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Endless Waves

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 BY GUEST CONTRIBUTOR IN NEWS ON OCTOBER 2, 2020 6:00 AM

Judy Jean Kwon in Korea with her grandmother and younger sister, date and location unknown. (Courtesy Judy Jean Kwon)Over the next year, we're hoping to hear your stories about how race and ethnicity shape your life and, hopefully, publish as many of these stories as we can, so that we can all keep on talking. We're calling this effort Race in LA. Click here for more information and details on how to participate.

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.