If you walk into a restaurant with Lee Ann Kim, it is a bit like that fabulous and continuous shot by Martin Scorsese in Goodfellas. In the movie, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) escorts his date through the back door and into the kitchen of a Copacabana nightclub. Each step along the way people wave and say hello, making him the center of attention. When Lee Ann Kim walks into a restaurant — especially a loud, smoky Korean barbecue place — everyone turns toward her, saying hello, waving, admiring what they see.
It’s not just a Korean thing. Everyone in San Diego knows her. She is the 29-year-old anchor and reporter for KGTV. But her flawless celadon business suit, her impeccable makeup, her pearly smile, even her seemingly boundless energy — all of it shouts out for you to notice her. Everyone does.
What’s the flip side to this attention?
“Most of the time I am Lee Ann Kim, anchor and reporter,” she says. “But if I should do something wrong — if I fail — it reflects badly, not just on me, but the entire Korean community because I am one of its most visible representatives.”
San Diego’s Korean community is small but dynamic, and its center pulses along Convoy Street in Clairemont. I’ve come to a restaurant on Convoy to speak with Lee Ann Kim and her husband, Louis Song, about that community. I am presuming that behind that face is a person who knows a great deal about the community, not just because she is so visible, but because San Diego is her reporter’s beat.
A few nights earlier I met her at a party the Asian American Journalists Association held for its members at a Taiwanese social club not far from this restaurant. Even before we met, Lee Ann had given me good leads about exploring the community.
One of these was the maquiladoras, factories owned by giant Korean corporations that do business in the United States, manufacturing not in Korea but in Tijuana. So far everyone has been tight-lipped about the maquiladoras.
Once we sit down in a booth with a built-in grill at its center, we get to the business at hand.
Louis Song, though he appears far less extroverted than Lee Ann, is no wallflower. He’s a 31-year-old tech recruiter, and I see right away that he is no-nonsense.
“What exactly are you writing about the Korean community?” he asks. “What qualifies you to be doing a piece about us?”
I try to tell him that I want to see how the Korean community in San Diego is different from the larger ones in Los Angeles and New York. I also want to discover how it is different from a city like Seoul. Finally, I tell Louis, I’m interested in finding out how similar or dissimilar the Korean community is to other communities in San Diego. I tell him that my former wife came from Korea — that we have a daughter, now grown.
“But where is the community?” I ask.
“Well,” Lee Ann says, “that’s part of the problem with San Diego, not just the Korean community. Everything is spread out — no cohesion here. People might work in one place — like around here on Convoy Street — but they live everywhere. There is no community that you can call Korean.”
Convoy Street is the closest thing San Diego has to a Koreatown. What being a Korean — and thus a part of the community — means is a far trickier business to pin down.
“First of all,” Lee Ann tells me, “some people in my business don’t really see me as a Korean. They see one person and she is Asian-Female-Journalist. You know who they see? Connie Chung.”
Lee Ann Kim, of course, is nothing like Connie Chung. Born in Korea, Lee Ann grew up in Chicago, and she possesses both the brashness and no-bullshit manner that I’ve always associated with that town. I always thought of Chicago as a Midwestern Brooklyn, ethnic and hardworking, simple and direct. When I’ve watched Lee Ann’s spots on the news, they seem to cover people and events that often get overlooked. I recall seeing a segment on a pocket park in a Mexican neighborhood, a kind of memorial for fallen neighbors, and I don’t recall anyone else covering the story but her.
“I’m not just representing the Korean point of view in San Diego,” she says. “I want to be a voice for everyone who doesn’t have a voice here.”
Our conversation has been continuous from the moment we sat down in the booth. Now the table fills with tiny bowls of Korean condiments: bean sprouts, spinach, various spicy and mild kimchis (fermented cabbage), roots, and roasted garlic. All of it is laid out in tiny oriental bowls. Bodi-cha (barley tea) is poured into little cups.
A few days ago I had spoken with a high school student who put another spin on assimilation.
“No one identifies themselves as being Korean,” she told me. “What you have are all the Asians hanging out with each other in the cafeteria and with each other after school. We are thought of as the Asian clique, not Koreans or Filipinos or Vietnamese or Chinese.”
When I put this out for comment, Louis grabs and runs with it.
“When I was in high school,” he observes, “I did not think about being Korean. That came about in college. It was a gradual awareness.”
“Being Korean,” I say, “what does that mean?”
“Being Korean is who I am,” Louis Song answers. “But I am seen as a manager first. A Korean second.”
Does Lee Ann agree?
“First a journalist,” Lee Ann adds. “Second, Korean. That’s how I’m seen.”
Both Lee Ann and Louis used the verb “to see” as a way of defining who they are, and they define themselves further by what they do. For me, though, it is curious, not so much that they use the verb “to see,” but rather the point of view they inhabit in that visual equation. It is not how they see themselves so much as how they are seen by other people. Of course, “face,” or appearance, is an old Confucian value. Present a good front. Don’t let anyone know your private business. But isn’t how one is seen as opposed to how one sees oneself a distinctly American value, particularly one that the rest of America ascribes to Southern California, where appearance, it is often said, is everything?
I wonder if this might be a clue to life in San Diego. Does how one is perceived have something to do with who one is? Or was the verb simply the vocabulary of a hip, visible, media-conscious couple? But then I had to ask myself if they were typical of Korean-Americans and, in turn, typical of the Korean-American community in San Diego.
Now some of the main dishes start to arrive. Lee Ann eats bee-bim-bop, a rice-and-vegetable concoction mixed up with an egg and hot sauce in a big round bowl. Louis orders a mae-in-tang, a spicy reddish soup. I opt for duk mandookuk, a dumpling soup with rice cakes.
We eat and Lee Ann drinks a beer. But white noise (silence) is not something that media types — myself included — take to well. I ask about how they met. Both were born in Korea and met there many years later when visiting as students. While Lee Ann hails from Chicago, Louis grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. Lee Ann transferred to the University of Maryland. Louis studied psychology and premed at American University nearby. Lee Ann wanted to be an actress, but she found that there weren’t many roles for Asian actors, certainly nothing specifically Korean. She played a Chinese reporter in a play and everyone told her how much she looked like Connie Chung.
“I don’t,” she reminds me again. “But it dawned on me that because there are so few female Asian role models that I would forever be typecast in theater. So I decided to concentrate my communication skills on journalism.”
Louis and Lee Ann did not date right away. When they knew that the relationship was for real, though, the idea of marriage came up. Both knew it would be a traditional wedding, but just how traditional neither had any idea.
Louis had his feet beaten — a very old custom — by men at the wedding.
“My father loved it,” Lee Ann admits.
When they honeymooned in Korea, relatives there thought it crazy that they practiced these old customs that no one in Korea did anymore.
“My parents,” Lee Ann said, “have become more Korean the longer they’ve lived in Chicago.”
Their more traditional values have forced their oldest daughter to be aware of everything she does in the fishbowl of the media. It could be summed up, she said, by her mother’s advice to her very visible daughter.
“Remember, whatever you do, my face is on your face.”
My dinner with Lee Ann Kim and her husband Louis Song got me to thinking not about face as her mother used the term — literally the face that God gave you — but about that more conceptual notion of appearance. Lee Ann had told me that she experienced little difficulty going from college to an anchor job in Alabama at the age of 24 to her job as a reporter and anchor in San Diego. But it seemed impossible that a 29-year-old minority woman had experienced no difficulty anywhere along the way. I wondered if the story about the Korean community was the one that would not be told.
Before I came to San Diego, several people told me to contact Dr. Byong-Mok Kim, a 72-year-old pulmonary specialist who was in semiretirement from Scripps Clinic. I was told that Dr. Kim had come to San Diego nearly 30 years ago and that he knew everyone. I called Dr. Kim at his home in La Jolla half expecting him not to be home. Someone had told me he might be in Seoul attending his son Byron’s gallery opening.
