Korean expression: il-sa-bul-lan (everyone moving in a well organized way with the same goal)

quick Sharpie drawings (Yes,that drawing above is of a roasted chicken. Hard to tell!)

I struggled to come up with real life examples of coordinated team work in 2022/early 2023. I could only think of the opposite—Kevin McCarthy’s jagged road to becoming Speaker of the House and the beautifully symbolic fist fight on the floor of Congress. A cursory read of the Year in Reviews in the New Yorker, Atlantic etc, suggested Democrats holding onto the Senate in the mid-term elections as one example of a successful group effort. What examples of il-sa-bul-lan do you have from your life?

I turn to sources you may find dubious–Korean dramas and my own life experiences– for some examples of coordinated team work. I recently watched a popular Korean drama called Weak Hero Class 1 that illustrates il-sa-bul-lan; in the first episode, we meet the protagonist Si Eun, a studious high school loner who quietly seethes through violent rounds of bullying by his classmates. He initially contains his rage by grasping a ballpoint pen in one palm as he confronts his assailants; his voice admirably steady, he says “I am asking you to stop.” They do not stop.

In this series that is based on a popular webtoon, our seemingly passive, weak hero Si Eun (who huffs and puffs miserably as he runs around the track during gym) is finally pushed to the brink after a classmate slaps the back of his neck with a fentanyl adhesive patch during an exam. (WTF, I dearly hope sneak-attack fentanyl patches are not a trend in bullying). Minutes later, he runs out of the classroom dizzy and nauseated–his test sabotaged. This attack understandably provokes him to finally right wrongs by wielding his trusty ball point pen and plunging it into a bully’s unsuspecting veiny hand as it rests on his school desk.

Si Eun begrudgingly befriends two other school outcasts: (1) a quiet, bookish son of a city councilman who has no fight skills but unleashes well-timed violent rage on occasion and then (2) a less classic outcast who steers clear of the schools’ brutish cliques.This guy is handsome, self-assured and a skilled martial arts fighter who avoids the social complexities of high school by sleeping through class–his head burrowed into a pink stuffed animal on his desk; to a jubilant soundtrack of Korean rap, these boys unexpectedly morph into a seamless fighting trio to fight the bullies. Such a delight to watch Si Eun and his buddies use psychology, quick thinking and use of their environment to be triumphant, e.g., watch him kick a flower pot to disable a charging attacker or use his hefty school books and backpack as weapons. (I do pity my own kids for having to see my recent bullish enthusiasm for the Korean rap song Brass Knuckles that is part of the show’s soundtrack.Even a middle aged mother can appreciate a good take down song!)

My identification with Si Eun might explain my love of this series. I was, like many of you perhaps, the archetype of the quiet, angry teenager; during my tenth grade Christmas break, I somehow fell down the steps of my grandparents’ Cleveland house and had to return to my snooty high school with minor leg fractures and crutches. How I wished I’d been injured tumbling down some snow-capped mountain on skis but alas, when I returned to Trinity High School, I was met with mirth/disbelief that I had been felled by a carpeted staircase.

I can’t entirely blame those who pretended not to see me for what an odd vision I was back then- a curtain of bangs, clunky glasses and a curious penchant for long, heavy Amish-style skirts that impeded my movement. (It was a style choice. I liked my legs!) Though I wasn’t physically bullied or taunted like Si Eun, after the ninth grade, I was often socially ignored—a form of bullying that doesn’t get the attention in pop culture it deserves. To be fair, I was a moderately depressed teenager and I’d started hiding in the school library by the tenth grade, which ensured my descent into total obscurity. (Tangent: It’s no wonder I love K-dramas with all the shows about schlumps turning lovelyv as I admittedly believe that after I shed my glasses, long bangs and Amish-wear, I radically transformed from tripping nerd to a pretty girl between the tenth and twelfth grades. I like this mythology I’ve created for myself so let’s just accept it as fact.).

