Seoul, South Korea, 1970. A hospital room in the heart of downtown Chongro-gu. A baby with a big Frankenstein head, drenched in his own blood, with more spewing out through his upper cleft like lava erupting from a volcano.
Wailing, crying. Yeah, they stitched me up all right, but when the rumble in the jungle was over, I had a fat lip and a Harry Potter scar between my mouth and nose. One hell of a hectic entry into this world, huh?
My parents actually met in Los Angeles in 1967. They were in Korea before then, on opposite sides of the country in fact. My mom's from the most famous province in the North, Pyung-An Do. It's cold up there, where the country meets China. I don't know too much more, as Communism has washed away a lot of history, and it's taboo to talk too much about it in the South, but I do know that the herbs and plants there would make even Humboldt County blush. And I know that my mom's family took those raw ingredients and turned them into something pretty spectacular. As family legend had it, they had a magic touch: Sohn-maash.
Flavors in their fingertips. Flavors that had been passed down over thousands of years, from generation to generation to generation, flavors that were now part of their very spirit. My mom grew up on things like mandoo, dumplings filled with mountain herbs mixed with ground meat and seafood. And naeng myun, cold buckwheat or arrowroot noodles, done two ways, both cold. One's served in ice-cold beef broth with mustard and vinegar. The other has dried skate mixed in with the deadliest of the deadly chile pastes and filled with garlic, leaving your dragon's breath stinking for days. Fucking delicious.
My mom was sister number four and child number five, right after my first uncle. She actually was supposed to be a boy but came out a girl, so they flipped around a Korean boy's name. Nam Ja is man in Korean; make it Ja Nam and you got my mom. She went to the second-best all-girls school in the country, Jin Myung, and even though her grades weren't the best, she was the queen bee of her crew, and she ruled the school. She continued on to Hangyang University.
Then, in 1966, when she was all of twenty years old, my mom decided to take herself to the next level and head to America. The story was, she was going to the United States to attend “art school.” If you saw a photo of her at the Gimpo Airport, though, ready to cross the great Pacific, you'd see her outfit showing more art than school: Jackie O. gear, big stunner shades, a beautiful handbag. She was young, sassy, and pretty. How could the City of Angels be all that tough?
My dad, meanwhile, is from Chollanam-do in the South. That's a province known for its food and the temper of its people: all that spicy, pungent, funky stuff you may associate with Korean food—from kimchi to pickled intestines and even to bi bim bap—comes from this province. Now don't get me wrong—the rest of Korea has kimchi, too. It's just this southwest region has the stinkiest, and it's the most brash. And, like flamingos pink from plankton, the people are what they eat: tough, rude at times, abrasive, dominant, vivacious, conniving. Everybody hates the Cholla people, sometimes in envy and sometimes for good reason. But the freakin' food no one can deny.
That's where my dad's from. It's proper, then, that he was a badass muthafucka.
Even at ten, my dad was smart and tough as nails. He had to be. His mom had died by then, and so it was just him, his dad, his stepmom, and his older sister. And when the North invaded the South in 1950, the whole family had to flee the stampede of North Korean armies pushing southward. Eating scraps and old, cold rice, they fled from Seoul, going farther and farther south through Busan and Gwangju, settling down and then taking off again when the fire got too close. For my dad, that meant enrolling in a new school every time they moved, and that meant he was always the new kid, picked on and bullied by the local kids. But, really, all that just toughed him up more. As the family bounced from town to town, he bounced the local competition: with the same strategy that rules any street in the world, he would find the toughest dude on campus and challenge him to a shil-lim-style wrestling match. Shil-lim's like sumo, but without the weight and with a sudden-death point system: first on his back loses. My dad never was first on his back.
Then he went gangsta in the classroom, Pac-Man eating up the competition. Kyunggi High School, the Phillips Exeter of Korea. Check.
Seoul National University, the Harvard of Korea. Check.
First commander as liaison with the U.S. Army. Check.
He got so high up the chain of command that in 1963 he was sent abroad to an Ivy League school to study diplomacy, international politics, and the Western way of life. With no money and no firm grasp on the English language except for a slippery handle on what he got from memorizing the fucking dictionary, he got through the University of Pennsylvania's master's program. Just so he could be that perfect foreign policy diplomat of the future. And as if that weren't enough, he ran the mail room at ABC for Dick Clark. Mr. Incredible.
He wasn't done yet. Like other Korean students sent to the United States to study, he was heading to another university to finish his education and get some more perspective on this new Western life of his, so he could take home what he knew and become a leader.