The Box

Cross-post from:

As I was driving over to her house, I was thinking about what I might say. We had been building toward this moment for the past few months, if not years. In fact, probably all our lives. We grew up in the same church, attended Sunday School together. We even made music together. Sweet, sweet church music. She played the keys for our ragtag praise/garage band while I led sweaty and passionate worship sets every Sunday for our youth group on my starter-kit Fender acoustic guitar. Between the two of us, we only knew 9 or 10 chords: G strum—D strum—C strum—JESUS!—G strum—D strum—F#m strum—JESUS!There wasn’t much to it, really. But what I’m trying to say is that she knew all my secret chords. And I knew almost all of hers.

She held one back. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t pry this one out of her. Jessica lived the classic double life. At church, she played the role of sweet, blameless Christian daughter, older sister, and unnie for the younger girls in the youth group. But away from all that, she harbored forbidden desires. She talked to me once about wanting to get a tattoo on her left shoulder (a dolphin or a heart, I can’t recall). She had a thing for bad boys too, though she’d never admit it. She was more AC Slater than Zack Morris. More Pacey than Dawson. Not many people knew this, but she even had an Eminem poster on her bedroom wall (her favorite track was Stan). This is why she never let anyone into her room. It was a room of secret, smoldering, and shameful desires. Not many people knew this about Jessica, but I did. I knew because I was her best friend.

I was not a bad boy. I was as good as they come. People would tease us all the time. “Ooohhh, are you dating??” they’d goad. “Ludicrous!” I’d respond. “Do you think I’d risk this hard-earned trust by being one of those typical boys who…one of those boys who date girls??” To me, to date was to lust, and though I lacked the conviction to pluck out my own eyes, I’d never once think to degrade our precious friendship. I had seen her Eminem poster (from the hallway) because she let me. Why would I ever give up that level of intimacy?

But Jessica had hidden something from me, and it drove me crazy. As far as I was concerned, my best friend status was on the line; I simply had to know what it was.

I knew she had a secret because any time I’d say something nice to her, she’d hide in a hole of her own making. “No, Chris. You shouldn’t get too close to me,” she’d say. “You think you know me, but you don’t. I’m not good and you are.” She saw me as the pre-fallen Adam, glorious and unashamed. She was Eve, felled by the serpent, the half-eaten apple hidden behind her back. She was Mandy Moore and I was Shane in a Walk to Remember. As her best friend, I knew that she would never flourish holding onto this shame. I was very mature for my age to know something like this.

So, when my Nokia ringtone sounded off one balmy, Southern California afternoon, I knew what Jessica was about to say. “Chris,” she started, her voice trembling. “I don’t think we can be friends anymore. I don’t think I’m a good influence on you.”

I had heard enough. I told her I was coming over. Before she could object, I hung up the phone and gunned my ’98 Honda Accord straight to her house. When I pulled up to her house, I had no set plans, no strategy. I started by calling her.

“I’m in the driveway,” I said solemnly. “Ok,” she whispered.

She slipped quietly into my car; I could tell she had been crying. Though I had no idea what this “thing” she held onto was, I took a leap of faith.

“Whatever it is, I want you to go and get it. Right now.”

I surprised myself with how decisive my tone was. I projected control and calm, a maturity beyond my years. She nodded and went back into her house. When she re-emerged 20 minutes later, she was clutching a small box, approximately 12×12 inches, to her chest. It was smeared with dirt. Whatever it was, she had buried it in her backyard. I had the wisdom to refrain from asking her what was in it.

We had to drive somewhere so I instinctively started driving toward Huntington Beach. It proved to be the right decision for both practical and cinematic reasons. For one thing, the 40-45 minute drive measured out to about 9-10 songs on the mixed CD I had recently burned for her. With this CD, the literal soundtrack of our friendship, we didn’t even need to speak. Instead, Paula Cole did all the speaking for us:

I don’t want to wait for our lives to be over,
I want to know right now, what will it be?
I don’t want to wait for our lives to be over,
Will it be yes, or will it be sorry?

The Goo Goo Dolls. Third Eye Blind. Savage Garden. I was telling her a story, and in this story, everything was going to be alright. Sarah McLachlan crowed, Jewel cooed. Eagle-Eye Cherry pleaded with us to save tonight, while Natalie Imbruglia’s anthem struck a more defiant tone. We chased it with a cool sip of BBMak.

