Travel is many things to many people. It is many things to me. But perhaps the thing I cherish most about travel is its ability to imbue meaning into other things. For memories of it to link to those of people and experiences, for it to entwine itself around the roots of who we are. For me, that’s most evident when I go through my coin and note collection and think of my grandfather. Though our paths started 60 years apart, the routes of them meandered through many shared destinations.
I started collecting coins when I was young. My brother and I would collect wheat and Indian head pennies with my dad. He had a coin collection of his own in the drawer of his desk, with many old coins from the early 20th and late 19th centuries. Sometimes, when we were feeling rascally, we’d sneak into his office and rummage through the collection. My dad was inspired by a friend to start his coin collection and by my grandfather to start collecting different medallions, which makes me the third generation of Anderson (that I know of) to be into collecting coins. Sometimes, when I went to visit my grandparents at their home in Lake City, I would bring my catalog of pennies to show off my latest finds.
The years went by, and I grew up. My grandma passed away, and Grandpa had to sell the home in Lake City and move in with my aunt and uncle. I graduated college and left the country for the first time to study abroad. Later, when Grandpa had moved to an assisted living facility in Issaquah, we’d keep in touch primarily by email. Sometimes, he’d mention that he’d found some old coins of his and that I was welcome to come check them out over lunch. Each had a memory tied to it, and it was always fun to hear his stories from when he traveled the world. Every once in a while, when I left, he’d send a coin or three with me to add to my collection.
My grandfather’s early years were hard ones. He was born in 1929 to a rancher and a teacher, an occurrence which precipitated one of the largest economic disasters in modern history. In his words, “My arrival must have caused problems… the stock market crashed, The Great Depression began… but fortunately, everyone blamed President Hoover.” His childhood alternated between working on the ranch with his father and living with his mother’s family in Seattle. He joined the army and set off for Korea in 1951, just after the start of the Korean War. And that is where our distant paths converge…
In 2011, when I decided to leave my corporate job in the US and move to South Korea, my grandpa had perhaps the funniest reaction. “Why would you want to live there?” I still remember the shock and incredulity in his tone.
Grandpa had lived there as a serviceman during the Korean War. He worked in communications and ran telephone wire for the armed forces all over the East Coast of the country. One place he had particular memories of was Pusan (now Busan). “It was filthy,” he told me. “The streets were dirt, everyone was covered in it, and all the sewage was piled up outside the city. You could smell it everywhere.” (paraphrased, but the gist of what he said is true enough.)
“Grandpa, I think it’s different now.”
First, there’s the rapid urbanization which took place after my grandpa’s tenure. After the war, Korea’s cities and economy were in ruins. Less than 30% of the country lived in urban centers, and the population of Seoul was just over 1.5 million people. According to Demographics of South Korea, “…the dislocation caused by the Korean War accounted for the rapid increase in urban population during the early 1950s. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of them from North Korea, streamed into the cities.”
The growing pains were extreme, and cities became overcrowded and polluted, while key rural areas lost significant portions of their workforce to the lure of opportunity. Some of the biggest changes have taken place since the 1980s, and Korea has gradually morphed into the first world technological powerhouse that it is today.
The other factor is the reforestation of the countryside. During the first half of the 20th century, the Korean peninsula was “ruthlessly degraded as a result of illegal and over-cutting for construction, as well as illegal logging under the Japanese occupation (1910-1945)” (Lee, Son, Kwoun, Kim “The history of deforestation and forest rehabilitation in Korea“). When my grandpa arrived in 1951, much of the damage had already been done. By the time he left in 1952, the Korean Peninsula had been absolutely devasted. “Korea lost a large portion of its forests; trees did not exist, and the mountains lost their shape and function. It became like a desert, a place where not a single plant grew… As a result, massive landslides, flooding, and erosion occurred every year, leading to a loss of arable land and continuous poverty.” (Lee, Son, Kwoun, Kim).
At least I knew why my grandpa was so surprised I decided to move there.
But the Korea I found was vastly changed from the place he’d left behind. I first set foot on the Peninsula a full 60 years after Grandpa did, and I disembarked the plane to find myself in a thriving, sprawling city home to over 10 million people, with an additional 15 million in the surrounding metropolitan area. Seoul is massive, modern, and utterly overwhelming. My ‘small’ city of Pohang was an improvement but is still home to some 600,000 souls. Two generations. That’s how long it took.
And the countryside. South Korea is now over 60% covered in forests and home to 22 national parks, as well as other regional protected areas. With so much natural beauty restored, South Korea has a booming hiking sub-culture and a decent trail system for those seeking to enjoy it.
Anytime I wrote home to Grandpa, I’d tell him about the things I’d been up to and the fun I was having. Pohang had a thriving social scene, and my first year (and second and third!) was a blast. When I visited home during the summer of 2013, he would laugh and shake his head over how things had changed.
