This last week has been, well… a “week” for my family.
Last Wednesday (as you were hopefully reading the blog), Sandy, Carolyn, Chaney and I, along with Sandy’s extended family, were at Rose Hills Cemetery laying Sandy’s father to rest.
I want to talk about her father, my father-in-law, and the girls’ grandfather, in a bit because his story is worth sharing. But first, I want to talk about one of their ancestors. The genius in her family runs deep, literally, and has been cultivated for numerous generations. It was, indeed, made manifest in my father-in-law. I see it still in his daughter and both of my daughters.
My wife’s family has a genealogy book (for lack of a better word) that traces their family history back for hundreds of years. Sadly, it is written in Mandarin and Korean, so with the brief exception of my own name, and that of my brother-in-law, Rowel (Sandy’s sister, Karen’s, husband) the book is inaccessible to me.
But this story actually starts back in 1576 in Korea (called Chosun at the time). A lad by the name of Yi Sun-sin has just passed his military examination and is preparing to become a cavalry officer in service to the Regent. This gentleman was Sandy’s great-great-great (probably add a half a dozen more “greats”) grandfather. Back then the distinction between the Army and the Navy did not exist, and he will ultimately serve as both the equivalent of a General and an Admiral in service to the Kingdom. He was brilliant as a military strategist on both land and sea, but is best remembered for his naval service.
To put things in perspective:
Admiral George Ballard of the British Royal Navy compared Yi to Lord Nelson:
“It is always difficult for Englishmen to admit that Nelson ever had an equal in his profession, but if any man is entitled to be so regarded, it should be this great naval commander of Asiatic race who never knew defeat and died in the presence of the enemy; of whose movements a track-chart might be compiled from the wrecks of hundreds of Japanese ships lying with their valiant crews at the bottom of the sea, off the coasts of the Korean peninsula… and it seems, in truth, no exaggeration to assert that from first to last he never made a mistake, for his work was so complete under each variety of circumstances as to defy criticism… His whole career might be summarized by saying that, although he had no lessons from history to serve as a guide, he waged war on the sea as it should be waged if it is to produce definite results, and ended by making the supreme sacrifice of a defender of his country.” (The Influence of the Sea on The Political History of Japan, pp. 66–67.)
Admiral Togo regarded Admiral Yi as his superior. At a party held in his honor, Togo took exception to a speech comparing him to Lord Nelson and Yi Sun-sin.
“It may be proper to compare me with Nelson, but not with Korea’s Yi Sun-sin, for he has no equal”. (The Imjin War, by Samuel Hawley, pg. 490)
Yeah… the guy was a dude in the grandest sense of the word. His blood runs directly through my family and the same… well… genius seems to indeed be biologic.
My father-in-law had that same level of genius and the unique ability to thrive even in the midst of what would appear to be insurmountable adversity.
In 1969 Won Sik Sunu (We now refer to him by his American name “Edward”) and his wife Sook Ja (Kathy) were living in Seoul, Korea. Ed had earned a degree in electrical engineering and Kathy was a nurse. They had given birth to a daughter (Sandy) two years earlier. Ed was also the oldest of five brothers. In the Korean culture this is both a position of honor and a tremendous burden. He essentially became the titular head of the family, both from a position of authority as well as financial responsibility.
Few really envy the position of Eldest Brother.
Suddenly, somewhat unexpectedly, an opportunity presented itself for Kathy, Ed, and Sandy to immigrate to the United States. Kathy was pregnant with her second child (John) at the time. Still, the prospect of becoming an American was simply too great to pass up. With a grand total of $300, three sets of chopsticks, and a rice cooker, the young family made their way to Los Angeles. (That is not hyperbole… this was literally the entirety of their possessions.)
Here in the States the family began to thrive, though that, in and of itself, was a process. They spoke limited English, but did what they could to educate themselves. Then just as they were becoming established, Ed began a program of sponsoring his younger brothers and their families for U.S. citizenship. This also was a major financial commitment, and, in a sense, affected their quality of life, but it was what was expected of him.
He struggled, scraped, and clawed his way through the existential threat that was late twentieth century American life. He raised a family, suffered loss, and embraced the sweet comfort of watching his offspring thrive. His was not a one-dimensional existence. Each victory had a counterpoint failure. The totality of a life cannot be summed up by simply a recitation of the accomplishments. Quite the opposite really, the totality comes from the realization that the experience, the struggle is, in fact, the adventure. And Ed was, if nothing else, an adventurer.
I have read of the genius of military leaders (like Admiral Yi and Nelson), political strategists like Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, and artistic geniuses like Caravaggio and Gian Lorenzo Bernini… but I have seen the genius before me in Edward Sunu.
I have watched as he stared at a collection of electronic parts taken sporadically from different products; then in a matter of minutes weaved them together to form a working appliance. I have been humbled to see him literally take scrap pieces of framing wood from Home Depot and without plans, measurements, or drawings, fashion cabinetry that would rival a professional carpenter.
During the funeral, the brothers regaled us with stories of his genius and his generosity. These are the stories you expect to hear as someone is laid to rest. Yet, it is that connectivity that really struck me. Yes, Ed was a genius, and to say the least, he was bold. But as I looked at my daughters, and saw my wife, I could see that same genius flickering in their own eyes, that same genius that stunned the Japanese into humbled silence when Admiral Yi defeated them again and again hundreds of years ago.