Dear Korean Kids,
Thank you, for treating me like the Pied Piper of Korean kids. For following me around, once you figured out I was Korean too, or at least half Korean, even if I don’t really look like it, which in turn makes me sort of a secret Korean which in and of itself is kind of a novelty, I guess. For asking me all sorts of questions, like everything I did and said was both marvelous and infinitely fascinating. For teaching me Korean words you were appalled I didn’t know. For showing concern that I was older than your other teacher from last year, Miss-Whatever-Her-Name-Is, and not yet married. Basically, for giving a shit and, hilariously, giving a shit because I’m Korean… something no one has either given a shit about, or really even known, for many, many years.
When my father died, in a way, I ceased to be Korean. I lost my connection to that half of me. We never met most of our Korean family; they all live in Korea and don’t speak English and they are now lost to us. His Korean friends and colleagues were nothing more to my family than my father’s friends and colleagues, and while some of them occasionally called or visited, after the fact, to tearfully bring us boxes of asian pears and the occasional weird cake from the Korean bakery, after about a year we were forgotten entirely. No one recognized us anymore; we were strangers in Korean restaurants, at the market. Without our dad with us, my brothers and I were something other to them; we were no longer welcomed with open arms like prodigal children, Grandmaster Park’s adorable half-Korean kids, everyone pinching our cheeks and telling us how handsome/pretty and smart we were. We permanently lost our pass to the Korean community. And the thing is, I never have culturally identified myself as Korean; it doesn’t matter to me at all. I understand that I don’t look Korean, mostly people just speak Spanish to me and I have to cringe and shake my head and say, no (the only thing I learned in four years of high school spanish) but I think sometimes I just miss my dad so much, and I see him in the faces of the old Korean man walking down the street, and the nice Korean lady who runs my favorite dry cleaners (what? She does, what can I say?) And I just so desperately want them to look at me and see him, I want so badly to be recognized, for them to hold my face between their hands like they did when I was little, and to tell me that I’m such a pretty girl, and such a good girl, and my father would be so proud.
He was a giant of a man, my dad, shrewd and charismatic, a gifted athlete and a brilliant mind. His reputation was larger-than-life and occasionally skewed towards the bizarre; stories we were told about him as kids often ended up sounding like Chuck Norris one-liners and he gladly confirmed every last one of them, true or not. It was largely due to this uncontainable reputation that so many of his friends and colleagues refused to believe he had died; I actually had to listen to my mother repeatedly say on the phone to stunned people …yes, really. People were obsessed with him; they traveled from across the globe, slept on the mat of his studio just to get a chance to train with him. Someone once made a bunch of tshirts with his picture on it, one of which I wore in a photo in college, as I drunkenly broke a board at my friend’s request (I later showed him the picture; he was sufficiently mortified.) But mostly, he was just my dad. For such a handsome, imposing man, at home with us he was so weird, just such a giant weirdo, always making up songs about poop and dancing crazy dances, driving to Home Depot in his bucket hat and the bottoms of his Otomix American flag pants tucked into his white athletic socks and sandals. He was quirky to the point of infinite quotability, a never-ending source of quips and non-sequiturs in broken English. He was generous and kind, and loved and accepted me for the neurotic, sensitive artist I was, even if he would have greatly preferred if I had shown a propensity for numbers, or medical/legal jargon.
I don’t know how it would be different, if we might feel the hole he left in our lives any less if there were anyone around from when he was still alive, as I imagine some people who lose a parent might have, who could sit down and bring my father back to life through their stories. Those people disappeared or can’t speak English, don’t know what to say or can’t find us to say it. So, instead, I sat down during snack and I told a bunch of Korean kids about my Korean dad, my extraordinary dad. I guess I just wanted to thank you, for temporarily giving me back a little of something I lost a long time ago. It was nice, for a brief moment, to be welcomed back into my lost tribe. To be fondly reminded of the years I spent in Korean restaurants and supermarkets and video stores. To hold your darling little faces in my hands as I tell you, that you are so smart and so lovely and so kind, and I bet your parents are so proud of you.