I parked the car near the pier. At this point, I knew what we had to do. For the first time in our friendship, I grabbed her by the hand. A shock of electricity shot straight up my spine. She was letting me, perhaps even wanting me, to hold her hand. I was in uncharted territory.

I led her down to the end of the pier. We hadn’t said a word in about an hour, so I broke the silence.

“We’re here,” I whispered. She began to cry.

I didn’t know what to say, but the way we were standing there at the end of the pier—the proverbial edge of the world, nothing in front of us but horizon and ocean and the seagulls cawing, the sea salt breeze lapping at our skin and sending gentle ripples through her hair—it all reminded me of Kate and Leo. Taking their cue, I found my words, at last.

“You have to let go, Jess. You have to let it go.”

She gripped the box tightly to her chest as the moment finally came, the moment she both dreaded and needed the most. She didn’t move for what seemed like 10 minutes. I was beginning to think she hadn’t heard my perfect line.

Just as I was about to repeat myself, I heard a distant splash. She buried her head into my chest and began to sob. She had done it. People, especially the ones who were fishing on the pier, were staring.

“Let them stare,” I thought. This was too important.

But then, I looked over the edge and to my abject horror, the box was still there, floating, and floating rapidly toward shore.

I turned her so that her back was to the water.

“You did it Jess,” I said abruptly. “Now, let’s go home.” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the box tracking next to us as we walked the length of the pier, slowly but surely making its way to the beach. I knew that if she saw it, everything would be ruined. And by ruined, I mean, symbolically ruined.

Fortunately for me, we made it back to the car without incident and Oasis’ Don’t Look Back in Anger restored my confidence that destiny was firmly on my side that day. As we drove away, the weight of the box became lighter, and we both understood that a chapter in our sweaty adolescence had come to a close. Shame had transfigured itself into a 12×12 box in the sand, the contents of which some unsuspecting child might have stumbled upon—God only knows. All I know is that Jessica breathed a little easier that day and we remained good friends terrified of touching each other for the rest of our youth group days.

When I found out what was in the box 17 years later, all I could do was shake my head and chuckle. There was a truth then that remains the truth today: Hope floats, but apparently, so does shame.

Photo by: Pat Nolan via

Hamburgar and other Misadventures

This is the story of how my dad came to be known as the Bruce Lee of Cerritos.

After he married my mom in South Korea, they decided to move to California. My dad came over first to find work and a place for them to live. His cousin, who owned a liquor store on the corner of Del Amo Blvd. and Bloomfield Ave., took him on as a stock boy.

Around that same time, a band of unruly teenagers was terrorizing local businesses with impunity. They would skateboard at all hours of the day, graffitiing over the clearly marked “No Loitering” signs that hung on every lamppost in the strip mall parking lot. The Pizza Hut bore the brunt of their abuse; every time they ate there, they would leave the place a godforsaken mess.

They eventually turned the liquor store into their own personal vending machine. Because it was run by a mild-mannered Korean lady who couldn’t speak English, much less call the police, there was no risk at all for them to pilfer the store again and again.

The first time my dad saw one of the teens lift a stick of chewing gum (a Juicy Fruit), he bolted after him as if he had stolen a pearl necklace. Fisticuffs ensued, and the Juicy Fruit was duly recovered. Eventually, the boys came back with a colorful array of weapons—sticks, bricks, rocks—whatever teenage boys could muster from their parents’ backyards.

They postured menacingly in the parking lot—their suburban slice of gangland territory—and in a scene befitting a Clint Eastwood western, they called out to my father who was busy stocking Fantas into the fridge. The patrons and staff of the neighboring Pizza Hut, the insurance company, the used tuxedo warehouse, and the dentist’s office all took notice but remained tucked away safely behind closed doors.

What most people don’t know about Korean immigrant men is that they’re all military veterans. A minimum two-year service is mandatory for all South Korean male citizens. This means weapons and hand-to-hand combat training, as well as a prickly sort of can-do-with-my-bare-hands attitude. I am reminded of the infamous “Roof Koreans” who armed themselves against looters during the L.A. riots. It’s good to keep this in mind the next time you come across a male Korean liquor store clerk.

