한Han*, Hair Rollers and controversial hand gestures

Marvel’s Voices: Identity#1, “New York State of Mind” by Maurene Goo and illustrated by Lynne Yoshii. The two main superheroes in this story are Korean-American and are here discussing the concept of han.
Image from same comic book

*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.

more Koreans parading around in pink curlers

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.

Michelle in San Francisco

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.

Michelle’s friend Jeremy who cu donned a curler, curious what the fuss is about
These are real shoes not slippers I swear

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.

Korean judge in curlers

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.

Model Gigi Hadid
Bradley Cooper

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!

Lisa in Philadelphia joyfully wearing her protest curler. ” It was definitely fun and liberating! People in West Philly (my neighborhood) are so open and progressive that nobody really cared or noticed! They’re used to seeing much weirder things. I even went into a shop and talked to the cashier who was looking at me completely straight faced  like I didn’t even have this giant curler on my head. Hilarious. So I was the one who was eager to tell her, and I started with “So you may have noticed that…” And she was more than happy to hear me tell her the whole story.”

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.

Rosario in curlers outside. As she wrote to me”This is from 2 years ago, and I went outside like this (with a net over my head). I travelled on the train from Manhattan to the Bronx, to volunteer at a community center that predominantly serves low-income Hispanic families and their children. No one questioned me or thought I looked strange. Like me, the adolescent girls I tutored were all Hispanic and one of them also had a “dubi” which is a way that freshly straightened hair is wrapped around the head, to retain bounce and prevent reversion. She did however feel relieved when she saw me, because she wasn’t the only one whose hair wasn’t fully done.”
Kids wearing curlers. They got a kick out of wearing them and giggled down the streets of NYC. All I told them was that this was trendy in Korea for young women. A lot of grown ups grinned and stared appreciatively.
Mary in NYC. “When I first walked into the kitchen with them when we were on our way out the door, Noah was like “Oh my God what are you doing?” Then “it is really adorable.”
My doorman eyes got wide when he saw, but then smiled behind his mask, and said they looked nice, and when I came back, this time not wearing them, he asked me what happened? Like he missed them. I got a lot of looks, even a couple of people looking back after they had past me to try to figure out what I was doing, calmly reading on a bench. But everyone else I saw were strangers and didn’t say anything, except I did see quite a few smiles, like people enjoyed them.”
Michele, NYC. “Adults didn’t even notice it. Kids thought it was funny but not weird! Don’t even think my husband noticed it. Point being that beauty treatments have become an  externally cool vibe now – so walking around w a roller in one’s hair is an ode to a new hair do.” 
Susan, New Jersey. ” I did go into a local cafe with the curlers on and it was an interesting experience.  Some of the other patrons stared at me a little bit but then just went on with their business.  As you can see from his facial expression in the first picture, the cafe barista thought it was clearly odd that I had curlers in but I think he might have just thought I was a very busy mom (or a busy forgetful mom) and didn’t have time to finish my hair before coming into the cafe!  It was like this touch of surreal oddness in the midst of this uber normal domestic scene (since I am also very friendly and chatty, like you are, I think the extroversion and warmth of my personality made the contrast with the odd curlers even more stark.)  The barista was super friendly though – maybe friendlier than he would have been to distract from the weirdness – and did not mention it.  My daughter was the most annoyed, because she is nearly 8 now, and probably felt a mix of being embarrassed of me (adults are weird!) and admiration that I would do something so silly for a friend.  There was a small sense of transgression to it – doing something that you are technically allowed to do but society tells you not to.  I realize how rarely we all commit transgressive acts of any kind (the one I remember most from my past was dressing up in costume as a bloodied Iraqi civilian after the U.S. invaded Iraq and marching through the Capitol in that costume with other activists protesting the war (!), so it has been a long while and that was obviously way more transgressive and meaningful). But it was fun to be even a tiny bit transgressive for even a small time. It makes you realize that most of the fears you have about judgment from others really are in your own head. Added benefit: my hair retained a really nice wave all day!!  
Susan and her daughter Cordelia

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!

It’s good to know that it’s more than sheer vanity that makes South Koreans interested in outer appearance; as I learned, in South Korea many job applications still require a photo and include questions about height and weight (which thank goodness is not common practice in the United States). One western journalist in search of why South Koreans are such “lookists,” interviewed Professor Suh, a Korean psychology professor; as Professor Suh explained: “One factor is that, in contrast to Western cultures, the external aspects of self (your social status, clothes, gestures, and appearance) versus the inner aspects (thoughts and feelings) matter more here.” This mentality is partially explained by Confucianism, which teaches that one’s treatment of others is most important. “In Korea, we don’t care what you think about yourself. Other people’s evaluations of you matter more.”

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!

quick drawing of the man in pink elephant costume at Gangnam protest 2016

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.

Lizzie in NYC: “I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week and had a lot of thoughts but never got a chance to write something out. It essentially boiled down to I find this a cheeky reminder that beauty isn’t effortless (she didn’t just “wake up like this” and she probably wasn’t born with it— it’s probably Maybeline). I find it harder to defend as a protest of domestic roles because it creates more work for person doing it without actually changing any of the expectations or communicating what things specifically need to change. The thoughts aren’t as eloquent as I would have hoped but I very much enjoyed getting to think about it this week!”

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).

another hurried sketch ( Man on Solidarity’s leader)

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.

When the above ad for Korea’s largest convenience store ran in early 2021, men’s groups protested it arguing it demeaned men. Although the company denied this, the ad was pulled. (It seems the mini sausage, supposedly innocently placed to sell sausage, made the ad suspect).

Another canceled ad, allegedly offensive for using the pinching symbol. This is insanely silly.

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?

Ok symbol turned symbol of hate
gesture indicating small size turned gesture indicating a small penis
Me en route to Jury duty in my hair curler. If they select me, good Lord I’ll be surprised. (Is it me or did I channel a 1950’s Sha Na Na look here?)

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!) When i returned to the courthouse and got 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)

Mariana in New Jersey, American Dream mall
Hannah in her curler, Brooklyn, New York.“This was fun! It brought back memories of me at age 12 waking up early to curl my hair with a curling iron and age 13 wearing curlers in my hair all night long so that I could have pretty curls in the morning and then at age 14 getting my first perm! I got my second perm at 15 and was a total poodle for a couple of years! I really wanted curly hair! I still love putting my hair in a tight bun after showering and wearing it all day like that in my work as a nurse and then taking it out of the bun in the evening and watching me have wavy/curly hair for at least a few minutes! Lol! 
Cousin Leah in Ohio
Viva joins the curler gang (from San Francisco)
Natalie In Massachusetts (daughter of Peggy below)
Peggy in Massachusetts enjoying a curler outing.”Reactions: nothing which was the funny part!  Natalie (above) walked through the mall and people just went about their business and asked if we needed help etc.”
FCL in Washington near Seattle.”I wore curlers out this morning on a Sunday stroll around the neighborhood. Andy was embarrassed, adult passersby averted their gaze for the most part (or stared inconspicuously), but a small child on a bike couldn’t take her eyes off me. It was fun. Lesson learned: You can wear anything as long as you have an attitude to match! PS Do I get bonus points for wearing 2 rollers? “
Miriam in Portland, OR
Miriam and her friends.”In my separate identity crisis of being a middle aged suburban mom I realized that I was actually quite afraid of what other parents (who I’m just now starting to meet) would think. I didn’t want to start in the  kindergarten circle with the wrong curler induced impression.So I asked some fellow kindergarten moms to accompany me for moral support. Turns that they loved the idea? Two of them expressed very mild disappointment they I didn’t supply curlers for them to wear. At any rate three of them met me for lunch.”
Jessie in Nyc eating at an UWS Malaysian restaurant with me

Chloe Kim, slanted-eye pride, “vibe shifts”* and platform phobia

A quick, silly sketch of the the video for Sesame Street’s new anti-Asian bullying song. (I added the new Korean-American puppet)

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.”)

