by Judy Jean Kwon
(this was published on NPR's LAist)
Surviving The Endless Waves: When American Dreams Aren't All They're Cracked Up to Be
I paddle boarded down the Hanalei river today by myself. All by myself! That might not seem like a big deal, but I have a big fear of drowning. Odd, you say, for a woman who just decided to move to Hawaii.
I have had nightmares of drowning since childhood. It was a common occurrence that I would wake up in a cold sweat. I am always up against a rock wall and waves are crashing into me. One after another. In one dream, I would have a split second to brace myself before the next wave would take me under and I would have to fight. Sometimes, my grandma would be with me and I would have to hold her up. Sometimes, my sister. Sometimes, both. And I am always trying to save them and make sure they don't drown. This dream only stopped after my dad drowned. I think it was a suicide. My life in America has been this — a constant fight for air.
Only if... I have a lot of regrets. As I watch the locals here in Hawaii, I get a pang of pain that pierces through my heart because I can't stop thinking: only if my dad and my grandma could have landed here, instead of Los Angeles. This island, Kauai, has more Asian sensibilities, and Eastern culture is mostly mainstream. Surrounded by the ocean, the islanders' focus is on family and care for those around them. They are aloha.
Judy Jean Kwon's grandma stands on the beach in Santa Monica. (Courtesy Judy Jean Kwon)
Only if we'd landed here, maybe my dad and my grandma would still be alive. Only if my grandma had listened to me, when I wailed and cried about how I did not want to go back to America. Only if we'd stayed in Korea.
BACK AND FORTH "I don't need a mom and dad anymore. I just want to be home with you in Korea," I told my grandma. "Nooooooooo!" I cried. I threw tantrums. I did what a powerless child could. Grandma had cut my long beautiful black hair and told me we were moving to America. This was a shock to me, since she hadn't mentioned this before. You see, I had just come back to Korea months earlier, after my second time in America. The first time was when I was born, in Los Angeles. As a baby, my parents had sent me to Korea for my grandma to raise.
Judy Jean Kwon, held by her grandma, in front of her home's backyard koi pond in Korea. Although born in Los Angeles, Kwon's parents sent her to Korea to be raised by her grandma. (Courtesy Judy Jean Kwon )
The second, more recent visit was half a year spent with my parents in South Carolina, where my mother was in the U.S. Army. My parents were still there. What loneliness, what desolation, what restlessness and nothingness I had felt in America. I had never ever experienced that in Korea. Coming back to Korea after those six miserable months, I felt like I had gone through war and back. I told my grandma that she didn't know what she was doing. "You don't want to go to America," I told her, but she was determined. She wanted to reunite me, her granddaughter, with my mom and dad, who were trying to reconcile.
In the early '80s, divorce was something that was frowned upon in Korea. My sister and I were the only ones with divorced parents in my town, and with my mom being an American soldier of Korean descent, we were the talk of the town. It would be better for us all in America, my grandma thought.
It wasn't just our Western connections or the divorce, but because we are Kwon.
To Americans, that is just some Ching Chong Chang.
But we Kwon are something like the historical "Kennedys of Korea," as one of my Korean friends pointed out.
We were royalty, literally. The history of our clan dates to even before Jesus was born.
Ours is the oldest surviving recorded family tree. We helped establish the Kingdom of Goryeo in 918, and during a Japanese invasion in 1593, one of my ancestors became a national hero for saving Korea in a great battle.
My family was known for its heroism, wisdom, and governing laws. We were thinkers.
In fact, my ancestors ruled in Korea for hundreds of years. So I guess that would make me a princess in Western terms. Hahaha.
My uncle even told me that we Kwon owned much of the land in Korea once, but lost what was left of it at the end of World War II with the change in regime. My dad was the first generation to feel the repercussions of the war and the division of Korea. He lost his father to the North after the separation — he never saw his dad again. His sister died during wartime as a child.
The whole experience f***ed him up, and he became a destructive narcissist. So I understood that things could change on a drop of a dime; that was my whole life.