My father would not dishonor himself with weapons. He ran screaming out of the liquor store holding nothing but the skin of his palms and proceeded to Taekwondo the puberty out of those poor teenage boys. They would never be seen at the strip mall on Del Amo and Bloomfield again.

As a gesture of goodwill and gratitude, the owner of the Pizza Hut presented my dad with a large Meat Lover’s Supreme. It was his first taste of American pizza and it was on the house. He’s been a loyal fan of pizza ever since.

The Pizza Hut owner also bestowed upon my father a nickname—the Bruce Lee of Cerritos. Whereas I, his son, would go on to have an adversarial relationship with the Bruce Lee moniker, my dad wore this nom de guerre proudly like a badge of honor. As he scarfed down his fourth slice of pizza, washing it down with heavy gulps of orange Fanta, he gazed out over the empty parking lot—the site of his great victory. He had arrived in America at last.


When my mom eventually joined him in California, my dad left the liquor store to open up a small eatery in Buena Park. Between the two of them, they knew almost no English. In fact, the first words they learned were the ones they needed to run their business—dollars, napkins, please, thank you, bathroom, welcome, to-go. Menu items like tomatoes, mayonnaise, hamburgers, Coke, burritos, and french fries became their lingua franca. They might have picked up a few choice curse words along the way.

This was 1983, and it was Michael Jackson who ruled the airwaves; his mellifluous beats and pitch-perfect octaves provided a much-needed soundtrack to the mundane tedium of a struggling mom-and-pop shop. One thing my parents could never figure out, though, was why Michael chose to sing about bean-and-cheese burritos of all things. Day after day, week after week, Michael’s burrito song came in at number 1 on KISS FM’s top-20.

It would be years later, when their English had improved beyond the boundaries of their one-page menu, that my parents found out that Michael hadn’t been singing about burritos after all. He had been singing about a girl, a girl named Billie Jean.


Ever the observant businessman, my dad figured that Americans loved cheeseburgers. So regardless of the fact that their menu featured a friendly sampling of the world’s cuisines—tacos from Mexico, bibimbap from Korea, pizza and pasta from Italy—it was the American cheeseburger that reigned supreme, at least to my dad’s mind. As such, it had to be marketed.

He scrimped and saved every penny to erect a twenty-foot sign in front of the restaurant. In those days, of course, there were no computers and thus, no spell-check. I imagine that my dad scribbled the text of the sign on the back of a napkin. I’m almost certain that he handed this napkin to another Korean businessperson (even less well-versed in English) who had a sign-making company. This is how business is done in the immigrant community.

When the sign was delivered, it faithfully reflected what was on the napkin. It read: HAMBURGARS

Something didn’t look right. He ran inside to grab a menu and sure enough: Hamburgers. With an E! Good heavens. Nevertheless, the sign went up as is. Close enough, he thought.

The original sign still stands, although the new owners papered it over with the slightly less controversial spelling of “Donuts.”



Today, the donut shop, which used to be my parents’ hamburgar shop, stands in the shadow of a massive new entertainment complex called The Source. Billing itself as the new “Center of the Southland,” this 400,000 square-foot behemoth features an impressive assortment of dining, retail, and entertainment options catered specifically (though not exclusively) to a Korean clientele. It recently secured a partnership with YG Entertainment—a South Korean entertainment management firm that represents PSY among other K-pop luminaries—to build a 2,000-seat venue destined to become Orange County’s future home of K-pop.

As if to placate or shore up its support among its Korean mega-churched base, Sunday worship services are held on the center stage—the spatial heart of the complex—which rests at the base of a spiraling atrium decked with off-brand retail storefronts, Boba tea shops, and boutique nail salons.

But the unequivocal jewel of this diasporic oasis is the CGV multiplex theater. True to a particular gaudiness in Korean showcraft culture, this theater comes replete with 4DX screens, motion seats, and of course, fog machines. But the real game-changer, at least for my family, is that it screens American blockbusters with Korean subtitles.

The first movie my family and I saw together there was Rogue One. I instinctively took a seat right next to my dad. Growing up, I translated (in real-time) every movie we ever saw in the theaters from Terminator 2 to Titanic. I mastered the art of whispering succinct plot details at key moments, filling in essential character details, and foreshadowing (but not spoiling) impending doom. My dad refused to watch American movies in the theaters without me because, well, what was the point?

