Drawings of interesting Korean-Americans

As I’m about to embark on a novel writing mission (writer Jami Attenberg’s 1000 words of summer starting May 31), I’ll be drawing interesting Koreans for a few weeks instead of posting writing. It’s been a while since I focused on drawing so these may be rough. Hope you enjoy them!

Laura petting a loaf of bread
Laura and her mushrooms

Korean-American artist Laura Swanson in her great hat.

Latte is horse

According to Urban Dictionary, this Korean expression means” “When I was your/at your age” or “during my time.” Since “나 때(Na ddae)” sounds like “Latte” and “말이야(Malee yah)” sounds like “is (a) horse”, Koreans translated these into English in their own way and {the expression} is supposedly a common phrase for Boomers to use.” (https:www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Korean)

My son sometimes calls my husband and I Boomers, which rattles both of us. Each time, he says this, my husband slips into owly professor mode: “We’re not actually Boomers. It’s just not accurate,” and each time my tween son says, “I realize that, but it’s just an expression as in, you are out of touch.”

Though I am only vaguely aware of social media’s obsession with generational distinctions, I did fairly recently evaluate the part in my hair to see if I should move my side part to the middle. (I’m on the Side Part forever team, you?) I do know this, I have a real admiration for young people-millennials, Gen Y and Z clumped together–because they are leagues ahead of my generation when it comes to things like gender identity. Whereas my generation had some of us chuckling at hard-to-define Pat on Saturday Night Live, the youngest among us like my 6 year old daughter (Gen Alpha?) is a different beast; she instinctively cheered on her guy friend who sometimes wore dresses to school and can nimbly explain to her classmates what it means to be non binary/trans/gender non conforming when her teachers read a corresponding picture book at circle time.

I can see why my son sees me in particular, as a Boomer. Laughing riotously at everything Fran Liebowitz said in the Netflix series Pretend It’s a City, and forcing my reluctant son to watch two episodes did not help distinguish me. More substantively, I had a considerable learning curve when my son came out first as non binary and then trans. How I commandevah’d when he first cut his hair short and wore boy clothing. How I slipped up on pronouns for too long and mumbled that my trouble lay in the fact that “they” was not grammatically correct when I knew better and said the wrong, hurtful things out loud. I was so embarrassingly un-woke regarding gender identity to the extent that a recent handwritten Valentine’s card from my son began with “You used to be a bit of a transphobe and ableist but now you are not.” (Hallmark cards 2030 maybe or better yet a new Girl Scout/Boy Scout badge of the future, see my imagined embroidered badge below).

My roughly embroidered badge for the Boy/Girl Scouts. I know it’s ugly. Sorry. Embroidery is so hard at night!

That card with those blunt words from my son, might be my shining glory finest achievement as a parent and a human. Yes, I’m a little proud of me and excessively grateful to him for being patient with my stumbling. I certainly strained my comfort zone by attending a large parent support group in which we all had to begin each session by identifying ourselves by our religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, class and other categories on a Friday night. The earnestness and open emotion of strangers struck me as cheesy and new age at first. I sometimes left early and wandered the streets–a couple of times finding solace in the plastic trinkets of a Flying Tiger store before picking up my son from his own group. I sometimes gnawed on an entire pack of green apple HI Chews as I sat in the circle and listened to the parents’ tales. I’d busy myself with petty thoughts about the other parents, i.e, critique someone’s ugly shoes or roll my eyes internally at the etiquette of saying “anyone else” after speaking. Slowly, over the course of a year, I learned to enjoy these sessions– the solidarity with deaf parents who signed to participate, parents who brought their non verbal, moaning autistic child to session, fathers from cultures particularly hostile to gender non-conformity who spoke of their fears so movingly and the welcome moments when we collectively laughed about something and found joy in an unexpected setting. (Though before I pat myself on my own back I note that my son does not think I am sufficiently woke but that I’m at least not the anti -woke Dark Force. My battle is not yet won).

