Eulogy For My Father-In-Law

I gave this speech last night at the service.  I had to struggle for brevity and levity, since I knew I’d be the first of the family to speak.  Also, none of the non-Korean guests would be in any mood for a long speech after a typically drawn out, forbidding sermon full of stern Korean Presbyterianism.  The pastor was nice enough, but let’s call a spade a spade.  My father-in-law only went to church for weddings, funerals, christenings, and the like.  God was always one of those chimeras that he felt had no bearing on his free will to live life as he pleased, but allowed a pastor at his funeral “in case he says something that makes the people there feel better.”

 

Thank you all for coming.  Jung-Kil Kim was my father-in-law, yes – but more than anything else, I’ll remember him as a loving grandfather.  Ryan, Sophie, and Ayla, your Habi (shortened from Haraboji, 할아버지 Korean for grandfather) loved you so much – and as long as you remember his love, how devoted he was to you – he will live on.  Your Habi was many things – he loved to tell stories, even if you weren’t listening; he loved to tinker with things, and actually, he fixed a lot of your toys when otherwise I would’ve thrown them away; ultimately, he loved nothing more than to be in the same room as you.  Your presence was his happiness.

I didn’t get off to a great start with him.  I think Susie and I had only been dating for about a month when I called him out of the blue and asked if I could take him to lunch.  He didn’t know who I was, or why a stranger wanted to share a meal with him.  So he did what anyone else would do in that situation, and hung up on me.  Obviously, he eventually came around.

What truly turned the tide in our relationship, though, was when Ryan was born.  I’ve heard this from other dads, how their relationships with their fathers-in-law changed for the better with the birth of a grandchild.  It was as if any doubts or reservations he had about me disappeared when he held his grandson for the very first time.  Until that moment, I hadn’t seen pure joy on his face.  After that, I’d see it often.  He didn’t even have to be holding Ryan, Sophie, or Ayla; just being near them filled his heart with happiness.

That is ultimately what I will always remember about my father-in-law, his complete and unconditional love for his three grandchildren.  The man who wasn’t above sneaking candy or chocolate to them when we weren’t looking.  The man who would give them gifts of five-dollar bills because doing so just matched his mood at that moment.  The man who enjoyed watching Disney cartoon films with them.  Or just holding them and talking about the bright future he envisioned for them.

Jung-Kil Kim’s ultimate legacy is these three grandchildren, whom he loved completely and doted on.  He was a wonderful grandfather, and the kids and I will miss him.

Almost the same photo with my wife, taken 41 years apart.


Rest well, 아버님 (Abonim, honorific for Father)

Advertisements

The Ballad of Eun Young-Ki

If imitation is the best form of flattery, then this post was directly influenced by Angry Staff Officer’s lovely memorial to his late grandfather.  I lost my maternal grandfather, Eun Young-Ki, in 2006, at age 84.  I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, since we had essentially lost him to Alzheimer’s related dementia some years before he passed; he also lived in Seoul, looked after by my eldest aunt, too far and too expensive a trip for me to make at the last minute.  According to my mother, my grandfather had his final lucid moment in his hospital room, when the nurse told him all three of his daughters, including the two who lived in the US, were there.

When I was one year old, my parents’ marriage was already on the rocks, a precursor to their divorce twenty-three years later.  Consequently, and in case they moved back to South Korea after they split up, I was sent off to my maternal grandparents.  My great-grandmother took me to Seoul, and I didn’t return to New York until I was almost five.  Side note: I was seriously cute in my first passport photo.

1972 passport

Because my grandparents were the only parental figures I initially knew; because the price of long-distance calls to New York was astronomical; and, let’s face it, because I was just a toddler; I came up calling my grandparents “Appa” (daddy) and “Omma” (mommy).  During infrequent calls to my actual parents, I called them my American mommy and American daddy, without knowing them besides a disembodied voice on the phone.  Three-year-old me thought nothing of the prospect of having two sets of parents.  I just rolled with it.

My grandfather was my north star then, a feeling that carried even into adulthood.  He was strong but quiet, never prone to histrionics like my grandmother or my mother.  He always had some dry remark when the world (at least, as I knew it then) went to shit.  His forbearance and patience eventually informed my own.  I’ve delved into the negative example set by my father here and here, but the one constant positive male role model in my life was my grandfather.  When I returned to the US before my fifth birthday, my grandfather accompanied me.  According to my mother, when we dropped him off at JFK Airport, and I realized he was leaving and I was staying, the word disconsolate doesn’t do my mood justice.

