The first day in my memoir is 13 August 1948, the Independence Day of the country where I was born—South Korea. After achieving independence, the country celebrates patriotism, a sort of oneness in the country. But the situation is very different in my little world of a family of seven members: my papa, Sung-ho, my mamma, Jiyeon, my elder brother, Suk-hwan, my elder sisters, Min-seo, Yun-seo and Ji-woo and the youngest in the family, three-year-old Jie-won—that’s me.
After 43 years, the country has become independent of Japanese rule. The entire country is celebrating with flowers and fireworks. One-page newspaper, Telegram, showing pictures of the new leaders, are distributed free in the streets. Telegram is the best means of communication from new leaders to the people of the country. TV sets haven’t been available in the market yet; even radio sets are available only to a very few. Offices are closed, trams and buses aren’t plying, the whole country has come to a stand-still, relishing and rejoicing the independence. I’m looking at the pictures in Telegram; my sisters Min-seo and Yun-seo are reading the paper and showing the photo of the leader, Syngman Rhee, to me. Another sister, Ji-woo—five years old—is at the window, looking for revelation in the street. Mamma is doing something in the kitchen. A few minutes ago Min-seo was there too; 10-year-old Min-seo has learnt how to arrange wood sticks, coal and charcoal in a coal-fired stove. Seven-year-old Yun-seo hasn’t started cooking yet; she is explaining to me how better off we would be after independence. My 14-year-old brother, Suk-hwan, isn’t home. At this hour he is possibly playing with his friends.
Mamma is a bit surprised to see Papa returning so soon.
‘What happened?’ she asks. ‘Didn’t you go for the tutoring job?’
‘No, they won’t take any lesson today, the country has become independent; they like to take a break.’
‘Why don’t you go to the shops please, and bring me some groceries?’
‘I’ve no money, Jiyeon. Do you have some?’
‘No, I don’t. I’ve given you yesterday whatever I had.’
‘I thought I’d get the tutor salary today, but got nothing because the students wanted a holiday.’
‘Shall I give you my gold ring for pawning?’
‘Those shops are closed too.’
‘But I need to cook something. What will I dish out to my children today? I’ve some rice, which I’d cook, but I’ve nothing else, not even lentils.’
‘Do you have any money left anywhere with any one of these children? Have you ever given them anything to keep in their purse?’
‘No Sung-ho, I can’t think of anything.’
‘What can we do? Should we fast for the day?’
Papa’s eyes are wandering around the house looking for anything he can use to buy food. He notices an improvised carom board. Suk-hwan plays carom on that; 19 jeons are resting on that board. Suk-hwan uses these jeons as carom coins.
Papa raises his finger to point at those jeons. Mamma and Papa walk to Suk-hwan’s carom board, not far from where Min-seo, Yun-seo and I are engrossed with the Telegram. As Papa bends to pick the coins off the board, Yun-seo cries out: ‘Please don’t touch, Dad. Suk-hwan will be upset. Yesterday, he scolded me when I put my hands on the red painted coin’.
Mamma says, ‘Leave these coins if you can; everyday Suk-hwan plays with them’.
‘I would if I could,’ Papa says, ‘but I’ve nothing else to buy groceries now’.
I could never forget the day South Korea became independent, nor would any of my siblings, Suk-hwan, Min-seo, Yun-seo and Ji-woo, nor would my parents, Mamma and Papa. Since then, whenever Independence Day is celebrated, I remember that day and the coins being taken off Suk-hwan’s carom board
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