Perhaps, there is no place I am more Boomer than the legal services office that I have worked at for a lifetime. For it is here, that my computer illiteracy rears its head and brands me as someone born in 1973. As my employment law coworkers, all younger than me know well, I am a bit of a Ping-peu, a Korean-English expression, which translates into “finger princess,” someone who waits for others to search for information because their fingers are royal.” (Creatrip.com ) I’m always asking coworkers where to find forms on the F drive, lazily ignoring recently sent emails on point. And Zooming has been a particular hurdle for me and my ilk. See me unwittingly Zooming into one meeting multiple times–my little face a pattern on the screen. Then watch me struggle to be one of the class parents for my daughter’s Kindergarten class, a position that largely requires the ability to send group emails and thus, is completely nefarious and ill-suited for me.

The topic of cultural appropriation is another one I wade cautiously through at work. One notable debate with two young attorneys and myself over the Caucasian artist Dana Schutz’s abstract painting of Emmett Till at one past Whitney Biennial pitted me against the kids. I liked the artist’s painting and I thought Ms. Schutz should be celebrated, especially alright as the work of amazing Black artists were displayed. The consensus in the room was a white artist has no right to paint Emett Till and be lauded for it. The vehemence that greeted my opinion surprised me at the time. Same for when I argued most passionately that people should be able to write from the perspective of any character/race/class as long as they do it smartly and sensitively of course. But no one was my friend that day. I felt so old.

So where do you fall on the generational spectrum not based on your age but by things like your tech abilities, your “woke-ness”/ your attitude about topics such as cultural appropriation? Do you like where you stand? Somewhat related, consider a fun, little parlor game that my son began the other night where we analyzed everyone we knew in terms of whether they are woke and/or interesting, which sometimes lead both of us to slap the dining room table and cry out in unison as we assessed one friend, “Interesting, but NOT WOKE!” Try it. It’s somehow entertaining.

Activity Club 1: The Perils (and Joys) of Playreading Club

My alter ego has always been Max Fischer from the movie Rushmore. I know I’m not the only one who loves a good club/themed party. (It seems likely he too had ADHD no?). Instead of traveling internationally as some are now or dreaming of being transported into alternate universes via portals like my five year old, I like daydreaming of fun social gatherings. Below I write of my beloved Playreading Club and why I hope it continues in person soon.

My Cousin Judy, who is around 97, has had a play reading club for decades. Her group has read plays out loud at boozy, food-focused meetings–taking away the pretention/awkwardness of discussing things like themes and symbolism. When she told me of her club, I resolved to copy her group and I did. Gone was the anxiety of reading in advance of the club date! Gone is the worry that you will have nothing but a playback of the NY Times Book Review to contribute!

Not sure how you feel about book clubs but they are the bane of my existence. Even a naked book club could not compel me. (In my twenties, I roomed with a friend who was a regular participant in a naked book club and participated with a young, hot guy friend who is now a well-known politician. They read Moby Dick.). My main issue is I don’t like to read most other peoples’ book picks, which may come from the unbearable hours spent reading prescribed books in school. Ethan Frome, The Canterbury Tales and egads, Midsummer’s Night’s Dream come to mind.

When I asked my neighbor, an Israeli stay at home mom to join my club a while back she shrunk visibly and said “um, that’s outside my comfort zone.” I understood her completely. I too have never been theatrical–my only stage debuts include a deaf and mute character in a fourth grade play and Fardles the bear in another grade school play. But our group has been memorable and often jubilant because of the random mix of friends who participate whom are drawn from different corners of my life-some who read their lines like me (timid and without much feeling) or ones who could outshine Sir Lawrence Olivier with their cadences and facial expressions.

None of us really know plays so it’s a dartboard-style selection process. So far we have read A Long Days Journey Into Night, Angels in America, The Glass Menagerie, August Osage County, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Fefu and Her Friends and others as we argued about race, class and everything in between over Korean wings, wine or other fare. It’s difficult to divine which guest will be a natural thespien and which one will read their lines like me, rushed and self-conscious. One regular who is a former district attorney is a wonderful performer with an entertaining knack for accents and hyperbole. She really hits her stride the nuttier a character is.

While reading August Osage County, two of my friends, one Caucasian and one Black, argued about whether the nutty mother was “white trash” (yes, i know, an offensive term)-a conversation, which lead to a broader discussion about race and class. When the night was over, one friend texted me, still upset at my friend who’d argued with her. Whereas my other friend enjoyed the exchange of different ideas. Despite the awkward silences and angry exchange, we survived a discussion of race, and I’d argue, that seems like an evening well spent on its own.

