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Interview with Hi-Dong Chai
Hi-Dong Chai

A native of Seoul, Korea, Hi-Dong Chai was educated in the United States. He received a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, worked for IBM, and taught at San Jose State University. He retired as a professor emeritus in 2002. As someone who lost his loved ones through World War II under Japan and through the Korean War, he has directed his time and effort after his retirement to creative writing to share his thoughts, his feelings and his life experiences. His moving memoir, Shattered by the Wars, is a story of love, sacrifice, faith, and suffering. I'm pleased Red Room introduced us and gave me this chance to get to know him and his work.

Your book reminds me of The Other Side of the Sky, Afghan land mine victim Farah Ahmadi’s memoir, and Dave Eggers’s What Is the What, about Sudan: these are stories of private lives pulverized by public events. You lived through the last of WWII, the Japanese occupation of Korea, the division of Korea by the great powers, and then the Korean War the invasion of the South by the North. 

How would you as a person have been different, do you suppose, if you had been born just after these events instead of just before?

I would be like a typical American boy, going to school, playing with friends, and in my case, going to church on Sunday, … Carefree, without worrying about what the morrow will bring.

What if you had not been able to get out of Korea when you did?

I went to one of the best high schools in Korea, and many of my classmates did very well. Starting from the ashes of the Korean War, one became a billionaire, some became high ranking government officials, many became company executives…   I would most likely have become a professor in some field.

What if you had grown up in the north?

I would most likely have been conscripted to the Northern military to serve their great leader, Kim Il-Sung.

What shines through your book is your mother’s courage, strength, and determination. Your attribute this to her faith in God.  Your father, presumably had an absolute faith in God, but he comes across as a stern and rather distant figure.

What do you think of his faith as compared to your mother’s?

As a born-again Christian, his mission was to lead many non-believers to the bosom of Christ.  He was rarely home with the family because he travelled to villages to preach the gospel with American missionaries, and also because he was busy looking after his parishioners scattered  around the city of Seoul.  Even though he did not spend much time with us, we knew that he loved us and proud of us by his smile and the tone of his voice.  But there was no physical contact like holding hands and embracing because it was not the custom of the day; Father was someone to look up to, not the one to play with. Mother, however, was born caring and warm, not only to her children but also to visitors.  People were drawn to her, and my house was like a market-place with visitors knocking at our door to be with her everyday.  Yes, Mother had an absolute faith in God, and her faith pulled her through many trial and travails, and led us with love and grace.

My god? In my growing years, God was a conditional god who loved me as long as I followed his way.  Otherwise, He would throw me into a burning hell.  Now, my God is a God of unconditional love.  He loves me because He is Love, not because I am good.

How did his religious vocation affect what happened to your father?

He refused to bow down to the picture of the Japanese emperor and was taken to prison during WWII.  Because he was a Christian minister, he was taken away by the North Korean officers during the Korean War, never to return.

In the middle of a book recounting the savage consequences of war on you, your family, your loved ones, you devote a substantial chapter to your poor dog Kwi-Dong. What made this pooch so important to you?  Beyond the affection you had for her, what did she represent?

After my brother, Hi-Seung, Kwi-Dong was my best friend.  Period. I looked after her. She looked forward to play ball with me, and I knew that she would give her life to protect me. After WWII, when I sat on a rock by our front door hoping to see Hi-Seung coming home from Japan, Kwi-Dong sat next me, waiting. When I went back to the house discouraged for not seeing Brother coming home, Kwi-Dong walked next to me looking sad. Then during the Korean War, I had to let Kwi-Dong go when Mother said, “We don’t have enough rice left even for the family.” I still carry the guilt not keeping her from being taken away by a dog warden and the pain of picturing her ending up on the warden’s dinner table. 

Throughout the book, you keep raising a question about God: if He is indeed so loving and all-powerful, how can He permit such suffering and so much injustice? You ask but do not answer. What would you say about it now?

