Yang Min Hong's American Dream

In 1979, a North Korean war refugee – my grandfather – brought his family to Anchorage, Alaska. Today is the 19th anniversary of his death.

On a school day in January 2002, I had my first serious reckoning with death. My dad picked me up from first grade at Rogers Park Elementary and took me to a nearby McDonald’s, where he told me the news:

Halabeoji (my grandfather) had suffered a massive stroke. He was alive, for now, but within a day he would be gone.

Being six years old, I did not know much about Halabeoji. His name was Yang Min Hong, and when he passed, he was just sixty-nine. I knew him as my mother’s father, a gentle man who happened to keep a large raspberry bush behind the four-plex on Arctic where he lived with my hal’moni, my grandmother. My vague memories of him are from large meals with extended family, where my mom and her relatives would converse, banter, and reminisce – entirely in Korean, a language I did not (and still do not) understand.

I understood at least one thing, though: the laughing; the pure joy that filled those rooms.

It was no foregone conclusion that Yang Min Hong would spend his latter years laughing with friends, singing karaoke, and celebrating grandchildren – especially in such a free and exotic place as Anchorage, Alaska. His story could have ended abruptly in the fall of 1950, when an overwhelming army from the People’s Republic of China swept into North Korea, his native country. Eighteen years old, he was on his way home from school when he learned of the invasion and abandoned everything, abruptly carried southward by a tide of terrified refugees. Away from the Communist onslaught and over the 38th parallel he fled, exiling himself forever from the land of his youth.

He did not stop until he reached Busan, at the southern tip of what is now South Korea. With the exception of one brother who escaped separately, Yang Min would never see his immediate family again. He was eighteen years old.

In Busan, he met and married Chan Op – my Hal’moni – and started a new family. My mother, Hyun Sook, was born first, then three more children. One daughter died at the age of four. The Hongs were not well-off, and Halabeoji had to take extended absences from the family in order to find work. For a time, he designed and manufactured sweaters at a company in Seoul. Eventually, the Hong family moved from Busan to Seoul, but it would be the next journey that changed the trajectory of their lives forever.

On November 19, 1979, it was the Hong family’s turn to immigrate to the United States – not just the United States, but the great city of Anchorage. They followed in the footsteps of relatives who had made the journey from Korea several years prior, and like so many Alaskans, they came in search of economic opportunity, a more prosperous space in which to flourish.

In Anchorage, the house of Hong found that space. On the economic front, they fared well: Halabeoji worked mainly custodial jobs, and my mom worked as a receptionist and later as a small business owner while Halabeoji’s other children went on to lead successful careers out of state.

The Hongs discovered other pursuits as well, and Halabeoji quickly learned to love the bountiful harvest of our land: the clams, the ferns, the mushrooms, the seaweed. Best of all, the fish, which provided both sustenance and sport – as a child I remember staring at the long row of golden trophies displayed on his shelf, courtesy of his beloved Korean American Sport Fishing Association. Nothing gave Halabeoji greater delight than fishing – the anticipation and excitement of reeling one more gleaming, thrashing salmon onto the banks of Ninilchik Creek or the Russian River.

Most importantly, a man orphaned by violence found a family here: among his wife’s extended family and among the immigrant population at large – especially the 3,000 or so men and women who trace their heritage back to the Korean Peninsula. Always an enthusiastic organizer of social events, Halabeoji made dozens of friends in that close-knit community, and he cherished them all until his passing in 2002.

That was nineteen years ago, before I’d had the chance to get to know him well. When I remember Halabeoji today, I know a bit more than when I was six.

Now, I can imagine the fearful teenage boy forced to flee from a shocking war. I can admire the brave father who brought his wife and children across the Pacific Ocean in search of a better life. I can treasure the Alaskan wilderness my family has loved since Halabeoji first cast a fishing line into the salmon-filled waters of his new land. And I can thank God for the country that welcomed my grandfather, the wild state that gave him such adventurous days, and the bustling city where he found gainful employment and a place in a happy family.

I’m proud to be his grandson and I appreciate the chance to share these thoughts with you. Thank you for remembering him with my family and me today.

A few unrelated thoughts:

MW and I have had a lot of short work days, and I enjoy watching some of the daytime cable news shows if we’re home early enough. On January 6th, I tuned in to watch CNN’s coverage of the electoral college certification just before Senator Mitch McConnell’s speech denouncing his colleagues’ attempts to overturn the results. For a political junkie like me, that scene was dramatic enough — I did not anticipate spending the rest of the day glued to the TV screen, horrified by images of disorder and violence that I never remotely imagined seeing in our nation’s capital.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about the 1/6 Capitol insurrection that hasn’t already been articulated by much more qualified commentators. Below are a few pieces that I found particularly insightful and challenging.

  • Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on “The Roman Road from Insurrection”: https://www.russellmoore.com/2021/01/11/the-roman-road-from-insurrection

  • David French, evangelical conservative lawyer and columnist on how “Only the Church Can Truly Defeat a Christian Insurrection”: https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/only-the-church-can-truly-defeat

  • Timothy Snyder, historian of Central and Eastern Europe on “The American Abyss,” post-truth society and authoritarianism (thanks to Nate Bermel for sharing this one with me): https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/09/magazine/trump-coup.html

If you’re reading this, or if you check out any of these articles, please know that my goal isn’t to impose my political or religious beliefs on your conscience in any way. Neither is it to indicate disapproval of those who hold differing opinions. I’ll endeavor to keep partisan political discussion to a minimum here, but I’d love to hear from you if you’d ever like to have a substantive (non-internet-based) discussion about contemporary topics that are on your mind.

Some good news™: This month we learned that Dr. Alice Hunt Friend, who mentored me and Nick Paraiso while we created the Thank You For Your Service podcast at UChicago and then took over production at CSIS after we graduated, will be serving as the Deputy Chief of Staff to Kathleen Hicks, the new Deputy Secretary of Defense. Alice is a wonderful person who I’ve written about previously (see below), and it’s fantastic to know that someone who knows (and cares) so much about healthy civil-military relations will be serving in such a key role.

  • “How to Do Civil-Military Relations [As a Career]” (April 2020) https://underthesun1845.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/how-to-do-civil-military-relations-as-a-career/

Life notes: We only have a few weeks left at school here in Connecticut before I head back to Charleston for more nuclear power training and MW flies to Hawaii to join her boat! COVID has somewhat limited our recreation opportunities here in New England, but we’ve enjoyed some good trail runs and beach walks. One highlight for me was getting to visit the USCGC EAGLE, the Coast Guard Academy’s training ship. I spent 35 days aboard EAGLE in 2015, the summer after my freshman year at USNA, visiting New York, Philadelphia, Bermuda, and Maine, and it was one of the best training opportunities I’ve had. Seeing her docked here in New London, CT helped me remember some incredible times and awesome people — all of whom are now Coast Guard officers doing great things (commanding vessels, flying helicopters, standing watch) around the United States.

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