Just before I left for basic training, my grandfather took me to Cancún.  We did the usual touristy things like ruins, beach, and sailing.  We also talked a great deal, since this was ages before a teenager could bury his head in a screen to ignore his elders; for the first and last time, I got to truly know my grandfather.

Eun Young-Ki was born in a village near Osan in the midst of the Japanese occupation.  Like all other schoolchildren in the 1920s, he was forced to learn Japanese, which remained his second language (even better than his excellent English) until he died.  In fact, almost all of the books he brought on that trip were pulp-noir-yakuza novels he’d bought at the Japanese book store near his apartment.  My grandfather had had no electricity or running water, so when both came to his village when he was a teen, he said it was the last time everyone in his family was happy together.

Then the war happened.  Like all able-bodied Korean men, he was drafted press-ganged into the Imperial Japanese Army.  Not as a soldier, mind you – that would’ve been too much of an honor for a colonized people – but as a porter.  My grandfather was sent to Manchuria to build roads, barracks, airfields – anything that required manual labor deemed too lowly for a Japanese soldier.  Don’t get me wrong, the average Japanese soldier had it rough, especially compared to his American or Commonwealth counterparts.  The Korean labor battalions had it worse, though, because the Japanese saw and treated them as subhuman.

By 1942, with the war in full swing, my grandfather, unsurprisingly, had had enough.  He’d been a laborer for two years and hadn’t had any contact with his family during that time.  For the eldest child in a Korean family, the added pressure of having to care for his siblings undoubtedly sent him over the edge.  Eventually, he snuck out of their camp at night with two other Korean laborers.  One fell behind almost immediately, and my grandfather never saw him again.  About a week later, my grandfather lost sight of the other as they fled through a Manchurian forest.  Their roughest guesstimate had been, if they kept moving southeast, they’d find the Tumen or Yalu rivers that separated Korea from Manchuria, then simply trek south until they encountered more Koreans.

What my grandfather hadn’t anticipated had been a band of Korean gangsters-cum-partisans who “owned” part of the border.  Even accounting for my grandfather’s natural reticence, his distant, horrified expression when he recounted this part of the tale gave me chills.  They were Marxists in name only, the teachings of Mao Zedong and Kim Il-Sung but a cover for their lucrative smuggling business.  My grandfather had to join them in order to, essentially, earn his own freedom from them.  Details from him on this time were sparse, but capped by this gem of an offhand statement in English: “No one is a hero in a war.”  He was able to rejoin his family by the winter of 1944/45, after five years’ separation.  By then, he owned the Nambu pistol I described in this post.  His deadpan – and, in retrospect, certifiably badass – conclusion: “I lived.  Many didn’t.”

My grandfather didn’t waste much time after reuniting with his family, and promptly resumed the education that had been denied him by the war.  He matriculated at a teacher’s college that would later become the Seoul National University of Education.  An arranged marriage to the daughter of a wealthy Kwangju family was followed by three daughters.  First a set of twins, my mother being the younger of the two, then my younger aunt.  And because the good Lord has a sense of humor, another war.  They fled south to my grandmother’s family’s walled mansion in Kwangju, somehow avoiding North Koreans during their brief occupation of that city, then avoiding patrols from South Koreans who were involuntarily impressing young men into military service; they had apparently learned well from their former Japanese occupiers.  Luckily for my grandparents and their growing brood, the war and much of its attendant misery moved north and stayed there.

Until the ceasefire, my grandfather taught at an improvised school for his wife’s extended family.  He was press-ganged again immediately after the war, this time willingly.  The nascent Ministry of Education sent a hundred rising educators to the United States for their master’s degrees, seed corn for the Republic of Korea’s educational system.  Those were hard years, he told me, away from his family in a foreign land, communicating with them only by letter.  I’ve only been away from my wife and kids for a week at a time for business, and shudder to think what two straight years would do to my psyche.  Eun Young-Ki found himself in Nashville, of all places, earning his ME from Vanderbilt.  One probably well meaning person told my grandfather he didn’t have to use the colored water fountain.  My grandfather’s typically laconic response: water is water, the colored water fountain is closer, but thanks anyway.  This understandably gave my grandfather a view of America that he never shook: a wonderful and expansive country, but ultimately self destructive in its appetites and prejudices.

