Haewon: Where did you grow up? Have you lived in Baltimore your entire life?
John: Um, I was born in Silver Spring, MD, which is a suburb of D.C., when my dad was working at NIH as a post doc.
J: And we moved to Plainsboro, NJ [when I was about three] which is close to Princeton. Um, and we lived there for about two and a half years. When I was five, we moved to Baltimore, and Baltimore is my hometown.
H: Um, how would you describe your community?
H: ... in Baltimore.
J: Okay. [laughs] From first grade to twelfth grade, I went to a school called Gilman School. It’s an all-boys private school in an area called Roland Park. Roland Park is maybe like one neighborhood outside of the city but it’s very distinct. Uh, there’s a street that you can take into the city and there’s a highway that parallels it. It would be about 15 minutes to get to the inner harbor, which is sort of the center of the city.
J: Um, so the communities that I was a part of in terms of my childhood were—my family is probably my biggest community. I don’t have any siblings, so my parents and my grandparents. Um, we lived in a neighborhood where there were a lot of orthodox Jewish people and they tend to keep to themselves. So, we had friendly neighbors but never a community surrounding our physical home. My grandfather was a pastor of a church until I was about 11, and that church was... Every member of that church was Korean American. That was a community that I was a part of on Sundays and outside of it [Sundays] too because my mom and her sisters were involved with the church. And then my other community was the school I went to: Gilman, which was very separate from my home life and church. I guess those were my three communities. Um, yup.
H: Is Gilman the school that you wore suits and ties to?
J: Yup. So, in high school [laughs] at Gilman, you wear khakis, a belt, dress shoes, a button down, and a tie every day.
J: I think ah—Yeah that’s right. Yeah. [laughs] It’s—I think it’s sort of people regard it as the most old-school private school probably in all of Maryland. Like John Sarbanes, he went to Gilman. And like, uh... when was it founded? I don’t know when it was founded but it’s an old school.
H: What was school like?
J: School was uh, really good. I liked my school a lot. My cousin went there and was always three years ahead of me.
J: Um, I always had good teachers that I liked a lot. In first grade, I got five detentions in one week.
H: What? What did you do?
J: I threw a lollipop at a teacher. I yawned too much during science class, in Ms. Olgeirson’s class. I was caught chasing another kid around the playground with a stick. I think that I was supposed to be doing some work and I was talking too much, or something. Very trivial things, but it was a school record. Five detentions in a week in first grade.
H: That’s so funny. Were you proud?
J: No! I just like felt really ashamed every time. [laughs] Um, I don’t think I had any stress about school until high school. It was very pleasant. Gilman was a place that emphasized athletics a lot, but I had a lot of classmates who weren’t that athletic that I get along with.
H: Were you one of many or few Asian students in your school?
J: In my class, in particular, there were actually more Koreans than in other classes. So, by high school, there were a 115 people per class and I think there were eight of us Koreans, which was a lot. And then other Asian Americans... probably like six or seven more. The majority of the Asian Americans were Korean. There were, I think, two international Asian students.
H: Hm. Who was your first best friend?
J: That’s a good question. [laughs] Mm, I think my friend Theo. I played baseball with him, Little League baseball. My dad was—So my dad grew up in Queens. Flushing, Queens. He played baseball and a lot of stickball. And then, in college and grad school, he played a lot of softball.
H: Did you—?
J: I don’t know if this is really—Yeah, go ahead.
H: Oh, I was going to say did your dad grow up in Koreatown?
J: Yeah, he grew up with a lot of Koreans in a neighborhood called Elmhurst, which is the name of the apartment building that I currently live in.
H: Oh, that’s so funny.
J: Is it Elmhurst? Yeah, I think so.
H: What a coincidence.
J: Right? Yeah. Uh, [laughs] with regards to baseball, I used to say that it was the most American thing that my dad taught me, which is probably not true. There’s probably a ton of like more subtle ways of thinking and stuff, but um... yeah but baseball was a really big part of my childhood. I really liked it, and I felt like I was good at it. And... yeah. [laughs]
H: What about baseball do you like?
J: When I was little, part of it was probably that it was hard and that they let me be a pitcher, and I felt like I had a lot of control as a pitcher.
H: You wanted the power? [laughs]
J: Yeah! I really felt like it was something where I didn’t have to talk that much, but if I did well—I mean it was Little League—if I struck out a bunch of people, then I would receive praise, and I was a leader on the team. Not by virtue of being charismatic or, you know, being vocally a leader [laughs] but just performing well.
J: I really, like probably, that was really important being a baseball pitcher at like eight or nine years old.
H: Did you feel like... powerless at school or church? Or in the communities that you were a part of at that time? Or can you not remember... I mean I also don’t want to like psychoanalyze you.
J: [laughs] That’s a really weird question.
H: Well I mean, I think it’s like interesting to me that that would be the reason that baseball is so memorable.
J: Yeah yeah. No, that’s a good point. I think it was because, uh, maybe this is boys’ schools or maybe this is, um, schools that emphasize athletics. There were a lot of private schools in Baltimore, in the suburbs, where people send their kids. Because quickly if you go towards the city, people are worried about the safety of the neighborhoods even though the schools are actually pretty good—the public schools. Um... sorry. I actually have this really distinct memory that I revisit sometimes where I was really ashamed to play football because I had these classmates that I thought were really good at football and they, um... I was afraid that if my mother bought me a football and I brought it to school [laughs], that it would seem strange because I wasn’t that good at football.
J: But I don’t think it was something that I specifically or consciously associated with being different in like, in any way. Not just being Asian American. It would just be weird. And maybe... I guess the reason I sort of revisit it is because... I remember this. My mother feeling really uncomfort—um, adamant. She said, “No.” because she saw that when we were coming out of the [school] store with the football, I saw these kids who were like the football kids. And I was like, “No, you take the ball away.” And I remember her saying, “No.” And she looked at the kids and was like, “You have to keep the football.” [laughs] I think probably she wasn’t thinking along the lines of you have to—I don’t know exactly what she meant by that but it did feel like she was... um trying to make me feel like—I guess I have some suspicions that she was concerned that the reason why I was uncomfortable playing football was because I felt different in some way. And I didn’t think—I’m being so wishy washy with my words right now because it’s not something that I think about, and also it is a really vague feeling. I think the reason I'm thinking about this is because my mother’s response was so strong I thought it must be like something that was fueled by her personal experience. Almost like, “This is something that is uncomfortable for you because you don’t think you can do this thing because of who you are. And I want you to confront that.” Even though it might not have been specifically because you’re Korean or you’re Asian American. So, you have to [laughs] be particularly confident about football. That sounds really absurd to say that.
H: I don’t think so.
J: It seems unlikely that it was that specific.
H: Yeah, like the direct—
J: But it seems like it was a really strong memory because it was one of the few times that I felt that way.
J: Yeah. What a convoluted conversation about football.
H: [laughs] Yeah, I mean we’re also really reaching back to the depths of your childhood.
J: I’ve never really articulated that, and I think it would be particularly interesting to talk to my mom about it because she might remember it better being an adult at the time.
J: [laughs] I think I’m doing a bad job.
H: No, you’re not! I was just thinking that it’s interesting to think about how much your parents know about what you’re feeling when you’re a little kid that you think that you’re hiding really well or that you have not even acknowledged yourself because you haven’t realized. So, yeah that would be cool to know what your mom was thinking. Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up?
J: Um, my... I was so oblivious to what responsibilities adults had because growing up I was mostly raised by my grandparents. At least the dominant—my parents get really frustrated because they think I'm making them seem like negligent parents. [laughs] Which is not the case at all because they sent me to this really nice private school, and I saw them every weekend and they put me to bed every day. But during the day time, like every day, I was at my grandparents. So, my recollection of my childhood was so carefree. And like never feeling like I was being influenced by any adults or really peers because I didn’t have any friends in my neighborhood. And also, now that I look back, also no pop culture. [laughs] When people refer to [popular] songs and movies [from childhood], I have no idea. Like my grandma really likes Scooby Doo...
