I’m Korean, I have a book that proves it!

I wanted to start writing something after reading a back and forth debate between The Korean from ‘Ask a Korean!’ and Roboseyo over China’s registration of the Korean song Arirang with UNESCO as important artifact of Chinese heritage. Now, I’m not going to get much into that particular debate other than to say I understand why the actions of the Chinese government would piss Koreans off, and that China probably should not do it, or should have consulted with Korea first. I don’t know about any sinister claims to land that can be made from registration with UNESCO, and I don’t think that’s how UNESCO works, but this is a debate that I really don’t want to get into.

That said, the Korean took a really interesting approach in his side of the debate, suggesting that since East Asians place a huge emphasis on their past, this development is more troubling than Roboseyo, an uncouth culture-less North American can comprehend (sarcasm here, I know that’s not how he really meant it). The Korean opened his argument with a recounting of how he learned who he was.

I remember the first time when I saw my family’s jokbo when I was a child growing up in Korea. Jokbo means “lineage book,” and it shows the flow chart of everyone who is related to me starting from the very first Korean person who shared my last name, who was born in 69 B.C.E. It was, and still is, an awe-inspiring sight. My family’s jokbo is consisted of more than 30 volumes, broken down by centuries, clans and subclans. The volumes would take up two full rows of a bookcase in my grandfather’s run-down house, their uniform spines forming a brick-paved road toward my origin. My grandfather would flip to his favorite pages — dog-eared for easy reference for his show-and-tell with his grandchildren — and point to a name. The name could be a famous scholar, general, someone I would have learned about in school history classes. After going through some dozen names like that, he would flip all the way back to the last page of the last volume. And there it was — my name, son of my father, grandson of my grandfather, 81 generations and more than two thousand years from the fountainhead of my family.

And so, this is what I wanted to write about…

I guess it was sometime in the year 2000, when I visited Korea during summer break and stayed with my father’s cousin, who is the oldest son of the oldest son of the oldest son of the oldest son as far back as our part of the clan can trace through oral history. As such, he is basically the head of our part of the family, which is apparently a big deal, and something he takes a lot of pride in. And so, when I visited, he broke out his jokbo books and told me several stories in horribly broken English (as I didn’t speak any Korean at the time) of how I came to be.

According to what he told me, and other research that I have done, our line starts in 28 AD, when one Hwang Rak, a Chinese envoy, was on his way to Vietnam on important official business when he became shipwrecked off the coast of southeastern Korea and came ashore in the town of Pyeonghae. He decided to live there the rest of his life and start a new family, which became the ancestors of all Hwangs in Korea. ALL of them. ALL of them except those recently arriving dirty Chinese that he complains about all the time, that share our name. This revelation of my roots makes our entire family technically Chinese, so he should hold his tongue when complaining about Chinese immigrants. What irony.

So when I asked him… ‘So, are we Chinese then?’ He looked at me with a firm frown upon his face. ‘No.. we are Korean!’

The whole point of the exercise was to instill upon me of my own Korean-ness, as according to his explanation, being the son of a Korean male, I am Korean, because my father is Korean, and is connected to this jokbo.

So… after talking to my father on the phone about it, I explained that my uncle (as I call him) was basically trying to get me to see how Korean I am by showing me a book that explains how I am related to someone from China. That Korean blood flows in my veins, and that makes me Korean, because blood through the male supercedes any blood through one’s mother, a very neo-confucian concept. Logically though, by that very rule, Hwang Rak’s blood should supercede all of this, making us Chinese. But my Uncle somehow didn’t agree.

My Dad chuckled.

‘Take it with a grain of salt.’ he said.
‘Most of everyone’s jokbo is total bullshit. Just humor him and let him know that you are interested in the tall tales of our family origin.’

The funny thing is, before this whole exercise, there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that my Korean heritage is the one that I actually identified with the most at that point. I was also very interested in the jokbo even though certain parts of the lesson my uncle was teaching me are totally illogical. I guess I was just being difficult and snarky.

Anyway according to the jokbo, we are of the Pyeonghae Hwang clan, which means we descend from Hwang-Rak’s eldest son. So from what I remember, he explained that for at least 40 or so generations from Hwang-Rak, we are related to the oldest son’s oldest son’s oldest son’s etc etc. Then we are an offshoot of someone’s eleventh son’s oldest son’s oldest son’s etc up until you reach him, his son, and his grandson who he said is the first American born member of our family because he was born in Philadelphia (even though my older brother has a good 25 years on him. I guess we don’t count.)