Before I left again, he gave me another gift, some old money he’d collected during his two years on the Peninsula. Among the bills was a 1,000원 note, old and wrinkled. Here’s what the bill looked like then, and another of what it looks like now.
Australia and New Zealand
My grandpa went to Australia in 1974. He was working for Boeing at the time and spent his visit jet-setting around the country in the cockpit of a new 727. While he never made it over to New Zealand and I never made it over to Australia, and I’m committing an unforgivable sin by lumping these two wildly different countries together, you’re just going to have to deal with it. Artistic license.
During his time there, he visited every major airport in the country, and he brought back many treasures. Among these were opals, and jade, and boomerangs. He even brought back some kangaroo skins! As a child, I was fascinated with these trinkets and treasures. I pictured my grandpa in Indiana Jones’ getup exploring the Outback and digging for these precious stones to bring home to family and friends. I wanted to do the same — to be an explorer! Who knew, maybe I’d even wear a sable fedora.
When I moved to New Zealand in late 2015, I was so excited to explore the rugged beauty of the country. It took almost 5 months for me to do that due to a brutal work schedule, but when I finally got around to it the experience was breathtaking. Massive mountains and fiords, lush rainforests, rugged coastlines. I bought a small car and explored the South Island alone, camping and hiking as much as I could. It was an epic adventure. I was doing it. I was an explorer!
But then the money ran out, and I needed to land another job. I found one on the North Island, in the little city of Taupo. That’s where I stayed for the rest of my time in the country.
That’s where I was when I found out about the cancer — curled up on my bed in Rainbow Lodge and Skyping with my parents. Grandpa had been getting weaker and sicker, an almost yearly occurrence with his Guillain-Barré, but this particular episode had been proving tough to bounce back from. Now we knew why.
Just before I finished my working holiday and left the country, I got a chance to Skype with my parents while they visited him. I always remember him as physically frail due to his 40 year battle with Guillain-Barré, but I’d never seen him in such a state. He was very weak and wasn’t able to talk for long. “Alright Nathan, I’m going to let you go.”
“I love you, Grandpa.”
“I love you too.”
My second visit to Hong Kong was in September of 2016, immediately after my time in New Zealand. I would spend a week in the hive of humanity, meeting my sister for half of that time. But before she arrived, I’d made plans to hike and camp on the Sai Kung peninsula. It was September 9th, and it was a day for exploration and relaxation. As I descended along a cattle trail towards Tai Wan Beach, I saw a menacing line of clouds roll in. Pitch black, they shrouded the interior of the peninsula, and I saw forks of lightning split the blackness. I watched for a few minutes, and the storm seemed to be moving away.
But then the storm overtook me, and the sky opened. I stowed my camera, phone, and wallet in a plastic bag and hunkered under a bush as the deluge hit. Thunder roared as a bolt of lightning struck the other end of the beach, and I found myself cackling with excitement.
The walk back to Ham Tin was a soggy one. Soaked through, I stopped at a food shack for a steaming cup of tea. By the time I made it back, the rain had all but stopped, and patches of blue were peeking out from the cloud cover.
On a whim, I took out my phone and turned it on. After some fiddling, I managed to get a connection using my New Zealand SIM card. Messages began to come through, and I felt a bit guilty. I’d meant to spend this time off the grid. But no matter. I pulled down the notifications bar and my brain registered three words…
“Grandpa passed away…”
I stared at the message from my mom for a few minutes, letting it sink in. We’d expected it. When we’d spoken last in New Zealand, the conversation had an air of finality to it. But some part of me had always thought I’d see him that Christmas, that we’d get one more lunch together…. I just thought we’d have more time.
I dug my toes into the sand, put my face in my hands, and sobbed until the tears stopped coming. The wind blew, and the sound of the waves was a balm. Nature, as always, was my comfort.
Grandpa visited Hong Kong after his Australian adventures and brought back some coins from his time there. They were some of the last ones he gave me, and I’ve yet to catalog some of them. But just like Korea, the span of time which separated our experiences can also be seen in the change to currency.
My Grandfather’s Coins
Grandpa and I ended up being very different men. I had an easy childhood with loving and attentive parents, and I never had to face the horrors of war. It wasn’t until I left the US and moved to Asia (or the Orient as he would call it) that our paths paralleled each other.
While I’ve been gone for most of the past 6 years and missed a lot as a result, my time abroad gave me a special connection to my grandfather. We’d long shared a love for chess and all things dessert, but now we share experiences the world over.
Looking through my collection of coins and notes, I relive memories of my grandfather and the places we visited. Instead of my connection to him being confined to a single country, it spans continents. From the USA to Korea, Hong Kong, Oceania, Japan, Thailand…
I wouldn’t change that for the world.
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