H: I love that. [laughs]
J: ... So we would watch that together. But besides that, like nothing.
H: So, you played outside.
J: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I played outside a lot. I think that my dad told me he wanted to be a truck driver. My mom always wanted to be a pianist. I started in middle school to tell people that I wanted to be an astronaut because it sounded like there was nothing that could really beat that.
J: And, I think a little bit I wanted to be a vet because I liked animals. I had a lot of pet fish and a pet hamster at some point. Definitely didn’t want to be a doctor for a while because my grandma would always tell me that I should be a doctor. Um. Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever thought about—Oh! Actually, I really wanted to play baseball because I thought I was good at it, and it gave me a lot of confidence.
H: Did you collect baseball cards?
J: For a very brief period of time. About the extent to which I collected Pokémon cards.
J: Which was like, these look sort of cool and my friends like it, but then I lost interest really quickly. Apparently, I didn’t—Yeah.
H: Yeah. So we were talking about your first best friend, Theo.
J: Oh yeah. Theo and I became friends—His father was one of the coaches for the Little League team, and I was really grateful toward his father because I would get really frustrated when I was pitching, and I would get visibly upset, and his father was really nice to me. So, I liked him because of that.
H: Are you guys still friends?
J: Yup, I haven’t seen him recently. I saw him once over the summer and I saw him over spring break. He goes to University of Maryland, and he wants to be an engineer. He’s a very—we’ve had a very simple friendship. He’s very reliable and has always been very open about expressing affection and admiration. I think when I was younger I really valued that about him.
H: Childhood friendships are the best. Well, maybe not... But I think they are. I’ve had the same friends since I was like in kindergarten. It’s nice. I think simple is a really good way to describe it. When you fight, it’s like—well at least for me—I threw rocks at someone in like second grade...
J: Oh, and you’ve been friends ever since then?
H: Yeah, or I like complimented someone’s crayon selection. [laughs]
J: You don’t get in fights anymore, right?
J: You probably don’t see them very often, I’m guessing?
H: Well, my friends and I basically grew up around the same block.
H: Yeah, so we would see each other a lot and have the same classes together. We would fight about little things, like “Oh, Lindsey likes so and so but I like him more!” [laughs]
J: Did you guys go to the same school and everything too?
H: Yeah, and as we grew older, our friendship would grow but was always based on the same principle of like... we like the same type of thing.
J: I guess Tyler is also a noteworthy friend. Since he was probably the first friend that I met and started hanging out with outside of convenient times. With Theo, we played baseball together, we saw each other in class, we painted together. Tyler and I also painted together, but we met because we lived in the same neighborhood. That happened when I moved into his block in 6th grade. And Tyler’s very quiet. He goes to Duke now. I remember he was very quiet, and we would shovel snow in the winter time. Did I tell you this? I don’t know.
H: I don’t know.
J: Well [laughs]
J: Tyler and I really appreciate each other because the way we became friends is we shoveled snow together during the wintertime, and we made a lot of cash doing it. And we would do it for my grandparents, his mother, and my family. And Tyler was always the one—I let him go to the door and let him get the business.
J: But, we would shovel the snow in silence. Like, now when I go home and we go for a walk, it’s the same sort of comfort. Someone who shares like—back then, it was the value of doing something that was hard and not complaining about it.
H: Do you think your friendships have gotten more complicated? Um, well I guess specifically after coming to Yale.
J: Oh. Uhhh, yeah I think so. Yeah. Probably more because there’s more opportunities to make friends and, whether it stresses you out or not, you’re constantly forming new friendships and pruning old ones. It’s not even something that you can—you can move off campus, not text people, but you sort of do it just by interacting with people.
H: What’s your friend group like, either at—here?
J: Oh yeah. [laughs] I’m really close to the people I live with, and I was just talking to someone that it sort of follows from the attitude that the people you run into a lot are just the people you’re meant to interact with, and therefore, you have some sort of—there’s a lot of weight to you being kind and compassionate to them in particular. The friends that I have are a few people in Berkeley whom I lived with, a few people who live in my apartment building now, and um I would say I have three close friends from ThiNK. Or...
H: [laughs] Are you worried that they’re going to...?
J: I don’t kn—[laughs]. No I don’t think so. I think it’s okay. It’s fair for me to say [laughs].
Okay. We’ve talked about this. I’m friends with Korean people who don’t belong to Korean cliques. [laughs] But it’s sort of a matter of people that I run into a bunch. So, for example, my friend Lauren at the School of Art. We both—Well, she hates painting, but I like painting, and I used her studio in the past. It’s just something where we got to know each other.
H: Wait, how did you guys meet?
J: We met in the School of Architecture library.
J: So, this will illustrate that my friend groups are not select in terms of, “Oh, who do I want to be friends with?” or it’s a little bit random, to be honest. I wouldn’t have met Lauren if I wasn’t in that particular spot at that particular time printing something out and watching her make a cover for a book that she’s now published of her cartoons. Actually, the book is called Bad Korean.
H: I’ve read about her book. So, when I met her, well I saw you guys working on the mural, and I saw her in person. I was like, “Oh my god.”
J: Oh, so you know who she is?
H: Yeah, I know who she is. I was kind of star struck. You know when you introduced us, I was like, “I don’t think I can say anything.”
J: Wow. Lauren would be like so... She would play it really cool if I said that. [laughs] Well, I saw her making this really goofy cover, and she made it in Microsoft Paint. And I saw it and was like, “This is really weird.” So I asked her about it, but I felt like it was weird to be asking what she was working on. So maybe this sounds a little weird in retrospect, I said, “Oh, you know. It’s sort of odd that you only have one earring.” And the earring was this big earring of the Eiffel Tower.
H: Uh huh.
J: She turned around. “Well there’s only one Eiffel Tower.”
J: And then she said... I think I just introduced myself. She was a School of Art student. First year. It was interesting. Later, I was talking to her and at this point we had become friends and it was well established that we really enjoyed each other’s friendship. And she was like, “I think you’re like the first Korean guy who has ever approached me like completely a stranger.” And I was like, “That can’t be true.” [laughs] She grew up in Long Island, and she definitely knew a lot of Korean people. I just thought it was a weird statement.
Lauren is one of my close friends, and Mark is one of my close friends. Mark, I met because of the Berkeley woodshop, so it’s just a matter of like the people that I run into a lot. Maybe that’s true for everyone’s friends? [laughs]
J: Am I just saying what friends are? [laughs]
H: Thank you John Lee for defining friendship.
J: But I guess what I’m—[laughs]
H: I’m just kidding.
J: What am I trying to say? I don’t think I felt—I don’t. There’s two reasons I think. First, it’s really interesting to me different types of people and if you’re open to that, suddenly you realize that you value the same things, and there are opportunities because you enjoy doing the same thing and improving at it together. And then there’s the whole dimension about you caring about the person.
H: You, like, between Lauren and Mark it sounds like you’re friends with people with whom you can create things together.
H: Also, Tyler.
J: Yeah. Tyler and I make things too. Also, actually, when I’m thinking about my friends, sometimes—oh, this will be really weird to say. Like, sometimes when I find out that someone plays an instrument, I’ll instantly look up a duet for that instrument and classical guitar.
H: Do you play guitar?
J: I do. But I’m not even that good. Or I don’t practice regularly. So, well that just supports what you just said. [laughs]
H: That’s so funny. Oh my gosh.
J: Like recently I looked up viola, guitar duet and was like there’s nothing here, and what is here sounds really bad.
H: [laughs] The viola is a really hard instrument to play though.
J: Is it?
H: I think so. Well at least like, growing up, it seemed like everyone who was playing the viola was having a hard time playing the viola.
J: Yeah, maybe.
H: Yup. But I think... This is so random. I was just going to say instruments in general are hard... [laughs]
J: [laughs] My mom is a pianist.
