A Palpable Smile Hyun sung-yong: An outlier

A Family Bond: Introduction

More often than not I can predict my grandfather's actions and words. An old ray-ban sunglasses, grey bucket hat, beige pants, and a irksome check shirt highlights his day-to-day, habitual style. Along with that, I recognise his steady pace, conscious of his declining speed and his lowering back. I can recall the various pigmentations on his skin, ranging from coloured dots, to thick, defining veins. I even understand the most intricate of details, like how he seats on his handkerchief to keep his pristine and newly washed pants, pristine and newly washed. But knowing all this and much more, I was still oblivious to his true self. I was unaware of his real story. The way he acts, talks, or moves link back to his experience and wisdom bringing joy to people, adapting to new environments, and taking advantage of all things. He has a peculiar story he shares, one only his will, strength, and open-mind pushed him through. But what's most astonishing? At 78, he still dares to dream and challenge the status quo. I realised, the reality was, I actually knew so little about him. As I learned more, it became clear that he was my outlier. I am living in Singapore because of my outlier.

My grandfather's name is Hyun Sung-Yong. And this is his story of successes.


On December 5, 1938, my grandfather, Hyun Sung-Yong was born; he was the 3rd youngest of 8 siblings. From the beginning, his parents strongly encouraged him to dream bigger and better while raising him with the right balances of class and blithe, so he would grow humbly and courageously. At the early age of 10, Hyun Sung-Yong had already made up his mind about his future. In the city of Pyongyang, he studied hard to become a journalist. Away from school, he worked several hours a day in his father’s factories. But when the Korean war commenced, his lucrative dream of journalism silently vanished into thin air. Yet in spite of the war, his willingness to dream coupled with his work ethic were an impeccable combination. As he grew older, his brothers and sisters looked elsewhere to find a ‘new beginning’, while my grandfather opted to skip college and work immediately. Along his 78 year journey, each and every one of his actions and decisions created the world I’m living in today.

Hyun Sung-Yong's Family Tree (Created with Family Echo)

Heading South

On June 5, 1950, a calamity casted over Korea.

Hyun Sung-Yong was only 14 when he woke up to the sounds of gunshots and explosions, and already, from the first bullet fired into the silent blue sky, the perils flooded the neighborhood.

“Pack the blankets!” yelled Seo Seong-Myong, Hyun Sung-Yong’s mother.

Afraid and helpless, he obliged. His sisters and brothers, though scared themselves, staggered around the house stuffing belongings and valuables into their bags. And before he knew it, he was out of the house, piling backpacks on the carriage of a cow. “We then migrated south to seek refuge; nothing more, nothing less,” explained my grandfather. They decided to follow the trails of which thousands of man, woman, and children went before. Uncertain of what was ahead, they moved silently along the dirt. “We didn’t know what we were going to eat that day, or where we were going to sleep that night,” said my grandfather. “With each footstep of the soldiers closing in, my heart clenched, and I feared for the life of my family.”

Generic Image of Refuge During Korean War

In a matter of hours, Hyun Sung-Yong felt hopeless. He was dirty from bottom to top, and his legs were covered with bruises and cuts. With each heavy step, he dropped his head and dragged his spirits. He would re-enact the early days he spent playing outside, but often, a decision would interrupt his blissful reminiscence. When he left Pyongyang, he also left his beloved sister behind, so she could live with her husband. And instead of succumbing to the luxury of staying home, Hyun Sung-Yong, at 14 years old, made a pivotal decision to leave his sister behind to, firstly, be safe, but secondly, receive greater opportunities in life. This decision was the first chapter of his story, which would have ended before even beginning had he opted to stay.

Hyun Sung Yong's Oldest Sister, Hyun Sung-Joo, who stayed in the north. (Right)

Also, while leaving home, his journalism dream that he held tightly within his palms vanished through the seams of his fingers, but his audacity to dream never dispelled. To him, home resembled a dead-end to opportunities, and he knew he had to move on. So with his courageous spirit, he decided to never dwell or look back into the past, but rather, always focus on the present and look far into the future. He was chosen to live through this improbable chances of survival. Through the visual arts of blood and agony, to the auditory sounds of cryings and mournings, there was a reason death only brushed his skin, not take his life. Every single decision during the one month exodus is the reason I am here today, including which side he jumped to when he heard gunshots.

