The Friendly Korean

by Kelley Jhung

Spring, 1995

The smells of garlic and sesame oil fill the living room as my sister, dad, and I scrape our chopsticks over Styrofoam containers. We’re eating Korean take-out as we watch The University of Kentucky play Tulane in the second round of March Madness.

Dad’s been following UK, his alma mater, with excitement. We never quite understood how our dad, a Korean immigrant, could have fit in as a college student at the University of Kentucky in the racially divided 1950s.

During a commercial, my sister asks “So, Dad, what was it like for you going to college in Kentucky back in the day?”  Dad and his family were Korean War refugees and ended up in that state when they left Seoul in 1950.  He was thirteen years old.

A blank stare takes over his face as he holds his kimchi-filled chopsticks in the air. “I lived in frat house during the summer. They let non-members stay there for cheap. One time, some of the fraternity brothers asked me to come to party. I was excited because I wanted to meet girls and feel like a part of things.”

“Yeah? How was it? The party?”

He continues to stare vacantly as he responds: “When I showed up, they gave me Vietnamese farmer’s hat and tea pot. They told me not to speak and made me serve tea to everyone at the party. They laughed at me.”

My sister and I lock gazes, outraged. I expect him to continue describing this horrific incident, but the commercial break ends, and his attention is back on the game. Hot pepper paste burns a hole through my chest.

At halftime, without our prompting, Dad continues, this time looking at us intently: “You know what? Even though I was very lonely then, I knew I’d always be successful. Now I have beautiful wife and two daughters I love more than anything in this world. I was one of first Oriental pilots at American Airlines. And we live in most expensive ZIP Code in Southern California. Success is best revenge.”

“Yeah, but…” He raises his hand to cut me off.

“Now when I walk into restaurant, I get treated like a white man. I drive a Porsche and can afford to eat anywhere I want. No one even notices that I’m an Oriental.”

“It’s Asian, Dad.”

“What?”

“People don’t say ‘Oriental’ anymore. Asian is the more politically correct term.”

Our suggestion doesn’t register. He continues:

“I wouldn’t have become airline captain and met my beautiful Moo Moo if I didn’t get an education and work hard. Remember that. You can do anything.”

“Do you wish you’d gone somewhere other than the University of Kentucky?”

“No. Everyone called me ‘The Friendly Korean.’ Even though it was all white people, I felt just like one of them.”

*

September, 1996

Hi Number One,

Finally at work again and checked company mail box and glad to receive your nice uplifting letter.

I’ll get myself adjusted of upcoming retirement (graduation, as I like to call it). Thank U for the encouragement about retiring. Coming from U—that really helps.

You had a nice visit home. Always glad to have U home.

Here are my five things:

  1. I helped a Columbian lady sitted next to me on flt from SAN-DFW to get transfer from gate 21 via tram with 20 min connecting time.
  2. Count-down on trips to go, & they are getting better every trip, but I’ll be ready. I have to! I was fortunate to have 32 yrs. of fantastic rich career.
  3. Went surfing Wed. & Th. I bought a new wet suit at Rusty’s.
  4. Get to go to work flying to Far East. Lots of respect from fellow ASIANS.
  5. Moo Moo’s coming home by time U receive this letter. Have a nice busy week in and out and in and out of good old Dallas.

Love, Dadda Cute

I have dozens of letters just like this from my father. He got the idea from The Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude, by Sarah Ban Breathnach. My dad found this workbook in my mom’s office, and started journaling things that made him happy. He encouraged me to do the same.

*

Winter, 2017

It’s lunchtime and the Silverado Memory Care Community’s dining room is full. Most residents limp, shuffle, or are wheeled to one of the many tables. They don’t interact with each other; they stare off into space or keep their heads down while eating. Most of the residents are quiet; still, a murmur of conversation fills the room; the odd family member tries to make conversation, the servers are floating between tables, asking people how they like their meal.