H: Oh yeah, you told me that. She teaches, right?
J: Yup. I talked to Lauren about this interview.
H: Oh really?
J: And Lauren said, "So I read the page, and I don’t think you should talk about being uncomfortable with either being American or Asian."
J: "I don’t think you should talk about being in between and not fitting into either world." And I was like, “Okay, don’t you think that people really feel that way?” and she was like, “Sure, but I don’t want you to talk about that.” She was like, “I don’t think I care because the people who have experienced that are like yeah okay and the people who haven’t...” I don’t know. That’s just her personal opinion. I think it’s good to talk about. I think different people’s experiences are unique.
J: But I was like well what do you want me to talk about then? Because I feel like that’s the only thing that I had. [laughs]
H: I kind of like that she said that.
J: Yeah, she said that I think you should talk about really specifically about people that you care about and in particular if you want to talk about Asian America, you should talk about your family.
H: Yeah. I’m actually going to ask you the question that I was really curious about.
J: I want you to ask me all the questions that you’re curious about.
H: Okay. Can you talk to me about your relationship with your grandparents? And I’m curious because you said you want to be a doctor “for old people.”
H: And if that was influenced at all by your grandparents.
J: Yeah, completely. I grew up with my mother’s parents and I see my father’s parents maybe once or twice a year. So, this December I’ll see them. My dad’s parents, I don’t have a substantial relationship with, which I think more and more I regret and I attribute it to the fact that I don’t speak Korean that well. So, even though I can listen to them, at this point with my grandfather, it’s very hard to communicate with him. He has bad ears, and he’s pretty much downhill in terms of cognitive abilities.
H: Is this the grandfather who was a pastor?
J: No, so this is—
J: Yeah, they live in L.A. right now. I’ll tell you briefly about each of them. Unfortunately, that means that I don’t know their history that well. What I do know is that they were both born in, like, the northern central region of what’s now North Korea. My grandfather came from a pretty well-off family so he studied engineering in Japan. When they dropped the bomb, he was told that something bad was going to happen, so he left. He also headed south before it became an issue, and then, he went back and took my grandmother. From South Korea, he went to MIT to study naval engineering, and he was a ship designer. He worked for the U.S. Navy through connections in Korea. My grandmother, um, she had five kids and one of them was my dad. Guess that’s enough to say about them for now.
My mom’s parents were the ones who raised me in Baltimore, and my grandfather is a pastor. My grandfather is the one who is probably the most revered in my family. And, um, he grew up in a village just north of what’s now the border between North and South Korea. At a young age, his father was killed during the Japanese occupation of Korea. He lived with his mom and his sister on an apple orchard. And through the past I’d say five years, sitting with him for long periods of time and talking to him, I’ve been able to coax out stories about his childhood, and usually they’re very positive and in reference to the orchard that his family had. They’re really beautiful memories that, um, strangely enough had made me feel more connected to my sense of being Korean. Even though, it’s not something that I can ever show or feel like, um...
H: You can claim ownership of?
J: Yeah, it’s just interesting that those stories have made me not only feel—I think clearly it would make you feel more connected to your grandfather but why specifically—it’s not something unique to being Korean, right? But I guess it’s just the experience of being at that place at that time and knowing more about it just makes me feel closer to that land and that place.
H: Like an imaginary home.
J: Which is weird because the past is like, you can just make it up for yourself, right? But I guess it’s a meaningful narrative, obviously for my grandfather, and I’ve almost taken it for a little bit of mine. I think there’s actually a danger to doing that too much because you have your own narrative that’s happening every day. But, it can be meaningful. It’s not just practical. It’s good to preserve.
H: They’re like folk tales almost. They can be whatever you want them to be.
J: Yeah, that’s right. Some of my favorite stories or like... my grandfather was particularly mischievous when he was younger, which really doesn’t fit in with the sort of pastor vibe he still gives off now. He said that in his town, he’s shown me cool map images, he’s shown me where the ocean is on the west coast and where the mountains are further east where he grew up. He said that his friends and him would go up to the mountain top and try to track animals, chase animals. But he said that sometimes he would go with younger kids and I don’t remember why, I think it’s because I was telling him about some of my underclassmen friends at Yale, and that somehow generated this story or prompted it. And he said that he was chasing, I think the animal was a groundhog, maybe. And then eventually got it into a hole, and one of the kids said that if they made a fire around the hole, eventually it has to come out and we would catch it. So, they started a fire, but it was particularly dry during that time of year.
H: Oh no.
J: And the entire region got caught on fire and they had to run away. And then my grandfather says, "Do you know what the moral of this story is?" And my cousins and I are like—or I don’t even know if my cousins are listening at that point. But I go, "Uh... not to make a fire?" And he, goes, “No, you don’t hang out with younger people because they’re going to get you in trouble.” [laughs] So that was actually an example of a longer, more substantial story.
His shorter stories are like, “Oh, you’re going fishing today? I remember that there’s this really stupid type of fish. You can just set a net down in the river and put rocks down and put bait in the middle and you pull it up and catch the fish... but it only works with really stupid fish.” It’s such a weird type of story though because I have no like sense of setting. There’s no imagery at all. It’s just like, “I used to catch fish, and they were dumb.”
J: But it seems like, compared to how little I knew about my grandfather, any piece of information seems really meaningful. So, he and his mother and sister were going to head south and, um, leave North Korea as some of their relatives had. But as they were in the process of leaving, his mother found out that his grandfather had been imprisoned. Maybe, they knew that he was going to leave? So, his mother and sister went back to find his grandfather and told him to continue and so that’s when he was separated. It’s been very interesting to hear about that also piecemeal in the recent years.
H: So that’s something your grandfather didn’t talk about when you were younger?
J: Yeah, but I think it’s just that he didn’t feel like... one it wasn’t encouraged by my parents or her sisters to talk about that because it just seems like a sort of sad thing to talk about.
J: Um, like why bring it up at this point? And also, I don’t think he felt close enough to any of his grandchildren because they didn’t speak Korean. They didn’t — he wasn’t particularly outgoing in interacting with us. We went through all the little acts of talking to him but I would say that it was only in high school that I began to feel really close to him. Of course, for me that feeling was really easily based on the fact that, sort of like Tyler, hanging out with my grandfather is just like being really quiet for a long time with him and understanding that we appreciate each other’s presence, which as a child I didn’t think was true. I thought my grandfather didn’t like me that much because the only thing that I could do for him was like if he was trying to fix his old Honda, all I could do was hold his flashlight in the dark for him. I was like eight and I was like, “This is boring. I don’t want to do this anymore.” But he would just be working on his car for hours and hours or he’d be gardening and he’d like want help.
H: Um. I don’t know about you, but for me, talking to my grandparents is really difficult, especially my grandmother trying to get her to say anything about her life. I don’t know if I told you this, but I saw my grandparents—or I went to Korea for the first time in 20 years basically. And the reason for me wanting to do that was because my grandmother on my dad’s side passed away last year and we had talked on the phone a lot growing up and it was always like, “Oh, we’ll come next year. We’ll come next year.” And then one day, we just got a phone call that she had died.
My parents are 10 years apart, so I was just like oh well like my mom still has time to go back and I still have time to get to know my grandparents. Um, so I really wanted to go back and talk to them. But I think that once I got there, so much of their lives were filled with trauma and asking them to talk about it was really selfish of me. And that was like the reason that it was so difficult for me to talk to them. And instead I would be [laughs] like peeling garlic with my grandmother or picking out beans for like hours and hours on end with like no dialogue. But I wonder how many people from that generation have relationships with their grandkids like that because they don’t want to burden you with stories from their past, and they don’t also want to talk about it at all.
J: Yeah. [laughs] That’s really accurate. That’s a really good way to put it. It’s so funny the garlic thing, like every Saturday my grandmother just peeling a whole bowl full of garlic. Always. No, I understand that for sure. That’s why hearing these stories, they’re so few and far apart. The stories—I don’t want to prompt him. The only times I feel comfortable is when a lot of my cousins are there and suddenly I feel like... they should be more interested. My grandfather seems energetic and interested in sharing too. Occasionally that happens and I don’t know what prompts it. Maybe he’s just in a good mood.
