her Scots mother would have called a frivolity. Instead, she squeezed herself into the "public service bus," a battered Ford truck with nine passengers and no room for her to stretch her arms and legs among her kimchi-scented fellow passengers. But somehow she managed to endure the seven hours needed to cover the one hundred and fifty miles to Ononji. The road was unpaved. It was not even gravelled. The bus slurped out of streams, bounced over boulders, slithered in mud around steep cliffs above precipitous drops. But at last it arrived in Ononji.
When she got out of the bus, my mother said, her first reaction was that Mary Taylor had been right in refusing to come. But then she met her guide, an English-speaking student of Father Hunt's. He was a Buddhist and delighted to meet an Englishwoman who was also a Buddhist and who spoke Korean. This guide did not drag my mother up to the top of Pirobong as had the one who had escorted us the previous year. Instead, he took my mother to see pools where "blue kingfishers skimmed the jade-green waters." He awakened her early each morning to see the mists rise from the lakes and "twist in and out among the spear-like peaks." He pointed out that these mist wraiths sometimes did look like birds, animals, even dragons. It was no wonder, he said, that the first Buddhist missionaries to arrive in the north of Korea had had such a battle to win converts, to convince the ancient Koreans that they were wrong to believe in animal spirits.
And the guide took her to a score of little temples, gray on the outside but brilliantly colored inside. He escorted her to a number of monasteries and introduced her to the monks. And she went to view the little-visited great granite bas-relief Buddha. She found it "more magnificent in its way" than the world-famous gilded bronze Buddha near Yokohama. And there were no throngs of noisy tourists. The Diamond Mountains, she decided, were "much more spectacular than the Japanese Alps." My mother's conversion to a love of Korea was complete.
Despite the travail of the public service bus return journey, she came back to Seoul in what my father described as "a state of mystical exaltation." It had been "the most marvelous experience" of her life. She had never known "such a state of other-worldliness." She was sorry she had not gone in 1929; she was going back in 1931. She was going to take Lillian Miller with her to sketch the temples, the maples, the stalagmite-like granite peaks. She was going to write a book about the Diamond Mountains and the Buddhist monks who lived there in their cliff-hanging monasteries. She had to go back. One visit was not enough to see, to feel everything.
She did not go back in 1931. She never went back. Nor did she ever write her book about the cliff-hanging monasteries, a fact that she spoke of with regret only a few months before her death. Today, the Diamond Mountains and their Buddhist monasteries—If they still exist under Communism—lie unseen by the outside world, hidden from view in that strange, paranoid land called North Korea.
On the day when my mother returned from the mountains, she told my father that she would live "in a state of exaltation" for the rest of her days. But soon, in a ridiculous form, reality buried the sublime. While my mother did not write her book on "her favorite place in beloved Korea," a project of which she would never have dreamed when she first explored the dirty alleys of Seoul, she did do another piece of writing she also would not have dreamed of in January 1929. She wrote another play, a peculiar play, and on demand.
My mother's friendship with Dr. Underwood's wife bid led her to take a limited interest in the Seoul Foreign School and its workings. In September, 1930, Mrs. Underwood urged my mother to become more involved, to attend a P.T.A. meeting. This was a new experience for my mother, a woman whose only previous knowledge of a school's nature had been as a looker-on at St. Ninian's. In Japan she had always left my school to the teacher. Now she was entering that world.
My mother was baffled by the American-style P.T.A. meeting with its discussion of baked-goods sales and other fund-raising events. And she had no understanding of the problems involved in the "away" football game with the Pyongyang Foreign School. It was American football, of course, not rugby. Arguments about helmets and shoulder pads left her bewildered. Nor was she able to follow the heated argument about the "spaghetti dinner," whatever that was.
Yet she did agree to go to future meetings. She liked Mrs. Underwood. At the same time, she said with a sigh, this aspect of her life in Korea was "a thousand miles away from the Diamond Mountains."
At the November P.T.A. meeting, Mrs. Underwood approached my mother with a request. A school play was to be put on at the start of Christmas vacation. Could my mother write one in time? It could be on almost any subject, but there were one or two requirements. It could not be about the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Some of the Methodist missionaries might construe such a play as smelling of Roman Catholicism. Unlike the Underwoods, the Methodists were not ecumenical. And the play should have as large a cast as possible. The previous year's play had offended some of the P.T.A. members since their children had not had parts.
My mother was not strong on saying "no." She said "yes" and added that she thought she could have the first draft within two weeks. How the idea came to her she never explained. But she produced a real tour de force. She dramatized Robert Browning's narrative poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The members of the Junior and Senior classes had parts as the Mayor and Council of the rat-infested town. The tallest Senior boy was the Pied Piper. The rest of the then-small school had roles as the town children- except for those in the first two grades who, in black crepe paper costumes, ran about the stage squeaking like rats.