Residents who are completely helpless—ghosts in their decrepit bodies—sit at a table closest to the nurses’ station. Various noises come out of them: grunts, belches, phlegmy coughs. One woman quietly repeats to herself, “ouch, ouch, ouch,” in a little girl’s voice. None of the people at this table seem to mind the noises or expulsions from their tablemates.

Caregivers bring them plates of food, but none of these residents can hold a fork, so the food sits in front of them while they continue to fail at attempts to control their bodies. The rest of the guests in the dining room listlessly chew their food. But at least they can feed themselves.

Finally, two caregivers start to rotate around the table, feeding each resident a couple bites of food at a time. Food is placed gingerly into their mouths, as if they are babies. Most eat with their mouths open, food spilling onto their clothing, the table, and the dining room carpet.

The staff rotates efficiently, kindly assisting each of them. Other employees scurry around the rest of the dining room, refilling drinks, bringing plates of food, replacing dropped forks.

Dad sits at the aforementioned low-functioning table. He’s bent over his plate when I walk in and see him.

“Hi, Dad, how are you today?”

His eyes are watery and crusty. A grin spreads across his face as he says, “Hiiiiiii,” continuing to smile as I sit down. I cut his chili dog into small pieces and start feeding him.

The caregivers seem relieved that they have one less person to attend to. They look at me appreciatively.

As I’m feeding my dad, sometimes I become impatient and shovel the food into his mouth too quickly. He chokes and chili runs down his chin, mixing with the snot dripping from his nose. His nose has been running non-stop for the past three months.

“Sorry, Dad. I’m not so good at this.”

Little Girl Voice says, “oopsie,” and she giggles.

“Yeah, oopsie. Clumsy me.”

I am grateful for Little Girl Voice.

I feed my dad bite by bite, until finally, he finishes. I decide to take him outside and push his wheelchair around the courtyard. As we get up to leave, Little Girl Voice says, “bye, bye.”

I wheel my dad outside and sit at the gazebo with him. He stares gravely at me; besides a word or two here and there, he cannot talk anymore. I gaze back, the corners of my mouth twitching.

*

October, 1996

Hi Punk,

On my way to Dallas again. One more hour then I take a long rest break. Things that make me happy:

  1. My girls (all three) will be with me on my 60th—which is a very big thing in Korea, known as “Han gāp”.
  2. Taking my top soccer team to LAS tournament when I return. My men’s soccer teams started a new season under my control.
  3. Enjoying counting my retirement money like a scrwege & planning investment is lots of fun. (Since I saved through out my life, especially while I was young, I got more than the most!)
  4. When I got up in Narita this morning, an hour of nice walk along a rice patty. It was light around 4:30. I finished my walk before six. No noisy planes flying over.
  5. Moo Moo’s taking me to Disneyland next Monday! MICKEY MOUSE—And we’re making lots of $ in Disney stock we own.

Looking forward to having U home next month. Bye pumpkin~talk to u soon.

Love, D

P.S. BE HAPPY  It’s a wonderful world, if we let it be!

*

Spring, 2017

I arrive at Silverado at 3:00. I’d planned to hang with my dad for a couple of hours, then join him for dinner, which is always served at 5:00.

I have to pass through the dining room to get to dad’s room. But I don’t get that far, because, oddly, all of the residents are sitting in the cafeteria waiting for supper, though they are two hours early. A tense energy fills the room; I’m confused as to why everyone is sitting at foodless tables at three in the afternoon.

I spot my dad by his full head of black hair. His entire body is rattling, like a broken washing machine. When I approach him, I smile and rub his back to greet him, but he continues shaking and doesn’t recognize me.

“Hi Dad, what’s going on?”

Before he can acknowledge me, a resident at an adjacent table cries out, in my direction, “We’re being held hostage here!”

As she shrieks, my dad’s hands flail back and forth, now trembling so forcefully he accidentally hits people as they walk by.

I place my hand on his and say, “Dad, everything will be okay. I’m sure everyone has been moved to the dining room for a good reason.” He keeps shuddering, and I’m still not sure he even knows I’m here.

