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?