Signals,Tarot Cards and the Year Ahead

My Kdrama tarot card. I hope i can make more but I doubt I can do all 72 or whatever the number typically in a pack.
The Tower tarot based on Kdrama the Penthouse. The tower is Hera Palace.
The Devil, inspired by the Penthouse’s awful male villain with his bomb detonator in hand
Tarot of Kdrama The King and tarot of the Queen from the Red Sleeve. Black and white better than color below? Not sure.
kites as signals from a scene from the Red Sleeve, a good kdrama on viki.com

This candle works! I swear!

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 years of my childhood. 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)!!

Holy tarnation I hate double sided tape and trying to tie string to silky bamboo sticks…ARGHHH

Trollstice (Traditions) and Treehouses

Just discovered the Korean rapper Audrey Nuna. I’m liking her song “Damn Right.” It’s probably not a current song but I found a Korean rapper i like. I’m sure there are more to discover.
King Gristle afraid of Poppy’s avalanche of holiday suggestions from Netflix film Trolls Holiday.
A drawing I had fun doing one night when I had writer’s block. I find if I do not draw daily, my drawings suck. I think I’m showing a little Improvement drawing body poses after getting back into nightly drawing habit. But for every ok hand drawn, there’s a crap one close behind. See bad hand on the guy on the right. Oy!
The treehouse scene in Kendall’s birthday episode of Succession made me laugh. If I had a treehouse made for my adult birthday party, I, like Kendall, would not want my toxic siblings entering !

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!!

Honeycombs*, Hermits and Hotels (*minor spoilers for Squid Game)

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!!

Creativity–how to find it and keep it going (without being stuck in a bathroom) and other musings

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)

The start of my strange, monster-like large doll of Riverdale classmate Natsumi Yamada, my only friend in the fifth grade. My long-term goal is to have a pop up exhibit about my efforts to be more Korean, featuring many large dolls in different settings, Korean food for the audience to eat and a full sensory experience. That is right now competing with my blog and of course writing a comic mystery novel set at my private high school in the 1990’s. How does one have time to do everything in one life?

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.

How I feel when I have writer’s block (drawn in ball point pen a while ago).

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!

me with my grandma Libby

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?

My latest passing fancy–drawing Koreans so that I can put them on vinyl and make them Colorforms. It would be fun to make settings based on popular Korean movies and shows, like that memorable modern house in Parasite. Endless fun.
I made a little cut out of my head and can place it on drawings of glamorous Koreans. Fun!
New craft project anyone? Air fresheners. You can paint and/or embroider images and then add scent. Your car will never be the same! Can’t wait to do this.

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?

My drawing of a photo of Nick Cave and his cat

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!

Me, finding the words of adoptee, Olivier Rousteing very relatable. I think I messed up the quote as he may have said “The more I know who I am, the more I need to know where I came from.”

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

I

Are you a Moon-jin or an In-sa?

  • 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

D)Timothy Chamalet

E) Shira Haas

F) Han Ye-Ri

7) R.I.P, in teen slang means:

A) Rest In Peace.

B) Wow/ugh

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

B) Landscapers

C) Dopesick

D) Pachinko

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

D) Coal-walking

E) All of the above

13) Which 2 below are NOT trending COVID-era hobbies:

A) gardening

B) candle making

C) pickle making

D) coloring

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

C) Rakim

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

B) Cuomo

C) Armie Hammer, the Cannibal

D) All of them

E) Just B and C

21) What was not a trendy cocktail this year:

A) Negroni

B)Aperol Spritz

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

Answers:

  1. C
  2. B
  3. B
  4. FREE POINT
  5. C
  6. D
  7. B
  8. C
  9. E
  10. C
  11. E
  12. D
  13. D and E
  14. D
  15. D
  16. C
  17. C
  18. C
  19. C
  20. D
  21. C
  22. C
  23. 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!

Hope you enjoyed this fluffy quiz!

The Honor of Being Asian (this blog’s 40th post)

sign seen at Pearl River store in Soho

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.

“Who der?”

“Ginger.”

“Ginger who?”

“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

AND So much more… xoxo

Interview with Interesting Korean-American #2, food writer Justine Lee

Food writer Justine Lee
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: Can you share a recipe with us?

JL: I recommend my recipe for Injeolmi Toast!

Injeolmi Toast Recipe – How to Make Injeolmi Toast (food52.com)

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. 

Me: People to follow on social media:

JL: jamesyworld, https://www.instagram.com/jamesyworld/?hl=en

https://www.thekoreanvegan.com

burr0w, https://www.instagram.com/burr0w/

huishungry, https://www.instagram.com/huishungry/

Me: Best Korean films/books/artists

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!!”

The Great Kimchi War

Plate of my favorite scene of Boys Over Flowers-kimchi making and feeding as a quirky, pre mating ritual. (Try to ignore that Gu Jun Pyo’s arms are strangely long on this plate and focus on the cute cat stuffed animal that the character Geum Jandi made for similarly curly haired Gu Jun Pyo.)

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.

Japanese Kimchi soda
freeze dried kimchi-looks unpretty to me but is it any good?

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).

https://www.koreanbapsang.com/oi-kimchi-cucumber-kimchi-and-blog/

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.

The end result

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!

Bye friends. Eat more Kimchi!!

My, it was cute before I added the face, drawing of cartoon kimchi that was at some point going to be a logo for my son’s since aborted blog. (He does his own thing now and that’s good).

Eating Rice Cakes While Lying Down누워서 떡 먹기

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).

James Marshall’s illustration from George and Martha. Here, George is doing the deed.
  • 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). Having an autistic son, I used to feel it necessary to “facilitate play” when he was little because I felt anxious for him to socialize, which meant I was 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.
Ok, so I’m rusty. He’s cross-eyed but hey you try it!!

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).

Pinterest -carrot lipstick

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

Sonia’s beautiful brain cake, red velvet inside and so tasty.
Some hastily but joyously made pictures of celebrities on autism spectrum for our line
Copy of a famous photo of Stanley Kubrick covered in silly string

party decoration–adding pearl buttons to an ice cream cone container–Art Deco in an instant!
our “weird” masks we made
my little one coloring the Einstein drawing. He may have been on the spectrum some allege.
silent film actor Charlie Chaplin, surfer Clay Marzo, Creator of Pokemon. (Some alleged, some self-proclaimed to be on spectrum.)
Jerry Seinfeld, self identified as being on the spectrum

Seu bul jae-Korean expression meaning self imposed disaster

Rudy the pigeon in a Skinner box making the wrong choices again and again- Seu bul Jae

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)?

mak jang (so bad it can’t get worse)

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, to be brutally honest

Start of a doll of Vincenzo from the Kdrama

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.

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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?

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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.

Final Vincenzo doll, stuffed with Polyfil

Clowns, get dressed

Sculpie of girl from True Beauty, Kdrama I liked. She has a lipstick in tow for her transformation.

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.

Hope you have a good Spring everyone!

Tried to find a looser style by drawing in Sharpie fast. I’ll keep trying! The first three are of a lawyer character on a very popular Kdrama, the Penthouse. He’s a true clown and his outfits reflect that well. The last drawing is of another main Penthouse character wearing a fancy sweatshirt with a shirt layered underneath-so Korean. It’s got a cool leather collar detail that, hah, makes this “fancy” for me. Baby Steps, I guess!