But theatergoers in America (particularly white suburban America) are a sensitive bunch. I’ve always found it laughably pedantic how every movie these days begins with a warning for patrons to turn off their cell phones and to refrain from talking during the movie. And even the more progressive theater spaces maintain rigid norms when it comes to food. $6 popcorn, Swedish Fish, and Milk Duds are allowed. Ethnicity is not.

I still have vivid memories as a kid of my dad taking me to watch Free Willy. The experience was so immersive, I could almost smell the sea water. In fact, there was a pungent odor in the air. What is that? I remember scanning the room and watching adult heads swivel as they tried, in vain, to ascertain the origin of this foul stench. They broke sacrosanct talking-during-movie rules to ask, “What is that?!”

To my abject horror, I turned only to see my dad munching on a gallon-bag full of dried squid. He caught my eye and misinterpreted my intent. “Do you want some Ojinguh?” he asked in a voice somewhere between a whisper and a declarative statement. I sank deeper into my immersive experience, deeper still into my chair.

But years later, as I walked into that packed Rogue One stadium, I was greeted by a nostalgic waft of dried squid, anchovies, and stale cigarettes; the scents of home swirled unapologetically throughout the theater. Nary a white face could be found in this sea of Burberry. In a charming sort of generational reversal, it was second-generation Korean American children, like myself, who were escorting their parents to the movies.

Throughout Rogue One, my dad was transfixed. He didn’t utter a word, a single question. He barely put a dent into his trail-mix. After the movie, I asked him what he thought. He told me how he admired the way the movie centered Galen Erso’s dilemma, materially represented as the Death Star’s singular vulnerability (the figurative heart of the Empire’s imperialist design), which dovetailed nicely with the theme of moral ambiguity as most aptly embodied by Cassian Andor. This from a man who had trouble following the plotline of Beauty and the Beast. I did not reply, understanding full well that my services were no longer needed.


It remains to be seen if The Source in Buena Park will indeed become the new “Center of the Southland,” or simply the latest foreign-investment fueled boondoggle. But standing there on the corner of Beach Blvd. and Orangethorpe Ave. (which doesn’t look all that different from Del Amo and Bloomfield), I caught myself gazing in wonder at 12.5 acres of concrete, glass, and LED light displays. I marveled at all the things an immigrant people have managed to achieve in so short a time.

In a word, it felt like belonging.

But I am reminded that before there was belonging, there was arrival. There was my dad, the Bruce Lee of Cerritos, dining like a prince on his pizza and fizzy soda.

After arrival came survival and if you want to know what that looks like, walk a mere ten feet north of The Source to a humble donut sign that used to read Hamburgar.

That’s what survival looks like.

The Last Batch: Kimjang and Grieving

Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.

These are the five stages of grief according to psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. We do not move through these stages in order and not everyone experiences every emotion.

I could not deny death, because death is undeniable. I was not angry, because she would have wanted me to be at peace. I was about as depressed as a doting grandson could be, and the first night I spent in her hospital room, I accepted that she had a bright red ‘DNR’ bracelet fixed onto her left wrist.

I also found myself bargaining for just a bit more time with her—one week to be exact. She died just a week shy of her 91st birthday. My aunts from New York and Korea had been planning to visit her in our home in California to celebrate, and I wanted to use the occasion to resolve a lingering regret I never got around to settling.

Six or seven years ago, my grandmother made her last batch of kimchi. Making kimchi is a straightforward yet labor intensive process. As a child, I remember the sights and smells vividly. She wore a bandana and planted herself in the ‘kimchi squat’ for hours as she hovered over giant basins of Napa cabbage, assiduously massaging the leaves with salt and red pepper flakes.

The squat took a toll on her knees and lower back, so it was inevitable that she would have to give it up one day. When time finally caught up with her, my New York aunt flew across the country to help her make one final batch. I was also living in New York at the time, but I didn’t make the trip; the significance of it was entirely lost on me. I would live with a swelling regret ever since.

As my eye for stories became more acute, this intimate portrait of mother and daughter bloomed in my mind with a maturing sense of commemoration. I could visualize their aged hands sifting together through shaved radish and sweet rice gelatin. I scripted their dialogue in my mind as they fell in and out of silence. There was always laughter.

