I have routinely asked myself why I have I been blogging at night for more than 1.5 years because blogging is antediluvian. Podcasting is not a good alternative for me as my voice is thin and I’m a stranger to spontaneous wit and reflection. I plod. (I think of an old writing group friend who said he once spent twenty minutes debating whether to write “wood floor” or “wooden floor.” That is completely me).
I am hoping that this blog is like Shoji Morimoto’s rent-a-man-to-do-nothing business. (Though, I do not charge). I read that since 2018, this 38- year-old man has been charging clients in Japan to do nothing. He is not a therapist/coach offering advice or a surrogate friend/caregiver. He offers nothing but his mostly quiet presence at a meal or a walk. One example of his work: once he was hired to sit and watch a lonely man blow out candles on his birthday cake; despite these limitations, he is somehow valuable to his clients. Similarly, I offer you few practical takeaways–no shopping links/tips, no glorious travel photos, recipes and/or clear direction (boo to linearity!), but I hope you eke out something worthwhile.
If you think my blog is a trite, middle-aged woman’s call for attention and that It does not slap (sorry, I love using amusing Gen Z slang at opportune moments to my son’s chagrin), I have one response: “FU and Fuck your standards!” (Let me explain my burst of profanity: once I saw two friends having a fight at Carleton College in our main social hall. One woman stood up dramatically, wagged her finger in her friend’s face and roared these words. At the time, I’d observed this from some distance with some some delight/admiration and thought, I hope I get to use that line one day).
A recent example of dong-mun-seo-dap (an answer that does not match the question) comes from the Depp-Heard defamation trial. (Don’t roll your eyes. I know you heard at least snippets). Recall Johnny’s attorney as she attempted a Matlock moment while cross-examining Ms. Heard; roughly paraphrased, the attorney asked Ms. Heard: “Isn’t it true that you have yet to donate the money you pledged to the ACLU?”
The gist of Ms. Heard’s reply: “No, that’s not true. I pledged the money.” Possible explanations for her answer: she had cotton in her ears, she was coached by her attorney to answer this way or she truly, as she later testified, uses the words donating and pledging synonymously.
Whom among us hasn’t pulled a Heard when faced with a pesky question? As an employment attorney, I am sometimes asked how to deal with an illegal or just offensive question by an employer during a job interview.
Flouting my own general tendency to offer scant practical information,I offer you the following quiz and answers. Guess which questions are probably no-no’s for the bulk of employers to whip out at interviews (at least currently in my favorite liberal bastion–New York City). I included a few suggestions for applying dong-mun-seo-dap to the interview context.
a) What’s your salary at your last job? OK____ NOT OK____
b) Have you been convicted of a crime? OK___NOT OK___
c) Ever been arrested? OK____NOT OK____
d) You are so skinny. I hate you. Do you eat?
e) I noticed a two year gap in your resume. Were you unemployed then?
a) Not ok. This is an illegal question in NYC for most employers to ask. Particularly if you don’t want to be limited by your old salary, you may want to answer this kind of question by pretending you misheard the question: “I am glad to discuss pay. I’d like to get paid commensurate with my x years of relevant experience and my accomplishments.” (Or you could of course provide a number/range). Some might prefer a direct approach as in just explaining to interviewer that the question is illegal; however, as an oft conflict-averse human, I would probably try answering a different question that hopefully gets to the heart of the employer’s question).
b) Not ok. This question at an interview is an Illegal question for most employers in NYC. If your answer is yes, you have been convicted of a crime, you might reply along the lines of “I believe I’m a good fit based on my experience, skills and interest in the position and nothing in my background would affect my ability to perform my job well. ” (Of course, if you haven’t been convicted of a crime, you will probably just say no).
c) Not ok. This is an illegal question for most employers in NYC to ask. If you were arrested but it did not lead to conviction, you could just answer this by saying “I’ve never been convicted of any crime.” Or of course you could answer similarly to question b above.
d) This question is probably not illegal on its own but is certainly annoying and a red flag for problems down the road if hired. When I was a new attorney fresh out of law school, a female partner at a firm unloaded this question during my interview. I smiled awkwardly and said nothing as if I’d lost the ability to speak, which is of course another option. (This pretend-you-are-at-a-loss-of-words method reminds me of how a goofy law student who used to respond to our Contracts professor’s Socratic method by feigning laryngitis when our professor asked him a question. Though this law student M, was a really a bad actor–moving his lips without any sound and grabbing his throat dramatically–our wiry prof would shake his head in disbelief and move on to another victim; so I guess it’s sometimes a useful method of avoidance).
e) Not ok. An illegal question for most NYC employers to ask. Possible answer if it’s true you were unemployed and don’t want to answer the illegal question: “I have x years of relevant work experience and look forward to drawing upon my significant experience in this position.”
The other somewhat related Korean expression I highlighted is u-mun-hyeon-dap (a sensible answer to a dumb question). I have often wished I could come up with snappy answers to dumb questions. (When I was in high school, one teacher asked me repeatedly why I was so shy. I used to shrug as I had no idea.How do you answer that?) I think of actress Carrie Fisher answering the question “What are some similarities between Paul Simon and Harrison Ford? (as she’d dated both). Her great response to the dumb question:”Both look better after a couple of beers.” Nice.
*Han is a Korean word that every Korean person seems to define differently. It’s a collective feeling of “sorrow, regret, grief, resentment, a dull ache in the soul…Some Koreans believe it comes from the nation’s history of being invaded. Others say the strict class system in Korea’s past is responsible. Regardless of where han originated, it’s place in the Korean consciousness is now firm.”
As one theme of my blog is exploring how one can be Korean/Korean-American with a dearth of known Korean relatives and scant knowledge of Korean language and cultural traditions, I want to understand/feel han. For if I feel han, chances are I’m certifiably Korean! The above cartoon suggests that han means being born angry. Since I’m adopted and I can’t ask my birth parents about my delivery, I’m unsure If I emerged cross and colicky but Lord knows, as an adult I can rage!
As I write this post–moments away from hopefully hearing President Biden describe his plan to end Putin’s bloody quest for hegemony–I am indeed overcome by a “dull ache in the soul.” Inflation (i.e, gas prices and the $5 cost of one sumo orange made me gasp out loud recently), recent news of one man beating up seven Asian people in one day, heart-pounding stories of Ukrainians under siege, World War III memes/analogies and anxieties about the consequences of relaxed mask mandates, have me feeling passively agitated/resentful/mournful for things and people that have been lost. Positively han!
Nothing quells my current anxiety more than sending odd group emails to my patient friends. Knowing myself and my pinball-thoughts that only bear fruit on occasion, I should issue group emails with reserve and trepidation but my digits are unruly! I recently sent one of these beauties to roughly 30 friends and family. As I explained, I’d recently read some news articles, including this one that my friend Lisa forwarded me, that declared it was trendy for young South Korean women to leave their homes wearing large velcro self adhesive curlers in their hair. The article and its rash of more recent imitators, suggested that wearing these curlers outside was not only a practical way to ensure a desirable wavy bang for young Koreans but that it was a sign of protest—protest against strict Korean beauty norms and the belief one has to look flawless for strangers. Supposedly, older Koreans are distressed by the removal of this beauty tool from the privacy of home to the streets–highlighting a generational divide. One article, noted the plastic curler symbolizes defiance, confidence and living free from societal judgments.
In my group email, I challenged my friends to wear at least one big pink Velcro curler (that I would mail to them) in public–ascribing any desired meaning to it. Then, I asked them to take a photo of themselves wearing it. (My friends should be grateful that I did not ask them to wear more outlandish alternatives to plastic curlers). My husband, peering over my shoulder as I typed, compared me to a cult leader–his second time anointing me. (The first time was the time I threw a Squid Game party in the park). It delights me that sometimes I can get a small group of friends to do trivial new things with me.
It’s clear why I’m drawn to this Korean hair curler trend. I’ve found it interesting how women have enjoyed hiding during COVID —pushing aside form-fitting jeans for straight, looser styles, rolling around the house happily in knit sets, rejecting under wire bras and high heels and dismantling complex beauty regimens. (See the photo below of my favorite pairs of Korean-made COVID-era shoes that border on slippers. Can I wear these to my office now? You would be surprised how many people see these slipper shoes and enthusiastically want a pair. ) As Western journalists noted the Korean curler trend for the first time around November 2021, when Korea like the rest of the world was overwhelmed with COVID, perhaps the curler is as much of a protest symbol as a pair of straight, high waisted jeans is here.
But alas, we femmes can’t slink away any longer; masks-off, we’re left to once again hone our creepy-stranger avoidance skills on public transportation and wallow in society’s judgements about aging and physical imperfections. Remote work has been a glory for many women who perhaps for the first time, have been able to practice self-care (exercise, doctors’ appointments etc) and revel in family life without the confines of rigid office hours and commute time. As I return to the office and inevitably have to shed my second-skin slouch-wear for some more structured, constraining garb, I like the idea of donning one pink curler as a vestige of the strangely liberating (but of course tragic)Covid era.
It’s not the first time curlers have made news. In 2017 a Korean judge, the only female on the Korean Constitutional Court, was photographed wearing curlers in her hair as she oversaw the ouster of the South Korean President; her image went viral and lead many journalists to declare the curler was a symbol of a busy modern working woman who was too busy to notice her hair.
If I was a journalist, I’d want to interview more South Koreans to see if these mostly Western journalists are guilty of a grab-at-straws, over-interpretation of a simple accessory. As my teen son and his young math tutor Lizzie both chimed in at the moment I gifted LIzzie a large pink curler and told her it was possibly a Korean symbol of protest, “sometimes the curtains are just blue.” (I had to look up this reference to a meme about literary interpretation). Sometimes curlers are just curlers!
Whether wearing curlers publicly is just a practical means to get a wavy hair style, a symbol of protest, or a mark of a busy modern woman, it is a lovable trend. Of course, pink curlers are very I love-Lucy. A woman wearing them warrants a laugh/side-eye. In the U.S., we sometimes spot celebrities prancing around town in a crown of rollers (e.g. model Gigi Hadid and actor Bradley Cooper below)– a choice that reads “I am so untouchable, I can do anything and look good.” An online search reveals that actor/rapper Ice T wore rollers in high school as a sign of toughness. “See, there’s a level of gangster where you can do things that you’re really saying: ‘Don’t say nothin’ about it,’” he says. “It’s like the biker who might put a ribbon in his hair, like: ‘What? I’m waiting on you.’ So you have to have a certain level of credibility, but a lot of the cats were wearing perms and had rollers in their hair and we would get away with it.”
But so far, I have not noticed too many non celebrities wearing them outside.
As someone who likes to be inconspicuous, I’ve always been fascinated by those who buck social norms/do things that turn heads. I fondly remember a friend’s Social Psychology class at Carleton College where students had to conceive of a project involving breaking social norms, actually do the deed and then write about any reactions. One friend wore a bike helmet to all her meals in our dining hall and another entered one of our library’s intimate glass study rooms where a couple was studying, wordlessly spread out all her work on the tiny shared table and watched the couple exchange furtive, OMG-looks as she pretended to work.
For my friends who participated in my wee social experiment, consider it some Continuing Adult Education as surely you are like me and lament your failure to fully take advantage of your college education. (But this goofy professor will not be doling out grades, just barks of encouragement!)
In response to my mass email, my friend Lisa helpfully attached the relevant NY Times article I had forgotten to send and wrote: “I remember randomly coming across an article in the Times about this and sending it to you! I love that you’ve decided to write about it and that you have such a fun idea for exploring this Korean trend here in the United States…with Gen X women! Count me in for a couple of pink curlers!” (In Seoul, women sporting curlers are more Gen Z). Note: some people photographed below are not Gen X but younger!
Another friend Rosario (photographed below) added her unique perspective. She emailed that she was not familiar with this Korean trend and wanted to know more about it in the context of Korean culture– because “seeing women and girls wearing rollers in their hair in public and wearing rollers in my own hair isn’t taboo to me as a Hispano-Caribbean person – and I’m talking a head full of rollers! This is a cultural norm, and even a source of pride to an extent because you can tell how long someone’s hair is by the color of the rollers they have to use (ex. grey means your hair is very long), and the longer hair, the deeper your claim to femininity/beauty.” In her thoughtful and tactful way, Rosario’s response reminded me that sending late night group emails that seek adventure and newness without much forethought can lead to insensitive gaffes/cultural narcissism. I am lucky I have a friend like her who sees my strengths and helps me when I’m being a dunderhead.
To understand the curler as a protest symbol, I did a little rooting around to learn about Korean culture; are Koreans uniquely obsessed with plastic surgery and outer appearance as Western journalists love to suggest (and if so, is it due to sheer vanity or more complex reasons) and relatedly, how is feminism expressed and viewed in South Korea?
It is seemingly undisputed that plastic surgery is widely accepted and a part of Korean culture. Although South Korea at least in 2020, did not make the top ten countries for total number of plastic surgery procedures–one measure of obsession– the country supposedly has the most plastic surgeons per capita. Supposedly, one in five South Korean women has had some form of cosmetic surgery, compared to around one in 20 in the U.S., according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons. (Comparing Seoul and another assumed high density plastic surgery city like L.A. might be informative as well but I couldn’t find that information).
Western journalists certainly spend a lot of time emphasizing that Koreans are uniquely obsessed with beauty, makeup and the exterior, which I and some other Koreans, find suspect and exoticizing. Perhaps, those in the U.S. are just as concerned with the exterior but Koreans are more blunt about the importance of being physically attractive. Another theory is that Americans are not less shallow than Koreans but are simply obsessed with natural beauty and feigning natural beauty when they are covertly using filters, cosmetics and procedures. Little sneaks!
As Koreans are not typically embarrassed about their plastic surgery and plastic surgery is quite common, my friend Rosario wondered why wearing a curler outside would be frowned upon by anyone in Korea. After all, it is a country where it’s not entirely uncommon (due to low cost for procedures relative to the U.S. and belief that plastic surgery is practical in a competitive society) for a woman to steal away from her familial responsibilities for weeks/months to get plastic surgery and return completely transformed, head to toe.
Perhaps wearing a pink curler is the perfect covert feminist symbol in Korea, a country that is currently in the midst of an anti-feminism wave. I have always had a vague notion that Korea is a patriarchal, conservative country with Confucian ideas about the role of women. From my brief research, it seems Korea has made advances re feminism though at a slower pace and on a different timeline than the United States.
Some say modern mainstream Korean feminism originated at the 2016 Gangnam, Korea post-it-note demonstration where Koreans gathered to protest a criminal court verdict for a defendant who said he killed a woman in a public bathroom because he had been been disregarded by women his whole life. Because I am who I am, I’m naturally drawn to the absurd in this story: In the midst of the protest, a man dressed up like a pink elephant told protestors (in Korean) that carnivores are not bad but the person who commits the crime is bad (his way of saying men are not bad but the particular person who committed the murder was bad). He championed a Zootopia society where predator (men) and prey(women) walked hand in hand–a statement that offended some female protestors who attacked him physically. A harbinger of the current culture war!
I learned that Korea did experience the MeToo movement around 2018, long after ours began and had a Korea-specific Escape the Corset radical feminist movement in which women posted images of themselves on social media without makeup/destroying their makeup with short hair alongside a Korean hashtag.
But in 2022, feminism is clearly under siege in Korea. Many Korean news stories I have read lately seem like headlines we might have seen in the U.S. a while ago; for example, fairly recently, a Korean female newscaster wrote about steeling herself to wear glasses for the first time on tv and being surprised when she received supportive comments afterwards. When Korean Olympic archer An San won her third gold medal at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, thousands of men online decried her short hair and labeled her a feminist, which they interpreted to mean man-hater. (Short hair is probably not the rallying cry of U.S. Right Populist groups today, though they can be anti-feminist).
I read many articles about a mens group called Man On Solidarity, which is lead by a man named Bae In-kyu who typically wears all black and encourages his followers to protest by making pig noises; women are pigs! He is fond of making statements like “feminists are a social evil” and “feminism is a mental illness.” Name-calling is par for the course; at some point, some anti-feminists referred to Korean women as “Kimchi bitches” and angrily discussed online their belief that Korean women are all gold diggers waiting to marry rich. Apparently, its not just the fringe-y, wacko Korean men who are listening to this anti-feminist rhetoric. Among South Korean men in their 20s, nearly 79 percent said they were victims of serious gender discrimination, according to a poll in May 2021. The anti-feminist sentiments have infiltrated mainstream Korean politics to the degree that the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Lee Jae-myung, has said: “Just as women should never be discriminated against because of their gender, nor should men suffer discrimination because they are men.” (Whereas, back in 2017, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate ran on an openly feminist platform).
Apparently curlers are not the only controversial symbol in Korea today. The pinching hand gesture that is ubiquitously used to indicate something small in size has been causing mayhem. In 2015, Megalia, a controversial radical feminist group in Korea used the pinching hand symbol as its logo to indicate small penis size. Though Megalia is defunct, the hand gesture and its revised, very specific meaning continues to cause controversy in Korea.
How does one keep up with the changing meanings of age-old gestures? Let us not forget how the o.k. hand gesture morphed from congenial, happy camper symbol to a white supremacy sign seemingly overnight. It’s particularly hard for those who are easily distracted like me to keep up with the meaning of gestures. Relatedly, the list of everyday expressions that turn out to be offensive is exhausting to track. My son and I recently looked up the expression “comments from the peanut gallery” online to find out it’s probably no good. Another useful site that basically has me in a tail-spin–resigned to only communicate in blinks–is https://www.adl.org/hate-symbols.
Before writing this post, I could very well have been the ignorant tourist in Korea asking a group of men wearing black to be a little quieter while using the pinching hand gesture. See me running through the streets of Seoul-chased by a throng of angry, oinking men. (Another day, I may have to draw this image).
On a very highbrow note, I can’t help but laugh at the similarity between the o.k. symbol that now means white supremacy and the pinching gesture that now means small penis size in Korea. Do the white supremacists know how similar their gesture is to the one for a small penis?
I end this long ode to the curler with notes from my own curler excursion to jury duty at the New York Supreme Court courthouse in Manhattan. (The earlier photo of a Korean judge in her curler may have inspired me). Heading outside that morning, I felt timid about drawing attention to myself as an Asian-American woman on the streets of NYC; as many of the subjects of this experiment confirmed, wearing curlers in one’s hair does elicit some stares/attention. My cab driver seemed unfazed by my lone pink accessory, which energized me. But once I arrived in the courthouse lobby’s security line, I ripped my curler out of my hair. (Security guards sort of scare me. They can be so brusque!) I twirled it back into my locks as i entered the crowded jury duty reception room and felt the weight of some stares–mostly friendly ones. There were one or two double takes by befuddled older men.
I wore it during my walk around Chinatown at lunch and found myself trying to reaffix it as I stared into the window of a car parked next to the Asian Community mural tribute to Christina Yuna Lee and other victims. At some point, a woman around my age stood behind me, impatient. Characteristically oblivious to my surroundings, I half turned towards her, still twirling my hair. “Sorry, do you want to take a photo of the mural?”
“No, you’re blocking my car.”
When I turned to fully face her, she saw my pink curler bobbing in place and cracked a smile. (I swear the accessory somehow make you likeable! Back at the courthouse, I was corralled into a courtroom for voir dire. (I tucked my curler into my laptop bag. It seemed a little too subversive/disrespectful like wearing a hat in the courtroom, which is still a no-no).The experience showed me what i already knew: I’ve got no stomach for bucking social norms, no matter how minor. (Though I got excused from jury duty without even wearing a curler, I think wearing a head of these curlers might be a sure fire way to get excused from this obligation).
Overall, participants in this social experiment reported that reactions to curlers were mild and generally polite. As my friend Susan commented, “I wonder how the fact that we’ve all had such an odd experience of being quarantined along with the whole world and wearing masks for 2 years changes the reaction that strangers have to something like wearing curlers. I just can’t imagine that people think anything is that strange after seeing people in masks for 2 years and after experiencing what we have all been through!” Well said Susan.
Give a curler a spin! (Please see more photos and comments of participants below)
In the Korean dramas I watch, the characters have a childish but charming habit of raising two fists and saying “fighting!” in a sing-song manner to show solidarity. Think of all the uses for this expression! Your husband comes home from work to a messy apartment and the fridge is a barren wasteland: smile, raise your fists and say “fighting!” Or after telling your six year old who is seated in the backseat of your car rental that you can’t possibly get her to a bathroom anytime soon because mommy is struggling to stay in her own lane on the FDR, try add a “fighting!” (ideally without lifting sweaty hands off wheel to make the gesture).
Lately, there are a lot of reasons to raise our fists in solidarity with Asian-Americans. Think of 18-year-old snowboard queen Chloe Kim who not only nabbed her second Olympic gold medal, she charmed us with her love of snacks, her solid Kim Kardashian impersonation and her candid discussion of her past depression. Who wouldn’t root for a an Olympian who admits her favorite thing about newfound fame is the free food from fans and her ability to use her position to combat bullying? She, like most Asian-Americans, have been subjected to bullying about her Asian eyes. I could go on long tangents discussing our slanty, oft-maligned orbs and I will.
Chloe must, like me, be awe-struck by some some recent related news stories; when a group of Asian-American Northwestern students who were watching a mens basketball game made a TikTok video of a white fan making the ubiquitous slant-eye gesture at them, the video went viral and the offender was removed by security. Quite a sea change! I think of the countless buses, stores, amusement parks etc in which some wayward character has loudly called me a fucking chink, drawn their eyes backwards and/or said Ching-Chong without consequence or raised eyebrows by others. There were always the exceptions.I fondly remember a time long before Asian-American pride was de rigueur, when my friend Liz and I were jogging on the street and some man yelled out konnichiwa to me. Liz dramatically halted her remarkably fast run to inform the man–her tone charmingly indignant–that I was not in fact Japanese and that by assuming I was Japanese, he was plainly a racist. An ally when ally-ship was not the rage. (xoxo Liz)
I appreciate Sesame Street’s new anti-Asian-bullying song “Proud of Your Eyes” even if it’s lyrics and melody aren’t exactly LMM (Lin Manuel Miranda)-grade. I have also duly noted the flood of Asian-pride children’s books available now; a small part of me feels resentful though, kind of like when my law school and college completely revamped their facilities in the years after I graduated. (Ahem, where was my rock climbing wall when I went to Carleton College and where were these books, magazine covers, and songs and puppets that affirm that Asians are beautiful during my formative childhood years? I felt like a toad most of the time).
In the Sesame Street video introducing the new song, the young Filipino-American actress explains to the Japanese-American owner of Hooper’s Grocery store and her African-American puppet friend that she was just told her eyes were ugly by a kid and she’s sad. Her friends sing that she should love her eyes since they reflect her family. I thought that message might have been lost on young me, a Korean adoptee who didn’t know her birth family; nonetheless, I applaud this too-late-to-impact-my-self-esteem affirmation because I certainly want the current and future generations of Asian-Americans to think they are hot! Our increased visibility is mostly a good thing. It is a lovely bonus to see Korean actress Hoyeon Jung (probably best known to Americans for her role in Squid Game) on the cover of Vogue by herself. (She’s the first Korean and possibly first Asian woman to get a solo Vogue cover). May there be many more covers of minorities on their own!
What pains me as much as non-Asians bullying us about our eyes is Asian self-hate. Across many Asian cultures, double eyelid surgery continues to be popular. An Asian-American guy I knew in college told me his own mother begged him to get the procedure but he stood firm. This parental ask is supposedly fairly common for many (but of course not all )Asians/Asian-Americans. Big-eye worship is obvious in Japanese Manga –its characters weighted down by globe-sized eyes. While watching some Korean dramas on viki.com, you can opt to see viewers’ mostly petty comments on display on the upper left corner of your screen. Sometimes this is helpful/entertaining when watching historical dramas but mostly it’s a shit show. The largely Asian commenters dissect the appearance of the actors. When a brave actress has eyes without double folds, these commenters go into a tizzy. Big-eye supremacy most be overthrown!