Dad finally makes eye contact; in this look, I read, help me, why am I here, what has happened to me, get me out of here, you are all I have.

I rush out of the dining room to find someone who knows what’s going on. The doors to the common room, usually open and welcoming, are closed. I turn the handle and am faced with employees sorting through piles of clear plastic bags full of clothing and personal belongings.

As they look up at me, surprised. I ask, “What’s happening? Seems like people are really freaking out.”

Mario, a kind-hearted middle-aged caregiver, says in a low voice, “Miss, we have a, um, scabies scare. We’ve had to remove and sanitize everyone’s belongings so it doesn’t spread.”

Oh my hell.

I google “scabies” on my iPhone.

“Scabies is caused by parasites that feed and breed under human skin” (healthline.com) “Crusted scabies is a more severe form of the disease. It typically occurs in those with a poor immune system and people may have millions of mites, making them more contagious. The mites burrow into the skin and deposit eggs.” (Wikipedia.org).

A close-up of a pre-historic looking parasite pops up.  Photos of scabies victims’ bellies, breasts, and buttocks flash on my screen, displaying angry trails of oozing skin.

“So when can the residents go back to their rooms?”

“We’re still sanitizing everything, but they can return after they’re finished eating.”

“K. Better get back to my dad.”

“You’re a good girl.”

I’m not a good girl.  I put him in this place.

*

June, 2016

It’s midnight, I can’t sleep, so I’m organizing boxes left behind since dad’s last move. I come across this article:

The San Diego Union-Tribune — Friday, June 13, 1997

Rancho Santa Fe shows how far it’s come, elects Asian director

By Dwight Daniels, STAFF WRITER

RANCHO SANTA FE—They are calling him “Landslide” Larry Jhung now. Jhung, a recently retired airline pilot, won a seat on the Rancho Santa Fe Association’s board of directors by a single vote in the recent election. But what makes Jhung’s election more unusual is that he is thought to be the first Asian to serve in a leadership capacity in a community where, not that long ago, Asians and blacks weren’t allowed to buy property, let alone lead…Jhung’s life has not always been so simple, however. He recalls a childhood torn by fear. His family was uprooted at the onset of the Korean War when invaders from the North moved closer to his home in Seoul. “I got a call at school and was told to say I was sick and had to go home,” he said. “I packed everything I could in a bag in just an hour, and we left”…But those incidents simply made him more determined to succeed…Will the driven and highly organized flier find his role as a board member tedious? The board, after all, has been known to spend hours debating such arcane topics as the artistic merits of yard sculptures or the color of roofing tiles.

The father of two grown daughters—one a journalist, another an airline attendant—answers with a firm “No.”

*

May, 2016

“Stop scratching; you’re making it worse!” my husband pleads. Fiery, stubborn hives are hijacking my skin. We’re moving my dad today, but we haven’t told him where he’s going.

Dad has lasted six months at Casa de Mañana, a community for healthy seniors; never mind that he is ill and shouldn’t qualify. But he loved the Spanish architecture, vivacious vibe, and ocean-like smell of this much-desired independent living community. And I adopted the same level of denial about his condition as he. I guess the administrators did too, because despite his rapidly progressing dementia, they were happy to take his rent check.

Six months after he moved to his charming beach community, Syril, the director of residential services, phoned and asked me to drive down to her office. I could tell from the tone of her voice that Casa de Mañana was not where my dad was going to live out his years after all. Our meeting was concise:

Her dimples deepen as she greets me, “Hi, Kelley, how are you doing today?”

“Um, I’m alright.”

“We just received the results from your dad’s MRI. His brain has atrophied significantly in the past two months.”

I pause as if to say, “So what?”

“We can’t have this here.”

I’m not surprised. The previous week, my dad threatened to hit the maintenance guy with a baseball bat if he didn’t come fix his window. He thought it was hilarious, but the folks at Casa de Mañana didn’t.

