Driving down a country road at 70 miles an hour my wife suddenly shouts, ''Look:" I slam on the brakes, the car swerving to a tire-screeching halt. I fear the worst, a child or an animal on the street. "What is it?" I yell. "Look at those beautiful wild lilies," she says, unaware that I had just taken 200 miles of rubber off the car's tires.
That is what it is like for an American to be married to a woman who was born and raised in Korea.In Seoul, soon after we were engaged to be married, she used to cuddle next to me and say, "I am the delicate flower and you are the big ugly rock that protects me." She meant that as a compliment. For 5,000 years in Korea a man, to be really masculine, has had to be strong, cold and ugly. As a weak, warm and not particularly ugly American, I definitely had a problem.
Her father, who saw 3,000 years of family genes washed down the Han River when his daughter married me, chose not to attend our wedding. In fact, he never once spoke with me. When I used to visit his home, it was as though I were not there.
Yoon Ju and I first met in June 1965. She worked for the United Nations Command at Yangsan in Seoul as a Korean national liaison with the U.S. Army colonel in charge of public information for the Eighth U.S. Army. She was the first Korean woman to whom I spoke.
I had been sent over to Korea on a troop ship, one of 3,000 men crammed into a Liberty ship build to hold 1,700. The ordeal lasted 23 days. Disembarking in Inchon, we were trucked over to an Army compound outside of Seoul. The next day we would travel to Seoul to be interviewed to work for Stars & Stripes, a choice newspaper writing job. I had been drafted four months shy of 26, the age cut-off for the draft. Most of the time previous to being drafted I spent in school. I was better educated and older than many of the noncoms and officers in charge of me.
More fascinated with Korea than the Army, I missed the bus into Seoul that next day. In the afternoon a separate car had to be sent out to pick me up.
As I entered the old brick building that housed the Information Section, I saw a beautiful Korean woman, slightly above average in height and with an elegant way about her. Naturally I would use any excuse to speak to such a woman. "Who is in charge?" I asked. In very polite, friendly fashion, Miss Cho (as she was then called) directed me to a Mr. Bonner, the civilian in charge of the section. I introduced myself to Mr. Bonner, who, after a lengthy interview said, "Yes, I think you will do fine. Please return to Colonel Capers and tell him I concur with his selection." I hastely explained that I had not seen the Colonel yet, having missed the bus that morning. "Oh well, we had better let him see you."
A brief phone call and I was marched past the other soldiers who had caught the bus earlier that morning but were still waiting to be interviewed. After a few minutes improving my salute, the Colonel informed me that Mr. Bonner thought I would "do" and that was good enough for him. So, thanks largely to Miss Cho, I was to work near her for the next 14 months.
In addition to her beauty, I was attracted to Miss Cho because she represented a challenge. She had politely but firmly turned down a request for a date from every enlisted man and officer who had asked her. And most of them had asked her. Being a military man, it was obvious that a frontal attack by me would be repulsed just as readily by this high-minded Korean lady. Diversionary tactics were called for.
Miss Cho had the nice habit of being considerate of everyone. When a birthday was celebrated in the office, it was Miss Cho who sought out the Korean cleaning woman to present her a piece of cake. When someone was returning to the United States, it was she who collected money for a gift. I decided to appeal to this better nature of hers.
I would like to treat all the Korean employees in the office with tickets to an evening performance at the Seoul Music Hall, I told her. She readily agreed to invite all those who would care to attend. The night of the performance it just so happened that everyone else's seat was located on one side of the Music Hall while her seat and mine . . . were together on the other side.
Although she accompanied me to a tea room following the performance still, technically, I could not really brag to the other Americans that I had taken her out. Then something fortuitous happened - though at the time it seemed nothing of the kind. Miss Cho's kidney dropped down. This was quite painful for her and the doctors were in a dither whether to operate. She went to the hospital for two weeks of tests.
Naturally I was concerned for Miss Cho. But the first time I went to the hospital, it was more to prove to her that Americans were considerate than out of real regard for her. Yet the short stay in the hospital, meeting her family and friends, made me forget the need to prove anything. Everyone was so wholesome. This was the first time I was among a group of Koreans in an informal occasion. I felt at home.
I returned to visit her five or six more times in the hospital, perhaps not aware of the real reason I kept coming back. Looking back, I now see that I was attracted to a philosophy of life that I share with her.
I had missed the bus for my interview in Seoul because I had spent the morning standing on a hill watching a small Korean farm. Below a woman was working in the field side by side with her husband, hoeing furrows among the greens. Wrapped in a blanket to her back was her small baby, whose bottom she would pat from time to time as through to show that he too was not out of place among the growth. When I was with Miss Cho in the hospital, I was aware of feeling a contentment with life. The same feeling I had watching the Korean family working together on their farm.
This feeling of contentment is what I, an American, identify with Korea. Or, at least, it is something my Korean wife has helped develop in me. Americans, or this American, tend to contend with life. Life is something to change, to struggle with. My wife has shown me how to live with life. To smell it like the fragrance of a flower. To feel its warmth like the sun in spring.
But with a Korean wife, or with my Korean wife, life is also full of surprises. Surprises that come out of a different look at life than my own. While we were engaged and soon to be married, one evening Yoon Ju and I took in a movie. Cary Grant played the role of a middle-aged bachelor who had never married because the woman he had loved when he was a young man refused to marry him. She loved him too much, he said. He had been very ambitious and she felt that if she married him she might prevent him from achieving his ambition.
Walking her home after the movie I discovered tears rolling down Yoon Ju's cheeks. She was crying! Startled I asked what was wrong.
"I cannot marry you," she whimpered. And then repeated it. "What!" I said. "I can't marry you. I love you so much and you're very ambitious."
After 21 years of marriage Yoon Ju still weeps at movies. If Clint Eastwood tears a finger nail or Kirk Douglas nicks his chin while shaving, she
weeps. She does love me, but she, like many Koreans, is very sentimental. Especially at movies.