Once back with his family, now settled in Seoul, my grandfather began two parallel careers: one as a middle school teacher and, eventually, principal; the other as an advisor and ombudsman for the Ministry of Education.  It wasn’t a lucrative field, education rarely is, but it was the one he chose, a rarity during a time when the government used test scores to determine your future field.  Education gave my grandfather the kind of stability he’d longed for since he was a slave in Manchuria.  By the time I arrived in early 1974, my grandfather was pretty well established.  It was the confidence borne of this stability and accomplishment that made me gravitate more towards him than my grandmother.  It is the kind of confidence to which I still aspire, forty three years later.

His two younger daughters, my mother and younger aunt, eventually emigrated to the United States, as did thousands of their peers in the early 1970s.  Many Koreans saw America, despite its polarization over race and Vietnam, as a wellspring of better opportunities than could be had in President Park’s South Korea.  Since these daughters were leaving to pursue their master’s degrees, my grandparents took the loss in stride.

My mother, God love her, was not a great judge of character then.  My grandparents disapproved of their middle daughter’s marriage to this chon-nom (bumpkin) from Taegu.  Why, he wasn’t even Catholic!  NYU-Stern student?  Meh, still a bumpkin from Gyeongsangdo Province.  Amazingly, this prejudice is still alive and well in Seoul.  Imagine, if you will, the daughter of a buttoned up New England headmaster.  Now picture her marrying into a family of Southern evangelists who worship, talk, and eat loudly.  My father worked hard to soften his natural Gyeongsangdo accent, especially when speaking with my maternal grandparents.  I also know its occasional return grated on my mother until she finally divorced him.

As the father of three daughters, my grandfather loved having a male toddler around, all the more since I was also his first grandchild.  I learned from my own experience that a grandchild, specifically a firstborn male grandchild, can bridge many in-law chasms.  I suspect this was the case for my father; later still, both of my uncles, whose own first children were boys.  Looking back, do I feel sorry for my less fortunate cousins for the vagaries of birth order – yeah, nope.  I knew I was my grandfather’s prince, and still was until dementia took his marvelous mind thirty years hence.  After I returned to the US in 1978, I only saw him sporadically, about once every three or four years, when my grandparents came over from Korea, or vice versa.  One of my favorite photos of him was during a visit to Korea in January 1986.  If I’m beaming, it’s because I’m sitting next to my grandfather.  My cousins were relegated to the side across from us, and what I remember most clearly is that I had his undivided attention through the entire dinner.

IMG_2569 (2)

What did I learn from a man with whom I only spent a week as an adult?  Plenty, I’ve come to find.  Almost by osmosis, I picked up on an empathy that can and has served me well, in both the public and private sectors.  Like my grandfather, I tend to listen closely first before speaking.  Koreans have almost a cultural phobia of showing emotion, and my grandfather conformed to this, at least outwardly.  In private, however, he was demonstrative, quick with a laugh, and loving.  If you ask my kids, they’d probably say the same about me now.  If that is Eun Young-Ki’s legacy, then I’m more than happy to carry that on.  He was my grandfather, and my hero.

Cheers!

I read this Op-Ed in the New York Times by Brittany Bronson and thought, that was me for more years than I care to count.  From bouncing and tending bar at a dive bar near George Washington University, to working at one of DC’s best restaurants at the time, and then managing restaurants in Washington and New York; until I met my wife, heavy drinking was just par for the course.  It always had, and it always would.  How wrong I was.

Restaurant happy hour usually begins around 11pm, or whenever the first waiters to cash out with their manager leave for the night.  Around midnight, after almost all fine dining restaurants have closed, the remainder of the crew will join you at the favored saloon.  The crew will then proceed to drink their faces off, because moderation and monogamy are for people with regular jobs.  In DC in the 1990s, the restaurant poison of choice was Gran Marnier; in New York, it’s Jameson; in both cases, beer only serves as a fill-in between shots of GM or Jame-o.  Darts may be thrown.  Pool may be shot.  Successive rounds of Jame-o shots may be consumed.  If you’re broke, no worries, you’re making more cash tomorrow.  Undying friendship may be pledged at last call, only to be forgotten before next year’s holiday rush, when everyone becomes surly and antisocial.  Years may pass without one noticing, because hangovers, not calendars, mark the passage of time.

Booze, of course, is only one component of the deadly spiral into which I’ve seen far too many peers fall.  There’s “go fasters,” a euphemism for speed that always made me smile, because that’s what my Marine friends – God love those knuckleheads’ Delphic patois – call running shoes.  Speed was usually reserved for nightclub staff, whose vampire hours didn’t see them leave the premises til dawn.  Then, naturally, blow; nose candy; yeyo.  Cocaine, the great arbiter between casual and fine dining, restaurants and saloons and clubs.  Pick your poison, but watch out because you’ll fall down a rabbit hole of addiction, recovery if your family can afford it (you sure as hell can’t, because you very likely don’t have health insurance), potential homelessness, and anonymous death.