So where do I fit in? I’m the second son of the second son of the second son of my uncle’s grandfather. So lots of people would have to die in order for me to be the head of this offshoot.

Every time I walk by this statue, I think.. 'hey, possible Gramps!'

Anyway like the Korean’s experience, my uncle begun to point to various important people in the jokpo. The one that I remember most:
One member of our family was pretty high up in the Korean coast guard and helped to fight off Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea in the late 16th century. He then married one of Admiral Yi-Sun Shin’s daughters, so that makes me a blood relative of Admiral Yi-Sun Shin! Sweet.

Again, when I told my father about this with great pride, he laughed at me, explaining that most of those jokbos are fabrications. Almost all of them can be used to prove one’s Yangban status. (Yangban were the Choson dynasty elite, but when most of all Koreans can use their jokbo to show that they are Yangban, either the whole country was full of elite, or someone’s lying…)

So, while I don’t want to take anything away from The Korean and his experience, I am not sure how entirely accurate any of this jokbo business is. I don’t know why my father is so cynical and negative about so many things that Koreans consider important, but I guess there is a reason why he decided to get out of dodge in the 1970’s that I probably won’t ever be able to comprehend fully.

That said, I definitely agree with The Korean that it is very important for Koreans to have a meaningful connection with the past, and that’s why jokbos, though no longer a legally binding document, are very important to one’s identity here.

Despite my own snarky logic and my father’s cynicism, I came away with a new understanding that my roots are anchored here in this country for at least the past 2000 years or so, and the experience did have an effect on how I viewed my own personal connection to Korea.

Anyway I also have a book that proves I am an American (my blue passport), but it is nowhere near as spiritual as the my uncle’s treasured jokbo books.


(Edit: This post was talked about in the Seoul Podcast and is described as a “Time Waster”.  As I have yet to listen to the podcast, I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing.)

20 Responses to “I’m Korean, I have a book that proves it!”

  1. What an interesting lineage you have. I can see your pride in sharing this as I truly admire the culture of Korea too. Last night over a reunion dinner, my Japanese room mate brought his Korean wife and this pretty lady works as translator for Korean TV shows in Tokyo. She was extremely surprised that I have been watching so many KBS programs in Malaysia. Eugene, when your heart is Korean, then you are truly a Korean.

  2. EvenRealerAsian Says:

    You are not a real Korean. One of the precious memories of my childhood was helping my father write my genealogy together. We’re yangban, all the way down. Our genealogy is 100% Korean, and it’s all in hangul, unlike you mixed half-chinese Korean. I’m so Korean my genealogy is all in Hangul. Even before hangul was invented.

  3. haha EvenRealerAsian is so funny
    I thought he was going to say “I’m so Korean that my great-grand-grand-grand-grand-mother invented Kimchi” …plus “I’m so Korean my genealogy is all in Hangul. Even before hangul was invented.” O_O

    Eugene, thanks for sharing your story with us.
    I have thought on making a research of my family lineage but I don’t even know where to start u_u

  4. Real Asian Says:

    You fuck! Fucking books don’t make race mongoll like you a pure Korean. Stop pretending. Your White. The only people that are really Korean are Korean speaking people who look like they are Korean and are Korean. It means not your mother but your FATHER has to be Korean, and so your mom’s uncle or is right in saying that thats the first born in America because your whorish mom’s bastard whie man kids like you don’t count. Stop trying to get in touch with Korean culture. We don’t accept youGet in touch with your white cultureonly thing that whites consider culture is sleeping with your sister and eating mayonnaise sandwiches.Your not Korean, you will never be Korean, and you are disserving Korea by pretending to be, so stop trying to be a wannnabe, Loser!

    • Well, long time no see.

      Since you’ve been away for so long, you’ve probably forgotten… my father is Korean, as indicated in this post and several others… but not like that really matters too much. I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone with a Korean mother and a non-Korean father from exploring his/her identity as he/she sees fit.

      And I wonder, sir. What is it that brings you back here. You could just not read my blog and leave my race mongrel ass alone. Seeing as how I write very sparsely these days, I am convinced you are a subscriber… and if that’s the case.. HAHA!

    • Similarly, as the question comes up on Stormfront from time to time (yes, I’m an avid reader but no, I’m not white), if you have to ask whether you’re considered white, you’re not white.

    • Don’t particulary like your insulting four mouth, Real Asian. Also you’ve got it mixed up. Eugene’s father is the Korean
      ~~~Eugene’s Mom

  5. Yes I meant well that it’s the heart and thought that counts!

  6. EvenRealerAsian Says:

    Gisela: that sounds like a fun game to play.

