Countdown to V-Day, Pt. 4

I’ve learned a lot about love from my crazy parents…

parentsGiving Thanks for Crazy, Pt. III

(first posted on November 27, 2014)

I was in my first year at college and things weren’t going so well. I felt like an alien in a land where everyone already seemed to know each other from their days at Groton, Exeter or Andover. This blandly good-looking tribe wore the same uniform with only subtle variations.They would languidly call out to each other by their last names as they regrouped every Wednesday and every weekend to drink themselves blind at the frats.

I was a long way from home: a ten hour drive from Arlington to Hanover, New Hampshire, to be exact. We couldn’t afford a ticket to get me back home for the short Thanksgiving break, especially with the longer Winter break just around the corner. The campus was completely deserted. I was all alone in my big empty dorm, and all alone for my first Thanksgiving away from home.

I thought about that first Thanksgiving as I drove up to Arlington to be with my parents this Tuesday evening. The memory of it made me shake my head as I inched my way up 29 North, which was clogged with all the other weary travelers trying to outrun the 5-8 inch snowfall that was predicted for the next morning. On that Thanksgiving evening many years ago, my parents showed up at my dorm room after hours and hours of driving with my younger brother in tow. If you’ve ever driven along the Northeast corridor around Thanksgiving, you’ll know that a ten hour drive can easily become a twenty hour drive. I was appalled and aghast that they had done this for me, and also – so, so glad. We ordered pizza for our Thanksgiving dinner and ate it off paper plates in my room. It was a feast fit for a king and queen.

As you might expect, no amount of coaxing or pleading could convince them to stay the night. We ate our dinner and they headed off into the snowy night to drive all the way back to Arlington. I know my parents are crazy like I know the earth is round, but I also know that I have been incredibly lucky in my life to have experienced their love. I’m thankful for it every single day. May each and every one of us know that crazy, unreasonable, outrageous love, and may we put it right back out there into the universe.

Migration

I miss those gypsy parents of mine. They moved back to Korea a little less than a week ago. I’ve been scanning old family photos and came across a couple that capture my mother at the liminal moment of another, earlier migration – between earth and sky, between two continents, between single and married life.

I believe it is February 1963. My mother is twenty-six. She is getting ready to board the plane that will take her to meet my father in San Francisco, where he is studying. In her suitcase already loaded in the cargo hold is a carefully-folded, white silk hanbok. She will wear it as her wedding dress when she gets married, just days after her long journey to America. I’m guessing it’s her father who is taking photos of his eldest child as she leaves home for the first time – to go so far away, and for who knows how long?

She looks jaunty in her black coat and kitten heels. Her departure was delayed when an x-ray scan revealed traces of the tuberculosis she once had. She was required to wait out a year-long quarantine before being cleared to fly. A year is a long time to wait for the next part of your life to begin. She smiles boldly now as she waves goodbye to her parents.

She has always been a pioneer: the first-born, a big sister and second mother to her siblings:

Mother

Mother

Mother

Mother

She is a drama queen:

My mother...on the left!

My mother…on the left!

She has always been known for being brash…

Mother

the leader of her pack:

Mother

Mother

I imagine she is trying to reassure her parents with that cheerful smile and wave she gives as she walks towards the plane. I imagine she must be filled with anxiety. She has never been on a plane before. She has never been so far away from her parents before. She is flying to a new country where the language is foreign to her, to be married to a man she hasn’t seen in over a year.

At the door of the plane she turns back for one last look. Her father takes one last photo of his daughter before he loses sight of her. She thinks she’s far enough away so that her parents won’t see that she’s crying.

wedding

By the end of the year she will be a mother. In no time at all, there will be four of us – too many children for a graduate student to support. My mother will take us all to go to Korea to live for a couple years while my father finishes up his degree. My father must be miserable to see his family depart, especially his beloved, long-awaited son – finally born after three girls:

He sends postcards like this one in which he enjoins his infant son to be the man of the house and to take good care of his mother and sisters:

And though my parents try to bridge the great distance with letters and by mailing audio tapes back and forth, our father will become a stranger to us during those years.

In this photo we’re getting ready to board a plane to reunite with him at long last. He has found his first teaching job in Florida. We will meet him there.