Attention (the new app that could change my life), reunions and borscht

Sign I taped to my elevator of my friendly building. Thanks to Mariko, a new friend who told me about Veselka’s borscht for Ukraine campaign. I mean who doesn’t love borscht and charitable giving?

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.

Nunchiga eopda (눈치가 없다)* and Dab-jeong-neo (답정너 )**

*: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.

Interesting Korean-American #5, artist Eunsoo Jeong (@koreangry)

Photo on top: artist Eunsoo Jeong with her comic zines and fun stickers. The bottom photo is one of her miniature dioramas that she creates for her comics.

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?

Pages from Eunsoo Jeong’s journsl

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?

Eunsoo Jeong’s artistic process that begins with a drawing/ideas written in her journal

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.

Comic by Eunsoo Jeong of Koreangry

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.

@Koreangry
@koreangry
@koreaangry
@koreaangry

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:

@Koreangry

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?

@Koreangry
@Koreanagry

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:

@Koreangry

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!

ESJ: Thank you!

Meeting the artist Eunsoo Jeong (who is pictured on the left)

Charlie Sheen, Anarchy and letter writing

Recently found treasures from middle school. Note the word Anarchy I wrote on this yellow folder, amidst names of bands I like. Inside were these magazine articles about actor Charlie sheen and drawings of horses.
Letters worth reading (found by my son at the Whitney museum’s book store). Introduced me to a lot of amazing artists/writers with tons of insight and humor re Asian-American experiences.Don’t let the dull, academic cover fool you.

During a recent visit to my mother’s apartment, I mined her closet filled with memorabilia, hoping for some writing inspiration. I chanced upon a yellow folder (photographed above) from my middle school days that I’d decorated with names of mostly middling bands I liked and, comically, the word anarchy in script. I also found missives I wrote to my mom when I was at Carleton College—the act of writing them was a source of amusement for my college friends. Even in a time before Gmail, texting and smartphones, I made a minor spectacle in the student center as I ate Otis Spunkmeyer cookies and drafted these documents. My letters are often unintentionally hilarious in their angst, oversharing of mundane details and on occasion, clear embellishments of the truth in order to appease mom.

Letter writing seems positively subversive these days. I revere these tangible documents one can palm-the paper with hints of fragrance, fingerprints and/or doodles. Letters have indeed, been on my mind. Recently, I picked out the above photographed compilation of letters written by various Asian-American creatives during a visit to the Whitney museum, a book I viewed skeptically due to its academic cover; but lo and behold, it’s a captivating collection. These letters are anarchic– simmering with rage, insights, humor and revelations. The editors of this collection gave the following prompt to the group of established creatives:

  1. Write a letter to anybody, somebody, or something.
  2. Respond directly, indirectly, tangentially, tacitly, and/or tactically, to any, all or none of the following:
    • Who do you want to speak to most?
    • When have you used your voice loudly or softly?
    • What does it mean to be Asian in the art world?
    • Tell us a secret
    • Fill in the blanks. When I think about my race, ethnicity, class, and/or sexuality, I___. This happens__times a day.
    • How does it feel to be in your body?
    • Which do you prefer, Almond Roca or Ferrero Rocher?

The highlights for me are the letter by Pamela M. Lee, an art historian at Yale who wrote her letter to an artist named Karin. Ms. Lee recounts a story her Asian-American friend Karin once told her as an example of misrecognition in the mainstream art world and academia–that is, the common occurrence of being mistaken for other Asians by white colleagues or strangers. Apparently Karin was at an art opening and artist X, called out “Maya!” (for architect Maya Lin). Karin told him she was most definitely not Maya Lin. Artist X began tripping over his apologies, to which Karin responded “That’s OK…I know you are a racist.” Wow. I.Love.This.

Ms. Lee spends the bulk of her letter debunking the idea that misrecognition is no big deal/ simply a product of people being busy and needing to memorize too many names and faces. Every Asian person has experienced this moment and most of us seethe but remain quiet. I may now look at these so-called minor gaffes more seriously.

As Ms. Lee explains, an academic named Pierre Bourdieu who studied systems of domination in education and culture, elaborated a concept of misrecognition. Misrecognition is not just a harmless microaggression, it is one asserting one’s social dominance through “banal and allegedly harmless exchanges.” (So be warned, next time you mistake me for another Asian, I’ll know it’s you pounding your chest for dominance–Gorilla-style and letting me know my inferior status).

In my own workplace, I have been repeatedly mistaken for another Korean-American attorney who is a good friend by white colleagues who have known both of us for more than ten years, and my friend does NOT look like me. No apology is given when the mistake is made and I politely correct them. Instead, these colleagues usually smile and slink away. After reading Ms. Lee’s letter, I may feel emboldened to say “It’s okay…I know you are a racist.” I’ll let you know how that goes ever if I ever get the nerve. (It delights me to even think of uttering those words. So anarchistic!)

Another stand-out letter is by Indian-Canadian editor, writer and curator Aruna D’Souza to “To Whom It May Concern.” She writes about the model minority myth and how she has been used to show diversity by academia, museums and panel organizers– often at the expense at Black scholars and experts. When she had her light bulb moment of her own complicity, she left academia and resolved to be “the inverse of the model minority–to become the pain-in-the-ass minority…” Her words reminded me of my own complicity as an Asian-American and made me review my own experience as an Asian that gets hired to be quiet and uncontroversial.

Unfortunately, her words also reminded me of one of my first jobs out of law school, a position I regret taking on many levels. After starting work as an associate in a civil rights law firm in New York City, one night at a bar, the other young associates I considered my friends, told me that before my interview a bulky, unfeminine Black woman had interviewed for the same job. As my colleagues explained, after my interview, they knew I was a shoe-in because I looked nice and easy-going. A horrid example of being hired over a Black employee because I was a “model minority.” How I’ve revisited my own complicity in that situation and I’m sure other times and wished I had been the fuck-things-up, pain-in-the-ass minority. What if I’d confronted my boss, quit and said “That’s okay…I know you are a racist.”

My highlights can’t do this book justice. It felt like each letter offered me something eye-opening. Why not try writing a letter? I like the idea of honoring my middle school self (apparently an aspiring anarchist) by writing letters to people/ideas/places that are honest and hopefully fun for this blog. So look out for these letters interspersed with other posts.

Off the top of my head, it’d be fun to write these: letter to capitalism, letter to my birth parents, letter to private school parents, letter to my therapist, letter to my neighbor (the modern day Nazi), letter to a disgraced nonprofit executive director, letter to my arthritic toe, letter to Florida, letter to Ohio, and so on.

Let’s start with the following letter:

Aoril 29, 2022

To My Middle School Self,

Thank you for composing the yellow folder photographed above; it’s a funny, poignant time capsule that made my guffaw out loud. Unbeknownst to you, mom will preserve this for decades in a mysterious archival selection process. (Why did my childhood creative writing get tossed but this curious folder get plucked from the fray?) It’s a goldmine for me–a weary, self-published writer who is no ingenue –for it reminds me I’ve always had a rich internal life and that’s strangely encouraging.

I know I sound owly and didactic, but Level 42 is an embarrassing, mutton of a band. I’m glad to see your reverence for the Smiths and The Replacements–bands that have endured but tacking on the Damned and Fugazi for edge? They are not bands on your radar. You are a poser, though an aimable sort with a wagging tail and expectant eyes. Do you (a new student at the Hewitt School for girls) nonchalantly leave this folder on your desk for classmates to admire? Do you think your imagined music cred can erase your own intermittent hobo lifestyle-how mom and you once slept in an acquaintance’s massage studio after work hours for a month, the table with a hole for the head, your make-shift bed? Stop peacocking. It won’t move the needle for haughty classmates like P (whose mother is an iconic Venuzualean dress designer and socialite); she won’t suddenly slap you on the back like a pub mate. She’ll continue to ignore you at all costs or glare at you, vexed.