With a name like Judy Jean, I stuck out like a sore thumb in Korea. It was a dead giveaway that I was foreign.
The daughter of a Korean American mom.
Why did my grandma have to register me with my American name and not my Korean name? Why?
I was always the ugly duckling, but in Korea, I had my grandma, I had a home, I had security, and my grandma had her dignity. Despite not having a mom and dad in my life in Korea, and desperately wanting them by my side, I was able to dream and hope my afternoons away in a cherry-blossomed yard, chasing dragonflies with friends, like a dream in one of Kurosawa's films. But like a protagonist in his films, I was to go on a journey that would test all parts of me, in a concrete jungle where I would never be accepted.
All I ever wanted growing up was a mom and a dad. But after my short stay in South Carolina and my American experience, I gave up on that dream. America was a desolate place with unfriendly faces.
In Korea I didn't fit in, but as hell would have it, I would belong even less in America. I would go from social oddity in Korea to living pure systemic oppression in America.
"My hair, my beautiful long hair," I moaned before we left. Why did my grandma have to cut my hair before going to America?
"Glue it back!" I screamed. I wanted her to put my life back the way it was.
South Carolina, flashback.
The reaction of Americans dealing with foreigners is quite different from Koreans meeting foreigners. Koreans come at you with curiosity. Americans come at you with hatred. Overseas plane travel was a luxury in the '80s and not the K-Mart shopping experience that it is today: only the privileged few could afford it.
On that earlier trip, my grandma had left my sister and me at the gate.
My younger sister was on the floor, crying her eyes out.
She didn't want to leave Korea, and she didn't want to leave my grandma.
But me, I was going to get my dream. Some relatives called me cold, but I was resolved.
"I will be reunited with my mom and dad," I thought.
I did not shed a tear. I was probably about five or six.
My mom was stationed at a U.S. Army base in South Carolina. My sister and I joined my parents living in a trailer home community for soldiers — for non-white soldiers, it seemed.
The only friend I had was a Black girl in the next trailer. I did not speak a lick of English and she didn't speak Korean, but we played every afternoon without words.
Looking back, she was probably not welcomed in the white community. Like me.
I would take the school bus to kindergarten in a predominantly white South Carolina school. I was as foreign as foreign can be.
Everyone ignored me except one Korean girl. She was the only other Korean in the school. She was designated to be my translator and show me around.
I felt sorry for this Korean girl.
She confided in me after a while that, before I came, she would pretend she didn't speak any English, but now she was grateful to me for forcing her to come out as an English speaker.
She had lived in America for a long time without a single friend. I was her first.
I felt awful when I had to leave a few months after arriving, without saying goodbye.
My parents separated again, and my sister and I went back to Korea.
Home again, for a little while.
My best friend, Jung Ah. How I still think about her and miss her so.
Jung Ah had stepped in as a substitute granddaughter for my grandma when I went to South Carolina for those miserable six months.
That's something I realized when I came upon a picture of my grandma and Jung Ah standing together in front of my house, cold and bundled up. There were no smiles.
My grandma missed me. It stabbed at my heart.
Jung Ah, the poorest girl in town.
She lived across the street in her family's single-room unit adjoining their small, knickknack five-and-dime store.
The family of five — mother, father, two brothers, and Jung Ah — all slept, ate, and lived in a room practically the size of a postage stamp.
I didn't know poverty until I visited Jung Ah by surprise one winter's day.
The family was sitting on the floor in their tiny room watching TV.
This was the first time I had looked into their living quarters because Jung Ah usually came to my house. The room was cramped, but that was not what "woke" me up.
Jung Ah's elder brother was wearing her skirt.
"Why are you wearing a dress?" I asked.
He had peed his pants and he only had one pair of them, so he wore my friend's skirt. He was embarrassed and screamed at me to get out.
This was a prelude.
Poverty is horrible anywhere in the world, and I was to experience this in America when we went back.
In retrospect, it made sense that my grandma wanted to accompany me to America upon my return. She didn't want to be separated from me again, now that she had decided she would try to reunite me with my mom and dad once again in America.