I was also learning more about the life, death, and rebirth of Korean families, and the ways in which artifacts and rituals serve as memory for the bodies that have long since passed. Because kimchi recipes are handed down generationally, they also belong within this mnemonic heritage. Koreans refer to this handing down as Kimjang—the custom of making kimchi together as a family or community. It is collective and quite literally an oral history spoken through the inheritance of ingredients and cooking techniques.

Although I didn’t have the language for it at the time, what I really wanted was to experience Kimjang with my grandmother. With my aunts, mother, and grandmother coming together for her 91st birthday, I was eager to not let this opportunity pass again.

I bargained hard for that week. I begged and I pleaded for it. But I lost.

This is the undeniability of death.


Spring. Summer. Fall. Winter.

Koreans take their cues from nature to produce kimchi. In the spring, they take to the seas to catch fish, anchovies, and shrimp, which are later fermented to enhance kimchi’s flavor. In the summer, salt farmers toil away under oppressive heat to yield sea salt, which is crucial in preserving temperamental vegetables. In the fall, chili peppers, originally brought over to the peninsula nearly 500 years ago by Portuguese traders returning from the ‘New World,’ are dried and then ground into a powder. The harvesting of cabbage signals the impending arrival of winter, and the start of the Kimjang season.

Before corporations took over the mass production of kimchi, Kimjang would give occasion for families and communities to gather and make enough kimchi to last everyone through the winter. Our ancestors (and some modern-day traditionalists) stored kimchi in large clay pots, which were buried underground during winter—a primitive, yet ingenious form of refrigeration.

There are over 200 different types of kimchi today. The differences are shaped by variations in regional topography and climate. For example, in Chungcheongnam-do, where my family is from, people rely heavily on salt rather than on fermented fish. The variations are not just regional, but familial as well. Each family has its own recipe, and these were traditionally passed down through a matrilineal line. In past generations, when a daughter married into her husband’s house, she would bond with her mother-in-law through Kimjang and was expected to adopt her new family’s way of making kimchi. In this way, filial bonds were cemented and a precious family heirloom was preserved.

And so, kimchi and the women who prepare it follow a natural order—from spring to winter, from grandmothers to mothers, mothers to their daughters and daughters-in-law, from life to death. Death had denied me participation, and what’s more, I am a son, not a daughter. Nevertheless, I was determined to disrupt the natural order of things—a bold intrusion.

Chalk it up to denial.


Chop. Soak. Salt. Mix. Ferment.


“There are many steps, but not everyone does them all,” explained my aunt.

“Just like grieving,” I thought, as I layered the red pepper paste onto the willowy cabbage leaves.

“As long as you use good salt and the cabbage is fresh, it will be good kimchi. But it’s all about the salt. The salt must be good.”


Finally, we were all together. My two aunts, my mom, my uncle, my cousins, and I gathered over large basins in the kitchen and placed the funeral portrait of my grandmother at the head of the table. Time to learn the family recipe.


Intermingled between all the chopping, mincing, and mixing, my mom and my New York aunt share stories about their early days in America. Apparently, there was a lot of swearing.

There is no ‘F’ sound in the Korean language, so my mom’s preferred curse word was ‘son-of-a-bitch,’ which snapped off her Korean tongue like a whip. When she found out what it meant, she realized that she was being inaccurate. After all, it was both male and female customers who were verbally abusing her at the hamburger shop she managed. She fashioned ‘daughter-of-a-bitch’ to refine her vernacular.

For my aunt though, operating a coffee shop in 1970s Brooklyn required that she access a much broader range of vocabulary. Unlike my mom, she had to perfect her F’s.

Like the time she finally confronted a group of teenagers who had been harassing her store for months. As she hopped over the counter, butcher knives in each hand, she shrieked, “Get the FUCK outta here you, motherFUCKERS!!” This must have been perfectly enunciated because they ran out of the shop and never came back.


My other aunt who never left Korea, mostly listened in quiet contemplation. When she was younger, she ran away from home to avoid her problems, a regret that hung over her like a shadow even to this day. I imagine she was looking at her older sisters with a mixture of admiration and horror. Butcher knives? America had thickened their skins and stiffened their spines. Was she thinking on her regret? I wondered.