The whole performance was a great success, especially the ending, thanks to a master stroke of scene design on my mother's part. One of the playground slides had been brought in and set up on the stage. When the angry Pied Piper, deprived of his just reward for killing the rats, departed "for another world" with the children in tow, he and they climbed the steps of the slide and slid down to disappear into the mouth of a black paper maché cave. One of the third graders was a rather small, thin little boy. He was made to carry a crutch like Tiny Tim's. As the one child left behind in Hamelin because of his inability to climb the steps, he delivered the curtain line, a pathetic wail: "I am all, all alone because the grown-ups did not keep their promises."
Even for a school play it was no masterpiece, but my mother had managed to give a part to everyone. Mrs. Underwood loved it and thought it should become a Seoul Foreign School "tradition." And it was put on the next Christmas. But by that time my mother herself was in "another world," far from Seoul. Mrs. Underwood wrote her to say that this second production was not so good. The school had missed my mother's enthusiastic direction.
In the autumn of 1930 my mother also said "yes" to another writing project. My father brought a Japanese Civil Servant who was a "liberal" home for dinner. This guest, a Harvard graduate, spoke fluent English. My mother liked him at once because of the way in which he spoke with compassion of the "plight' of the Koreans and his hope that some day they would be full citizens of the Japanese Empire. But one thing troubled him about the Koreans, he said. They were cruel to the skinny little donkeys that many of them rode or that carried overweight loads of firewood. They were also cruel to dogs. He had even heard rumors that they ate dogs. Like many Japanese, he was a dog lover. He owned a pedigreed collie imported from a kennel in New Jersey and was worried that some Korean might kidnap it and eat it.
He had talked to some friends about forming a Seoul chapter of the S.P.C.A. My mother thought that this was a "marvelous" idea. He then asked my mother if she would write a constitution for the chapter. My mother said, "of course," and invited him and his friends to come to tea to discuss the organization.
In theory it was a beautiful idea. In practice, working out the details proved burdensome. At the first meeting, the would-be founder of the chapter soon realized that it was going to be a difficult project. How could he and his fellow "liberal" friends stop Korean cruelty to animals without having the Japanese police be brutal to people? There would have to be another meeting to decide this issue before my mother could write the constitution.
At this first meeting, Wu had obviously realized that the affair had to do with improving the lot of dogs. At the second meeting, he introduced the would-be founder as "she." Father Hunt had been asked to join the group. When he appeared, Wu announced in a loud voice, "Now she come." The frosting on the sandwiches had never been thicker.
After three more meetings, the ethical dilemma about the Koreans and the police had not been solved. The constitution remained unwritten. Maybe a chapter of the S.P.C.A. was at last formed in Seoul. But not in my mother's day.
Just before our departure, however, Wu had a two-week night-mare. The "founder" of the S.P.C.A. had to go back to Tokyo for ten days. He was concerned about leaving his collie with the Korean "boy." So the collie moved in with us and Turpin. Collie and chow-both males-did not get along and had to be given food and water in separate rooms. On the first day Wu flatly refused to look after the collie. "Turpin bad," he said, "Japan dog more bad." Then one day, to my mother's surprise, he volunteered to give food and water to both animals. After he had looked after the collie, he announced, "She bite. She very bad."
The bite seemed to be invisible, but if the good-natured guest had bitten Wu, my mother felt sure it was because Wu had kicked or otherwise mistreated the dog. She felt guilty about the collie, not about Wu's bite, and at once wrote off for a three years' subscription to TailWaggers magazine for the Japanese owner. This, ultimately, was her most substantive contribution to the establishment of the Seoul S.P.C.A.
At the time when we left Seoul, my mother had also not completed her major Korean writing project, The Orchid Door. From the start, my mother's head coach had been Bishop Trollope with his stern insistence that she learn the vocabulary and the correct accent of spoken Korean, plus the right choices as "sample of works by ancient scholar-poets." But in September, 1930, a new coach entered the game and changed the rules. Mrs. C. I. McLaren, a missionary wife and the teacher at Ehwa Girl's School whom my mother had met in her first week in Seoul, decided to turn over to my mother a large collection she had made of literal translations of songs by ki-sang girls-the counterparts of Japan's geisha. Why Mrs. McLaren had delayed so long in contacting my mother is an unanswered question. Perhaps the Bishop intimidated her. But in September, 1930, she suggested that my mother turn a considerable number of these non-scholarly poems by, and about the ki-sang, into English verse.
My mother at once liked the idea of including these "songs" by the supposedly evil ki-sang. After some thought she decided to omit some of the scholarly poems, already worked on, and replace them with ki-sang "songs." From a feminist viewpoint, her decision to have the ki-sang verses was an interesting one, but it meant additional labor.
When she had completed these additions, they made up about a third of her volume. Her prefatory note about them is interesting in its reflection of her strong reaction to the treatment of women in Korea:
They reveal so well the meekness and pathetic charm of old-time Korean womanhood that I have thought it well to include them in this collection though, strictly speaking, they have no place beside the writings of the poetic masters.
What the scholarly Bishop Trollope would have thought of my mother's inclusion of so many anonymous, unscholarly poems by and about the ki-sang, there is no way of telling. He died soon after my mother left Korea.
