Lives in a shoebox


It was 1951, a scary time for 25-year-old Sun Yi Pak. There was civil war in her country of Korea. After her brother-in-law was killed by the Communists, Pak knew she and her family needed to get out of North Korea to the safety of South Korea. With her firstborn child strapped to her back, Pak, her husband and niece, along with 13 others, boarded a small boat and headed for freedom.

The Korean women elders Talking Suitcases project is currently on display at the Korean Service Center, 630 Cedar Ave. S., Suite B-1, Minneapolis. To see it, call the Service Center at 612-339-0009 and ask for admittance (the building is secured).

To learn more about the Talking Suitcases project, go to:

Suitcases and shoeboxes

The stories of Pak and other Korean elder women are told in small dioramas-shoeboxes, to be exact-designed and handmade by the women as part of the Talking Suitcases project at the Korean Service Center in the Cedar-Riverside area of Minneapolis.

“A Talking Suitcase is filled with handmade objects that tell stories of our lives,” said Susan Armington, a local artist and creator of the project. The Korean women in this workshop are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. “These are thoughtful, courageous and sensitive women. As they worked, more and more memories came alive,” she said.

It’s unlikely that these stories will find their way into suitcases, Armington said, because they are so striking as stand-alone art works. The dioramas, made during the course of seven two-hour workshops, include stories about what is precious to the participants: childhood memories, young adulthood and marriage, loss, culture shock, the Japanese occupation of Korea during WW II and someone who helped or inspired.

Elder artist

As Pak, 82, continued the story through interpreter Meeock Park, director of the Korean Service Center’s family enrichment program, she gestured animatedly, reliving the harrowing experience. The boat’s occupants rowed for seven or eight hours, then put in at a small, unnamed island as the boat threatened to break apart. When a U.S. military plane flew overhead, the refugees signaled wildly with all the white clothing they had with them.

Within 10 minutes a motorboat picked them up. They were taken to a port and transferred to a ship flying the U.S. and South Korean flags. They were delivered safely into South Korea, where Pak and her husband raised their family.

Following her husband’s death. Pak moved to the Twin Cities to be with a daughter who lived here. Though that daughter has since moved to Oklahoma, Pak’s other daughter and son have moved to the Twin Cities to be with Pak.

“Sun Yi has amazing talents,” Park said. “She started to learn to draw at 70 years old. She has had exhibitions of her art. She first learned from a teacher, then she practiced a lot. She copied [pictures from] calendars. That’s the way she learned.”

A wedding day

In Suk Hui Kim’s diorama, a bride and groom sit across from one another, the bride wearing the traditional red Korean gown. They are in her home where the wedding has taken place, she said through Park. To the side of the couple’s figures is a kama, a hand-carried carriage in which the bride rides. Suk Hui was carried along a winding country road in the kama until she arrived at a railway station where the wedding party boarded a train for the groom’s hometown.

Suk Hui was 18, her groom, Kyung Sung Kim, 25. The townspeople were not kind in their initial remarks about the new bride. “They were whispering that I was too short, other people said I was ugly, but I had a good nose,” Kim said. For three nights the couple slept separately and did not consummate their marriage. Her husband was a very gentle man, Kim recalled, a fond expression on her face. He gave her time to adjust to the idea of being a wife.

They had been married for 50 years when he died in 2000. “Her husband was gentle and nice but not a great breadwinner,” Park said. In a time when women were primarily homemakers, “she had to work. She sold insurance in Korea.

“Suk Hui is a very positive person who tries to see the bright side. When one of her daughters died right after having a baby, she raised her granddaughter. She said she had to get through depression, fear and anxiety. Her granddaughter has graduated from college. Suk Hui came to this country after her husband died to be with her youngest daughter.”

Raw grief

Chon Bok Hong, 76, is a sad-looking woman with steel-gray hair worn in a bob. Her diorama tells the story of her melancholy. Unlike some of the others, it is a recent story.

A jet plane sits atop the divider of the square box, which is divided in half on the diagonal. On one side is the U.S. flag with a figure of Hong, tears running down her face. On the other side is the South Korean flag, the figure of a man dressed in black lying on the ground, and nearby, a car. It is the story of being half a world away from her treasured son when he died.

“I came to America in August 1995 for medical treatment. My two daughters lived here,” Hong said. She and her husband eventually settled in the Twin Cities. Her husband, Kwang Sik Hong, was visiting their youngest son, You Hong, in Korea, when You was killed in an automobile accident. It was just over a year ago: June 30, 2007.

“At first my family did not tell me the news. They worried if they told me they would have to have two funerals,” she said.

“Chon Bok is a reserved person,” said Park, adding that You Hong was the son who would frequently call his mother and that she opened up a bit to him. Eventually, Hong was told of her son’s death and traveled back to South Korea to visit his grave. Her husband had fallen into a deep depression, and they returned home to Minneapolis together. Park said that Hong’s grief over her son’s death was compounded by her daughter’s breast cancer diagnosis two months later. Hong plans to keep in touch with her late son’s children, one of whom is in high school, the other in college. “She loves her grandchildren very much, but she is reserved in showing her feelings. The diorama allowed her to express her feelings,” Park said.

‘Jet airplane’

Some women have a lifelong passion for books or physical fitness or activism. Jung Hee Min understands that kind of passion. Her story is one of a passion that still grips her today. Min’s two dioramas both depict sewing machines and articles of clothing-one more elaborate than the other. It’s quite simple. Min, 73, loves to sew. Once she sewed out of economic necessity; today, she sews for pleasure.

“I was 16 when I escaped to Dae Ku during the Civil War. I was very poor so I learned to sew with a sewing machine,” Min said. In those days, sewing was her livelihood. “I got the nickname of ‘jet airplane’ because I was such a fast sewer.” When times were better, “My daughters begged me to stop and live comfortably and they took away my sewing machine. However, I bought another one without telling them. If my daughter visits me, I hide it. The sewing machine is my friend and my companion in my life.”

Don’t think that means she is a lonely or sad woman. Park described Min, who came to the Twin Cities after her husband’s death, as an outgoing person with a “delightful attitude. We had an event, a holiday party, and she brought a CD of Korean dance music.” It was Min, who enjoys singing and dancing, who got the others on their feet, Park said.

Personal inspiration

Armington conceived the idea of Talking Suitcases in 2003, after learning her father was terminally ill with cancer. In an effort to find out who her father really was, Armington began a series of conversations with him, documenting them with art works that went into a suitcase.

“Eventually it turned into a 20-minute performance piece that I performed for him and my mom at their 50th wedding anniversary. The suitcase transformed our relationship,” Armington said. “My father had always been so reserved, but every time I open that suitcase, my father’s there. That’s when I made the commitment to do this project not just for me, but for others.”

Though she has worked with a number of communities, including elementary and high school students, English language learners and religious communities, working with the Korean elder women was a new experience for Armington. “This was the first time I had worked with a group [that spoke] a different primary language,” she said. “That gave their workshops a very Korean flavor.” Armington credited the participation of Meeock Park as “instrumental. It was the Korean Center’s process and mine.

“In such a short time, they told such profound and moving stories [with their dioramas], ” Armington said. The project was a vehicle telling the most important stories of the women’s lives. “Talking Suitcases opened the door … and they were ready.”