Grandpa's Drive for Liberation: Escaping the Chains of Japanese Colonization

By Hanna Kim ‘21

POC Issues Columnist

Author’s Note: The topic of this essay has been adapted from my personal essay for the Common Application.

I never knew exactly where we would end up. Grandpa’s old, battered Lexus gave me a death stare as I slipped into the driver’s seat. I had never shaken the memory of the battery dying in the middle of the freeway when I was 10. Nevertheless, I was thrilled at the prospect of getting my license, a feat that had not yet been achieved by most of my friends. I turned the key in the ignition, and the engine sputtered a few too many times.

    I was on edge, preoccupied with maintaining the speed limit, keeping the appropriate distance behind the cars in front of us. Grandpa’s speed limit is 10 mph under the legal limit. While cars honked behind us, Grandpa said, “Slow, slow, slow” in a relaxed coo, as cars continued to pass us.

Photographs of the author’s grandfather. Photos courtesy of Hanna Kim.

Photographs of the author’s grandfather. Photos courtesy of Hanna Kim.

    Every time I pulled out of the driveway, I felt simultaneously excited and totally stressed. Some days, Grandpa navigated us on local roads, past my favorite bookstore from my childhood and the hotel where my parents married. Other days, he navigated us onto the bustling, intimidating San Diego Freeway to see the Mt. Soledad Veterans’ Memorial and the hospital where Grandma delivered babies for over 40 years.

    One day, Grandpa shared why he loves driving so much. He explained how San Diego’s expansive, winding roads deviated completely from those of his childhood. When he was growing up, the Japanese occupied Korea before the outbreak of World War II. Korea’s education system was infiltrated and Japanese officials forced all children to learn Japanese, assigning them Japanese names, which Grandpa still refuses to utter. Grandpa lived in Korea during a time when the majority of the population was profoundly impoverished.

    The Japanese robbed every Korean citizen of their possessions. Only the wealthiest families could afford cars. For many years, Koreans have called themselves the people of ‘han manh-eun yeogsa’, which roughly translates as ‘people who experienced unfairness, suffering, and despair throughout their history.’ Despite South Korea’s past, Grandpa is proud of how far his country has come since he left. Every year he returns, he is in awe of the electronic billboards, exceptional public transportation, and cultural pride that is evident on the streets of Seoul. Grandpa’s childhood under the Japanese represented a restriction of personal freedom.

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    Our drives ignite appreciation for my own personal freedom, a freedom that I am granted by residing in the US. I am free to speak the language I grew up with and to be called by the name my parents gave me. And I am free to explore and meander, driving where I want to drive without restriction. Some of my friends do not see the point in getting their driver’s licenses or driving with no strict destination. They are exercising their freedom not to drive:.Why would they go through the grueling process of lessons, DMV appointments, and tests when they could be driven anywhere by a parent, or even a taxi?

    Grandpa left Korea at its poorest and most defeated state, not only seeking a better life for himself but to assure that his family would be allotted the freedom that he wasn’t granted in Korea. While Grandpa taught me always to have my head on a constant swivel, to signal 100 feet before a turn, and to be aware of cyclists on the right, I will forever be grateful for his most important lesson: driving is not just about getting from A to Z, but soaking in the surroundings, treasuring your personal independence, and sometimes, wandering with no destination in mind. Although Grandpa’s old Lexus may stop sputtering one day once and for all, Grandpa’s lessons, to appreciate blessings in the spirit of exploration, will always remain with me.