An unbearably ditzy-sounding Korean YouTuber whose videos I embarrassingly binge-watched, challenged the idea that Koreans like perfectly pale skin and big eyes because they want to look more Western. She declared that Koreans historically have always wanted pale skin and big eyes, which has nothing to do with them wanting to look Western. Ladies and gentleman of the jury, my verdict is: this young lady is 100% white-washed. Perhaps I am wrong and in the pre-modern era of Korean Kings and Queens, with nary a white person in sight, Koreans wanted moon white skin and enormous, off-kilter eyes a la Barbara Bush (or me when I am hyperthyroid). I could be wrong though. (This is why I need more Koreans in my life to educate me).
The same popular Korean influencer/YouTuber mentioned above has videos that address topics such as “Would you be attractive if you moved to Seoul?” (According to her, super pale and tiny is the idea). I was fascinated by one video I watched that addressed how Koreans believe there are five main types of faces that are categorized by animal. For a complete respite from complex human thought, here are the categories that are so oddly specific:
Dog face: you have a round face, round eyes, small, plump lips, and the end of your nose is round.The end of your eye is a bit lower. You have a weak, feminine jawline and straight, not arched brows. This look is described as more cute than sexy, “a harmonious, soft face with droopy, kind eyes.”
Cat face: you have a sharp jaw line (Koreans are supposedly obsessed with jawlines and for women, getting a V jawline not a U or other shapes); the end of your eyes tilt upwards like model Gigi Hadid. You have a long neck and a”pleasing neck line.” Your look is described as a “sexy and cold look.”
Deer face: you have big eyes not tilted up or down, a long neck, nice neckline and long eyelashes. Think Bambi.
Rabbit face: you have white skin, glowy blushy cheeks and your two front teeth are slightly bigger and forward. Similar to dog but more “cute, bouncy, girly and citrus-y.” (My brain is under assault!)
Fox face: Think desert fox, not sexy fox. You have a long eye in width, a distinct nose, a coveted v-jaw line. Described as “looks bored and does not look kind.”
Turtle face: Supposedly based on the Squirtle character from Pokemon. You have big, round eyes and a big mouth; the end of your lips tilt upwards and you look particularly cute when you smile.
(For fun, try downloading a free app called Animal Face Test. Provide an existing photo or take a new one of you and find out what animal you are. (I am apparently a deer/dog/turtle combo, something new each time).
Watching these videos made me particularly glad not to be an anxious young woman, so self-conscious about my appearance. As Chloe Kim has described, the anxieties of an Asian girl living among mostly white people can be intense. I remember being the only Asian girl at the Dalton School as a first or second grader and having a cluster of boys call me “monster nostrils” for my flat, Asian nose. Because I was inordinately sensitive, I remember holding my breath as I walked past this crew for a while, afraid if I breathed my monster nostrils would flare and be more conspicuous. I have since progressed; I don’t restrict my air flow for anyone. If you are lucky, when you see me, I may even flare my nostrils extra big for you (because, you may have missed the trend, big nostrils are hot).
I would like to console these Koreans obsessing about round eyes, v shaped jawlines and the size of their trapezoids (for large trapezoids supposedly disrupt the pretty idealized neckline) and introduce them to almost zen middle-aged path of self-acceptance. For at 48, I like my different, non Western features, my nose is so squishy and sweet if you throw a baseball at it, it would just bounce off and not break a bone. That’s a bonus! I patiently and delusionally await the day that small eyes are coveted. They can be part of the next “vibe shift.” (I hope you never hear me uttering this expression and if I do, it will we laced with irony). It’s time to flaunt your squinty, slanty eyes! Take it one step further like me and rock those progressive lens glasses so that your pupils recede into tiny pinpricks. If you don’t, before you know it, you’ll be the subject of mockery and derision! You’ll be that person stumbling out of COVID times, still wearing mascara and applying eyeliner. For shame!
But on a more serious note (I apologize for the whiplash-shift from citrus-y content to darker fare), increased Asian-American visibility has its pitfalls. It’s hard to gage how alarmed we Asian-Americans should be regarding the anti-Asian attacks. I curse myself for not paying attention to my college Statistics class and letting my brilliant partner do most of the work; now I can’t interpret any numerical data in an intelligent fashion. According to Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit organization that tracks attacks targeting AAPI community members, more than 10,000 incidents were reported from March 2020 through September 2021. San Francisco alone saw a 567% increase in hate crimes against AAPI people last year, according to data from the city’s police department, while the NYPD reported a 361% increase in anti-Asian bias incidents in 2021. Does three murders of Asian-Americans in New York City over the past two months mean true vigilance, e.g., should we learn self-defense/carry pepper spray, take buses instead of subways or learn other subway platform strategies other than the one utilized by myself and many friend already (standing behind a boulder on the platform, never surfing alone on the yellow line). Is the surge in violence against us only a surge because there was so little before? If the numbers are statistically insignificant, should I shift my worries elsewhere?
As my legal services office opens up in March and requires some in-person work, I nurse my new found phobia: subway platforms. Employers should be cognizant of this new anxiety that many of us Asian-Americans have and consider this when you tell us to come to the office during rush hour. Some of us may need some hand-holding/some accommodation. See the recent New Yorker cover by artist R. Kikuo Johnson https://www.vice.com/en/article/akd538/new-yorker-cover-asian-americans-attacks that deeply resonates with me. A masked Asian-American mom clutches her young daughter’s hand while she holds out her wrist with a watch. She’s not staring at the watch though. She’s distracted and clearly anxious for the train to come and take her away from the dreaded train platform.
As Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation noted, “if research shows that microaggressions — a term referring to everyday verbal or behavioral slights against people from marginalized backgrounds — alone can lead to long-term physical health repercussions, then it would not be far-fetched to understand repeated attacks against AAPI people as having the ability to inflict adverse physical and mental effects too.” (https://www.insider.com/nyc-chinatown-stabbing-leaves-asian-american-women-fearing-for-lives-2022-2)
That drasted video footage of the man pushing an Asian woman onto the NYC tracks is haunting material. The offender, a man in a baseball cap in the background looked so inconspicuous and calm before his quick steps forward and his violent shove. With his chill demeanor and tidy clothing, I would probably not have profiled him as someone mentally ill. (I’m sorry that I make these base assessments sometimes). These anti-Asian attacks are so upsetting on so many levels. Not only do they make us feel unsafe, they increase our bias about the mentally ill, the homeless and minorities. After an Asian-American woman Christina Yuna Lee was followed home and savagely stabbed and killed in Chinatown, NYC by a man who was was mentally ill and homeless, some Chinatown residents protested a new homeless shelter set to open in Chinatown. A homeless advocate spoke up and said more eloquently than I, that without evidence that a new shelter would increase anti Asian attacks, the residents’ opposition was just bias. As more than one journalist has noted, these anti-Asian attacks make one thing clear: we need to make meaningful changes to alleviate the problems of the mentally ill and of the homeless in New York City. I certainly hope brilliant advocates who champion the rights of the homeless like my friend Deb will be listened to by our new mayor and his administration.
To any Asian-American readers out there and our allies, Fighting!!
(*According to The Cut (a source I read but mock with some joy) this word is “an entry from a Substack called 8Ball, a weekly newsletter of a trend-forecasting consultancy founded by Sean Monahan…A vibe shift is the catchy but sort of too-cool term Monahan uses for a relatively simple idea: In the culture, sometimes things change, and a once-dominant social wavelength starts to feel dated.”)
Approaching the New Year, I note the obvious: gems, witchcraft-lite and tarot cards are ubiquitous. We are clearly looking for guidance and some assurance about our future and these things are easier to acquire and gift than sessions with a therapist. Visiting friends in the New Jersey suburbs not too long ago, I picked up an Inspiration candle at a charming witchcraft store that my friend’s teenage daughter showed us. My purchase lay dormant for months. (Maybe a surprise to the countless friends and acquaintances who have pegged me a candle person, I normally only light them for religious holiday observance). But the other night, hoping for creative energy, I lit up the above candle with its rose petals, vanilla notes and one encrusted gem to write and, voila, i wrote steadily for two hours! I’m an easy convert! (So keep those candles coming!)
But Tarot cards and their wacky, arcane explanation books are another matter. (Though I do enjoy the illustrations on tarot cards. See my own drawn Kdrama-themed tarot card. above). Tarot cards and fortune tellers remind me of the sleepy UES neighborhood on York Avenue where I lived for many years. Between a hair salon that routinely gave me an Asian bob that aged me, and a drab supermarket, was a small tarot/fortune telling store owned by a Romani couple. Their storefront had the telltale signs of failure—-dusty velour curtains and few patrons. The fortune tellers had four tween/teenage daughters who were dark-haired, lanky and otherwise unremarkable in appearance. The girls always traveled in a pack and this pack delighted in following me, a quiet 8 year old Korean-American adoptee, around the neighborhood and teasing me. (To be fair, they were generous bullies, they messed with a lot of neighborhood kids including my white friends; however, the sisters didn’t insert race for my friends so their jeers seemed more innocuous). This quartet was strangely brazen, calling out “hey eggroll!” as my mom and I entered the neighborhood’s newspaper store– somehow loud enough for me to hear, but not my mother. (It’s like they spoke to me in dog whistle and I was the dog). I don’t remember telling my mother about their taunts. I was probably ashamed how their mild, silly insults caused me disproportional distress/self-loathing. How remarkable to me now that these scrawny, low-key bullies whose most biting epithet was “egg roll” were viewed as a calamitous, powerful force in our neighborhood. For me, the sisters’ jeers were the most blatant reminder that I, a Korean girl adopted by a white, Jewish mother, did not belong. I may have hated them.
My friends and I used to call them “The Gypsy Girls” but not in their presence; even in the 1970’s, we knew it wasn’t a kind way to address them. My best friends Wendy, Maya and Zoe and I, all York Avenue kids, were not precocious–a naive, innocent lot. For amusement, we used to gather our most dilapidated, reject toys and try to sell them to strangers who walked by the corner of York Avenue and 90th street where Wendy’s high rise building stood. Quite remarkable to me as a parent now, our parents back then let us exchange money with strangers on this quiet corner at the end of a long driveway, far from any responsible adult. With great fanfare, we’d lay our toys on a blanket and sit cross legged, one of us Lord of the metal cash box filled with petty cash and coins. Surprisingly, pitying parents or dim-witted children would, on occasion, purchase our toys for pittance. On weekends that we had no toys to surrender, we made dopey, earnest greeting cards with printer paper, markers and crayons and would try to sell them. (When I say that none of us evidenced any early artistic abilities that is an understatement.). We were, indeed, an easy target for the Romani sisters. On one occasion, the oldest sister shadowed our blanket, convincingly cooed over our cards and then explained she would return with cash in an hour. We watched with pride and titillation as she scooped up a row–basically our entire inventory– of sloppy greeting cards and carefully placed them in a shopping bag. Not one of us arched a brow or raised the specter of duplicity. Instead, we waited on our blanket. One hour. Two. Possibly more. When we packed up for the day, no sister in sight, we were certain of their #1 enemy status. Notably, our mood was strangely chipper, each of us invigorated by our collective outrage.
Decades later, traveling with my husband to Rome, I gasped in a mix of revulsion and empathy at the vision of a Romani woman seated before the Vatican entrance with a one foot high tumor growing from the top of her bald head- like a real life Dr. Seuss drawing. My adult understanding of the tragic plight of the Romani made me re-evaluate the infamous York Avenue gang. Looking back at the pretty silly “epithets” the sisters hurled at me, I wonder if they were misunderstood. Were they just lonely, slightly neglected kids who wanted to be our friends and only knew the preschool method of pulling at our pigtails? The slights of childhood were surely amplified and distorted by us in echo. We never knew their names, despite our formative years in their presence, because it seemed unnecessary at the time so my current piqued curiosity cannot be satisfied. One day, they will appear in a story I write and I will give them colorful, rich trajectories.
Though I shun New Year’s resolutions when they are a silly bucket list of things to do/buy/attain, the above middling recollection reminds me that it’s good to consider the status and struggles of the “villains” before joining the masses to vilify them. (My friends and I were the ones who never learned the sisters’ names and who called them the “Gypsy girls” after all). I don’t imagine I can achieve this generous spirit all the time when people are offensive/hurtful to me but maybe more of the time is a good start in 2022. (I can’t say I associate Generosity of Spirit and the year 2021. Take the recent stabbing of Drakeo the Ruler by all accounts a skilled rapper who has been criticized for some ugly, anti-Asian lyrics. On a popular site dedicated to fighting anti Asian hate, one writer wrote how Drakeo’s lyrics may have encouraged a rash of burglaries that targeted Asian-Americans and therefore, karma got him. A rash of commenters applauded this sentiment. Ugh. We as Asian-Americans, even in in our anger at anti asian crimes and ideas, have to do better. There’s no room for us to be short-sighted and racist. It’s ruinous.
Another thing I want for 2022 is certainty, which I realize is never in the best of times possible. This ranges from the minutiae of wanting to know how many bulk KN95s, home COVID tests and paper towels makes me a detestable hoarder, to some big picture questions, i.e. when will most of us have to return to the Huis Close of office life? Listening to my employer’s Zoom meeting in which management told us staff about the return to the office policy in 2022, I remarked on what seems like a generational divide: older attorneys (mostly management with offices) who miss office life and speak of the amorphous benefits of showing up to the office and the younger generation (mostly in cubicles) who has less affection for office culture, greater comfort with Zoom and technology and a sizable fear of sardining indoors during COVID times. Though I am no longer in the younger group by age, I cheered on my mostly younger cohorts who raised concerns about the forced return to the office in early 2022. (And this Zoom happened days before Omicron’s surge).
Have I, these past two years of working remotely missed the inevitable office trifecta of carpal tunnel syndrome, curved posture and excess poundage from eating snacks all day in a seated, glossy-eyed trance? No. In fact, this past year, I started running early in the morning for the first time in decades, lost 35 lbs in a healthy manner and hopefully will keep Diabetes etc at bay. (It seems, I had not heeded the advice of a much older coworker who once saw me eating cookies at my desk and pointed at her own thighs to say “You better switch those out for carrots or this will be you”).
Nor have I longed for the sad spectacle of humans wearing headphones in small cubicles to drown out coworkers or how the smart few who used a standing desk or brought in their own aerodynamic chairs were labeled precious/demanding. I recall feeling self conscious keeping a yoga mat in a visible corner of my shared office as if it was something subversive/akin to George Costanza sleeping beneath his desk. I certainly hope more employers amp up their concern and resources for employee health, both physical and mental. Now’s the time.
How can we ring in 2022? For me and my family, it’ll be a quiet New Year’s. Watching a new Kdrama, the Red Sleeve set in the Joseon era, I was taken by a scene in which the royal court lady who is smitten for the young king learns of a plot against him as she’s taking a walk in the woods; in lickety-split time, she constructs a signal kite to warn her man of imminent attack. (She puts me and most crafters to shame. How did she gather glue/double sided tape, perfect bamboo sticks, strong paper, ink and string?) This scene certainly educated me about kites as I had thought they were simply the maddening toys that unhinge me; see me violently pulling kite string off of tree branches in Central park as my child paces. Indeed, kites have been used in warfare to convey military directions and issue warnings in many countries including China and Korea. As someone who still laments the end of snail mail, the idea of communicating with kites appeals to me. Only instead of warning a king of pending ambush, send a kite in the air to signal more mundane things, i.e. “Danger: tourist bus of anti vaxxers headed your way” or “Save me from this group of boring, self involved parents!” You get my drift.
I attempted to make one of these modern signal kites tonight but I failed. (See below for my fiasco). Hope this kite isn’t symbolic for my year ahead! Happy New Year’s! Be safe, healthy and generous in spirit (when possible)!!
I’ve a newfound respect for my mother for raising me with any semblance of tradition; it turns out, for many of us, it’s not easy to make the considerable effort to celebrate holidays and create family traditions. But Poppy made it look so easy in Trolls Holiday (a Netflix film most of you may have passed over in which Poppy raps a list of holidays to share with those less well-versed in tradition–Queen Bridget and King Gristle). I’m like Bridget, a tad receptive to suggested traditions and my husband is King Gristle, angrily wiping Poppy’s glitter (from her pop up holiday cards) out of his eyes. In theory, I like traditions. I fondly remember lighting Friday night candles with Grandma Libby and Grandpa Ben when I used to visit them in Ohio as a child. For more than a decade, my husband, kids and I, voluntarily flew to Cleveland, sometimes in blizzards, to share Thanksgiving with my mother and our beloved family friends; they offered us what we could not emulate at home—a motley, lively collection of people in conversation, a mind-bending collection of perfectly baked pies/stuffings and lazy, post-gorge hours on a cozy couch watching football in periphery–uniquely satisfied. I, to this day, can get behind a rollicking Passover Sedar with its charming, idiosyncratic moments, i.e, filling a cup for a phantom Elijah and dipping a pinky into red wine for each of the Ten Plagues. But when I’ve tried to light Friday night candles for even two consecutive weeks, I’m at a loss. That takes some coordination, namely, a sure supply of the right candles and a utopian dedication to having us all in the same place at the same time.
That’s why recently, confronting my son’s high school applications, I was flummoxed to discover the following question for prospective parents: “Please describe your family traditions.” I thought, what kind of sanctimonious rot is this? Is there a place for bald honesty in these applications? Can I say we head of household are feckless and tradition-averse, the kind who decide every year which holidays to celebrate and which ones go on the chopping block. Can I tell them how we have lots of good intentions as a family–my kids, clearly hungry for tradition– often suggesting holidays for us to celebrate, i.e. Hamilton Day, Neuro-diversity Day, Yes Day, Korean Peppero candy day(a real holiday in Korea I read), Misty Copeland Day, Steven Universe Day and most recently Squid Games Day, but we parents lack follow-through. COVID, for many of us, has been the death knoll for family holidays. It’s turned us all into hermits who shun parties and travel. Many of us will not sit at a long table with a bevy of relatives as we used to. See my own family of four at our table this Thanksgiving–no leaf to extend the table necessary as we sliced a runt turkey and quietly appreciated our prim spread. My next hurdle—-how to celebrate the approaching Korean New Year’s in a safe way. Will I use my building’s unfinished, certainly code-violating roof and make guests bundle up in January for Korean food and our cash-grabbing tradition? (If you happen to see a flock of dollar bills in the sky that day, you will know from whence they came). Then of course there’s the planning and preparation for my son’s late-in-the-game bar mitzvah–a daunting task as he’s never gone to Hebrew School and therefore, needs a Cliff Notes Jewish education; further, my husband and I find organized religion to be stifling and dull and my head spins as I consider planning an exuberant, uniquely creative (but Covid-safe) celebration so that my son knows how much he is loved and admired by us (though I think he knows that already).
Other than worrying what a derelict parent I am, this holiday season, I have been a masterful slug, forsaking evening writing time for television (You, White Lotus, Succession and infinite Kdramas) and the occasional sketch. Last night, I got a real kick out of the Kendall birthday episode of Succession, in particular the scene where Kendall forbids his siblings from entering the luxe treehouse he ordered for his disastrous birthday party. (In the words of Korean rapper Audrey Nuna, Damn Right!) This funny scene made me think very end-of-the-year/New Year’s resolution thoughts, such as whom would I want in my hypothetical treehouse and whom would I ban? (Though at this stage of my life, I mostly surround myself by people I like, there is always room for some adjustments!). I loved the scene because Kendall is such a man-child , which sometimes makes him profoundly unlikable but in this one moment, I wanted to give him a maternal squeeze and applaud him for preserving the sanctity of his stunning treehouse. One of the only nice things about these past two years of COVID instability and mayhem is that there’s been for most of us, a real paring down of our social worlds; only the closest friends have risen to the surface. Be gone Shivs and Romans! (Though Roman is a hoot, he would suck as a relative). How I wasted my youth on some friends who made me feel like doo, i.e. the college friend who used to call me “Sooms” short for my middle name Sumi uninvited, in order to say things like “Oh Sooms, late again?” or to otherwise mock my sometimes spacey/ADHD ways. (Note: Don’t call me Sooms, unless you ask me please. PTSD!) Let’s get rid or at least distance ourselves from people who roast us but never say things that make us feel good and boot out those who say abusive things to us (even if sporadically and under stress), never apologize and make us feel complicit when we are not at fault.
For 2022, readers, stand guard at the door of your treehouse and turn away those who erode your self-worth because IT’S YOUR DAMN TREEHOUSE! (I hope that’s the most New Age-y thing I ever write on this blog). Happy New Year!!
I am not alone in my obsession with class warfare, i.e, gobbling up anything involving the French Revolution and enjoying shows that vilify the wealthy such as Succession and Squid Game. One can’t escape the theme of class conflict in popular culture. During a recent car ride, a friend introduced me to the only podcast that has drawn me in to date, You’re Wrong About. My favorite episode (so far), ably lead by the two millennial hosts, dispelled many myths about Marie Antoinette and had me chortling loudly, thanks to the witty banter of the hosts and their funny, far-reaching references. I’d known that Marie Antoinette never said “Let them Eat Cake, ” but hadn’t realized that the Queen had written warm journal entries about the poor and had a sympathetic habit of taking in poor children and paying for their education. Perhaps most interesting to me was learning that she affected the trappings of the peasantry- dressing as a provincial milk maid and roughing it in an elaborate hameau (hamlet)she built at Versailles. I am reminded of how my friend and college roommate wrote her senior thesis on how French society, French artists like Millet and Courbet romanticized the life of French peasants. (Pardon me J, if I’ve butchered your thesis).
We all know that folks have been stealing the look of less privileged groups in order to appear more “edgy” for some time (e.g., Carrie Bradshaw’s gold name necklace taken from Black urban fashion, is one example my friend Michelle recently mentioned), but I was surprised this cringe-y behavior went as far back as the 18th century. If Marie Antoinette was around today, she would surely sport a necklace of her name in big gold letters.
I learned from the same podcast mentioned above that some French royals even kept a “hermit” on their estate who would get free housing in order to play the role of a wise recluse. (Kudos to the clever podcast hosts who made reference to Kato Calin!). A quick internet search about royally-sponsored hermits in pre-revolutionary France, lead me to an article about the worst jobs in history; with an admitted measure of ignorance on this topic, as an introvert and an employment attorney who hears about a host of difficult jobs, the estate hermit gig doesn’t sound so bad! (I realize, I am being an ass to make light of this; I assume, in reality, this job was probably one of servitude and degradation).
It’s probably not original to write that the hermits of yesteryear and modern day building superintendents are similar because both of them are provided a place to live rent free but are paid little to no wages on top. When I was a young adult, I joked with my husband, that I should be a building super because of the free apartment most supers get, which would make NYC almost affordable. (I thought this remembering I had a childhood friend whose father was the building super of a Fifth avenue doorman building and they had a large, luxurious apartment with a wrap around terrace). The idea of me as a building super is preposterous because I comically struggle to open the locks on my own pre-war apartment door to let guests in and out so the idea of installing large air conditioners in tenants’ windows is alarming. (For the pedestrians below, they would get a lot more than pennies from Heaven!) My romanticization of the building super job ended when I started practicing employment law and met many superintendents who were exempt from getting overtime pay under New York law and whom are typically on call 24/7. Of course, most do not get spacious abodes with wrap around terraces (more like code-violating basement apartments that are rife with mold/vermin or other niceties).
The belief that there’s something edgy or romantic about poverty is tiresome. It’s never been noble or beautiful. As a child, I went to a roster of private schools mostly on scholarship (Dalton for five years, Ethical Culture, Riverdale, Hewitt and Trinity for high school), which used to embarrass me and now gives me a strange, unique status among some parents I meet. Though I’m grateful to each of these schools for taking in this ruffian and educating me well, I sometimes wonder if being low income at some of the most privileged schools “crushed my soul.” What an oddity I was at these fine institutions with kids who shopped on Madison Avenue with their parents credit cards, skied at Vail and juggled multiple homes. Mom and I had trouble holding onto one home. I’ve memories of our geriatric landlords, a Polish married couple, who serenaded us with blistering, potty-mouthed messages on our answering machine when rent was overdue and memories of a Brazilian lady landlord named Pilar rapping at our door and yelling in Spanish for overdue rent when we rented an apartment in Tudor City. (This caused me a panic attack–I ran down the 12 flights of stairs, yelling all the way to the lobby). Then there was the time, mom fell behind on rent while we lived at the Hotel Olcott, a hotel in the West 70’s and we had to sneak past the front desk to get in and out to avoid questioning. (At the time, there was a young bellhop who liked me, which helped because he used to hide mom and I behind his trolley of suitcases from time to time.) It was that year, I had some agoraphobia-sometimes too scared to take a walk down Columbus Avenue with my mom. Other times, we stayed with mom’s friends/acquaintances; I fondly remember one such acquaintance who was severely depressed but let us stay in her spacious Fifth Avenue apartment for a modest rent; she rarely left the apartment and wallowed in one uniform: wrinkled blue silk pajamas with peacocks printed on them and if memory serves, complimentary blue kohl eternally smudged around her eyes. I remember that she pulled herself together one night to make my mother a delicious Russian chicken dish with cheese inside (Kiev?) for mom’s birthday and that she never made us feel like unwanted guests. I hope you’re well, lady, wherever you are.
