Devoted mother, aunt and grandmother, teacher, diplomat’s wife, lover of flowers. Born March 14, 1918, near Pyongyang, died June 27, 2012, in Victoria of cancer, aged 94.
Our morning glories were late blooming this year. Each year, I set aside a few seeds for my mother-in-law to plant in a pot on her balcony. This year, though, the weather was cold, the seeds did not germinate, and my mother-in-law was terminally ill.
Yong Ae Kang (née Park) was born near Pyongyang, in what would later become North Korea. She and her two sisters graduated from university, not a common phenomenon in 1930s Korea, a testament to her father’s belief in education.
The lives of the three sisters were not common either. The elder married a businessman/politician and was a YWCA director; the younger was a political activist. Yong Ae taught the Korean language, and after her marriage to Choon Hee Kang, took on the role of diplomat’s supporting wife. They lived in nine different countries over 35 years – Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Egypt, Chile, Germany, Ivory Coast and New Zealand.
While that might sound a glamorous life, that impression was belied by Yong Ae’s stories about orienting two young boys to 16 different schools, her husband disappearing temporarily after a Korean military coup, and hearing gunshots at night in 1970s Chile.
Nevertheless, she welcomed the opportunity to explore each of these countries. Her favourite was New Zealand with its openness and informality.
Yong Ae loved to tell stories, including some about the hardship of her early life – leaving Pyongyang hidden in a truck, pregnant, and encountering Russian soldiers; the double good fortune of her son’s birth and her husband getting a job; the foibles of multifamily households.
She rarely, though, talked of the loss of her first child to malnutrition, an enduring sadness.
After her two sons grew up and had families of their own, her favourite times were spent quietly with them – blueberry picking in Manitoba, reading to her grandsons in sometimes faltering English, sitting front row in a tiny overheated hall where her musician grandson played, or watching turtles swim in a large backyard pond.
She laughed recalling a jazz concert in New York where one grandson played, extended family assembled, and the youngest grandson refused to leave at bedtime.
After her 80th birthday, Yong Ae moved to Victoria, settling in yet another community. With great openness she embraced those new experiences.
She delighted in acquiring new English expressions from the residents in her apartment building – when complimented on a sweater (often skillfully knitted by herself), she would chuckle that it was “age old.”
It is her wonderful openness to the world, its people and its diverse experience that we will remember most, and miss tremendously.
Elisabeth Wagner is Yong Ae’s daughter-in-law.