I had a wad of my hair in my hands.
My life was falling apart, again.
"Why did you cut my beautiful hair?!"
The decision was made. House was already sold.
With the last snip of my hair, my life took yet another turn.
I was forced back to America.
Judy Jean Kwon, aged five or six, pictured with her younger sister in Korea, just before coming to America. (Courtesy Judy Jean Kwon)
This time, back to Los Angeles, where I was born, and where everything was to be taken from me. Like a wave that crashes down to take you under, one after another, with barely enough time to breathe in between the tides.
I would battle poverty, the immigration court system, hospitals, homelessness, discrimination, misogyny, the ills of capitalism, and systemic racism.
I can see it clearly and more starkly than most Americans who have lived here all their lives. A frog cooked at a slow-rising temperature will not realize when it's in boiling water.
Because, as always, I am an outsider viewing things with fresh eyes.
Racism is not a battle I want to fight, nor have I ever wanted to. But I would have to.
My grandmother survived three wars — the Japanese occupation of Korea, World War II, and the Korean War — but America broke her.
Choice made. She came on a tourist visa and overstayed. She could not turn back. She would grow to become ashamed of her mistake, to come to America. But she felt responsible for us, and would hold on longer than she should have.
My grandma was a well-respected elder in Korea. In America she was a nobody, without legal status, without even an identification card. She passed away mute and bedridden after being abused in the healthcare system, an undocumented Medi-Cal patient. Disposable.
When she was lying in the hospital after her last stroke, incapacitated, a distant family member traveling from Korea came out of the woodwork to pay my grandma a visit.
I had never met this woman. This mystery relative saw my grandma lying in the hospital bed and instantly started lamenting.
"How sad. How awful," she cried.
Then, she told me what my grandma had said the last time she saw her in Korea. As her story went, when my grandma was bidding everyone and everything she knew goodbye, she was sad and torn. She told family members that she didn't know how she could "survive in a foreign country, all alone, with no family, with no one."
My grandma probably knew deep down that there was a big possibility that my mom and dad wouldn't work things out. After all, my mom and dad never could never really live together for long before a blowout. Their marriage was rocky at best. My grandma was gambling and hoping, hoping to give her granddaughters a mom.
When she moved with my sister and me to America to reunite us with my mom and dad, she sacrificed everything for us. She didn't want to send us back by ourselves this time.
My grandma became our mom, especially after my mom dropped out completely. She lived with us in Koreatown, where my dad had a video store.
Judy Jean Kwon, around age seven or eight with her family. Judy (bottom left) is with her dad shortly after she, her sister and their grandma (also pictured) arrived to the U.S. from Korea. (Courtesy Judy Jean Kwon)
I remember how my grandma would periodically get news from Korea of a family member's passing, one by one, and she would talk less and less of them.
Eventually, she stopped talking to anyone in Korea. She even attempted to change her name. She was ashamed. She had regrets.
The only thing she had was a photo album of her family that she brought with her from Korea. Grandma would flip through those pages every night, trying to hold onto the memory of her family, her past, and Korea. The book came to America brand new. It was frayed, with torn pages, by the time my grandma passed.
My dad. What can I say?
He loved the ocean. He came to America for the Pacific. He came to America for freedom.
He came to America a rich man and died a homeless, broken one.
My dad was a cowboy, a fisherman.
My dad chose this life for all of us.
Judy Jean Kwon's dad in the 1970s, as she describes it, "looking cool." (Courtesy Judy Jean Kwon)
Here, he would become "Pancho." After he lost everything in L.A., my dad found reprieve in Mexico. Away from the concrete jungle. Away from corporate America.
He would drown in the Pacific Ocean after he tried to sell me off for a used van.
So you want to hear that tale? Someday, maybe. I wrote a script about it that was met with white eyes and rejected.
When I have time and energy, I will write a book about it. I hope those words can be heard without having to pass through a horde of Western gatekeepers.
My dad was a misogynist, traditionalist, a common theme for older Korean males. He was also an alcoholic.