I never thought of myself as homeless when I was a kid. For the homeless were the families with whom mom worked as a social worker at the Prince George Welfare hotel in downtown Manhattan. I spent hours waiting around for her to be done with her work inside the Ballroom–a breathtaking, high ceilinged room, crammed with homeless families who needed social work and other services. I met many people whom I easily distinguished from myself. Noone looked like me and few looked like mom, a white woman. The kids were generally not going to the best schools in the city and were not friends with the city’s most privileged. But I felt strangely comfortable at the hotel with its once grand lobby that smelled of urine and its solid marble floors now cracked and soiled. I felt kinship with some of the families, in particular a former military family who had wound up at the hotel. When I wrote a short story about this family in the the tenth grade, my mom and i were in and out of homelessness–though I never acknowledged it. How my beloved Trinity English teacher lavished me with praise–surprised that I had inhabited the life of a homeless boy so convincingly. (To this day, I like writing as a male narrator as it feels more anonymous and separate from my own life). I enjoyed the compliments and never told my teacher about my secret life.
I was grateful for the stability offered by most of these schools. Some of them dealt with scholarship kids in better ways than others. At Hewitt School for girls that I generally liked, the problem lay with Ms. Buck, the chubby, reviled (at least by me) Southern headmistress. I remember her jowly face, dowdy attire and her odd method of quieting a room of tween girls— clapping a pattern with her hands and demanding we copy her. One day, she pulled me out of class and explained my mother had not paid the tuition so I would have to leave the school until she paid. I vividly remember the shame of sitting on a very visible bench waiting to be plucked from a school I had grown fond of and how I had to tuck my chin in tight so no one could see my tears. Other schools handled our financial travails with more grace. During my junior year at Trinity, my mom lost her job and couldn’t pay tuition. Mom told Trinity we had to leave but they protested and noted it was time to apply to colleges. Then, in what can only be called Herculean effort, Trinity quickly found an anonymous board member to not only pay my tuition but pay our rent at the James Tower, a nice rental a block away from school. They told mom they took action because I was a talented writer and they had empathy for our plight. A human response I will never forget.
My recent observation of a heated altercation at the UWS Shakespeare and Company bookstore between a mask denier/protester and bookstore staff, affirmed my fear that our country is headed toward virulent class warfare. We are indeed not a far cry from pre-revolutionary France as shown by Trump’s followers climbing the walls of Congress to attack. I imagine we will soon give China a run for their money when it comes to class divide. Years ago I remember reading about a spate of hit and run incidents in China, often involving rich young Chinese youth running over rural Chinese people on the street; one story involved a couple who accidently hit a rural man with their car and though the man somehow survived, the couple was caught on camera, rolling over his body to finish the job. I read a memorable story of a wealthy teenager who killed a rural laborer with his sports car and fled the scene, only to be witnessed a few hours after, smoking and laughing on the hood of his car with a group of friends. At the time, I thought to myself, how savage and cruel they were and, perhaps ignorantly, how different from Americans. But we are clearly not so different. (See all the Black Americans that we’ve let be shot/choked by police officers for so long. See the way we bystand the violence and poverty in many minority neighborhoods. See how some of the most privileged New Yorkers at elite private schools leave in a hysteric rage when asked to address diversity in the classroom. Feast your eyes on the embarrassing spectacle of wealthy Manhattanites litigating to kick homeless people out of their neighborhoods. Even in the most “liberal” bastions like the UWS, privileged public school parents rise in anger when public school policy changes to allow broader access to good schools).
It is no wonder, the #1 show on Netflix is Squid Game, a Korean drama that I miraculously stomached and liked, despite some gory scenes and spurts of jarring violence. It is a show that captures the zeitgeist-the wealthy, masked barons betting on which of the 456 desperate, debt ridden game players will survive a series of children’s games where losers are killed in violent and unique ways and the winner gets more than 40 million dollars. In the manner of any good Korean drama, the writers give us a lot of back story for the main character, Number 456; he’s a disheveled, divorced father who lives with his mother, gambles away all the money meant for his young daughter ‘s birthday present and gives her the least appropriate gift possible- a large cigarette lighter shaped like a realistic hand gun. The show’s premise that there are rich people so villainous they view the poor as entirely disposable pawns and that there are swaths of society whom would overlook the high possibility of certain death to pursue the minuscule chance of winning a huge jackpot, is strangely and tragically believable.
Hearing me wax poetic about the show, my clever friend Rachel suggested I make myself a Squid Game birthday party outdoors so that is what I am doing. This week, my free moments will be spent trying to make delicate Ppopgi (Dalgona/ honeycomb candy, which is basically sugar plus baking soda on the stovetop) without burning down my kitchen, getting large, long ropes for a group tug o war ( for I eagerly wish to test the different strategies of tug o war that 001, the old man and others teach us in the show), buying mass amounts of marbles, trying to figure how in the world I will emulate the glass bridge game, learn the rules of Squid Game (which may be too rough a game for young kids) and plan a Korean menu that can be easily carted to Central Park. ( I may deeply regret the challenge I’ve taken upon myself to do this for 20 plus guests during high school application season).
See the below recipe for Ppopgi (Dalgona/Honeycomb candy) as found online. The fun game involving this treat involves players having ten minutes to pop out the cookie-cutter imprinted shape inside the candy without breaking it, which is surprisingly difficult because the candy is brittle. You get a needle but other methods can be used such as licking the candy until the shape pops out. (I’m imagining we party goers in the park looking insane as we lick the large, flat candies for 10 minutes). https://www.aol.com/dalgona-candy-netflix-squid-game-134200709.htm
With all I’ve given you to fret about, please make some of this sweet candy and relax!!
Today, I woke my teen son by holding the below draft of a life-sized doll up to my own face and doing a jig before his full length mirror. It garnered a smile so perhaps my Natsumi doll will be the bad cop to my good, and I’ll bring her out to deliver any unwelcome news/herald my son with nagging reminders for the day. In our home, monster-like dolls are the natural consequence of living with an ADHD parent who is overflowing with odd impulses to make things. Life can indeed be joyous and full of madcap adventures when you have ADHD or, in my son’s case, have a parent with it. (I have elsewhere written about the considerable drawbacks of said parentage, i.e, believing your mother has typed Daniel Moynihan train station into the Uber app to catch a train but discovering too late that she’s, in fact, selected the Daniel Moynihan courthouse, located miles away. Curses to those responsible for naming two nyc landmarks after the same man!(Relatedly, curses to the imp who decided to name one New Jersey train station, Penn Station! Some ADHR-er has surely fallen prey to this trap)
These past two weeks, I’ve noticed a marked withering of my pre-frontal cortex (the brain’s center of imaginative thought), no doubt explained by my scheduled monthly detox from Vyvanse. During my Vyvanse break, which seems necessary because there’s a study showing that long term use can lead to cognitive defects, I am impotent, seemingly only capable of tapping at my keyboard, deleting my words and bitch-slapping myself for wasting precious evening time. How I pine for the sensations the drug gives me–the heat of a tightly wound brain and its steady beam of creative thought (instead of the usual strobe lights inside my head). As Nick Cave, an artist/musician I admire, has said, creativity is a battle, not something passive where ideas just fall on you as you sit comfy on a cushion; he’s spot on; after a night of writer’s block, I feel angry and depleted.
I didn’t grow up surrounded by creative people so they hold an undeniable mystique. My mother is a child therapist who likes to read non-fiction mostly and discuss politics 24/7. She can’t draw, play an instrument, dance, write stories or do crafty things, which admittedly disappoints me. (But she has other strengths, xoxo). Her greatest fear is that one day I will give up my law job and become a mealy, dependent writer or artist. If I tell her, even now, that I am spending my evening drawing paper dolls of Koreans or sewing dolls, she grunts “whatever happened to reading?” In the past, when I’ve expressed regret at not doing something with my writing other than draft demand letters to derelict employers she will tell me the same story about her best friend’s daughter who works at a major publishing house but has almost lost her job once or twice, even at her high level. Her anti-Arts stance can lead to ridiculous show downs on occasion, i.e, the time not that long ago that I bomb-texted her 50 drawings I had done to see if she’d make one comment. (She ignored them). I am such a child still.
When I first married my husband, I was intrigued by his extended family who lived in a place that seemed about as exotic as it gets–Winnipeg, Canada (“the coldest big city in North America” my husband likes to tell people). Uncle George, a cheerful, winking man with a thick Hungarian accent impressed me with his frenetic presence and diverse skills. His basement was his idea hub where you might find him expertly sewing fabric bags to sell, bending his own metal keychains and/or fashioning a unique large yurt in his backyard for bug-free outdoor dining. At the time I thought, what a zany, outside of the box character like Belle’s harried inventor father in Beauty in the Beast. Decades later, tinkering around my quiet apartment as my family dozes, I realize the only things distinguishing George and I are age, gender, ethnicity and a spacious carpeted basement. I like to imagine that somewhere in the dark recesses of Korea, there’s a black haired, almond-eyed version of George who shares my DNA. If we are truly kin, he’s wearing dweeby goggles, carrying a blow torch and looking a touch touched by creative impulse.
I’ve spent a large chunk of my life trying to find my “people”–first by going to Seoul before I had children to meet my foster family who took care of me when I was a baby and more recently spitting into a vial for Ancestry.com. Ancestry let me down. Where I had imagined connecting with a herd of creative, quirky Korean birth relatives, I found nothing but a list of possible fourth cousins who live in Korea and the big reveal–I’m 100% Korean. Excuse me Ancestry? This is the best my $70 can do? My hair is like EXTRA wavy for a straight-out Korean. (See the photo of me as a little girl below. No perm involved!). I’m obvi proud of being Korean but throw one Translyvania or something into the mix. I’m nothing but an homogeneous sack! And more disappointingly, fourth cousins?!! You, my reader, are probably a fourth cousin!
The other ways I’ve tried to find my people is through enrolling in countless writers workshops, creating play-reading club or, least fruitfully, every very few years creating a Facebook/Meet up group for creative writing/art making that often heeds no responses or incites a lone stranger to share a killer-clown short story with me that FREAKS ME OUT.
Last year, my son found me a Facebook group for ADHDers; I sometimes read their posts and wonder: are these truly my people? (it’s hard for me not to be reminded of the classic children’s book Are you My Mother? See a cartoon image of myself wandering from a group of ADHD people, Korean people, Jewish people et al and asking them “Are you my People?). The question of creativity and its tie with ADHD is often discussed in this ADHD Facebook group as well as the pros and cons of taking drugs like Vyvanse. For those of us loving the creative focus Vyvanse brings, we wonder are there natural, less invasive cures for writers/creativity block that will not leave us addled seniors one day? What leads to creativity in general?
Picasso supposedly once said “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” The surge in arts and crafts during COVID lock downs/quarantine certainly suggests this is true. Boredom does, indeed, bring creativity. I remember a month that my mother and I had to lived in the Sheraton hotel in the West 50’s of Manhattan when I was a young kid, thanks to the generosity of a wealthy distant cousin who paid our tab during a time of need. My mother, a child therapist, would on occasion see a patient in one room while I hid in the bathroom and played in the empty bathtub. In the days before iphones and ipads, I was left to my own devices–a few colored pencils, a roll of tape and a few sheets of paper. It is in that tub that I completed over a few weeks a fleet of standing 3-D horse figurines with my limited supplies, toilet paper (to stuff them) and found pennies for their hooves that allowed them to stand. (My mother still has these figurines in a closet and they are remarkably in tact). But when I’m in a creative rut, how can I emulate this very specific scenario that encouraged me to not only be creative but complete a long term project–two great feats for someone with ADHD.
It is a known fact that isolation and removing oneself from one’s daily obligations/surroundings is helpful for creativity. See all the writer’s retreats/colonies that seek to draw artists and writers into the quiet of nature. (MetroNorth certainly agrees with the boredom theory of creativity as they have or used to have a great sounding writer’s fellowship where they’d pay you to take long train rides and write). However, this kind of get away to the sticks is rarely possible for me as a parent of two and a part time attorney etc. The closest thing I can probably achieve is writing in a quiet room of my apartment after the kids are asleep but that’s a poor substitute for being barricaded in a hotel bathroom! (My “quiet” room contains a t.v, drawers of art supplies, two baskets of fabric and is for me, anything but boring). I once briefly considered buying a Freewrite machine, that is basically an overpriced mini typewriter that has no ability to connect to internet, thereby ensuring “boredom” but more than one person marveled that I would blow money this way). But I am grateful I have a closet of a room in which to hide.
I recently turned to Netflix’s The Creative Brain, a one-hour show about how to spark creativity, hoping to gain some insights. Enter the show’s host, Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, who tells us that humans have evolved so that we have a large space between the part of the brain that receives input and the part responsible for output. He explains that humans unlike let’s say dogs, can see food and not just eat it but can react to it by drawing it or using it to make sculptures etc.(Clearly, this Dr. hasn’t seen that elephant that paints masterpieces with its trunk and a brush). Unfortunately for you and and I, Dr. Eagleman is a pretty lazy, “basic” interviewer; he landed an impressive roster of guests (e.g., musicians Grimes, Nick Cave, Robert Glasper, author Michael Chabon, architects, scientists, animators, etc) and fails to ask them questions pertinent to my life! For example, Mr. Cave throws our host a morsel, saying that creativity is a battle, but does the brain doctor host do the requisite follow up? (e.g., ask “do you ever have periods of inactivity and what’s your war plan?”). No, he does not. Dear man, don’t you want to know how Nick Cave steels himself against rejection? How does he balance mundane life tasks/obligations with his art making? What does he snack on/wear/listen to while he creates? How did he jump from music to making his gorgeous fabric sculptures? Did his family encourage the Arts or did he have to ignore their rantings of disapproval?
The best part of the show was seeing the “idea generator” that animator Phil Tippet shows off—scrapbooks with photos of objects he collected over the years, which elicit different feelings in him and inspire him to make monsters and other creatures for film. (Several other artists interviewed agreed that surrounding oneself with a broad array of stimuli-smells, textures, visuals, sounds–was good for creativity). I shall devote myself to making scrapbooks for each of my creative projects. Increase my inputs to increase my output!
At some point, Grimes opines that we must force ourselves to do things that feel wrong/makes us feel badly/uncomfortable in order to heighten our creativity. She’s surely not ADHD, because our kind tend to have a poor ability to stick with activities that are hard. Hark back to my sewing class in the garment district years ago where I quit after a grueling day one; wrestling with thread, that wicked bobbin and a spray of tiny pins left me mad, mad, mad.(My sad, lopsided, elastic-waist skirt wound up in a city garbage bin).
The show’s concluding tip that one must not be afraid of rejection, made me snort in derision. Fear of rejection is my life mantra. It probably makes sense that I became an attorney because it’s not full of the same overt rejection one faces in the Arts. Certainly my self esteem has always been paltry, which makes rejection hard to overcome. My therapist often reads my posts and uses them to springboard our conversations. She believes that the key to unlocking my writer’s block is to learn to accept and like myself more. What an interesting theory!
Her theory does not work for Oliver Rousteing of the Netflix documentary Wonder Boy, for the young creative director of Balmain fashion house, an adoptee himself, appears focused and uber creative and capable of creating gorgeous, feted collections season after season despite his admission that he has trouble loving himself. As an adoptee, I watched particularly riveted as the film shows us this talented, successful young man surrounded by glamorous “friends” like Jennifer Lopez . How pre-maturely self-assured he seemed. Soon, this facade drops and we see he’s awfully lonely and unsettled despite the accolades and accomplishments. We learn, straight from him, that his self-esteem is tenuous. In scenes where he speaks about his search for his birth mother, the main plot of the film, he says (not exact quotes):”When you don’t know anything about your past, it’s hard to love yourself.” So he’s an example of someone with low self esteem who is a fountain of creative ideas. (But I still like my therapist’s hypothesis and hope she’s right that the more I accept myself, the more I’ll be able to finish my projects).
Watching Olivier, all restless limbs, finally review his adoption file after some hurdles, I related to his anxiety. In my twenties, I had the same chance to view a glimpse of my mysterious history–seated with a social worker in a small room at the Spence Chapin adoption agency in nyc. I’ll never forget the moment I opened my folder file and read the faded typewritten words (over and over); in my Korean foster mother’s (translated) words: “Soomee is shy, scared of men and does not like to share her rice.” One pretty adorable sentence that distilled my essence. Fourteen words to unpack in therapy and ponder endlessly. A gasp of information that made me feel sad and happy at the same time. (I was shy so much of my life, including around men and I do love my carbs!)
Wish me luck in this lifetime battle to be creative. I wish you an arsenal of tools in this war that must be waged! xoxo
In-sa (인싸) is a Korean slang word used to describe an insider or a cool kid who is immersed in pop culture/culture in general
Someone who is a moon-jin is the exact opposite of an in-sa. A moon-jin person can’t keep up with pop culture and current trends.
As this blog pretty much began with a silly quiz (“Vixen v. Clown”), I thought I’d lavish you with another mindless one. My kids and I are proven fans of all self-evaluative quizzes; see my son and I taking the Myers/Briggs and the Implicit Bias tests online and my six year old and I tackling the less intense “Which character from Boys over Flowers are you?” variety. My caveat is I cannot tell if these slang words are meant for young people only or whether they are used more generally. Further, it was hard for me to create these questions as I’m probably hovering very close to the moon-jin line. I have only once in my life felt like an “insider” and that was the time I took a toy design class in my thirties at FIT with a bunch of college students and a very fashion-forward young one accosted me after class and said he coveted the oversized army green canvas bag in which I carried my odd toy designs(not realizing my Filson was more than just a functional bag.) In my middle age, I am a typical head-in-the-sand mother who gets my pop culture morsels from my friend Michelle, my kids and random sites about Korea. Therefore, there is a sound assumption that these questions I’ve compiled from various sources, bear little relation to whether you are truly an in-sa or a moon-jin but nonetheless, carry on my patient, good sport-readers! Special thanks to my friend Jen who helped me with this quiz because she is a certifiable moon-jin.
Take comfort that you most likely will outscore those like my husband who was faithful to his Blackberry until a year ago, despite the fact the company had folded and his phone rejected all modern day application. For fun, I like to ask him questions that most Americans can answer. (Most recently, he blinked rapidly, evidencing some recognition when I asked him if he knew the name Olivia Rodrigo, but he was ultimately unable to specify why she was famous). For real!! Maybe because of him, I have a soft spot for people who are even more entirely in the dark about pop culture than I am. See the likeable high school character Fabiola Torres in the Netflix show Never Have I Ever whose friends tease her for her ignorance of anything her generation prizes.
Quiz: (Pick the best answer. It might not necessarily be the only possible answer!)
1)Perfume Genius is:
A) a novel about a murderer attracted to fragrance
B) slang for a good smelling person
C) a musician
D) an organic perfume store in the LES
E) a rare orchid
2) The most current popular recipe on TikTok:
A) cloud bread
B) pasta chips
C) Dalgona coffee
D) frog bread
E) None. TikTok is all about dancing.
3) Discord is:
A)the opposite of harmony
B) an app
C) an indie record label
D) a popular board game or a video game
E) Something related to Bitcoins
F) none of the above. You can’t fool me.
“4) What is the “Keanaissance”?
A) Forget this silly question. One free point for you.
5)What is trending in fashion for Fall 2021?
A) all things Eskimo
B) neon colors
C) vests for women and men
D) all of the above.
6) This star is a rising star but is a hair less current than the others:
A) Daisy Edgar Jones
C) Dua Saleh
E) Shira Haas
F) Han Ye-Ri
7) R.I.P, in teen slang means:
A) Rest In Peace.
C) No regrets
D) None of the above
E) All of the above
8) Homer is:
A) the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Duh. Or Bart Simpson‘s dad.
B) a controversial tracking app
C) a NYC Jewelry store owned by a famous musician
D) a mini drone introduced on Shark Tank.
E) all of the above
9) Anticipated series/show of 2021:
A) Gossip Girl reboot
E) All of the above
10) Something formerly trendy that the Fashion Powers that Be say you should bury now:
A) comfort wear/track suits/loose tops
B) tube tops
C) miniature bags
D) high waisted loose jeans
E) All of these
11) Thing(s) (other than COVID variants) to worry about:
A) a meteor possibly colliding with earth
B) Asian Murder Hornets recently found in California (Whaa? We Asians cannot survive another disadvantageous association!!)
C) the discovery of possible new planets with life (and with life comes aliens and extraterrestrial hegemony of course).
D) None of these
E) All of these
12) Not a recent fitness fad:
A) Eye yoga
B) goat yoga
C) Blood flow restriction training
E) All of the above
13) Which 2 below are NOT trending COVID-era hobbies:
B) candle making
C) pickle making
E) blow torching
14) Which one is NOT a much-anticipated collaboration:
A) Mountain Dew and Cheetos (Cheetos flavored Mountain Dew)
B) Jelly belly candy company and Reebok–for sneakers
C) Meghan the Stallion and BTS
D) Wierd Al Yankovic and Phoebe Bridgers
E) Ted Cruz and AOC
15) Name which celebrity duo is NOT a new 2021 couple? (Thank you Jen for telling me these options)
A) Olivia Wilde and Harry Styles
B) Kanye West and Irina Shanyk
C) Zoe Kravitz and Channing Tatum
D) St. Vincent and Cara Delevigne
16) Which of the below destinations has already open to the public?
A) China’s UCCA Dune Museum
B) The Munch museum in Oslo, Norway
C) Studio Ghilbi, Japan
D) All of the above
17) Who is not an-of-the-moment rapper?
A) Lil Uzi Vert
B) Doja Cat
D) Tyler the Creator
18) The following is not a current trend/phenomenon:
A) women going bra-less
B)no or low shower frequency among celebrities
C) eyelash removal
19) Which is not a real fad diet?
A) Intermittent fasting
B) The Mediterranean diet
C) The British Bangers and mash diet
D) Paleo diet
E) None of these are fake.made-up fad diets.
20) Which celebrity(ies) suffered a large drop in popularity recently?
A) Chrissy Teigen
C) Armie Hammer, the Cannibal
D) All of them
E) Just B and C
21) What was not a trendy cocktail this year:
C )Salty Dog
22) Who is Matt James?
A) A baseball player
B) winner of NYC 2021 triathalon
C) The Bachelor
D) a California sculptor
23) What does “TFW” stand for?
A) That Feel When
B) Thanks for Waiting
C) Thick for Winter (a compliment as in “That girl is TFW.”
For each correct answer, get 1 point
D and E
A 0-9 points-–An exemplary moon-jin! Team Fabiola or Team My Husband. Your head is in the clouds when it comes to pop culture and you like it that way. You’re an adorable hermit!
10-16 points-–You are probably in my league. Best not prance around the UWS wearing thin the Perfume Genius baseball cap you purchased online (not at an actual live concert) because you’ll look ridiculous. (Sorry I’m digressing to my own life and how my son likes to tease me when I wear said baseball cap. But I do like this man’s music.)
17 and up–You are a full fledged “in-sa”! Surely you lack a livelihood/any societal obligations; with all your absorption of pop culture, it’s a wonder you can perform your ADL’s (Activities of Daily Living, i.e., eating and sleeping! You are a true culture-hound!