And we’ve had some minor intrigues. One time, my friend let’s call her Layla brought two friends of hers-a married couple to join us. David was a classical musician, bald and unassuming. Selby was Asian, short and the type of woman who wears Hush Puppies exclusively. The thing I remember was the husband’s tremulous but nuanced performance of Roy Cohn in Angels in America. As we drank bottles of wine for hours cramming in most of the play in one evening, this guy inhabited his role with such skill, we wanted to give him a standing ovation each time he opened his mouth. And he was not an actor. His wife, a mere shadow of him, was afraid to let loose among mostly strangers, which I appreciated.

David and Selby attended twice and then never graced my table again. We, no doubt missed our only male participant David, particularly during plays like Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf; the hostile husband and wife roles were hard to distinguish as we ladies yelled at each other across the table.

Many months passed and my friend Layla told me her friend Selby was not speaking to her. Apparently Selby was upset that Layla had asked David to come to a subsequent play-reading club and not directly invited her, which befuddled my friend as she considers herself equal friends to David and Selby. So enraged, Selby forbade David from coming to our play-reading club. Admittedly, it exhilarated me that my little club could be the basis of a marital standoff! I found it amusing that a wife could wield such power over her husband. (I smile thinking of myself telling my own husband he cannot go to the biannual record sale at the ARChive of Contemporary Music for example). Lately I keep hearing of these women exerting this type of power over the activities of their husbands. My endocrinologist recently told me his ex wife when he was married to her forbade him and his kids from seeing his own family during the whole 20 year marriage and now that they are divorced, he joyfully sees his family. Wowsers.

My other thought after hearing how David was forbidden to attend my play reading club: Jesus, let the poor guy sit at my dining room table with its stained tablecloths and eat some wings!!

We meet once every few months and rotate through peoples’ apartments for the venue and when we volunteer to host it, we provide the food and the others bring the alcohol. We have four or five core members but invite a mix of people, which keeps it lively. It’s a fun chance to see the homes of people some whom are basically strangers and make new connections. Try it or join ours when we hopefully reconvene.

Grade for this activity: A.

Two friends of mine who are regular club members

4 sure fire ways to be more Korean

1) learn the language.

I just signed up for a class run by the the Korean Cultural Center of New York that is subsidized for Korean adoptees. Half of the regular price for us! Surely I will soon write about this very niche Zoom group. I imagine a group of oddballs similar to me, their faces in tile across my laptop. My Taiwanese friend Peggy always talks about the “Asian discount” that Asians give each other but this is the first time this particular Asian has cashed in (Though I realize it’s not really an Asian discount, it’s an Asian adoptee discount, but let’s not parse details!) I must remind myself that my middle-aged brain may no longer be the porous and nimble organ it once was. I say this remembering the futile Spanish class I took that recently left me scratching my head to remember the word for table in Spanish. (I basically got to furniture vocab in this class and stopped cold turkey). I grandiosely imagine myself strutting through Seoul—impressed locals scratching their heads and wondering if I am one of them.

2) connect with other Koreans.

My oldest childhood friend Dylan likes my Korean drama dolls and my new zeal for my identity. This sweet enthusiasm led her to introduce me to every Korean parent (about 2 of them) at a recent Central Park soccer bday party by saying “Soomee here is Korean too,” which got the two of us some stilted, polite-ish nods and little more. I blame it on the snooty/guarded parent-body as I keep meeting Koreans- old and young eager to connect with other Koreans. Let’s take my hair stylist in her late twenties maybe. She said she barely speaks Korean despite being raised by two Korean parents but made it clear, she’s a K-food aficionado. She told me to explore Flushing, Queens for its cute stores, teahouses and restaurants and spent ten minutes writing out her recommendations! See below for her recommendations. I can’t vouch for them but I’m sure they are edible!

My friend Dylan (one of the biggest “social connectors” I know) introduced me to her Korean colleague who is much younger than me but equally zealous since quarantine to connect with her Korean-ness including telling me about the above mentioned Korean language classes, sharing enthusiasm for the same Korean dramas and culture. She is half Korean and half Caucasian and passes for white whereas her sisters experience life differently as they look more Asian. She is currently working with a big team of Koreans on a documentary about a Korean adoptee looking for her identity.