I’ve attended 14 military funerals, but only one for a restaurant employee.  The key difference?  There was a body to identify.  Once, when I was running a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, I was walking quickly to Penn Station to catch a train home.  I passed a homeless man who looked vaguely familiar.  I didn’t think it was a guy I’d worked with, but then, 33rd Street at 1am was neither the time nor place to see if I was correct.

It could very well have been “Greg,” a waiter I’d had to fire for being drunk on the job.  When I’d dropped the hammer in my cramped basement office, he’d broken down crying.  “What am I going to do, Dan?  I got nothing else.”  This just broke my heart, but I had to remain firm.  We all knew Greg had a drinking problem, but he was so good at his job that we managers overlooked the minor slurring of speech and loss of motor function.  I felt like a hypocrite, because a Jame-o on the rocks for me wasn’t unheard of while I counted the bar drawers at closing time.  Ultimately, Greg had committed the cardinal sin of overindulging.  Indulging?  Hell, we all did.  Many still do, but keep it under deep enough wraps that it isn’t as noticeable.  I had Greg escorted off the property, and no one heard from him again.  A month or so after I let Greg loose, his brother called the restaurant looking for him.  With any luck, Greg is reading this as someone celebrating over a decade of sobriety; more likely, he’s buried at Hart Island along with so many of this town’s unclaimed dead.

Many of us are in this career for the long haul.  We chose this, and I’m thankful beyond measure that my wife, a fellow restaurant veteran, understands my odd work schedule.  As my kids grow, they’ve gotten used to having me off on weekdays, along with weekend mornings before I go to work.  Truth be told, I switched to the Dark Side (management) because I wanted health benefits.  The excessive drinking after work, often followed by extracurricular drinking after I got home, had taken a toll.  I missed being healthy.  In retrospect, it’s a sad reflection of my single years that it took marriage to (more or less) sober up.

My career is, with few exceptions, one of the most stressful around.  I’ve had to clean up little kids’ puke from a leather banquette, stand stoically while someone dressed me down for seating them 5 minutes past their reservation time, think quickly of an answer to “do you know who I am?” – these could comprise a full, separate post.  I still like the restaurant biz, but do I love it anymore?  The jury’s still out.  As the father of two young children, I envy friends who enjoy nights and weekends off.  Regardless of what time I might get home, whether 1am or 3am, I will still wake up in time to get the kids fed, dressed, and off to school in the morning; let’s face it, that might be my only time with them, since I’ll be working through the evening, and I cherish whatever time I have with them, however brief.  This is leagues beyond the Dan of 1999, whose mornings  generally consisted of black coffee, a Marlboro Red, and a greasy breakfast at Bob & Edith’s (free ad: fantastic diner, please go for the verbal abuse from the grill man around 0500).

But could I do this with my family if I were still drinking as much now as I did then?  Not on your life.

 

 

Divorcing My Team

We lived in a two bedroom apartment on Staten Island in 1981.  My father, who had no time or patience for football, turned on the radio because it was a long drive to my parents’ friend’s house in Westchester.  Somehow, providentially, my dad settled on the Giants-Redskins game on the radio instead of “all news, all the time” 1010 WINS.  I remember being upset, because a classmate had offered me (probably unbeknownst to his dad) an extra ticket to Giants Stadium.  It was just as well that I couldn’t go, because we were on our way to dinner in Tarrytown.

I don’t remember specific plays from the game, but 36 years later, other aspects still stand out.  First and foremost, my father noticed my interest and didn’t change the station, as was his wont.  The news literally bored me to tears then, as it undoubtedly does with my children, who’ve learned to dread seeing “1010” on our car’s radio screen.  Secondly, the announcers made it sound like the Giants were being beaten up by a playground bully.  For a third grader who was routinely picked on by white kids – bullies – often to negative effect, rooting for the “wrong” team definitely had an appeal.  I couldn’t and would never be someone who would taunt and torment another, but I could at least cheer for football players who did.  I didn’t appreciate at the time that this was the collective rookie year for legendary Redskins like Joe Jacoby, Russ Grimm, Dexter Manley, and Darryl Grant.  I was witnessing the birth of the Hogs and didn’t even know it.