You may have noticed similar signage around the city affirming Asian identity. I certainly have. Each sign takes me out of the moment I’m in and leaves me a tad flummoxed and giggly. I mean, it’s weird having been Asian my whole life without fanfare, to suddenly be so aggressively celebrated! I have to wonder if my ambivalent reaction to this attention is somewhat akin to the way my Black friend A feels when she’s sitting at work and is flooded with diversity work emails. (She’s complained to me that these well-intentioned emails are distracting and somewhat irritating to her). What a novel moment in history! Of course, because I am by nature a worrier, I fret that all this positive attention means we Asians are being over-hyped and given exaggerated accolades because it’s trendy. For someone not subject to said hyped up accolades, or really any accolades, I realize it’s a silly worry. But apparently this is not an original thought. See the recent interview of lauded Korean-American writer,musician Michelle Zaunner in which the interviewer asks her if she’s worried that she’s getting undue attention because Asians are big now.
Believe me, I am happy to see Jay Leno out of his own guilt, apologize for his past racist Asian jokes and to see Sandra Oh (a Korean-Canadian actress I only started to fully appreciate watching Killing Eve) convincingly play the Chair of a moldy English Department in Netflix’s The Chair. I appreciate that Ms. Oh plays women who are not just pretty bangles on someone’s arm/deranged sexpots but are fully formed, complex characters who are Korean PLUS. I also appreciate this moment in which the chances of me reading a contemporary childrens’ book to my six year old and needing to skirt flagrantly racist tropes is more slim than in the past; I recently encountered the perils of reading a classic from the early 1970’s, Charlie and The Great Glass Elevator, the sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, to my daughter. Though I’d once read somewhere that Mr. Dahl was anti Semetic (I’m Jewish and Korean-American so I took note), I’d not heard that he was anti Asian. (So there goes the baby AND the bathwater).
Reading the following passage in which the U.S. President is about to call the Prime Minister of China from space, I grimaced:
“It is very difficult to phone people In China, Mr. President,” said the Postmaster General. “The country’s so full of Wings and Wongs, every time you wing you get the wrong number.”
or a few sentences later: The President picked up the receiver.
“Greetings, honorable Mr. President,” said a soft faraway voice. “Here is Assistant-Premier Chu-On-Dat speaking. How can I do for you?”
:”Knock-knock,” said the President.
“Ginger yourself much when you fell of the Great Wall of China?” asked the President…
Needless to say, my kid and I ended our bedtime read mid-chapter as I briefly explained to her, that it was written a while ago (1972) when people were possibly more openly racist. As someone uncertain about the extent I’m obligated to disavow cultural icons/masterpieces when their creator offends, I, yessireee Bob, whole-heartedly lost my desire to read the book and wanted nothing more than to pluck out its pages.
So yes, I know my family and I are better off today than the early 1970’s and the subsequent decades of Jay Leno’s comedic reign of terror against Asians and others, but when I sit at my keyboard and review things people have said to me in more recent decades, it makes me wonder if these posters are enough to combat anti-Asian racism. I’ll never forget the Christmas 2000 dinner I endured at a family friend’s home in an affluent suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. I sat next to the family’s son, a chatty college student who asked me where I was born and when I told him he looked at me so earnestly and said “Oh, the only Koreans I know are the hookers at the whorehouse across from my dorm.” Fa-la-la-la la, Indeed.
I could go through each year of my life with such examples as could all Asian-Americans. But I’d rather head towards 2022 proud of being Korean-American (albeit uncertain about my authenticity as a Korean) and show my late-in-life, burgeoning pride through this blog. I plan to continue to interview “interesting” Asians (particularly Korean-Americans/Koreans) in all their glory as well as continuing my spastic mix of posts that reflect my ADHD state of mind/current obsessions. (Oh and I hope Christmas guy somehow takes a gander at my blog one day. The bevy of diverse Koreans will BLOW HIS MIND!)
Thank you for reading this blog. After decades of writers block and lame sporadic creativity (e.g., the wacky, unmarketable toy ideas I came up in a FIT toy design class), I’m writing/making things most days now. It’s been an unexpected joy to connect with friends, family, acquaintances and even strangers from over 35 countries during a time when many of us are so isolated from loved ones. (One highlight for me was a perfect stranger writing me an essay-long comment in response to one of my posts that insightfully provided a theory about me and my love of collections) I’ve unwittingly created a little community and for that, I feel fortunate. Please be safe and healthy!
What’s to come:
More crafts—More Sculpies, drawings, homemade Famous Korean celebrity candles and some life sized Korean dolls in the works. (Friends, is there anyone more suited to navigate a hot vat of wax, wicks and dyes for the first time than I?)
My drawn map of the treehouse tour of the world. (Map drawing is no joke).
Vixen 5 story
My first celebration of Korean Thanksgiving, Chuseok
Unique, Humorous Holiday Gift List
Koreans obsession with Blood Type and Personality, what does your bloodtype say about you?
Of course, more Korean expressions, unpacked
ADHD life hacks/how to finish a large project
My friend Kurt (Vonnegut), a semi autobiographical essay about adoption and other things
As part of my somewhat fumbling efforts to interview interesting Korean-Americans who are not blood relatives, I now ask everyone I know if they know any interesting Koreans/ Korean-Americans that I could pester. Fortunately for me, my clever family friend Rachel, didn't miss a beat in replying "I know one" and promptly connecting her friend and I via Instagram. I jumped at the chance to interview food writer Justine Lee whose writing has appeared on Bon Appetit, Food52, The Infatuation, The Wall Street Journal and most recently The NY Times food section. Other than our insurmountable age gap and the fact that she can cook and I can't, we could be "sisters from another mother" as my friend Ingrid likes to say when she relates to someone.
Me: Seeing that you were recently featured in the NY Times food section, I am grateful you agreed to be interviewed by me. Are you about to explode or in the falsetto of BTS, “light it up like dynamite”?
JL: Thank you! I’m delighted to be interviewed by you. Explode is a generous way to put it haha. I’ve been writing for some time now and I guess I’ll put it the way others have and say I’m “on the rise.”
Me: Can you tell us why you graced those hallowed pages?
JL: I had the pleasure to speak with Eric Kim, a wonderful cooking writer for the NYTimes about an experience I had eating bulgogi in a newfound format. In a nutshell, I was a tween eating at a Korean food court when I first tried the bulgogi bibimbap with melted mozzarella. It really changed my life and helped me as a food thinker come to appreciate the nuances of bulgogi. I was honored to add my voice to a larger conversation on how Korean food culture is not a monolith, and neither are the experiences of eating a singular dish.
Me: When i go to a trendy non-Koreatown restaurant that does not have free banchan (Korean side dishes), I rage. Am I alone or do you have a young person’s flexible mind?
JL: You are not alone!! If my table isn’t overcrowded with banchan, I know the restaurant isn’t doing it right. I view it as a primer of sorts, in introducing the eater’s palate to how generous the establishment is and how they like to season their food. Banchan is so important.
Me: Stalking your Instagram feed, I see you are a fan of Naengmyeon, that noodle dish that almost caused my early demise (a near choking incident);tell me, in a show down between Italian pasta and Korean noodles who wins?
JL: I’m not full of the hottest takes but of the very few I do have, the hottest would be that I actually don’t like pasta that much!! Please no one come at me! So it’s a no-brainer that Korean noodles would win. Naengmyeon is incredible, so is Jjajangmyeon, bibimmyun, and really even Shin ramyun hits the spot.
Me: What Korean dish could you eat consecutively for the longest amount of time?
JL: Soondae or soondae guk. My family laughs because I was like the only tween eating the food in a restaurant with older customers. It’s supposedly a very grandma/grandpa thing to like it. I can see why it could be off putting; it is blood sausage but I can’t quit it.
Me: In the East Coast/West coast Koreatown feud, who wins?
JL: East Coast hands down. I mean have you heard of Ft. Lee, New Jersey?
Me: What brought you to cooking/writing about cooking?
JL: My mom has always been interested in food since she was young and so she filled the house with different cookbooks and always made the kitchen such a joyful place to be. She’s also wonderful at baking, which talking to other Korean friends seems to be a pastime not many moms did!
Me:That looks up my alley—tasty and quick to make. Could it be the new avocado toast?
JL: I think that in Korea, it is a pretty trendy toast served at cafes, akin to avocado toasts here. It’s quite customizable in that the sky’s the limit for the toppings you can add. I think it could be like the next trendy dessert toast!
Me: I’ve failed to find any delicious Korean cookbooks. Any picks? If not, best sites for Korean recipes? JL: I very much enjoy the Korean Home Cooking cookbook from chef Sohui Kim. The best Korean cooking sites have to be koreanbapsang, seokyounglongest, and really the recipes graciously shared on various blogs and forums by Korean home cooks.
Me: Can you name one or two Korean dishes that might have escaped this “banana’s”radar? I love hearing about new ones that aren’t so widely known.
JL: Jangjorim and hotteok.
Me: Any foods you will not try?
JL: I will never try haggis (a traditional Scottish dish made of offal meat) intentionally ever again. The vegan version isn’t any better.
Me: Drumroll for worst question of this interview: Soju like soju?
JL: I love makeolli! Specifically peach makeolli.
Me: I’m always looking for fun Korean expressions. Can you explain the expression shiwonhada to us?
JL: Of course! Literally translated, shiwonhada means something like “hits the spot.” It’s a phrase people can utilize in many situations where they feel as if some heavy tension has been instantly washed away. Like when you go to the Korean spa, get a good scrub, detox in the sauna, that can be something you refer to as “shiwonada.” Most of the time, I’ve heard it when people eat a hot, comforting bowl of soup, when they’re feeling hungover or not feeling well, as doing so can clear that mental and physical tension in an incredibly cathartic way.
Me: 10 things to get from Hmart:
JL: Kimchi, danmuji, very firm tofu, dried persimmons, apples, green onions, enoki mushrooms, salmon sashimi, dashima, a pack of Pepero.
Me: Here’s my stereotype-heavy question involving Korean parents:are your parents bereft that you have chosen the Arts over something more mundane like hedge funding?
JL: If they had it their way, I would have been a doctor or an actuary like my dad. When I applied to college, I really wanted to study history and political science but my parents were so against it. So I went undecided and ended up studying nutrition and food studies, with some thoughts to apply to med school afterwards (I actually took all the necessary courses). Of course, I then really fell in love with food culture, recipe development, and writing and took that route instead. While I think they’ve always been puzzled how my jobs in food have all worked, they’ve become pretty open in giving me authority over my own trajectory. It’s funny I don’t think I consider myself in the arts. I think what I do walks a balance beam of creativity, logic, the scientific method, and so much research.
Me: “Authority over my own trajectory”-I love those words! You’ve given me a new mantra that I can still apply to my own life. Thank you.
I read that you changed your name legally. Can you explain that?
JL: Of course! Since birth my legal name was Seungah and when I moved to the States as a little kid, my parents gave me the name “Justine” as my American name that I could use at school and elsewhere. Everyone knew me as Justine but on legal docs and school attendance sheets, my name was still listed as Seungah which stirred up confusion and mockery among my western teachers and peers. I just dreaded having to justify my identity at such a young age and so when I was 16, the opportunity to legally change my name presented itself so I took it almost instantly. I’ll say that this process, one that I thought would feel like freedom, was also odd. The lawyer coordinating the whole process asked me if I was doing this “to avoid tax fraud or cut ties with the communist party”….I was sixteen! I still went with it and became Justine Seungah Lee in one afternoon. Looking back at it, changing my name did make my life a bit easier but I do sometimes feel disappointed in myself for compromising the beautiful name my parents gave me to feel more accepted in western society. Western society has never made such grand gestures to make me feel more comfortable.
Me: As I’m a bit obsessed with my own Korean/ lack of Korean identity, I have to ask how Korean you feel as a percentage and what percent another identity?
JL: I feel 50% Korean and 50% American. This might not seem like a huge percentage but it’s huge to me because I used to feel like 5% Korean. I’ve grappled with the Korean side of my identity for so much of my life, whether it was wanting to run away from it somehow in my youth or unknowingly completely repressing it in my late teens/early twenties as I spent more time away from my parents who grounded me in Korean side the most by feeding me food and speaking the language.
It was really in my last two years of college at NYU and immediately after that I came to love and embrace my Korean identity, largely in part by taking myself to go eat in K-town, watching BTS perform on SNL, seeing Sandra Oh finally getting the critical recognition she always had in my heart, being more open about the Korean-American experience with my friends and finding the commonalities and nuances in our narratives. Being a food major and having the chance to study Korean cuisine in an academic context helped so much too. It was a slow build-up of really little things that made me realize: being Korean is awesome.
So I view it like this: I can have white girl tendencies (my choice of clothing, my mannerisms, my unbreakable love for Dunkin iced coffee and Taylor Swift) but that doesn’t make me any less Korean. I speak the language, I was born there, I am constantly in pursuit of studying its food culture.
If I had another identity, I guess I am uniquely myself – flaws, strengths and all. There’s a lyric in the song Epiphany by Jin that goes like: “Why did I want to hide my precious self like this? What was I so afraid of?” I really resonate with that. It’s taken me a really long time to get to a point where I actually like myself. I used to strive just to fit in, live comfortably as a “wallflower.” I always stood out when I didn’t want to (because of my being asian, rather tall for a Korean, being a bit different) and I hated that, I really did. But I’ve come to realize standing out really isn’t that bad.
Me: I salute your embrace of your own weirdness. For me, approaching my 50th in two years, I’m dressing zanier than ever. I love graphic sweaters and t-shirts and kid- like attire. It seems from Instagram that you like to express this oddball side of you through your clothing as well (but it suits you better as you are closer to being a kid than I am!) Describe your aesthetic for us.
JL: I definitely gravitate towards overalls, jumpsuits, and other garments that make me look like a five year old. But then on the other side, I will also dress like a 70 year old grandpa. I’m amazed by my own duality. My friend once hit the nail on the head when she described my style as “tastefully weird.”
Me: My teenage son told me about these “Core” style types that are referenced on social media (Cottage,Fairy, etc). What “Core” are you, if that makes any sense at all.
JL: Does sad-boy-core exist? If there is,I am that.
Me: very evocative! If it doesn’t exist, it does now!
Me: Not sure if you relate but I sometimes feel a minor pressure as Korean woman to have good skin. Alas, I lack the energy to do the research and do the requisite glow-up so instead I’ll mine you for tips. What’s your favorite Korean beauty product?
JL: CosorX Acne Pimple Master Patches.
Me: I have written about my own love of collections on this blog. Do you collect anything?
JL:: This may sound odd but I actually collect fruit stickers from the various produce I eat (like the stickers off apples and bananas). I have a few from various countries and it’s really interesting to compare and contrast each. I also own simply far too many striped t-shirts so I guess I unknowingly have an extensive collection.
Me: Inside I am leaping with joy at your eccentric collection. I may look back on these interviews and declare your collection the most unusual. Thank you.
Me: I read somewhere that Americans have a sad inability to name any famous Asian-Americans. to up the ante here, can you name seven famous Korean/Korean-Americans?
JL: Yeri Han, Ken Jeong, Margaret Cho, Bong Joon Ho, Gong Yoo, Sandra Oh, Ban Ki Moon
Me: Bravo! Asian points for you! Who are your favorite Korean celebrities? Feel free to gush.
JL: Okay I have two. First: Youn Yuh-Jung!! She’s an incredibly talented actress who I grew up watching in various dramas I watched with my mom. I know the US audience was just introduced to her in Minari but I highly recommend watching exploring her entire acting canon. And of course, on the subject of BTS, my favorite member is Jin – Worldwide Handsome. He’s not at all the best singer or the best dancer of the bunch but I love his personality, his face (no-brainer!), and his love of dad jokes.
Me: Speaking of dads, I recently followed My Korean Dad on TikTok and was a bit fascinated by this sweet man’s huge following. I mean he’s a teddy bear of a man walking around picking out produce at the supermarket and smiling encouragingly. I showed it to a bunch of non-Koreans and we collectively scratched our heads. Can you explain his appeal?
JL: Yeah My Korean Dad is a very popular TikTok account. I think what the appeals is about him is how he openly expresses his paternal love out in the open. I’ve heard people say they’ve been moved to tears about his refreshing departure from the tough love or lack thereof Korean american kids received from their own dads, I get it.
JL: Film: Little Forest, Burning Books: The Vegetarian, Crying in HMart Artists: my cousin @dynebydyne on Instagram
Me: Has the Hallyu wave affected you in any way, i.e., has your opinion of yourself skyrocketed? Is there any drawback to our sudden popularity?
JL: The boom of Korean culture is something that didn’t seem imaginable to me. Growing up, Korean culture and American/western culture were compartmentalized in that I could only enjoy them in two separate circumstances because they didn’t really intersect. That all seemed to change when (and I’m really showing my age here)the Wonder Girls opened for the Jonas Brothers. Knowing about Korea’s extremely oppressed, impoverished past, to see everything it has accomplished on a global scale is truly something I take pride in. My opinion of myself hasn’t skyrocketed but saying “I’m Korean” with something I say with confidence and joy.
Me: I’m planning a big 50th bday in Korea in 2023;what must I do/eat/see?
JL: Do: go to Itaewon, go shopping at Dongdaemun market, buy lots of k-beauty products! Go for a walk along the Han river. Grab coffee at the Starbucks in the Seoul Wave Art Center (my uncle owns the building!)
Eat: Soondae guk, tteokbokki at a street cart or pojangmacha, fresh fish at Busan (if you can!), E-Mart pizza, shaved ice and injeolmi toast at Sulbing. Please eat korean peaches, corn, and grapes. You won’t regret it.
See: Jeju Island (that warrants an airplane ride – but it’s worth it!), Namsan Tower, Museum San, CoEx, watch a movie at the CoEx movie theater.
Me: When you go to Korea, do you fit in seamlessly or can they sniff you out as American?
JL: Oh I definitely stick out like a sore thumb as an American and I think I always have. It winds down to so much of me: my western style of dressing, my preference for not wearing too much makeup (compared to Koreans who won’t dare going out with a bare face), and my heavy reliance on my imperfect Korean pronunciation. I’m pretty un-phased by this because I love how I’m so uniquely Korean-American
Me: I see you draw. Can you share a cute drawing for us?
JL: I am new to Adobe Illustrator but here is something I did:
Me: What are things that come easy to you ( “eating rice cakes while lying down”) and things that are hard?
JL: Running miles, endless (decidedly ridiculous) puns, and run-on sentences come easy to me. Math and patience for slow-walkers do not.
Me: Rats! I would have said we could be fast friends but I’m a very slow, meandering walker. Be glad I didn’t make you take a walk to do this interview! Thank you JL and I have every expectation that you are on the way to become the Blackpink of the food writing world. “Justine Lee in the Area!!”
Some nations fight over resources like land, oil and/or diamonds. I recently read that China and South Korea have tussled over kimchi, that is the origin of the heralded fermented cabbage; supposedly around the end of 2020, China registered the kimchi recipe with the International Organization for Standardization. Some Koreans were up in arms that the Chinese had appropriated Korea’s iconic dish. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, instead of apologizing, said that China had registered a recipe for the Chinese dish paozai, which is supposedly kimchi’s lesser-known doppelganger.
With my scant knowledge of Korean history, even I, know this is the ultimate battle cry. Kimchi is not a footnote for Koreans. It’s a badge of Korean identity. The Korean Vegan, a vegan attorney/blogger who specializes in vegan Korean recipes, questioned whether she can be Korean and not eat kimchi (that traditionally has fish sauce/fish in it). (See http://www.thekoreanvegan.com).
One of my favorite Kdramas of all time, Boys over Flowers, included pivotal scenes in which the rich, entitled male protagonist, Gu Jeun Pyo shows his adoration for working class Geum Jandi by showing up to her family’s humble apartment and spending the day roughing it –including making kimchi with her family. (See video below). They joyfully toss whole cabbages to each other and later feed each other handfuls of kimchi from a vat. The ultimate foreplay. (If my own husband had walked into this kind of messy, malodorous melee before we got married, he would have run away screaming).
Many Korean families have a separate refrigerator for their kimchi that thrives under specific temperature; when I go to Seoul for my 50th birthday in two years, I plan to stop by the Kimchi museum (https://www.kimchikan.com) and of course gorge myself on the 187 varieties of the cabbage dish. This temple to Kimchi is supposedly a popular tourist destination and features the history of kimchi and demonstrations on making it etc.
Because I am no cook, I once served my culinarily-gifted friend Erin my sad, lazy version of a dish called Kimchi Kwok; I added kimchi to some boiling water, dropped in a bouillon cube and some cubes of raw tofu. Needless to say, her face revealed the deficiencies. But to me, kimchi is a stand alone item and a great snack with a bowl of rice. My son and I can eat a whole jar in one sitting. The stuff is magic-versatile and healthy. It boldly flavors soda and ice cream.
I’m no health nut but its roster of benefits is pleasing. (Kimchi is low in calories,low-fat, high in dietary fiber and has probiotics and a ton of Vitamins A, B, and C. Seoul National University conducted a study and claimed that chickens infected with the H5N1 virus, also called avian flu, recovered after eating food containing the same cultured bacteria found in kimchi. Though I can’t vouch for the source, I recently read somewhere that it is a good barrier to everything from cancer to Covid).
Supposedly NASA has freeze-dried it for their astronauts, which begs the questions: are there Korean astronauts and if so, I want to learn about them and if not, are there non-asian astronauts that love it so much they have lobbied for space kimchi? (Richard Branson/ Elon Musk, I’m talking to you). Most importantly, does freeze-dried kimchi stink up the cabin like the wet kind would? (And I thought peeing/bathroom use without anchor was the biggest problem with space travel!)
A while back, the above video went viral in South Korea and beyond of a woman hitting a man with a thick wad of uncut, long kimchi–see the above “kimchi slap.” The few seconds, replayed in slo-mo, packs a wallop-such unexpected insult to waste kimchi this way. Imagine the sting on the face and the scarlet markings left on the victim’s clothing. I am making a list in my head of the public figures who could be humbled by such a slap. Imagine all those white-shirted politicians—Ted, Donald, Rudy et al.
I thought to go with the post theme, I’d throw in an easy cucumber kimchi recipe suggested by my lovely Korean Cousin Leah who always miraculously has warm bulgogi, rice and kimchi ready for me when I come over. This really baffles me. I used to imagine she had a Willy Wonk-ian device ensuring a perpetual rotation of instantly ready homemade Korean food. (She told me it was a standard rice cooker).
Finally, I read about the spicy pickled garlic trend on TikTok and I had to try it out. It is a matter of adding three things that I definitely do not hate: Siracha, Korean chili flakes and dried thyme to a jar of pickled garlic.(I got a jar of pickled garlic on Amazon). Then you shake in the spices and close your eyes and pop one in your mouth, bracing for some mild to severe discomfort. I had hoped that pickled garlic was a very transformative experience–meaning I could eat it and forget the garlic association. But no my friends, it was a tiny shock to my mouth— akin to eating a raw wet garlic clove.(I imagine a bulk athlete popping these down in succession every morning with a side of steak and raw eggs). My verdict: unlike kimchi, this is not a stand alone item but could grow on me with some rice. It will sit in my fridge and possibly mold for months while I determine its merit. I cannot see myself becoming a super-fan of this odd snack unlike the portly middle aged man at the UES Gracie Mews diner whom I used to watch as he ordered many strangely large raw onion slices and ate them with a fork and knife–content and strangely dignified.
If you love garlic, skip this and try Korean garlic shoots. I ate them years ago in Seoul and fell in love. I think you can find them refrigerated at HMart in the Banchan (“Korean side dishes”) section near the kimchi etc. They taste like garlic but are more subtle!
This Korean expression makes me guffaw. I’ve noticed there are quite a few Korean expressions involving rice cakes. I mean, who can blame Koreans for being obsessed with them? They are quite glorious–fun to gnaw and a friend to any sauce. This translates into “something that comes easy to someone”/ “a walk in the park.” What a public nuisance! Imagine the hordes of children who might run to try this dangerous activity at home. I can barely stop myself from choking on those chewy rice cake logs when I’m seated upright in a restaurant.