As an Asian man in America, he also faced a difficult set of challenges that tested his manhood. Asian men in America are given no respect. Their masculinity is cut off because of racism, and they are often treated as a joke. My father found his ability to provide for his family limited. He became desperate.
He had lost his livelihood before he disappeared south.
I was told he was fishing on the shore when he died in Baja. I learned of it almost a month later.
I stood on my own two feet with the need to save my family from the destruction which was America. I dreamed of going to college, with ambitions of going to an Ivy League school, because I thought that was the way I could rescue my family. But that was not to be.
My dad, for one, never paid taxes and did not support higher education. I felt I couldn't apply for financial aid because of the tax thing, and besides, I was too proud to ask for help.
But I grew up in my dad's video store. TV raised me, and I had so many stories to tell. I had been in L.A. since returning to America, attending schools in Hollywood, being creative.
So I went into acting and the film industry — where I was met with systemic racism.
Asians are always silent victims of racism. All I really wanted to do was tell stories, make films. But I found the film industry did not offer the same diversity as the city that hosts the business, Los Angeles.
Being an Asian token, I was again alone and an outsider.
I worked in front of the camera in about a hundred commercials, and worked on several films as a talent. My peers, it seemed, were living the regular life of young people trying to make a Hollywood career — discovering themselves, parties, and all the things twenty-year-olds do. As for me, I kept silent about my burden.
On-camera I was putting on a smile, trying to sell products to viewers. Off-camera, I was trying to rescue my grandma from being deported, and from my dad's destruction and drinking.
Both my grandma and dad were homeless by then. I had to find shelter for my grandma in a convent of Korean nuns while my dad went from living on his boat, to the street, to Mexico.
I also had to find an immigration lawyer for my grandma, who was facing deportation. In the end she wasn't deported because of her age, but she remained undocumented.
Judy Jean Kwon, at age 28, sits with her grandma at the convent where her grandma lived in with Korean nuns in Los Angeles. (Courtesy Judy Jean Kwon)
In contrast to my life back then, I was often cast as a representation of a happily integrated, Americanized, smart, tech-banker-nail salon lady, an Asian approved by whites. As long as I represented what they wanted, a hip, happy Asian American girl, I was okay. But when and if they got a whiff of who I truly was, I would be dismissed.
Hollywood is racist, subconsciously and consciously. It just is.
As a talent, you are just a pawn in telling someone else's story. A white man's story.
I went on to write and make my own projects, which were a more eye-opening experience than being talent in front of the camera. When I went on to write a script, I found myself subconsciously writing for some imaginary white audience, as that's what the dominant form of writing in Hollywood is. Having to explain things, and making whites be the leads.
Some of the many false sayings in Hollywood are "Be original," "Be unique," "Tell your truth," "Write what you know" (but that only applies to whites). So I decided to do exactly that, from my point of view, no excuses, no explanation.
I wrote a comedy from an ethnic POV with ethnic leads, making light of so-called "Karens."
When I went to pitch it, I would get a glazed look over the eyes of gatekeepers, i.e. agent and producer types. Or they would straight-out get offended. I got ghosted by a female white executive friend, a white male entertainment lawyer, white agents — not a rejection, but straight-out ghosted.
It was okay to make fun of Asians, but not the other way around. Like it's okay for whites to express and make art, but not so easily for others.
I'm at least glad that now, with the Black Lives Matter movement, Black people are having their issues rightfully highlighted, and they have brought systemic racism to light.
But Yellow and Brown people are not being noticed. At least not in a nuanced way. Asian Americans are still being referred to in the same breath as "China Virus" and getting abused by haters in America, again. Mexican Americans get similar treatment. Our pains and our voices do not matter. We are invisible. Dismissed.
Hollywood is filled with white imports.
People from places like Canada, New York, Chicago, Ohio, Philadelphia, people who help each other get ahead. But it seems many of the non-white people who are born and raised in L.A., we get to be the hands, you know, the below-the-line, as we call it in the industry. People who don't make choices, pawns.