I became a Skins fan in my dad’s 1977 Granada on 15 November 1981.  That year, I finally also learned the secret to fighting: if you don’t show pain, and instead keep hitting until your opponent stops, you win.  The same could be said for the Hogs, that lovable heavy drinking group of offensive linemen who ran at defensive lines like road graders on asphalt.  70 Chip was, naturally, an early highlight for me.  As the eighties progressed, I became more and more of a diehard fan, even after we moved to Houston.  Full disclosure, I’ve been known to sing “Luv Ya Blue” at the old Astrodome, but it almost isn’t cheating if your hometown team and your actual team are in different conferences.  Being a Skins fan in Texas could have borrowed a line from one of my favorite books, Tales of the City.  It was Anna Madrigal’s “logical family” vice “blood family” – but with football, which was infinitely cooler.  When I started playing football myself, since I was too skinny to be a Hog, I wanted to be 81; Art Monk, not Ernest Givins.  For better or worse, my football career ended with high school, but my love of the game and that team did not.

My fandom flared like a white phosphorous shell when I attended GWU, and I held onto it as a vestige of home when I enlisted in the Army.  I’ve lived through two owners; countless general managers, head coaches, assistant coaches, and players.  I helped make the lower deck bleachers shake on the last game at RFK, freezing my butt off because my buddies and I were painted burgundy and gold from the waist up.  I happily suffered in traffic before and after home games at FedEx Field, and even more happily paid exorbitant prices for tickets.  As a waiter and bartender in DC in the mid/late 90s, I also had the pleasure of waiting on a good number of them.  Norv and Nancy Turner were 100% class, and it was an absolute pleasure to wait on them.  Out of curiosity, a YOLO if there ever was one, I even once asked a player if I could try on his Superbowl ring.  It was a monster, wide enough for two of my fingers, felt heavier than a .45 caliber pistol, and I was in football fan Nirvana.  I told the player his check was on me, because he’d given me a story I’d tell for years.

Then the doldrums started, first with the Ol’ Ball Coach and his noodle armed Florida quarterbacks.  I was never a fair weather fan, and had even survived the one Ritchie Pettibon-helmed trash fire of a season.  I suffered and exulted through Coach Gibbs’ return, and hoped against hope that Chris Cooley was the H-Back Messiah we’d needed since Doc Walker retired.  The cycle never seemed to end, and it was maddening to say the least.  We would win the offseason with a huge coach or player signing, then watch other teams in the playoffs because The Danny couldn’t keep his little fanboy mitts off of the football program.  Or, we’d make the playoffs, which would inevitably raise our expectations for the following season, when the team’s play would tear our hearts from our chest.  We would watch a bad defense undermine a good offense, or vice versa.  We would watch as less talented teams played meaningful games late in the season, while our boys in burgundy and gold played out the string.  Casserly.  Cerrato.  Allen.  McCloughan.  Allen again.  Who the hell was in charge?  Hopefully not the meddling fan masquerading as a billionaire team owner, but then, this was also the man who forced RG3 and his “why are they sacking me” look on us.

Two seasons ago, my son, then six years old, asked me what a redskin was.  I’d been watching highlights on my computer, and he knew of my friendly rivalry with his uncle the Giants fan.  I told my son it was a bad name for Native Americans, then watched while he absorbed the realization that “redskin” was as ugly and powerful an epithet as the N word, or chink.  While I, his Redskins-loving father, absorbed the same realization.

As a person of color myself, the hypocrisy of my former self, singing “Hail to the Redskins” after a touchdown suddenly became too much.  The duplicity of a minority cheering for a team that George Marshall forced to be the last in the NFL to integrate.  I had known that, but hadn’t truly internalized it until my son, in his innocence, challenged every football assumption I’d built over thirty-plus years.  Then my son hurt me.  He asked, wasn’t one of my friends from the military Native American?  Did that mean I was calling this friend a bad name too?

Ultimately, I’ve come to the realization that I can no longer be a fan of a team named after a slur.  As with the divorce that ends a long marriage, this is a painful dissociation.  I’ve been hoping and praying (surprising even me, considering my heartfelt agnosticism) that Snyder will come to his senses and change the name.  This would be a fabulous and overdue idea, but Snyder has shown nothing but cynical disregard for a name change.  Mike Carey and Phil Simms even refuse to say the team name.  I’ve tweeted about it, written unintelligible Facebook screeds about it, but until recently could never condense my thoughts into a coherent post until now, though nowhere as well as Mike Wise.  I feel like an alcoholic admitting his problem at a meeting.  I’ve known no other team, so I find myself unaffiliated for the first time since that long car ride with my parents.