A lot of my posts focus on life struggles and things that are hard for me. I think it’s good for us all to reflect on things we are naturally good at for a change. This is for some of us harder than you might think. (I’m having a flashback to a conversation two of my female friends and I had one night in our twenties. Someone posed the question of what we liked about our own appearance. This caused us to squirm and grimace in silence until finally one friend triumphantly called out “my knees!”) So consider what you are naturally good at, no matter how micro you get. Here’s my list of things that are fairly easy for me, some of uncertain merit, not ranked:
Giving massages. My mother trained me at a very young age to give her deep-tissue massages. (Go mama!) I can rip through the gnarliest muscles with these hands. In my twenties, I thought of making extra money through massage but perhaps rightly worried people would accost me and label me a sex worker because I’m Asian. (Yup. That’s the kind of worries we Asian ladies have). I am now trying to train my own kids to massage my weary shoulders with fleeting moments of success. I figure I can get them to be at least as good as the well meaning but disappointing blind masseuse on my Thailand honeymoon who applied scant pressure as she massaged my back and, to my dismay, sneezed so many times, I keenly surmised she was ill.
Eating. I’m just good at it. What can I say? I have no allergies and very few aversions (well other than a shyness about eating unusual meats such as dog, horse, guinea pig, ostrich and rabbit.) I am wondering if my mother who was a strong believer in cooking one meal for all and not catering to my whims, can be thanked for this. I usually downed anything she concocted; though I recall reaching my limit at the particularly thick, grainy split pea soup she liked to make; I would pour it into a napkin under the table when she had her back turned (aligning me with beloved children’s book character George the hippo of George and Martha who, clearly conflict-averse like me, repeatedly poured Martha’s split pea soup into his furry slippers).
Imaginary play. I used to entertain my niece, nephew and my own kids with my made up games when they were younger (and I still sometimes do for my daughter). I was always the odd, child-like parent at playdates entertaining the children. Sometimes I still enjoy being a goof-ball parent; see me recently at the playground showing my 6 year old daughter and her friends in the park how to use a whoopie cushion (to their delight). More illustrative, a few years back, I made up a silly game with my own kids and my niece and nephew where I pretended to be a tired, rotund business man (with pillows under my shirt to give me girth) who plops into his sad hotel bed only to find it lumpy; the giggling kids under a blanket were the lumps. Then, irate, I would call the hotel manager to chew him out and he’d send up a dim-witted exterminator to investigate the bed lumps The kids made me play this game ad nauseum to shrieks of delight.
Creepy memory of people. I remember people from a long time ago who had little to do with me and most likely have scant to no memory of me. This quality is, I imagine, unnerving to someone who cannot firmly place me. (This means you may appear on these blog’s pages and be quite surprised!)
Blind-folded drawing. I can draw Garfield the cat blind-folded due to a childhood obsessed with drawing him and I can draw a horse blindfolded pretty decently. See below for this impressive skill.
Trying new things. I am good at trying new things/experiences (but not great at sticking to them if they are too hard.) Hey I told you this is a list of micro accomplishments! I once made a midi sarong- style dress as a novice sewer. Hand sewed it without any pattern. It had a long line of crucial, not solely decorative snaps on the front of the dress. I was so proud of it and even got a compliment from a stranger! But one day, I descended the steps to the subway and my shoe caught the bottom of the hem. The entire garment ripped off of me-the long row of snaps popped open—in front of a line of weary commuters heading up the stairs. Suffice it to say, I’ve never attempted to sew my own clothes since.
Thinking of party ideas. I’ve had some doozies that I thought would be fun but fell flat (i.e., my “Surreal Rosh Hashanah” party one year for which my son and I spent hours making Surreal center pieces and trying to capture the spirit of Salvador Dali.) I had such grandiose visions of a Dali party where guests dined on a long bed and ate out of high-heeled shoes. As we were on a much different budget than he and the socialites of that era, the best I could do fell flat. Though I really enjoyed making the “surreal” lipstick I saw on Pinterest (take the lipstick out of a tube and replace with a peeled and carved carrot, very fun). I should have heeded the misgivings of my husband who asked, a little embarrassed perhaps, what Surrealism and Rosh Hashanah had to do with each other. (Nothing). For those raised in Reform Judaism like I was, I’m not sure an explanation was due to anyone as long as people had fun and associated Judaism with good times. (I hope this doesn’t offend).
Better was the “weird” party we once had to celebrate autism/neurodiversity/being different/weird. (Thank you D, my friend who is oft mentioned on these pages, for your suggestion to make a party when i pondered how to celebrate my neurodiverse family). The key to making this event joyous: the brain cake made by my friend’s friend, making drawings of “weird” celebrities and hanging them from a long string in my apartment, making t-shirts with weird-affirming messages for my guests, making a mix of “weird” music, lots of food and drink of course and a mix of different friends from all walks of life. It was one of the most memorable, happy celebrations of our lives. I hope to hear about more weird celebrations. It is arguably a parental prerogative to teach our kids to recognize that unconventional/”weird” people are valuable and miraculous. (We plan to do this again but BIGGER and WEIRDER. I want to make strange, confusing/ surreal food for my guests).
Friends, please make your list of things that come easily for you. I’d love to see your list and applaud you for these “skills.” After all, why do we need to wait for real, conventional accomplishments to get praise and feel proud? xoxo
For someone intimately familiar with Seu bul jae, I’m intrigued when people make the same mistakes over and over, despite having a rational understanding of the negative consequences. I think of the Psychology of Learning Class that I took at Carleton College that demanded I teach a slow-witted pigeon named Lola, the Skinner method of learning by applying a series of positive and negative reinforcements. How I disliked having to reach my hand into her cage every class and bear her indignant screech and battling wings long enough to place her in the metal learning box. Lola, I quickly discovered, was a bit of a clod, slow to learn from her mistakes. If she did peck the right button inside her cage wall, leading to a tray with bird seed, she would indulge happily—only to shortly thereafter peck at the wrong buttons-jack hammer style—and stare blankly at the empty trays of food. I did, however, feel some affection for the idiot fowl. (She was at least pretty with white feathers and shiny black eyes like a dove).
I have less sympathy for Lola’s human counterparts like Rudy Guiliani whose gradual descent from popular mayor to the alarming Zombie with the black goo dripping off his face/supporter of Trump was inevitable. His repeated pie -in-the- sky allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election— blatant lies–have resulted in the suspension of his law license and his widely acknowledged villain status. He had to know that his repeated, outrageous incitement would lead to negative consequences (or maybe Trump followers gave him adequate positive enforcement). Let’s not forget Jeffrey Toobin, formerly respected scholar of the U.S. Supreme Court etc who is forever etched in our minds as the delinquent Zoom masturbator–regardless of his recent re-emergence on t.v.
For some, embarrassment, shame, an empty tray of seeds and/or pecuniary loss are not enough deterrence for wrong behavior. Perhaps, Rudy, Jeffrey, Lola and many of us need one of those bracelets I once saw featured on Shark Tank, that shock your wrist to inhibit negative behaviors. Perhaps gut crunching, searing physical pain rather than embarrassment and shame is in order for certain segment of society—celebrities and people with ADHD.
Similarly for me, shame/self- flagellation, embarrassment and pecuniary loss from messing up dates in my calendar are seemingly not enough to alter my ADHD behavior. Most recently last Friday, leisurely picking up my phone, I heard my friend on the other line saying “I hear there’s bad traffic coming here. You stuck?”
Utterly confused, I was silent.
“You and the kids are on the Jitney to me right?”
The answer was no. I had thought my friend had invited me to her country house the following day, her young children now disappointed and a round of inconvenience for everyone. Perhaps my friend would have liked to administer a jolt of electricity to me that day and I don’t blame her.
My therapist once suggested I get positive reinforcement for being flakey at times (I am capable of having my head on my shoulders it should be noted). Could it be that I somehow think this behavior-losing my crap and irritating friends, is somehow charming? Perhaps this blog where I document and connect with others over my mishaps is positive reinforcement. (Then you readers are complicit so avert your eyes!) I’m a little at a loss how you can program a bracelet to track your misdeeds but I may have to invest in this shock therapy. So If I fail to double check each date in my calendar one day and it leads to chaos, BUZZ.
With such a bracelet, if I buy a white linen couch/a white tablecloth during my kids’ formative years or deign to purchase anything style-forward or anything not covered in protective vinyl like my grandmother’s furniture, my bracelet will shock some sense into me and remind me that my kids are mess tyrants who delight in using non water soluble art supplies and Hansel and Gretel-ing through my apartment–snacks in tow. I must resign myself to having an apartment that is known for aesthetically displeasing choices like my glass coffee table that was for years encircled by a gray protective padding (causing a stylish friend who used to work at Chanel to comically comment “your furniture has a diaper.”
Finally, I think of friends I may have admittedly judged when they have stayed in ruinous relationships with men who lie, cheat and do other irritating things like gamble their savings away or leave the bad eggs for similar rot. (Of course, this author has only made pristine decisions in all my relationships). Ho, Ho, Ho. Bracelets for everyone!
In my own life, I once shoplifted at age 19 in Minnesota and was caught and arrested. (For years, I told no one this in my life. When I started dating anyone seriously, I’d tell them this as a litmus test: would they run when they heard this confession? I thought they might but they were never that impressed). I was the saddest shoplifter, trembling and afraid-all 112 pounds of me. I’ll never forget the store owner calling the police as she clutched her baby to her chest–miraculously cowered by me. Fortunately, utter humiliation and a misdemeanor on my record were enough to cure me of any shoplifting inclination. Or maybe the reaction of the 10 year old Northfield girl with whom I volunteered as a mentor was the panacea. She had been told of my arrest by the mentorship program, Project Friendship, and, accordingly, I could no longer be her mentor. In the middle of my college’s main lounge surrounded by classmates, the two of us sat at a table across from each other after she had been told the news by someone else. Her sweet freckled face in tears. “I can’t believe YOU could do this,” she’d said—suggesting some degree of respect for me. I never forgot that. That negative reinforcement, I believe, was my salvation. No shock treatment needed.
What works best to alter your negative behaviors–positive reinforcement (praise, rewards) or negative (embarassment, physical pain, pecuniary loss)?
This Korean expression is often used in the context of Korean dramas as they are often rife with exaggerated hardships and tragedy. (But compared to American soap opera type shows, Korean ones have more style, quirky characters/character development and often show mouth watering Korean food in the process). One of my favorite Kdramas, the Penthouse best exemplifies this expression for the series opens with a teenage character being flung from a balcony to her death in front of her mother and has a slew of murderous couples, parents who drug and act cruelly to their children, insipid teachers and depraved students who bully other students mercilessly and so on. (Suffice it to say, this show is not for everyone). Thankfully in real life, even for the most unfortunate, there is usually some reprieve from tragedy.
A friend of mine once complained to me that her son was applying to high school and resented having to write an application essay about a hardship he had faced because his life had been devoid of adversity. I greeted this news with disbelief–who was this teenager without hardship—a horned, mythical creature for sure. Just let me write his essay!
I sometimes revisit hardships in my life, in therapy or while dreaming up short stories. It’s useful to have certain moments that haunt you from a creative standpoint. I have this belief, full of exceptions, that you can’t be creative without having suffered a fair share and by suffering I mean financially struggling/being rejected and/ or having some emotional turmoil/instability for any reason. This is probably an uncontroversial idea. As I’ve gotten older, I do wear hardships with some pride as evidenced in a ridiculous discussion my good friend and I once had that went something along the lines of:
Me: “When I was a kid, I ate eggs for six days once, prepared different ways because my mom ran out of money.”
Friend: “We never struggled financially but my parents were depressed. Barely got it together to feed us as kids.”
Me: “Well, I once lived in a massage studio and my bed was the massage table witb the hole for your head.”
Friend “My parents are hoarders and never invited anyone to our apartment.”
Though we both rationally knew, adversity is subjective and not worth comparing, in the moment each of us wanted to believe we won the contest. What an odd contest to want to win! What in the world can one do with this “victory”? A short story idea/good writing prompt maybe.
During the past year, I’ve been particularly humbled by those who call my legal services for employment law help. My own relative privilege is clear after speaking to my low wage clients about the losses of 2020-2021. How many women have I spoken to whose husbands worked hard their whole lives in service industries only to be fired for having COVID and then dying of it–leaving their families without life insurance or savings. Or who could forget the employees with disabilities like cancer. too scared to go to the office on public transportation during COVID times, who are denied accommodation to work from home and instead given the lose-lose ultimatum: come to the office or you are fired. Oh America.
If there was ever a Mak Jang time of my life, it’d be the ninth grade at the Trinity Highschool in nyc. My single mom who adopted me on her own had the dubious achievement of losing her job in the Fall of the ninth grade, getting diagnosed with cancer and being unable to pay rent, leaving us effectively homeless. We moved with my beloved pet guinea pig (housed in a tricked out Pampers Box) into my mom’s friend’s Westchester apartment. I had to share the 10 year old daughter’s bedroom and needless to say, there was some acrimony on this poor girl’s part. Suddenly, instead of a teddy bear, she had sad, four-eyed me stripping her of her blanket every night. (As my husband will confirm, I am a selfish, roll-ey sleeper). This girl’s ultimate revenge: taking my pig (“Chocolate Chip Little Nobie Hopkins Lubin” or “Nobie” for short) out of her box and squeezing her mid section too tightly so that she’d squeal. (Sadistic little fuck!). In those few months, mom and my namesake “Aunt” Elissa, mom’s close friend, who also lived in Westchester were increasingly at odds; their rancor culminated in Elissa buying me a $25 stuffed animal Benji dog and mom arguing she’d spent so much on a toy for me. Soon after, Elissa moved to Portland, Oregon to be with her children and thus, a seminal person in my life, was poof, gone. To top it off, in those months I commuted into Manhattan to start the 9th grade at the coveted Trinity High School, my sixth school of my life. Here, I quickly realized I was a middling, poor, Asian girl at a wealthy school of kids who once greeted me en route to a school dance in the gym by yelling “the Japanese rule the world!” Good times.
When we finally moved out of the Westchester apartment that year, we had to leave my cherubic Nobie behind for some reason. Months later, I learned my five year old guinea pig, the only pet I’d ever had who’d kept me, an only child, company, suffered a heart attack in the hands of the girl.. My loss in that moment– immeasurable.
Write about the mak jang momemt of your life. It’s therapeutic!
Paek-pok is another Korean expression I enjoy. Supposedly, it’s used the following way:
A:Do you like my haircut?”
B:” It kind of ages you and makes you look round in the face”
A: “Ouch. Way to paek-pok me.”
My discussion of brutal honesty begins with a little story involving my Cousin M, a now elderly Korean woman who married into my mother’s family. She is a spitfire and a matriarch with a big, generous spirit. When she first met my husband a long time ago at a loud Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, my husband and I were busy eating at a long table at the opposite end from her when she yelled ” Why (my husband’s name here)! Your hands so tiny like a lady!” For a longtime after, my husband told this story, evidencing his very Canadian, self-effacing humor.
I rightly or wrongly associate blunt honesty with Koreans. In my defense, the only people who have told me that at least a certain older generation of Koreans are known for being blunt, are Koreans and I’m of course Korean, so it seem safe. Besides, I am shining a positive light on blunt honesty here. While visiting South Korea years ago and staying at the social welfare agency where I lived as a baby before being adopted, I met many wonderful Korean people– a fair share of them blunter than most Americans I know. My foster mother with whom I joyfully reunited, greeted me with compliments about my appearance (a translator in tow) and, without asking, spent a fair share of lunch leaning over the cafe table to pick the few premature grey hairs out of my head. I found this incredibly endearing! Later on, a bus full of older Korean women loudly tsk-ed my friend and I when we hopped back on the bus after visiting the DMZ and started jovially yelling “You’re so slow. You kept us waiting!!” in Korean. Another day, a sales woman refused to let me try on a dress at a store, crossing her arms over her chest and saying “too big! too big!” which alarmed me. But maybe it was the spirit of the trip and my long-awaited connection to my mysterious origins; I soaked up the bluntness and relished each encounter.
My cursory online “research” on whether brutal honesty is a characteristic acknowledged by Koreans suggests the answer is yes. One Korean commenter noted that Koreans have a Confucian devotion to family first and friends/coworkers but do not have as much concern for strangers and other acquaintances. This means one may be more likely to get bumped into on the street in Korea without a subsequent apology as the common belief is one doesn’t need to apologize for a natural accident. But the Confucian ideology may explain why my Korean friends here seem to not only revere their elderly relatives but more readily open their households to them when their elderly relatives are needy. How admirable! Maybe, we could benefit from more filial loyalty and less artificial politeness? (Though I realize a strong argument for opening up Korean society to diverse ideas and people).
Most of us have a friend/co-worker who is reliably blunt. I have one such friend whom I trust for her true opinion. As someone often in my own head who is prone to denial and a la-dee-da feeling that life is a series of vagaries beyond one’s control, I value how her bluntness grounds me to reality. As she’s a self-reflective human, she has admitted that she knows it rubs people the wrong way at times. I imagine that she’d be an effective life coach for she has much advice, some unsolicited and it’s often spot on. Is there anyone who doesn’t sometimes want to be told what to do and why? From her, for example, I have learned my ADHD medication has certainly worked (I had some doubts); for as she explained, I used to flake out socially quite often and now I’m on time and reliable. Not every friend will lay it out for you like that.
Recently, cleaning out a closet of mine that is filled with yearbooks and scrapbooks I used to make that detail my life in embarrassing minutiae, I came across the following cartoon drawn by a guy friend of mine– a co-counselor at a summer camp for children with Diabetes. I remembered this guy was an artist and I’d like to give him credit but I can’t remember anything but his first name, Brian. I was looking at it and enjoying how he made each of us counselors represent a part of a zombie.
Then I scanned down to find my representation. See below photo 2. Above my name, foot rot. FOOT ROT! It is too long ago for me to remember anything about the meaning behind this fab association but there’s a possibility, I suppose, that I may have had stinky feet at least on one occasion or maybe dear Brian did not hold me in high regard. Maybe it’s just good fun. But could I not have been the fig leaf or the shins?
I recently told a young friend about an app I swear once existed where you could anonymously email or was it text a coworker a truth that that person needed to hear like “you have a terrible hair piece.” Searching for online info re this app though, I found nothing, which either confirms that I’m a terrible internet searcher or this was something in my imagination. I think we can all agree, anonymous brutal honesty is something the world can do without.
This post makes me think of how we teach our kids to be honest but also encourage them to be nice and polite to others–thereby encouraging white lies that protect people’s feelings. Such confusing but well-meaning directives! My husband, again Canadian, always says that being nice is undervalued and I agree, but I think so is honesty. Even the blunt kind. I marvel at the many ways, often comic, that people try to balance being honest and being polite. One friend told me she coughs when asked a question that she doesn’t want to answer for fear of offending someone. Some people might say “interesting” to mean “I disliked it.” For me, I become a monotone robot when I dislike something (“nice!”) but if I like it, I’m a hemorrhaging sychophant. (“OMG this is the most mind blowing novel. I am seriously blown out of the water like, I wish i could have a pinky of your talent. I grovel at your feet!”)
I can count a handful of times that I have wielded the brutal honesty axe, to varying degrees of success. The bad includes the time I asked my friend’s banker friend why he loved money so much, which made him cross and quiet. Go figure. Then there was the time I had a volunteer in my legal services office who was an LLM student. He was a sweet guy with a disheartening inability to do any of the tasks required of a legal intern, even after months of guidance. The degree of inability could not be easily explained-not language barrier, personality conflict or lack of interest. His grades suggested a debilitating learning disability was not the problem. One day, he came into the office and told me his life story and his dilemma: should he go back to his country where life would be easy as his father was a successful, well connected attorney or stay in United States where he would clearly struggle indefinitely. I told him that it sounded like he wanted to go home, which is my version of brutal honesty and he took my advice and left. I hope I’m right in thinking I saved him great torment here and I suspect I am.
Another context in which I’ve wanted to be brutally honest is the classic creative writing workshop, though this is strongly discouraged so I haven’t. But how my body sometimes shakes, wanting to yell out “For the love of the Lord, have you learned nothing? You can’t have dialogue that noone can follow and you can’t write dialogue that is exactly the way two boring people speak to each other unless you are famously talented and you cannot have a character repeatedly say “Bow down to the pink pussy,” out of the blue for no understandable reason. (How I wanted to save this workshop student from years of torturous writing. He’d advised us he had written ten novels, all unpublished, which sent some shivers down my spine. I think everyone should write but should everyone share? Oh dear, I’m half joking. I swear I’m a great workshop participant. Really).
What techniques, if any, do you use to balance honesty and niceness? Do you ever wish you could just let it rip and tell people what you think of them? Try it but don’t get hurt.
I’ve enjoyed writing stories about real life Vixens but what about the Clowns? (See this blog’s prior Vixen 1-4 posts). In terms of self-care–grooming and style–many of us have been Clowns during quarantine/this past year; some of us are career Clowns, tickled that our ways have been normalized. No need for shame if your wardrobe is brim with sweatshirts and if your manicure-free nails are talons. It’s no longer just Keanu Reeves’ older girlfriend prancing around town with a head of greys! Even Vixens have joined the fray and I hear many have enjoyed the break from societal expectations. Take for example, my friend D, a successful entrepreneur and socialite from an iconic American design family; to her delight, gone are the social functions she used to frequent and the need to showcase her charms. Ensconced on a bucolic estate owned by her family she was, as I last saw her a few months ago, calm and resplendent in a messy ponytail, bare face and no shoes. Further, she told me I was the second friend she’d seen in almost a year–limiting most of her contact to her family. But the clock is ticking.
Without making light of this past year, there have been some positive notes. Whom among us Vixens or Clowns will unexpectedly miss our face masks for the anonymity they provide when we walk down the street? Personally, as someone who gets in trouble for having a face that is an open book (my friends often tell me I look bored when I am), I’ve enjoyed the fact I’m unreadable behind the mask. (Some people have expressive eyes. My eyes are like dead pools of black. I have noticed people trying to study them to figure out my mood but I’m impenetrable!) Speaking about less trivial benefits, more employers, including my own, have finally accepted the idea that working from home, to some degree, is for a wide range of workers a viable option that accommodates parents and those with disabilities. I know that one day a week when my employer requires us to return to the office most days, I can squeeze my daughter when she comes home from school, drive my son crazy with open-ended questions about his school day and wear snuggly apparel as I advise people whether their employers have done anything illegal or are just cretins.
Though I’ve enjoyed the ease of wearing clothing that morphs from daytime to bedtime seamlessly, as I walked through Central Park this past Sunday with my first Moderna shot coursing through me and a spate of cherry blossum trees on view, I experienced an epiphany–I’m ready to bust out of my cocoon in a swash of colorful, dignified clothing! Blazers and floral skirts galore. Am I ready for shoes with hard heels? Lip color beneath my mask? The possibilities are rampant.
It was hard for me not to gawk as my kids and I rambled down the path to the boat rentals; for the park was a veritable runway of stylish adults (mostly unhampered by children). Indeed, I have observed, New Yorkers are dressing very “Korean” these days—lots of cute knitwear sets, layered looks, baggy jeans, puffy sleeves, pleated mini skirts and attention grabbing hair pins for example. (If you have any doubts about the rise of Korean fashion and the influence of the Hallyu wave that comes from Kpop and Kdramas, look on the website yestyle.com that I adore, and wait a year to see the same fashions emerge in the U.S. It’s pretty fun to see).
My kids and I enjoyed a day full of minor mishaps that on paper, would suggest a fiasco.. We grabbed Subway sandwiches for lack of imagination and circled the park looking for a non-balding patch of grass (which is no small feat. Am I paranoid or are UWS lawns way more trod upon than UES ones? Is that because of all the children here or is it some nefarious scheme of FLO (Frederick Law Olmsted?) We found a patch of mud with some grass, soaked in some Vitamin D and then headed to the Boathouse. En route, we stopped at a large bank of swings and I unwisely put my five year old in the kind meant for a 2 year old. This caused me to struggle comically to lift her out, an ungraceful reckoning that caught the eye of an observant father whom, contrary to the idea that good samaritans do not exist, huffed and puffed until he lifted my little turnip out of the swing. (This was before I read about a TikTok trend of teenagers purposely shoving themselves into baby swings to get stuck). We waited forty minutes on the Boathouse line only to discover a cash only policy. Three tired gerbils re-traced our steps home. Despite the setbacks, at the end of the day, my teen son said with no discernable trace of irony “This had to be the highlight of my vacation,” which gave me immense joy and gratitude; for the world has suffered so much loss and devastation, yet we clowns were together on one of the prettiest Spring days ever.