J: Um, I have had some not even like interviews but he’ll be driving the car, or I’ll be driving the car sometimes, and he’ll talk and I’ll be recording him. And I’ll actually be asking him about his past because we agreed that this was something that was important to both of us. He feels like out of all his grandchildren, I’m the only one that wants to do this with him. But, I’ve done with this a ton of friends that I do projects with too. It’s not exclusive to my grandfather. If you don’t continue with it and there isn’t the momentum, it’s so uncomfortable that the next time you see each other it’s like, “So good to see you, Grandpa. Let’s do this fun activity instead of having to go back and look at all these pictures.”
J: Yeah, you know. It’s why I almost feel like it would be cool to be with him for a long time and um—yeah, it’s not something that you can just jump into in and out.
H: Yeah, exactly. It’s really taxing.
H: Even interviews with students, we’ve realized that like asking you guys to do this is kind of huge just like asking you to talk about your personal lives.
J: Oh my gosh, but students love talking about that because it makes them feel important.
H: I guess? But I don’t know.
J: I’m really trying to avoid that, but I guess my tendency is to really think that stories are really rich and meaningful. So, I want to make sure that we all address all the things that you have prepared.
H: I think that the people who are all interviewing, we all have different ways of approaching this project.
H: And, in the end, we don’t want to—Our website is not really interesting in any way. In terms of like—
H: Everyone’s stories are interesting, but the way that we present it is not like Humans of New York. We’re not producing a series of sound bites and being like, “John Lee. Click this video and watch him talk.” We want to create an archive, like these are real people and these are lengthy things that they said. And, also, topics of their choice that they think define them or are somehow related to how they want to talk about their identity. We’ve had a lot of conversations like, should we make it more accessible? [laughs] Like should we make these into videos instead? But then we’re like, who wants to be filmed on camera—or actually some people might want to but then it’s just like people are going to start categorizing themselves and it’s going to be so theatrical.
J: That’s a really good point. I don’t care if we jump around to different topics, probably because of what you just said. [laughs] But um, that’s a really good point. Paul Lee and I are thinking—Paul really wants to do this, but I think it’s again one of those projects that require much more thought and planning than right now seems to be going into it. After graduation, he wants to—So Paul and I both worked with DFUSA, Divided Families USA. And for you, that is between—the idea is to help reunite. Or the very lofty goal is to help reunite Korean Americans with their direct North Korean family members.
H: I wrote an article about this.
J: Okay. Where?
H: The YDN [Yale Daily News].
J: Okay, cool. So, Paul has been involved for a while and I’ve been helping with some of their editing documents and articles for them. We’re making like videos for them. Paul really wants to do this project where we go and interview elder Korean people who want to talk about their history, their family, their memories of North Korea and how that influences their current views on politics. He wants this to be on one hand a fun post-grad road trip and on the other hand, “John and I have been thinking about this, and these are the people we want to honor and tell their stories.” Like the same way that you were saying about telling the stories of these students. But, like you were saying, I told Paul there are some websites that are already trying to do this. If we do the same thing as them, people aren’t going to—what’s the purpose of it? Is it trying to raise attention for the DFUSA cause, in which case it needs to be more performative, and you have to show it off, and there has to be pictures and what not. On the other hand, is it just out of the belief that we don’t want these memories and stories to die, which I think is something that we also value. Maybe you can accomplish them both at the same time? Yeah, I think what you were saying about the interviewing style influencing that is something that Paul at least is thinking about.
J: Also, I don’t speak Korean. [laughs]
H: I was about to say. I feel like with a lot of elderly folks, it’s so hard to build trust with so many elderly Korean people that I’ve met.
J: Really? Oh, with the elderly Korean women that I’ve met, it’s been really easy for me.
H: Okay, that’s probably because they’re like, “Oh you’re cute.” [laughs]
J: Yeah, that’s exactly it. [laughs]
H: I’m like this serious looking Korean girl—
H: —that’s like two feet taller than them. They’re just like, “What do you want from me?”
J: That’s such a good point though. [laughs] That’s so true. Even if it’s in the way that I interact with them, like you know, I play that up. I just smile for them.
H: You do that? [makes popular Korean heart gesture with fingers]
J: I don’t do that! [laughs] Although I know what that means now. But, um, I don’t know. It seems like sort of difficult to imagine doing the project since Paul and I haven’t even been able to do it that successfully for our own family members.
J: I try to bring that up to Paul too.
H: I remember talking to Paul about this when I was writing the article about Divided Families. We talked about what his parents think of him having a real interest in North Korea.
J: They’re pretty supportive.
H: Yeah, what do your parents think?
J: They don’t know what to make of it because they’re not that—They never... They didn’t think it was imp—uh. One thing was what Lauren said that you should talk about family members was parents. There’s like, particularly in recent months, there’s nothing bad I can say about my parents. Maybe like when I’m old, not when I’m old but when I’m grumpy, I’ll think bad things about them, but they’re awesome. It’s not even like they’re role models, but they’re the most important people to me. That being said, they didn’t, um, make me think that it was important to be aware of any Korean politics or current events. And they did not ask me to think about my family’s history either.
So, to them, it seems really strange that all of sudden I have in interest in it. To my father, it seems like a positive because his family overall is more activist-minded, but he himself doesn’t really think about those things. To my mother, she provides me with the same sort of suspicion I apply to myself, which is, “Oh, you’re just taking something which is convenient to find meaningful and is sort of a distraction; you should be practical and think about your current environment more.” That sounds a little harsh and I don’t know if she would agree with it, but that is basically what she has provided me with. That feeling. So now I apply it to myself. I think it is a useful check actually. I’m like a firm believer that you prioritize awareness of what’s going on directly around you because I think personal relationships and being able to go to a place and go inside of the building, know that it exists, is really important. But maybe the digital world is changing that.
H: Are we talking about a specific building? [laughs]
J: No. [laughs] It’s different from Paul. It’s very different from Paul. My mother would get very frustrated if I brought it up. If I brought up any conversation about what I was—like last year, I was technically the president of ThiNK. We never talked about that at all. [laughs] One time I tried to show them the documentary that DFUSA had made and she stormed upstairs and refused to watch it. I don’t think it’s painful for her. For her, it’s more like... maybe if I seemed like I, in her eyes, was more organized and prudent about the future, maybe she’d be like there’s space for you to do this too. But it doesn’t seem like this should be the most urgent thing. And um, it’s definitely a balance.
It would be weird if not speaking Korean and living in New Haven, CT, all of a sudden I was like I’m going to full-time dedicate myself to communicating with elderly Korean Americans across the country and ask them to talk about their family members who might not even be alive. That would be strange. So, you have to find somewhere in between, right? And like, the best way for me to think about it is not, oh my mother disapproves of this but more like oh my mother has a point. I don’t want to get so absorbed by what kind be like very strong feelings of my grandparents, whom I love a lot.
H: Hm. I feel like I’m a really sentimental person, so I don’t know if I could do that. Just like rationalize.
J: Yeah. [laughs]
H: But I guess your practical goals also seem to kind of feed into your grandparents.
J: Well I don’t know. So, my immediate plans are to stay here—
H: Oh, yeah you mentioned that you were going to do the Public Health—
J: I don’t think I’m going to do the MPH [Masters in Public Health] because it’s expensive, and I think I can pursue the project I want to do without doing that.
J: Did I tell you about the project?
