George Herbert, a 16th century poet, said that “living well is the best revenge.” This adage about success as an antidote to the harm others inflict on us can be applied to the life of Hyon Kim. She’s lived a life she’s proud of, which is the best any of us can aspire to. In the process, she overcame the challenges of abandonment, abuse, loneliness, and racial discrimination.
Kim was born in Korea in 1946, just after Japanese occupation ended, and has very fond memories of her father’s doting on her as a “princess” when she was young. Everything changed in 1950. At the age of four, Kim was sent to be with her maternal grandmother when the rumblings of war began. Her father fled north with his wife and two sons, leaving his young daughter south of the 38th parallel, the arbitrary line which divided their country in what became a struggle between Stalinist communism and democracy. Kim writes in detail about the region’s political history that led to the conflict and provides much-needed context to her story.
Her father’s communist ideology doomed Kim to ridicule by her family as well as her peers as a bbal-gang-i, which essentially means “red communist.” After the death of her grandmother, Kim is left with an aunt who raised her but treated her unkindly. Her story is told clearly, with bitterness toward her father only. Throughout her childhood she’d dreamed her beloved father would rescue her, but eventually, she says, “even the good memories faded away, and soon I had only hatred in my heart toward my father.” Readers will feel her hatred is well justified.
After being forced out of her aunt’s home at age sixteen, Kim learned to become independent and successful. She married a US soldier, immigrated to the US, and had two sons, but later divorced her husband. Kim’s narrative is interwoven with a deep sense of loneliness, illustrated by incidents of abuse, bullying, and racism in both Korea and the US. However, her determination led to accomplishments as an entrepreneur and as the first Asian-American elected to the Board of Regents for the University of Minnesota.
In 1990, Kim learned her father had been executed by Kim Il-sung in 1956. For most of her life, she’d harbored both hatred and yearning for a man long dead. The author is now in her seventies and is proud of her sons, her work as a student advocate on the Board of Regents, and the companies she subsequently founded. Her faith has softened her heart toward her father, finally bringing her a sense of peace.
While Kim writes in heartbreaking detail about the pain of ostracism and discrimination, she also demonstrates extraordinary strength as a survivor by focusing on her achievements. Hyon Kim has indeed taken her revenge for many injustices through a life well lived.