When I read the NY Times article about Kate Telfeyan and other Korean-American adoptee chefs, I knew I had to convince KT that doing a Q and A for my modest blog was worthy of her time. After all, anyone with an Instagram account and a past pop up called “Vaguely Asian” at a Queens restaurant, must have a sense of humor and be self-aware. (I want “Vaguely Asian” in script on a t-shirt!).
ME:I have to believe you are a scrappy, ambitious person for starting a pop up during COVID and opening your own restaurant, Porcelain, that is by all accounts thriving. What gave you the gumption to do all this?
KT:I don’t think ambition was ever really part of the decision making process. For me, given the current state of things I was mostly just following my gut. Before the pop-up I had started doing meal prep and delivery out of my apartment, partly as a way to keep busy, but also in an attempt to service my community in whatever way I could. The pop-up and the partnership at Porcelain became evolutions of the same inclination.
ME: What’s your adoption story? (e.g., year you were adopted, what age were you, what kind of family adopted you)
KT:I was adopted at age 2 from Korea in the early 80s. I grew up in rural coastal Rhode Island with my parents and an older brother (not adopted).
ME:Are your parents similarly creative and entrepreneurial?
KT: I think my parents are creative and entrepreneurial in their own right and I credit them with teaching me the very best things I know about how to pursue all things in life, business or otherwise, with kindness, strength and curiosity.
ME: Have you ever searched for your birth parents or like me, thrown your hands in the air and embraced your unique, mysterious past?
KT: I’ve never made any attempts, though I can’t say that I won’t ever; it’s just not something that’s ever been a huge priority. I think it’s mostly because I feel extremely fortunate for the life I have, and while the past may offer some insights into my biological origins, who I am is undoubtedly a reflection of the world in which I was enveloped post-adoption.
ME: I agree with that but I do have passing fleets of fancy re my birth family. The following question is not one I’ve considered myself but maybe you have:
If you were to meet your birth family, is there any fact about them that would sorely disappoint you ? (e.g., they aren’t explorative eaters, they lean Right etc).
KT: I don’t think so. I think if I were ever to meet them I would just hope they’ve lived a life as fulfilling as mine.
ME: Have you looked for any blood relatives via Ancestry or one of those services?
KT: Not actively. I did 23andMe a while back so I still get the “new relative” email notifications sometimes, but they’re always fractions of percent related.
ME: When i was a little girl, my grandma bought me a pretty Korean doll dressed in a silk hanbok. I used to perch it on a high closet shelf and play a game where my friends and I would run past the open closet and try not to scream as we ran by. (We always shrieked). Did you have similar fear/conflict about your Korean identity?
KT: I wasn’t really exposed to Korean culture as a child, and wasn’t even really hyper aware that I was different until I hit adolescence. My hometown was not a very ethnically diverse place when I was growing up, so I white identified almost my entire childhood.
ME: I have been reading how recently there’s been a shift re: how Korean adoption is portrayed in the media. As you know, the bull-horned message used to be that we Korean adoptees were so lucky to be rescued from abject poverty; now more adoptees are voicing the darker side/the trauma of loss and forced assimilation that has been harmful to some. Have your feelings about being adopted morphed at all over time?
KT: Not really. Without knowing the circumstances under which my birth mother gave me up, I never had a narrative to fall back on except that maybe she was sick (I had tuberculosis when I was adopted). If the alternative to being adopted was to grow up motherless/family-less in Korea then I think I made out pretty well.
ME: Do you have qualities that your adoptive family do not, which you attribute to your birth family?
KT: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking on the notion of nurture v. nature as it pertains to human development, and specifically when it comes to food proclivities. And while I have no conclusive theory, ultimately I tend to believe people imbued with certain inarguable inclinations from birth, but that most of us are products of a beautiful and sometimes complicated chaotic mish mash of dna, environment, access, and individuality.
ME: Do you think that being adopted has fueled your creativity?
KT: On some level, yes. Wanting to learn more about my Korean heritage definitely led me down a pathway filled with foods and flavors from a whole different part of the world than where I grew up.
ME: Is food the main way you have explored your Korean identity or are there other ways?
KT:Definitely food was the driving force initially in my early 20s. But as I got older I wanted to learn more about the culture as a whole and made my first trip there in 2012.
ME: Favorite Kdrama/Korean movie if any:
KT: I have so much more to explore on this front! But I would say of the shows / movies I’ve seen, My Mister and the Reply series are my two favorites. I also loved Train to Busan.
ME: Have you, like me, been felled by late-in-life attempts to master Hangul and the Korean language or are you victorious?
KT: I’ve made a few half-hearted attempts, but as the years go by I feel more and more compelled to take a serious stab at it.
ME: Do you celebrate any particular Korean holidays/traditions?
KT: As someone who didn’t grow up celebrating them I always feel a little conflicted about trying to adopt them into my life now, but I do enjoy marking the occasions of Chuseok and the new year – mostly just by making the traditionally eaten foods of each 🙂
ME: Did you have a specific light bulb moment of realizing you wanted to be a chef for the long-haul?
KT: it wasn’t really a light bulb moment, it was more of a dull nagging voice in my head that persisted from the time I was about 20 until the day I started my first cooking job.
ME: Are you classically trained as a chef?
KT: Nope – learned everything I know either from teaching myself, or learning from all of the talented people I’ve been fortunate to work with along the way.
ME: Some of your favorite Korean foods:
KT: Tteokboki, kimchi jjigae, gimbap, soondubu jjigae, pretty much all banchan, samgyetang, seolleongtang…too many!
ME: Five essential food items you need from Hmart:
ME:The gold medal for best K-town in the USA goes to:
KT: I’ve only been once, and only for one meal, but I would say LA’s K-town is probably superior
ME: You are a culinary wizard. Take Dan Dan lasagna on your current menu. How in heavens did you wrestle up this combo?
KT: I generally think of food as cross-cultural. There are culinary traditions that are unique and foundational to every culture, but in looking at the birds’ eye view of the world, similarities and derivations start to emerge across borders and country lines that start to seem familiar and recognizable. I think of a dish like dandan noodles (which I love!), and start to wonder about different forms it could take while still remaining true to the traditional preparation. As someone of eastern heritage raised in a western world this cross-pollination of ideas, flavors and techniques really speaks to me, and represents my palate and viewpoint.
ME: It’s quite a gift to forgo recipes and mix unexpected ingredients together to make an appetizing dish. (I am unfortunately much like lil’ orphan Annie in the Jamie Foxx-Cameron Diaz film update who combined a motley set of fridge ingredients to cook Foxx(Daddy Warbucks), a gag-worthy dinner).
Are you by any chance good at home decorating? (e.g., artfully mixing let’s say antiques and modern pieces. I suck at cooking and home decorating so I am wondering if that means there’s a good cook,-good home decorating correlation.)
KT: I definitely am not a home decorator! I like things organized and aesthetically pleasing, but that’s about where my commitment to decor ends 🙂
ME: Restaurants that you love in nyc other than your own:
ME: This shows me what I already knew: I am not at all current with the NYC restaurant scene. Thank you. I will be looking up all of these places.
Arguably the litmus test for Korean-ness: a love of Kimchi and soju (independently). Do you like one type of kimchi best?
KT: There are so many, and I certainly haven’t tried all of them, but I would say radish kimchi, water kimchi, super fermented napa kimchi and mustard green kimchi
ME: Is there anything you can flat out say you’d never mix with kimchi?
ME: Do you have any soju-drinking rituals you follow?
KT: I must admit I’m not a big soju lover!
ME:Is there any food you will not try?
KT: None that I can think of…
ME: Any chance you were a picky eater as a child?
KT: Not at all!
ME: Do you follow food trends on let’s say Tik Tok/Instagram or do you try to wipe away the noise to preserve your own unique voice?
KT: I’m aware of them for sure, but only as pure entertainment
ME: I am a bit obsessed with people who have many multiple talents like Rhode Scholars, the Leonardos of this world and you. I read about your culinary career path from working as a line chef at the Talk-of-the Town restaurant Mission Chinese in the LES to opening your own Mission Chinese as head chef in Bushwick. On top of all this, I see you are also also a talented writer with a PR background and, excuse me as I wipe the sweat off my brow, a bit of a restaurant industry activist. (You are putting the rest of us Korean-American adoptees to shame!).
What helps you stay sane and unwind?
KT: I watch a lot of really trash tv (like crime procedurals and food tv!), and if I don’t cook / go out to eat on my own time away from work I get antsy.
ME: As a legal services attorney who has represented restaurant workers in wage and hour and discrimination cases, I was pleased to learn you want to revamp the oft-toxic restaurant industry and that you’ve put your money where your mouth is by doing things like paying your workers no less than $20/hour. Bravo!
Where does this impulse to be fair and decent come from?
KT: I think in part from having come up through the system and seeing so many talented hard working people struggle to live on trash wages while expected to work excessive hours. I also have the perspective of coming from outside of the industry in the early part of my career life, so I experienced many different workplaces and was able to really form and articulate my belief system as far as what I feel is equitable and fair.
ME: I used to work on employment law cases in collaboration with with a restaurant worker center whose members long ago all co-owned a Manhattan restaurant. I loved the idea but unfortunately didn’t love the food. Their restaurant did not endure. Do you think a cooperative restaurant can thrive/survive the NYC restaurant scene?
KT: I definitely think there’s a model of coop restaurant that could work, but not with the current laws and regulations in place in NYC.
ME: My 13-year-old son and I are always eager to find service opportunities in the City. Thanks to your shout out in one interview, we now know about non profit Heart of Dinner that feeds dinner to home-bound elderly Asian-Americans in New York. City. Do you know of other good non profits that serve Asian-American communities that might offer volunteer opportunities?
KT: There’s an amazing farm in Chester, NY run by Christina Chan (who I am in total admiration of) called Choy Division. She specializes in East Asian produce and I do as much buying from her as possible during her harvest season. She, along with other Asian American farmers in NYC and the Hudson Valley are working to “weave relationships between AAPI growers, mutual aid, and community based organizations in order to preserve the ancestral foodways and provide culturally resonant produce to those in need” (taken from their web site).
ME: Favorite COVID-era hobby/past-time (if you have any leftover time for hobbies):
KT: Vacuuming! I became a bit obsessive about it during lockdown and now I find it quite soothing 🙂
ME: What, if anything, is hard for you?
KT: Writing recipes
ME: What skill do you wish you had?
KT: Singing or drawing
ME: What is something you are good at that is a modest achievement but an achievement nonetheless?(my own examples: being a happy, adventurous eater, drawing Garfield the cat with my eyes closed).
KT: Folding a fitted sheet
ME: Bravo! That is an achievement!
I imagine chefs must have dry hands and aching feet so you need a good moisturizer and good shoes. Do you have a favorite moisturizer and do you wear a specific type/brand of shoes to work?
KT: I usually just use something that’s good for sensitive skin, except in the winter when I need something stronger for my hands like aquaphor. For shoes I’ve been a die hard birkenstock fan since day one.
ME: Have you ever joined a Korean-American adoptee group of any kind? Can we start a group and gather at intervals at your fine restaurant or elsewhere?/srs.
KT: I’ve never been a part of one, but would be open to it!
ME: I read about Korean han (Korean rage) being a uniquely Korean feeling. Do you think you’ve experienced han? It’s not clear to me if we Korean-American adoptees can feel it.
That said, what if anything pisses you off? (Hopefully not middle-age bloggers who approach you on Instagram for a q and a and then deluge your inbox with pages of questions).
KT: I definitely think I have it – I’ve been told I’m “fiery” 🙂 I think I mostly get annoyed when people I care about are mistreated.
ME: What’s next for you?
KT: I have no idea! But I actually think that’s the next chapter – the unknown leading to new adventures.
ME: Thank you Kate. Appreciate your time so much. Enjoy the Unknown!
P.S. A sincere note: if you do want to form a club for Korean-American adoptees, i’m in. I’ll bring some crafts. Please bring the food and maybe the other Korean-American adoptees (as i know none in the area)!
(Thanks to my lovely friend Dylan who connected Boram and I).
It took a particularly patient person, that Boram revealed herself to be, to not only Zoom with me for more than an hour during what was for her a busy work day but patiently wait for me to wade through a morass of scribbled questions.(Unfortunately for her, despite my recent hours devouring Sean Evans’ Hot Ones interviews, I lack his grace and ease and I assume, his research prowess).
ME: As someone obsessed with Kdramas, I am grateful to you for your role in giving us access to a bounty of K-dramas. Tell us about Drama Fever and your role there.
BN: I am proud to say I was a founding member along with my husband of Drama Fever, one of the first streaming sites for Kdramas, so we had at least a part in bringing Korean content to the U.S. and around the world. I started working at Drama Fever in 2008 as VP of marketing, licensing and business development. We were the first to distribute Korean content to Netflix and sold our business to Soft Bank in 2014. I’m happy we didn’t have to compete with Netflix!
ME: As someone who has had the same job for an unusually long time and is risk averse, I admire entrepreneurs like you. Looking back, were there tell-tale signs that you’d be your own boss?
BN: My parents, both professors in Korea, saw that I was not so obedient in school and sent me to the States for my education–high school and college. I was basically dropped off to live on my own in the U.S. This independence may have prepared me for an entrepreneurial lifestyle.
ME: I read your husband and you have worked alongside each other on multiple ventures–a fact that I find beguiling. Do you believe as I read Koreans do, that blood type reveals personality? What blood types are the two of you?
BN: I think it’s fun to think about but It’s not always accurate. I’m type B, which supposedly means I am aggressive and blunt. So that is right. My husband is type O, which means welcoming, patient and warm and he is definitely those things. He’s the one who cooks, is hands-on playing with the kids and affectionate. I am the one who organizes and cleans the house. The combination works well.
ME: Favorite Korean dramas:
BN: Crash Landing on You, Iris and It’s Okay That’s Love are some I’ve enjoyed.
ME: Your latest venture:
BN: Boram Post-Natal Retreat emerged out of my own personal experience as a new mother. After my son was born in 2014 through a planned C section, my recovery was challenging and I didn’t have the right supports physically or emotionally. It took me two years to feel better. At the time, my friends in Korea were checking into post-natal retreats(sanhujoriwon) and i realized that we don’t have these hotels here for new mothers and there is a need. I had the perfect name for my business-Boram, my own name. Boram is Korean for”the fruits of one’s labor.”
What we offer is a luxurious, carefully researched retreat for new mothers at the Langham hotel in New York City. We have the ninth floor including 16 rooms for guests, a mother’s lounge and a nurse’s station where nurses are on site 24/7 to care for babies and provide post natal education. It’s unique for combining hospitality with a nurse station for 24/7 baby care, which allows the mom to have quality time to bond with the baby, receive education about post natal care and have time for herself. We provide 3 chef-prepared meals a day with special foods for new moms, post natal massage, SoKo Glam beauty products for guests, and education about lactation and self-care etc. (Though there are post-natal facilities in L.A.’s Koreatown and other places, they are focused on new moms who are Korean).
ME: This sounds idyllic. I love my kids but I would have sent them spinning on a platter to that nursing room to get some sleep/mental rest weeks after childbirth!
As someone who struggles to find community, I heard about your retreat and thought it sounded like a luxe kibbutz (minus of course, hard labor). I could have used a support system/community as a new mom. Seems your retreat would be a good way to make mom friends and start creating some community. Is that another goal of this space other than supporting moms individually?
BN: Glad you asked that. Definitely. The mother’s lounge (that is stocked with healthy snacks new moms need), is a place for movie nights, education about post natal care and lots of bonding. It took me a year to make mom friends so I recognize the need to foster that bonding early on.
ME: Do you offer any Korean fare at Boram Care?
BN: We offer seaweed soup and bone broth that is so nutritious for new moms.The menu isn’t specifically Korean but is nutritious, tasty and chef-prepared.
ME: Seems like a great moment in time to shine a spotlight on post-natal care (or lack therof) in this country of ours. I like how you frame the post natal period as “the fourth trimester.” For me and many women, it’s the hardest one!
I’m intrigued that Korea has many of these post-natal retreats for new moms, some of them less costly. Can you imagine a world where there are these retreats for all new moms?
BN: We’ve been in talks with various employers to see if they would provide the retreat as part of employee benefits and want down the road to work with insurers to see if we can provide services to a wider group of mothers but i realize the necessity for all new mothers in this country.
ME: Do you think the prominence of Korean culture (beauty, food, music, films and shows etc) is accurately described as a wave (the Hallyu wave)? Wave kind of implies a sudden emergence that sounds fleeting to me.
BN: What you have to remember is it did not come suddenly. Korean beauty has been around forever. Kpop has been huge in SE Asia and therefore Asian-Americans have caught on for a while and of course social media brought all of this new exposure. Korean dramas have reached beyond Korea for a long time. I like to call it a network effect and mirror exposure–it was a slow progression of things that came together in one fruition. I think it’s here to stay.
ME: I like to joke that one indicator of the Hallyu wave is there are a lot more Asians white people can mistake me for now. Ever been mistaken for an Asian celebrity and if so, who?
BN: In college, Lucy Liu was pretty much the only well know Asian female celebrity so I remember people telling me I looked like her, which I found offensive because i don’t look anything like her; we both just have long black hair.
ME: She must have shouldered some burden as the sole Asian-American household name. Poor Lucy!
Let’s test as a reflection of the rise of Korean culture today, how many Korean-Americans you can name right now on this Zoom:
BN: I’m bad with names but I can name Juju Chang, a news anchor I like, Steven Yeun from Walking Dead, Chloe Kim and Daniel Dae Kim of Lost are what come up fast.
ME: Not bad! Better than it would have been ten years ago, I imagine.
I don’t know about you, but my tolerance re being mistaken for other Asian women is wearing thin. What’s your reaction to mis-recognition?
BN: I find it annoying when it happens to me but when it happens to my son, i am offended. At school, teachers have repeatedly mistaken him for other Asian students. My son gets offended. I tell him to correct the teachers and he says has already done that. He asked me to complain so I did and the school apologizes but it does offend me. But we just have to stay positive and try to educate people.
ME: My kids who are half Caucasian and half Korean struggle to feel Korean as I don’t know the language.(I’m adopted). How do you keep your kids immersed in Korean culture? Is that seamless or do you have to make a big effort to expose them?
BN: I try to speak to them only in Korean but they are at the ages when they want to speak only English. I take them to Korea once a year, enjoy Kpop with my daughter, feed them Korean food every day and take them to Korean church on Sundays. My son also takes Taekwondo.
ME: I see. This is admittedly troublesome to me; even two straight-out Koreans your husband and you have to make such Herculean effort!
Tell me some things you like about being Korean:
BN: The culture, the food, the respect for elders and jeong, a Korean concept that is hard to translate but basically means a deep connection,affection for others that is built over time and through shared experiences. My friend Charlotte Cho (co-founder of Soko Glam) wrote a wonderful and short book about jeong that I highly recommend. It’s called The Little Book of Jeong.
ME: Things you dislike about being Korean:
BN: We are feisty, get angry easily and we do it collectively. That can lead to a bully culture, which is the side of Korean culture that is not the best.
BN: Wine. I’m pretty health conscious and do Pilates but i drink wine.
ME: What is something you are not good at?
BN: Cooking and I am also too blunt.
ME: Favorite Covid-era craft you have tried:
BN: None. I am bad with my hands. Even doing my daughter’s hair is a struggle. I am good at cleaning and organizing.
ME: I recently read some young Koreans are questioning the Korean use of honorifics, do you get offended if honorifics are not used for you?
BN: If it’s a Korean person who understands honorifics, yes I like their use.
ME: I am not in that category so I won’t attempt using honorifics today but know that if I understood them, I’d use one that shows my humility to you for spending your time with me ( but also highlights the fact that you are younger than I).
As i’m too old to have another baby, I can’t aspire to stay at Boram Care myself but I will spread the word to expectant moms I meet because it looks incredible and unique. Thank you for your generous time Boram. xoxo
ME: I managed the impossible: I got you and your sister to watch a Kdrama with me–Extraordinary Attorney Woo(a popular and fantastic Netflix aired show about an autistic attorney). We’ve discussed a few shows with autistic characters and you usually have serious critiques and find them unwatchable. What makes this show not cringe-worthy to you?
SON: To clarify, it was my friend who told me about the show, not you! But Attorney Woo is a full-fledged, interesting person beyond just being autistic. She’s one of the first autistic characters I actually related to, because 1) she’s usually the one doing the narrating/explanations for the audience about what autism is and her experiences, and her descriptions feel authentic and non-pathologizing, as opposed to most other shows where a non-autistic side character is doing it, and 2) she is a full-fledged, interesting character beyond just being autistic. The show also breaks down a lot of stereotypes about autistic people, such as the idea that we can’t feel empathy, can’t be in romantic relationships, etc, which I appreciated.
ME: I love the friendship of Attorney Woo Young-Woo and her firecracker, quirky best friend Dong Geu-ra-mi. It makes me regret I passed my youth without a signature friend greeting like theirs that has been widely imitated by fans and of course by our family. See video and the imitators.
Ready to drum up a signature mom-son greeting?(We don’t have to dab)
SON: Alas, no such greeting will be obliged.
ME: In honor of Attorney Woo’s loyal bestie Dong Geurami we made her sloppy, easy-to-make-looking gimbap that she makes Attorney Woo(the #1 fan of gimbap). Did you like it?
SON: I found this edible and pretty tasty, but I can see why a gimbap purist might not like it lol. It sucks all the essence out of these ingredients: it’s messy and doesn’t have the aesthetically pleasing vibe that I love about a lot of Korean food.
ME: Attorney Woo has special interests: whales, law and gimbap. Is it a myth that all autistic people have special interests? What if any are yours?
SON:I think it’s true that most autistic people have special interests, but the degree to which these interests are distinctly “autistic” as opposed to neurotypicals having really passionate obsessions (eg. you blabbering on about your dream country houses and me exasperatedly trying to get you to stop to no avail) depends on where on the spectrum someone is. In the media, special interests are often portrayed as these all-encompassing compulsions that consume the entirety of a person’s life: Attorney Woo relates everything back to whales, is constantly offering up her rote memorized facts, and is completely oblivious to when others are not interested. Whereas me and a lot of my late- or self-diagnosed autistic friends often have these same joyful, intense interests, but they’re able to talk about other things and won’t launch into a monologue if it’s clear the other person isn’t interested. I’ve never been the kind of autistic who’s able to memorize rote, concrete facts: I remember having a deep special interest in alligators as a kid because I thought they were cool, but not caring enough to actually remember facts about them. My current special interests are: writing, queer literature and theory, frogs, mushrooms (the non-psychedelic kinds for any concerned adults reading this!), social justice and anti-oppressive movements of all flavors, the history of neurodiversity activism, and creative DIY projects.
ME: Having special interests seems like a boon not a liability.
SON: Most of the time it’s a very positive thing! the sheer joy autistics experience when talking about our interests is something I pity the rest of you for never getting to experience. it feels like a soft ball of rice squishing my brain. there’s a really good article by this old, defunct autism blog that explains this joy beautifully:
“I pity anyone who cannot feel the way that flapping your hands just so amplifies everything you feel and thrusts it up into the air. I pity anyone who doesn’t understand how beautiful the multiples of seven are, anyone who doesn’t get chills when a shadow falls just so across a solitaire game spread out on the table. I pity anyone who is so restrained by what is considered acceptable happiness that they will never understand when I say that sometimes being autistic in this world means walking through a crowd of silently miserable people and holding your happiness like a secret or a baby, letting it warm you as your mind runs on the familiar tracks of an obsession and lights your way through the day.”
ME: One episode of Attorney Woo has a sub-plot that involves a female attorney having a poop accident at work. (Don’t groan at my reference, but it reminded me of an episode of Sex and the City when Charlotte pooped in her pants). I’ve heard Koreans are a little obsessed with poop, e.g, they have a popular poop cafe in Seoul. What’s your take on a poop obsession?
Is this poop cafe a necessary stop for our upcoming trip to Korea?
SON: Why not? I’m… very intrigued by what this cafe would look like. Like, is the food actually… poop-themed or is it just that the general aesthetic of the cafe radiates poop? I also like the “anti-procrastination” Korean cafe I saw on TikTok: you tell the staff there what project, assignment etc you’re working on and they take your phone away and don’t let you leave until you finish, then bring you unlimited sweets once you’re done. It seems like a magical place for both our ADHD minds!