Lastly, my wonderful family friend Susan is trying to use her pretty close connection to writer/musician Michelle Zaunner of Crying at H Mart and indie band Japanese Breakfast fame to get me an interview with her. Wish me luck! I’ve been busy making a life sized doll of her, because her autobiography largely about connecting to her Korean identity is so moving and well written, she’s a great musician and has enviable style. This challenging doll amuses my husband. (“Do you think she’ll be a little freaked out by that?” ). Not possible dear man. Who wouldn’t be happy getting a roughhewn, amateur doll of themselves!??

3) Watch Kdramas.

There are too many and a million lists online of the best ones so I won’t bother with a long list. Don’t just look at Netflix but check out viki.com if you are addicted like me. However, you have to pay a monthly fee for this site. You may have to quit your jobs to keep up. These are two I have loved a lot this year:

a) Crash Landing on You ( already discussed in my No Nanook post)

b) Vincenzo

A lot of things to celebrate with this unique drama. Shallowly, I will begin with the beautiful main actor of course whose skin is alabaster and who wears priceless, imposing watches on his thin wrists. He’s appealingly equal parts Korean and Italian—speaking Italian and Korean so melodically I have dozed off to sleep (once with a long embroidery needle perilously close to my head). Loved the fact he’s a consigliere who comes back to Korea and meets a motley crew of Koreans who become his family and for a while mistakenly call him “corn salad” instead of consigliere. The humor is fantastic and wacky. The bad guy is frothing at the mouth insane and of course, excuse my emphasis on appearance, hot. The resolution of the romance is, as custom in Korean dramas, long and drawn out in a way that American shows would usually not tolerate. But the part I loved most is the titular character is a killer fighter, and rare for Korean dramas (at least ones I have seen), he discusses the racism of Caucasian people against Asian men. In one scene he tells his lady friend who is impressed by his fighting skills that he’s had to learn to survive as a weak Asian man bullied by bigger white people. I keep thinking we all need a Vincenzo to protect us from the current violence against Asians. Just wait to hear the click of his lighter and watch the villains burn

4) Korean spa it up.

My kids’ bucket list for where to go when COVID is relegated to be no worse than the flu is Spa Castle, the Queens warehouse Korean spa. (To my friends haunted by our group visit there pre-kids who no doubt shudder at the memory of the throngs of children in small quarters, skip this activity). As it may be a bit longer until we feel safe to mingle in densely populated saunas. we are planning a “Korean spa day” at home. (Unlike most spas, there will be no middle aged women in underwear scrubbing us so hard we are newborn pink).

a) putting rosemary, lemongrass and other herbs in a linen.net pouch and putting it in bathtub. So refreshing. I experienced this once at a Korean spa in Seoul and it was so relaxing. My lame little tub will have to suffice.

b)) Ah dark spots on one’s face. One joy of aging I’d like to eradicate. I’m going to try this online recipe i found for a Korean flour face mask to lighten my complexion. Supposedly Korean women use flour for their complexion. Ah-choo!

Mix a little flour in a container, then add a little milk and a little honey, until you form a paste. You run it over your face and let it act for about 15 minutes. Who knows what this will do?

c) Heat up your bathroom with a hot shower and close door. Sit on toilet. (This is where the experience starts failing perhaps). Feel the pores opening.

d)Make Sikhye, which is supposedly a popular drink in Korean spas in Korea. It’s supposed to be great for digestion. It’s made of water, malted barley flour, sugar and cooked rice. it’s refreshing after sitting in one of those hot caves i love in Korean spas. I’m cutting and pasting this recipe found online.

Sikhye (Shikhye). Korean sweet rice drink | MyKoreanKitchen.com


See below recipe I found online. I’ve cut and pasted it word by word because this is no cooking blog and it’s okay if I make it clear I have nothing to do with the below photos and words re this drink.

Tea Bagged Malted Barley Flour for Sikhye

“1. Put  the tea bagged malted barley flour, water, and cooked rice into a rice cooker pot. (Make sure you don’t over fill as it can boil over). Set the rice cooker to warm for 4 to 8 hours. (Don’t cook them. Just keep them warm.) I normally put these in my rice cooker late at night before I go to sleep and it’s ready for me in the morning (usually 7 hours later). The sign of readiness is when about 20 or so grains of rice float to the top.

Making Sikhye (Korean rice drink) with tea bagged malted barley flour in a rice cooker

If you don’t have a rice cooker, apparently you can use your oven. Keep it at the lowest temperature for 4 to 8 hours. The sign of readiness is the same as the rice cooker method above.

