Suntae Chun

Generation: First Generation
Location: Lancaster, CA
Interviewer: Ramsay Liem

Korean War Memories

Another big problem was everything was destroyed and it was even hard to find wood for burning to cook. So, one day I found an unexploded napalm casing [and took it to our tunnel] and there’s a big hole in the bottom. So I hit the ground with the canister and sticky stuff kept coming down. If you have just one small piece, you can make rice with it. It’s that strong fire. I kept hitting the casing and suddenly it exploded right in front of me, shrapnel through my cheek and burning me! There’s a small hole at the other side of our tunnel and I put my mouth in the hole and yelled, “Help me, help me!” And then I passed out. When my father came, I still remember he was mad. There was also an old lady near the tunnel. Instead of coming to me, he went to the old lady to make sure she was ok [laughs]. Then, after that, he came to me.

I was staying with my aunt, the policewoman, in Incheon, but she was all alone, too. After about two months, I needed to make money for food so I start working. It’s the first time I ever worked. She found it for me at Incheon High School called Jemulpo. It was empty, used for temporary stays. American soldiers going to the front or coming back stay there couple of days, shipping out to the United States or the south, and then coming back, like that. All the classrooms become bedrooms for GIs, and some Koreans run their KP, kitchen. A lot of Koreans were doing that, and I envied them so much. Those guys get to eat some meat and Coca-Cola. That’s first time I tasted it, bottled Coca-Cola [laughs]. My job was to put wood in big straw bags, two by fours.   Schools always had this big field with no grass, nothing, just all sand. So I circled around dragging this big bag so it’s nice looking. I don’t remember how much I got paid. I think they gave me rice, a little bit, each day. I was the youngest worker. Everyone else was a refugee with wife and children left behind.

There’s a funny story at this time. This sergeant always hit and kicked the old people doing manual work, using bad words—“son of a bitch.” The KP guys always gave us something to eat instead of throwing it into the garbage—leftovers. We told them, “That guy, he just hates Koreans.” So one day, the KP guy says, “Let’s do something about it.” I still remember. It was very funny. At that time, no one has shampoo so everybody has dandruff. He put big dish of food together for him and then one of the other guys with a lot of dandruff put a lot of dandruff in the food. You cannot see it, right. So, this guy eats it. The next day – there’s a bathroom right in one corner of the field—this guy was almost sleeping there. He couldn’t get out. He’s got, what do you call it, seolsa, diarrhea! I mean, he just stayed there. After a few days I heard he was transferred to some hospital. And I’m glad we did it. Really. Some guys were nice, fair. But that guy, somehow he’s got all the anger, especially at people, you know, just like my father; he kicked their butts all the time. “Son of a bitch, motherfucker,” like that. I hated it; everybody hated it. So we did it that way.

Postwar Period

After I went to Seoul, I saw lots of churches again. Every corner had churches. You know why? There’s a lot of fraud. Lots of bad guys put on a white collar and then found someone who spoke just a little English and took him to any GI camp. They’d say, “I’m a minister. I have a lot of orphans around here. I need your help. I’m going to build a church.” Next day five, ten truckloads of two by fours and tents, everything comes in. Then he goes back there again: “I need some food.” But most of them are frauds. All that money for churches and orphanages and still people are dying, but some people got richer and richer. They just used two pennies out of ten cents for the kids and put the rest in their pocket. So, so, so stupid. But that’s the way it was.

Immigration to the United States

Everybody at the time was dreaming about the United States. You saw the giant movie, you know, Rock Hudson, or James Dean in a red sports car and then in a restaurant, coffee shop, the guy standing over the sink slowly washing dishes. That’s what I thought a restaurant looked like. That’s easy work and somebody said, “Hey, if you’re driving trucks, you can make over ten dollars per hour.” I thought all those things. When I came here, it was just totally a different story! I had friends living here, five guys in one room, just like farm workers.

San Francisco is a tourist city. So all the jobs available to foreign students are either hotel or restaurant. You’re either dishwashing or night cleaning or bus boy or waiter or bellboy. So that’s where I got a job and went to school. I went to San Francisco State, undergraduate, and after that I switched to economics in graduate school. I almost finished, about couple of courses left. But it was 1971 near the end of the Vietnam War. There’s no jobs. One guy I remember was a chemist, Ph.D. He sent applications all over the place and all returned, “I’m sorry, we don’t need you.”