His son Byron lived in Brooklyn and had shown his art at the Whitney Museum in New York, and I could understand why his father might want to attend a major showing of his son’s work in Korea. But Dr. Kim was at home, and almost immediately he showered me with information. I sensed almost a hunger on his part to feed me with facts about the community of which he was a prominent senior member. Little did I know that Dr. Kim would become my Virgil through San Diego’s Korean community. By the end of my stay I would learn that nearly every Korean in San Diego was within one or, at most, two degrees of separation from Dr. Byong-Mok Kim. He might be a pulmonary specialist, but Dr. Kim was really an old-time shmoozer.
We agreed to hook up the next day at a Jack in the Box at Convoy and Balboa in what I imagined to be ground zero of San Diego’s Koreatown.
I meet Dr. Kim at the fast-food restaurant in Clairemont, not knowing who I am going to see or what to expect. Korean elders can be hierarchical and aloof. Older Koreans often are far more anticommunist than democratic. They can be conservative and unbending. Almost instantly, though, upon walking into the Jack in the Box and shaking his hand, I am intrigued by Dr. Kim. He is not like any Korean elders I’ve known.
Dr. Kim wears a sport coat and a tie, but his shirt is wrinkled, and the tie has seen better days. Still, the overall effect is of style, even great order.
After the handshake and introductions, we get down to business. I ask him how he wound up in San Diego. Right away I learn, though, that Dr. Kim does not speak in sound bites.
“I came to America in 1948,” he says. “In Korea, I was working as an interpreter for an American advisor, the equivalent of Secretary of Education. But if you read history, you’d know that in 1948 there was an election in Korea, under the auspices of the U.N., and Syngman Rhee subsequently was elected president through the National Assembly. North Korea boycotted the elections. That’s the juncture where I left Korea and came to the United States.”
He tells me about being a junior medical student and how the military government merged several universities into Seoul National. Korea had just ended a 35-year brutal colonialism under the Japanese. Strikes broke out everywhere. Because of the educational cutbacks, students protested. University students protesting, it should be said, is the national sport of Korea, albeit a serious and deadly one, often with grave consequences for all concerned. Byong-Mok Kim got caught up in the protests.
“At the time I worked for Robert Gibson, an American advisor to the minister of education, and he told me that I should leave the country and that he would help to sponsor me to come to the U.S. I wound up in Glendora at Citrus College. Later I would receive my undergraduate degree from ucla. Medical school was still not in the picture. The Korean War had broken out in 1950, and two years later I found myself in the American military.”
Fortunately for Dr. Kim, he did not have to return to Korea, though. He became a language instructor at the military’s Monterey School. But leaving Korea he also left the affluence of his family and he found himself in reduced circumstances. Instead of completing a medical degree, he had worked as a houseboy, serving drinks to people like Elizabeth Taylor, and picking citrus fruit in California. Of Elizabeth Taylor, he says, “I had no idea who she was. That’s how ignorant I was of American popular culture.”
The doctor pauses to gather himself, then proceeds.
“There was no place for foreign students in American medical schools in those days,” he says, “and I had a 10,000-to-1 chance of getting in. I put in for Columbia, and they had 1 foreign-student position and 10 more for women out of a quarterly class of 100. Somehow I got in.”
That was 1954.
He received his medical degree from Columbia four years later and then worked for several years at Bellevue and Kings County Hospitals, notoriously large, inefficient institutions in New York City. He came to Scripps Clinic in 1961 as a fellow and stayed on staff for a year. Then he went back to New Haven and his position at Yale.
Dr. Kim’s wife is also a doctor and a specialist. Here he gives the initials for her specialty, pronouncing it “oh-bee-gee-why-en.”
Obstetrics and gynecology.
He met his wife in Korea, where she had already finished her medical training. Then she came over to train at nyu. She received her board certification in Connecticut. But she couldn’t take a board in California. That was another reason for Dr. Kim to come to Scripps in 1961. He wanted to help facilitate his wife’s getting a license in the state. She did. Then they went back to Yale for ten more years. He then explains how his wife received her license.
“I had treated the wife of an editor at the San Diego Union newspaper,” he tells me, “and I called him for help. Well, I asked this fellow for his help in getting my wife accredited in California. He managed to get someone in the state legislature to pass a one-time exemption for her, seeing as she was a specialist in her field and was being prevented from working because of a mere technicality. She did not have certain undergraduate requirements, even though she was a specialist in her field.”
Dr. Kim stares out at the suburban wasteland of fast-food chains and neon-blinking car dealerships that surround us as we sit in the Jack in the Box.
“I came to San Diego in 1972,” he says.
Dr. Kim seems to go inward, gathering himself. There is a slight hum coming out of him that sounds faintly like Mozart — or maybe it is Beethoven.
I ask him to summarize his medical philosophy, his philosophy of science. Without losing a beat, he answers.
“Medicine has lost touch with the patient.”
“That’s it?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, “that is it.”
He lets me ponder his remark before going on.
“I am not speaking abstractly about losing touch,” he says. “I mean medicine has lost touch. Real touch. Looking into a patient’s eyes. Touching their hands. Looking. Getting to know them. I always tell my patients — particularly when they are seriously ill — that treatment is a two-way street. They need to get to know me as much as I need to know them. It takes two to tango.”
Though in his 70s, his hair is still black and behind his glasses, his bushy eyebrows poke out. He reminds me of the doctor whom Mia Farrow’s Alice, in Woody Allen’s movie of the same title, goes to for medical and spiritual advice.
But what did this have to do with the Korean community in San Diego or with how Dr. Kim wound up here? Before I could ask him, he seemed to anticipate my question.
There is a Korean manner of sensing others, their feelings and moods. It is called nunchi. I could sense Dr. Kim’s awareness of my questions and even my intentions with this piece about the community.
“When I first came to San Diego, there was no Korean community to speak of. There was just a handful of us, mostly professionals. All of us liked the style of living that this city had to offer. We embraced it. San Diego was a good place to work, if you could afford it, and it was a good place to raise our children.”
Before we can go further, though, we are joined by two people, a mother and daughter, friends of Dr. Kim.
“I forgot to tell you that I have to go to a party,” he tells me. “But perhaps you would like to join us.”
“I’m not dressed for a party,” I say.
I’m wearing khakis and sneakers and a light-blue dress shirt.
“It will be a good opportunity for you to meet a lot of San Diego’s Korean community,” he says, brushing aside my concerns.
I am introduced to his friends.
What the connections are here, I’m not certain, but I’m presuming more will be revealed momentarily. Yet Mrs. Lee is quietly deferential, suggesting that not too much is going to be offered, although that is a great presumption on my part since she just sat down. Although she is the mother of a grown daughter, she still looks young herself — her first name, in fact, is Young — and is stylishly dressed in a velvety blouse for the evening. Her daughter, wearing dark clothes, is even more stylish than her mother, though equally deferential around Dr. Kim.
“Mr. Lee, her husband,” Dr. Kim says, nodding to Mrs. Lee and then the daughter, “and Elizabeth’s father — my friend, my young friend, he was only in his 50s, early 50s, he complained of pains in his chest. So I took him for a stress test. I tell people that a stress test is very stressful, and it is, and it was for Mr. Lee. He failed it. I put him on a treadmill and his heart became irregular. We rushed him to the hospital…”
“Thanks to Dr. Kim my husband is alive today,” Mrs. Lee informs me.
“It’s true,” Elizabeth says. “Dr. Kim saved my father’s life.”
“Elizabeth came home to run the business for her father,” Dr. Kim says. “His fixture business downtown — the biggest one in San Diego — she computerized everything, turned it around, made it more productive.”
Elizabeth’s expression is warm and open, but I am a little surprised that a young woman, even someone from the more conservative Korean community, would want to spend her late afternoon with her mother and this older friend of the family. My experience, from living in Korea, was that the different generations, especially ones with an almost 50-year difference, were formal and distant in their relations. Fathers were aloof from their daughters, though a grandfather might have a less removed interaction with a young woman. Still, Dr. Kim was not Elizabeth’s grandfather; he was a family friend.
But before I can ask Elizabeth about this, she confesses that she needs to leave shortly, and Dr. Kim suggests that we head off to the Marriott Hotel in Mission Valley.