We need to discuss the word you coyly inserted amidst the band names–Anarchy! You slay me! Take a gander at your self. Glasses slipping down your low-bridged nose, a curtain of bangs across your forehead and your Asian, auto-pilot smile that knows no bounds. You, bereft of piercings, scowls, witty retorts, pad dutifully after mom, teachers and all authority.

But let’s not be so dismissive. By all means, fancy yourself an anarchist. We all know anarchy can be a state of mind, a vibe. But wearing that large army green canvas bag with the red velvet eagle that mom somehow purchased for $70 from a Madison Avenue boutique so you could fit in, is not anarchy. Unfortunately for you, I can’t be your guide. See me at the Women’s March in D.C. years ago, in my doofy pink pussy hat. All I did was look askance at the black clad real-life anarchists who sprung up unexpectedly at my side as we marched. (They made me uneasy the way street mimes do).

Though, I too like imagining I’m anarchistic. When I write a demand letter to a large, wealthy employer alleging discrimination/wage theft, that’s me turning over tables and giving the powerful the bird. When I win settlement money for clients, I sometimes feel a pleasing, Robin Hood high. (I doubt this is the anarchy you romanticize but it’s all I’ve got.)

We haven’t even discussed the inside content of your yellow folder! Goodies abound! Your mediocre drawings of horses (and less able depictions of horse butts) are funny in the context of the other documents inside. We all know about adolescent girls, the onset of puberty and the corresponding obsession with horses. If these equine drawings are a sign of your burgeoning sexual yearnings, reign them in Mae (West); you will not date for years. Though a group of your white classmates will soon ask you to join them for a group date with some boys from the stuffy single-sex schools, when they inform you your date is Asian, that will deflate you. Their reflexive pairing of seemingly the only two Asians in the private school system will feel like a smack on the head. Understood. But don’t wrinkle your nose. Don’t boycott the group date and tell yourself that you don’t like Asian boys because they could be adoptees and surprise, surprise, your brother. That will reduce you to nothing but a self-loathing, racist goon.

Asian men (not all, of course) are indeed worthy. There will be an era, the Hallyu wave, much later in your life when you are already married. Korean men/Korean celebrities will be publicly revered, but don’t wait until then to climb on board. No Asian should be fetishized! (Tell that to the reported group of white women traveling to Korea to find themselves a man like the umbrella-carrying male characters on popular Korean drama shows).

You will date Asian guys in college, drawn to them in the bleak whiteness of Minnesota. Take for example, B, a handsome Taiwanese guy who looked Hawaiian. You will appreciate his sweet habit of drawing cartoons for you, messing around with you in unconventional places on campus and his restraint in taking his car and teaching you how to drive stick shift without exploding when you crank the wrong gears and fuck up his car’s mechanics. You will appreciate his hairless runner’s body that is sometimes viewed by the general public as he streaks alongside his track teammates in places like your liberal arts college’s amateur, small movie theater. (The streakers would yelp as they did laps around the space and leapt onto the springy, velvet seats–skillfully avoiding physical contact). Though B will say some puzzling things in the course of your relationship (e.g., “I see you as my second wife, not my first,” and “you have even better legs than my mom”), he is a gem.

Your Charlie Sheen articles side by side with your horse drawings are poetic majesty. I know he’s an exotic bird to you with a great head of hair and pouty lips–total crush fodder. (But he may not be the type to age well despite his “tiger blood,” (a reference you do not yet understand but someday will)). But taking mom’s money to buy the same movie tickets on repeat is foolery. You are, face it, a G-L-U-T-T-O-N. I’ll grant you one showing of Platoon and maybe Wall Street, but there’s no girth for Three for the Road and Lucus–his lesser known oeuvre. These are nothing but soft-core porn–artless. Remember how mom used to buy non-clearance rack Ferragamo pumps before she adopted you–the see-through ones that never go out of style – and look at her shoes now. Keds with worn down bottoms. DSW’s last chance items. For shame!

But, like a good mother to her child, I must let you make mistakes. Enjoy the afternoon that you will cut class to hunt Charlie down in Manhattan with a flock of Hewitt friends; you’ll zig-zag through the streets–a pack of kilt-wearing gals determined to find the rumored filming locale for Wall Street; when you find Charlie on the UWS, you’ll sit across the street and marvel at him in the flesh as he descends a brownstone’s steps in the pinstriped, boxy suit of the time and you’ll sip cold sugared drinks out of cans and titter with delight. You’ll barely notice how the sun’s rays through the autumn leaves cast a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors on the sidewalk. That afternoon-its heady mix of rebellion, lust and comraderie–is something you will look fondly on years later.

Let me remind you that you also stan Charlie’s younger brother, actor Emilio Estevez–a sweeter face–and even have a residual crush on their father, Martin Sheen. (Is this what happens when you grow up fatherless? Apparently). This menage of Sheens is a hopeful sign; you have diverse tastes. You will not wait on steps pining forever for the Charlies of this world; you will one day marry someone more gentle and self-composed who is punctual, clever and funny to boot. (And while we are at it now, remember your crush as a younger girl on Gopher from Love Boat. Don’t forget Gopher).

God speed to you!

Me

(공방)Gongbang or”study with me”: my test of this strange Korean phenomenon

(The above YouTube video is by Kim Dong-min. It’s his most popular video, which has more than 400,000 views).

Gongbang is an internet trend that originated in South Korea; it involves people studying alongside a live stream video of a Korean person studying in almost complete silence. Over 4,000 South Korean gongbang videos were uploaded to YouTube in 2018, and their number continues to grow. Though the videos are meant to be dull/relaxing, there is some variety; in some videos, there is rain or soft music in the background; some show a vlogger’s face; others just show writing materials and books with a view of hands turning pages or tapping on a keyboard. There are different settings- indoor and outdoors. Length varies from 30 minutes to twelve hours. Gongbang is particularly popular among Korean medical students who have to study for long stretches of time and get lonely. Although the trend was first picked up by journalists around 2018, its become increasingly popular during the pandemic–a uniquely solitary time.

When watching these videos with my teen son, the two of us wondered if these vloggers are actually doing any work or whether the scribbles they make on paper are pretense. Notably, the videos never zoom in on the work product! I have to say, these vloggers are not altogether convincing as study partners. If they are actors, they are clearly not method actors who observe real people. Kim Dong-min, (the blogger above)on occasion primly sips a miniature cup of liquid and yawns sweetly with his mouth barely open. When he drinks, liquid does not miss his lips and splash onto his study materials. He never shoves chewy, messy snacks into his mouth. (Perhaps that is all just unique to me). I crave a buddy that covertly wipes a runny nose with the back of his hand, picks a scab, gnaws on a pencil top, rubs his eyes vigorously, adjusts his contacts with bare hands or sneaks repeated glances at his smartphone. Maybe this would be too distracting? (Hey, I think there’s a market for this type of authentic gongbang so get going and make me a more realistic one please).

We enjoyed the throngs of comments by viewers praising Kim Dong-min: “OMGGG my heart stopped at 39:20.” (We checked. At 39:20, the vlogger looks up from his work, smiles and waves). Commenters were divided as to whether his looks were distracting or study-inducing. In my own experience, I once “studied” with a good-looking guy I liked in my college’s library. My hands on my pen death-grip style, I sure looked busy as I furiously wrote words onto note cards for a final paper but my end product was tawdry. (I’m so pleased to use the word tawdry this way. I hope it works.) So lesson here: good looking study buddy= low productivity!