2. When it’s ready, remove the tea bags then pour the liquid over to a large pot. (If you want to make the rice to float when you serve, make sure you strain some rice while you’re pouring over the liquid. Rinse the rice in cold running water and move it to a separate container. Add some fresh water into the container.) Add the sugar into the large pot and boil it on high heat until the sugar dissolves (5 to 10 minutes). Cool down the drink then transfer it to the fridge to chill.

Making sikhye

3. To serve, pour the chilled sikhye into a cup. Scoop out some reserved rice from step 2. Add some pine nuts and/or dried jujube to garnish.” https://401320e0d608d7075bf87e421c380303.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

How to Make Sikhye (Korean sweet rice drink) | MyKoreanKitchen.com


e) Make nyang myeun noodles in a package at H-Mart. I’ve had this. It’s fantastic. I read Koreans eat them in spas, which sounds delightful after sitting in a hot cave. Of course i have a corresponding tale to tell.

These clear noodles in a clear pickley/slightly sweet broth are my best friend. I ate them for the first time in Seoul, never having had them in the USA. The first time I ever met my coworker Chris many years ago, we went to a Korean restaurant in Manhattan’s Korea Town during our lunch break and ordered this chilled soup, unaware that the person serving it should cut the infinitely long noodles with a scissor. Making small talk with Chris, a lovely new friend, I started choking on a rope of these clear noodles that I had elegantly scarfed down and had to start pulling them out of my mouth, fist over fist. Chris says he got up from his seat in a panic, prepared to Heimlich me. I survived without it. (Thank you adrenaline and quick hands!)

Such an appetizing intro to this tasty dish. Please for those uninitiated, give it a try! Not sure if these below need cutting or if that’s just a restaurant precaution but be warned!

shil Jon jou -respecting others dislikes

Our Durian pet. The stinky fruit is something we uniformly find unappealing to eat.

I live in a family of people who do not like condiments on their hot dogs. No mustard. No ketchup. Though I’ve lived with this fact for years, it is still unfathomable. A dry bun??? I still ask them sometimes if they want a condiment, hoping for a sea change. But, hey, props to the Koreans for having an expression about respecting others dislikes. I am, as my son tells me, often intolerant of the dislikes of others. One example, my five year old (and my husband) yell when I bring anything with kimchi into the house as their noses wither at the odor. My daughter’s protests caused me, a kimchi devotee, to buy her a book about a Korean cat who hates kimchi only to be teased by her brother for not liking kimchi and in the end, surrendering to the joys of kimchi (abeit in a pancake form only). I am relentless.

The charming picture book by Aram Kim

The other day a friend and I popped into a supermarket and she waxed poetic about cottage cheese of all things. I wrinkled my nose in disbelief and my friend said “seriously? you have a problem with cottage cheese?” She, like me, must learn a new mantra—shil jon jou!

As a parent, it’s a challenge to one’s narcissism to have independent minded children who have gasp, very different interests and personalities. Things I have responded to with a raised brow and a “surely you jest” stare include 1) my son’s insistence he’s not that into movies right now, 2) son’s rejection of any band I might like; 3) son’s newfound rejection of my Korean-identity obsession/korean dramas. Instead, he’s wanting to be more Jewish now, springing the idea of having a bar mitzvah pretty late in the game. (Thank The Lord, he’s still into Korean food. I can’t be the lone wolf in that front).

Whereas my natural impulse is to launch into a Pitchfork mission to find bands we share in common, force him to watch Korean dramas and implement family movie night to introduce him to my favorites, I will practice the art of shil Jon jou. Can you join me?

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!
Peg dolls of the main three characters in The King, Kdrama, a show with some good outfits

Asian Persuasion and other cause for revolt

A few days ago, jogging on Columbus Avenue en route to the Reservoir for a morning run, an elderly woman waved at me to stop. Out of breath and wary, I slowed down to hear her. She had twisted a tendon and needed help to walk to the Dagostino’s–a good deed that would set me backwards a few blocks on a chilly morning and force me to engage with a stranger in close proximity. She clutched my arm and hobbled forward, expressing joy that Biden was president and then, stopped her labored tread to say “It’s terrible what they are doing to the Orientals.” I took no offense as she had intended to be supportive and found the exchange sweet. Though I knew she was referring to the Atlanta attacker, NYC subway slasher and that extreme ilk, I considered the “they” she referred to as a broader group than those lone assailants. For is there an existing Asian-American who is shocked by these violent outbursts? So much of our lives involve hurdling “innocuous” racism by coworkers, strangers, love interests and resigning to our station or quietly grumbling to friends; we understand racism against us is more benign and tolerable than racism against African-Americans and others.