Dr. Kim tells me about the big party. A bunch of his old San Diego friends are getting together. He asks if I’ve heard of Kyungi. I tell him that I have. It’s a grade school and high school in Seoul.
“If you went to Kyungi,” I respond, “you’re set for life.”
They seem impressed by my arcane knowledge of Korean culture.
“How do you know Kyungi?” Mrs. Lee asks.
As she sits next to her beautiful daughter Elizabeth, they look like two sisters, not a mother and daughter.
I explain to Mrs. Lee that my former wife is Korean. Everyone in her family attended Kyungi. Her sister and brother attended Seoul National.
“Dr. Kim was the president of the Kyungi alumni association,” she tells me.
I try to picture the doctor’s vita. Columbia, Yale, Scripps. In many respects, he is the ideal San Diegan — professional, civic, affluent, gracious, wise. But more than being the model American, I realize, he is the perfect yang-ban, a person of great education.
Dr. Kim nods to his young friend Elizabeth.
“She runs her father’s business — she computerized all of it — but she was a fine arts major at Barnard.”
Of all the things that Dr. Kim could tell me about Elizabeth, where she attended school is the most important for Koreans. But that is not just a Korean thing. Schools are high up on the agenda of most suburban parents. I suppose the difference is that education is the most important concern of Koreans. Call it Confucian or just commonsensical or maybe even a passion for learning.
Yet something that Elizabeth said a moment ago catches my attention once again.
“My father had the entire inventory memorized in his head,” she had told me, “and no one but he knew where anything was.”
I remind myself that the Old World model involved memorization. Even before I’ve met Mr. Lee I imagine a person of the old school who could memorize a block-long inventory and store it in his head and, of course, he would have a heart attack too.
What really mattered was not memorization but education itself, that great web of knowledge, the stream of the intellect, the endless well of information. Whether it was in Seoul or San Diego, education was chae-il, number one.
Dr. Kim goes off to get us something to drink, and when he comes back, he puts down the soft drinks and juices. He takes out several catalogs with work by his son Byron Kim, who also is a Yale graduate. He turns to a photograph of one of his son’s paintings. The work appears to be large, taking up a big wall in the gallery. The canvas is painted with different-colored squares on it. The painting, I am told, was conceptualized after Byron photographed all the skin colors on earth. There aren’t that many, it turns out, though certainly more than black and white. In fact, no skin color is literally black or white. Each square in the painting represents another skin color.
“No one is black or white or yellow or red,” Dr. Kim says, showing me the photograph. “It is a remarkable piece, I think. But more important, it is making a statement about skin color and how arbitrary it is as a racial marker.”
I am transfixed by the photograph, studying it intently in the harsh, fluorescent light of the fast-food restaurant. It is starkly geometric. But it is also haunting and beautiful.
Outside the Jack in the Box, Elizabeth says good-bye. I am to follow her mother and Dr. Kim to the Marriott Hotel in Mission Valley. I wave good-bye to Elizabeth, wondering who she is beyond her Barnard education or even her stylish clothing. I sense that she is an unusual person. Why else would she want to spend her free time with Dr. Kim and her mother when she could be home listening to CDs or out shopping, surfing, or riding a motorcycle along the winding roads going into the mountains.
As I follow Dr. Kim in my rental car, weaving in and out of lanes on the freeway to keep up with him, I review the events of the past week. I came to San Diego not knowing where the Korean community was located, or even if there was such a community. I had been told that the community was no more than 20,000, with maybe 20 churches, and an equal number of shops and restaurants throughout the city. A Korean friend had said that the community revolved around one restaurant. Clearly it was bigger than that. Each time I drove to Convoy Street, I found a new restaurant or shop, a bakery or pool hall or bar or herbalist or acupuncturist. All of these merchants and practitioners were located in a strip mall called Plaza del Sol.
I liked how the Spanish name had a Korean pun built into it. Sol. Seoul.
In the several days I had been in San Diego I was beginning to see that this community I was trying to find was not really hiding from me, or, if it was, it was in plain sight. Koreans were not a hidden minority in San Diego.
Pulling into the parking lot of the Marriott, I feel as if I am back in Korea, going to one of Seoul’s many luxury hotels. Seoul now has a population of over 12 million people, and its downtown area is dense and thickly populated.
I am escorted by Dr. Kim into a formal banquet hall filled with about 120 of the San Diego Korean community’s elite. Not just the elite. This is the crème de la crème. I am introduced to Dr. Ahn, the party-thrower. I ask him what the occasion is.
“Friends,” he says. “Life.”
“That’s all?” I ask. “No hook?”
“We are old friends,” he goes on. “Life is too short. I tell myself, it is time to celebrate — time to get together again for friendship, drinks, and dinner. A little singing. A little dancing.”
Dr. Ahn is a small man with an enormous smile that reaches from ear to ear, almost like a small boy’s, making him appear like the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Wonderland.
As I am led by Dr. Kim around the room, being introduced to professors and scientists, engineers, and medical doctors, I keep trying to compute in my head how much this is costing Dr. Ahn — probably anywhere from $5000 to $50,000. I am reminded that gifts in Asia are never innocently proffered. Giving always has its burden of response, the reciprocity that oils the squeaky wheel of commerce. Powerbrokers are rarely idealists, especially the academic ones.
I get in line with the others to partake of red potatoes, grilled vegetables, salmon, ham and roast beef and sirloin tips, the “fancy” cuisine of a contemporary American hotel chain, now copied the world over, turning the surface of the earth into one big dull-seeming rubber ball of uniformity.
I sit at a big round table with several of Dr. Kim’s close friends, including his wife, the obstetrician and gynecologist. We all quietly eat the heaping plates of food. I realize, eating like this, that there is another connection besides friendship, and Dr. Kim alluded to it earlier. These are all Kyungi alums. Most of them graduated from Seoul National too, and a handful of them, I am told, were affiliated with Yonsei University.
Nearly everyone in the room is middle-aged or well beyond. All are professionals of one kind or another.
Another connection — perhaps the greater one here — that transcends even Kyungi is an old one going back to Korea’s dynastic times, which, after all, only ended in 1910 when the Japanese annexed the country. Everyone here is a yang-ban, the Yi, Koryo, and Silla Dynasties’ educated royal class — the nobles. Because Korea was a Confucian society, education was the highest attainment, and in the old Chinese system, it had to do with memorizing thousands upon thousands of characters. Yang-ban don’t work. At least they never would deign to dirty their hands with business. Their highest achievements were scholarly, typified by the grand King Sejong, inventor of the Korean alphabet. It is no coincidence that few of the partygoers are hard-core businessmen. Nonetheless, it is the 21st Century, and yang-ban the world over, not just in San Diego, need to dirty themselves handling money. But an educated elite was still the ideal.
“We used to get together like this once or twice a year,” Mr. Lee says. “But as we have gotten older, we seem to see each other less and less.”
Mr. Lee is the famous Mr. Lee of Dr. Kim’s story in Jack in the Box. He is the one who owns the largest fixture business in San Diego, but whose career was interrupted by a massive heart disorder in his early 50s. To me he looks like a miracle, and when I ask him about this, Mr. Lee agrees.
“Nothing short of a miracle,” he says, then nods to his friend Dr. Kim. “Thanks to Dr. Kim, I am alive.”
I had forgotten this, but it is impossible to eat lightly in the company of Koreans. Like Italians with their “mangia, mangia” or the proverbial Jewish mother, pushing more matzo ball soup with “eat, eat,” several Korean men and women offer to bring me more food.
“I’m stuffed,” I say.
Because I had not anticipated going to this event, I had eaten something earlier, before meeting Dr. Kim at the fast-food restaurant on Convoy Street.
Yet no one is willing to accept my remark at face value.
“Eat, eat,” a woman sitting next to me says.
“I’m full,” I tell her.
“That’s okay,” she says. “Have some more.”
A young man sets up a karaoke machine, complete with speakers and a video prompter. The most venerable senior males in the group come up to the microphone, whether they can sing or not, and they belt out a tune.
The tunes are off-key but heartfelt.