    I’m so Korean, my ancestors sang Arirang back when it was just “rang”

    I’m so Korean, when I drop a box of vegetables, it hits the floor in the pattern of jeonju bibimbap.

    I’m so Korean, our family kimchi recipe includes the line “bury and age for 500 years”

    I’m so Korean, when we visit our family’s ancestral grave site, other families’ dead ancestors bow to US!

    I’m so Korean, when I cook spicy food, I ask KOREANS if they’re sure they can handle it.

    I’m so Korean, when somebody breaks into my house, I sigh and think “Whatever. It’s happened 5000 times before.”

  7. “I’m so Korean, when somebody breaks into my house, I sigh and think “Whatever. It’s happened 5000 times before.”

    Oh man! I finally got it. I thought this was commentary on the perceived lack of seriousness that apartment security and police have for their jobs (again, perceived, usually by expats..)

    But you’re talking about historical invasion of the country as taught in history class.

  8. Man, I want to see my family’s Jokbo. Though I’m pretty sure we’re just farmers the entire way through with a random teacher here and there.

  9. Dear Eugene
    Congrats for your blog & for showing interest on your background.

    I have an Australian born Korean boy & I think its a such a shame that he wound be able to be recorded on any jokbo book -I ain’t Korean butr mother is Korean.

  10. So far my favorite is:
    I’m so Korean, when I drop a box of vegetables, it hits the floor in the pattern of jeonju bibimbap. <—- hahahahahahaha

  11. […] I’m Korean, I have a book that proves it! « Eugene is huge! […]

  12. My family’s jokbo is lost. How can I get my hands on a copy if one exists?

  13. Glenda Lee Says:

    It has been soo many years since anyone posted to this site, and I have only just found it. But it is so entertaining and informative.
    Family history, names, and historical (or not) events are important to the family’s existence. Or so I have been told since a child.

    I am an American who grew up in the ‘South’ where ‘family’ is important. Maybe not so much to the later generations. But when I was a child, who your daddy was meant a lot. Mom was ‘almost’ as important. Certanly to other women.
    I have had total strangers (but distant family members) calling me long distance (and I had an unlisted number!) just to ask if I was James Lee’s daughter. Did I have the Family Journal — our Book of Family Names. No. Sorry. Daddy was still alive and HE had it. But I was willing to talk and give them those details I remembered of who married who, who was buried where, and … Well, just so much family history that, by that time, I had grown up and was there when some of that history happened.
    As the oldest living member of my generation, and of our Branch of the family I still put a lot of faith in that old Family Journal and its ‘truth’. What I tell younger distant questing relatives has not changed. There are members of our family, but from a different branch, who have Journals and Family Bibles that back up our history.
    But my family history is not as old as yours. We can only count our first American Ancestors arrival to this land. Just a few hundred years. Anything before that is questionable.
    From my mother’s family, I have found no journals or Bibles to tell us their history. It is largely told in stories. And those were rare, and becoming more so since I was a girl. But I’ve heard of a book that a ‘distant’ relative has written. I was excited until I learned that he had Mother’s family history ‘all wrong’.
    I guess a family’s history is important only to a few. It’s sad. As a young woman full of herself, her college degree, and a LOT of books read over the years, I faced my future thinking that it wasn’t important where I came from. It was where I was going that mattered; and I was getting there by my own will and efforts.

    I didn’t have lofty dreams of being a ‘warrior’. I lost that battle with Mother and Grandma when I wanted to join the Air Force.
    I wanted to become a Marine Biologist and had found the University that would best help me. But I lost that battle with my dad and uncle.
    It seems that in my family a girl did not join the military, or take jobs meant for men. (heavy sigh and lots of tears)
    With the small college degree I had earned, I got a job in an office and became something I swore I’d never be: A SECRETARY!
    I even married the man that my mother chose for me.
    It wasn’t an arranged marriage, but she knew his family, and they knew me. So ‘they’ got together and decided to match us. And we fell for it. smh
    I realize now that all those silly ‘english’ romance books I read didn’t enlighten me enough. I should have found some Chinese or Korean romance novels. At least then I would have had a forewarning of the wiles of match making moms and grandmothers. I can laugh about it now, and can see the possibilities of a rom/com novella for my younger cousins and nieces and granddaughters. At least they will have that warning from their old grandma.
    In the meantime, I look forward to reading other posts that you might have. I just turned 71 and lose things as quickly as I find them. But I hope that I can return to your page and learn more.

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