About the Korean War: Historical Except

A Beginnning to Something New

After receiving his high school diploma in Cheongju (청주), South Korea, my grandfather, unlike many others, decided to skip college and dive straight into business. Frankly, college wasn’t even a considerable decision since he was too poor to afford further education. So at 19, he stationed up an electronic store, Lee Hwa Jeon Hog Sa (이화전혹사), with his older brother, Hyun Sung-Man. Here, my grandfather worked hard to maintain a healthy financial situation. He appeared at work every single day, and worked diligently fixing and selling technology on his desk until 1969.

Electronic Store Co-Founders. (Left: Hyun Sung-Man, Right: Hyun Sung-Yong) Grandfather's Photography
About my Grandfather's Business. Textual Excerpt

“Before I grew older, I wanted to bring to life parts of my childhood dream," he said.

Friends in Bangladesh. Grandfather's Photography

After shutting down his electronic store, he had already set his mind on working overseas and living actively to garner greater amounts of money. On 1979, he finalised his decision to move to Qatar, Doha. There, he worked at a construction business called Dae Lin Gun Sul. But soon, he made another big move to Bangladesh, so he could work as the manager of a construction site. "I was happy that I could relay parts of my childhood dream into reality, and at the time, that was all I could ask for," he commented. When he finished the construction of the American International School in Bangladesh, his positive and always thankful attitude made him realise that he could ingrain the same attitude towards all things. "Being optimistic and happy allowed myself to create better and bigger things in life, not just physically, but relationship wise, too!" A decision that set him thousands of miles away from home, allowed him, subconsciously, to learn successful virtues, all while living his dream and earning respectful money.

Friends in Qatar, Doha. Grandfather's Photography

If he never decided to chase after parts of his childhood dream, he would never have been satisfied with his life. If he allowed the environment and people to tell him he couldn't be something, he would've grown up being belittled by peers. But instead, he is both today because he wanted to be different. He wanted to do something special. When he followed his dream overseas, he could do work he loved, and the money aspect just followed him in abundance. 10 years later, when he came back to Seoul, money was no longer the issue. He realised that his patience and respect towards all people were the reason he became so successful. Had he lashed out upon them, it would have been a different story. But because my grandfather never gave up dreaming and trying, he was able to reach the climax of his life at an early age.

A New Purpose

When Hyun Sung-Yong returned home in 1980, he had two children waiting for him: Hyun Seung-Sik (my father) and Hyun Gyung-Ah (my aunt).

“I was just glad to see my family again. To support them fully felt like a duty,” said my grandfather. Though he was glad he could finally come home, during the time he was away, he made sure his wife, Shin Yong-Sook raised his children the way he wanted to; with love and respect. They were very strict, yes, but they never told their son and daughter to focus on a certain profession because they believed that it was up to them to wholeheartedly understand what true passion is. Soon, his children became his new purpose. They fuelled him to work harder. Through his mentorship, he competently aided his children with great education and opportunities. 5 years later, on 1985, Seung-Sik enrolled in one of the most prestigious university in South Korea: Yonsei University (연세대학교). Studying sociology, 4 years later, just like his father, Seung-Sik graduated, then found a job at Samsung. As a token of appreciation, he aided his father for everyday of his life onwards.

Yonsei University Logo. My Father's College. (Photograph Courtesy of Wikipedia)
Hyun Seung-Sik at Work in Samsung. Personal Photograph

When you take a step back and look at the grand scheme of events, a pattern emerges. One's duty and love comes back to help the other. For instance, like how Sung-Yong's own parents encouraged him to be himself and dream big, he did the same thing to his own child. And likewise, I'm receiving the same treatment from my own father.