I don’t begrudge those who continue to root for the Washington football team.  Truth be told, I’ll still follow them, albeit not as closely as in the previous 36 seasons.  But gone are my burgundy and gold hat, my Sean Taylor jersey, the 44 onesie I got for my son when he was an infant.  Just Dan, a guy who has loved football for years and will continue to do so, but without the baggage of cheering the Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons.

The Defection

I was ten years old, going on eleven, and spending an idyllic summer in Korea with my maternal grandparents.  The highlights included a trip east to visit relatives who owned a rice farm – holy crap, that was some hard work, and being told by my great aunt to get some chickens from the coop for dinner; a visit to the Buddha statue at Soraksan; exploring the military displays on Yoido Island; handling an M16 rifle for the first time; and, of course, reconnecting with my heritage.

I learned Korean before English, but hadn’t spoken Korean since I was five.  This was, in part, a vain attempt to seem more “American” to white friends and not be seen speaking a language besides English.  Indeed, my mother’s biggest reservation about the trip had been the language barrier, but by the end of my second week, my dormant first language came back – albeit with an American accent that frustrates me to this day.  By the end of July, my Korean had improved enough for them to trust me to explore by myself.  My early addiction to Galaga started this summer, since one game only cost ₩50 (worth about a nickel in 1983), and the arcade was only two blocks from my grandparents’ building.

The only way I knew it was Sunday was because I’d had to dress up for the 11:00 Mass.  My maternal grandparents were sticklers for Mass, the ceremony and predictability of it, along with a priest who celebrated Mass in Latin as if Vatican II had never happened.  The absurdist side of me enjoyed the incongruity of seeing a Korean priest speak in Latin, but I digress.

After Mass came lunch at a two-table restaurant across the street, parishioners waiting in line for a bowl of buckwheat noodles in icy beef broth, then spending no more than a few minutes eating at one of the tables, so the next family could have its turn.  My grandparents walked home, so that my grandfather could begin his Sunday ritual of a nap, a beer, and three newspapers; I took off with two ₩1,000 bills in my pocket – that was twenty games of Galaga and a glass bottle of “cola,” a nondescript Coke clone.

I had come home to watch a baseball game, probably the Lotte Tigers because my grandfather was a fan, when the air raid sirens sounded.  At that time, air raid drills were held at least monthly, serious in purpose but treated like a passing nuisance like the Emergency Broadcast System here in the US.  I understood the broadcaster when he announced that this was not a drill.  Ten floors down, cars that rarely drove over 50 kph on the Ichon-ro thoroughfare were suddenly speeding and blaring their horns.  My grandmother got what I’d now call a bugout bag ready: clothes, food, money, and jewelry.  She told me to fill a bookbag with clothes, toiletries, and more food that she handed me.

Then Grandpa came into the master bedroom.  He wore the same deadpan, almost emotionless, expression that I still admire.  He went to the dresser where the sleeping mats and blankets were kept.  Inside a drawer under the pillows was a cheap wooden box.  My grandfather took the box out; from it came a Nambu Type 14 pistol, two magazines, a rag, and a box of ammunition.  He still hadn’t said anything, which unnerved me even more than the air raid sirens going off across the country.  He loaded the magazines, inserted one into the pistol but didn’t chamber a round, then put everything back in the box.  The box went into his bag.  Following the instructions given between air raid siren blasts, we took the stairs to the building’s basement.  My grandfather nodded at the building’s super, and everyone waited out the alert in a cavernous space I now see was being used for its intended purpose.  My grandfather had me sit between him and Grandma.  He put his bag down, but not before taking the box out and setting it on his knee.  Jet fighters patrolled overhead, their roar competing with the super’s transistor radio.

I remember finally crying after the all-clear sounded, a pent up release because everyone in that basement had been terrified of a North Korean invasion.  I remember how calm my grandparents had been throughout the air raid alert and shelter-in-place order.  The jet fighter noises abated, replaced by airliners using Namsan Tower as a marker before landing at Kimpo Airport.  It was a defection, Colonel Sun Tianqin simply turning east and hoping South Korea and freedom lay on the opposite side of the Yellow Sea.  Not, as feared, a precursor to a second Korean War.  We waited in that basement for the elevator and returned home; my grandparents put everything back in place as if it were just another Sunday.  My grandfather even began laying out his suit for the following day.  But first, he unloaded that pistol, hid the box again, and life went on as before.