J: Oh, so the transition I’ll make is that memory and stories matter a lot to me personally for my sense of heritage, specifically my Korean identity. There are a lot of elderly people who will unfortunately lose their abilities to share their memories because of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. That’s like the one everyone knows about. And it’s interesting, ethnic minority elders in particular Latino and Asian American elders are particularly at risk for not being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. And it’s been demonstrated—it’s been strongly suggested that this is because they don’t know what Alzheimer’s is. Um, diseases that affect your cognitive function are really taboo and stigmatized in those cultures, and unfortunately, that means you don’t get screened for them in the first place. Currently, there’s no treatment for Alzheimer’s, but there is a lot of funding going into Alzheimer’s-—it’s the third most of funded research after cancer and AIDS research. The problem is that even if you do all this research and you come up with a good treatment, if there are all of these elderly people not being diagnosed in the first place, they’re never going to get the treatment. Probably it’s going to be an intervention that’s going to need to begin in the early stages, right? Or something that you’d even need to pre-screen for before symptoms start showing up.
What I’m really curious about is how do you go about informing an elderly population and it’s a little time sensitive because those who have the most misconceptions, medical misconceptions, are old now. My idea is that young people can actually play an important role because the other thing about those minorities and I don’t know actually. I’m beginning to doubt this aspect of the project as I begin to become more pessimistic. It seems like—well there is a higher percentage of multigenerational households among these ethnic groups, right? So, there’s more opportunities for the youngest to interact with the oldest. And in my personal experience of course growing up with my grandparents, it was such an amazing, loving two-way relationship. Basically, my parents and their siblings are the bad guys, and we have to stick together, the oldest and youngest. But I think that comes particularly with being in very close contact with my grandparents. I don’t know if there’s a lot of in-between where it’s like I really respect my grandparents and I think about them a lot. Like of course you love them, but I think about them a lot. I do still think that there’s enough trust so that family members, and particularly young people, would be able to facilitate conversations with their grandparents about these difficult topics and promote a more compassionate attitude towards dementia and Alzheimer’s.
I think there’s value to it beyond just like all these old people are going to be diagnosed. Our parents also might be like wow my kids care about this enough to step out of their comfort zone and talk to my parents about it. You know I should be aware of it too. I also think that besides working in the communities that you’re a part of, you also work with the skills that, as my family would say, you’ve been blessed with or you just happen to develop. A part of that is just your experience with other people, and I feel very comfortable with my grandparents and other old people.
H: That sounds like an awesome project.
J: I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m actually designing an experiment for it right now. I’m taking a class with the School of Public Health.
H: Yeah, you told me about that. How did that paper go?
J: The paper’s good. I’m really trying to get my professor to try and take me seriously. I want her to assess the feasibility of this project.
H: Do you think she’s not taking it seriously?
J: Well, no, I think that it’s maybe beyond her scope because my suggestion is that maybe we use cultural centers on college campuses. There you get the most energetic and probably like, you know, intelligent and motivated young people. In cultural centers, they’re probably like all about their grandparents. The more I think about it, I think beyond the issue of it being important to preserve old people’s memories. I just think it would be really beneficial for all parties if young people talked to old people. There’s a program at Quinnipiac right now where you can choose to room with an elderly person.
H: In the community?
J: No, like someone who would normally be in a nursing home.
H: Oh really?
J: And I don’t know any of the logistics behind it, so I don’t know if it’s working out or not. But the idea, I’m very optimistic about it. I think it gives you a lot of perspective to talk to old people.
H: Do you think that would work at Yale?
J: I don’t know. I live next to a man who is 87 years old and he said that, when we had him over for dinner like a month ago, that in the past 20 years, it’s all Yale students in the Elmhurst except for him. And he said like, “I haven’t had neighbors for the past 15 years.” Like none of them talked to him.
H: So, it was his first time—
J: —coming over for dinner, and I was like that’s sort of weird.
J: I mean. Maybe this is stepping too far, but I think that a lot of the anxiety people have about the future that can be really harmful, in part can be solved by the simple realization of like... life is pretty long, there’s all these people ahead of you and plus the conventional thinking that old people have a lot of wisdom, and they can share their experiences. So, I think both parties can benefit.
H: Yeah.... You have so much like filial duty. [laughs]
J: Yeah, and my parents think it’s weird. My cousins think it’s weird.
H: Your parents think it’s weird?
J: My parents like it because they’re like oh he’ll probably be really good to us when we’re old. [laughs]
H: [laughs] Yeah, my good son.
J: Um, I think it built up in high school. I was like very intentional. What I was talking about my mother and myself and how you choose to find yourself in terms of like what activities you do, in terms of those related to Korean stuff.
J: I apply that same cynicism with my relationship to my grandparents, but it doesn’t—I don’t care. At this point, it’s too real for me to care. I think sometimes you tell yourself like, “Oh I don’t want to visit my grandparents right now.” But you want to want to visit your grandparents, so you keep doing it until it happens. It’s like forcing yourself to eat something that you don’t like. [laughs]
H: Yeah, I’ve never experienced not wanting to see my grandparents I guess.
J: But don’t you feel like for your peers it’s just a task for them if you brought that up? Especially like your non-Asian, like none of the people that I know think it’s that important to see their grandparents. It’s just so disconnected, each generation from each other.
H: I guess some of my friends grew up with their grandparents like in the same home, so it wasn’t a task. It was just life. Maybe that’s why I always wanted to see my grandparents because I was so jealous of that.
J: I talked to a Korean guy who’s like 30 years old this summer, and he was really smart, and I loved talking to him. We had never met each other but he was affiliated with my uncle’s church in Princeton, NJ. He asked me about dating and when he met his wife, one of the first conversations before they were engaged or anything was like, “Yeah, my parents are probably going to move in with me.” [laughs]
H: [laughs] That’s so funny.
J: Yeah, I think that’s really funny.
H: Yeah, my parents talk about stuff like that a lot.
J: I think it’s so weird though about how unequal it is that my father has been forced, basically, to spend almost all of his time with my mother and her parents and that side of the family. And we maybe visit his side of the family once a year or every other year in L.A. I think it’s their personalities. [laughs] My dad is very welcomed in the family. He’s done a lot for the family. Um, what were we talking about?
H: We were talking about your grandparents and your project.
J: Oh, we were talking about old people. I get really upset when people are mean to old people. I’m very sensitive to that. [laughs] I really hate it, and I really hate when people associate getting old with really negative things.
H: Do you think that you think about your family when you’re making decisions about your life?
J: Yeah, all the time. I think that it’s not just an exclusively an Asian or Korean thing, but for me personally it does come from that. I really dislike it when people say, “Oh, you’ve got to make decisions for yourself. You’ve got to be independent.” I think I told you about it. It’s just, maybe it’s a totally different mentality, but a lot of my genuine happiness and sense of identity is directly tied to my family’s wellbeing. So, no I’m not going to—it doesn’t matter because they’re not telling me everything to do anyway, right? If it’s something where I can live in Baltimore for some time and see them regularly, like as my grandparents are getting older and older, or my little cousins are really young and it’s interesting I’ve never been so aware of young people and how their surroundings affect their development, that would be so cool to be a part of.
H: Yeah, I was surprised that one day when we talked over lunch that you talked almost exclusively about your family.
J: [laughs] Some people really don’t like it. My friend, I don’t know Ruby Bilger, she’s in Branford and she’s like, “John why do we always have to talk about your mom?” Uhhh... [laughs]
H: [laughs] I mean I don’t dislike it because I talk about my family a lot too but I was just like... I know so much about this guy.
J: Right, but that’s just because—Um, I really like being able to... if people talk about feeling uncomfortable with being in between and not fitting into any two things. For me, anything about being Korean or Asian is rooted to my family. I’m not saying that’s how everyone else should view it, because everyone has their unique experience. And for me it was so comfortable growing up Asian American, Korean American. For me, that’s such a comfortable thing. I love like also doing things that are completely outside of that and bring them a little closer to each other. Like, Mark is an example of that, you know. I think my family thought it was really strange at first.
H: That you're friends with Mark?
J: That I like strangers.
