How do we unpack a life? When people move to a new place, they carry with them things from the places they left behind. Whether their move is voluntary or involuntary, they bring stories and memories of their previous lives, as well as customs and traditions they sustain in their new homes. They treasure certain tangible objects that serve as powerful touchstones for the paths they or their families have traveled.
Many such objects evoke affectionate memories that connect the past with our present. Other memories leave us deeply conflicted.
Writer Maija Rhee Devine’s byung-poong folding screen has been crucial to her entire seventy-nine years of life, representing events from her emotional roller-coaster past and empowering her beliefs and work.
In Maija’s case, her perspective of the byung-poong conjured sentiments of well-being, interspersed with hardship and adversity.
This byung-poong stands five feet tall. The wooden structure holds six separate panels on hinges which, unfolded, spread eight feet across. Framed within each panel is a set of hand-embroidered flowers depicting aspects of Korean life, history, and culture.
Byung-poongs have been present in Korean culture since the late seventeenth century, artistically commemorating imperial events in the late Joseon dynasty. By the time Maija was born in 1943, they were a familiar presence in many Korean households, functioning as room dividers or protection against the winter chill that seeped through rice paper-covered windows and doors.
“Every Korean family tried to have at least one,” Maija says. Common as they were, byung-poongs were considered treasured possessions. “My byung-poong was a wedding gift to my parents.” Later reflecting as an adult, Maija nicknamed it the “Happiness Screen.”
It was an ironic moniker.
“It started out as a happy object, portending my parents’ love,” Maija notes. “But after a couple of miscarriages, my mom could not produce the son required in Korea’s patriarchal society. She was the love of my dad’s life, and he had no desire for another woman to produce a son for him. However, the societal pressure, especially from his mother, was so intense that by the time I was five, he agreed to accept a mistress to live with us in order to produce a baby boy. That’s when the Happiness Screen turned sardonic.
“My mother passed out the night the mistress arrived.”
When Maija’s dad went into another room to sleep with the mistress, her mother sobbed into a pillow. “Though she recovered, at least partially, over the years, she was plagued with physical pain, especially headaches. Each week, she wore a white headache band. To me, it was a sign that her heart was broken for good, and it was because I was not a boy.”
Her mother’s pain became Maija’s. “Neighbors said to me, ‘If you had been a boy, your father would not have gotten a mistress, and your mother would not be crying,’” she recalls.
Maija had just turned seven in June 1950 when the Korean War broke out. “Everywhere we looked, bombs dropped, and families fled from Seoul beginning in November when the Chinese entered the war,” Maija says. There was no time to move furniture; adults carried only what they could bundle atop their heads or hold in their arms.
“We didn’t evacuate Seoul as a whole family,” she says. “Dad told Mom to take me and Grandma and meet him in Masan, 200 miles south. He wanted us to leave right away, because he feared that the Han Bridge would soon be bombed. That would close the road to the south.” After leaving the family, her father hurried to get his mistress who was visiting her parents.
“Mom’s arms were filled with rice cakes and belongings, including a chamber pot,” Maija recalls. “I hung onto her skirt while we all trudged to the train station. Hundreds of people piled into boxcars. No seats, no lights, no windows, no toilets.” The train ride took three days, with stops in villages along the way. “Every few hours, when the train stopped, we jumped off and ran to the fields, relieved ourselves, and then ran back before the train departed again.”
For the first few days in Masan, Maija and her mother and grandmother camped out by draping blankets over a makeshift food stall in an open-air market.
“At night, while I slept, my mom would act out a monologue in the dark stall,” Maija remembers. “’Maija, don’t touch that gun! Daddy will wake up!’ she would warn. Then, she imitated loud snoring sounds! I would startle awake. ‘What? Dad is here?’ But I would find no daddy.” Maija’s mother was trying to ward off the pickpockets and thieves who might be lurking outside.
Soon, Maija’s mother rented a room in Old Masan, an hour’s walk from the train station. Eventually, Maija’s parents found each other, but only after his mistress had given birth to a son in another rental house. Grandma rejoiced at having a grandson and moved in with her son and the mistress. For the next three years, Maija and her mother, along with a younger cousin, lived in Masan, returning to Seoul only after the 1953 Armistice Agreement was signed. When they walked back into their house in Seoul, “everything seemed the same,” Maija recalls. “Even the beautiful byung-poong was there.” However, she saw other buildings in the neighborhood bombed to the ground. Maija’s dad, the mistress, and grandma soon rejoined the rest of the family in their house.
To Maija, each of the embroidered panels on the byung-poong screen now points to a personal experience that influenced her life and work.