About fifteen years ago, while researching a story for which I’ve only written scattered scenes, I came upon this nugget: Korean partisans along the Manchurian border were partial to the Nambu.  Ownership of one gave a partisan instant bona fides outside his normal operating area, because you had to kill a Japanese officer in order to steal his pistol.  Conversely, any partisan captured with a Nambu was summarily executed by the Imperial Japanese Army.  I’m no historian, and 34 years after Colone Sun’s defection I still don’t know the provenance of my grandfather’s pistol, but I do know he would have used it to protect me.  As he undoubtedly used it in the early 1940s to fight his way back to his family, and possibly during the early 1950s to protect his wife and daughters as they fled south.

Lesson learned: you never know how badass your taciturn grandfather was in his day, until you do a little digging.  I miss him.  I wish I could have gotten that story out of him before he passed, I bet it was a doozy.

Go Back to (fill in the blank)

I’ve heard variations on this theme for what feels like my whole life.  The blank in the title has ranged from China, Japan, Korea, to Hong Kong – and once, incredibly, even Burma.  I still don’t know how an ignorant white boy in the Houston burbs, who at the time couldn’t even name the states bordering Texas, knew about Myanmar.

My first memory of hearing this is first grade, right around the time I realized that white boys would pick fights with me simply because of my ethnicity.  A related memory is the “a-ha” light bulb moment I had at age 7, when I discovered that if you keep punching, even if you’ve been hurt, you’ll win.  Maybe not with the teachers or administrators, but I got into progressively fewer fights each year, until we moved to Texas.

Two months ago, I was watching the news because I feel incomplete without constant heartburn.  The scene was a Donald Trump rally, and one of his supporters in the background yelled it, presumably at either a reporter or a protestor.  You only have to hear it directed at you once, at age 5, to have a heightened awareness of that hurtful sentence four decades later.  It was unmistakable, though, and I froze.  To my dismay and horror, not a single talking head noticed.  I scanned social media, switched channels, and … nothing, nichts, nada.  I don’t even know if it was a live or taped video of a Trump rally, don’t know its location, so YouTube wasn’t an option.

Then it happened again, this time at a playground.  I was off that day, and took my kids to a playground closer to my in-laws’ neighborhood than mine.  The heat and humidity weren’t nearly as oppressive as they had been, the sun was out – a perfect summer day.  He was about six feet tall, white, with dark hair and a mustache.  A red Trump hat looked like a sundae’s cherry atop his small head and pear-shaped body.  We nodded at each other, the silent solidarity of two dads watching their kids at a playground.  I noticed that he’d look in my direction occasionally, but I paid no attention.  I tend to keep to myself at the playground.  I much prefer to watch my kids play, not engaging with parents I don’t know.  Not so Mr. Trump Hat, who found a kindred political spirit in one of the mothers there.

Their conversation, audible from eight to ten feet away, was about what I expected.  Immigrants bad, homosexuality deviant, all lives matter, a word salad like a misfiring car engine – it was like when Oswald Bates conjured words from thin air simply because they were multi-syllabic.  My kids had wisely stayed away from Trump Hat’s son, who seemed to have problems with playing too rough, and cursing every time he fell.  Then Trump Hat crossed a red line.  He made some comment about “don’t know why we just don’t nuke those sand n—-rs.”  My tweet storm about it begins here.

My sudden rage at that instant clouds my memory, but I said something like, “Hey, man, watch your language.  My kids are here too and they don’t need to hear that.”

“What the fuck is it to you?”  Trump Hat started walking closer to me, apparently thinking I would shrink away from confrontation.  Sorry, but very few unarmed people physically intimidate me, let alone someone who looks like 150 pounds of chewed bubble gum.  I kept looking over at my kids, who thankfully were oblivious to the fact that their old man was about to – what, get into a fistfight at the playground?  Trump Hat replied that this is a free country, he had a right to his opinion, neither of which statement I’d ever disagree with, but then came the zinger.  “If you don’t like it, why don’t you go back to fuckin’ China or wherever the fuck you’re from?”

“Seriously, man?  You want everyone here to know how ignorant and stupid you are right now?”  His recent compatriot quickly gathered up her kids and left.  One other dad I knew peripherally from this park, another minority veteran, but with horrible taste in moto-themed Marine Corps hats, came up.  I couldn’t help but laugh at how ludicrous this entire scene was.  I was determined to not hit the guy.  I didn’t want to be arrested over something as ridiculous as this.  I was afraid, though not for my own safety; rather, I was afraid that if I hit Trump Hat, I might not want to stop.  I knew that if I got into my first fight in 13 years, the release would be nothing less than exhilarating; I also knew I didn’t want to disappoint my children, who would very likely see their father get arrested for aggravated battery.