ME: I am sold!
Anyways, enough re Attorney Woo (for now). Let’s talk other entertainments.
A good novel I just read, Either/Or by Elif Batuman, discusses Kierkegaard’s same-named work in a way that makes me curious so I’ve been, as you know, all summer hunting for this philosophy book in any bookstore we go to. (I recently on beach vacation shrieked in delight to the alarm of the man behind the cash register when we found it in a tiny bookstore with literally 10 philosophy books). As a philosophy novice with ADHD, what are the realistic chances, I will read this cover to cover?
SON: Pretty slim: devouring dense, complicated philosophy texts does not exactly seem like your area of strength. I’m in the same situation: I’ve been wanting to read Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality for a while now because it’s considered, like, one of the foundational texts of queer theory, but can’t decipher one word of his obfuscating, esoteric language.
ME: What was the best thing we ate at Porcelain (Korean-Chinese fusion restaurant in Ridgewood, Queens whose Korean-American adoptee chef I am interviewing for this blog) today?
SON: The glass noodle dish was SOO good! i have never seen fat glass noodles like that in my history of Korean food consumption. (photographed below)
ME: Were you disappointed we didn’t go to my big college reunion in August?
SON: Not really? Being led around and begrudgingly introducing myself as “Elissa’s son” to all your 40 year old college friends is not exactly my idea of fun. I’m mostly relieved that I don’t have to constantly hear you agonizing over whether or not to go every second of the day anymore!
ME: Best book you have read for summer required reading:
SON: Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters.
ME: Best non required reading of the summer:
SON: Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Here are a few especially moving/well written parts (I annotate my books because I’m a huge nerd):
ME: In summertime, we always play a silly made up family game when we have pool access; we do a cannonball as we yell “Rock on—–!” sarcastically, e.g., “Rock on Ron DeSantis!”
In that vein, give us a Rock on….
SON: rock on, white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy!
ME: Show me something you crafted recently:
SON: these patches I made for my denim jacket over vacation:
ME: Show us something in your room that you prize:
SON: this mushroom poster!
Thanks for agreeing to do this again! That might satiate me for a while. xoxo
I briefly researched the number 60, which means I skimmed Wikipedia in preparation for my 60th post. I felt I had to justify the undeniable pride I am feeling about making it to this somewhat arbitrary number. To my surprise, when I recently printed out my posts–many of them quite wordy– I had a veritable tome! But the only interesting association with the number 60 is that Jean-Luc Godard’s sci-fi movie Alphaville had a sentient computer character named Alpha 60 that sought to eliminate human emotions, poetry and love from the movie’s fictional universe. Godard’s movie that I have not seen, is supposedly about the “potentially catastrophic uses of computers to enslave rather than liberate humanity.” What a perfect association for this post that celebrates my blog and computer usage!
Playing a role in enslaving humanity is a small price to pay for the joy I’ve received sharing my post with you.Though I hope Godard was wrong about computers destroying us.
New goal for this blog: prove Godard wrong! Blog to spread more emotion, poetry and love! (Hey, as K-dramas are all about emotion, poetry(hmm?) and love–watch more K-dramas!) I like that. (It’s clear I’ve been living under a rock as I am not familiar with Alphaville (but I do remember that band with that name and their song “Forever Young.”) I think i’ll watch it as it’s spawned a lot of discussion and i like Godard).
Since I set up this blog in November 2021, my best friend from middle school Michelle, a busy artist in San Francisco has been my pro bono creative coach/supporter. Michelle is someone who in her spare time not only dreams up theme parties but executes them enviably well. When the song “99 luftballoons” was a radio hit long ago, Michelle created a website for a related theme party, bought 99 red balloons, blew them up with friends and stuffed each one with the website information so people who found the balloons could contact her via the site. On an impossibly photogenic day, her friends and her partied on a rooftop and took photos of the balloons’ glorious release into the sky. For some time after the party, she received enthused messages from finders of these balloons. The list of her creative projects and ideas is endless. An adoptee like me, Michelle once silk-screened the images of the pages from her adoption file onto a baby blanket–an evocative, beautifully done art project. After years of advising artist friends and inspiring them for free, she’s begun her job as a creativity coach; her first client: me. I know she will brilliantly define this position and will totally shred.
My need for her service is immense.Michelle affirms that I am an artist and writer despite my self-publishing and lack of renumeration. As someone who understands the struggles of having ADHD and sticking to long-term projects, she is the perfect coach. She and I love to discuss what is inspiring us lately.
In this post, I’d love to delve into THINGS THAT INSPIRE ME:
Art: Among Michelle’s first assignments: a) see a live art exhibit at least once a month and b) buy Art Forum every month, tear out images that excite me and hang them on a board. When it comes to the first assignment, not to brag but I’m an Honors Student or more like Valedictorian. In the past two months I’ve seen at least six art exhibits: Virgil Abdou etc at the Brooklyn Museum, Faith Ringgold at the New Museum, Frieze art fair, Met costume exhibit, Scenes from the Collection at the Jewish Museum and The Holocaust: What Hate Can Do at the Jewish Heritage Museum. Though I have scant credentials other than a lifetime love of art and an art history class or two under my belt. let me be your wacky docent today.
I always knew Jean-Francois Millet was a punk artist for his times–depicting rural life and people as heroic when most deemed them unworthy subject matter. But this painting Shepherd Tending his Flock at the Brooklyn Museum stopped me in my tracks. This master gives us his usual rigmarole–beautiful rendering of light and shadow and yummy, thick brushwork. But check out my crappy photo above, which zooms up close to his cloak and what lies beneath. What’s with the quirky undergarments? How does one explain the unexpected jolt of pastel colors in the midst of all this realism! I’m imagining that an art restorer’s son snuck into his dad’s studio, got his hands on this painting and took some liberties with some colored Sharpies. That scamp! Alternatively, perhaps the artist, bored of realism but unwilling to court more controversy, shyly picked a shadowy spot to test out a new style. Third hypothesis: yours truly, your novice docent, may have read the signage next to the piece too fast and this could be the artist’s rough study, not a final painting. You pick!
Behold Philip Guston’s Red Cloth painting at the Brooklyn Museum. I am imagining those responsible for acquiring art for the Brooklyn museum slapping a conference table and shouting “Sold!” in unison to enthusiastically land this one over the artist’s more controversial paintings that have white hooded KKK-like figures in them. (This docent clearly has no knowledge of how museums buy art). As a non-Black person, I don’t want to comment on whether his work with the white hooded cartoon images is offensive but I hope the verdict is not guilty as I’m a fan. I like that his art incites conversations about race in America and I love his humorous style/vibe. I’m glad the Philip Guston Now exhibit is no longer being delayed as it was for some time due to controversy following the murder of George Floyd and the protests. Join me friends to see this show at the Fine Arts Museum in Boston before it closes. It will not be dull.
Another KKK-related painting? My daughter and I admired this work at the Jewish museum by Black artist Trenton Doyle Hancock (TDH. He's written that it involves an imagined meeting of Philip Guston's avatar (the cartoonish KKK figure) and TDH's avatar Torpedo Boy. TDH is, by the way, a fan of Guston's and similar to Guston, seeks to use humor to diminish white supremacy and create dialogue about race. My daughter and I were struck by the fun materials on this painting like cut up pieces of black fur and medicine bottle caps. This made me want to forage through my recycling bin and glue that shit down! The painting also reminds me of the charming children's book, Lookalikes Junior, in which every day objects are used but cleverly concealed in scenes.
Finding Under the Cloud, the above painting by American artist Albert Pinkham Ryder ( one favorite artist of mine) at the Met museum was a boon. His more iconic work, The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse)has been one of my favorite paintings for years. It’s moody, mysterious majesty! (The fact that The Race Track is at the Cleveland Museum of Art, in my mind, elevates Cleveland, a city I associate with bad politics, hyper-segregated neighborhoods and grim winters.)
As I’ve only ever seen one of his paintings in person, I was tickled to find this one as I impatiently barreled through a curious set of rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (rooms in which lesser known holdings are unceremoniously displayed in rows of dimly lit glass cabinets). A total pearl!
This above work appeals to me as someone who never went to art school and is deficient in techniques such as perspective drawing. I like the gaze here–focused downward on the shoes of this group and I appreciate the cool leaf-like patterns. I know that placing patterns like this, without the talent/know how, more times than not will destroy a perfectly awesome piece of art so I give this a standing O and wish i could own it.
The mind-altering Faith Ringgold exhibit at the New Museum surprised me. Check out her life-sized, expressive dolls I never knew she made. She worked with so many different materials and had so many styles, not just the awesome folky paintings and textile art I associated with her. She also made these hilarious quilts where she roasts famous artists like Picasso (see below) and highlights how artists appropriated African art without much or any credit. I bow down to you Faith.
This large painting, Self-portrait-tears, by Korean artist Dae-Won Yang delights me. I love the shapes and colors he uses to depict his Donggeulin (round man)– the artist’s avatar. He explores themes of isolation, inequity, evil and the search for the meaning of life. Sounds like my cup of tea. Plus his paintings use “interventions with textiles and iron clothed transfers.” Without seeing his art up close, I do not understand what I’m dealing with fully but I want to know more. And I want it in my house please.
2)Korean pop culture-kdramas and music.
You get it by now. I like Kdramas.
My tree house drawing (top image above) was inspired by scenes from my favorite new Kdrama, The Extraordinary Attorney Woo on Netflix. Attorney Woo, a brilliant autistic attorney hangs out in a treehouse and admires scenery with a woman whom she later learns is her birth mom. Watching this scene as an adoptee, I felt mopey and I hate to admit it, a tad teary. The drawing I completed ridiculously late that same night, turned out to be about what inspires me. My sad head on the branch is me when I watch shows/movies that deal with abandonment and/or reunions with birth parents. It also represents me when I can’t finish projects and get frustrated with myself. (The cartoonish character writing with a quill pen is the frustrated writer brain cell from the Kdrama Yumi ‘s Cells). I drew baby me on her own under the prickly looking blanket. (Note my crazy curly hair that I can’t believe I once had). I also added my kids who inspire me and my husband who is supportive of my odd projects. Finally, I drew some images representing Korean culture-Kpop (BTS) and Kdramas (man holding umbrella for woman).
3) Min Jin Lee’s Instagram feed. The Pachinko author turned unofficial Korean-American ambassador is a powerhouse who hobnobs with every Korean-American luminary and up-and-coming creator but does so with the humble, wide-eyed charm of a school girl (who happens to be worldly and erudite with off-the-chart communication skills). She’s forever raising awareness about anti-Asian bias and violence in an un-whiny way that feels palatable and introduces us to a torrent of amazing Asians. Her feed is like a jolt of always needed Asian self-esteem. Long live MJL!
4) My offspring. (I can’t include my son as he’s a private teenager wary of my blog and the multitude of ways I could embarrass him but my daughter on the other hand…
5) My Jewish family/Judaism.
Recently, my friend Aidah asked me why I don’t delve into my Jewish roots more on this blog. There’s so much to love much about Jewish culture. I’d hate to think I don’t focus on my Jewish connection (the fact I was adopted from Korea by a white, Jewish woman and was raised as a Reform Jew) because Jewish culture is not “trendy” in the way Korean culture is now. Egads that’d be despicable. Let me change course starting now.
When my teen son heard I had a distant cousin who was a Nazi hunter, he perked up in his seat–all eyes on me. My Cousin Basia/Bessy–distantly related to my mother– was a Nazi hunter who lived on West End Avenue. She wasn’t the Inglorious Bastards, gun-slinging sort but worked for decades behind a desk to locate the scummiest Nazis after the war had ended. When I knew her best, I was a bit of a mess–a mildly depressed teenager hiding beneath thick bangs. Bessy was in her mid to late eighties, retired and suffice it say, always happy to see me at her door.
During high school, I’d visit her most Sundays and read the actual hard copy of the NY Times to her for she had dim vision and a sharp mind. The spacious, art-filled pre-war apartment in which she lived stood in contrast to the small apartments mom and inhabited. I liked all the spaces for idle sitting-so many chairs and couches, which seemed like the ultimate sign of wealth to me. My mother once informed me that the somewhat gloomy small paintings in the foyer were done by famous Jewish artists who were distantly related–though now I can’t recall any of their names. I hadn’t been impressed.
When I’d enter her apartment, Basia’s Polish caregiver would warmly greet me in smiles and indecipherable Polish chatter. She’d direct me to a doily-clad table with homemade steaming Pierogi’s that I dearly loved. (Those mushroom/sauerkraut ones were solid). Then Bessy would inevitably amble into the room and in that one moment, standing at arms-length, would look up at me and glow; this woman of stooped shoulders, petite frame and brusque manner, never told me in so many words that she loved me, but with one of her wide, closed-lip smiles, I knew she accepted me and even cherished me.
I had no idea she was a badass though. I was after all just a self-absorbed teenager. How I wish I’d been more curious about her and asked her to regale me with Nazi hunting tales but I was often too busy planning a swift, graceful exit. Bessy would sit at the dining room table across from me, her spectacles drawn down to the tip of her nose, and roll the beads of the wooden necklaces she often wore in her fingers as she listened to me read. Yes, she’d sometimes drive me batty with her exacting manner–continually correcting my pronunciation of long, unfamiliar words but I’d smile at her sweetly and carry on. The worst part was that she would often make me repeat the word I mispronounced and then the entire sentence to boot. I’m not sure why she thought perfect pronunciation would give me a leg up. (Given all the time I spent on elocution, I’m unclear why I often still mispronounce words that are commonly understood). Nor did I emerge particularly well-informed, as I don’t recall absorbing any of the information I read. The news bored me back then, (though who am I kidding; today, it’s sometimes a gruesome chore to stay well-informed). I hope I read to her with some inflection and drama, though I was soft spoken and self-conscious, so I’m skeptical.
Some days, there were no Pierogies awaiting me. Those days, I had to make do with day- old pastries that Bessy would buy from the UWS bakery that offered half off after 5 pm each day. I’d sit and chew at them slowly and internally decry that someone with money could be so cheap. Or I’d go to the bathroom and wrinkle my nose at the fact that she was saving water by not flushing after each use. (In her defense, there was some kind of city-wide drought/shortage at the time so Bessy was the hero). If I was in a pissy mood, something de rigeur given my immediate family’s oft unstable financial state, the fact of adolescence and the incessant dirge of self-loathing that was hard to quiet, the trip to Bessy’s was particular gruesome. I remember carrying on some Sundays, pleading with my mother to be excused from my visit, but to mom’s credit, she never let me shirk my duty. For this, I’m grateful now.
Looking back now from where I am comfortably seated, I am awash in a haze of affection for this lady who was responsible for bringing many Nazi war criminals to trial and to consequence. Her eccentric habits that I once decried, in retrospect, made perfect sense given her family’s experiences in pre-war Europe, the Holocaust and afterwards. (See below re my Cousin Abrasha who was related to Basia. He was a Holocaust survivor). Recently, recounting memories of Basia to my son, I felt my loss again. For every stale croissant I endured, was a lady who rescued my mother and I from doom more than once (e.g., giving mom overdue tuition money for the many private schools I attended over my childhood—schools often beyond my mother’s means). Perhaps more than that, she was squarely on my team– bragging to her immediate family who were actually blood-related about my accomplishments-no matter how trivial; in my senior year of high school at Trinity, I handed Basia My Spiritual Journey, an essay I’d written for class about spirituality, adoption and being Korean and Jewish. I knew she’d be proud of the A my teacher gave me.
One Sunday, Basia returned my essay to me.She’d placed it a long yellow envelope and rest it on the table where we sat facing each other as usual. She charmingly dissected each and every page of my twenty-page essay as if she’d memorized each line–one hand on top of the envelope the whole time. When she was done, she took the essay out of the envelope and pressed it down with her palms. (My papers were always wrinkly then and are so now). Then, she stood up abruptly and without explanation, left the room. When she returned, she unearthed a felt pen from a deep cardigan pocket (uncharacteristically silent)and bent down comically close to my essay. Next to my teacher’s handwritten A, she wrote a wobbly plus symbol and handed my paper back to me, quite pleased. I still have my essay with that wobbly plus. Love you, Bessy!
Thank you for reading my 60th post (and thereby being complicit in my enslavement of humanity). I hope you stay with me until we reach 100 and beyond. Is that greedy?
This week, I learned about iyeolchiyeol, a Korean expression that means fighting heat with heat. Of course, this is relevant now as temperatures are skirting 100 degrees. New York City is responding to the dreadful heat wave by extending city pool hours, which makes some sense; however, I warn you from personal experience that excessive cranial submersion in a pool for many hours can be unwise. (As a teenager, one dull summer, I spent maybe 8 hours in my grandmother’s community pool in Ohio and all that submersion left me with a swol
menenges ? and some killer headaches so be warned! ). Apparently, keeping cool by staying someplace cold has it’s limits. Koreans seem to understand this; many Koreans believe that eating hot food or going to a sauna during a heatwave will help you overcome the heat by sweating a lot. I have always believed this! (Alas, further confirmation of my Korean-ness!)
I recall myself as a young woman wearing a long-sleeved shirt on the stifling nyc subway. This oddity caused a young man to ask me, concerned, if I was anemic. I was/am not anemic. I am often found in my own apartment wearing unseasonably bulky sweaters/hoodies as if I reside year-round in a winter log cabin. I was an enthusiastic fan of the 2020 celebrity-driven trend of wearing puffy coats during the summer (but never tried it myself.)
In part, I like wearing long sleeves as they prevent sunburned arms. I may be warped, but I’m convinced I’m cooler than those wearing flimsy tank tops and almost-naked wear. Incidentally, I like the look of balancing bare legs with a more covered top, which is very Korean of me. (To those who have seen my confused, haphazard outfits over my lifetime, it may surprise you that I have any heart-felt fashion principles. I do!)
As I start to plan a trip to Korea for my 50th birthday next year and to celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary, I ponder whether my family and I can tolerate my motherland in August–a month when weather can reach 100 degrees F. (I can’t be the only heat-hater who sometimes wishes the school calendar could be modified so that school ran through the summer and summer vacation began in the fall).
In the spirit of iyeolchiyeol and very much inspired by an article I read, consider having a party or at least a modest gathering of a few friends with this theme. Though for fun and benevolence, you might want to offer more traditional methods of staying cool as well.
1. Many Koreans believe that being scared cools your body temperature down, which is supposedly why horror movies are released during the summer in Korea. That said, invite friends to watch some of these creepy tales, especially the one about the murderous twin sisters that will surely leave you frost-bitten.
2. Serve hot drinks–Korean soju hot toddy anyone? Throw in some fun cold ones to be charitable to your guests.
3. Offer guests hand warmers, the kind you slip into gloves during winter or cave in and provide a more traditional cooling method: offer guests ice facial rollers that have been pre-chilled in your fridge for a delightful jolt of cold. Or a cheaper option that is popular in Korea is to put your Korean facial masks in the fridge/freezer for a short time. That is just good times.
4. Serve hot Korean soups like samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup) and/or my favorite Korean icy cool-off soup Naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles), which comes in a package at HMart and Amazon of course.
5. Though this is not quite on point/relevant to this post,I am obsessed with these in-demand jelly cakes by a Korean-American baker that look perfect for a hot summer day. They make me smile.
6.Require or cheerfully suggest guests come wearing their best winter gear–puffy coats, scarves, winter beanies and mittens to add an element of ridiculousness. Absurdity elevates most parties, no?
7. Use fans or put your a/c on that conserve mode that you may shun on hot days (of course not in a heatwave, that would be selfish!). The idea is to be a little warm but not too warm. You don’t want want your guests to wilt, abandon the party spirit and question your regard for their well being/curse you out.
7. Decor, decor, decor. Hang a string high across your party space. Draw jagged flames with permanent markers on clear, thin acrylic sheets and then cut out the flames. Use a hole punch on each shape and and hang flames off the main line. Or use layered colored felt to make flames. Draw other things that are hot/summer themed. Good Lord, use your sense of humor if you have one. This could look really rough-hewn if you do just what I wrote above.
In drawing my imagined party, i notably forgot to include any guests, which may be my way of acknowledging that my friends would not want to extend their heat-wave misery and melt at my party for my sheer amusement. Perhaps this party is limited to my immediate family–an agreeable lot who often entertains my passing fancies.
Stay cool either conventionally or try the Korean iyeolchiyeol way!
I admire those who have taken philosophy classes. Despite my scant knowledge of philosophy and decades ignoring my husband’s rows of frayed graduate school philosophy books on our shelves, I did once encourage a brilliant paralegal in my office to go to graduate school for philosophy instead of going to law school; surely the world needs more brilliant philosophers than a glut of attorneys. (Said paralegal ignored me and went to law school; go figure!).
Here is all I have retained about philosophy: Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am” and of course, tabula rasa–Aristotle’s idea that humans are born blank slates devoid of ideas and thoughts. I know, I know, I’m a human sponge (absorbing knowledge so effortlessly)!
I am left wondering if the Korean expression mu-nyeom-mu-sang has a negative or positive connotation. It could of course have a wholly negative meaning–as in the state of being stupid.
Indeed, it’s a fitting time to discuss being vapid. One study, whose merit I am in no position to evaluate, suggests humans are getting dumber over time. Of course today’s Republican populists (e.g.,Vance, Ron DeSantis)are competing to appear dumb. (Some are not pretending). I recently enjoyed reading a Politico piece about journalists’ hesitancy to call politicians like Kevin McCarthy dumb (a moment of civility) in favor of euphemisms like “he is a golden retriever of a man.”). I love a good euphemism.
It makes sense to discuss tabula rasa, the blank slate idea, given our Supreme Court’s recent overturn of Roe; the Court’s majority acted like newborns blinking into the light! Who can believe our top decision makers have also given the wink to New York gun owners– allowing them to don guns in public at a time of unprecedented mass shootings. Insane.
Or perhaps this Korean expression has a positive connotation. Could it mean being mindful, relaxed?
Mindfulness reminds me of my mother’s friend C, an artist and her husband M. C was into veganism, crystal healing and sound meditation in the 1970’s and beyond. She once escorted me, a shy girl who didn’t like singing or any sort of performing, to a white church-like building on St Mark’s Place for vegan Indian buffet and an afternoon sitting on the floor of a sun-lit meditation room with unknown adults; we chanted and banged tiny gongs for what felt like hours. (My self-consciously delivered ohms were very quiet).
One Thanksgiving at the Manhattan apartment C shared with her husband, C gifted me a pair of cardboard glasses that transformed light into a pattern of mini rainbows. What a delight! But I wrinkled my nose at the dining room table’s centerpiece, a large turkey made of tofu and stared gape-mouthed at the eccentric, warm guests such as a tall woman who introduced herself to me as Beeboo the Goddess of roller skating and looked the part with her flowing locks, bohemian skirt and turquoise skates that supposedly transported her through the streets of NYC.
I’ve indeed rolled my eyes at the cult of mindfulness. I recall the time I took classes with a yoga teacher who was a former prosecutor. When I once asked her the whereabouts of the restroom before class (admittedly, the restroom was clearly marked and-dope!-I just couldn’t find it), she looked up from her down dog pose, scowled at me and said “you’re such a spazz.” Kind. Years ago, my mother in law very generously once took me to a two-day yoga convention at the Marriott hotel where I sweated with the masses and observed well known yoga gurus preening in stretch wear; though I was loose-limbed and content afterwards, I felt a mild distaste. After all, mindfulness is the enemy of activism.
A little more recently (approximately 13 years ago) when I was pregnant with my first kid, I visited C at her art studio. She presented me with a small brass bowl and showed me how circling the rim with a brass mallet of sorts produced a high-pitched sound. Then she did the unexpected, she approached my pregnant belly as the bowl vibrated with its shrill sound. I let her but my mind revolted. Would baby really like this high pitch and secondly, did baby really need to be mindful inside my womb? I imagined for most babies there was nothing more chill than a womb. Maybe I was wrong.