So I thought, “I’m getting older. Gee, if I got a degree, so what?” Then somebody said, “There’s a small business administration in the federal government, and they can give you a guaranteed loan.” So, I applied. I found a business, a liquor store. He’s asking $50,000. I applied to Crocker Bank. I still remember this guy, vice president, and he said, “Well, you have a problem because you’re single, you don’t have any experience, and you don’t have any assets.” “Well, if I have assets, I don’t come to you. Single, I cannot help it. Well, experience, hey, if every time you start something, you need experience first, well….” Then I found his secretary and asked her, “Hey, is that guy single or married?” She said he’s divorced. So the next time I meet him I say, “Are you married?” He says, “Yeah, I was, but I’m single now.” “So, I’m single too.” I asked him, “Do you have a problem finding a job as a vice president because you’re single?” He said, “No, I don’t have problem.” “So, then why worry about that, being single?” So, one by one like that, and he finally gave me the loan. So I took over the liquor store, stayed about three or four years.

Life in the United States

Sometimes, just driving around with my wife and kids, one daughter says, “Appa, I was curious, how was the war like? What did you do before the war?” When I start talking, it’s not easy. You cannot just say, “I was okay.” So, at the time I said, “This and this and then colonization by Japan.” Just little by little, liberation and then GIs come in. Then about 30 seconds, maybe 20 seconds, they change the subject. (laughs) So, I say, “Hey, don’t ask questions like that anymore if you guys are not interested. I’m not just making a long story for nothing. You have to have some background, a little bit.” But they cannot wait, about 10 seconds, 15 seconds, they say, “Hey, look at that outside!”

Korean War Memories
War Legacies

The war is quite different. Korean War time, life is so cheap, very cheap. You’re under bombing everyday. You just become animal. You’re always wondering where you’re gonna hide. And when they start bombing, suddenly friends you met an hour ago are dead. Everyday is like that. But at the time, I didn’t have time to mourn or cry for a friend. I have to think about my surviving because I don’t know when I’m gonna die. So, no time to mourn. I mean, so, so stupid. But somehow, your survival instinct is very strong. Very close to me, a bomb exploded one time. You cannot hear anymore for a while and you think you will die and you feel like all kinds of shrapnel are in your body. Since that time, almost everyday, both my eardrums just blocked and you cannot hear outside sounds. A minute and then it’s gone. That lasts for thirty, forty, fifty years.

But one thing, whoever experiences all those violent, unnecessary deaths, somehow the psychology becomes more negative. It’s fading away as time goes by, but I think people who experience dead bodies and bombing and killing and life is so cheap and you don’t know when you’re going to die and when your friends die—it’s sort of, life is kind of pessimistic. You don’t think about it, but deep inside, just, I might die suddenly. I’m not going to live a normal seventy, eighty years old life. Deep inside, I just feel that. Just overall, life is kind of not for happiness. It leaves the heart.

War Legacies

Young kids growing up in the United States without any war experience are different. But my age Korean people are more enduring. More, what do you call it, like a bulldozer type. A lot of people are talkers, thinking this way, that way. But we cannot think of all those things; just do the job. War is like that. It just pushes you; pushing, pushing to do something to survive. Koreans are like that type.

But it’s hardships, too, after the Korean War. The sixties were very poor [in South Korea] so you have to struggle and competition is high. So they study always hard. Push hard, hard to study. So, that hard life from generation to generation, and occupied by outside people and fighting back all the time with China and Japan and Russia and then the United States, years and years and years—I think all those things make Koreans a little bit of a cement type. Cement. Rough type.

I know a guy, works very hard, seven days a week. He’s 47-year-old guy and even if he does not know how to do [some part of his work], he just keeps going. I just look at him and it’s amazing. I’m nothing compared to him, but a long time ago I had a body shop and I don’t know anything about mechanical things and how to assemble the car. They have a carburetor. Carburetor is so complicated. I pull it out and take it apart, put newspapers here and there, and finally I take apart everything, clean it, and put it back. I have a few things left over and I don’t know where it goes. Finally, I give in. I spend a lot of money for somebody to fix it. No, no, it doesn’t work all the time but sometimes I make it!

[Portions of this interview are taken from “When a Fireball Drops in your Hole: Biography Formed in the Crucible of War.” In Koreans in America:  History, Culture and Identity, ed. G. Yoo (San Diego, CA: Cognella Academic Publishing, 2012) 271-292.]