One by one the pillars of the community step to the microphone to sing. Their songs are mostly popular and sentimental — and deeply nationalistic.
When it is suggested that I get up to sing, I politely decline, claiming that I am working and need to observe. The truth of the matter is that I’m a terrible singer, even by the loose standards of karaoke. Besides, I am an outsider, not so much because I am the only white person in the hall, but because I am the only man not wearing a sport coat and a tie.
After the elder statesmen sing, couples get up and turn formal steps and figures on the wooden dance floor.
The less felicitous singing has given way to something finer. I think it happens when a businessman named Je-Deuk Lee walks to the stage and takes the microphone. He is small and stocky. His gray iridescent suit catches the light, almost as if he were Frankie or Tony or Deano or Sammy. Lee’s voice is gravelly, earthy, very folk-songish, almost like an old blues singer or a Korean p’ansori (talking story) folksinger.
Hearing the language now makes me realize that I no longer understand it the way I once did. But I don’t need to know the words to the song because Je-Deuk Lee sings with great feeling.
A while later the miraculous Mr. Lee sings too. His voice is angelic, like Smokey Robinson or Aaron Neville. As he walks from the middle of the stage floor and sits down, I compliment him on his voice and he appears almost embarrassed by his talent. He laughs boyishly as others shake his hand and tell him how much they like his voice, and his wife Young notices and seems to beam proudly about her husband Chung.
Much later, the wives come forward to sing. One of them is equal to Je-Deuk Lee’s bluesy singing. Her voice sounds choked with grit and is very soulful. I’ve always been a sucker for this kind of earthy voice, whether it is male or female. It reminds me that Korea, though industrialized nowadays, was only a short time ago a predominantly rural country because this earthy kind of voice is not of the city but of the countryside.
This singer is followed by a wife whose voice is so good I find it indistinguishable from one you’d hear in a hotel nightclub in downtown Seoul. A wave of nostalgia runs over the room as she sings. The couples on the dance floor come closer to each other; their dance steps become at once more elaborate and together. It reminds me of a scene from a 19th-century Russian novel. I am aware that underneath the entertainment great passions are stewing. Lives are being discovered or broken apart at the tables. But unlike an Anna Karenina, who will dance with an officer who is not her husband, thus setting in motion her own tragic end, all the couples dancing are married to each other. Living in San Diego is its own happy ending for them.
It suddenly occurs to me how extraordinary it is. In all the years I lived in and visited Korea, almost always staying in some relative’s household, I went to countless parties. When they were outside the household, they were held, just like this one, in big, fancy western hotels. On family holidays, like New Year’s Day, when we sat around eating food and playing cards and gambling, the parties were held in someone’s home, usually the most senior member of the extended family. People always sang. They also danced. At least the mothers and aunts and sisters and children danced. Not the men, though. The only time I ever saw men dancing in Korea was when they went to the drinking houses and danced with the drinking-house women.
San Diego is either presenting me with a conundrum or a new paradigm. Whatever it is, it is right there, not ambiguous, and as innocuous as it might seem, it feels downright revolutionary. Couples dancing — how wild!
I find their togetherness moving, even unusual. Perhaps this is the very thing that makes San Diego’s Korean community unique — the men and women seem to share an equal footing in the social world. True, the men in the room have the disproportionate number of Ph.D.s and medical degrees. But Dr. Kim’s wife belies the stereotype of the good housewife. Though quiet and traditional in her outward demeanor, she is a specialist like her husband, and equally renowned.
Deals are being made, huge sums of money are bandied about. Careers are being made or broken at these tables, no matter how casual the atmosphere or how rich the partygoers. Korean fortunes have a knack of disappearing as easily as a lost umbrella or rain hat. The charged atmosphere comes from the older values these people share. Their children and grandchildren may not necessarily share these values. But it was these Old World values that turned these yang-bans into millionaires. They believe in hard work, and they share a deep-seated belief in capitalism. Yet no matter how much this room feels like one in contemporary Korea, it is not.
Eventually I, too, must say good night to Dr. Kim and his wife and the Lees and the other guests at our table. I drive off into the dark subtropical blue of the night, back to my hotel in Coronado. Just before I got to sleep, though, I thought about something that Louis Song said a few nights earlier when we were eating dinner in the Korean-barbecue place on Convoy Street.
He shook his head, not disagreeing, but trying to unleash his own nest of complications that needed to be ventilated. His brow was furrowed, and his expression appeared dark, full of consternation, of concern and worry, a thinking man’s furrow. I could sense that this was not going to be some media-couple sound-bite remark, gift wrapped with a bow on it.
“In the not-too-distant future more than half the world’s population will be Asian,” he said, looking me squarely in the eyes, not wanting me to break contact with him.
“I would like to see corporations become more cognizant of this fact,” he continued. “You rarely see an Asian in a ceo position. It is important that Asian-Americans are given consideration for management positions — nothing more, nothing less. Asians need to be put in these more senior positions — to reflect the demographics in the world. I would like to see the business world acknowledge the importance of someone like myself, a person who is conversant in two worlds — American culture and values as well as the more traditional Korean ones.”
Had anyone stopped the older Koreans I had met at Dr. Ahn’s party? Had Dr. Kim been impeded in his journey from medical student to medical specialist? I did not ask these questions to discredit Louis’s observations, which I think were true for him and his own generation. But the fact was that nearly everyone in that hotel room was infinitely richer and more successful than I or anyone I knew would ever be. The American dream was theirs more than it was most other Americans’. Then again, much of San Diego, seemingly the quintessential American city, was flying on such a high plain, few Americans would ever be able to achieve its economic status. Maybe everyone was simply California dreaming. These older Koreans were an educated elite, whether they were in Seoul or San Diego, and as such, they were at the pinnacle of achievement — what everyone else aspired to, including younger Americans like Louis Song.
What surprised me, being here in San Diego, was that he did not know them, and they certainly did not know him. How had that happened, since the community was so small? Was it a generational thing? Or was it that the older generation were Koreans living in America, enjoying all the benefits of the country without any of the drawbacks, while the younger ones were hyphenated nationals, neither Korean nor American, but a hybrid of both? Maybe it was a case of being separated by a common language or national identity.
Although I was told that there were 20 or 30 Korean churches in San Diego, the number is really much higher. A directory I looked at listed 54, and this number does not account for the smaller fringe religions that seem to sprout up everywhere in the Korean communities I’ve visited. The hillsides in and around Seoul are littered with neon crosses, signs of yet another Christian denomination. Why should the Koreans who practice Christianity in San Diego be any different? As I drive to the Korean United Methodist Church in Clairemont, I am reminded of something that Dr. Kim, the lung specialist, said.
“How extraordinary it is,” he observed, “that Americans brought Christianity to Korea, but now it is Koreans bringing it back to the United States, and they are so zealous, so well-meaning, they really believe that they know all about this white man who died 2000 years ago in the Middle East and that they are going to teach Americans all about this man who claimed to be the savior. I find it amazing, although I am not sure if it is delusional or simply misplaced idealism. The end result is the same. Why don’t they concern themselves with their own culture? That’s what I always say. Teach your children something about the great figures of Korean history or the long history of Buddhism in Korea before you dive into this western religion so zealously.”
But churches, traditionally, are where immigrants come together — where their individual powerlessness finds a common voice that has more clout. Nearly every community has relied on its churches to get by. Eventually, people arrive at where they are aiming socially, and then the congregation dissolves or reinvents itself with new momentum.
I’m wondering about all this as I yet again navigate San Diego in a car. About the only notion of a Higher Power I seem to have these days comes from the more native belief in a Great Spirit. What I marvel at, as I get older, is the sun and sky, the moon and trees, the birds and animals; in other words, Mother Earth, and I guess that aligns me more with native beliefs than with traditional religions. Nonetheless, I feel spirited driving out to Clairemont again. It is Sunday and I’m driving through a less commercial part of the neighborhood, looking for the Korean United Methodist Church.
It is one of the oldest Korean churches in San Diego, going back almost 30 years. I find it without too much trouble, and several people whom I met at the party are already there, waiting to greet me. One of these people is Ki Kim, a founding father of this church.