My uncle is the maknae—the youngest sibling. He dutifully fulfilled the man’s traditional role in Kimjang, by alternating between taking naps on the couch and wandering into the kitchen to sample the food and offer unhelpful suggestions. His cackling laughter filled the room like a symphony.

My grandmother would not have approved of the language, but she would not have understood it anyway. The laughter though? She would have understood the laughter.



Winter gives way to spring.

Kim In Tae marries Myung Ki Chang. They give life to Myung Sang Hoon. Myung Yoo Na. Myung Dok Wha. Myung Sun Hwa. Myung Sang Oo. She teaches them about the importance of salt.


Her four living children are together, teaching me—the intruder—the family recipe. And we find a reason to laugh together. Life gives way to death, but through Kimjang, there is rebirth. I bear witness to it all with her portrait on the wall.

It wasn’t exactly what I bargained for, but the kimchi was still good.

We used good salt.



Photo credits: Laura Chung, @MissButtercupLC,

Love is a Language

Those of us who sat at the foot of my grandmother’s bed in the final moments of her life said all the things that could be said. But for family who were far away, messages of love, farewells, and pleas for absolution were relayed through mobile phones pressed against her ear, or text messages read aloud.

My cousin texted me her final message to halmuhnee. She wanted to let her know that she was sorry that she never learned Korean well enough to speak with her.

This is a poignant sorrow that many of us sons and daughters of immigrants know all too well—a longing sort of regret. Thoughts and expressions are formulated in the brain in perfect English sentences; they make their way through a labyrinth of busted synaptic connections, finally arriving at the mouth as a garbled mess, and then aborted in favor of the few Korean phrases we do know well:

Sarang-haeyo (I love you).

Jal-jahyo (Sleep well).

Suul-puhyo (I’m sad).

Gohma-wuhyo (Thank you).

Meahn-haeyo (I’m sorry).

Sarang-haeyo (I love you).

Again and again, in the futile search for some other Korean word or phrase that might rise to meet the moment.

Sarang-haeyo! Sarang-haeyo! Meahn-haeyo! Jal-jahyo! Halmuhnee, Sarang-haeyo!

The few words at my disposal, as they have all my life, failed to say all the things I wanted to say.


My grandmother, Kim In Tae, died on December 25, 2017 after suffering an unexpected and devastating stroke two days earlier. She was 90 years old.

We told everyone who needed to know. The word spread across California, to family on the East Coast in New York and Virginia, then across the Pacific Ocean to our relatives in Seoul and Seosan. But the reaction I’ll remember most is when we broke the news to our longtime housecleaner, Maria. When she came into the house, I told her that halmuhnee had passed. “Sick?” she asked, hoping that she had somehow misunderstood. “No, Maria. Muerto.”

Her eyes immediately welled up with tears. It’s as if she had been holding her breath for the past 15 years, dreading the inevitable moment when she would be invited into a house without halmuhnee there to welcome her with a hug and a cup of tea.

There is an indescribable magic in this. My grandmother spoke Korean and no English. Maria spoke Spanish and no English. She came twice a month for 15 years to clean the house and in all that time, halmuhnee spoke to her only in Korean—No need to clean the living room today. Can we cancel the next cleaning? You did a nice job today. Your son is very handsome.

Maria understood none of this language, and yet understood its meaning. And over time, all those cups of tea, pats on the back, shared smiles, and cleaned mirrors became a language of care. Somehow, they saw into each other. Halmuhnee loved Maria, and Maria loved halmuhnee, an impossible relationship.

“Tu abuela era una señora especial,” said Maria, as she wiped away her tears.


Love is a language. I know this because I loved my grandmother and she loved me. And we both knew it deep in our bones, despite the fact that we rarely made use of words to express it. Instead, it was the unspoken ways of speaking that bound us.

childhood picture 2.jpeg

Halmuhnee changed my diapers. She made me American food when I was embarrassed by Korean food, and made me Korean food when I finally came to my senses. She did my laundry and folded my clothes. She hugged me and held my hands. Rain or shine, she would stand outside to wave goodbye as I drove away. A week before her stroke, she gave me $50 to buy me a pair of jeans.