Mrs. McLaren's suggestion also altered the book's projected title. My mother's original plan had been to call it Beneath the Gingko's Shade. And she intended to open the collection with a blank verse poem of her own, one which contrasted the life of the 12th century monks at Dilkusha with hers in 20th-century Seoul. The shift in emphasis, towards making the collection stress the plight of Korean women, also led to the new title, The Orchid Door, the title of the volume's opening poem. In her preface to this anonymous poem she says:
The phrase "orchid door" is sometimes used as a term to describe the women's quarters. In the same sense we find "jade courtyard," "perfumed screen" and other fanciful phrases. It also occurs, however, in the scholarly writings where it is applied to delicate elusive thoughts, the entrance to the poet's Immortal Garden.
The title, then, has a two-fold meaning. It refers both to my mother's English versions of poems by male scholar-poets, and to her renditions of the "songs" of the ki-sang. The new title seems a far better choice, especially given the radically changed emphasis of the work. The book became not only a collection of poems but also a brief history of Korean poetry. My mother opened the volume with a twenty-nine page introduction, a concise history of Korean literature from 17 B.C. to the 17th century A.D. She also included a prefatory note on the life of each of the male poets and an account of the ki-sang "songs.".
The Princeton University Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics lists my mother as the first individual to render Korean poetry into English verse. The Encyclopedia is incorrect. Dr. Gale has that distinction. But my mother was certainly the first woman to render literal translations of poems by Korean scholar-poets into English verse. And she was also the first individual to turn the ki-sang "songs" into English verse. In that respect she was indeed a pioneer in a land rich in poetry but poor in its treatment of women.
The Orchid Door is not only her most interesting, most mature volume of poems, it was also her first avowed feminist work: she turned from her male mentors, Dr. Gale and Bishop Trollope, to follow the path along which she was encouraged to go by Mrs. McLaren and Mary Taylor.
As for the publication of the volume, my mother owed that to Lillian Miller, to Mary Taylor, and to a Japanese printer in Tokyo. She had hoped that Kegan Paul, the London publishers of Lanterns by the Lake, would also accept The Orchid Door. But by the time she had at last finished her work on the book, it was 1933. In that Depression year, neither Kegan Paul nor any other London publisher would gamble on a volume of poems by an obscure woman poet, in particular on one concerned with a little-known country like Korea. Or was it "Corea?" Or "Cho-sen?"
Lillian Miller had done woodblock illustrations for the volume. She was determined that the new volume should be published. And so was Mary Taylor. Something "really beautiful" should come out of the "sadly marred Dilkusha."
Lillian Miller talked a bookshop owner in Kobe into stocking The Orchid Door and advertising it. She herself would pay for the printing by a Japanese press. And so the volume saw publication with a binding of gray-green Korean brocade silk—a suggestion by Mary Taylor. How many copies were printed, how many were sold, there is no way to tell. Lillian Miller bought a number of copies. So did Mary Taylor. And the author of the article in the Princeton Encyclopedia must have read someone's copy of the book if he or she did not own it. The rest of the readership remains an unknown. This seems a pity. It is a literary work that should not be forgotten.
My mother began work on this Buddhism-permeated volume in late summer, 1929. Thanks to the generosity of Lillian Miller and Mary Taylor, it at last came from the press in 1935. By that time, my mother was no longer in her beloved Korea. And, for unhappy reasons, she was no longer a Buddhist.
We left Seoul because the Japanese government pressured the Ford Motor Company into laying off its Caucasian employees. Serious trouble with China-and beyond-was on its way. The government wanted American trucks; it did not want Caucasian "spies." Ford offered to transfer my father to its Shanghai branch. He did not think Shanghai would be a safe place to work for very long. He would have liked a job with Ford in the United States but he was not an American citizen.
My mother wanted to go back to England. My father refused. He had no desire to have to deal with the British class system again. The compromise seemed to be Winnipeg. Although "Lily" Langtry was then back in Detroit, my father still had other friends there and he wanted to return. But my mother remembered how impressed she had been by the mountains rising above Vancouver harbor on the day in 1924 when they had sailed for Japan. My father knew no one in Vancouver. My mother swayed him: Vancouver had not only mountains but also, she had heard, a temperate climate. So to Vancouver we went.
My mother's life in Korea, "The Hermit Kingdom," and in Japan, "The Land of the Rising Sun," was over. And her years of dwelling on a beautiful, long-gone past, while accommodating, more or less, to a sometimes-ugly present were also over. From then on, she was, for the most part, to have to live in the present.
So that Turpin could be happy on the long journey across the Pacific—and to save money—my mother insisted that my father book passage on a slow Vancouver-bound Japanese freighter. In those days, Japanese freighters allowed dogs to wander free about the decks instead of confining them in kennels down in the dark. On the afternoon when the Heian Maru steamed out of Tokyo Bay, my mother patted Turpin's head as she gazed up at the receding peak of Mt. Fuji. "We'll come back, old boy," she said to the dog. Neither dog nor his mistress did come back. And in just under two years, my mother was to begin her last long journey, this one to her death. In some ways, the most unusual of her accomplishments were to occur in the few years that lay between her last sight of Mt. Fuji and the last days of her life.