I know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. I know when I throw a stone up in the air, it falls back down to the ground.  But when I talk about God, I use the word, believe, because I don’t know. I don’t know who God is. Now I choose to believe in a God of unconditional love, because in 1990, in the darkest period of my life, I experienced the inner freedom and peace that I had never expected to experience in this world.  I attributed this experience—amazing grace—to God’s love for me.

Let’s talk about your brother Hi-Seung—the black sheep of the family growing up—got poor grades, had rough manners. And yet, when the war came, it was he who rose most heroically to the occasion. Describe his influence on you, and his role in your life.

I felt that Hi-Seung was like my second mother. I did not know why I felt that way until Mother told me. As soon as I was born, Hi-Seung felt the connection with me. He sat next to Mother and watched me with admiration drinking Mother’s milk. He said, “The way he sucks your nipple, he is going to be a strong boy.” Even though he did not smile at people, with me he often smiled. As mentioned in the book, he was the one who helped me to feel that I could handle anything in life. When he died, the light went out of my life.  My life has not been the same since his death.

Your eldest brother Hi-Bum was considered the model son growing up—smart, polite,  headed for success. But when he joined the communist group, he brought the ideological conflicts tearing Korea apart into the bosom of your family. What do you think of his choices?  Are you entirely critical? Do you find something to admire in him, looking back? 

I feel sorry for him. If he were born in a country like America, he would have become a great intellectual admired by many. Unfortunately, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He did not mean to hurt his family for his ideology.  In some ways, he and Father were alike. They were firm in their positions.  He was an idealist. He saw flaws in the leaders, and when they did not deliver what they had promised, he sided with those idealists, some of whom were communists, who wanted a change in their government. The government threw them into prison, and Hi-Bum was one of them.

The conflict between North and South Korea is one of several dating back to the aftermath of World War II. The others I can think of—Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan—have roots going back many centuries. Does the Korean division have similarly deep roots, or was this problem pretty much created by Cold War jockeying? 

When Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910, the North and South Koreas were one country, a tiny peninsula attached to the giant Manchuria. After WWII in 1945, Russia and the U.S. agreed to divide the country into North and South with Russia acting as a trusteeship for the North and the U.S., for the South. They agreed to hold a free election in 1948 for the Koreans to decide on the form of government the people wanted. Meanwhile, the Cold War ensued between the two super-powers, and the free election never took place. Korea has been divided in two to this day.

In the course of writing a memoir, one often remembers forgotten things, one sees new connections, and one gains insights that transform experience into meaning.  What unexpected things did you recollect in the course of writing Shattered by the Wars?  

I worked on this story for 30 years off and on, and I am sure there were unexpected things that came into my consciousness, but I do not remember them.

What were some of your retrospective discoveries and insights about your life?

 How did I manage to survive through the two wars with the loss of the loved ones? was the question that came to me. Also I realized that the first seven years in America were more difficult than my sixteen years in Korea. Also somewhere deep within me a voice says, “I have not given you all those life experiences for you to take to your grave. Your job is to share those experiences with the world.” 

Was it painful to write this book? 

Yes, oftentimes I felt the pain in my heart, and I let it be. 

Was it cathartic?

Yes, I shed many tears, groaned and moaned during my writing.

What prompted you to start writing this book at the time that you did, several decades ago, when you were working full time as an engineer, the field in which you were trained?

I decided to write in my teens to honor my mother, the greatest human being whom I had known, and who led us with love and grace through all her suffering. As I was reaching 50, I realized that I should keep the promise that I had made in my teens before I became an old man. I did not expect it to take this long. Now I am 77 and can go home in peace knowing that I have kept my promise.  

I’m sure the experiences you recount here were the most dramatic of your life; but every life has many stories and the less dramatic ones can be interesting in their own way.  Do you have another book in mind to write? 

Yes, I have a 300+ page writing titled, Journey through America. It is an autobiography about my life in America written before 2005. I am in the process of deciding whether to write it as a fiction or as a memoir.

 

This interview is one in an exclusive series of original author interviews arranged by Red Room editors as part of their Author Matchmakers series. Learn more about the series here, and arrange to be an interviewer or interviewee by writing to editors@redroom.com.