I remember weeks of struggling down the school’s hallways with a heavy back pack and crutches, largely unassisted. At some point, rather than help me, some boy I had counted as a friend, looked at me coldly and said,”it’s the quiet ones to be wary of.” Perhaps he was right; I seethed about my strange ghost-like status in high school. The most innocuous passing comment from a poorly intentioned classmate could reduce me to silent tears, e.g. “Do you even have a forehead” (because I had long thick bangs across my forehead) or “why do you wear long skirts?”(said with sneer by the meanest girl in my class) or the passing comment of a boy fittingly named ______the Fourth who said to me “you? I can’t imagine you rollerblading!” Perhaps worst of all, the meanest girl would tell my JV soccer team mates to stop talking about sex when I was around. Sure, she wasn’t wrong that in the ninth grade, I was very innocent and inexperienced but what a vile move to embarrass me this way! (I realize my ability to recall these minorly insulting comments is absurd and slightly unhinged).

As the only Asian kid in my class and one of maybe three in our entire high school, I had learned my role well. For each affront, I would nod and sometimes even (creepily enough) smile. Unfortunately, I didn’t find a crew like Si Eun’s to keep me buoyant during the turbulent high school years. Now I look back and consider all the kids like me that I wished I’d befriended; for the older I get, the more I realize: I like myself and people similar to me are indeed pleasing. There was the quiet and petite Black-Asian girl with the same first name as myself who could have joined forces with me. As she was similarly artistic, the two of us could have drawn cutting pictures of the people who ignored us or better yet, just had fun. She was studious and kind as far as I could tell from our rare, passing bathroom conversations so I blame myself for not pursuing a friendship.

She had a gangly, chatty guy friend—a junior who favored shoulder-padded blazers in bright hues, wearing his hair tall and sculpted and speaking rapidly, which made me slightly embarrassed to be in his company for long. (We outcasts can be critical fucks!). I see now, we’d have made a lovely trio, fighting our own unique types of erasure through our friendship and solidarity. Regrets.

I wish I could boast of actual, mature experiences that further epitomize this fine Korean expression–you know the stuff of college application essays, e.g., the time I built a Habitat for Humanity house in the Caribbean after a hurricane with a motley crew of students or the time I worked on a political campaign for a candidate who was an East Coast carpetbagger and how our team successfully ousted the incumbent with the charming mid-western accent and folksy details about an impoverished childhood (e.g, a flashback to when Iowa senator Joni Ernst spoke during a campaign of being so poor, she put plastic bread bags around her shoes when it rained).

I’m sorry to say my one true illustration of coordinated team work comes from a third or fourth grade experience with a friend; we’ll call her Beth. We met at the Ethical Culture School(a private school in Manhattan) in the third grade. I was still reeling from having to leave my beloved Dalton School that I’d attended for five years on scholarship. Supposedly, according to my mother, the infamous Head Master G.D.had allegedly promised her a full scholarship for me and then told her last minute that he’d forgotten my scholarship application in his desk drawer so I had to leave. (My mom, a single parent who was a child therapist could not afford Dalton tuition). This really tore me out of a close community of friends and as a Korean adoptee, I felt particularly rejected and fraught with feelings of grief. So thanks G.D.

When I reminisce now about Beth, I furrow my brow–puzzled by our bond; for I remember her to be a slouchy, irritable kid with few friends (maybe two less than I had, which may have pleased me). She had a round face with premature acne and a penchant for autumn-hued, bulky clothing that marked her as impervious to trends. I, no cheer captain myself, liked to think I compensated for my scrappy frame and timidity with an incessant, toothy laugh and an effort to don trendy clothing and fit in. I also recall Beth was bossy/a bit of a know it all and that we would often argue, which has me further questioning the foundations of our friendship. After all, we were only about eight or nine at the time, when friendship is more instinctive and primordial/ purely based on shared interests and enjoying each others company.

For, I emphasize, with a hint of pride, that I had other friends so it probably wasn’t a matter of beggars can’t be choosers. I recall having joyful, simple friendships with kids who were charming, e.g., fashion-forward H, who wore smoky brown eye shadow outside of her house, was wholly obsessed with Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon, and always wore metal, jangly bracelets up and down her arms that announced her arrival (before any of us wore them). (She grew up to become a successful, creative entrepreneur known for her unique cafes). H was someone who laughed easily, was always up to good-natured mischief and made me feel taller and more sophisticated in her presence. I recall her talent agent mother was never at home, which meant the two of us roamed her dark, prewar apartment on Central Park West to play dress up in her mother’s walk in closets and root through her enormous kitchen and eat luxury items like Concord grapes and hearts of palm that I’d never tasted before. She made latch key kids look glamorous.

