I’m Not Cookie-Cutter…
I’m 42 and I’m not successful, but I’m Korean American. (Am I allowed to say that?) My story begins in Seoul Korea in 1970, the year of the dog, when I was born. I was born into a very broken family. My father was in the military and got intoxicated every weekend. My life was completely torn upside down by my father’s rage, drunkenness & violence towards my mother. You can still see the marks of emotional damage that those early years caused within my family experience. It is really sad, but so awfully true. I cannot deny it because I can see the scars through the window of my own soul. Your past is still a part of you…
I’m a strong Christian, but I’m still struggling. (Am I allowed to confess that?) I don’t have my act all together even though I’ve been walking with God for 35 years now. I still sin. I lose my temper. At times I say some four letter words. I have demons inside of me that need to come out. I feel lost and disconnected in my environment at times. There are moments when I cry in silence because I can still feel the pain of my childhood. I say to myself, “When will I finally be able to move on and put all this behind me?”
I live in a very wealthy part of Southern California. You’ve probably have heard of it…Orange County like the show, “OC House Wives,” but I don’t live in a “gated community.” (Am I allowed to be here?) I don’t even own a house. I’ve been renting ever since I got out of college. I put myself through school, so I have a heap of debt. I don’t drive a nice car. I don’t send my kids to a private school. I’m not a trophy wife. And I don’t shop at Nordstroms. I can’t afford the expensive designer shoes or clothes, and I can’t afford to get my hair or nails done. I’m not Barbie. So what am I doing here? Sometimes I feel like I don’t belong…
The Kimchi Effect by Paula Young Lee
"What's your midde initial?" adults would demand as they filled out my forms.
"Y," I would mutter, staring sullenly at the counter I was too short to see over.
A blank stare, and then a scolding: "You are an impertinent child. Where is your mother?"
As a middle child of the 60s growing up in rural Maine, a state that is still 96% full of 100% Caucasians, I would get this look a lot from librarians that couldn't figure out what to do with a five-year-old with a reading list. These books were written in the language of Sunday school, because my Korean immigrant father was the pastor of a Methodist church with an all-white congregation, and it was important to blend in by speaking excellent English. As far as my parents were concerned, language held the key to successful assimilation in this new place called New England. Every Sunday, good Yankees and a few French-Canadians filled the hard Puritan pews, wherefore my second language was Québecois (used to chat with the old people during Fellowship), followed by holiday Latin from the Cokesbury hymnal. My two siblings quickly learned to keep their mouths stuffed with local treats, because everybody knows that it's rude to sing with your mouth full. They were not frightened by exotic dishes such as franks n' beans, chop suey, and whoopee pies. Me, I stuck with wholesome sticks of pure, delicious, cow-milked, hand-churned, I made-it-myself butter – and kept right on talking. Loudly.
During the 1970s, only half of the (Korean) children placed for adoption were orphans; most of the remaining children were born out of wedlock (Holt Korea 1999). Because of societal values emphasizing the importance of bloodline, children were adopted domestically only by extended family or blood relatives (Sarri, et al. 1998). By 1976, annual international adoptions of Korean children had reached an all time high of 6,597 children, with approximately 4,000 of these children adopted by families in the U.S. (also-known-as, inc. 1999). Today, there are over 100,000 Korean adoptees in the U.S. and the numbers are growing (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute).
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Somewhere in Korea, deep in the heart of Pyuang Chang Kun of Kangwon Province, a young mother stands alone. The sound of her water breaking flows into the rhythmic current of the Dong-gang river miles away, known to be the origins of the Han River and the lifeline of Seoul citizens. Rumor has it that a mysterious woman lives among Tae-baek, one of the more remote mountainous regions in Kangwon—she is with child, an outsider seeking refuge there.
But on this particular night, an unsettling darkness chokes her flawless body as she staggers to a place in her mind where she can no longer force her apologetic legs to continue carrying her burden. Panicky and dazed, she wraps this tiny body in a subconscious remnant of a gracious attempt, a simple pink quilt, and places it neatly along the roadside as though she is selling her diamond at a pawn shop.
As the clock strikes midnight, her magic wears off. She turns back into the young woman she once was. No witness or institution will question the evidence conceived in the womb of these mountains. She kneels beside the Han River, begging it to restore her soul.
Meat Means Love: A Father's Day Tribute
I was eleven when my father, a Korean immigrant in the U.S. army, tried to drag me to a psychiatrist. My symptoms? Unusual thoughts, erratic behavior, filial disobedience: I suddenly refused to eat meat.
It was the late ‘80s- before restaurant menus listed vegetarian options, before mainstream supermarkets stocked tofu, before Hollywood millionaires flaunted vegan lifestyles. Growing up in a culture where nonconformity is often shunned, I knew I was doing something wrong. So I did it in the only way I knew how- quietly, furtively. I ate only banchan with plant origins. I pulled my plate away when my parents leaned over to heap bulgogi onto it, encouraging me to eat, eat more. Our household was often chaotic, but one thing was stable: every night we ate dinner together in silence. The meal remained unchanged: a mountain of steamed white rice, an even larger portion of meat, and a few vegetable side dishes.
Instead of saying “I love you,” my parents expressed love by showering me with food, making sure I never met hunger. This food was often meat. When the Korean War started, Umma was seven and walked south for days with her family, who transported belongings on their backs with growling stomachs. Appa, at age six, scavenged U.S. military base dumpsters for scraps of Spam and hot dogs that Halmoni transformed into chiigae for a family of nine. If my parents were lucky, they consumed meat every few months when they were growing up. Appa worked hard to ensure meat was on our table at each meal.
Meat served as the basis for our father/daughter bonding. He never expressed love or praise verbally. Instead, he often returned home exhausted from work, shouting, “Goo-ray-ee-soo-yah! Ga ja! Let’s GO!” I would leap up, abandoning my homework. He never revealed our destination. I always squealed when we arrived. We devoured hot dogs with Heinz ketchup until my stomach ached, selected steaks that he grilled into feasts just for the two of us, or filled baskets with dried cuttlefish at a Korean market for our living room tournaments of Connect Four. His tense face broke into a broad grin as store owners and customers noted our physical resemblances—sharp jawline, wide nose, wiry frame, sparse yet unruly eyebrows.