Many Hollywood gatekeepers are college-educated, Ivy-League, corporate, cultured, and from privileged backgrounds. The people of color they advance will most likely also be from a privileged background, people they are comfortable with.
So many of the stories you keep hearing tend to come from people who have never had to worry about paying bills they can't afford, or about having family members deported or becoming homeless.
I have only been doing this for over 20 years and I know this reality: There is a bamboo ceiling that all Asian creatives will hit, and it's pretty low if you truly want to tell authentic stories.
Hollywood is racist, just in white liberal clothes.
Standing on my own, that I am used to.
Being the odd one out, been there, done that.
I will keep going until I get too old and tired.
I do know that sacrificing who I am and kowtowing to "what ifs" have only made me put my true happiness and life on hold.
Judy Jean Kwon as a girl in Korea standing among the cherry blossoms in her backyard. (Courtesy Judy Jean Kwon)
I've never been happy or at peace living in America.
I considered leaving many times when I was younger, going back to Korea with my grandma. But because my grandma was undocumented, if we left, I could never return with her to the place where I was born. Also, how was I to go back to Korea and take care of both of us in a foreign place? Korea was foreign to me now.
Happy or not, accepted or not, I became an American. I didn't ask to come here, and America has been one giant disappointment for me, but this is the only country I have now.
That is the curse of an immigrant. I can't go back to Korea. I am what I call an in-betweener, another hyphen.
But now, I think, I've found my home, in Hawaii.
The one place in America I've experienced where white thinking and white culture is not the standard that we must measure up to.
The one place where being Asian American is a plus. Woohoo. Finally!
One place that's still fighting to keep its non-white culture alive.
One place where you are treated with dignity and respect, not for the amount of money you have, and not for what you can do for someone else's advancement of their status in life.
One place where people genuinely care about others, and not for self-serving reasons. The place of rainbows and aloha.
As I paddleboard on the Hanalei River, heading back upstream, I can't help thinking about the pains and many losses my grandma and my dad had to endure in L.A. because we fell into an unfriendly system, and we had no one.
No one who cared enough to ask how we really were.
Judy Jean Kwon pictured in Hanalei in Kauai, Hawaii. (Courtesy Judy Jean Kwon)
I found out that "How are you?" in America is not a real question, just a pretend one.
No one really wants to hear your sh*t. That is America, pretending in shallow waters.
I have regrets. I think about them all the time. Only if...
Only if my grandma had listened to me and we'd stayed in Korea.
Only if my mother had never left us.
Only if my dad hadn't been an a**hole. Only if I'd had a choice.
I think sometimes that I am paying for the sins of my forebears. After all, if we ruled Korea for centuries, then someone, somewhere in my family probably abused their power.
So I am burning off their karma. I was the chosen one. LOL.
I certainly hope I have burnt it all off.
The river is quiet and no one is around.
As I nervously paddleboard, a sea turtle swims up next to me and I think, is this my dad, coming to say hello?
Reassuring me that I won't fall off and drown like he did, alone.
The turtle swims next to me for a long time, until a boat comes along and I lose track of it in the wake.
I brush the hair out of my eyes and keep going.
I wear my hair short now, by the way. I prefer it like this. I don't need the weight of my past following behind me everywhere I go. That weight I carry in my heart.
I continue on, paddling upstream.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Judy Jean Kwon is an actor, director and producer. She grew up in a Korean American video store, where she fell in love with the art of filmmaking and storytelling. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she split her time between Korea and America as a child. Not feeling like she belonged anywhere, she turned to music and the arts. She started acting at 17 and went on to a successful commercial career, breaking the mold for Asian American actors by taking on non-stereotypical roles. Kwon has appeared in numerous films and television series and acted in more than 100 commercials. She co-directed, wrote, produced and stars in the scripted comedy series "MILFriend," about the clashes of culture, color and class among moms in gentrifying Venice Beach, which launched this week on YouTube and Facebook.
Kwon studied cinema at Los Angeles City College, photography at Santa Monica College, and writing at UCLA. She is passionate about giving voice to the voiceless and the underdogs, about women's rights and about telling immigrants' stories.