As a scholarship kid at most of the Manhattan private schools I attended who lived with her single mom in modest apartments and some less ideal places, I imagine I was drawn to two things about Beth: her charismatic Nobel-prize- winning father and her Manhattan International Style mansion. (This challenges my self-aggrandizing view of myself as someone who is not drawn to people based on material wealth or social status. For shame!)

In truth, I liked Beth’s dad less for his pedigree but because he spoke to us as if we were far wiser than we were. He seemed the opposite of my mother who often hovered too closely. When I came over to their place for play dates, Beth’s avuncular looking dad with the round belly and white beard had a calm aura that soothed me. I imagined he never lost his temper, unlike my mom who, loving and gifted in many ways, had a short fuse at times. (When I was young, my good friend Wendy and I thought we were helping my mother out by taking blocks of Philadelphia cream cheese and wiping our small kitchen floor with them before a party she was throwing. Our peculiar (yet charming) belief was that this treatment would make the floor shine in a way that would dazzle mom. Needless to say, mom was confused and startled by our odd gesture. She yelled at us so loud, we ran into the hallway of my apartment building.). (P.S. mom, I plan to write a novel one day that shows you in your glory, not in these crude snapshots that are critical).

As a kid, I didn’t know the breadth of Beth’s father’s brilliance and had no idea/appreciation for the fact that he was the ultimate polymath. I learned while researching him for this post that upon his death, the Dean of Stanford University’s medical school stated that “[he] was one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century with staggering achievements from bacteriology and microbiology to genetics and planetary exploration,’ I learned that not only did he make important discoveries about bacteria and DNA, he had a 20 year interest in astronomy and designed experiments to detect life on Mars, resulting in a Mars Viking lander. He was also was an early fan of computers and his work lead to many computer programs addressing disease diagnosis and management.To top it off, he wrote a weekly science column in the Washington Post to make science accessible to everyone; among the topics he addressed were infectious disease outbreaks and biological weapons, both of which were interests that he also pursued through his academic work. He served on national committees for biological weapons and became a national arms control advisor.

Another remarkable fact: since Beth’s father was president of R-feller University in NYC, he and his family, during his tenure, were allowed to live in a glam abode – a modern suburban sized house plopped in the midst of UES Manhattan. I knew nothing of architect Wallace Harrison, the R-feller family or how miraculous it was to inhabit a house done in the International Style back then; but I knew how privileged I felt visiting my friend in her jewel of a home that was surrounded by manicured shrubbery and trees and protected by security guards and iron gates.

When I was inside Beth’s house, I was sealed off from reality–from the noisy ambulances approaching the adjacent hospital on York Avenue and my own mom’s struggles with cancer and sporadic unemployment that destabilized our lives for years. I have few vivid memories of our friendship but one is that our play dates were often spent sprinting through this wondrous house that was framed on all sides by massive windows. (My unfamiliarity with the concept of wall to wall glass windows became clear during one of Beth’s birthday parties. A few of us kids charged wildly through the house playing some riotous game, but only I, like some wayward bird, ran into a glass door and had to be treated by my friend’s warm, therapist mother who gifted me alcohol pads and band aids).

Sometime in the third or fourth grade, Beth invited me over for a sleepover–an invitation that I would never resist, no matter the status of our friendship.

As I recall, Beth and I always enjoyed hanging out in her modern kitchen that approximated the size of most of the apartments mom and I shared. I marveled that there was an island that could serve as a full table for a sizable family in the center of the kitchen, which was distinct from their dining room. I admired that the refrigerator was the same material as the cabinets and was therefore somewhat on the down low/concealed. My little fridge back home had no such anonymity. (I have always had some odd fascination with appliances that are undercover like the time in my 20’s when I went to a boyfriend’s parents home and had to use the bathroom. I may have spun around a moment once inside, unable to find the toilet that was covered by a curious white wicker chair). May I also wax poetic about the contents of Beth’s fridge? Inside, there were labeled containers of perfectly cut fruit and by fruit, I mean the creme de la creme, e.g. kiwis, cherries, strawberries, blackberries not mushy melons, bananas, navel oranges or mushy blueberries. These people were living off the fat of the land!

