A welfare office lady, Madam Han, introduced Kyoko and me to three places in Yumri-dong. And we visited one of them where three women (Madam Kim (85 years old), Park(78), Cho(75)) live together. The house was placed at a narrow alley, a four story red brick flat (a very common style flat in Korea) and they live on second floor. It is an old building but it has many windows. It has three bedrooms -- one room for each woman --, one quite big living-dining room, and one bathroom.
Beforehand, the day before we planed to visit, I called Madam Kim, one of the three women, to tell them that we were going there tomorrow, but she was harsh and yelled something unintelligible at me and hang up the phone immediately even though we had met together with Madam Han (of the welfare office) already. So Madam Han kindly rearranged the second meeting for us.
So I was anxious and thought "what if she is angry" as we rang the door bell. They opened the door and when I said "I'm the interpreter and she is Kyoko Ebata the Japanese photographer" they smiled and one lady gently said "Come in, please", and another said even in Japanese "Irassyai!" I was bewildered but frankly very relieved!
They prepared instant coffee (mixed instant coffee was elderly ladies' favorite coffee, I found!) and strawberries for us, and peeled an apple and a pear. We sat on the living room floor and had coffee together. We talked for a while about her project, but they were a bit shy and told us there was nothing worth of taking pictures of, but that we should feel free and do whatever we wanted to! Then Kyoko started to take pictures of the rooms. And I remained with them and kept listening to their stories.
Surprisingly all of them were born in North Korea near Pyogyang, and had all run off to South Korea for different reasons. Kim and Cho came to South Korea during the Korean Civil War and Park moved to China with her family during the Japanese occupation and much later moved to Korea. People as old as them who grew up in those days in Korea must have had a hard time because they had to go through two terrible wars while they were little children. In those days most Korean people were poor and hungry. So they said terrible things about the war and how far people could be cruel to other people. Park told me "I saw dead people's bodies hanging on the trees, people who had been killed by South Korean soldiers in the mountains." And Cho said "Yes, that was terrible! I also saw dead people a lot. Now I wonder which one was crueler North Koreans or South Koreans. They were both bad, inhuman, monstrous!" And Park said "Now a days I don't think of what happened during the war at all. It makes me deeply depressed," and she stopped talking.
But soon she began talking about her childhood and her life which perhaps was almost forgotten even to herself for ages of years. Her eyes looked a bit empty, seeing nothing or maybe seeing the memories of her whole life. Soon Park started to talk again. "It was when I was in China with my family. And the end of the war. It was sad. Poor Japanese, we liked them... They were dying of hunger, they were killed sometimes, and eventually they had to get back to Japan by that ship... In my neighborhood, there were lots of Japanese and they had such a hard time then, so miserable because of losing the war mostly... so sometimes we helped them. The Chinese wanted to kill some of them and a Japanese family was hidden in my house and they shared our food. But they finally left to Japan. They were just like family to us, just like my family." And she looked at Kyoko smiled and talked softly something like this in Japanese. "They were my family. I still miss them (Nihonjinwa kazoku mitai. Imademo kareraga nastukasii)."
I couldn't understand the situation well nor why she still likes Japanese people so much. When Korean people talk about the Japanese invasion and occupation, most Korean people hate what the Japanese did to Korea, to us, during that time. Park hated the war, but she experienced something different from most people in Korea. Was it because she was in China? She talked just so innocently, so sympathetically, not what I would have expected from a woman who survived war and occupation.
I just listened to them. I just let them talk more and more.
Eventually, I didn't much think about their meaning any more. Just they were so cute all together and I was happy to listen to them. My mind was wandering, wandering about my already-dead-grandma's old place in my childhood, in the countryside. It was comfortable.
We talked, laughed, sighed, laughed again, held our hands together, hugged, and said good-bye.