 

Farmette

As I write this, my parents are on a plane heading back to Seoul. They are moving back to the high rise apartment they left – (we had thought for good) – about six years ago. I wonder how my dad will get on without the garden he was so happy to come home to in Arlington. Will he dream about the row of pine tree saplings he planted when they first arrived…the ones which my mother would scornfully refer to as his “sticks,” when she’d see him from the window tenderly fussing over them? Will he regret not seeing the peonies, peach and cherry trees bloom in his own yard this spring?

For many years, my dad tried to put his farm boy roots behind him. He ferociously, voraciously pursued degree after degree. Even today, at the age of 80, after acquiring a couple masters degrees, a doctorate, and a J.D., he still seriously weighs the possibility of going back to school again. But no matter how many degrees he accumulates, no matter how many scholarly tomes he writes, he will always be a man of the earth. The proof is in the combination arboretum, botanical garden, and vegetable plot he manages to cram into every tiny suburban yard he’s ever had at his disposal. The proof is in the quail eggs and incubator he ordered from an ad he found in a Field and Stream magazine. (If they had hatched – Lord knows where we would have kept them)! The proof is in his book shelves, in which Goats and Goatkeeping can be found among volumes on philosophy, theology, and law.

 

Goats and GoatkeepingSometimes genes express themselves in the weirdest ways…

I’ve always been an animal lover, but my husband is an animal-barely-tolerator. Every now and then I indulge myself in a little harmless entertainment…I freak him out by suggesting that I’m going to bring home another puppy, or by getting all misty-eyed as I rhapsodize about a long-cherished fantasy. I describe to him my dream of having an animal farmette, populated only with cute animals: a sheep or two, some goats, a few fluffy little bunnies, some ducks, a bunch of dogs, and maybe a miniature pony. He listens to me in silence, with growing waves of alarm clouding his face as I wax on about my little menagerie.

“What is it with you and animal husbandry?” he will finally ask in utter bewilderment.

One day I was looking out of my office window, which overlooks the Amphitheater at the University of Virginia. Pens were being set up with miniature llamas, sheep, cows, goats, bunnies, horses, and chickens. It turns out that the University Programs Council periodically brings in a petting zoo for the students’ pleasure. I was at once elated, and filled with burning, insane jealousy of whoever stole my dream:

We’ve moved to a new house with a two stall barn, a paddock, run-in shed, and chicken coop. They all stand empty.

IMG_7899

So far, I’ve parried and dodged the many earnest entreaties for livestock that my children have thrown my way. (Of course, they know better than to importune their father). I’m trying to stay strong, but every now and then I sense myself weakening…

Every day on our way home, we pass two different herds of goats. I can hear my daughter coo and sigh with delight in the backseat whenever she catches sight of them.

“I wish we could have a baby goat,” she says in a voice filled with yearning.

I usually pretend I can’t hear her, but one day a couple weeks ago, I allowed myself to actually consider the idea.

“Do some research,” I told her, shocking myself as I heard the words came out of my own mouth, “If it’s really easy to keep a goat, maybe we could think about it.”

When we pulled into our driveway, she couldn’t get out of the car fast enough. She ran into the house and hit the interwebs. She was at it until it was time for her to go to bed.

She came to find me in the living room to report her findings…

“The only complicated thing is that they have to have some kind of mineral supplement that we, well you would have to buy…And you have to have a really good fence to keep them in, and to keep predators out. And even though they’re supposed to eat anything, it turns out that some plants like azaleas and cherry trees are actually poisonous to goats…”

“Hmmm,” I said, “I’m going to do a little research of my own and we can discuss it in the morning.”

I poked around on the internet myself and discovered a bunch of things my daughter hadn’t mentioned…The fact that they would require specialized veterinary care: the semi-annual filing down of hoofs, vaccinations, and deworming; the fact that they must have companionship; and the fact that they are master escape artists. It was all rather overwhelming.

The next morning I gave my unsuspecting husband a pat and said without any further explanation, “You don’t know how lucky you are.”

This time.

 

Jook & Jeju Island

This is what we’ve been eating almost every day for breakfast (and sometimes lunch and dinner too!) since Thanksgiving.

