When I was younger, my brother and I would fly from Virginia to Oklahoma to visit my grandparents for summer vacation. They lived in a small town that had one stoplight, one grocery store and a single Wal-Mart that was over three miles away. We would pass our time fishing, camping and going to church, something that my grandmother insisted we do at least twice a week.
We were two carefree, half Korean children in a town that was predominantly white, and we were too young to think twice about the curious stares that people gave us in restaurants and in the Baptist church. All we wanted to do was to fish, roast marshmallows and travel down dirt roads in the oversized Winnebago. It was a time of innocence and happiness, both of which slowly dissipated over time as I started to learn the truth about my dad’s family.
I was thirteen when my parents divorced. The dissolution of their marriage also dissolved our frequent visits to Oklahoma, as my mom was now a single Korean mother who couldn’t afford plane tickets every year. I blamed my mother for the divorce because she was the only one around, and I kept both a physical and emotional distance from her. It was a strained relationship because I thought she was a weak, foreign woman who didn’t understand anything I was going through.
In 1998 I graduated high school, and then a month later my grandfather passed away. The no-nonsense grandfather who would take us perch fishing on his boat at 4 a.m., who rarely cracked a smile and who loved to eat buttered grits, was suddenly gone. I couldn’t even attend his funeral because I had to go to my college orientation. Although I didn’t cry at the news, I was still extremely sad, and I desperately looked forward to my next visit to Oklahoma.
That finally happened in 2000, when I was a sophomore in college. I hadn’t seen anyone in years, and I was anxious to finally see them as an adult. It was a joyful reunion, or so I thought. We were all sitting around the dinner table, finishing up our meal, when my uncle began to say, “Let me tell you a n*gger joke.” He was smiling, and then proceeded to ramble on nonchalantly as if he was teaching a lesson to a room full of third graders.
I didn’t hear a word he said after that because I was shocked. Were those words really coming out of the mouth of my sweet uncle, the man who loved Dr. Pepper and who happily baited my fishing hooks with live worms? Was my father really laughing at the joke? Did my grandmother act like she heard nothing? The answer was all yes. As I looked across the table at my brother, I think we both were thinking the same thing, yet we sat there motionless.
The rest of the trip was a blur for me, as I was left feeling angry, confused and ashamed. I didn’t want to believe that I had heard those words, but I had, and suddenly my mind was flooded with random memories of similar moments that I had been too young to understand, but did now. The times when my father would tell us a “dirty Mexican” joke. The playful way he’d call all Koreans “hammerheads,” and how at times I’d catch my grandfather gazing at us in consternation. I instantly remembered every moment from every childhood visit here, and I knew why people stared at me with dumbfound expressions. I suddenly wanted nothing more than to go home.
I did go home, and never felt the same way about my father and his family again. I stopped calling them, only answering their phone calls on Christmas day with a monotone voice. What was sad was that this was the only family that I had left. My mother’s parents both died when she was a child, and her only sister lived in the Korean countryside with little contact with the outside world. So my family became me, my mom and my brother, and sometimes my sister, but she was thirteen years older and lived a separate life in North Carolina.
With only each other, the once strained relationship that I had with my mother grew into a mutual love and respect. I was now more mature and aware, and she had finally learned to open up about her feelings. The stoic Korean woman whom I had only seen cry once in my lifetime became my new rock. I finally realized all of the pain that my father had put her through, and would soon find out more about what his family put her through.
A few years ago while visiting my mom in Virginia, after another failed attempt to get me to call my grandmother, my mother finally asked me why I never called. I finally told her the truth. I told her about the incident in 2000, and her reaction was not what I was expecting. She didn’t get angry. Instead, she was calm, and had a sad, distant look in her eyes. She then proceeded to tell me a story.
My father, who was in the Army and stationed in Korea, met my mother in 1968. She fell for his southern charm, and they married in Switzerland. Then my father got stationed back in Colorado, so she made the bold move to the United States. They lived there for a year, and she had still not met her new in-laws, and didn’t know why. Then my father had to go overseas again, and not wanting my mother to be alone, he decided that she should move to Oklahoma with his parents. They bought a trailer, and had it placed next to my grandparents’ house on their property.
The day that my mother met her in-laws she shyly walked in with my father, and he introduced her as his wife. My grandmother immediately hugged her. My grandfather sat unflinching in his chair, staring sternly at the television, not saying a word. He ignored her at dinner, and the next day, and the day after. This happened for almost an entire year.
My mother felt the same coldness from people around town, even after she got a job serving food at the nearby Chinese restaurant. People looked at her strangely and whispered to each other. Although she was hurt, she never let her feelings show, refusing to cry or show weakness. Finally, after the first year, my grandfather began to warm up to her, and talk to her, and visit her at the restaurant. She finally existed.
At the time, my mother was too young and naive to understand the totality of the situation. My father later told her that his father was angry at him for marrying a Korean woman, that he resented her being there and coming into this home. And although my grandmother liked my mom, she was too weak to stand up against my grandfather. Hearing this from my mother’s mouth, I felt a sad sense of validation for being ashamed of this half of my family. I no longer looked at her as a helpless victim, but as a woman, a survivor, who overcame the cruelty that existed in our own family for many years.
To this day, I rarely talk to my father or the rest of his family. I saw them all a few years ago for Thanksgiving, and my father came to my wedding last year in Hawaii, but that has been the extent of it. Deep down inside I can only hear that single word coming out of my uncle’s mouth, and picture my young mother sitting alone in her trailer. That is enough for me to stay away.
I used to get angry about the situation, cursing my family for being so close-minded and unkind, but then my friend sent me an essay by James Baldwin, an African American Civil Rights activist and essayist, which helped me to channel that anger into acceptance. This quote is from Baldwin’s 1962 A Letter to My Nephew:
“You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”
I realize that the people in that small Oklahoma town, including my family, know no better. They weren’t surrounded by mixed race couples, hip hop music and Korean restaurants like I was growing up in Newport News, Virginia. They were immersed in their small town, with a small-minded mentality that will forever keep them from loving all humanity until someone or something releases them from it. I can only hope that my mother had a small part in releasing them from this years ago, and that maybe someday, they can see in me that being half of something different isn’t half bad.