J: But now it’s like the slightest grin that my mother shows. They like it. It’s something that they realize is good for me, and I can always share with them. My parents went to Mark’s house. They had never met him before, and they stayed there for a night, and we had dinner. And it was great. Because it was like, in a way, mark and his wife are like... not substitute parents but I would describe them as an aunt and uncle.
H: That’s so nice.
J: It’s the same feeling of family, but my parents were meeting these people for the first time.
H: That’s so unique.
J: Yeah, and I think that as much as you can do that. People do that when they have dinner parties and they invite different types of people. Um, it makes you feel important, too right? Because it’s like the only connection that these two groups of people, or these individuals have, is that they really like me. [laughs] So maybe it’s just a really selfish thing.
H: But I mean your parents care about you and Mark and his wife care about you.
H: So, it makes sense that they would want to know the other person.
J: Yeah, I guess so.
H: What were you most apprehensive of when coming to Yale?
J: Oh, great question. When I was coming to Yale, I felt—Oh. Someone recently said... Have you watched Avatar: The Last Airbender?
J: You know like all the bending arts. Do you know a little bit about each one?
H: Like vaguely? [laughs]
J: Vaguely? It’s like air, water, earth, fire and you can associate them with different personality traits and stuff. And someone was like you’re definitely an air bender.
H: They told you this?
J: Yeah, I was like, “Ah, I really don’t know what that means.” So, I went home and looked it up on Wikipedia and I think it was pretty accurate.
H: What is it?
J: I think it has to do with, um, I guess the easiest way to put it is that you just sort of go along with the flow of things and things are just very comfortable and calm. I didn’t really see that as a transition. Surely, I felt a little bit concerned about begin in a new place, but I was so comfortable. Maybe it comes from religion, from having this deep sense from a very young age of really believing in a benevolent God. Like having this attitude. You know when you’re walking through life, if it was like a novel that there’s going to be a lot of good things, bad things, but it’s a novel so like you’re helpless but you’re helpless with the understanding that all of these—
H: There’s a purpose.
J: Yeah, exactly. There’s a purpose. And especially for me going into college, I wasn’t that apprehensive of anything because I felt like I was growing up but I was still calling family like every day.
H: Do you still do that?
J: Almost. There are times when I call my mother every day, and there are weeks where I will call her two or three times a week. I really like Facetiming my grandparents because then I can screenshot them and I keep pictures of them. I have to track it every once in a while, but I keep them in a folder called “Facetime Mania” and it’s just my grandparents making weird faces.
H: Do they know?
J: No. It’s just a little thing for myself.
H: I was... um. I don’t know. I don’t know if you slash Lauren would like this question. [laughs]
J: No, go for it.
H: I was going to ask, if you were apprehensive about anything, which sounds like you weren’t... if it had to with your race at all.
J: No. [laughs] I don’t know if I told you about this but I’ve been telling people a lot about this recently, and maybe I should be worried. I didn’t think about—This summer, I worked at the NIH and I was living with 19 other—tell me if I’m repeating myself.
H: Okay. I don’t think you are.
J: I lived with 19 other people and maybe on the third night of our program, maybe 12 of us went out to eat at a taco restaurant in DC. We all walked there and as soon as we got to the taco restaurant, this girl. She goes to Pace University, and she’s black. She’s a junior now. She’s studying—she might be studying environmental science. Anyway, so she goes, “So, how does it feel being an Asian American man?” And I go, “Well Christina, we’ve known each other for maybe like 24 hours but what do you mean? Can you be more specific?” And she goes, “No, like how is that important to you?” and she said it so casually that it started to upset me because I didn’t know how to respond to this question at all. And then I started to feel a little guilty because I didn’t know exactly what she was looking for.
After a while, we were talking to each other and she goes, “I can’t believe you don’t think about it at all,” as if she was offended and upset at me, right? And people at the table, like people around us who also don’t know us very well, were starting to get pretty uncomfortable. They said, “Hey, it’s not really fair to ask him that. He’s eating.” But I was starting to get a little bit upset, like “What specifically are you trying to ask me about? What prompted this?” I told her, you know part of my feeling is that there’s so many privileges that I grew up with that I didn’t have to think about it. I grew up thinking, and you’ve probably heard this I’m assuming in different interviews, that thought they were like—well maybe you haven’t. Obviously, not everyone enjoys some of those privileges, but it didn’t seem like there weren’t any obvious disadvantages I could associate to being Asian American or Korean American. I never thought specifically about being Asian and an Asian American male.
So, I was like, “Really what was the point of this?” as we were walking back. Everyone else was way ahead of us and we were just back still talking. It was maybe six or seven pm so it was still light outside, and she says, “Well I think that you and I have more in common than you think.” I guess this was sort of the turning point in the conversation. She says, “I think you and I have something in common because I’m a black woman and you’re an Asian male and I think media portrays you and me as the least desirable in terms of attractiveness and sexual appeal.” I said, “Maybe.” [laughs]
She goes, "I can’t believe, in the midst of people talking about identity politics and in particular how Asian roles are being taken by white actors and actresses, how you don’t think about that." I go, “Well, I’m aware of it, but I don’t talk about it that much or anything.” And she goes, “I think you should be aware of that because it’s something that probably affects you.” I was like, “I don’t know if it affects me. I don’t really think about it.” And she said, “Well I think when you think about how it affects you, you have to think about history and maybe it’s not as obvious as it is for you as it is for me. Do you know anything about Asian Americans in terms of the history of them coming to the U.S. and how they were treated?” And I was like, “Sort of. They probably weren’t treated that well.” [laughs] Like I knew they came in from the West and there were a lot of Chinese migrant workers, you know, they probably weren’t paid well. And she goes, “Well, I don’t know if it’s my place to tell you this but I took a class.” And at this point I’m like, “Agh, I don’t want to hear this.” But she continued and she goes, “I took a class and I learned some stuff and you should probably do the same thing.” And I’m like, “Just tell me what you were going to say.”
And she’s like, “All right, you understand that there were these migrant workers, the first Asians to come to the U.S. And, um, there’s documentation to support that there was this perception of Asian men as being actually—There was a positive rumor that they were good lovers and that was a thing that really upset in particular white men who thought, “Oh they’re going to steal away... ” Because there were only men coming over, right? Like migrant workers were predominately male. And she was like, “And that’s the history of why like there are all these rumors about them being perverted and having tiny penises, and basically trying to steal away all the white women.” And she said that it also led to the fact that they tried to send them far away from towns and communities when they were working. They also would send male prostitutes to the camps to try to say that they were all homosexual.
I was like, “Wow. Yeah. I didn’t know about that.” At this point, I wasn’t going to be like, “Yeah. I don’t know. I should fact check you.” She just dropped all this knowledge on me. I was like, “Oh.”
J: So, we kept walking around the same block for the next two hours and talking really earnestly. It transitioned to more of a conversation about our families and how they had treated us—her parents are immigrants like my parents—and it was really productive. For the rest of the summer, we talked about this kind of stuff on the metro and if I had never met Christina, I would never have... I mean the knowledge of that history, I could have learned in a textbook really easily, but it was really interesting. I also don’t think I would be where I am right now [in terms of my thinking] if she hadn’t been so confrontational at a taco restaurant. I don’t know.
That conversation and in depth thinking that was four or five times more meaningful than anything I had ever thought about regarding my own race, and it’s probably affected me since that summer. Um, I remember Christina in follow-up conversations was like, “So you really don’t think it affected you?” and I was like well I grew up in like a school that was 80 percent white, maybe even more than that. We’d go to school dances and I think there were times when I was like none of these girls are into Asian guys. I was like, “Yeah, that was something that I thought to myself.” Of course, we had conversations that I thought were sort of interesting where I told her, “I don’t know if there’s anything you can do about that.” And she was like, “Of course you can. Media is such a powerful force and it’s important that you have a lot of realistic portrayals of different types of people.” Um, I was like, “Yeah maybe.” [laughs] “Like it’s not my domain but you’re likely right.”
H: Do you feel pressured to date a Korean person, either internally or externally from your family?
