Archives for posts with tag: #crazystories

The progressive pyro
Book burning
So my paternal great-grandfather had his share of bad days, dragging his son around by the hair and trying to set fire to his own home. But believe it or not, he was a successful and well-educated landowner. In fact, the Korean government (who were actually Japanese, since it was during the occupation*) was so impressed with him that they sent him to Tokyo to study economic systems and policies. His task was to come back with suggestions for the betterment of Korea—because obviously Japan was a very enlightened country with progressive ideas, like the best ways to brutally occupy lesser nations.

My great-grandfather came to Japan, saw, and was conquered (already), and he returned to Korea with one major recommendation: abolish slavery for good. (Yes, Japan supposedly disavowed slavery as an institution, even as it was busily establishing systems of forced labor for comfort women, POWs, and Korean civilians. Go figure.) Large landowners in Korea, including my great-grandfather, still owned slaves—mainly impoverished Korean peasants and farmers—in spite of earlier reforms.

Great-Grandfather Cho decided to set an example by liberating his own slaves, to much rejoicing and confusion in his household. Then he marched over to the town hall, where he collected all the official slave registry books. Carrying these heavy ledgers to the center of town, he dumped them on the ground and set them on fire.

Many Koreans were emancipated that day, but it took 35 years—and larger fires—to ultimately free Korea from Japanese rule.

*The language of the colonizers still lives on in the home of my parents, who were barred from speaking Korean in their childhood. They still unthinkingly use the Japanese words for common household objects like toothpicks, onions, and underpants … and as their child, so do I!

The shoes
Shoes by lake

In his later years, my great-grandfather took exceptional delight in his shiny Western shoes. When he walked, they gleamed from underneath the traditional white robe that he wore on a daily basis. He enjoyed hearing the enunciated clopping noise they made, which the traditional Korean rubber shoes (gomushin) could not rival.

Great-Grandfather Cho enjoyed a life of luxury as a wealthy landowner until 1950. When the North Korean Communist army invaded South Korea and began to burn farms and kill the owners, my great-grandfather knew his days were numbered.

So he drove to a nearby lake, took off his beloved brogues and set them neatly, side by side, on the bank. Then, hitching up his robe, my great-grandfather sauntered into the lake and never came out again.

My great-grandfather In-Suk Cho was a walking paradox. He was a man who loved Korea enough to bring back methods from Japan to improve it, a slaveowner turned abolitionist, and a man who favored fire as a means of terminating things—slavery and even his own family line—but who ultimately chose water to end his own life.

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Glass shatterer

One day, shortly after the chamber pot incident—which had been my grandmother’s ultimate revenge on her husband’s philandering ways—my grandfather was drunkenly prowling around the house. He was hunting for his wife, who had taken to hiding from him in different areas in the spacious compound: in closets, the servants’ quarters, even the rooms occupied by her first-born son and his family. (After marrying, my parents lived in that house for seven years, following Korean tradition.)

Entering a room, my grandfather thought he saw his wife’s diminutive silhouette through a frosted-glass screen. Sure enough, he thought, she must be sitting quietly behind it, wearing her traditional hanbok with her hair tucked into a demure bun. This was his opportunity to avenge her; he could feel the blood throbbing through his veins and an imminent satisfaction so rich that it felt like a heavy slab of raw meat in his mouth.

Tiptoeing up to the screen, my grandfather took a deep breath and swung his wooden cane with all his might, smashing through the glass. Splinters and shards flew everywhere, a blinding, never-ending shower of crystals. Then, with a gasp, he realized that the woman behind it was not his wife. It was his daughter-in-law—that is, my mother—nursing her baby daughter. Glass covered my mother’s hair and a tiny fragment even made its way into her eye. Miraculously, my sister was unharmed, and my mother would recover from the trauma, although barely.

My grandfather never apologized, because men of his status and generation didn’t waste their words that way with women. But if my mother, ever the dutiful daughter-in-law, brought him a vegetable dish for dinner, he didn’t complain about the lack of meat the way he usually did. Instead of bellowing, “What the hell is this? Am I a COW?” and flinging the bowl out the window, as he was inclined to do, my grandfather just tilted his head in thanks and picked up his chopsticks to eat. As in all Asian families, silence speaks volumes—even entire, unabridged libraries.

