NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

My grandmother moved from Korea to attend SMU in the ’50s. Her story is mine too

 Elizabeth Myong and Susan Myong in an illustration.
Michael Hogue
The Dallas Morning News
From our college experiences to my work as a journalist, my life is intertwined with my grandma's — even if she's no longer here.

Editor’s Note: My grandmother came from Korea to attend Southern Methodist University  in the ’50s. In this personal essay, I looked back at old photos, interviewed family members and visited the SMU archives to understand what life was like for her and how our lives intersect. 

 Susan Myong and her grandchildren Elizabeth and Michele.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Myong
My older sister Michele (left) and I (right) sit around my grandmother in the kitchen of her townhome in McLean, Virginia.

What I remember were the Saturday morning phone calls. At 9 a.m., dad would scoop me into his lap and bring the phone to my ear. He’d look at me expectantly, nodding before I put my little mouth over the speaker, “Hi, grandma.”

Then, you would burst into endless tears. Dad would pull the phone away and pause, listening to you cry before trying to talk again. He would wrap his arm around me, but I was scared.

I did not understand that you were losing a battle against lung cancer. I could not understand how the struggle of that battle, the depression, all the medications and treatment, made it feel like the time we had left together was slipping away.

Visits to Virginia

 Myong family in front of a town home.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Myong
My family stands with my grandmother in front of her townhome in McLean, Virginia. From top left to right are my grandmother, my mom Jan and dad Jerry. On the bottom left to right, I stand with my older sister Michele.

Visits to your townhome in Virginia were always full of oddities and treasures.

The fanned-out Highlights on our nightstand. The moose that smelled like chocolate. The huge kimchi jar of pennies in your closet that I would always shove my hand into.

 Elizabeth and Michele Myong.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Myong
In the backyard of my grandma's townhome, my older sister Michele (right) holds the two bunnies our grandma gifted us for Easter. Per usual, Michele won our fight over the bunnies. I received an additional stuffed bunny as a consolation prize.

One day, you called me and unni over to your hospice bed, a gaunt silhouette of bones cocooned by pillows and blankets. With a soft smile, you handed us two snow-white bunny rabbits, with pink and purple ears, that could be linked with their velcro hands. They were meant to represent the sisterhood between your granddaughters. Instead, we fought over them.

We screamed and whined in the car, yanking the ever-smiling bunnies back and forth between us, wanting to be the sole owners of what was meant to be ours.

That was Easter, the last time we saw you, two months before you passed away.

Two Creatives

Susan Myong.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Myong
My grandmother poses while dressed to the nines as always.

“You and my mom would get along.”

“You and my mom have the same interests.”

It was a mantra dad would tell me growing up. A Korean boy born in Virginia, he would recall how you named him Jerome after one of your favorite characters from a French novel. He told me about how much you liked to read, how you would cling to words.

When it became clear that I was a word lover too, it was hard not to miss you.

Sometimes I imagined what it would be like if you were here, how you’d read my first story with a glow of pride and encourage me to keep going. Maybe when I got older, you’d even have notes for me. I could write while you painted.

Korean Girls with Scholarships

 Elizabeth Myong, Valerie Du and Kathleen Snider.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Myong
Before heading out to dinner as an eager freshman, I (left) took a photo with my best friends from college Val (middle) and Kathleen (right).

I remember euphoric shouting as complete strangers belted out my name when we pulled to the curb. They beamed like it was the best day of their lives as they helped move boxes from my parents’ car.

At Rice, orientation week was a coveted tradition with a singular goal: to make incoming freshmen feel as welcome as possible.

 A newspaper clipping of Susan Myong.
Courtesy of Anne Myong
A clipping of a newspaper article about my grandmother talks about her being a scholarship recipient from Korea.

But when you first started at SMU over 70 years ago and around 250 miles away, in the newspaper you were a headline: “Korean girl is chosen as scholarship awardee.”

When I looked into your yearbook, I couldn’t find any other women who looked like you. The space near your name where extracurricular activities are listed is empty. I imagine it was lonely at times. Did it come in waves? Did you try to block it out?

Photos of students in a SMU yearbook
Yfat Yossifor
My grandmother in the SMU yearbook. Her hometown is listed as Seoul, Korea and her major is home economics.

As I gathered with my classmates in my residential college’s commons, I saw a number of faces that looked like mine. While I was the Korean girl who was a scholarship awardee, I was also Liz, the girl who made frog noises during the icebreaker game or wore the Nutrition Facts t-shirt.

Finding Ourselves

 Elizabeth Myong.
Elizabeth Myong
During my internship at KERA, I interviewed people on the street in the Bishop Arts District for a story.