Funny comment left on vlogger Kim Dong-Min’s YouTube page. When you click on the blue time on the YouTube page, it takes you to moments when he looks up at viewer. I am amused.

As I recently discussed this gongbang trend over dinner with my dear family friends the Shafran-Knells, Rachel, a millennial whom I used to babysit when she was two and is now getting her Masters at Oxford U (no doubt thanks to the stimulating company she kept in her formative years-pat, pat on my own shoulder), said “why would I do this when I can just head over to a coffeehouse and sit amongst real humans?” Why indeed! Her younger brother Ben (who makes great electronic music and is a clever entrepreneur, again, thanks to people like me in his life) wisely joked that sure a coffeehouse is an option, but one can’t always find a spot with such a prime view of a good looking person! Valid point Ben!

This post has me further reminiscing about my college years when I was not yet diagnosed with ADHD but often had challenges studying. I recall “studying” as I lay on the grass with friends on the modest field we called the Bald Spot every Spring and watched students emerge outdoors for the first time after a grueling Minnesota winter–a little wobbly with excitement. l also remember sometimes studying to loud music, even hip hop– to no avail. I can’t erase memories of countless all-nighters—me sitting erect in my desk chair as I typed desperate, dizzy Morse code into my keyboard. Nor could I study in a totally quiet setting like my dorm room when my roommates were out. For me, there’s always been a hard -to- define plum spot between monastic silence and Spring Break revelry that motivates me to study and focus. You may be asking how I managed, with these horrid study skills, to graduate from college relatively unscathed. I look back and wonder myself. Miracles.

Studying with friends in person was at times fruitful but in my memory, largely distracting so I’m intrigued by this trendy video option. People are way too interesting and susceptible to taking study breaks/gossiping and otherwise piercing my steely resolve. Back then, we didn’t have smart phone distractions but in a snap, we could bust into the college chapel to play a midnight round of sardines, play pool (which for me once meant hitting a ball so hard it went careening off a balcony), blow a soap bubble outside when it was -30 degrees so that it froze and then watch it shatter like glass when you blew it gently, or go skinny dipping in a shallow fountain outside our art building. (I never did that but some did). I’m also intrigued by this trend as someone who still feels a bit socially isolated these days but who is not quite willing to join the masses for lots of travel and parties. Could I be content to forego real people (other than my immediate family) for these video companions?

My son suggested I test out the various gongbang options to see which of them are the most conducive to studying. I set out to: 1) work in our apartment as I watched the video above with the handsome Korean man; 2) work in our apartment alongside the video that is all hands and study materials;3) work in our apartment as I watched the below video of a faceless person sitting outside to work and finally 4) working at a coffeehouse with real, live people present.

My hypothesis: I will be the most productive without a handsome face in the video and/or during a live coffeehouse experience. I will measure my productivity by how many pages of my novel I write during each video.

Here are my results:

I produced 1.5 pages of my novel on my laptop as the handsome vlogger’s one hour video played on my desktop computer. (For me that rate of writing is not half bad). I liked the sound of pages turning and him softly gulping his drink. Good study sounds. He has a zen vibe and is a little cat-like. I think it’s ridiculous that he appears to be reading a blank book. Give him some Henry James for goodness sake or an advanced Calculus textbook. I wanted to feel that he was exerting himself in some way.I was surprised that I produced the most during this video, disproving my above hypothesis. Apparently, having good looking people in my vicinity is a boon.

Watching the video below that features hands and study materials alone, I produced 1/2 page in one hour. I liked the variety of activities like lighting the candle, highlighting, loud typing and such but maybe I need a face to feel motivation/energy.

Watching the below video of a faceless human that included some peaceful outside noises produced a half page of writing. I loved the outdoor sounds like the plane whirring in the distance but I think it made me sleepy somehow. (I should have known that this wouldn’t be successful given my above story about studying outside on the Bald Spot). I also missed hearing the office sounds like typing. It was maybe too quiet and again, having eyes in view, seem to add some accountability.

Going to the PlantShed coffeehouse, which unfortunately these days consists of a partially covered outdoor shed that’s not exactly cozy, I wrote one page in an hour. My chair was on a bit of tilted sidewalk so the table was wobbly and that was distracting. Plus it’s still cold outside, which can cut either way–keeps you alert or pushes you to leave. There was noone really around except two jogger-type moms gossiping at a table far from earshot. Perhaps this outdoor coffee shed wasn’t the best variable–so different from a good coffeehouse that has cushy couches, bad student art and close quarters with people.

Nail-biting Conclusion: My best study scenarios were the in-person coffee house and the gongbong with the handsome guy. I guess I need people. Don’t you love reading these experiments of mine that have limited utility? hope so.

(How about a stuffed animal gongbang? See our little impromptu gongbang featuring my 6 year old’s stuffed unicorn bunny (“Millie Harmony Hopper”) studying? See carrot snacks and an actual book (Doestoevsky’s The Idiot). I have yet to test this one out).

Seemingly related to this gongbang trend is the ADHD self-help practice called “body doubling.” ADHD body doubling is “a practice in which a person with ADHD works on and completes potentially frustrating tasks alongside another person. This other person is the “body double” for the person with ADHD. The body double’s job is to help anchor the person with ADHD to the present moment and task, reducing the risk of distraction.”

I like the idea of body doubling for all my mundane household chores. Lord knows I would love an actual live friend to do dishes with and to cheer me on as I fold laundry every day. As wonderful as my friends are, with their busy schedules, I don’t think they’d be game and as much as i’ve tried, laundry is not a chore I can bribe my kids to do every day.

Although body doubling is supposed to be done by a live human who offers you support as you focus on hard tasks, I discovered some laundry folding videos. (Note that the laundry buddy video below is way less popular than the study versions and does not feature cute Korean vloggers).

While the gongbongs usually feature an almost unnatural, neat setting/workspace with pulled-together Korean vloggers, the laundry variety are chaoticly glum, aesthetically displeasing and uncomfortably “genuine.” In one video that I charitably did not include, the female vlogger who looks, let’s kindly say, beleaguered, begins her video by saying “I will not brush my hair or wear more flattering clothes because I’m not in a good place mentally,” and then proceeds to sloppily fold a comically large mountain of clothing in a sad, mournful manner. Perhaps this is just a reflection of reality: doing a never-ending rotation of laundry sucks and causes rage and sadness for many! I do know that doing my laundry with such a morose video companion by my side might not make the task easier/more desirable but might instead heighten my own angst. Although, it is true that some people like to suffer in company!

I am imagining these videos for all the tasks that I find burdensome: completing my health insurance claim forms, doing intake for new clients at work, cooking meals for my family when I’m tired and last of all sleeping. (There are, FYI, YouTube videos of people sleeping).


Which gongbang works for you? I’d love to hear from you.

Zombies, Gwisin* and other distractions

Korean zombie drawing of mine (i basically took photos while I watched several korean zombie shows and films, drew the photos and collaged them. So fun to make.

(Gwisin is a Korean word for ghosts who are dead people (not monsters/beasts))

The worst pastime for a middle-aged aspiring writer with ADHD is reading about the writing habits of successful young authors. To say it’s disheartening is an understatement. Consider Sally Rooney, my one-sided “rival” who is practically in pampers, precociously talented and prolific (e.g. Conversations with Friends and Normal People). How dare she deliver such confident prose and insight before age 30! In the writing seminars I occasionally took at the New School and the 92nd Street Y as a young woman, most twenty-something-year-olds wrote about topics like dorm life and drunken sex in an earnest and expected fashion. No insights and standing-ovation prose in sight! I like to comfort myself by thinking 1) Sally Rooney probably doesn’t have ADHD and 2) she probably hasn’t developed a K-drama addiction.