It was early evening or late afternoon on a Friday or Saturday when Beth and I sat on chairs around the island, absentmindedly picking up some recipes that had been oddly laminated and piled in the middle of the island. As kids of that age with limited attention spans, we may have noted the recipes and even flipped through them but I don’t recall discussing their presence. I remember that Beths’ parents were having dinner guests and we could hear the adults in the adjoining dining room as they roared intermittently or clinked their glasses together. In the middle of some conversation we were having, a commanding (familiar) voice called out to us.

“Girls, we request your presence.” It was Beth’s father from the dining room. It seemed all the grown ups had stopped talking. (Admittedly, exact wording and recollection could be off as this is a memory from the recesses of my brain).

We slowly stood up and gave each other giggly, inquisitive looks. When we marched into the dining room side by side, two rows of adults (maybe 10 total) stared at us appreciatively. At the head of the table facing us–Beth’ merry-eyed father.

“Tonight, our friends and I planned a meal of our choosing and we would be honored if you were our chefs. You have the benefit of a kitchen with everything a chef could need and the ingredients and recipes at your finger tips. You’ll see we’ve taken the liberty of selecting a meal that is flavorful, challenging in some respects but simple in other respects. Look for the recipes on the island in a pile.We are hungry but content with wine and finger food so you can take your time. We have faith in the two of you. I suggest, you confer now and let us know if you need anything.”( Admittedly, this monologue sounds suspiciously like Top Chef. Think Padma).

I remember that Beth and I were quiet, staring uncertainly at each other-most certainly waiting to see if we were being pranked. We somewhat expected the grown ups to burst out in laughter. I, at age 8 or 9, was barely able to make myself a peanut and butter and jelly sandwich and was never allowed to approach a stove top or any knife with edge. Apparently Beth was the same. This was decades before Top Chef and Top Chef Junior where kids competed. We had no models/framework for this kind of thing. But what I feared most as a shy girl was being stared at by two rows of blinking adults so I just stood there befuddled. Beth, however, spoke up. (Though she was notably quieter, more terse than she normally was).

“But dad, we don’t know how to cook.”

He smiled at us, crossed his arms and said “we don’t expect perfection but we are curious how you’ll attack the problem.” Then he added “besides you can come to us with any questions and we can help you but we’d love to see you try it on your own.” To our embarrassment, the adults all clapped in encouragement. Some raised their glasses at us.This was no joke.

Momentarily rescuing us, Beth’s mom stood and gently escorted us into the kitchen to show us how to use the stove burners and showed us some sharp but not perilously sharp knives we could use.

A certain adrenaline kicked in once Beth’s mom left the kitchen. (Cue the rap song. Brass Knuckles here).

Beth and I grabbed the stack of recipes, alarmed by the realization that this was not just any dinner, it was a three course meal–appetizer, main and dessert. I only have a murky memory of the recipes-one was maybe a roasted whole chicken with roasted vegetables. We made some sauce that had wine, garlic and butter and i remember a complex dessert involving wrapping plums in a sugary dough. I can’t remember the appetizer.

Much like Si Eun and his buddies, we dorks slayed.We stuck to our expected roles well. We communicated. It was immediately clear that we needed Beth’s organization skills. (My own limitations were no doubt apparent even at that young age. I probably wanted to throw my hands up and go fetal at that point!); for once, it didn’t grate on my nerves when Beth barked orders at me; it comforted me. For the first time, I saw her look just as confused as I was and I liked that too. It seems my own demonstrated skills were more amorphous–for is listening to those in command a skill? (According to internet research on effective team work, it is).