I tried jook aka congee aka rice porridge for the first time sixteen years ago in a hotel in Jeju Island. I had never tasted it as a child. My mother never cooked it, because my father wouldn’t touch the stuff. He’s probably the unfussiest eater I know, but jook reminds him too much of the thin gruel he had to eat as a malnourished child growing up in war-ravaged Korea.

As for me, the taste of jook was a revelation – a mellow, homey, cozy dish that tastes like a warm hug from someone you love. I have dreamt about it all these many years. I don’t know why it took me so long to finally try to make it, because it’s dead simple, really. It’s the perfect winter comfort food. It would make a great baby food, because it’s so easily digested. In fact, it’s sometimes fed to convalescents, because it’s so mild. Finally, it’s an easy way to use up the remains of a Thanksgiving turkey or a rotisserie chicken, bones and all. Have I convinced you? I’ll share the recipe with you at the end of this post, but first – Jeju Island.

I lived in Korea from the age of 8 months to about 3 years. About 16 years ago, my parents took me back to Korea for the first time since we moved back to the U.S.  We visited Jeju Island, a tropical island off the southern coast of Korea with dramatic lava formations, gardenia bushes taller than humans, and citrus and palm trees. It’s the traditional honeymoon destination for Koreans and a favorite vacation spot. Dutch sailors are known to have shipwrecked on the island in the 17th century. This perhaps explains why there is a distinctive, more Caucasian look to people from Jeju Island. My mother’s family has roots here. Her maternal grandfather owned a factory there that capitalized on its natural resources; it produced buttons made out of shells and canned sea food for export to China.

We traveled all over the island in a rickety old tour bus hung with ratty floral curtains of indeterminate vintage. Our tour guide told us that Jeju Island is famous for three abundances – wind, rocks, and women.

At a Stone Sculpture Garden, we saw plenty of rocks:

and creative depictions of the culture of the Jeju of old…

The Dol Harubang is the symbol of Jeju Island. They were carved out of the plentiful black volcanic rock and strategically placed around the island to scare off demons or invaders.

With their suggestive shape, they are also considered a symbol of fertility. Rub the nose for a boy, or an ear for a girl.

During the Joseon Dynasty, Jeju was used as a penal colony for political exiles and as a place for horse-breeding. One of the stops on our tour took us to a horse ranch. While all the other chump tourists donned doofy looking hats and red vests to ride, I settled myself on a comfy bench next to my mother, and prepared to watch.

My mother nudged me and said, “I think you should ride.” (N.B. – She did not suggest that we should ride).

“Hunh?! Really?” I asked, “Why?!”

“When else will you have a chance to ride a horse?”

I’ve never been a horse person. In fact, horses scare me. I had had opportunities to ride before, but had always declined them. My mother’s suggestion that I ride, delivered so earnestly and with a slight undercurrent of urgency, was so surprising to me that I, as if under a spell, got up off the bench and suited up. No matter that I was wearing a long sundress and had never been on a horse in my life, my mother’s wish was my command.

The horses lined up for what I thought would be an easy amble around the track.

Suddenly, a scrawny man in a wife beater rode up on a moped, and started blowing a whistle. The horses took off running:

I clung to the horse’s back as we whipped around the track. I miraculously managed to stay on my horse, but the next day I felt like I had been hurled down ten flights of stairs and had then been trampled by an angry mob all wearing soccer cleats.

“Moooom! I’m like a sack of broken bones. I can barely walk!”

My mother complacently listened to me complain about the pain for days.

The most illuminating discovery for me was that Jeju Island is known for its strongly matriarchal social structure, which is unusual for Korea. The women of Jeju Island are famous for their strength, indomitable spirit, and iron wills. Another revelation which explained so much!

Our tour guide explained to us how this social structure came to be. Men who fell out of favor with the king were banished to this tropical island paradise. And then – oh, the cruelty! – they were forbidden to work. Instead, they were forced to sit back and watch their spouses work. The women became “pearl divers” or haenyeo. These women were mythologized as mermaids:

…but in fact, diving is a hard and dangerous job. You can still see haenyeo bobbing around in the ocean these days, but the profession is dying out with the last of the elderly women who practice it. For centuries, the women have dived underwater for minutes at a time with no breathing apparatus.