The one interview I read with Ms. Rooney irked me to no end; she said her best training to be a writer came from being on her college debate team! I can’t take that I-just-stumbled-into-greatness routine. Is she saying you have to be quick on your feet, energized by public speaking and a master of reason and logic to be a writer? (What about years of writing classes or an MFA? ) If so, I am toast. Sally Rooney’s success story reminds me of another troublesome one: that of writer Louis Begley (of About Schmidt fame). According to my memory, for many years Mr. Begley, a successful NYC corporate firm attorney with no creative writing chops, listened to his son discuss his wish to write a novel. Sick of his son’s empty talk, Mr. Begley, who was almost at retirement age, got fed up and wrote a widely read novel that led to a successful writing career and movie adaptions of his books. (Maybe I should applaud the fact that Begley had late in life success but I pity his sweet lamb of a son!)

Truthfully, I have lived a large chunk of my life pretending to be a writer. It’s good fun. There’s no one who loves searching Airbnb for cute writer cottages to rent more than yours truly. You’ve already learned of my vast journal collection. I greedily ingest author interviews, especially ones that discuss writing habits. I have traveled to far flung locales like Beacon, NY to sit all day in a charming coffee house and pat myself on the back for writing two pages. (Yes, I am aware that there are coffee places in NYC). But at age 48, I am an artichoke ready to shed my leaves and reveal my meaty heart.

My formidable, distant Cousin Ruth (now deceased) came to my baby shower in Brooklyn a while ago when she was in her early nineties and mingled with my friends. When one of my other guests casually mentioned to Ruth that she was a writer, Ruth said in her brusque, CEO way “What have you published?” When my friend said nothing, Ruth shrugged dramatically and said “So how can you call yourself a writer?” Her spirit lives on–reminding me that I have a long way to go to meet my goals as a writer. (We could all probably use a bold brilliant Cousin Ruth on our shoulder–holding her midday Scotch in hand and doling out truths. But Ruth had no idea how hard it is for some of us to write in a sustained and serious way ,let alone, get published).

Countless well-known authors deliver smug, unhelpful writing tips. A Medium article about the routines of famous writers cast serious shadows on my own ability to complete a big writing project like a novel. To begin with, the only time I can do anything creative is evening to early morning (“Only the Hitlers of the world work at night; no honest artist does.” (W.H. Auden)

Arthur Miller advised “Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all those come afterwards.” Egads! Arthur, you have cut me to the core. But sir when you were alive, there was no Netflix, Apple TV, Hulu etc. TV for me is like Marilyn Monroe for you, I’d wager. I’ve got Yellowjackets, Euphoria and Ted Lasso to watch and then the freaking Koreans and their alluring entertainments (e.g, Netflix’s All of us are Dead Now that elevates zombie movies by setting things in high school and offering us the satisfaction of watching dour teenagers get pulverized). Not to mention, I saw a film, Belle, in an actual theater with a friend this week and I have no regrets for it was a splendid, animated adaptation of Beauty and the Beast that is set in a Japanese high school. (Note I had thought this would be appropriate for my six year old daughter but I’m not taking her as it has dark themes like child abuse and maternal death by drowning in a river. My teenage son, on the other hand, could appreciate it more). It seems I’m flunking your test Mr. Miller!

Another distraction- my start of dolls from Kdrama Yumi’s Cells- couple wearing frog headbands from a frog festival. It’s a cute show about an office worker Yumi and her romantic endeavors. My 6 year old watches the show because the show is interspersed with animated scenes of Yumi’s adorably depicted brain cells- fashion, sensitivity, mischief, love etc, a little like the film Inside Out.

I have some significant roadblocks because along with ADHD, I probably have poor delayed gratification abilities, which an article in the NYTimes basically indicated, means success is less likely for me than for someone who can wait for gratification. Four-year-old me would surely have grabbed both marshmallows immediately after the adults left the room (a reference to the marshmallow test discussed in the mentioned article). Grown up me when faced with fun TV now or writing until one day in the far future I can complete a story, often choses TV.

One distraction (not on Mr. Miller’s prohibited list) is my completion of a ten-page short story for NYCMidnight, a still mysterious short story contest that no one seems to know. Along with almost 7,000 other writers, I received a writing genre (ghost story), main character (an understudy) and a plot(a hidden room) and was given 8 days to write and upload a 2,500-word (10 page) story. A panel of judges will select the top 5 out of a subgroup of 28 contestants to go onto round 2 on April 4. If I make it, I will get a new genre, plot and character, fewer days and a smaller word count. There are 4 rounds total and the winner gets a modest cash prize. Though I will not win this contest, I must shout from the rooftops that I completed a project! Hallefuckinglujah!

It was no small feat. By the fourth day, I had only my general idea and 2 out of 10 pages completed. I knew I wanted to make a ghost story about my 2007 trip to Seoul to visit my Homeland for the first time since being adopted at age three. It made perfect sense to mesh ghosts and adoption since adoption is rife with mystery, loss and dead (or at least forever-gone) birth parents who certainly haunt the minds of us adoptees. But I wanted to turn in the towel as my only ghost-intel comes from watching Scooby Doo and the Haunted House episodes as a child. (I may have never read a ghost story).

I reported my self-sabotaging behaviors to my therapist (e.g., belittling ghost stories, dismissing the contest for having no authors on the judging panel that I recognized and watching an excess of tv instead of writing at night). I also noted to her in passing that I was off of my Vyvanse medication, which begged my patient therapist’s question: why would you not be on your ADHD meds at a time when you needed maximum focus? (My therapist must surely love when stating the obvious saves the day). A day after getting back on Vyvanse, I wrote for four hours between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m and again the following night to completion.

It was rollicking fun to take real aspects of my Korea trip and add many imagined details. My adventurous friend Jen and I stayed in a drab stone building owned by the Korean social services agency that offered free housing to adoptees returning to visit. For my story, I cut my dear friend out, transformed the building into a creepy mansion and added a mysterious old caretaker who informs me of the agency’s gwisin (Korean word for ghosts). As in real life, I volunteered to hold babies who are waiting to be adopted in the agency’s nursery and fell in love with ten-month-old Johan, who was set to be adopted by a couple in Sweden shortly. The nurses in my tale confirm that the mansion has gwisin who are believed to be parents who have returned to the agency to look for the babies they once gave up.

As I had to include a hidden room in my story, I included a scene where I searched for the gwisin and found a hidden ballroom in the mansion with mirrored walls. In a dimly lit room, I see a floating gwisin (my birth mom) as she floats feet away from me holding a wicker baby basket and staring into one mirrored wall. I watch her tip the basket towards the mirror to reveal nothing inside (baby me gone). When she panics and opens her mouth to scream, I call out to reassure her that I am okay. Writing this scene was unexpectedly difficult as I had to stop once or twice to sob in the dark living room where I typed alone–my husband and kids sound asleep. This fascinated me as I’m turning 50 in two years and I thought i’d pretty much already swallowed that (loss-of-birthparents) stone.

