Every time I visit my grandmother, she gives me a long hug as her face lights up with pleasure. She cooks me a big meal, urges me to eat more, and asks me how my family has been doing. When I finish eating, my grandmother starts telling me stories. Much of them are stories of the past, what she had to go through when she was in her 20s, 30s, and 40s. Her stories are not new to me. In fact, I grew up hearing about the sacrifices she had to make for her family. My experience of listening to these stories formed an important part of my identity and allowed me to question the relationship between fate and free will in one’s life.
My grandmother never attended middle school or high school because she had to work when she became old enough to help feed her family. She was twenty years old when she got married. As soon as she married my grandfather, she had to work her fingers to the bone doing chores and working the land at the same time. When she made any trivial mistake, her spiteful mother-in-law would openly criticize and mock my grandmother: “You don’t even know this? Your parents didn’t teach you anything!” She faced such unfair treatments every single day but couldn’t complain at all.
When my grandparents finally decided to move from the countryside to the city of Incheon, He didn’t have a job. Since he was not really a responsible or capable husband, my grandmother had to do something in order to feed the family. By selling some garlic she cultivated, she managed to buy a train ticket. On a cold winter day, she transferred trains multiple times and walked endlessly to visit her distant relative who lived far away. She recounts to this day that the whole village was covered with snow and it was freezing. There, she earnestly asked her relative to offer my grandfather a job. By visiting her relative twice this way, my grandmother earned her husband a job in the city.
But hardships did not end even after my grandfather became the primary breadwinner. My grandmother had to take care of four children and two young sisters-in-law who were students at the time. She also had to cook and clean for several college students who used to board at her house. Since my grandfather was a traditional Korean man with patriarchal notions, he never helped her with chores. After returning from work, he would just read newspapers silently, waiting for his wife to cook for him. My grandmother worked all day long while carrying a baby on her back with a blanket, which gave her a heat rash in summers. Of course, there was no such thing as a gas stove or a washing machine that was cheap enough for her to buy at the time. So she had to do everything with her own hands. In the winter, her hands turned red and swollen since she had to wash clothes with her bare hands dipped in cold water. When my grandmother had to visit somewhere, she would walk hours and hours instead of taking buses to save money. After years of hard work, my grandparents finally earned some money, and things seemed to improve. But then my grandmother’s mother-in-law was diagnosed with dementia. She had to take care of the sick, old woman for over three years because that was regarded as an obligation as a traditional Korean daughter-in-law at the time.
“It’s my palja to serve and take care of others.” When I asked her how she could live through such a hard life, my grandmother told me that it was just written in the stars for her. Over 30 years, my grandmother had to take care of other people not necessarily by her own will. She was born in a poor family with siblings that needed her care, she married a man who was indifferent to her sacrifice, her four children were born one after another, her sisters-in-law came to the city looking for a home, and her mother-in-law became severely ill. So many people had depended on my grandmother’s food, labor, and care. After listening to her story, I had to believe what she said; it was her fate to live a life of sacrifice and pain. Yet, there was no sign of rage or regret in her voice. In fact, I’ve never seen my grandmother pitying or complaining about her own depressing past. Instead, she has always found pleasure in taking care of others and offered help as long as her circumstance allows. Fate forced her to suffer, but it was her own strength, optimism, and persistence that allowed her to always stay positive and bubbly, even to this day.
To some, her acceptance of fate and compliance with the obligations imposed on her may seem like proof that she is a passive female figure. But I think otherwise. My grandmother is someone who wisely reconciled fate and free will. She controlled her life in her own way: “shaking off” even when things went from bad to worse. Smiling at everything and finding hope everywhere. Believing that the sacrifices she made will someday return to her in the form of good luck. Since I was very young, my grandmother taught me to do the same. Thanks to her, I learned to accept my fate but at the same time, find beauty in it. So even when one of my relatives passed away a few months ago, I wasn’t overwhelmed by grief. Although her death was something I couldn’t prevent happening, I accepted it as an event that bound our family more tightly. Moreover, attending her funeral allowed me to realize that I have many people around me who are more than willing to support me emotionally. Knowing that we cannot control some aspects of our lives and still being able to relish the beauty of every day—this idea is the biggest gift I ever received from my grandmother.