It feels tone-deaf/absurdist to write a blog about Korean-American identity and not discuss racism but I’ve managed to avoid it to date. I’ve always felt certain the kind of racism I’ve faced is dopey, docile stuff like being called shy by people who have never interacted meaningfully with me or being ignored. When I describe ludicrous interactions I’ve had with people to my non-minority friends, they say “these kind of things always seem to happen to you,” and they giggle. I never thought these odd exchanges were tied to race, but I’m starting to think they are indeed. Once I got into a cab and gave my directions to the driver. He nodded and drove a block or so. We stopped at a crosswalk and a white woman rushed to my door and attempted to jiggle the handle. I heard the driver, turn towards her and unlock the door–to my befuddlement. The woman, one leg in the cab, finally looked at me, shocked and peeved that I existed. The two of them had overlooked me! If that was an isolated incident, I’d chalk that up as a fluke but that strange invisibility is real. A friend of mine who is Asian has claimed she thinks people bump into her on the street more than others. Another says people cancel her private voice lessons last minute and she’s convinced it’s her race.

When we are noticed, the attention is often unwelcome. Hence the title of this post. For most of us Asian-Americans, “phile-screening” for prospective partners/dates has been a familiar rite of passage. If a non-Asian guy you meet has dated more than one Asian woman in his past, he’s red flagged. Studied/taught in Asia? Points off. Say things like “Asian women have great legs and hair”? Toast. All women are catcalled and bothered and some find this flattering. But to be an Asian woman means strangers on the street yelling “Asian women are hot!” in a hostile way or subjecting you to weirder stuff; I think of the time a well-dressed white man stopped me on the streets of downtown Cleveland and did a whole “wax on, wax off” circular hand motion complete with an unflattering squat, courtesy of the Karate Kid, and then walked away. Or more recently as I briefly wrote about in “Dr Phile,”an earlier post, my physician described me in the past as a “young, hot innocent Korean woman” or something to that effect as I sat in his office–a sorry, unwelcome moment.

Sculpie of the famous Breakfast at Tiffany’s scene in which the Japanese-American neighbor/landlord? is unflatteringly portrayed with buck teeth, terrible makeup and a crazy vibe by Caucasian actor Mickey Rooney. (The hard-to discern squiggly items represent steam and they glow in dark). Always pissed me off but I realize it was a different era. There are unfortunately still an inordinate amount of offensive portrayals of Asian-Americans in the media.

I”ve been caught off guard by work colleagues and “friends” with their offensive racial theories; once at work, my colleague dropped by to make small talk and offered this gem: “(Name of spouse) and I were talking about all the pretty Asian girls who date nerdy rich men and I brought you up because you’re not a gold-digger and (husband) said “she’s the exception because she’s Korean but adopted.” And to each of these small offenses, I have been cordial and may have laughed along to avoid conflict.

Actually, I’ve spent a great part of my life, curiously quiet. Though inside, I’ve always had plenty of opinions, I labeled myself to my friends’ amusement in college “mute girl” because I rarely spoke in class. That carried over to my career to some extent as an attorney who was, particularly as a young woman, seldom vocal at meetings. I remember one time being agitated/firm with opposing counsel on a phone call. A white male colleague whose office abutted mine passed by afterwards to tell me he was impressed/surprised that I could be tough as if he expected me to always speak in shadowy whispers or cheerful exclamation.

Of course when people anticipate you are quiet, it takes more effort to be otherwise. So these relatively minor infractions and stereotypes do affect us, make us believe we are meak and inconsequential. But Hark, old age and years of collected grievances have cured me of my reticence! Best not utter nonsensical/stereotypical things in my presence now. Want to imitate a Chinese bus boy in front of me or free associate with me about your offensive racial theories, I dare you! I will EDUCATE you. Best be warned. And I won’t be laughing.

