GANGNEUNG, South Kore — When Song Hong used to tell his grandchildren about his childhood, he would joke that they were “country folks” from a rugged and rural corner of the world that none of their fellow Americans had ever heard of, or likely ever would.
Then one day, from his home in California, he saw the news: That rugged and rural corner of the world he left four decades ago for a new life in the United States had been named the unlikely host of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“I was so proud,” he says. “That they would hold the Olympics in my hometown, and I would have the chance to have my own family see it. I want to show it to them.”
They planned the trip for years. And last week, Song and his wife, Chong, arrived with their son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren to explore a very different city than the one they left behind in 1975.
The most elite athletes in the world now live, for a few weeks, in the high-rise apartment buildings of the Olympic Village with an address he’d never dreamed he’d see attached to such prestige: Gangneung. On the other side of the city stands Olympic Park, with its brand-new arena for marquee events like skating and ice hockey.
He giggles with delight that his grandchildren, 9-year-old Chloe and 11-year-old Brandon, are impressed with his city.
“They’ve never been here before and they say, ‘Oh! Grandfather, your city is very nice. Everything’s nice, everything’s new, because the winter Olympics is here,” he says.
Song and Chong Hong live now in Mountain View, California. They were young children when the Korean War began in 1950. Both grew up in poor families — just about everyone here was poor back then, he says.
They ate bowls of rice and potatoes that never seemed enough. American soldiers arrived and gave chocolate bars to the children. They seemed so precious to Song but the Americans handed them out like they were nothing, and he became enchanted by what life might be like in the United States.
Years later, he joined the army and fought in the Vietnam War alongside the American troops, who invited them into their dining hall.
“I looked at the beef, the donuts, cookies, cakes, ice cream — it’s all there, anytime,” he says. There were no jobs back home. His son, Chae, was just 3, and he and his wife fretted about his future, about hunger.
“I told them, I said, ‘I have to try to go to America,’” he remembers. “I just imagined if I go to America, I would have a job, everyday eating beef, cake, Coca-Cola.”
And he did.
The family moved to California. He got a job as a welder, then he and his wife bought an ice-cream truck and eventually expanded their fleet to four. They also ran a coin laundry, then a dry cleaner. They worked 80-hour weeks and they didn’t mind struggling because they imagined it meant their son wouldn’t have to.
In that time, South Korea remade itself, too. His town, in his memory full of squat buildings with limited plumbing and electricity, now has fine restaurants and tall buildings and the most modern technology in the world.
Yet he cannot imagine moving back.
“He’s very scared that here will be a war between North and South Korea,” says his son, Chae, helping his father, who is still more comfortable speaking Korean, express his thoughts in English.
“In the U.S., we don’t have that. Canada isn’t the equivalent of North Korea,” Chae says. “Here, when he comes back, he’s still subjected to that type of talk, that type of politics. He doesn’t have to worry about that in the U.S.”
While they were planning their trip, tension was escalating between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, the third-generation North Korean leader. Chae asked his father if they might want to reconsider going.
“He was really dismissive,” Chae recalls. “He said, Kim Jong Un is all talk. It’s just part of living here. Koreans are used to it, because it’s always there.”
As Song watched the opening ceremony, he saw hope in the presence of North Koreans, whose life he imagines must be a lot like his used to be, back when South Korea was poor.
“They must have been amazed seeing the lighting, the firecrackers, the technology. They must have been in awe,” he says. He hopes the athletes, the cheerleaders and everyone else who saw it goes home and tells friends and neighbors that South Korea is the land of plenty.
Just like he used to imagine America to be.
“We are the same land, the same people,” he says. “The only difference is our thinking.”
For now, he’s content to spend a week proudly touring his grandchildren around his hometown, regaling them with his childhood stories.
Here is the great gingko tree still standing, he shows them. There is where his childhood home once stood. This is where he used to meet high-school friends, where they’d rub garlic on their faces to make their mustaches grow, just like they once saw in an American movie. They thought it might help. It didn’t.
His grandkids howled with laughter, and he beamed.
Claire Galofaro is on assignment in Pyeongchang covering the 2018 Winter Games. Follow her on Twitter at (at)clairegalofaro.