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Common App: "The Smell of Samcheonpo"


Leo Choi

Admitted: Princeton, Stanford, UPenn, Amherst, Cornell

In Korea, when a dialogue strays from a topic, the saying goes that the discussion has fallen into Samcheonpo. But Samcheonpo is not a pit full of stray conversations; it is a tiny port village on the southernmost end of Korea where four generations of my family on both maternal and paternal sides were born – including me. I visit, or rather return, to Samcheonpo every summer and winter, because on the mountains of Samcheonpo is buried my paternal grandfather, and on the shore lives my maternal grandmother. These two figures have shown me what it means to sustain a family.

My grandfather was a farmer. Between being drafted in the Korean Civil War and the Vietnamese War, he raised a family of seven children by planting onions and garlic, and even managed to send one child, my father, to a college. While my grandfather and I slept side by side on the same bed for two years before he passed away, I absorbed his smell: the smell of grimy onions and garlic mixed with the scent of cow manure, the smell of wooden plow smudged with sweat.

I could never fully appreciate what he did until I plowed, fertilized, and irrigated a small area in my school campus for a school project. Farming was the most down-to-earth test of diligence, patience, and strength; from beating the ground to battling against aphids and slugs, farming was excruciating. I imagined my grandfather’s pain as rain swept away the crops and bugs ate away at the plants that he would need to feed his family, and prayed that the fields of Samcheonpo hadn’t been cruel to him.

Late in my teenage years I helped out my grandmother in running the dried squid factory, my maternal family’s business. The day begins at 3:50 a.m., because that’s when the ships arrive and fresh squid are available. While following my grandmother to the seafood market, I am stunned to hear her story: as an early widow she has been going to the seafood market to sustain her family for 40 years now, waking up without alarms every day. At the market, the smell hits me hard: the smell of the sea and of pungent squid, the smell of sweat and fish fermenting together.

I grasped the extent of my grandmother’s sacrifices only after completing the same grinding routine she has followed for decades. From morning to afternoon, I processed raw squid, fresh from the sea, by holding its slimy body straight and forcing the knife up to the gills. Standing on the ground which was soon layered with intestines, eyes, and squid ink, I breathed on my frozen fingers before processing six more squid that wore me out completely – but I remembered that my grandmother handled 300 squid daily for many years, withstanding the chilly winds coming in from the shore of Samcheonpo.

Because of the sacrifices and diligence of my grandparents, I had the luck to have a cheerful and carefree youth and even an opportunity to study abroad; I became the rare kind of Samcheonpo native that doesn’t live only in Samcheonpo. I can only express my gratefulness by living up to their sacrifices and being diligent.

I greet my sister after I return from Samcheonpo this year. Instantly, she expresses disgust at the smell of my hair, hands, and clothes. The boy next door says that I smell terrible. Then I think: This is the smell of diligence, the smell of my grandparents, the smell that has kept generations of my family alive. I’m beginning to like the smell. No, I don’t smell terrible. I smell nice.

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