The two of us discussed a world of questions such as: did the whole chicken need to be cleaned inside? Were there blood and guts inside its cavity that we had to remove? (Thankfully, the chicken was of course gutted and cleaned as most whole chickens are). How would we decide who would cut the things that were smelly like the garlic and onions? (I am pretty sure I was on garlic duty. Beth was no fool.). What order should we make the dishes? Did you make the appetizer first or just serve it first? It may have been then that I learned the difference between chopping and mincing (though I am told I am still woefully unable to differentiate in my own cooking—hence the huge chunks of garlic that appear in many of my dishes).

Our experience of course reminds me of a scene from the Series of Unfortunate Events that I reference ad nausuem. Wonder siblings Klaus and Violet are ordered to cook a dinner for Count Olaf and his large crew of derelict thesbian friends and the duo makes homemade Pasta Puttanesca.Though they made the experience look easy and fast compared to our long evening, in Beth and my defense we were years younger and we made a 3 course meal. They made homemade pasta. We made Austrian pastries.

It took us hours to complete our dinner but the adults commendably stayed in their quarters as far as I recall. I remember actively sweating the whole time (and I have Asian glands so I rarely broke a sweat until I reached middle age!) Sure there was some minor bickering and yes, an abundance of ineptitude. We struggled over things like how to cook garlic without burning it, no small feat even as an adult.I recall flour all over the floor and an inexplicable goo on my socks. I also recall taking excessively long breaks to eat raw dough covered with powdery sugar. (I think we forgot to take the pit out of the plums before baking it in the dough, which sounds like a dreadful surprise for the guests but I’m assuming they knew to tread cautiously around all our dishes).

How I wish we’d had smartphones to document the process and our final dishes. I don’t remember trying anything as we cooked; But serving our completed meal was rewarding. We slopped our food on elegant serving pieces and presented our meal in some type of order. I remember the fanfare we received–the rows of grown ups roaring and even stomping the ground. (No doubt hours of drinking explained this enthusiasm. I imagine the food was inedible). I have a memory of either Beth or me grabbing the other’s hand and lifting both together above our heads in an arc–two Rocky Balboas. (The poor Baudelaires’ efforts were met with complaints and ingratitude).

It’s hard not to pause here and wonder if this is how all Nobel prize winning science geniuses like Beth’s dad, behave, as in, do they view the rest of us mere mortals as fodder for social experiments? This kind of experiment would never be considered by most of the parents I know these days who would think placing this kind of expectation and stress on a eight year old kid might be a bit extra. This makes me think of the Parent Test, a show more interesting in principle than execution. It follows parents with different parenting styles (e.g., strict, new age (no rules) and rigid routine parents) and comments on their parenting skills as the chlidren are challenged to do things like attempt to dive off a high diving board into a pool or decide what to ask for on a “Yes” day. I want to see the pressure cooker parents (regrettably Asian to further stereotypes) encourage their beleaguered young daughter to cook a gourmet meal with other children under time constraints. Will these maniacal striver-parents be able to keep out of the kitchen?

I have no resentments about this experience. It was one of the most indelible memories of my childhood and I cherish it. I wonder now: Did Beth’s dad, the ultimate polymath, have his pulse on raising capable, creative kids who would become practical adults, able to work with others to reach a goal? Should we all be taking notes on how to build a better, more peaceful society for the future? Think of the Swedes, a people reputed to live in a society that fosters creativity and collaboration. I once read about their slightly scary sounding playgrounds that incorporate fiery trashcans and sharp tools for children to use in the spirit of collaboration and mastery of skills.

As I cheered on Biden’s spirited, fireside State of the Union Address last night and marveled how Mitt Romney is the only sentient being in the Republican Party, I wondered what would happen if we modeled American playgrounds on Sweden’s–e.g, add some quicksand to the sandbox, and if we let our kids explore and take some risks like Beth’s dad. Could our children grow up and show us what’s been to date mostly elusive: a competent, expedient and bipartisan Congress? I like that thought.

Maybe I am extrapolating too much. At the very least, this memory of Beth and her father, has me wondering if I can train my kids to make me multi-course dinners. (In my head now, the Be our Guest song and scene of lavish foods spread on a dining room table from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (“Beef ragout, Cheese souffle, pie and pudding “en flambe”…). Though directing them to cook for me may not solve societal disintegration/ fragmentation, I’m tired of cooking so kids, fire up the stove!

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