Chamber pot
Like many Korean men at the time, my grandfather Lee had a mistress whom he’d visit in the afternoons. Ignoring his wife’s protests, he’d clench a cigar defiantly in his teeth and march out the door, wearing an Italian fedora on his enormous bald head. My grandmother would continue to scream after him, making all kinds of threats, but he was used to this.

People who had seen his mistress said that the young woman was so beautiful that a room became brighter when she entered it. She was decades younger than my grandfather, but was attracted to his imposing height, debonair style, and the money he lavished on her. My grandmother, a talented but thwarted artist, was beside herself at her husband’s infidelity.

One day, my grandmother came up with the ultimate revenge. She crawled into the darak, a tiny attic above the front door of the house, and hunched like a coiled snake in that cramped, musty space, waiting for her husband to return from his mistress’s house. Her nose stung and her throat constricted, but she stayed put and kept her eyes fastened on the narrow window. After several hours, my grandmother spied her unfaithful husband returning, his gait a little looser, his hat tilted at a more rakish angle.

As he strolled to the front door, my grandmother opened the window, lifted a chamber pot from their bedroom—brimming with foul contents—and dumped it onto his head. My grandfather’s blood-curdling scream and murderous curses caused the neighbors to come running. My grandmother then did the sensible thing, which was to scurry away and tuck herself into a hidden spot in their servants’ quarters. She smiled to herself as he thundered about the house and managed to avoid him for days.

Eventually, my grandfather’s affair came to an end when he ran out of money to give his mistress. The young woman told him to leave and, when he didn’t, hurled a heavy ash tray at his head. Then she barred him from entering her house again, even though he had bought it for her. My grandmother accepted her husband back with a triumphant smirk and let him know she’d just sold his big, expensive car so he’d never be able to visit that stinking whore ever again.

Arguing couple

Even on their wedding day, you could tell my dad’s parents were not a good match. My six-foot-tall grandfather Lee Dam (whose name sounds like an emphatic curse in English) towered over my grandmother Cho Ah-Young, who stood at barely five feet in her slippers. Together, they looked lopsided and ill at ease—an obvious arranged marriage.

My grandparents were matched in one thing, however: their fearsome tempers. My grandfather Lee would bawl at his wife in the herky-jerky accent of Korea’s Deep South. She would bellow back in kind, in the same dialect, using even dirtier words. You might say they could finish each other’s sentences.

My grandparents were also eccentrics. As a young man, my grandfather had run away and joined a touring carnival until his father dragged him back to Korea. My grandmother was a fiercely independent poet and visual artist. Unlike most women of her generation, she pursued her art with a steely ambition, and my grandfather couldn’t tolerate it. He figured that if his wife could put all her attention into brush painting, he could just go find a concubine. With his wealth and debonair mien, he lured one in—a young woman whose beauty, many have said, illuminated the room when she walked in. She birthed three anemic children who were forever barred from my grandmother’s house.

Sadly, my grandparents’ similarities only made them less compatible and more violent. They fought extravagantly, throwing everything in sight, including food, antiques, furniture—even the entire dinner table—at each other. (Traditional Korean tables are small and portable, but they still make a huge mess.) My grandfather would beat my grandmother until she’d scream and hide in a closet or a corner of the yard, where she’d hatch her next plan to get him back. Then she would lie in wait for her husband and dump the contents of a chamber pot on his head or avenge him some other way.

img015
They hate each other.

The children of my grandparents were no better. My aunts would pull each other’s hair and fight with scissors in the courtyard. My father and his younger brothers unleashed their aggressions at school, using whatever object they could find as weapons. My uncle wrenched off the top of a school desk and caused major damage to a classmate’s head. My dad set fire to a salvaged plank to appear twice as dangerous to his adversaries.

My dad still shudders when he recalls the constant commotion in the house. As a young boy growing up in the 1940s, he often fled to the train tracks, where he would watch the enormous locomotives slowly roll by in the rain. To this day, he still watches VHS tapes of nonstop locomotive footage (there must be a niche market), perhaps gaining some long-lost solace from them.

My mother, who was forced to live with her in-laws for years, sighs and recalls, “It was a battleground.” She was a terrified 23-year-old bride when she entered the house of the factious Lees. By the time she had her second child, my mother had dwindled to 84 pounds from the constant insurgency around her. Her wedding ring would barely fit the finger of an adolescent girl.

