I wonder if this might be a clue to life in San Diego. Does how one is perceived have something to do with who one is? Or was the verb simply the vocabulary of a hip, visible, media-conscious couple? But then I had to ask myself if they were typical of Korean-Americans and, in turn, typical of the Korean-American community in San Diego.
Now some of the main dishes start to arrive. Lee Ann eats bee-bim-bop, a rice-and-vegetable concoction mixed up with an egg and hot sauce in a big round bowl. Louis orders a mae-in-tang, a spicy reddish soup. I opt for duk mandookuk, a dumpling soup with rice cakes.
We eat and Lee Ann drinks a beer. But white noise (silence) is not something that media types — myself included — take to well. I ask about how they met. Both were born in Korea and met there many years later when visiting as students. While Lee Ann hails from Chicago, Louis grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. Lee Ann transferred to the University of Maryland. Louis studied psychology and premed at American University nearby. Lee Ann wanted to be an actress, but she found that there weren’t many roles for Asian actors, certainly nothing specifically Korean. She played a Chinese reporter in a play and everyone told her how much she looked like Connie Chung.
“I don’t,” she reminds me again. “But it dawned on me that because there are so few female Asian role models that I would forever be typecast in theater. So I decided to concentrate my communication skills on journalism.”
Louis and Lee Ann did not date right away. When they knew that the relationship was for real, though, the idea of marriage came up. Both knew it would be a traditional wedding, but just how traditional neither had any idea.
Louis had his feet beaten — a very old custom — by men at the wedding.
“My father loved it,” Lee Ann admits.
When they honeymooned in Korea, relatives there thought it crazy that they practiced these old customs that no one in Korea did anymore.
“My parents,” Lee Ann said, “have become more Korean the longer they’ve lived in Chicago.”
Their more traditional values have forced their oldest daughter to be aware of everything she does in the fishbowl of the media. It could be summed up, she said, by her mother’s advice to her very visible daughter.
“Remember, whatever you do, my face is on your face.”
My dinner with Lee Ann Kim and her husband Louis Song got me to thinking not about face as her mother used the term — literally the face that God gave you — but about that more conceptual notion of appearance. Lee Ann had told me that she experienced little difficulty going from college to an anchor job in Alabama at the age of 24 to her job as a reporter and anchor in San Diego. But it seemed impossible that a 29-year-old minority woman had experienced no difficulty anywhere along the way. I wondered if the story about the Korean community was the one that would not be told.
Before I came to San Diego, several people told me to contact Dr. Byong-Mok Kim, a 72-year-old pulmonary specialist who was in semiretirement from Scripps Clinic. I was told that Dr. Kim had come to San Diego nearly 30 years ago and that he knew everyone. I called Dr. Kim at his home in La Jolla half expecting him not to be home. Someone had told me he might be in Seoul attending his son Byron’s gallery opening.
His son Byron lived in Brooklyn and had shown his art at the Whitney Museum in New York, and I could understand why his father might want to attend a major showing of his son’s work in Korea. But Dr. Kim was at home, and almost immediately he showered me with information. I sensed almost a hunger on his part to feed me with facts about the community of which he was a prominent senior member. Little did I know that Dr. Kim would become my Virgil through San Diego’s Korean community. By the end of my stay I would learn that nearly every Korean in San Diego was within one or, at most, two degrees of separation from Dr. Byong-Mok Kim. He might be a pulmonary specialist, but Dr. Kim was really an old-time shmoozer.
We agreed to hook up the next day at a Jack in the Box at Convoy and Balboa in what I imagined to be ground zero of San Diego’s Koreatown.
I meet Dr. Kim at the fast-food restaurant in Clairemont, not knowing who I am going to see or what to expect. Korean elders can be hierarchical and aloof. Older Koreans often are far more anticommunist than democratic. They can be conservative and unbending. Almost instantly, though, upon walking into the Jack in the Box and shaking his hand, I am intrigued by Dr. Kim. He is not like any Korean elders I’ve known.
Dr. Kim wears a sport coat and a tie, but his shirt is wrinkled, and the tie has seen better days. Still, the overall effect is of style, even great order.
After the handshake and introductions, we get down to business. I ask him how he wound up in San Diego. Right away I learn, though, that Dr. Kim does not speak in sound bites.
“I came to America in 1948,” he says. “In Korea, I was working as an interpreter for an American advisor, the equivalent of Secretary of Education. But if you read history, you’d know that in 1948 there was an election in Korea, under the auspices of the U.N., and Syngman Rhee subsequently was elected president through the National Assembly. North Korea boycotted the elections. That’s the juncture where I left Korea and came to the United States.”
He tells me about being a junior medical student and how the military government merged several universities into Seoul National. Korea had just ended a 35-year brutal colonialism under the Japanese. Strikes broke out everywhere. Because of the educational cutbacks, students protested. University students protesting, it should be said, is the national sport of Korea, albeit a serious and deadly one, often with grave consequences for all concerned. Byong-Mok Kim got caught up in the protests.