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.”

IMG_6926

***

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.

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