We probably ate some of their catch at one of the restaurants we went to:

Waitresses kept bringing plate after plate until the long low table we were seated at was covered with seafood. Some of the seafood arrived at the table ablaze; many of the dishes were so fresh, that the creatures were still wriggling. As uncultured as it may seem, I couldn’t eat a thing and had to avert my gaze for the entire meal.

Luckily for me, I was filling up every morning with jook, a daily staple of the breakfast buffet at the Hyatt Regency:

Jook

Ingredients:

1 cup rice

6 cups water or broth

1 turkey or chicken carcass, bones and any leftover meat

Sesame oil

Soy sauce

Roasted, salted seaweed

Scallions sliced thin

Bring to a boil the rice, water/broth, and the turkey or chicken carcass. Lower heat and simmer for about an hour. Remove as many bones as possible. (I can never manage to get them all out, but the kids have become adept at discreetly fishing them out while eating). Put in a dash of sesame oil and a dash of soy sauce. Sprinkle a little seaweed and scallions on top. That’s my bare bones version, but the possibilities are endless. The hotel restaurant had lots of other things you could sprinkle on top such as shredded marinated beef and abalone.

 

Why not?

A few weeks ago, I made it my mission to get my parents down to Charlottesville for a visit. I had to be crafty. They’re not ones to travel just for the heck of it. I had to either come up with a reason why I desperately needed their help, or to lure them here on the pretext that their grandchildren wanted them to attend some major performance.

As it turned out, all last week my children were involved in putting together the musical “Jonah and the Whale” that was to be performed at church during the worship service on Sunday. BINGO!

My oldest son helped paint the whale. We shall not dwell on the fact that in the process, he left a permanent grey splotchy outline of the whale’s tail on the wall of the Sunday School classroom against which it had been propped. My second son helped create some of the other props and was one of the three “whalers,” who had to maneuver the great cardboard beast into the sanctuary and back out again. He was hidden behind it the whole time.

More promising was the fact that my daughter was performing in the play, would be visible, and had a speaking part.

After two weeks of tricky and heated negotiations that made the recent Iran nuclear deal look like a cakewalk, I finally managed to convince my parents to come. Not for the weeklong visit that I had optimistically proposed. That would be too long for my dad to be away from his beloved garden. Not even for the three days that would have allowed them to travel back with my husband and daughter, who happened to be going to Maryland on Monday and could have easily dropped them off in Arlington en route. No. The best I could wrangle out of the deal was for me to drive up on Friday after work and bring them down on Saturday. They wanted to leave on Sunday after the service so that my dad could fulfill a longstanding appointment he had on Monday. This would mean a five hour drive for me on Sunday, and ten hours of total driving time over the weekend, but I took the deal and felt lucky to have managed it on those terms.

“So, do you have a big part, T?” I hopefully, anxiously asked my daughter in the week leading up to the performance.

“I have one line,” she replied.

My heart sank a little.

“What’s the line?”

“Why. not.” she said, emphasizing each word with cruel banality.

“OK, listen, kid. Not to put too much pressure on you or anything, but Grandma and Grandpa are traveling 5 hours just to hear you say those two words. You better milk them for all their worth! Could you maybe fall to your knees as you say ‘Why not?!?!‘ Maybe you could shake your fists at the sky and squeeze out a few tears while you do it?”

She stared at me and remained maddeningly silent.

When I arrived at my parents’ house on Friday night, I felt compelled to confess to them that they were traveling all the way to Charlottesville to listen to my daughter say, “Why not?” They seemed to take this news in stride with their sphinx-like smiles, but I still felt uneasy.

We drove down on Saturday and met up with my husband and kids at Peter Chang’s China Grill for lunch. Peter Chang is the elusive, famous chef for whose cuisine dedicated foodies cross state lines to eat. He’s been written about in publications such as The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and Bon Appétit. Bubble pancakes were the answer. Bubble pancakes would make the trip to Charlottesville worth it!

You can’t get bubble pancakes in Arlington!

“Is this the same Peter Chang, who just opened up a new restaurant right near our house?” my mother asked.

Why, yes. Yes, it is.