“Welcome to the church,” he says, shaking my hand.
Ki is a church elder, older and more formal than the young members of the congregation who mill around outside the chapel. His background is somewhat typical of the more senior Koreans in San Diego, and he was at Dr. Ahn’s party the night before, suggesting that he is not only highly regarded at this church but in the greater community too. During the Korean War, 50 years ago, Ki was a U.S. Marine. Then he came to America under the G.I. Bill and studied at Ohio State, where he earned a doctorate. Ki seems to belie the macho notion of a Marine. He is not big and brash, thick-fisted and quick-tempered. He reminds me more of the elite combat soldiers of my own generation who fought in Vietnam. These soldiers tended to be smaller and more wiry, compact and unassuming. I always think of Kenn Miller, a former long-range reconnaissance patrol soldier, who wrote my favorite Vietnam War novel, Tiger the Lurp Dog, when I picture this type of small, stealthy fighter.
Nowadays, besides his work for this church, Ki Kim is involved in the high-tech world of San Diego.
At Dr. Ahn’s party someone had called Ki “Mr. Chips,” meaning “computer chips,” and I was told that several major electronic giants had courted him but that Ki has remained an independent scientific researcher and developer. He is president of Tyndall Technologies. Later, when I saw him again after the morning service, he would tell me that when the church was first started, there were only seven members who attended regularly. Today there are hundreds of people moving around the church grounds, older people waiting for the later Korean service, more than a hundred young people who attend the earlier service in English, and a wealth of small children underfoot.
The Korean United Methodist Church is called “an abundant life community,” and the term seems apt for San Diego too. A brochure I was handed upon entering the chapel says that the church community “is a place where complex lives are simplified.” Most of these complex lives are quite young. Most appear to be in their 20s or their early 30s. Certainly I am the oldest person in the church by two decades. I’m also one of a few white people.
The music is, well, spirited, and the singing is good. I realize that even though Korea is filled with churches everywhere, I’ve not been in any of them other than Myong-dong Cathedral, the headquarters for the Catholic minority. Traditionally, the Korean Catholic church was quite politically active and even radical, and their best-known dissident was a poet named Kim Chi-Ha. He spent many years imprisoned and even tortured there, and his cause was internationally known. Myong-dong is a fashionable shopping area in Seoul, equivalent to New York’s Fifth Avenue, and I remember being told that Kim Chi-Ha, finally released from prison — his only crime being to write very good satirical poetry about the military dictatorship — was wheeling a pushcart around Myong-dong, selling Korean whiskey.
My spiritual interests had to do with Buddhism and shamans, going to temples all over Seoul and the outlying countryside, and going to kut, the animist ritual performed by the shaman, whenever anyone could find an animist who didn’t mind a gawky American observing.
After the service, standing outside the chapel, I am introduced to Kenneth Suhr, the young minister who performed the service, which included the baptism of an infant. Reverend Suhr looms over the congregation, not in some Moses-like way but rather like a National Basketball Association player. He is exceedingly tall. I’m six feet tall and he is half a foot taller than I am. The minister has that awkward elegance of an athlete too and later tells me he was a basketball player once. Like his congregation, he is young and enthusiastic.
I’m beginning to learn that enthusiasm and energy are hallmarks of successful San Diegans, no matter how young or old, or even whether they are Korean or not.
Reverend Suhr’s sermon was about renewal, Christ rising from the dead, and the spiritual abundance of all life.
“Praise the Lord,” Kenneth Suhr shouts when told how nice the day is for the picnic, which I am going to right now.
I could stay and meet more elders of the community, I am told, but I think I have met enough elders. What I would like to do is meet some more young people, and I have a greater chance of doing that by going to the picnic down the road in Mt. Acadia Park.
I can’t help but notice how American Kenneth Suhr is. His smile is electrifying, and he’s big and handsome. Imagine Keanu Reeves playing a minister.
His fellow young minister, Peter Park, had led the singing and the musicians during the service. I am introduced to him and I notice a familiar accent, and so I ask where he is from. He tells me Long Island.
“New Hyde Park,” he says.
“Where did you go to high school?” I say, and I have to ask myself if I am not becoming Confucian, with this overly active interest in education. But I have another reason for inquiring.
“Herricks,” Peter Park says. “But why do you ask?”
“Well, I’m a Highlander too,” I tell him, using the nickname for our public high school on Long Island.
How odd that I lived for more than 30 years in Manhattan, less than 20 miles away from where I grew up and attended high school, but I never ran into anyone from Herricks. In San Diego, attending a service at a Korean church in Clairemont, I meet Peter Park, former Highlander.
I was once told by a younger brother who still lives on Long Island that our hometown — once working-class and blue-collar, filled with large Irish and Italian families, the houses bursting with the unruly children of firemen and cops from New York City — was now a more affluent community of Koreans and Indians, with smaller families, better students, and fewer troublemakers for the local authorities. Their parents were working professionals who commuted to the city daily.
“What brings you to San Diego?” I ask Peter Park.
“My ministry,” he says.
But before I can speak with him further, we are interrupted by other young people vying for his attention. Ki Kim and his wife escort me to the picnic in his new Lexus SUV, a gift from his son.
Once again I meet up with Lee Ann Kim and Louis Song, but she is immediately surrounded by people who want to speak with her, so Louis and I sit on the grass. I tell him about Dr. Ahn’s party and how hugely successful everyone seemed to be. Perhaps he would care to comment on that. But instead of responding, he simply repeats what he told me the other night.
“It is important that Asian-Americans are given consideration for management positions — nothing more, nothing less.”
Before he can elaborate, his dog PePe Le Pew, a large, dark, furry mix, almost knocks over Louis. He gets up and throws a ball for the dog to fetch and then runs off after PePe Le Pew.
I get up too, and am left standing next to Romi Song, no relation to Louis, a young teacher of Spanish in a Christian school in the neighborhood. After she tells me her name and I ask her what she does for a living, I find out that she is 27 years old, and although she is not getting rich from her job, she tells me, “My work constantly rewards me.”
Life had not yet ravaged Romi’s idealism.
Compared to the powerbrokers of Dr. Ahn’s party or the media celebrity of Lee Ann, Romi would seem almost too plain-vanilla. Instead her simplicity strikes me as downright wonderful, a great tonic to the success story everyone wants to give me.
Romi grew up in and around San Diego and tells me, “I would not live anywhere else.” Her father moved on and she hasn’t seen him in half a year, she says, her voice getting choked up and sad. “But I’m very close with my mother.”
Almost as if she’s said too much, Romi excuses herself and runs off toward the volleyball court, where she joins one of the teams and punches the ball in the air. She would appear to be a good player, even though small. But I am more aware of the afterlife of our conversation about families, lingering around me. A family is such a fragile notion, finally. None of us is immune to the hazards of fragmentation. No amount of goods or the good life or suburban lifestyle can annihilate that fact.
I suppose the church was trying to teach that material things were not that important. But I got the feeling that that was not why people came to the church. They came because they wanted to lead good lives, of course, but they also came because it was a place to meet people and to make contacts, business and otherwise. The combination was one of idealism and practicality and, in that sense, very American.
But what about the dark side of the community?
That evening I spoke with Dr. Kim about this. I complained that I was only meeting people who were phenomenal successes. Where were the working lives taking place? Why weren’t they worth examining? And what about the seedier side of the city? I remember Lee Ann Kim, the other night, telling me a story about one of her colleagues. This woman was on assignment covering the arrest of several Korean women in Del Mar for prostitution in a massage parlor.
The reporter asked one of the women being led away in handcuffs by a police escort, “Was there any sex involved?”
“No sex,” the woman said, “only hand-job.”
Lee Ann had said it was the funniest line she’d heard as a journalist, but of course it never appeared on the nightly news.
Dr. Kim told me to meet him at Perry’s, a breakfast place that locals and truck drivers frequent.
The next morning I was there bright and early, but Dr. Kim and his friend Bill Mitchell, a realtor and former city councilman, had already eaten.
Bill is a big white man with a shock of white hair and an equally big smile. His complexion is rosy, and so is his disposition. He and Dr. Kim are old friends.
There is a lot of good cheer and kidding going on when I walk in.
Bill tells me that his friend Dr. Kim is “the godfather of Koreans.”
“I hope he doesn’t mean that I’m a gangster,” Dr. Kim comments.
“No, no, Dr. Kim is a wonderful person,” Bill says. “I mean that he knows everyone. He knows how to get things done. He’s an important person in the community. Everyone knows him.”
Perry’s is big and noisy. I got here by exiting for Sea World, then doing a loop-dee-loop, back and forth over the freeway.
I have the feeling that each time I meet someone connected to Dr. Kim, he has a story about Dr. Kim saving his life. Bill is no exception.
“But he looks the picture of good health now,” Dr. Kim says, patting his friend’s hand.
I order eggs with refried beans, bread, and coffee, and I eat heartily as they talk about the old days. The air was pure, they tell me. The roads were not crowded. People knew each other and talked. Downtown had a more vibrant Asian community, mostly Chinese, but also Japanese and a few Koreans.
“I used to buy the best homemade tofu in the world at a Japanese market,” Dr. Kim reminisces. “Remember the vibrancy of the Chinatown, Bill?”
Bill nods yes.
“Where Horton Plaza is,” he says.
“Yes, right there,” the doctor agrees.
The air in the room seems to stop flowing. The voices in the room become quiet. One can almost envision San Diego 20 or 30 years ago in Perry’s. One can almost imagine these two older men in the action of this younger city.
Then the noise returns. The air romps around the tables. The waitresses noisily put down plates and cups of coffee. Perry’s returns to the present, the year 2000. The air outside is a little thicker. The roads are more congested. There are more freeways, more cars, more people.
“Didn’t someone once call you the reincarnation of the Buddha?” Bill asks.
“Medicine is nothing without compassion, Bill. Compassion is a great Buddhist virtue.”
“And that’s the whole story?” his friend asks.
“I am atoning for sins of another life,” Dr. Kim admits.
Dr. Kim is taking me to a swap meet on Euclid Avenue.
The only way for Dr. Kim to explain it is to use a Korean model.
“Like the wholesale shops in Nam-dae-mun.”
Nam-dae-mun was the south gate of historical Seoul. The new city extended far beyond it into the southern parts of Korea well below the Han River. In contemporary Seoul, the market was a noisy, colorful, cheap place to shop. One bargained for everything in this crowded bazaar. I couldn’t imagine visiting Korea without one morning or afternoon devoted to the market, whether it was Nam-dae-mun or Itae-won, the market near the U.S. Eighth Army headquarters where all the Americans shopped for bargains, or shopping in a variety of other bargain-hunting places.
We get out of the car and walk across the parking lot toward the Fam Mart, a hangar-sized operation filled with stalls from which bargains may be purchased.
We enter the market and it is warm and stuffy inside, vast and yet claustrophobic. People have little stalls, each one hawking their specialties, knock-off Fubus and Tommy Hilfigers. Rapper CDs sold at discount (the Notorious BIG, Lil’ Kim, and Yukmouth). Some of the rap artists have come through the Fam Mart and signed their publicity photos, which the merchants have tacked up on the walls. The stalls are owned by Koreans, but most of the customers are black or Latino. The merchants behind their little counters look bored and tired, suggesting that when they close the stalls, they go to work at evening jobs, maybe in restaurants or bars. Some of the merchants have their heads down, sleeping on their counters.
A little Mexican girl spins around, holding a pink iridescent polyester Sunday dress in front of her, imagining how good she would look in it. Her mother tells her to put that down. The girl stops twirling and puts the shiny dress back on a rack. The tired Korean lady smiles wanly.
Although my Korean language skills left me a decade ago, I hear one of the ladies pouring out her woes to a friend at the concession counter. They drink tea from an old, battered kettle that is placed on a trivet on the bright-colored plastic tablecloths that cover folding metal card tables.
There is an air of grime and poverty around the concession. Grease fills your nostrils. The concrete floor looks dirty and old. The oppressive air of this enormous hangar fills your lungs. The special of the day is a soda and two hot dogs for two dollars. Or noodle soup. Ramen. Or fried chicken. Take your pick. The familiar smell of dried squid, kimchi, and roasted garlic traps itself in my nostrils and invades my senses. The raunchier, greasier smells melt behind this cozier one of old Seoul.
The one woman does all the talking while her friend’s job is to listen and nod her head, every once in a while punctuating her friend’s miseries, in Korean, with “is that so?” or “you don’t say” or “my word.”
“Gain-chen-na,” the listener says. “That’s all right,” patting her friend’s beefy, swollen hand.
Both women have red, swollen hands — the hands of hard work.
The lamenter tells her friend: “They brought over a new monk for the temple. He was young and seemed like he would help the Buddhist community here in San Diego. But, no, he was a bad man. He stole our money. He sold our land. Our temple. He sold all of us down the river. He took our money. Then he ran away with it. He left San Diego with all our money. Leaving us with debt. Leaving us without a temple. He is not a monk. He’s a criminal. Do you understand what I am saying? He is not a monk. Not a holy person. Not spiritual. He’s a crook. A fucking crook. Nothing but a common criminal.”
“Where does that leave us?” her companion asks.
“It leaves us without a fucking Buddhist temple, my dear.”
Is religion always tied to money? I wondered. Is money part of the fabric of America’s spiritual life? I put this question to my friend John Cha. He had driven down from San Francisco that morning. As two lapsed Catholics, I thought we might have a corner on this subject. But we did not. John was the only Korean Catholic I knew personally, although I had once met and had dinner with Richard Kim, whose novel The Martyred, an American best-seller nearly 40 years ago, chronicled the murder of Christian ministers by the Communists. Not coincidentally Richard Kim was from a small village in North Korea where John Cha’s mother came from and which his sister Teresa wrote about in her great novel Dictee.
But Teresa Cha was murdered a week after her novel was published. She had been living on Elizabeth Street in New York’s Little Italy, which was where the murder occurred. I loved Dictee when I first read it and wrote what turned out to be the first critical piece on the novel, and that was how I met the Cha family, when they came to New York City for the murder trial.
John was an engineer by training but had become a California businessman out of necessity. Like his sisters and his mother, though, he had an artistic temperament. Ever since I met him more than 15 years ago, he’s been writing a book about his sister’s life and death. He tells me that he’s almost finished with it. Besides this lifelong project, he’s writing the biography of Susan Ahn Cuddy, the daughter of Ahn Chang Ho, leader of the community of Koreans exiled from Korea during the Japanese annexation. Ahn Chang Ho left California and wound up in Manchuria, where the Japanese captured him and then executed him in Seoul in 1938.
All of this has to do with San Diego because Ahn Chang Ho began the exile community’s resistance activities in Riverside, where a statue had been commissioned of him for a local park. The bust would be cast by Moon K. Kim, a San Diego sculptor who ran a welding and sculpture school at the old Naval Training Center near Point Loma. There would also be a bust of Martin Luther King and Gandhi. Two of Ahn’s children were Phillip Ahn, the Hollywood actor, and Susan Ahn Cuddy, about whom John was writing the biography. Susan had a long career in the Navy and later at the highest levels of intelligence, defense, and national security, serving several presidents. She was the first Korean to attend San Diego State in 1931.
As I walk with my old friend John through the streets of Coronado, I recount for him the previous week and the people I’ve talked to and met. He asks me to describe what I’ve found.
“It is like Gertrude Stein’s hometown of Oakland,” I say. “There is no there there.”
But John’s take on the Korean community is quite different from my own. He thinks maybe they lack hahn.
“Koreans are in love with hahn,” he says.
John defined hahn as a complex feeling of being almost in love with sadness. Certainly hahn was made up of an inability to let go of sadness. Instead, one embraced it. Hahn was really what life was made for. In fact, if one had a nonreligious aspiration toward a spiritual realm, that journey involved one’s coming to terms with hahn. Some will bathe themselves in hahn, dripping with the self-pity of the righteous. Others will flirt with it royally. I am thinking of some Korean classical musicians who seem to milk a violin or cello or piano of all its saddest registers.
“It is a melancholy state of mind,” John says, “that one gets into one way or another and can’t get out of it. You hear from someone how poor they were. Subsisting on one meal a day. One tiny meal. Millet. Only millet. No rice. They wallow in their ricelessness. They do this for so long that they become The-Person-Who-Used-to-Be-Poor-and-Hungry. Whatever happened to them in the past still rules their present lives. A woman with hahn blames others for her misery. Her mother, father, husband, rotten fate. Whatever.”
We walk along Orange Avenue, past lovely shops, now closed, and restaurants filled up with well-dressed, smiling people eating well and enjoying each other’s company.
I might see a touch of hahn in the corners of someone’s eyes. But I don’t see that complete hahn one encounters in Korea or even New York or Los Angeles. There I remember meeting people in love with sadness for sadness’ sake. Hahn geniuses, you might call them. I had married into a family filled with hahn through several generations — husbands and fathers lost in wars, mostly. But also missed cues for grand operatic careers. Grandmothers whose Taegu orchards were stolen. Other grandmothers who lost husbands, then sons, then grandsons.
San Diego is a city whose heart is in the beat of the suburbs. Without a center or real downtown, San Diegans work in their areas of interest during the day but drive home to suburbs where the neighbors have a median income like their own. Why should the Korean community be different from the rest of San Diego?
You certainly did not need a bit of hahn. You needed a suburban outlook, a kind of forgetfulness, because Paradise might need a collective amnesia to make it work. Get rid of a notion of downtown. Get rid of any “city” idea. Call the pollution early morning fog. If it lingers, say it is unusual, even if it occurs every day. Isn’t part of assimilating forgetting who you were in order to become who you want to be? Everything was going to be all right, even if everything wasn’t going to be even remotely all right.
John Cha had been telling me, as we walked around Coronado, of a book he wanted to write about a Korean cowboy, this orphan who is raised in the American West and becomes a legendary cowpoke. Not coincidentally Dr. Kim takes us to meet his friend James Koo.
“He’s a doctor,” Dr. Kim says, “but of what specialty or in what field, I don’t know, even though I’ve known him all the time I’ve lived in San Diego.”
We exit the freeway in San Marcos and pull into the parking lot of a sleazy-looking bar called the Sports Dome. Then we go inside. It is a big, circular room, filled with the afterlife of the previous night’s drinking and smoking and carrying on.
Off to the side, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette, sits James “Doc” Koo, the proprietor of the Sports Dome. Doc Koo has a sleepy, laconic manner, almost like an old cowboy’s. He offers us something to drink, and we all want juice. He pours us big glasses of orange and cranberry juice. We sit on stools and talk.
Doc has been into everything from guns and butter to sand and gravel, with stops along the way for western apparel. In his travels, he’s rubbed shoulders with clandestine operatives, heads of state, soldiers of fortune, not to mention Merle and Willie. The Sports Dome is his fiefdom, a place where he holds court. The room has a large dance floor, a stage, complete with theatrical lighting, and a multitude of bars. There are no corners here, only shadowy places beyond the stage lights.
The Sports Dome used to be a country-music bar. But country was bigger 20 years ago, just before John Travolta’s career went into a tailspin after Urban Cowboy and long before he met Quentin Tarantino. Everyone wanted to be an urban cowboy back then. Doc Koo raked in money from the bar and his western-apparel store, one of the biggest of its kind in America.
He still dresses cowboy. He sports a big turquoise buckle on his snakeskin belt, and his white shirt is trimmed in western patterns. The only thing missing are lizard-skin boots. But I’m sure Doc Koo has owned a few lizard boots in his day. Today he’s wearing rubber sandals, smoking, and looking ornery, almost like the legendary Doc Holliday from the days of Wyatt Earp and Dodge City and the O.K. Coral.
There are still nights when the Sports Dome has country music. But young people want a variety of sounds, so he gives them hip-hop, R&B, reggae, classic rock, a different beat every night of the week. There are also salsa and comedy nights.
I could easily see Doc Koo riding a horse alongside Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. Howard Hawks or Sam Peckinpah would have liked a lined and tired face like this — the face of a real cowpoke. He’s built long and lanky, and he moves in that lazy, easy way that people in the old cowboy and Indian shoot-’em-ups moved, with authority but a kind of world-weariness too. Being good or bad is not the issue here. It’s whether you can shoot straight, ride hard, drink your whiskey like a man, and fight the good fight.
Doc Koo was a protégé of Kim Jong-Pil, a former head of Korean Central Intelligence and a one-time candidate for president. That was before the shit hit the fan around 1980. President Park was assassinated by his own KCIA head. General Chun pulled a coup. The massacres at Kwangju occurred, and martial law was instigated. That’s about when Doc decided that San Diego looked a hell of a lot nicer than Seoul.
He’d been doing business in San Diego County for more than 30 years. But those historical events probably convinced him to be content with his nightclub and western-apparel store and to dabble in business south of the border years before the Korean maquiladoras came along.
Cowboys don’t have to be modest, and Doc Koo is not shy about telling you what connections he has in Washington and Seoul and now in Beijing and Moscow. Texas cowboys are especially loud and brash, and Doc Koo is cut from such a mold, only his world is Korean and nowadays San Diegan. He’s not reluctant to talk about the millions he’s made and lost too, or the money he’s spent or lost or misplaced and been swindled out of or all of the above.
Plastics are his newest interest.
Koo produces a four- by six-inch paper-thin transparency and rattles it in his hand.
“Here is the future,” he says.
He hands me the plastic laminate, almost like a snake-oil salesman out of Tombstone.
“It’s bulletproof,” he says, “absolutely impossible to penetrate or shatter.”
With his connections and the blessing of various intelligence organizations, Doc Koo will leave San Diego for China and Russia to sell them this new technology. A friend of his told me that Doc Koo once cornered the market on Mexican sand. He planned on making a killing in the cement trade. But it never panned out. Doc is more dreamer than schemer, though he’s no saint either, as I am sure he would be the first to admit.
He lets out a laugh deep in his belly.
“Drink a little whiskey. Eat a little Korean barbecue. Fuck some pretty girls. Life is good.”
Dr. Kim shrugs his shoulders and raises his eyebrows as if to say, “What can we do with my incorrigible friend?”
As Doc Koo whacks a sheet of his plastic laminate on a round table in the middle of the afternoon in San Marcos, the light from outside streams through a long, thin window and catches a jewel in one of the four rings on his fingers. It is a magnificent touch, something worthy of a Francis Coppola.
“San Diego is a small world,” Doc says, looking both tired and philosophical and yet somehow alive and in his 60s. “Years ago, when I first came here, there was only a handful of Koreans. Dr. Kim and myself and who else?” he asks. Then he answers: “Yes, only a couple of us. San Diego was a sleepy Navy town. Very peaceful. Very beautiful. Easygoing. But now it has become very heated up with business. Money is everywhere. San Diego has become a money place, not an easygoing place. The chaebol moved to Mexico. Now we call them the maquiladoras. There are many maquiladoras in Mexico, and all the money flows into San Diego.”
“I know everyone,” he says. “Presidents. Prime ministers. Intelligence directors. kcia. cia. Congressmen. That was my business. Knowing all these peoples in the world of politics. So when I do regular business, I know who to contact. Especially business in Red China. You need to cut through the red tape in Red China. Otherwise you ain’t gonna get nowhere.”
All of this is said in perfect deadpan cowboy speech.
Listening to it, I realize that in terms of assimilation — the seeming goal of virtually every Korean I’ve met, whether they are young or old, rich or poor — Doc Koo has won hands-down. They are copying a style while he seems to inhabit the soul of the matter, the bigness and the brashness, all the contradictions, the violent heart and the sentimental journey, and not just the outward trappings. Dr. James Koo has the inner machinery, the tackiness of an Elvis and the large-heartedness of an oil tycoon on a bender, pink Cadillac and big deal cooking on the back burner.
The real story about the Korean community was not about to reveal itself in such rapid-fire progression. The big story was the maquiladoras in Tijuana. But no one was talking about that. The other, lesser story, was Convoy Street. Why had it, and not somewhere else, become the center of the community? So I spoke with Dr. Kim about this, and he agreed to take John Cha and me to Dagget Street, off Convoy, to meet Kwan Mook Chung, publisher of the Korea Central Daily News.
Mr. Chung did not seem pleased to see me.
“Why are you writing this article about us?”
“The Korean community is small but powerful, it is rich and important, filled with prominent people like yourself and Dr. Kim…”
He stopped me.
But this is what I learn about Convoy Street.
“The elder Chung” — this is the only way anyone refers to him and no one seemed to know his full name — opened the Zion Market maybe ten miles from Convoy in the 1960s. A Chinese market existed on Convoy, but not too much else. Eventually Chung moved the store next to the Chinese market around 1980, and it kept doubling its size every couple of years.
“Prior to the Zion Market,” Dr. Kim adds, “there was one Korean-owned Japanese steakhouse, called Ahn’s. It was a very nice place.”
Shortly after they started the Zion Market, the Chungs opened Korea House.
“That’s the one restaurant I told you about,” John Cha says.
“It is right up the block,” Dr. Kim says. “We’ll eat there before you leave San Diego.”
The two anchors for the developing Korean community were Zion Market and Korea House, across the street from each other.
The Chung family was large, and each time someone married, a new business seemed to spring up around Convoy Street.
“I think it is fair to say that Clairemont became more international with these businesses,” Dr. Kim says. “Specifically Asian, with a heavy Korean accent.”
“Specifically Asian,” I am told by Mr. Chung, because there were Chinese businesses on Convoy, and there still are, like the very large Jasmine restaurant up the block.
Later, taking a coffee break in the late afternoon, I ask Dr. Kim about the Chungs.
“Well, that family owns everything on Convoy Street. Maybe they don’t want everyone to know that.”
We are sitting in the bar area in the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe. John Cha points out that many spy novels have a scene in this inn, at this bar.
But Dr. Kim wants to cap off the interview with the Chungs. He tells me that the elder Chung had a religious experience.
“Born again,” he says. “He gave up the businesses. He passed them along to family members. But he didn’t retire exactly. He disappeared into the countryside, where he raises a special Asian parsley called min-a-ree. Very delicious. But it requires a lot of time and very moist ground.”
Whenever I drive on Convoy Street, I think of one other person whom I have not yet mentioned. His name is Tony Herndon. I met Tony during my first week in San Diego when Lee Ann Kim introduced us. Tony is black but he speaks perfect Korean, and Lee Ann was impressed with his language skills one day when she ran into him at a Korean market on Convoy Street.
Tony is tall, young, and wiry, and I met him as he did tile work for a restaurant at one of the strip malls.
I ordered a green tea and a carrot cake at Yoshinoya, the Japanese fast-food takeout, and we went outside to talk near the restaurant where he was working. It was an interlude between lunch and dinner at the restaurant, and besides doing the tile work, Tony often filled in as a cook. He was on a break.
Seven years ago, Tony came to America from Korea to meet his father, whom he’d only seen once or twice before. His father had been an American soldier stationed in Korea, and Tony was the offspring of a relationship the father had with Tony’s mother, a Korean national. This was in Taejon, a large city south of Seoul. Tony had flown from Seoul to Detroit, and then to Louisville. He was 16 years old and knew very little English. Korean was his native language because he had spent the first 16 years of his life with his mother in Taejon.
I am presuming that Tony’s life in Taejon was difficult. Korea is a homogenous society. About the only place someone might even see an African-American is on an American military base, and the American presence has become minimal over the years since the Korean War. But if Tony thought that America was going to be any less racist, he quickly discovered that wasn’t the case. If anything, American racism is more subtle.
A quick study, he picked up his new language easily, although high school was more difficult because Tony was a minority on top of a minority. Home life was tense too, although he seemed to get along with his half-brother better than his half-sister. He describes his relationship with her as two magnets repelling each other.
But Tony’s a positive guy, and he got on with his life. He went to a two-year college in Kentucky. It’s that old Confucian thing, that if you want to improve your life, get an education, go to school, study hard, and all will be well. He tells a funny story about taking Korean language. By the end of the semester, he was teaching the class and his teacher was the student.
He came to San Diego to live because his half-brother, a martial artist, now lived here. His brother reasoned that Tony could pursue his musical interests, dancing, and modeling. He worked as a DJ in the Korean clubs on Convoy, but he’s tired of DJing, he said.
“I like to dance with friends,” he said, “but I don’t want to be the DJ as a living.”
What he used to do is swim. Tony’s a champion swimmer and has taught swimming too. What he wants to do is modeling. In an age of Tiger Woods and the Ralph Lauren model Tyson, Tony’s dream is not farfetched. But Tony is not completely at ease with American culture.
Invariably, his friends are Koreans.
“I’m very comfortable,” he said, “around Korean people.”
That afternoon we met on Convoy Street Tony told me that he thought of himself not really half Korean and half American, but rather 60 percent Korean and 40 percent American. He was talking sensibility and temperament.
I remember the first time I met Tony Herndon, he bowed imperceptibly and when he extended his right hand to shake mine, he held his left hand against the right arm’s elbow, a very deferential and polite way of saying hello in Korean. Certainly the handshake was outside the gestural vocabulary of the United States.
“You asked me what does it mean to be Korean?”
Tony said it had to do with food, music, and clothing, how one dressed, the way one listened to music, and the kind of food you ate. His Kentucky family could not handle the spiciness of Korean food.
In Korea, kids used to tell him, “Go back to America.” But he had never been to America and he did not speak English. Did anyone in America tell him to go back to Korea? He did not answer but stared at me as if to say that no one had said it, but maybe they acted that way.
To look at Tony Herndon is to see a tall, trim, youthful black American. But to speak with him is to converse with a Korean person. Race had made Tony very sensitive to this issue. He seemed to understand it better than any Koreans I had spoken to in San Diego.
I asked him what was the result of the racism he experienced in Korea and then a different kind of racism he felt in the States.
“I have a sore heart,” Tony said. “But I’m Christian. I cannot hate anyone.”
He also told me that his father gave him a lot of strength and courage for his life ahead of him.
Tony Herndon epitomizes how complicated being an American is. He mostly stays around Koreans, and he is most at ease speaking Korean with his friends. His goal is to become a model, which seems like a good possibility. For now, he is doing tile work at the restaurant and, when they need him, he is a cook.
As he walked away from me in that strip-mall parking lot back to the restaurant where he worked, I watched a handsome, graceful person amble off with the long, easy strides of an athlete. I am not sure how typical a San Diego Korean Tony is. But I was certain he was very American, and though he confessed to feeling out of place at times, I think perhaps that is what being an American is. I know that Tony might be surprised by this, but even those of us who are born here feel out of place.
Thinking about Tony Herndon, I remember Dr. Kim’s son Byron. Specifically it is that haunting painting of Byron’s, the one with the squares of every skin color. Who was the typical American? Because that, finally, was what the Korean community in San Diego was about — becoming typical Americans.
On my last night, I have dinner with John Cha, Dr. Kim, and James Kim, the president of the Korean Business Association. We finally have arrived at ground zero, Korea House, right there in the heart of it all, that mythical restaurant John had told me was the center of the Korean community in San Diego. We sit in a booth with a smoking grill in front of us, and I ask Kim the businessman why Convoy Street became the center of everything Korean.
“Is it feng shui?” I ask.
Feng shui is that Chinese concept of flow and spirit and ch’i that governs how an architectural space will flourish or not.
“Nobody cares about feng shui,” he tells me. “It has to do with the freeways.”
All roads lead to Convoy Street for the Korean community, not because of auspicious or restless spirits but because of this very American thing, the freeways. When it comes to spirit, though, I also realize that all roads lead to Dr. Kim.
But Dr. Kim simply repeats one of his many refrains.
“I’m atoning for my sins in a previous life,” he tells us, and then begins to hum a tune.