“I’ll knock your chink ass from here to Brooklyn.”  I asked, with what, his belly?  I called for my kids, told them we were going to a different playground, this one was dirty.  In the few seconds it took for them to run over to me, I told Trump Hat, if he wanted to throw down, now was his chance, but I’d also beat him bloody in front of his son.  Suffice it to say, my quiet angry voice works better than yelling or other histrionics.  With that, he backed off, I gave the Marine veteran a wordless fist bump, and we left the playground unmolested.  I badly wanted a cigarette and half a bottle of Jameson right then and there.  A glass of wine when we got home would have to suffice.  At the next playground, adjacent to my son’s school, the kids found instant playmates.  They were black, Asian, white, and Hispanic – an elementary school version of a Benneton ad, and this made me inordinately happy.

Discrimination doesn’t just exist, it’s learned.  Parents’ actions and words have remarkable effects on their children, it’s not as if the son of a Klan member would suddenly decide to work for the SPLC.  I felt sorry for Trump Hat’s son, not just because one day his old man will run into someone with far less forbearance than me.  But because that boy will grow up hating minorities, inheriting his father’s racism, only to possibly and suddenly wonder why society is leaving his family’s views behind.  Or sadder yet, the son will grow up hating himself as a closeted gay man because his old man has no use for anyone not straight and cis-gender.

What truly terrifies me is not the prospect of another attack by one or two would-be jihadists who are more Laurel and Hardy than Khalid Sheikh Muhammad.  What scares the bejezus out of me is the racism that had been rightfully driven underground, its mainstream voices muted, but now has found widespread acceptance again.  It’s the attitudes of men like Trump Hat, or this wonderful human being, or these extras from a possible Deliverance remake.  As satisfying as it may be to reply in kind with vitriol, if not a fist to the throat, I keep in mind Dr. King’s words.  In particular, I’m amazed at how far short I fall from this passage: “Using grace, humor and intelligence, confront the other party with a list of injustices and a plan for addressing and resolving these injustices. Look for what is positive in every action and statement the opposition makes. Do not seek to humiliate the opponent but to call forth the good in the opponent.”  If you follow me on Twitter, this is not quite how I approach it, but it does make me feel better to read words to which I might aspire.

 

 

Angry Email

I wrote this immediately after we returned to our hotel after one of the worst restaurant experiences of my life.  Enjoy the dumpster fire.

To: restaurant info email
Subject: Execrable Treatment
Dear Sir or Ma’am,
I’ve been in our industry for over twenty years, but rarely in my career (as a busboy, server, bartender, manager, general manager, or owner) have I experienced such shocking treatment as I did tonight as a guest in your restaurant.
My family and I dined on the deck upstairs as a 5-top, and sat around 7:00 towards the host stand and stairs.  Hailey tried her best, and was friendly, but judging from obvious lags in the flow of service, it was quite obvious she was in the weeds.  I well remember my days as a server being over his head, so I was (and generally am) willing to make an allowance for that.
The truly puzzling part of the meal came at the end.  My son and mother-in-law left to walk along the beach.  My son was holding the virgin strawberry colada I had ordered for him at the beginning of the meal.  The female Asian hostess chased my mother-in-law down, said he couldn’t take his drink because of liability issues, in a hostile tone that made my son uncomfortable.  This was more puzzling, since any liability issues usually stem from alcoholic beverages leaving the premises – but where is the risk of a seven year old smuggling a virgin drink in a plastic cup to the beach?  I had to later reassure him my son that he hadn’t done anything wrong, since he isn’t used to strangers scolding him.
My wife asked if this was your policy, since we hadn’t had an issue with this at other establishments in Newport and Narraganset during our visit.  The hostess’s dismissive response, since engaging with my wife seemed to be a nuisance: “Well, I don’t know, I guess so.”  Nowhere in my experience is this an acceptable reply to a guest.  My wife brought this to Diana’s attention, not to get something comped off our bill, but because my wife was flabbergasted by the hostess’s treatment.  Even while my wife was speaking with Diana, I could see the hostess rolling her eyes.  Really?
I enjoy writing notes like this as much as I assume you enjoy reading them, which isn’t very much.  Diana sat with my wife, heard her out, and was our one professional interaction of the evening.  I can’t sing her praises enough.  It could have just been a long or bad day for this hostess, but nothing excuses such behavior.  If not for Diana, the entire night would have been ruined.
Thank you for your time.
Respectfully,
Daniel Kim