Sadly, my accomplishment is a grain in the sand since I have to revise my story, try to publish it and then, of course, complete an unrelated novel. As I have found the judgmental words of crusty male writers not terribly helpful, I wondered if female authors offer more relevant advice. One of my favorite writers Lorrie Moore wrote “Writing has to be an obsession – it’s only for those who say, ‘I’m not going to do anything else.’ (Ugh. Next please). Alice Munro has said that she began writing short stories because as a young mother she had no time to write novels: “When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children, particularly in the days before disposable diapers or ubiquitous automatic washing machines, it’s hard to arrange for large chunks of time.” If freaking Alice Monroe struggled to write a novel when she had young children, there’s little hope for me.

Author Shirley Jackson, a mother of four with full household responsibilities during a different era, is someone I admire and relate to for she writes of her struggles to be a mother of four, do household chores and write. Apparently she could create full stories in her head while she did mundane chores and somehow did it so well that at the end of the day when she sat down to write, her completed story just fell out onto her pages. (She sounds super-human or like a ridiculous genius so I can’t learn too much from her).

Perhaps, I need to turn to writers with ADHD for the most useful advice. For this post, I learned that Robin Black, an author whom I had already admired for publishing her first story collection after age 35 and then publishing her first novel after age 40, has ADHD. (Her novel, Life Drawing, is the kind of beautifully written, character-steeped book I’d be honored to write). This exciting discovery lead me to read a few of her interviews where she discusses tackling her writer’s block and ADHD in great detail. She honestly discusses her struggles to write a novel and notes how it made sense that her first writing effort was a collection of short stories. One of the most interesting pieces of advice she imparts is that starting a novel with a death and going backwards to explain it, is a good technique for an ADHD writer; it offers a structure. Notably, this structure is used in many of my favorite modern novels (e.g., Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (mom dies very early on) and the Secret History ( main character dies on page one) and so many others. I think I’ll try it out for my novel.

Another piece of advice many writers give is that you should write the kind of novel you would like to read. I like that advice. Considering a small sample of my favorite novels, I notice some common themes:

1) newcomer enters a new community and tries to fit in with a unexpected group ( e.g., Prep, The Secret History, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (student coming to new high school and admiring a certain teacher and group of mysterious, beautiful students), The Magus (young man visits uncle on mysterious Greek island and what follows is psychological warfare);

2) Unexpected relationships (e.g. Headlong about a professor’s relationship with a “boorish local landowner” and his wife);

2) confused woman in her twenties or thirties whose life seems off track with humor and great language (e.g., Writers and Lovers, Little Children, Conversations with Friends);

3) wry social commentary, portrait of an era/time with focus on characterization (e.g., the Ice Storm, Great Expectations, The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, American Pastoral, The Last Picture Show, some of the Rabbit Run books but i can’t recall which ones now);

4) unique voice (e.g., The Virgin Suicides, The Lover);

5) literary mysteries (Case Histories, Tana French novels);

6) many genres/Just fantastic in general ( e.g., Housekeeping, City of Thieves, Fates and Furies, Purity, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles).

Writing this post has clarified what I want my novel to be: a funny, character-driven story about class conflict In New York City. It’ll be set in an elite nyc private school in the present or imagined near future when class conflict is even more heightened. Because I am drawn to films and documentaries about charismatic cult leaders, I’ll have a handsome, charming English teacher as a main character. He’ll be the leader of an imagined radical left group that seeks class warfare by any means and recruits students. I’ll show you the lives of a group of students who get intricately involved with him. The novel will begin with a bombing at the school and include a character who is a new student trying to fit in.

The last question I’ve pondered is how much of myself should I put in my novel? (Should the new student be a shy Korean-American adoptee?) Shirley Jackson wrote that ” [I} very much dislike writing about myself or my work, and when pressed for autobiographical material can only give a bare chronological outline which contains no pertinent facts.” In the past, I agreed with her but lately I think having a character loosely based on myself might make things easier to write.

Finally, I’m going to follow the advice of a family friend who is an artist. Years ago, she opined that any novel I write should include a beautiful woman. I’d poo-poo’d this back then but i think she was onto something. I will include a female character who is indeed spectacularly beautiful. (Thank you Carmela for that tip).

Thank you for reading this. If you are trying to write a novel or any project as I am, I hope these type of posts are helpful/enjoyable for you!

Character doll from a show my daughter likes-tiny ping. (Thanks to Mariana for embroidery help)

 Geunjagam* (Unfounded Confidence), Founded Confidence and other Curiosities

(This Korean term comes from the expression 거 없는 감 (geungeo eomneun jasingam) which literally means “confidence without grounds.” It is when someone has a huge ego or confidence about something that they really shouldn’t).

Having unfounded confidence is puzzling to me since even founded confidence is elusive at times. I have always been fascinated with how one attains healthy self-esteem. I once rather simplistically believed that with some financial security, decent education, stability and love by caregivers, one would love oneself. But anecdotal evidence I’ve collected over the years suggests there are other factors involved. Take, for example, my roommate from my first year of law school in NYC. She was a sprightly, maybe 5-foot blonde Canadian. Let’s call her Quinn. My law school placed us together using a roommate survey, which goes to show you: 1) those surveys are bunk and 2) not all introverts mesh. We shared a dark, furnished one-bedroom loft in the East Village with a good friend of mine who wasn’t a law student. Our place had plum-colored, wall-to-wall carpeting and some bad patio-style furniture. Imagine glass-topped tables with wrought iron legs overrun with tangled vines and leaves. I slept on a mattress on the “loft” above our common living space. The ceiling was so low, I had to crawl on hands and knees or bang my head on the cement ceiling.

Because of my year sleeping above the sofa and TV in a small common room, I have some hostility to the X Files; for Quinn did all her studying, eating and unwinding on that couch while blasting that show. (She was moony-eyed for Mr. Duchovny). (Admittedly, I may have held some resentments that she could study under those conditions and do far better than I did at law school).

Quinn had a lot of quirky habits that would have been charming if I’d liked her more. She drank five to seven Coca-Colas a day, which permanently left her front teeth a translucent neon green. She claimed she could guess the soda’s expiration date by the its taste. (We tested her and she was spot on). Quinn collected so many ten-to-fifteen-dollar European fashion magazines in piles so high they rose like towers in our cramped shared space. Of course if she’d catch me or my friend trying to read one, she’d ask us not to. Her interest in these magazines seemed out-of-left-field, as she didn’t appear conscious of her own appearance or generally interested in fashion. The magazines must have been pure escapism.

She grew up in a small Canadian town I’d never heard of and her dad was the only doctor in town. Consequently, she lived a life of privilege and comfort. She’d gone to the same school most of her life, was mentally swift with good grades, had consistent school friends, and had extended family she was close to. When I met her parents, they were warm, smiley, similarly petite people. I had expected a Medusa-like mother with a stony stare and a penchant for eviscerating comments because Quinn had inordinately poor self-esteem. This surprised me- she had an occasionally funny sense of humor and was smart. I admired that she had no conflict about law school, made law review and seemed humble about her intelligence. I appreciated less how she’d always put herself down and somehow lump me in with her (“well, you and I, with our low flat butts, have trouble wearing certain pants.” I had never thought of myself that way!)

One evening, as the three of us girls sat on the sofa with some drunken, disheveled guy friends who liked to escape their condemned Williamsburg building and lounge with us in our relatively suave digs, Quinn brought the spotlight on herself. One guy friend interrupted our bleary-eyed chatter to look at Quinn and say “You know, you’re not bad. You’re even pretty,” his long-held crush on display. Before we knew it, Quinn stood up, stomped her feet, pumped her arms like a child in tantrum and shouted “I am not! I am not!” We stared at her, perfectly confused. She was the only who hadn’t had a drink.

