401 book translation project: Old Bear Gardener

With signs of spring starting to appear, I think it’s fitting that this story is about a gardener. I like this one.

Old Bear Gardener

  • Written in Korean by Suk Yong Kwak, mid 1970’s, Korean Journal, Toronto
  • Translated by June and Ok Ryong Kwak


When autumn leaves beautifully fall, business slows down for Bear Gardener. From April to October, he is busy, unless it’s pouring rain. He cuts the lawn, prunes branches and plants flowers. I met him 4 years ago at the beginning of November on a Sunday afternoon. Before moving to Toronto,
I came looking for an apartment and I stopped on a side street north of Bayview and Sheppard to read a map. In the front garden of a large house, one old man was working. He was digging up flower roots. I asked for directions to the street I was looking for. This man was not Chinese or Japanese, he happened to be Korean, so I was glad to meet him. He greeted me warmly with a handshake. He was average height, with a tanned face, and his jaw was set. “I don’t live in this house, but I know the area, if you want an apartment then go farther east to the apartment complex by Fairview Mall.” he advised.

    Following his directions, I found an apartment and as I returned to London, Ontario driving on the 401, this old man could not be forgotten, I could see his face more clearly and close up.

Not living in the big house, this grandfather was digging up flower roots and it was not any day, but Sunday, his big rough hands in focus in my mind.
I was glad to have secured an apartment and to have met a Korean man, but a part of me felt sad since he was not a young man, to see him working as a gardener in a foreign land in his old age. Some friends have their parents living with them and both husband and wife work, so the parents are babysitting, but I heard that the parents feel bored and restless, but still this man is working outside on a cold Sunday afternoon…
    This old man’s children, where are they and what are they doing, I kept on wondering.
    Whether young or old, we all have one life and it is not easy, this is the thought comes to mind when I think of his situation. Two years later, after I heard his story, my wondering and my thoughts flipped 180 degrees.
    At a party for a child’s first birthday at a friend’s house, they happened to talk about that old man. He is 80 years old and living in an apartment alone. He is working for an Oriental second generation gardener and earning minimum wage. It is not because he doesn’t have children and it’s not because they are poor, he voluntarily lives alone. Last winter, in the Fairview Mall parking lot, I met him by chance and he insisted on buying coffee and french fries and I had an opportunity to talk with him.


“They all have something to say, I’m over 80 years old, at my age, I go around cutting the lawn, people have too much to say. I know the time I have left is short and it’s not that I don’t know to live comfortably, but to stay at home, makes me feel restless and irritable. Moreover, I ache all over, and almost feel like fainting. I have children, but they are busy with their own lives and I like to live alone rather than be a burden to them. I am content to live alone. It might be a different story if my body did not move as I want, so far, I am okay. I don’t have many children, but I don’t feel envious. The oldest son is in Korea. His says that he is director of a theatre. He likes his work and he must be pretty good now even if he is just an entertainer.

The second one, is a doctor in St. Louis, my daughter, who invited me to Canada because she was sorry I was alone in Korea, got married, and late in life went to New York to study. All of them have asked me to come live with them. Once I started working though, thing are not bad. At the beginning, I accepted some money from them to cover living expenses, now I am completely independent.Young people here are happy. If you work honestly you can live without worries, isn’t that so? As for children’s education, if they are good at it, they can go as far as they want to go, but young people seem in too much of a hurry to only want to make money. Money needs time. Block a dry river by closing a sluice gate, then water collects. To make money is hard work but to spend it properly is more difficult. When you are young you have to work to make money and raise children, but when you play you have to know how to play. Now in the middle of cold winter I have no work, just like a bear. In winter I take leisurely trips here and there. My sons give me a lot of money and they are happy to see me spend it. Most of the time I work 10 hours a day if there is no rain, even on Sunday. On my own, I have some regular customers, so living is all right. Now, my mouth and ears are opened up somehow to English, now I can go anywhere, ha, ha, I am over 65

and the people working with me have unemployment insurance but I don’t. Hospital is free, but for pension, I have to live in Canada five more years … that’s the situation, so if I were to return to Korea, what would I do? Would I go there to die? After dying, you go into the earth, it’s the same, however I look now, when I was young, I had hard times, but I am over 70. I sold farming land and I went to Japan, ( note – college not completed ) after World War I, I went to Manchuria, with a bag of ginseng on my back. I had a difficult time and came close to losing life, I was also selling gold and went to Shanghai. I was not acting for a patriotic independence group. In Shanghai, I was selling pancakes for a while. I heard the names of Mr. Woo Nam or Mr. Bak Beum. After independence, people suggested I to go this way or that to try political work, but it was not my path, it would have been a misstep and no purpose for me. Those experiences were all useless.
    Having come all this way here, to talk about Korean politics, I know it is because they are worried about the country, but it’s all useless. After immigrating, you have to help each other and make things better, people living a busy life, what do you want them to do, you have to do something to help each other.
    My health? Nothing special. eat well and sleep well, do you have to sleep a long time, to sleep? Even a short sleep, if it is sweet sleep is good sleep. The secret for long life? In Manchuria, I hunted and ate bear. That explanation is not worth the breath, it’s living with just enough ambition, without being too greedy and just live that way. My name, what for? The old guy who is working with me, who is younger than me calls me Old Bear.”


    There are over five Korean old men working the as I do, he said. Now he is living in a low rise building in a bachelor apartment that he bought. He’s living with one grandson who has been here just one year and is attending college, he said.
    There are more autumn leaves on the lawn than on the trees. Two or three full garbage bags of leaves can be seen in front of each house. The dark green lawn is matted down and the leaves are collected, so winter is just around the corner.
    Ontario bears are also starting to dig their dens again as November is coming soon, thinking of Old Bear preparing to make a winter’s batch of kimchi, makes me take pause to smile.
    Wishing for a long and healthy life for Old Bear.
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