The summer after my freshman year, I started my first journalism internship at KERA in Dallas. It became my whole world. I was finally working as a journalist.

In the thick of the Texas heat, I covered my first mass shooting. I interviewed victims and community members. I spent countless hours curled up, crying as I struggled to navigate the trauma of reporting on tragedy. It broke me, so I could be pieced back together with the conviction of a journalist.

I’m not sure what you did the summer after your freshman year, but I imagine the biggest thing in your world might’ve been something different. You had just spent a year in a brand-new city and country. Not to mention, you were recently divorced and had a child back in Korea through an arranged marriage you never wanted with a man who wasn’t loyal.

You came to America running towards opportunity, but you were also running away.

As I was running towards my future, you were running from your past.

Working Women

 Elizabeth Myong.
Jerry Myong
In the fall of 2019, I worked as a news fellow in New York and visited The Whitney Museum of American Art for a live performance on the front lawn.

Walking along the Hudson River in Riverside Park, the sun burned a golden rust as it dipped under the horizon. I strode along back to my apartment on West End as runners and bikers whizzed past me. It was the weekend before my first day at my first full-time journalism gig in New York and I felt a ball of nervous energy in my stomach.

When you graduated college a year early, you moved to Washington D.C. to get your master’s in library sciences. I was told you were planning on pursuing a Ph.D. in international relations when you met grandpa.

 Jerry Myong, Susan Myong, Anne Myong, Joe Myong.
Philip Myong
A family photo of my grandma with her three children. From left to right, my dad Jerry, his younger sister Anne and his older brother Joe.

He begged you to marry him and somehow, you found yourself in your second marriage with a man seven years younger who was less educated with little professional experience and no car. It wasn’t soon after that you had your first son and then your second, Dad. Then more than five years later, you had Komo.

For me, having children was the furthest thought from my mind. Near the end of my fellowship, I was not thinking about my second son but my second job that I accepted back home in Dallas.

Painting a Life

 Painting of a vase full of flowers.
Elizabeth Myong
My grandmother's painting of a vase of flowers was one of the first images I saw when I woke up as a child.

Smears of marigold, auburn, ochre and ivory across a beige canvas.

The oil painting of a gold vase filled with poppies or lazy-eyed Susans was what I saw every morning when I washed my face.

In the bottom left hand corner, you scrawled your name: Susan Myong, a Korean Georgia O’Keeffe. No longer Soon Hi-Lee.

It was almost easy to forget that your painting hung there on the bathroom wall, even though it was a fixture of my life since I was a child.

The painting is not gaudy or curated – it’s honest. I can imagine you painting it from real life, letting some of the flowers droop with petals that have fallen to the table.

 Elizabeth Myong and Haewon Park.
Reyna Duong
At a book club event in The Cedars this summer, I spoke with club leader Haewon Park about how her group has been a space to foster community.

Perhaps you influenced my love for art and in some way contributed to my career path now as an arts and culture journalist working with a newspaper that once wrote stories about you. Grandma, I write about issues and stories that I deeply care about. They call it access and equity.

Sometimes I think of you when I’m working on stories: a Korean immigrant who was a bibliophile and enjoyed oil painting while managing a household and raising children.

If I were to write about you today, you would be more than a headline. I’d paint you with texture and color as someone who enjoyed listening to Tom Jones, watched Elizabeth Taylor films and dressed up in the latest fashion.


 A painting of sailboats.
Elizabeth Myong
My grandmother's painting of sailboats hangs on the staircase of my parents' home.

These days, I find myself stopping by your painting of sailboats hanging above mom and dad’s staircase. Billowing white sailboats glide across crystal blue water near the forested shore.

There’s more complexity to this one, with layers of texture, a clear foreground and background and different viewpoints. It’s a fuller picture of life, as if someone has used a drone to zoom out.

That’s what I’m trying to do, find more perspective on what it looks like to build a life, to report a story, to be your granddaughter.

Like one of your white foam-capped tides going in and out, my sense of closeness to you ebbs and flows. But when I brush my hands against your painting, I can feel the ridges and bumps of the oil paint. When I do, I can imagine you painting.

It makes me feel like you’re still here, riding the waves in one of the sailboats, navigating the choppy waters with me.

Arts Access is an arts journalism collaboration powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Elizabeth Myong is KERA’s Arts Collaborative Reporter. She came to KERA from New York, where she worked as a CNBC fellow covering breaking news and politics. Before that, she freelanced as a features reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a modern arts reporter for Houstonia Magazine.