As a parent, it’s a bit disheartening to recall my roommate and realize that regardless of all the love, support and stability I give my offspring, there’s no guarantee they will end up with an overflow of self-regard. Supposedly there’s a gene, the OXTR gene, that is associated with one’s optimism and self-esteem. (This is separate from the depression gene). As an adoptee with a mysterious gene pool, I greet this news ambivalently. Does this mean my years of therapy could be futile at some point as my genes might limit my self confidence and self-esteem? Could my Herculean efforts to accept myself be, in fact, Sisyphean?

It’s nice to know that to some degree, self-esteem is mutable over time. I’m certainly happier about most aspects of myself than I was as a high schooler and young woman. I wonder if Quinn has become a confident middle aged-woman now, or if she’s still rotting her teeth with Cokes and putting herself down constantly. I certainly hope she has grown more appreciative of herself. It’s less nice but not altogether surprising to know that “[self-esteem] increases in stability throughout adolescence and young adulthood until midlife and starts to decline thereafter.” Geez, did we need yet another drawback of old age?? May we (you my reader and I) be glorious outliers and get cockier and cockier as we age. (It’s hard not to hear the song Cocky AF by Meghan the Stallion in my head right now).

Because I am unfortunately a comparative person, this post made me consider how my self-esteem compares to others. I took a self-esteem test on Psychology Today‘s website. I scored 47 out of 100, so a little lackluster but nothing to be overly concerned with. Consider taking the same quiz, because why not? Don’t place too much significance on your score, please. Supposedly, the widely-held cult of self-esteem, the belief that glowing self-esteem is the key to success (and its absence a sign of criminality), which still lingers today, was a hyped up movement that wasn’t backed up by valid scientific studies. (Don’t judge me that I am getting my “research” from this fun but unserious news source. I enjoyed learning how teachers at the height of this movement would not use red pens to make corrections on schoolwork out of the unfounded belief that it harmed student self-esteem). As this article points out, some criminals have good self-esteem (and might score well on the test) so self esteem is obviously a good thing but is not proven to be the key to a good life.

I conclude by circling back to the Korean word geunjagam, unfounded confidence. The word has a largely negative connotation. I think of unqualified people running for difficult political positions that they are not suited for (e.g, former mayor DeBlasio or worse buffoons who run for President). Unfounded confidence reminds me of the arrogant partner in a law firm who co-counseled an employment discrimination case with me years ago. He had no employment law litigation experience and I had many years at that point. I had carefully drafted a federal court complaint and sent it to him. In surprising, lickety-split time, he emailed me a very scratched-out version without any comments. Each of his substantive edits were blatantly wrong—evidencing no understanding of the law. When I defended my edits and explained them, I remember thinking “how amazing he showed no signs of embarrassment!” (I would have turned into my most fluttering, apologetic self. dug into myself with base names/insults and probably replayed this mistake to friends and family ad nauseum).

But there are indeed some examples when unfounded confidence is admirable. I’m thinking of the gripping Korean drama I recently watched on Netflix, Start-Up, where the scrappy young program developers enter a very out-of-their league competition with their barely completed program and of course do a lot of faking it until they are indeed making it. (Yes, I did use that cliched expression here). I admit, I even feel a tinge of admiration for the law students who apply to be interns at my office and declare they are very proficient in Spanish on their resume when they are more like “I use Duolingo once a week” speakers. Later, when subjected to an on-the-spot Spanish conversation test at their interview, these students inevitably do not pass. But is their unfounded confidence (absent blatant lying about their language ability) so bad? It gives them an interview and chance to fake it, wing it, and maybe luck out. They can, after all, take a crash Spanish course before starting the job. Is it crazy to say my New Year’s resolution is to dabble in unfounded confidence once in a while? For those with weak to average confidence, maybe it’s sound advice. Who knows what doors will open?

(Much thanks to my teen son who always edits my posts because he’s a fantastic editor. He’s stopped me from italicizing things like Instagram, calling TV, t.v and using commas wrongly. Xoxo).

Fun Craft for Korean-American Day: acetate Kdrama shadow puppets

I am obsessed with drawing on see through material with Sharpies. It’s like making stained glass. Try it out! This puppet is supposed to be the lead male character in the charming kdrama Dali and Cocky Prince.
This plastic shadow puppet is so much more fun than the paper version as the patterns show through! Shine a flashlight against a white piece of paper/surface and you can start your puppet show. I was tired so excuse the quickly drawn hands! egads.
okay so I drew these fast and her arms are comically long and her face uneven but they were fun to make. Next time, i’ll use a clear duct/masking tape as the grey stuff looks ugly.

If there was a contest for the most hermit-like family during the Omicron wave, I am certain my family would be triumphant. I recently made my mother a photo book of our year of staying inside and going nowhere and it included a photo of my kids in an East Village community garden holding those bug zappers that look like tennis rackets and swatting flies with them. As memory serves, a garden volunteer who was wearing rubber gloves and potting some plants, stopped to take pity on my bored-looking kids as we sat in the garden one weekend afternoon, handed my kids two bug zappers and showed them how to use it to kill flies. This made my photo album. I do not jest. Though we do have friends, I assure you, we do not have a pod. (We apparently missed the 2020 pod-formation window. You snooze, you lose!) Indeed, my six year old struggles to write a “weekend story” each Monday at school. For two weekends straight, I have threatened to take both kids to the Nazi stolen art exhibit at the Jewish museum, one of three desolate NYC museums I feel confident going to right now. (It’s a stellar museum but as it is our default, it’s lost some of its appeal). Last weekend, the four of us headed to the Museum of the City of New York where they had three exhibits, yes three exhibits that entertained us–the puppet exhibit for my 6 year old, an activism exhibit (for my son) and an interactive 1980’s music exhibit, in which I lost my husband for more than an hour. Did I mention there were free 1980’s video arcade games on the same floor. The Golden Ticket! To my surprise, my Roblox-obsessed daughter sat and watched a slow-paced 30 minute film of a shadow puppet show narrated by someone with a quiet, lilting voice. Indeed, I lauded my own ability to sit through this “entertainment.”

Some plexiglass shadow puppets on display at the Museum of the City of New York’s small but fun puppet exhibit.

After this exhibit, I of course, had to try to make some plastic shadow puppets with jointed limbs. I would like to make ones with plexi glass like the one pictured above as the thin acetate I used does not look like it will endure.

I hope you will try this simple and satisfying craft. You of course, do not have to make Kdrama themed ones but I wanted to, in celebration of Korean-American day. Happy day (already done) to my four Korean-American friends and family and to all of you appreciators of Korean/Korean-American culture. xoxo

What you need: acetate, a clear paper to drawn on with Sharpie markers.Scissor to cut out figure, an awl to poke hole in limbs and body, wire to connect body and limbs, wooden sticks to tape to the limbs and body with the duct tape and the wire cutter.
(Sadly, i did draw this bear).. Use Sharpies to draw your figure on the acetate paper. Get colored sharpies, they are so fun! Then use scissors to cut out the shape. Then cut off the limbs/parts you want to be able to move on joints so here, I cut off one of this odd bear’s legs.
I’ve never used an awl but it makes a great small hole in the plastic. Put a small hole by just pressing awl hard into plastic leg once.
use the awl to poke a small hole in the body of your character.
cut about three inches of wire and then twist one end twice in a circle. This will be used to connect the limb and body.
poke the metal piece through the limb and the body and then twist the wire twice in a small circle secure it. voila– a jointed limb! Then you just add the sticks to each limb with a small piece of duct tape. Was this the worst/ fastest craft tutorial you have ever experienced? I didn’t bother actually showing you the completed bear because the bear sucks. You can do better.
xoxo