Drawing of actress Nancy Kwan looking strong

My brush with a literary agent

My only brush with a literary agent came a few years ago when I wrote a little rhyming picture book about a toddler bidding adieu to her pacifiers. The toddler appreciated and collected pacifiers the way her parents collected records and other treasures. Before braving this critique, I read my two pages to a wide and disparate audience–delighted by the reaction from friends who were bad liars/credible critics. I’d suffered many humorless picture books that featured fairies coming to whisk away pacifiers to the woods, during the time that I was wrestling my child’s soothies from her clenched jaws. Through my generous friend CKim (incidently one of my two Korean friends), I had the chance to show a well-known literary agent my book. As this agent represented one of my favorite children’s book authors of all time, I may have had a star or two in my eyes, hoping that she’d like it.

She called me a few days after reading my two pages of text and said in a thick European accent that I densely could not specify, “I do not know the pac-ee-fi-er lit-er-ra-ture.” This cracked me up at the time. I too had no knowledge of pacifer “literature” but did she get the attempt at wit or at the very least the effort I made to look up the word pacifer in different languages and find ONES THAT RHYMED? Maybe not. (I now regret using my one chance with a great literary agent for this. If I happen to miraculously write something great one day, like you know War and Peace, I will be forever branded the “pacifier literature lady.”)

With that build up,here is the text for your amusement and, if you must, your mockery. xoxo

Dad has his records. Mom has her books. I am in the stroller giving dirty looks.

(picture of a toddler in a stroller watching her dad flip through records at a store, looking bored)

These antique pins I’ve found could poke me in the eye.

These shakers seem to fall and break whenever I pass by.

(photo of kid in a antique store with rows of different salt shakers)

These watches would be nifty, if only i told time.

A coin collection is not allowed for fear I’ll eat a dime.

What makes me warm and fuzzy and comforts me at night? My pacifier, soothie or Mr. Binky Bright.

A soothie is a work of art. I hold mine to the light. The question that I ask myself is how it feels to bite.

(Drawing of a kid holding a soothie up to the light like a diamond)

There is beauty in its color–its shape and its design. Mom says best of all, it eliminates the whine.

In Paris, they have suzettes. In Norway, they have smokks.

(Picture of kids in Paris sucking on their pacifiers and in background the Pont Neuf with discarded pacifiers decorating it instead of locks)

In Denmark, they have suts. In Estonia, lutts.

In Romania, suzetas. In Portugal, chupetes.

There is a pacy for every occasion. for every frame of mind. The plastic drugstore pacy of the fourteen-karat kind.

There are pacys for the happy times and pacys for the blue. There are even DYI pacys to decorate and glue.

There are pacys for the holidays–for ring a dinging through the snow and pacys for the protest marches–yelling “We won’t go!”

Though I’d travel far and wide for them, by jet or by balloon, my extra squishy oldies are the ones that make me swoon. Best of all, my binkie, my little friend, my Boo, is always in my mouth, reminding me of you. No matter where my parents are of what hurdles I face, my soothie is my partner in crime, in each and every case.

One dark, gray day my parents brought me to my room. “It’s time to part with pacy. You’ve had a good, long run.” This news was as you’ll imagine was anything but fun. I thumped my chest and pulled my hair–my angry ape rendition. That day I skipped or meal or two–revolt against nutrition!

To part with my collection, i ranked them A to Z. The furry ones, the spiky ones, the ones most dear to me. I watched mom slam dunk them, one by one with glee. I wondered without pacys, could I still be me? Goodbye my boo boo pacy for when I scraped my knee. Goodbye my pearly pacy for afternoon high tea.

Mom suggests a new collection–dollies or stuffed bears. But my heart is filled with pacys; nothing else compares.

At night without my friends, I tossed and turned and cried. But by morning, what a miracle, my tears had even dried.

I searched my house for my new collection.

The stress balls on my daddy’s desk are good for squeezing tight.

The warm glow of my nightlights can make the dark alright.

The makeup brushes in mom’s purse I sweep across my cheeks. I picture mom in the mirror and me, the little girl who peeks.

(Drawing of girl watching her mom put on makeup in mirror)

I’m growing up my parents say, and this sounds good to me. But from time to time, please let me smile and think of my binky.

The End (If you are someone who typically reads this blog, I promise no more rhyming picture books on these pages. It was a blip).