The big day finally arrived. Everyone who participated in the play in some way had made a tie dye shirt to wear as their costume. My mother crowed with delight and clapped her hands as each of her grandchildren filed past her to be admired..

I went up to change into my own shirt.

“I don’t think I can wear my shirt. It’s so ugly, it’s embarrassing,” I said sheepishly.

“Yes, it is.” my mother replied.

I went up to change.

We went to church and settled ourselves in the pew.

The musical was beautifully executed. The singers performed the catchy numbers with enthusiasm and true musicality. The acting was heartfelt and genuine.

My daughter at long last delivered her line: “Why not?

I turned to look at my mom and we both started shaking with laughter. She had to clap her hand over her mouth so as not to yelp out loud. Tears streamed from our eyes and we shook the pew with our silent laughter for a good five minutes.

If you were to ask me if those ten hours of driving were worth it for those five minutes of laughter, I’d answer: Absolutely…Why not?

In which Lumpy and Stupid Try Not to Disgrace the Family Name

When it comes to my parents, the only thing we’ve ever been able to count on for sure, is that we should expect the unexpected.

“Kids, we’re moving to Dallas!”

“We’re moving to Korea.”

“We’re moving to Florida.”

“We’re moving to Pennsylvania.”

“Tell your teachers this is your last week of school. We’re moving to Virginia next week.”

“Thanks for picking us up at the airport, but we’re going to drive to Tennessee now. See you at the end of the week.” (At 11 pm).

Surprise! We decided to come home a few days early!” (At 3 am the next day).

“We’ve decided to move to Korea.”

“We’re moving to California.”

“We changed our minds, we’re not going to stay for dinner. What? A two and a half hour drive is no big deal. We got to see you for a whole fifteen minutes!”

One might assume that after a lifetime of dealing with this kind of erratic behavior, one would give up trying to figure out their next move. Perhaps if one weren’t so lumpy and stupid, one would have given up trying, years ago. But every morning of the week we spent in Korea, my sister and I conferred with our parents in a vain attempt to definitively pin down the particulars of the schedule for the day. Every day my parents would say one thing and then casually drop bombshells left and right as the day wore on.

On Wednesday, we knew we would be attending the annual Founder’s Day Festival at the university (in honor of my grandfather), and that my father would be giving some sort of speech.

That morning my dad said, “Oh, by the way, they’re giving me an honorary degree today. They want you girls to go up on stage and help me with my cap and gown.”

“Ummm, Dad, is that really a good idea? We don’t speak Korean. We’ll have no idea what to do. We’re going to make complete fools of ourselves. We wouldn’t want to embarrass you in front of all those peop-”

“Nah. It’ll be fine. I’m sure they’ll tell you what to do.”

We begged our mom to intercede on our behalf…to explain that we were Lumpy and Stupid and could not be trusted to perform in such a public venue on such an important occasion. Not only did she refuse to help us, she craftily seated herself waaaaaaaay in the back of the auditorium, so as to escape notice herself.

It was not terrible.

My sister was not introduced, as she had been all week long, as a “good eater who as a little girl could eat an entire chicken all by herself, and especially loved the greasy skin which she’d rip off with her bare hands.”

When they introduced me, the lame joke I had once made, that after watching a few Korean dramas, I was now fluent enough in Korean to be the next university president, was not repeated as my mother insisted on doing over and over to my horror and everlasting shame to people, who never once cracked a smile at its retelling, and instead politely nodded their heads as they struggled not to betray their shocked disapproval at the rapacious, grasping, (lumpy and stupid) daughter who had made such an audacious claim.

We did not trip on the stairs on our way to the stage.

We bowed awkwardly, and maybe only looked a little bit like boobs as we did so.

We fumbled with the zipper for only a few seconds.

We placed the cap on our dad’s head more or less the right way.

We hugged our dad when we were ordered to in a stage whisper.

 

We looked only as stiff and awkward as we usually do, AND there was no food stuck between my teeth when we posed for photos.

My mom did not escape with impunity. They managed to hunt her down…

I exacted my revenge by taking photos of the takedown:

Cake-cutting:

The Founder’s Day Festival:

After the ceremony, we celebrated our small victory with dinner:

And just a little more revenge: