Archives for the month of: October, 2014

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My grandmother and me, 1994

To my four-year-old self, my paternal grandmother was an incomprehensibly old woman with a baffling cross-hatch of wrinkles that divided her brow vertically and horizontally like a waffle. When I visited my grandmother again in Seoul, Korea, at age 19, I was shocked at the resemblance between us. Not only were we physically similar—with tiny eyes, an oval face, and diminutive stature—but our gestures were also identical, even though we had met no more than four times in our lives. We both gave an upper-lip snarl to express contempt and used the same grandiose gesticulations when making an important point. Plus, we both had voices of an uncannily similar timbre, along with a fiery temper that was passed down through generations, an heirloom of dubious value.

My grandmother at age 16 (left); me at age 22 (right)

My grandmother, Cho Ah-Young, was a writer and a visual artist, as I am. A passionate advocate of her own work, she weathered adverse conditions, including two wars and an abusive husband, to create and disseminate her poetry. In the ’80s my grandmother discovered the virtues of the Xerox machine and spent blissful hours at the neighborhood copy place replicating her masterpieces. She would return home with armfuls of duplicates and beamingly distribute them among her neighbors. My grandmother later boasted to us that she had been recommended as a National Treasure of South Korea for her poetry. She also regarded herself as the “Second Greatest Brush Painter of South Korea” (the first being her rival Chul-Gyung Lee). All bragging aside, her talent was palpable, and she was well regarded in Korean literary circles.

Though a natural self-promoter, my grandmother was introspective and seemed to enjoy having her picture taken alone. There are many portraits of her as a young woman, established in her self-identity but searching for something beyond the painted backdrop and the camera.

My grandmother in her early twenties, Seoul, Korea

Similarly, I have spent late nights drawing self-portraits in front of the mirror, usually during times of crisis or profound loneliness. The only ballast I have then is my own face. While sketching, I seek shelter in the moment and solace in the familiarity of my reflection.


Self-Portrait with Headphones, 2008

When I visited my grandmother again in my twenties, she heartily confided to me that she used to love drinking and dancing—which happened to be two of my favorite activities. For a woman living in conservative South Korea during the early twentieth century, my grandmother was a radical and irrepressible free spirit. I courted trouble as a teenager by becoming a punk rocker and eventually an anarchist. Like my grandmother, I was outspoken in my political views and attended many demonstrations, including the infamous Seattle WTO protests in 1999.

Even though my grandmother spoke only anachronistic Korean and I spoke late-twentieth-century English, we still managed to understand each other. My grandmother’s method of conveying things to me was to speak as if she were instructing a three-year-old. She repeated phrases over and over with exaggerated pantomime and sound effects. “For pretty lips, put some honey—you know … honey … booong booong [the sound Korean bees make]—on your finger and do this,” she’d say. Then my grandmother would purse her lips and rapidly poke them with her finger, making a sound like “muh-muh-muh-muh.”


With my grievously limited Korean skills, I could discern little of what my grandmother was saying when she inevitably got on the subject of Korean history. To my ears, it sounded like she was saying, “Big mountain … Korea … war … LOTS of dead people.” Then my grandmother would clutch herself and heave a melodramatic sigh to emphasize the tragedy. It was a bit like watching the Muppet Show, but I would nod agreeably and try to look empathetic.


My grandmother was famous for her poems about the maudlin history of her oft-colonized country. My greatest regret is not being able to read and fully understand her poetry; it feels like gazing at a walled garden and seeing only the tops of its vivid blossoms. It makes me sad that I will never fully understand the literary decisions that went into her work and, likewise, my late grandmother will never know my writing. But one day I will hire a translator and enter the garden she painstakingly cultivated.

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During one of my last visits with her, my grandmother positioned herself in front of me, firmly placing her hands on my shoulders, and gazed into my eyes with mute adoration. We were sitting opposite each other, like mirror images, on the floor of her traditional Korean house. I now realize that this gesture was her best, most affectionate attempt at bridging the significant cultural and generational divide between us. She died a few years later, in 2000, on the cusp of the Millennium, having experienced America only through letters and photos.