J: No. Or when I was younger and went to an all Korean church with all my very young crushes, I realized, “Oh, this person is Korean.” All of my family members, except for one of my dad’s sisters... One of my dad’s sisters married a Japanese man named Toshi, and I really like him a lot. And, also, I guess some of my cousins have married non-Koreans. One of them married a Chinese woman, another married a white guy. It’s interesting actually probably, later, not being a part of that Korean church and thinking that was an expectation in the same way people telling you should be a doctor, you should be a lawyer, whatever. And you being like, “No! I don’t wanna do that.” And that was probably the same at one point where I was like, “No! I don’t wanna date an Asian girl because that’s what everyone wants me to do.” [laughs] When no one was telling me to do that. It was probably just like this seems like the norm and I should do something else.
I do go to a Korean church now and I talked to this one woman who was really open with her dating life. And I was like, well you only mention Korean guys and I was joking with her that it was because she’s only into Korean guys. She stopped, and she thought about it. And she said really honestly— and I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about this. It was such an obvious thing—it would be great if he could speak Korean because my parents are so much more comfortable with Korean, and I want him to have a significant relationship with them. And I was like, “Yeah that makes total sense.” [laughs]
J: So, I don’t know. I haven’t been thinking about it recently. I don’t think for my parents it matters. They always tell me it doesn’t matter. For them, it’s much more important that she’s Christian which is also like not something that I think about that often. [laughs] It’s because I don’t really have that many Christian friends. The only long term relationship I’ve had was with a girl who was half Korean and half white.
H: Yeah. I think it’s interesting that college students when we talk about our... racial awakenings—
H: —or when we think about how we think about our racial consciousness, [laughs] it’s often related to like ourselves as sexual objects or whether we’re attractive or not.
J: Yup. [laughs] Because they’re both appearance based things for a lot of people. But it was interesting! Because it was true that—I’m not sure about the actual numbers—maybe this is just the way that people portray... the opposite is that like black men are desirable and Asian women are desirable.
H: Like black men are seen as the most masculine?
J: Yeah. Actually, I think I was also influenced by that too. I probably strayed towards activities that seemed the most masculine. Well, no. I don’t know. There are so many influences because of the fact that I went to an all-boys school for 12 years. [laughs] I did things like wrestling. I played rugby. I did lacrosse for a season.
H: Oh my gosh. [laughs]
Um, do you write a lot of nonfiction?
J: My nonfiction is super just... I guess it’s like a journal. I like to think of them more as essays; it’s not that I want to show them to people, but I really pick and choose what makes it seem like the day had a narrative to it that would make it interesting.
H: They’re thematic, in a way?
J: Yeah, I don’t write them that often but like a lot of the times it’s like, “This is a story that I’m telling you and I’m not going to tell you why I’m telling you.” But the bits and pieces that I’ve chosen should make you think of—I don’t know, a theme. That’s really convoluted.
H: Do you feel like you craft a persona for yourself in these essays?
J: Sort of. I write in really simple grammatical structures and I don’t use that many big words. Probably if you put the writing that I do in some program that tells you how old a person is, it would be like middle school.
H: Middle school?
J: Yeah, because I’m perfectly fine with writing a six-word sentence and a ten-word sentence and then a four-word sentence. I think it’s not so much that it’s a style. It’s more like, this is just how I like to express myself. It makes things easier for me, maybe it’s just because I’m simple minded. [laughs]
H: Do you think that that reads as very masculine?
J: No, I’ve never thought that. Although, I do understand that that is what reads as traditionally like Hemingway, some poets and stuff. No, but usually when I write I want to be really open and earnest about my emotions. So, I’ll try and say things that are a little surprising.
Recently I was writing about the fact that when I was in high school, I started visiting my grandmother. At a certain point, I guess she trusted me enough, or she was sad enough, or whatever was happening was enough, that she would start to cry. She’d be like, “I’m dying.” And she’d do this terrible thing where she would flap her arms like wings and go, “Look, I’m getting old. I’m dying. I’m getting old. I’m dying.” And it made me a little confused, but because I had been around her so much—If she had done that to my little cousins, they would freak out. They would run home and tell their parents. The only thing you can do is like hug her and be like, “Oh. It’s okay. You’re fine.” That’s another thing. I think that if my parents saw that, especially my mother or my mother’s sisters, it would be difficult to process partly because it’s your parent who is really in a difficult place. But also, it would remind you a little bit of your own mortality. Whereas I think for young and old people there’s enough distance that you’re like, “This is my friend.”
H: Sounds like you have a secret world between you and your grandparents, like things that you can’t divulge—
J: Yeah. If I shared these things with my parents, my mother especially, she’d be like, “That’s so inappropriate. Don’t ever show anyone a video of your grandmother doing that.” Sometimes my grandmother and I will.... We’ll pretend that we’re different types of animals. She’ll pretend that she’s a fish at a marketplace. She’ll wave her legs up and down, and make these ridiculous noises and my mother hates it. She’s like, “Why would you ever do this? This makes her look like a crazy person.” It’s like, “I was doing it right next to her.” [laughs]
H: Um. Do you think that there are specific things that your works focuses on, like you said that you like being honest with your emotions?
J: So, the piece that I recently wrote was for a class for the School of Public Health. I had explained to my professor... These are a series of essays that try to explain my personal experiences and inevitable biases with all of the material we’ve studied this semester because I have had a great relationship with my grandparents and it means more to me than most of my friendships.
So, in the last bit of the essay, I describe that. I say that I have this perverse feeling I’m almost privileged to experience her pain in that moment. Of course, it’s not a good thing that she has to go through it, but there’s a certain importance to it and a real trust that she shares when she does that. I don’t think it’s good for her. I don’t like it when she does it, but that’s what I talk about in one bit. I say, you know, I thought I was going to cry.
The next bit is about my parents and a road trip we took to Tennessee. I offered to drive because I like driving and I think it’ll help me become a better driver. I turned around in the back seat, and it must have been when we turned straight west, and the sun was setting and I look back at my parents, and they’re like collapsed on top of each other sleeping. It’s like they look really beautiful because the sun is coming directly onto them. And I wrote, I felt like I was going to cry too. I don’t even like to say, if you just leave it like that, it’s great. Everyone will think, oh you used to be like that and your parents were sitting in the front. But, I just want to say, this reminded me of when my parents were driving and I fell asleep in the back seat. This was a complete role reversal and I felt like I was going to cry. So, that’s how I write. I feel like sometimes if you just mean something, you should just say it. For these sort of things, it’s productive to me.
H: So, this might be my final question. This is more something that my suitemate is interested in. She writes and she enjoys writing, and she wants to know from other people who also write, if they think about Asian subjectivity a lot when they write. In terms of like, when you read a book that is written by an author... perhaps Toni Morrison and she’s writing about being black, you know that—
H: Yeah, so like does Asian subjectivity mean writing like an Asian person? What does that even mean? Or does it mean writing for an Asian audience? And what does that mean?
J: So, I guess the question is about the authenticity of what you’re writing about as an Asian author.
H: And like, if you feel a responsible to write about something Asian.
J: I do not at all. But it’s also part of what I view as a shameful obliviousness for 18 years of my life, I enjoyed. And now, I’m trying to, in small ways to correct. I took a fiction writing class. I was excited to take it. It was advanced fiction writing with Michael Cunningham and I took it spring of sophomore year. And the story I ended up writing was about this historical boxer named Elmer Ray, or Elmo John Ray? [The boxer's name is Elmer Ray.] This guy came from Florida. He was not that well known. He was never a champion, but there are these really amazing photographs of him fighting. I really liked the very few stories I could find in between how he use to wrestle alligators and how he used to compete in these things called Battle Royals. I don’t know if you’ve read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, but they have this really intense scene of a Battle Royal and it’s just a bunch of men fighting each other for entertainment. Which I mean, boxing is just two people, right?