I bought her In n’ Out cheeseburgers. I drove her to church and walked her over to where all her friends were sitting. This way, they could see me and heap praises on her for her treasured grandson. I hugged her and held her hands. I kept my vow to not touch alcohol until I was 21 because she had two alcoholic sons, one of whom had succumbed to the disease. She told me often that I was the son she had always prayed for, embodied proof that God’s faithfulness was unfailing and true. I bought her flowers for every birthday and Mother’s Day.

Words are luxuries in a loving relationship, not essentials. In the absence of words, the small and big gestures of care take on a deeper hue, not so different from the heightened senses experienced by the blind and deaf. Every fruit peeled, every hug, all the laundry folded and car rides given—these everyday gestures were what we relied upon to say the sentiments contained in the language of ‘I love you.’

And they were enough.

childhood picture.jpeg


Words do have their uses, of course. I started this blog in the hopes that by learning more about my family history, I could locate myself within a broader context that has shaped my identity and my voice. Over the course of the past two months, I approached this by conducting a series of hour-long interviews with my grandmother. Thankfully—and miraculously—we completed the interviews only four days before she had her stroke.

Six interviews are wholly inadequate to capture the fullness of a person’s life. But the interviews and the timing of her death were enough to make me feel as if I had been gifted her story. Now that her body is gone I find it somewhat ironic that words, which failed to mediate our relationship in life, are all I have left to recompose her in death.

In light of this sad turn of events, my young blog has already arrived at a crossroads. The original goal of discovering my voice by tracing family history now feels somewhat self-serving. But when I think more carefully about the nature of stories, perhaps I wasn’t so far off the mark after all.

My grandmother lived a rich and purpose-filled life that spanned nine decades and two continents. She gave life to five children who had children of their own. She lived to be a great-grandmother. The arc of her story served as an irrigation pipe allowing other stories to sprout and to flourish in its wake. When I think about it this way, the stories I had planned to tell here were her final gifts to me. By receiving her story these past two months, I learned that so much of her voice is in my own.

The choice, then, between finding my voice and honoring her story is a false one.

They are one in the same.


Halmuhnee, just before you closed your eyes for good, you opened them. I know it was because you wanted to see us all one last time. We said our goodbyes, final messages we wanted to leave you with. I couldn’t get the right words out through the tears, so I’ll whisper them to you here.

I have your story now and I’ll take care of it. I have your story now and I’ll tell it well. So rest well.



Gwajul, Pancakes, and the Power of Pawns: An Introduction

In 1872, a man named Kim Jong Suk was born in Chungcheongnam-do, a province in the west of what is now South Korea. He was my great-grandfather.

Like many others in the peasant class, he was a tenant farmer who tended a rice paddy. He earned some money on the side by turning some of his harvested rice into gwajul, a traditional Korean snack. Making gwajul was a laborious, time-consuming process. The rice had to be soaked in water for 5 days. The grains had to be pounded into a paste, and then kneaded with rice wine, honey, and water. It had to be soaked again, dried (in shade), and fried twice in oil. The fried snack was then coated one last time with honey and finished with sesame seeds. The whole process took nearly a week to complete, but with the extra money he made selling gwajul to local stores, he was able to scratch together a living that was marginally better than most families in his area enjoyed. He even managed to send all four of his children, including my grandmother, to school.

My grandmother—Kim In Tae—was born in 1926 in Obneri, a neighborhood of Seosan city. At the time, the Japanese occupied Seosan along with the rest of the Korean peninsula. To my grandmother, who was born into this reality, Japanese presence and power were simply the normal state of affairs. She even spoke with a benign sort of fondness about the Japanese people in her life—of her teacher, Shimada, of her neighbors who farmed rice in an adjacent plot.

But she also remembers the many young girls in her neighborhood who were lured by Japanese recruiters promising foreign adventures and alternative life horizons beyond the provincial boundaries of Obneri. These women would eventually become ensnared in a system of sexual slavery instituted by the Japanese military—the so-called comfort women, who are memorialized today through the constellation of statues that dot Korea’s physical and moral landscape.


When I stare into that somber, dignified gaze captured so well by these statues, it’s impossible not to think about my grandmother. I think about how different her life would have been had she been whisked away by the Japanese. I think about the labor poured into Kim Jong Suk’s gwajul—the extra money that afforded school for his four children—I can’t help but wonder what role, if any, this might have played in sparing my grandmother from a lifetime of slavery.