A decade and a half later, my grandmother’s voice reemerged from a letter I found at my parents’ house. She had written the letter in response to two drawings I’d created as a sixth grader and mailed to her in Seoul. My mother translated, “Thank you for the sketch of myself and the self-portrait you sent of yourself. We do look alike. I was so surprised to find out that you drew those. I like to draw too. Yoona, you make your grandma very proud.”

While drawing her portrait from a photo, I had been impressed at the steely woman in dark-framed glasses staring into the camera. Every now and again, approaching my forties, I catch a glimpse of her in the mirror.

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My grandmother never made it to the States, but I reside in Seattle and try to continue her legacy in my own way. Like her, I craft and obsessively refine text and image; her spirit, even across cultures, is unmistakable in my work. Maybe one of these days, I’ll enter her garden. I know she’s already entered mine.

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Like most atheists I know, I was forced to attend Catholic school. It was like a poorly written off-Broadway play, with tyrannical nuns and lewd priests who favored little boys, all set to a lousy soundtrack of church hymns. One of the priests of my elementary school parish, “Father Groping,” was eventually convicted for sexual molestation. He wore a five o’clock shadow and a bushy white-man’s ’fro that he could easily slip condoms or candy into. A priest at my high school—a balding, reptilian-looking man—enjoyed dangling young boys out the window by their ankles.

My worst teacher of all was a ghastly-looking nun who taught sixth grade. Her deep-set, baggy eyes made her look like the lovechild of Steve Buscemi and Droopy the Dog. Thanks to her all-gray attire, she also resembled a tombstone from afar. She spoke with a pronounced Ohio (“Oo-hi-ooh”) accent and flashed a wall of discolored gums when she smiled. And she only smiled when engaging in some sadistic act, like dropping a Webster’s dictionary on the desk of a napping student.

For a humble daughter of God, Sr. Marie Louise had a volcanic temper, throwing heavy three-hole punches and math books at misbehaving students. She usually accompanied this violence with a hokey, politically incorrect threat, like “I’m going to serve you for chop suey!”

With the questionable clergy, forced dogma, and demoralizing effect of polyester uniforms, it’s no wonder Catholic school kids usually end up meaner than public school kids. They’ll win the fights each time—and then go memorize passages of the Old Testament for bible study. It’s messed up.

I know firsthand how vicious Catholic school kids can be because I was the scapegoat of my entire sixth-grade class. At the time, I was the prissiest one among my classmates: the girl who flinched at cursing, pulled up her kneesocks, and wore her hair neatly parted with a little headband. My classmates were ruthless; they called me names and vandalized my notebooks. The most promiscuous girl in the class once snuck a camera under my skirt and tried to take a picture. The shortest, twerpiest boy in the class informed me that my breasts were so small that they grew inwards instead of outwards. (I later grew a bust out of sheer revenge.)

One day during recess, I was alone as usual when three altar boys approached me. Every Sunday, these guys assisted the priest at holy Mass, looking all devout in their lacy vestments. But outside of church, they were ruthless little motherfuckers. These boys began to follow me, insulting me with hardcore sexual innuendo straight out of a prison yard.

Then one of them pulled out a plastic ruler and mockingly asked whether it belonged to me. Before I could answer, he tried to swat me with it. His friends started laughing, and they all took turns trying to beat me with the ruler. I was a piñata in a plaid uniform skirt. Trailed by the fiendish altar boys, I marched right up to the school principal, a nun built like a tank, who happened to be patrolling the playground that day.

I pointed at the boys and told her, “They’re trying to hit me.” They were in deep shit. Walking away, I heard her say, “Wait, aren’t you the boys who serve at the 10:00 a.m. service?”

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After getting bullied this way for a year and continuing to be friendless, I grew as mean as my classmates—if not meaner. Soon I began to question every form of authority and fight back. When a snot-nosed kid named Jason began to tease me, I would wait until the teacher had left the room and then start kicking, punching, and strangling him.

The following year, when one of those pesky altar boys approached me again, I was ready. I swung my leg to kick him in the stomach but was interrupted by a calm voice. Hearing my name, I wheeled around and was shocked to see the school principal—the one who had rescued me on the playground—was motioning me over. Now it was my turn to sheepishly explain myself to her.