And he had a seizure during Easter brunch, where paramedics had to maneuver around families enjoying their mimosas to take him to the emergency room.

I’d hoped this place liked my dad so much they’d keep him. But I’m given two weeks to find somewhere else for him to live.

On moving day, my husband and I stop by dad’s apartment and paste smiles on our faces.

Hi, Dad. Ready for your next adventure?”

“Can’t you tell me where you are moving me?”

“Nope. It’s a surprise.”

“Ooooh-kay. Let me just say goodbye to everyone.”

I walk with him to the activity room, the dining room, and the nurses’ station. The employees look genuinely sad that he is leaving. He flirts with the young nurses, and some of them hug him. His voice cracks, “I’ll miss living here.“ The nurses look at him as one would a person in a body cast: they feel sorry for him, but there’s nothing they can do. “We’ll miss you too, Larry.”

We drive up the annoyingly beautiful San Diego coastline. Dad stares out the window. As we drive farther north he starts asking questions, “Are you sure I can’t stay at Casa de Mañana? They liked me there, didn’t they?” My chest tightens. I’d give anything for him to stay.

“You’ll be living closer to me!” I chirp.

“Did you rent me a house on the beach?”

“No, I’m sorry, Dad, it’s more like a community with other people.”

He exhales loudly as his left eye twitches. “Well, I’m glad I’ll be closer to my daughter…”

“Yeah.”

We arrive at his new home, which, in my mind, I’ve named The Happy Camp. It’s hardly such a place. It’s a memory care community, and before that was a psychiatric hospital. Looking around, it still feels like the latter.

But I know the Happy Camp is right for him. It’s considered top of the line when it comes to dementia care.

We are greeted warmly at reception. Janelle, the resident director, walks us to the dining room. “You’re just in time for lunch!” she says, smiling.

They’ve reserved the private dining area, for which I’m grateful; eating with the other guests would scare the shit out of my dad right now.

The odors in the dining room take me back to my days as a flight attendant, when the galleys of the planes always smelled like burnt cheese and oily meat. I remember picking through the galley, greasy unclaimed meals filling me while working a long flight. While it’s not the greatest smell in the world, I’m hoping my dad has the same olfactory association from his pilot days. But he looks forlornly around the room as we wait for our lunch.

My husband and I try to make conversation as we’re eating, but dad barely speaks. I’m grateful we’ve made it here. I’m also relieved that once we leave, he will be safe. It’s a locked facility.

While the movers are busy transforming dad’s room into something homey, Janelle bends down and talks to him in a low voice, touching him reassuringly. “Why don’t we go to the yoga class that starts at 2:00?” Dad doesn’t respond, but he doesn’t fight her when she leads him to the activities room.

“It’s a good time for you to leave,” she assures my husband and me. I say, with trepidation, “Dad, we’ll be back soon. We’re going to let you do your class.” He hugs me more tightly than usual and says, “Bye, Punkin,” the tears he’s been fighting back all day finally surfacing as his tone breaks. Janelle rubs his shoulder as well as mine. “Everything will be fine.”

Her words take me back to something dad once wrote in one of his letters:

I couldn’t sleep because many things in my mind such as moving, selling house, etc. I’ve been praying a lot lately. I’ll do that this morning also. I’m sure everything will work out fine within in my predicted time. It always does.

love, dadda

We walk to the parking lot. The unforgiving wind chafes my skin but at least it dries my tears.

 

Kelley Jhung is a foster child advocate and fledgling writer who lives in Encinitas, California. She has a B.A. in English from the University of San Diego and a M.A. in Counseling from San Diego State University. She has a smattering of published work, including the Readers Write Section of The Sun Magazine, The San Diego Reader, and SMITH Magazine.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Nonfiction

2 responses to “The Friendly Korean

  1. “Gracie Lou Freebush”

    Kelly, I’m so proud of you! Thank you for sharing these intimate and personal stories about you and your father. What a special relationship you two had. You are a great daughter! 💗

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