“Chrysanthemums (guk wha) and plum blossoms (mai wha) were admired as important flowers by Confucian scholars,” Maija says. “The mai part of my name means ‘plum.’ They’re strong enough to bloom from underneath snow-covered branches, bursting forth as the first sign of spring.”
Wild roses (jangme ggot) represent supreme beauty. “But at the same time,” Maija notes, “its prickles can keep it from being fully loved.”
Peonies (moran ggot) symbolize the abundant richness of life, including having many children, especially sons. “The artwork in Buddhist temples were filled with peonies, and men and women went to the prayer halls and prayed for the birth of sons.”
The pines (sonamu) symbolize endurance and evergreen permanence. “They also represent the Confucian principles of uncompromising spirit, staying above lesser concerns like gender disparity,” Maija points out.
“The cranes (hak) symbolize happy, long-term marriages, as cranes mate for life. But they also highlight the dichotomy embedded in traditional Korean culture, as my own parents’ story showed,” Maija continues. “Faithfulness to one’s spouse was required of females but not of males. Polygamy was allowed for men, but absolute fidelity (jeong-jo) to one husband, dead or alive, was required of women, and remarriage for women was banned,” Maija says. “From hearing my mom’s sobs when my father was in another room with his mistress, I learned that gender-based injustices were evil.”
Camellias (dongbaek ggot) represent devotion in Korean culture. Maija recalls a Korean ballad, “The Camellia Maiden,” about a lonely woman who has been deserted, longing to be reunited with her lover. “Traditional Korean society deserted women for all kinds of offenses, from not serving her in-laws well, not bearing sons, for questionable sexual behavior, and acting jealous. But men were not punished for breaking such mores.”
After graduating from Sogang University in Seoul, Maija received a full scholarship to St. Louis University where she earned her master’s degree in English literature. Following graduate work, she taught at Soodo Women Teachers’ College, now Sejong University, in Seoul. In January 1970, Michael Devine, a Peace Corps volunteer from Joliet, Illinois, who had expected an assignment in Latin America, instead arrived in Korea to teach English at Sogang. Soon, Maija received a surprise call.
“There I was, teaching, minding my own business, when this stranger called to ask me for a date! The Jesuit priests at my alma mater had encouraged him to meet me, one of their star graduates. By November, we were married in the Sogang chapel.” They moved to Columbus, Ohio, where Michael began his PhD in history at The Ohio State University, and Maija taught English to international students, refugees, and Korean women married to GIs. In 1975, Maija’s mom came to live with them, bringing the byung-poong with her. (She didn’t say what happened to her father and his mistress.) After her mom died in 1991, Maija inherited the screen.
Maija and Michael now live in Seattle. Over five decades of married life, they raised five children who are dedicated advocates in environmental and social justice issues. “Our two daughters, a sustainable energy engineer and a high school international service program coordinator, are women warriors,” Maija says. “And our sons, a Benedictine monk, an artist, and a social studies teacher, also excel in sharing with society the wide range of blessings they have received.”
The byung-poong has stood on display in the living room of nearly all their homes, and now it stands in Michael’s home office as a reminder of Maija’s mother and her powerful Korean heritage. In her mind, the contradictory embroideries transcended into images of empowerment to advance women’s rights and advocate for gender equality.
“From grade school on, I felt deeply that, someday, I would try to right the wrongs of gender-based injustices,” Maija says. “I turned to writing, continuously publishing op-eds about the horrendous wrongs dealt to women, including the ‘comfort women’ of World War II.” Maija herself was a victim of son-preference culture many times over. As she prepared to leave for the United States to pursue her master’s degree, to her shock, she learned she was adopted.
“My biological parents gave me away, but kept my twin brother,” she says. “This utter prejudice against a daughter first drove me to disbelief, then led me to advocate for women’s rights.” Maija poured such stories of her life experiences into her award-winning novel, The Voices of Heaven.
“My mom wanted me to become a lawyer, because she saw them as saving those whose lives were wrongly robbed. But I realized in college that my intellectual and emotional constitution matched more with literature. Now, through my writing and presentations, I raise my voice against injustices, especially those against women. I don’t know if I am saving lives. If I had become a lawyer, the results might be more apparent and immediate.”
However, just as Maija’s byung-poong sparked her to transform family burdens into literary blessings, her writing may inspire others to change their own perspective.
“Recently,” Maija recalls, “after reading my autobiographical novel, a young man told me that he found in his heart the ability to forgive his mother for a wrong he felt she had done to him decades earlier. I keep my faith that there have been more like him, even if they remain invisible to me.”
Jane Chu describes the contributions of immigrants to America through her stories and illustrations. A practicing visual artist, Chu served as the eleventh chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives and works in Washington, D.C.