I wrote a story about him fighting another black man, and I wrote it completely fictionalized. Like this account of his relationship with this fictional character, who was his uncle, who owned—or didn’t own—but was responsible for all these citrus groves in Florida. I wrote about how this black boxer goes to New York for this fight later in his career and how it’s a really important fight. I wrote all about that. It was very well received by my professor and a lot of my classmates. And when we were talking about this piece in class, someone says, “I think it’s really impressive that you wrote this piece about these two, mainly just this one black guy, and it feels really real. As if you knew how to box or something. But you’re not black. I feel like you should be praised for that,” is basically what they said. And I was like, oh I hadn’t thought about that at all, which is probably a bad thing. Not that I had done anything offensive in it in particular, but it’s weird that I never thought about why I was interested in the subject. Well, I thought a little bit about why I was interested in the subject and I was interested in boxing and the psychology of it.
I had factored in that he was black and that he was mistreated by his cabdriver. In the story, there’s a scene with his cabdriver and there’s also this scene where the two boxers turn into clay sort of and all these people become demonic around the ring. Later, I was talking to people from the class, and they were like I don’t know if you did that good of a job with that. They were like historically black men have either been treated in athletics as these heroes, or beasts sort of, or criminals. I don’t really understand their specific complaints but overall it was weird that I had written this story and not thought about that.
To answer your question, for a long time, I didn’t think about it at all. But then I did start thinking about. And I read Native Speaker, the Chang-Rae Lee book, and it was inspired by [Ralph Ellison's] Invisible Man so I read them one after another trying to educate myself. I like that story; it’s very autobiographical. He writes about this guy who’s running for election in New York and he writes about all these Korean American communities and especially Korean stuff. I don’t have the information to write about that, I don’t think. So, it doesn’t seem that obvious to me to write about it.
H: To write about what?
J: Korean stuff. I just don’t know that much. Or I know stuff, but I don’t know... but the stuff that I know about my grandfather, I wouldn’t want to treat as fiction.
H: I feel like, this could definitely be projecting, but a Korean American church sounds quintessentially Korean American.
J: Yeah, you’re right. Yeah. I guess it seems so close to home because my grandfather and two of my uncles are pastors. My parents already look for things like, oh you wrote about this boxer who doesn’t have a father but who has an uncle who was really important to him. My cousin grew up without his dad. His dad was killed in a carjacking. This is the cousin Daniel who I grew up with. So, my dad was really important to him as an uncle and my parents were like, “Oh yeah it makes sense why you wrote this story about a guy whose uncle is one of his main mentors.” I was like, “No, I don’t think so, maybe.” So, if I wrote a story about Korean church or Korean pastors, I’d feel really odd about it. I’d probably wait at least... for a while—it’s just too close to home I guess. I haven’t addressed the question of what it means. So, is she curious about what sort of history Asian or Asian American authors sort of... ?
H: She just said what do you think it means to present an “Asian subjectivity”? For instance, what does it mean to write as an Asian person, the way Toni Morrison writes as a black woman or Philip Roth as a Jewish man.
J: Maybe this is me being ignorant, or not having enough information. Not ignorant rude, but like not knowing enough. It seems like the sort of label of Asian American is so... it doesn’t... Or the label of being black, at least the ways my peers have expressed it to me. It’s sort of absurd to group black people all together, some of them who are from Africa or people whose families have lived here for a long time.
In the same way, there are so many Asia countries that people’s families come from. Also, first, second, third generation and all those experiences are so unique to them. So, I think when it comes to the subject that you’re writing about and how it is tied to history, there’s a lot of history you can write about. The immigrant history. Asian American communities. But I think because they’re particularly insular, like each one unto themselves, for me to write as an Asian author would just be on what I’ve experienced. I could maybe write about Korea, but it would be through the experiences of my parents and grandparents, which as you know is super fuzzy. I don’t know if there’s the same... if all those specific events and mentalities comprise of that attitude that you could pinpoint as Asian American or like group solidly. I don’t know. I have such a small sample size of books to think about.
H: Are you trying to say that for you to write about Korea is for you to be “exoticizing” it in a way?
J: Yeah, I don’t know Korea. I don’t think I have any authority to write about Korea. Actually, I don’t even know if that’s true. Maybe I have more authority than someone with no knowledge about Korea and maybe I feel a little bit more intensely because I know my grandparents’ stories a little bit, you know?
H: The way I see it... well, this could really mean anything. But when Asian people write about their own experiences, it inherently becomes tied to a historical experience, whether they know it or not. So, I think the question of Asian subjectivity for me is interesting because like are you thinking of a target audience when you’re writing about your personal experience as a Korean American? Do you think that a Korean American audience will read this and be like, “Oh yeah I kind of understand this?” Or do you think that like maybe a primarily white audience will be like, “Yeah, I don’t really know what this is, but this is interesting.” Like when you read things and the author drops things in and it’s like, “Oh I was supposed to understand that.” When a Korean American or Asian American author writes.
J: It’s so interesting that you’re talking about this because Lauren and I were eating the other day, and we were talking about a book that she was reading recently that was written by a Japanese person and it was this 500-page book. Ah, I should remember the title. I didn’t read it. It was about this young white boy in the Midwest, and he just gets raped dozens of times in this 500-page book. And it’s graphic and terrible according to Lauren. I guess it was well written because she read it all the way through. She said, "When I read it I just thought it was this Japanese guy because I didn’t know the name." And later when she found out it was this 40-year-old Japanese American woman who had written this thing. And now, the author’s like the Vogue design editor or something and she [Lauren] was so curious that she went—it’s funny that I say so curious because it’s not that much of an extent that she looks up her Instagram. And it’s like nice table settings and stuff, and she said that she got so curious about why this Japanese woman had written this 500-page account about this white boy from the Midwest getting raped throughout his lifetime.
I haven’t read it and the book is probably about a lot of other things too. It’s not a great example for me to bring up. But then what Lauren said was she had also heard an interview where someone had asked that question, like where did this book come from? It seems kind of out of the blue. And the woman said one time she was at a diner (and Lauren says she was very casual about it), and there was this young white boy and he was with adults and the boy looked so uncomfortable and she thought, “There must be something wrong going on there.” And then she wrote the book. I was like, “Maybe there was more to it, Lauren?” but Lauren said, “I don’t know if there was more to it. All I know is that it would be super fucked up and weird if a white dude wrote a 500-page book about a Japanese girl who got raped over and over again.” And I was like, “I don’t know it’s sort of not equivalent for you to make that comparison but at the same time I do see what your point is.”
Lauren told me one of the reasons why it’s nice when the two of us hang out is that she doesn’t have to talk about identity politics. The School of Art that’s all that they talk about nowadays in class, outside of class, and she says it’s sort of exhausting to talk about. But this specific example is interesting. This applies to what you just said. We both agree that historically writers have written about experiences of course they couldn’t have had from the perspective of people they probably never were in contact with. And it’s not like getting away with it or not but it was judged based on whether they were good or not, you know? And now it’s a lot more complicated because of course there’s issues with ownership, and people make money off of it, and of course you want to credit the right people. But at the same time, sometimes—we flirted with the idea, that as an outsider, sometimes you can observe and also from your different perspective reformat it or sort of meld your experiences with something you observe in a way that you really appreciate or find fascinating. But like maybe it’s totally not cool for you to do that anymore. But does that mean we’re not making as good art anymore? It’s a really complicated thing.
H: Yeah. My suitemate and I talk about this a lot. She told me that she hadn’t actively started thinking about being Asian until last year. We were saying in stories where you can make Asian people, or like write Asian characters, you could exoticize your own Asian character by making them super Asian so that the audience knows that they’re Asian and how that’s also super uncomfortable and like weird.
J: [laughs] Any final questions?
H: Any final comments?
J: Um, let’s see. Being Korean, it mostly means when I come home at night or when my mom comes home, the only thing she wants to eat is rice, 된장찌개 [fermented soybean soup] that my grandmother made, and kimchi. And we always eat that together.