My grandfather passed away in the late ’70s, and his widow lived on to be nominated as a National Treasure of Korea for her prolific art and poetry. Diminutive in her silk hanbok, my grandmother would narrow her eyes with self-pride as she held up another published book or arts award. She’d say, “He never respected this, that bastard. Who has the last laugh now?”

Grandparents' wedding
My grandparents’ wedding in Seoul, 1931
(I think they had my grandmother stand on something to make her seem taller)


When you grow up with a dad who’s probably the only surgeon in America who threw an amputated leg at his boss, you’re bound to have some pretty interesting experiences. I’m happy to finally see a sitcom about an Asian-American family on TV (only took 20 years), but if the network really wanted melodrama, they should have just filmed my family. If I had my own TV series, one of the first episodes would feature an experience I had growing up that is forever seared into my psyche.

But a little background first: My parents had emigrated from South Korea to the US in the late ’60s like many others of their generation. I grew up in a suburb of Washington, DC, in a solidly middle-class family. I had two older sisters, who were 10 and 12 years older than me (I was apparently a mistake that happened in South Carolina), and a mom who tended house. My dad was a vascular surgeon whose rounds had him driving all around the Beltway. By the time he got home, he was a twelve-pack of carbonated Psycho Korean Dad Whoop-Ass that was shaken up enough to have a cataclysmic effect when opened.

My dad used to constantly yell at the top of his lungs at my sisters and me when we were growing up—even for the smallest things. Each time he did, it felt jarring and sickening, like my innards were sliding out of my body. Given that upbringing, it was no surprise that I developed my own temper. Unlike my dad, I knew when to hide it, at least in front of him. But one day I didn’t hide it and I’ll never forget what happened.

One afternoon, I came home from high school in an agitated state, furious after yet another wasted afternoon of sitting in detention (my home away from home). To my relief, the house was quiet. My mom was out of town, and my dad was still at work. Confident that nobody was home, I launched into a lengthy, profanity-laced tirade, screaming in that empty house until my ears rang and my throat was raw.

Then I heard a toilet flush somewhere upstairs and my heart stopped. A few seconds later, my father came stomping down the stairs, his face a frozen mask of outrage. He had gotten home from the hospital early and was relaxing in the bedroom. Clad in only a cotton undershirt and briefs, my dad’s plump, ovoid shape made him resemble a gigantic, white aspirin capsule, but he was still terrifying—even more so because he was uncharacteristically silent. Bracing myself, I muttered any apology, which felt as effective as shielding myself with a Kleenex in front of a smoking volcano.

The Vesuvian eruption I anticipated never occurred. Instead, my father looked strangely tired and spoke in a subdued tone I didn’t recognize. It sounded almost like defeat. “Yoona,” he sighed and paused for what seemed like a full minute. “I grew up with my parents fighting. They fought like the cat and dog. My sisters would also scream at each other. So much yelling in that house.” He looked away and shook his head. “When your sisters grew up, I thought the famous Lee temper had skipped this generation. I was so thankful. But then you came along.”

Then his voice changed and began its inevitable crescendo. “If I ever—EVERhear you scream like that again,” and his eyes began to glow, “the next day you will come home from school and you will find me up there”—my father stabbed his finger toward the rafters of the house—“hanging from the ceiling. I will have hung myself to AVENGE you.” He fixed his stare on me for a few seconds longer and turned away. Then the angry aspirin capsule mounted the stairs and retired to bed.

Death threat

I was so shocked that I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Once my horror subsided, I phoned my older sisters, who were both remarkably cavalier about the incident. One said, “He’s all talk.” The other reassured me, “Don’t worry. He’s got too much ego to commit suicide.” Suddenly becoming a frightened little girl, I whimpered, “Are you sure? I don’t want him to ki-i-ill h-hi-i-mself,” and sobbed heavily into the phone.

That day I vowed never to show my temper around my dad again—if not out of self-preservation, for his preservation.

Some teenagers get grounded and have to forfeit their allowance or do extra chores as punishment. But lucky me, I get a dad who threatens suicide as a form of personal revenge. But it’s just another day in the life of the Lee family. Now how’s that for an entertaining (and mildly traumatizing) TV series?

Scan 2

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.