Ironically, Catholic school was the best primer on violence—sexual, physical, and psychological—for me. It also taught me two tenets that I’ve held since then: there is no god (at least for me) and there is infinite value in fighting back. I became a punk rocker, spent the rest of my school years in detention, and became an anarchist. It was time to kiss the concept of heaven goodbye and raise holy hell.

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NOTE: From a disability justice standpoint, this is very troubling, but it really did happen, and I feel a responsibility to provide a truthful account.

One day my dad made history at his hospital at southern Virginia, and it wasn’t pretty. If you’re at all squeamish about severed limbs, at this point you should probably stop reading.

Earlier, a man had been wheeled in to the hospital with a raging infection in his leg. The hospital reached a consensus that the leg needed to be removed below the knee. My dad, the surgeon in charge of the amputation, examined the man with great care and found the infection had spread to where the leg needed to be removed above the knee.

To save the patient’s life, my dad decided to modify the operation, even without the hospital’s consensus, and perform it immediately. To do this, he required the personnel to stay beyond their quitting time of 4 p.m., which upset many of them. One nurse ran off to complain to the director of the operating room, a brusque and intimidating woman who was feared by orderlies and surgeons alike.

My dad had finished the amputation when the director stormed into the operating room, demanding that he stop what he was doing. She yelled that surgeons could not break protocol by changing the surgery without consensus and keeping the staff after hours. Eyes blazing, my dad marched toward the director of the operating room—his boss—and shouted, “Youre here for the hospital. Well, I’m here for this man,” and pointed to the patient. Planting himself in front of the director, my dad screamed, “Get out of here!” The director didn’t budge, so my dad bellowed, “I’m going to count from 1 to 10, and if you’re not out of here, I will kill you!” In his blood-spattered gown, clenching a scalpel, he must have looked convincing.

The director stubbornly held her ground, and then my dad did the thing that made the headlines: He grabbed the amputated leg and hurled it at his boss. She dodged it and fled, screaming bloody murder.

Of course, my dad quickly suffered the consequences. He was immediately put on probation and forced to work under a famous and eccentric heart surgeon. This surgeon was known for scheduling operations at whatever hour caught his fancy—even 3:00 in the morning. “It took this guy hours to set every single machine before a surgery and we had to all stand and wait for him!” my dad recalls. But the surgeon was remarkably successful in his field, mainly because of his exacting, obsessive nature.

Thirty years after the leg incident happened, my dad visited his former hospital and was introduced to some young residents. The young men fell silent and one tentatively asked him, “Wait, are you the Dr. B.B. Lee who … ?” They probably didn’t know whether to get his autograph or dash out the nearest door.

As for the patient, he was said to have survived and lived several years longer than if the amputation had been below the knee.

Home repair lo res

My dad, BB Lee, was a surgeon who had hands that could cure patients, but he still couldn’t fix a broken appliance. I dreaded having to accompany him to the basement to make a home repair. He’d demand I hold the flashlight and swiftly hand him whatever instruments he needed. Then he’d revert to his operating room voice: “Scalpel. Screwdriver.” If I didn’t grab it in time, or if he said, “Plier-thingy … look like plier, you know …” and I hesitated, then my dad would quickly change from industrious DIY electrician to raging Hurricane BB Lee.

It didn’t help that my dad emitted some kind of weird electromagnetic energy that seemed to affect gadgets around him. If he held them or even stood near them for too long, the phone would stop working or the remote control would freeze up. If my dad couldn’t fix these things, he would just hurl them against a wall or stomp on them, yelling, “FUCKS.” (Gotta love the angry Asian dad English there.) One time he smashed a brand-new laptop on the floor when a software program wouldn’t open. As the liquid crystal began to leak onto the kitchen tiles, his brother came into the room and asked, “Did you restart it?” My dad looked momentarily sheepish before launching into a diatribe against all computers in general and the DUMB STUPID people that design them.

Fortunately, at the hospitals where my dad worked, there were technicians who made repairs. Otherwise, there would have been a lot of yanked wires and strewn debris in his wake. And lots of yelling. Maybe even some lawsuits.

Ironically, the man who could save lives, using delicate craftsmanship on arteries and veins, couldn’t replace a light switch to save his life.