However, despite a childhood sometimes ambivalent about deep breathing, I’ve emerged an adult who generally appreciates mindfulness. I now look back at family and friends who exposed me to what I used to denigrate as New Agey-ness, with affection. After all, being free of all ideas and thoughts sounds pleasant these days, especially at bedtime. (The world is going to hell in a hand basket, no?). Sour cherry juice, art-making/writing, heated milk, wine and/or meditation are sometimes not enough at night when a mind races. Both my kids have or have had in the past some sensory needs so I used to drag them across our apartment floors in a tight breathable sack to calm them before bed. (This is a real, occupational therapist-approved exercise, don’t worry). Perhaps, inside the sack, we can be brought back to a serene, womb-like blank slate! I will have to wrestle up an adult size and implore my husband to drag me across the floor before bedtime. I’ll report back. (Might be a good time to sand down our splintery, pre-war apartment wooden floors!).
Being unburdened by ideas and thoughts is a luxury for most Americans. Meditation, yoga retreats and tap therapy are not a part of many of my clients’ lives who work low-wage jobs, many of them disabled and/or caring for their parents and/or children. My single mom after adopting me on her own, has always struggled to relax and quiet the clutter of ideas in her head. I once took her on a work-related retreat to Puerto Rico and saw her in full clothing sitting oddly erect in her beach chair on the sand, probably fretting about many things. She has no muscle memory for mindfulness. I wish I could gift it to her.
What do you do to free your mind of thought? Pop bubble wrap? Perform sound bath meditation? (Justin Bieber) Give your money away (Keanu Reeves)? Have sex? Scream? (Madonna). (At my college, we used to collectively scream at midnight during exam week and it was good, clean Midwestern-style release).
For something really conducive to mind-blanking during these harrowing times, check out this unique mindfulness journal full of creative drawing/writing fun that my friend Maggie, a NYC psychologist recently published. Free your mind people! xoxo
I am one of those annoying people who has a new app idea every day but never follows through. More than eight years ago, I was obsessed with making an app that connected parents with like minded parents using a survey of interests, GPS etc. I was tired of hanging out with parents who barraged me with either complaints/boasts of their chlidren or complaints about their partners. I missed funny, off-color, sometimes worldly conversations that I shared with people before parenthood. I pined for friends like those of my youth who enthusiastically crawled on hands and knees through artist Christopher Buchel’s Chinatown installation that used an entire city building to create a world of bunkers, miniature classrooms and other scenes.
For if I had to endure the playground on days when i wanted to explore the city/go on new adventures, was it so selfish to want to sit with parents who were entertaining? To this end, I drew out the app idea and spoke to several developers who estimated it would cost me at least $15,000 to make and market this app. Even today, news of the Peanut app’s existence and other similar ones unreasonably still irk me as I never actually followed through. As my friend DB wisely asked me years ago, do you really want to dedicate your life to this app in lieu of all your other interests? (Thank you for that reality check, friend).
When my childhood friend Wendy told me about her new app, Attention, I eagerly checked it out. I had high expectations. Wendy is a witty, warm writer whose autobiography Microthrills made the L.A. times bestseller list years ago and whose lauded one-woman show in NYC detailed her unique upbringing as the daughter of a sex therapist. I knew her app would be original. It did not disappoint.
Even for tech-dolts like me, it’s a user-friendly app; you invite your contacts to join and if they accept, you can send each other what Wendy calls “Attentions”– text or emailed messages that can include voice messages, words and/or images you select. What makes it particularly useful is that you can schedule recurring Attentions; for example, if you know your friend visits her difficult mother every Sunday and it stresses her out, schedule it so that every Sunday morning, she gets an Attention with a photo of Joan Crawford or Medea and a voice message/text that will surely give her a boost/ a little smile. (There’s no way, I’d remember to text a friend every Sunday morning).
Another wonderful potential use of this app: delivering daily reminders/nags to your teenagers to do the basics, e.g., shower, practice their instrument etc. The clear advantage is teens love their phones and don’t so much like parental nagging, especially with the oft- paired exasperated tone. A cheesy example: send them a daily Attention with an image of Mo Willems’ dirty pigeon and your calm voice saying “take the plunge.”
You can even send Attentions to yourself–certainly more fun than Google calendar reminders. Try scheduling a reminder every few months to get your hair colored: “It’s time!” with a photo of Maxine Hong Kingston (the esteemed Chinese-American author with very gray braids whose look you shallowly do not want to mimic just yet. I apologize for gray-shaming).
I may have to send myself an encouraging Attention this August before heading to Carleton College in Northfield, MN for my 25th reunion as I am a reluctant reunion attendee, despite mostly appreciating my college years. My 10th reunion was a wholesale disaster—marked by throwing up behind a bush during an organized group morning run in the Arboretum and a subsequent trip to the Northfield, MN emergency room at three in the morning due to sharp tooth pain that signaled a need for an emergency root canal. Even at my granola, mid-western college, I couldn’t help notice the curious sedimentation of cliques and some huddles of alums spread out on lawns-seemingly impervious to outsiders. Other minor annoyances: noticing that a football player whom I’d previously classified as cro magnum after he once ate my entire box of Nutter Butters without apology or offers of replenishment, stood staring at me intensely multiple times at different times without approaching. (No doubt, he was recalling the year I roomed with his girlfriend and gave him continual stink eye for the Nutter Butter incident. My stink eye is no joke!).
I like to believe that humans evolve over time but reunions rarely have me thinking “we are living, breathing organisms that are capable of self reflection and change.” Perhaps that’s unfair as I’ve grown to be a slightly more gregarious, confident version of my college self but the change is like the baby hairs on my upper lip–barely detectable. But no matter, the glutton for punishment that I am will be steering my kids into a sweltering Minnesota August; as a friend realistically reminded me, this is most probably the last reunion we’ll go to before death. A Last Chance reunion.
I can’t overstate my need for Wendy’s app. Someone ought to send me some Attentions to provide much needed motivation to pack for a pending move (just a few blocks away from my current place) for we all know moving is a grind that forces you to judge your possessions and abandon the familiar. I’ve been skillfully practicing the art of delay and am distracting myself at night with sad efforts at painting (a skill not necessarily automatic for those who can draw). Though i am trying to streamline my worldly possessions, every notebook/book/Sculpie figurine we’ve made as a family is a cherished friend. Send me a daily Attention with a photo of the Unabomber’s no doubt hoard-ish abode and I will shed, shed, shed.
A recent conversation with my new-ish friend Mariko, a Japanese journalist living here for two years, inspired my upcoming little borscht fundraiser for Ukrainian families. This Sunday, I am displaying stuff in the hallway of my building and inviting friends and neighbors to add to the pile and/or donate any cash in exchange for junk. Get ready for a really odd mix of items e.g., see this pair of unworn cheap sunglasses that was marketed to me as necessary during COVID at the beach. Any takers? (If I make $20 for the day, I might be lucky).
monkey wearing my questionable “COVID prevention sunglasses.”
Any money we collect will go to buy borscht at Veselka’s restaurant in the East Village, a place that holds happy late-night memories for me and so many New Yorkers it seems. The restaurant is donating all borscht proceeds to Ukrainian families in need. It has been pointed out to me that it probably makes little sense to buy bulk borscht instead of just donating the money to Veselka’s to distribute but then the themed fundraiser is for naught. Plus who doesn’t love borscht?
If you are wondering where I am next week, I may be seated at my dining room table with those in my family who aren’t beet averse; we’ll be imbibing multiple bowls–our faces permanently stained purplish/red. You are welcome to join us for a bowl or better yet, asap suggest a food pantry I should contact.
*:someone who is clueless and can’t read the room/situation.
**an adjective describing a situation where you ask someone a question, wanting to hear a specific answer. The classic example:”Do I look fat?”
I have sympathy for the nunchiga eopdas of this world. Take the former attorney in the “prestigious” unit of my legal services office, our Special Litigation Unit (oft reserved for graduates of the Ivy League law schools) whom I barely knew but seemed in all the interactions I had to beautifully illustrate the Korean expression. One afternoon, I stood at the elevator bank telling a work friend how embarrassed I was in replying all to an email from our office’s training coordinator. The training coordinator had emailed everyone in our office to schedule summer trainings for our interns and somehow I emailed everyone in the office that I had to reschedule a training. I turned to my friend and said “just tell me, how bad was it?”, clearly asking her so that she could assure me that it wasn’t the biggest blunder (my question, a good example of the Korean expression Dab-jeong-neo). My sweet friend waived away my error, saying that in the universe of reply-all errors, it was small potatoes. Just as I was about to exhale, my relief was interrupted by this young attorney I barely knew who leaned into our conversation to say “actually it was kind of a big deal”and smirked at me.
Other examples you surely have experienced–the person at an excruciating staff meeting that has run way past it’s projected end time who decides to bust out ten compound sentence questions, seemingly unaware that everyone is about to tear their hair out.
I recently had dinner with a friend who told me stories about her father-in-law, a true nunchiga eopda. I told her about the Korean expression, which delighted her as she realized she can now utter this Korean expression after each insensitive comment without consequence. My friend also insightfully pointed out that Korean seems similar to Yiddish in being delightfully specific to human behavior and giving humor, sarcasm and joy to moments.(We couldn’t think of an equivalent English expression for Dab-jeong, a question someone asks only wanting one answer-can you?). Perhaps zhlub (an insensitive, ill-mannered person) is the closest Yiddish equivalent to nunchiga eopda? Raised Jewish by my white mom, I’ve always loved Yiddish so I’m tickled by the idea that Korean and Yiddish have any overlap/similarities. (See some of my favorite Yiddish expressions that remind me of some of the Korean expressions about which I’ve written: Hok a chainik (to talk too much, to talk nonsense), kibitz (to offer comments which are often unwanted during a game, to give unasked for advice), loch in kop (literally hole in head, refers to things one definitely does not need), ongepotchket (messed up, slapped together without form, excessively and unesthetically decorated)).
I could wax on about nunchiga eopdas forever. A few years back my husband was at a preschool birthday party making small talk with a particularly grievous UES private school parent. Talking to my husband about his food manufacturing business, this father thought it appropriate to complain about his ” fucking Jewish lawyer….” , clearly not looking at my husband (who is in fact a Jewish lawyer). When my husband, outraged and surprised, announced “I am Jewish,” this nuchiga eopda said, “oh, I meant my Persian Jewish lawyer,” –still not reading the room.
Another example I’ve already written about before involving our UWS, University of Chicago educated neighbor who once saw my husband’s collection of books about Nixon in our large library of varied books, which somehow spurred him to share that he is basically a white supremacist who believes in the hierarchy of the races in terms of intelligence and abilities. (To which my husband said “Your beliefs are evil,” and left him alone in our diningroom. We are not friends with him anymore).
There are offensive, horrid nunchiga eopdas and the more lovable kind, e.g. sometimes, my husband excitedly discusses his record collection/audiophile interests in a way that misreads the audience (my kids and I) but is nonetheless sweet–his passion admirable. I think of my son and I meeting a teenage boy at synagogue event last year who wanted to talk at length about video games. We listened despite our minimal interest in video games because the kid’s rant was so earnest and pure.
I’m particularly charmed by the expression dab-jeong-neo. Do you have examples of questions you ask just to hear compliments/affirmations? My six year old and I have a goofy game that offers a skewed take on this expression. I bend her backwards over my knee so her head dangles perilously close to the floor and ask her questions like “Who makes better pancakes, Baba (paternal grandma) or me?” Only if she replies “you do,” will I pull her up. Other questions I ask “who is a perfect, patient mother?” You get the drift.
ME: My teen son told me about your comics that he admires on Instagram and suggested I contact you. (He brought me luck as you promptly responded to my message. So generous of you!). It must be satisfying to be embraced by Generation Z and beyond. It’s not every artist in her thirties that can reach teenagers. Explain that gift:
ESJ: Haha! That’s probably the nicest compliment I’ve heard since the pandemic! I don’t think about reaching any specific group when I make comics. My comics are personal, raw and vulnerable using hand made props and sets. And I wonder if those aspects of my work may seem like it is approachable!? Maybe we are missing these elements today in real life when we interact with each other, so it feels fresh? Who knows, I’m grateful for all the love I can get!
ME: If stranded on a desert island, what 5 art supplies would you bring?
ESJ: I would bring an anatomy book (you can spend hours and days looking at human body parts), watercolor/gouache set (I usually mix these into into a travel palette), carving knife, plier and wire.
ME: Favorite new craft skill acquired during COVID:
ESJ: Experimenting with resin/ silicone mold making.
ME: Ooh that resin is a tricky business! I once tried mixing resin to make necklace charms with my kids in the basement of my in-laws house. My stinky liquid mixture never solidified. Also no one told me to crack open a window so I almost asphyxiated my entire clan. Nonetheless, carry on!
You sometimes share your journal with your notes and drawings. Do you have a favorite notebook? Favorite pen/pencil?
ESJ: My favorite used to be Moleskine pocket size sketchbooks, but lately I’m just using whatever empty sketchbooks/ notebooks/ journals I find at home. My recent goal is to finish unfinished sketchbooks. I also used to bind my own sketchbook with a bunch of weird maps/ papers I collected (earlier question) but I’m trying to really finish unfinished/ unused journals that I own. I’m very particular about the pencil! I have only been using the Pentel GraphGear 500 Automatic Drafting Pencil (0.5 mechanical pencil).
ME: I could listen to you wax on about sketchbooks and pencils forever (hint, hint-your future podcast about all things stationary).
Are you schooled in the Arts or self taught?
ESJ: My immigration journey began with art. I was very fortunate to have attended School of the Arts in San Francisco (now named Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts), a public, audition-based, alternative high school. I learned traditional art for high school- and went to San Jose State University to major in Animation/ Illustration. All the miniature and Koreangry work is self taught after college!
ME: Tell us more about your immigration story:
ESJ: I came here by myself at age 13, back in 2001. (Technically speaking, I was here as a tourist visa and overstayed my stay and became undocumented after 6 months of being here). How I came about is a bit blurry- my mom and halmoni thought I would have a better chance of living here than in Korea, so they booked me a one way ticket to the United States and enrolled me immediately in local middle school. I stayed with my halmoni (and my mom’s sister’s side were all here at the time) till my mom came after 3 years with my brother to join (but she eventually had to go back). I was very fortunate to receive DACA back in 2012, after living in the US for 11 undocumented years. I’ve adjusted status through my marriage back in 2016. Being undocumented has been a huge identity for myself–and I try to talk about my experience in work because for longest time it brought shame and drama in my life. I visited Korea back in 2017, for the first time in 16 years–and that experience baffled me. (My zine #6 is about homesickness) https://koreangry.gumroad.com/l/Koreangry6
I am currently a permanent resident (green card holder) and haven’t decided to become a US citizen yet, since I have to give up my Korean citizenship to do so.
ME: Where does your rage, so apparent in your art, come from?
ESJ: In the beginning my rage came from blatant racism I’ve experienced from strangers. Whether it was intentional or by mistake, I was tired of those uncomfortable interactions that I felt responsible for. This rage also came from the fact that I was not taught/ didn’t learn how to respond to these experiences growing up, from family to school. I was furious how normalized these experiences have been for myself for so many years. Looking back, I’ve been furious at myself for putting up with these moments and never speaking up about them.
ME: Kudos for channeling your rage in such a unique, productive way! Most of us just succumb to our couches and binge-watch shows—grumbling to ourselves about the idiocy of mankind. (Or maybe that’s just me).
I deeply admire your bravery in combining flagrant Korean pride with a critical eye. What are the top three things you like about being Korean:
ESJ: Fiery energy, compassionate, adaptable
ME: Top three things you dislike about being Korean/Korean culture:
ESJ: Stubborn af, too self-critical, gossipy culture
ME: Your art is unique for not only the words you use but the materials and scenes you create in such smart detail. How did you first come up with your unique artistic vision?
ESJ: I’ve always gravitated toward handmade miniatures, and I felt very true to my materials telling my story in that medium. I feel comfortable because I enjoy what I am making. It’s not clean and perfect; I love using recycled/ old/ found objects for my props and sets. This gives me a feeling of less pressure and helps me to not to be too precious about the things I create.
ME: Who else in your family is funny/creative/artistic or are you a diamond in the rough?
ESJ: I owe a lot of my art career to my public education in San Francisco. It didn’t come to my attention that my family were very creative people until recently. My mom just started learning how to draw and paint after she retired. My halmoni has been obsessed with coloring books for years. Seeing them pursuing creative activities now, I wonder if they weren’t in a position to pursue art in their time… which makes me feel both sad and very grateful. My family also enjoys a good crude joke here and there, and it doesn’t sit well at times, so I think that’s where my twisted sense of humor comes from.
ME: When did you first feel like an artist? Did a certain accolade cement the deal?
ESJ: I remember the very first time I visited an art store with a list of different types of materials I needed to buy for my first art class. I was simultaneously ecstatic and terrified by how much each of those materials cost… which is still a very true feeling I have as an artist, being excited about the materials you get to use to create your vision and being terrified of what it might cost ya.
ME: Can art change minds?
ESJ: Art can show you that there’s a whole lot of possibility in an angle, yet it allows you to decide whether you want to change your mind or not. In short, I like to believe that art can change your mind, but it doesn’t demand you to change your mind.
ME: I don’t know if you are like me in this–I try to (in minor ways) defy stereotypes about being an Asian woman, e.g. I like to tell people how much I dislike math and science (which I realize make me sound like a drip). I also tend to over-tip because I’ve heard a stereotype that Asians are bad tippers. Do you consciously do things to defy Asian stereotypes?
ESJ: Hmm that’s really interesting… If I’m hearing stereotypes about Asianness- I either ask why they think that way or I will just SHUT IT DOWN. I Love making art about myself and sharing too much about who I am online, and that itself probably speaks to me existing beyond the stereotypes placed on Asian women.
ME: You’ve written about your feelings/concern that Asians go in and out of vogue and how that impacts us. Myself, I keep thinking I better write a novel before we’re less trendy and we go back to being underrepresented peons! Are there things you want to do before time runs out?
ESJ: I’ve been frustrated by the public attention (even within friend groups) we get when we become trendy, but not during this rise of Asian hate crimes. I question this a lot. I feel as if the attention is intended to only serve the curiosities of the general public. My dreams have been changing here and there, but lately I’ve decided to focus on mental health and resting, so I can continue to do what I’ve been doing into the future.
ME: In one comic strip I admire (see part of it below) , you write that the Hallyu wave has failed us (Kpop, Kdramas, Kfood). Explain:
ESJ: The comic was coming from a place if Hallyu was so successful, yet why do I feel annoyed at our success? When it comes down to it, I feel as if I didn’t see myself in “our success; I didn’t see myself in this global phenomenon, because I didn’t agree with the effect of the Hallyu. Yet when the harmful sides of Hallyu come into question, I still feel responsible for it.
ME: I read about some Koreans being hostile to Korean female celebrities just for having short hair. I imagine your art which has highlighted the importance of Black Lives Matters and fighting for LGBTQ rights is met with some vitriol. How do you deal with the hostility?
ESJ: Absolutely not well. I have my go-to regimen. It was very hard in the beginning, but I learned to accept that in order to do what I do, I need to be off the phone, learn social media tools to protect myself (getting easier with block, delete, auto-delete specific words), and don’t think too hard about hostilities. I KEEP thinking about new ideas, new projects, and new things to work on outside of my comic as well, which helps a lot. I also like to remind myself how good it has been to connect to many other Korean Americans through my comic, so I try to remember that 🙂
ME: What are your self-care musts:
ESJ: An iphone game I call Burger game, dog video watching, lighting incense, and eating good food with my husband.
ME: Pussy Fire Art (PFT)! Elaborate please:
ESJ: This comic came from the self-realization that I’ve been leaning on my fiery anger to create my comics, but often felt burnt out from that. But I’m learning to channel that same fiery anger to use in my favor to keep going with passion, without getting burnt like a toast!
ME: What are the best conditions for your art making? Do you listen to music? If so, who? Do you eat snacks and if so what? Do you wear certain outfits?
ESJ: Love listening to music, used to love drinking wine (currently on hold). Don’t eat any snacks when I work, since I have a lot of stuff so I don’t want to accidentally eat something that I shouldn’t! I love wearing comfortable outfits so I can use the bathroom quickly.
ME: Do you come from a family of revolutionaries or how else do you explain how you emerged as such an iconoclast?
ESJ: I like to believe that my unconventional immigration story of having been undocumented for many years built up who I am. My existence was a questionable hot debate within our family. I’ve been in protests full of anti-immigrant Americans (including Asian Americans) screaming to go back to where I came from- that I need to come to America the “right way”. In a way, I have become an iconoclast since the day I arrived in the US. My arrival disagrees with beliefs about what I should be like as a good immigrant, who also happens to be an Asian woman.
ME: You speak and write Korean fluently, did that take effort on your part or was the Korean language handed to you a tray?
ESJ: I came to the United States when I was 13– and I was a huge reader. It’s really sad to think that I really tried to get rid of my Korean accent to be accepted by Americans. I kept up reading and writing in Korean, however– and I’m very proud of how fluent I am in Korean. But I’m absolutely clueless in “cool” Korean slang, abbreviations, and have to rely on translating dictionaries for complicated words.
ME: Something that is hard for you:
ESJ: Writing! Writing is incredibly hard
ME: Korean drama that makes you proud (I know you have criticisms of them):
ESJ: I don’t know if I can say I’m proud of any Korean drama, but I do enjoy the zombie series “All of us are dead”
Things you splurge on:
ESJ: I definitely splurge on tools. I love investing and upgrading tools that I use.
ME: In one of your comic strips, your character breaks up with a guy and he criticizes you for once spending $200 on clam chowder. I’m a chowder fan so this piques my interest.
ESJ: Hahah! I used to work at a store in San Francisco Pier 39 in high school and it was such a nostalgic time of my life. In the beginning of the pandemic I was craving clam chowder desperately, and the Boudin store sells fresh sourdough bread with clam chowder with an overnight shipping option only. So, naturally—I ordered $200 worth of clam chowder!
ME: I used to think it was kind of charming how Koreans have an intricate set of terms marking relationships by age and gender but now I see its limitations. Tell us your thoughts:
ESJ: It’s very binary and limiting to gender for sure. It’s tricky since Korean language hasn’t kept up with new ideas and (pre-existed) non-binary, trans friendly terminology. When I was trying to translate some of the comics, this was definitely an issue that I’ve faced–it is limiting, hard, and confusing to know. I wonder if there’s any time we can come up with more inclusive terminology in our language.
ME: Favorite Korean dishes:
ESJ: Too many!! Kimchi-Jji-ggae, Cheong-gook-jang, Goat soup, OX bone tail soup
ME: Korean-American artists we should know about:
ESJ: TOO MANY!!! I’ve been part of the Korean American Artist Collective (@kaacollective), I’d absolutely recommend the whole group to see who/ what we do/ where we are!
ME: Top things that non Asian people ask/say that offends you:
ESJ: Any question starts with “I’m not try to offend you, but” and if they only ask 1 thing about Asian book/ movie/ song that just came out
ME: Three adjectives you hope no one uses to describe you:
ESJ: High-maintenance, fragile, pure (ANY type of anime reference)
ME: As someone who has always been too shy to really flirt, I’m strangely fascinated the Korean aegygo concept. In one episode of a Kdrama I like called Yumi’s Cells, a female friend is teaching the main character how to speak cutely and adorably to her new boyfriend–demonstrating an odd sing song-y voice and how to pretend to be too weak to open a water bottle. What’s your reaction
ESJ: I almost cussed! My genuine reaction is…da fuck?
ME: Not sure if you’ve watched the kids movie Turning Red. Though I enjoyed it, I was mildly annoyed by the lingering stereotypes of the mother and grandmother who seemed a bit like tiger/dragon ladies to me. Can you think of movies/shows where Asians are presented truly without bias/stereotypes?
ESJ: I love LOVE Turning Red! (and totally see what you mean!) The most recent example for me is `Everything Everywhere All at Once`, it’s fantastic (though not for kids). It truly defies the traditional role of Asians! Over the moon is also a super cute Netflix kids animation! I honestly hope to see this list grow next year 🙂
ME: Leave us with the top things that anger you now:
ESJ: Haters on social media, “fans” who are secretly demanding my content to be changed for x,y,z reasons…LA Parking tickets
ME: Here’s to your PFA and boundless success and joy to come!