What I do know is that labor like this is never meaningless—that no matter how menial it feels to knead rice grain into honeyed confection, acts born out of love can reverberate in profoundly consequential ways.


In 1981, my parents immigrated to the United States. They spoke little English and had trouble distinguishing between the values of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, one of the many ways American money can be unaccommodating to foreigners. And while most Korean and Asian immigrants opted for businesses that would limit their linguistic and cultural liabilities, my parents, for reasons unknown, went the other way.

They started with a small hamburger shop in Anaheim, California that served, almost exclusively, English speaking Americans. They would later go on to buy an IHOP (a franchise specializing in pancakes and American-style breakfasts), which at the time, served an older German-American clientele.

Those early years were hard as one might imagine. Not only were they trying to run a business without an intuitive grasp of money, they were often racially demeaned by customers who still insisted on service with a smile. My father tried smiling his way through it; my mother learned an English curse word or two.

They did all this—running a business, dealing with racist customers, managing a staff, raising a family—in a foreign land at the age of 25. My mother would later admit that if she knew then what she knows now, she may never have left Seosan. It was the sort of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants decision that only precocious 25-year-old immigrants could have made.

In 2008, I told their story as part of my graduate school application to Columbia University. It was about immigrants and education and upward social mobility. I wrote about how, despite not knowing the actual value of money, my parents were able to whip those foreign dollars and cents together with gobs of pancake batter to produce a different sort of value.

There was an irony there—something about the value or meaning of money—that I couldn’t quite tease out in the essay, but somebody in admissions must have understood what I was trying to say. I was accepted into Columbia University, completing an improbable rise from rice paddy to humble hamburger shop to the skyscrapers of New York City.


I start Betwixt and Between utterly powerless, which is another way of saying that I start utterly disconnected from my history. Over the course of my life, I’ve only managed to hear scattered anecdotes about what life was like for my grandparents and parents before I was born. In a sense, life began anew for them when they immigrated to the United States, and as their child, I was raised with the myopic belief that history began for me in Garden Grove, California in 1984.

When I started attending school, I learned that my history actually began in 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I dutifully memorized and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I called George Washington my founding father, and my mind and spirit expanded from east to west, as I wholly embraced the moral imperatives of manifest destiny.

I imagine that for many immigrant children whose own histories were obscured by an ocean, or a broken language, or a Houghton Mifflin textbook, the instinctive urge would have been to adopt this foreign history as their own. And this is only natural. We all have a burning desire to belong, especially to a story that claims to bind together classmates with teachers, neighbors with strangers, oppressors with the oppressed, and all races, creeds, and religions in between.

As natural as this may be, it is both cause and consequence of our colonized state of being. If that sounds harsh, consider for a moment what it means to adopt a history authored entirely by colonizers, the victors of westward expansion. In doing so, we come to expect, and in some cases demand our inheritance, an entitlement inhered to us through a legacy we think is our own. Yet to secure our claim, we are often content to be the watchers on the wall, defending at all costs the authors of our adopted story, and the titleholders of our birthright. We allow ourselves to become pawns in the games they play.

And theirs is a brutish, yet highly effective sort of power: White supremacy. Patriarchy. Heteronormativity. Neoliberalism. The domineering norms that obscure or otherwise suppress narratives that stray too far from the approved scripts of the American Dream. It is same power the Japanese military used to reduce complex, radiant individuals into comfort women—a sanitized term if I’ve ever heard one.

But what would it look like for pawns like us—the rice farmers, slaves, housewives, immigrants, Koreans in America—to simply step off the chess board in search of our own histories? There is power in this kind of reclamation, rooted in our many forms of expression—our art, our food, our music, our dance and language—all forms of storytelling that inflect color and vibrancy into a graying social order.

This is the sort of power I aim to tap into as the author of Betwixt and Between. In the process of learning my history, the story of my family, I hope to find a voice that speaks more prophetically into the present.

As it turns out, all those foreign dollars and cents have some value yet undiscovered.


Here are the questions I want to explore:

What does Asian-American voice sound like?

What does this voice have to say?

What does it offer American culture?

What does it mean to speak powerfully?