Initially, without my grandfather's decision to move overseas, he would never had made enough money to present his children with the best opportunities. He said, “I wasn’t given any opportunities in my lifetime. In fact, when I felt like I actually did have a special opportunity in front of me, it was immediately crushed. That’s why I made sure I gave my children the best life I could give."

''At the end of the day, I worked hard because I had a purpose. I worked hard because I had a dream.”

Hyun Sung-Yong (Left) and Hyun Seung-Sik (Right). Personal P

When my father was born, he only brought happiness and tears to Hyun Sung-Yong's life. "I was never, ever sad," said Sung-Yong. If my grandfather never had a child, he would never had a larger focus or a goal to work hard for. Raising my father, and sending him off to one of the most respected university helped Sung-Yong immensely in the future. Because of my grandfather, I can become anything I aspire and work to be.

Korea's Education: Yonsei University. Historical Excerpt

The Story I Continue: Conclusion

I realised that my work is to carry on the story my father, my grandfather, and my ancestors have written before me. I am merely a minor character next up to share this grand tale.

But besides that, I have also realised something else. Finally, I can understand that my grandfather's baby steps were the result of thousands of hard working hours. I can understand that his dark, dull hands were the product of experience and wisdom. As I look at him in awe, I wondered: What if he had jumped left instead of right and got shot and died? How was he so flawless? There were so many moments that could've gone wrong, yet I'm still here in Singapore living an outlier life. The fact of the matter was, he was not flawless, but with every decision he made, good or bad, he always made something positive out of it.

Today, I looked back at my grandfather's picture once more. But this time, I understood the story behind his smile.

He has made me believe: the next day, the sun will always rise. It's up to me to make the best out of it.

Family Picture in South Korea. Personal Photograph

Works Cited:

History.com Staff. "Korean War." History.com. A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009. Web.

09 Nov. 2016. < http://www.history.com/topics/korean-war >

“Family echo.” Familiality Ltd, 2015, Web. 25 Jan. 2015. <http: / / familyecho.com / >

Hyun, Sung-Yong. Telephone interview. 1 Nov. 2016.

Hyun, Sung-Yong. Telephone interview. 1 Nov. 2016.

Hyun, Sung-Yong. Videoconference interview. 3 Nov. 2016.

“Hyun Sung-Yong’s Siblings” , North Korea. Personal Photograph. c. 1948

"Korean War Fast Facts." CNN. Cable News Network, 21 June 2016. Web. 09 Nov. 2016. <http://edition.cnn.com/2013/06/28/world/asia/korean-war-fast-facts/>.

Lee, Steven. "The United States, the United Nations, and the Second Occupation of Korea, 1950-1951" The Asia-Pacific Journal, 16 Mar. 2009. Web. 09 Nov. 2016. <http://apjjf.org/-Steven-Lee/3457/article.html>.

Hyun, Sung-Yong, Smiling Grandfather. 10 Feb. 1976, Personal Photograph, South Korea.

Hyun, Sung-Yong, Bangladesh Friends. 22 June. 1976, Personal Photograph, South Korea.

Hyun, Sung-Yong, Son. 22 Sep. 1984, Personal Photograph, South Korea.

Hyun, Sung-Yong, Electronic Store Co-Founders. 1956, Personal Photograph, South Korea.

Hyun, Sung-Yong, Qatar, Doha . 1979, Personal Photograph, South Korea.

"Korea - OECD Data." TheOECD. OECD, 2012. Web. 13 Nov. 2016. <https://data.oecd.org/korea.htm>.

"History of Yonsei." YONSEI University. Yonsei University, n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2016. <http://www.yonsei.ac.kr/en_sc/intro/history1.jsp>.

"Education in South Korea." WENR. WES, 1 June 2013. Web. 13 Nov. 2016. <http://wenr.wes.org/2013/06/wenr-june-2013-an-overview-of-education-in-south-korea>.

Hyun, Seung-Sik, Samsung Work. May. 2014, Personal Photograph, Singapore.

Family, Formal Picture. May. 2005, Personal Photograph, Seoul, South Korea.

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Jinu Hyun

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