Category Archives: childhood

Mom’s Birthday 2013

Yesterday was my mom’s birthday. It was a good day *mostly. I dressed myself in this shirt my mother bought me last time she went to Korea. (She picked it for me because, “[I know you like dogs.]”)

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My mom’s house is weirdly colored.

My brother and his wife prepared a dinner of mi-yok-guk (seaweed soup traditionally eaten on birthdays) and Chinese takeout. We had to get takeout because after my mom got out of work, we had only a small window of time to catch a 6:50 screening of a Korean movie at the nearby Bay Terrace theater, called The Face Reader.

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This film blends a fictional story of an old-timey physiognomist with the real-life story of a royal coup. It’s really entertaining throughout, and, like most Korean movies, has a very emotional ending.

I think this was the first movie my mom saw in a theater. She enjoyed herself. My sister-in-law said she heard my mom call out a few times during the movie (“Oh my god!” “He killed that guy!” etc.) but I didn’t hear this. Perhaps she mistook this for her own mother, who is kind of a good friend match because she’s as chatty as my mom is fairly reticent.

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Girlfrandz kickin’ it couch-style.

*The one dark cloud in the day took place when we were killing time before the movie in the surrounding Bay Terrace shopping center. This was kind of my stomping grounds in my teenage years; I went to high school nearby, and it was the closest thing thing I had to a local mall. It was insane to see how much had changed; they have a Five Guys now! Despite all this progress, we did pass an old man who looked at my mother and her friend, and spat out, “Fuckin’ chinkies!”

I wanted SO BADLY to yell, “You go to hell and you die!” and maybe follow up with some remark about how he wouldn’t be missed because he’s old and obviously uncared for if he’s left to just wander around shopping centers spitting obscenities. Instead I just glared. I guess it’s best that I yelled nothing back, not because the man was obviously unwell (though I rarely care about that; I think this brand of crazy should get what they give – verbally) but because doing so would have drawn attention to this short but ugly episode. My mother and her friend continued walking happily along. So as long as my mom had a good time on her birthday, we’re cool.

After the movie we returned to my mom’s house and ate this apple pie I had made.


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My mom likes pigs.

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Party Well Buffet Lunchbox House Garden

My birthday was this past weekend. To celebrate, my mother offered to take me out to dinner at… our family’s restaurant. Some history is in order. (WARNING: This is long.)

My mom works/I was raised in a Korean food catering place called Mae Il Jahnchee Jeep. I don’t really know what Mae Il stands for, but “jahnchee” seems to be a relatively new word to the Korean lexicon, meaning “lunchbox” — not the collectible Mork & Mindy kind, but more like the bento kind. “Jeep” translates to house, which you’ll find in the names of many Korean restaurants that offer traditional home cooking. (Sometimes my mom and her associates drop the “jeep” when referring to the store.) On a final confusing note, according to some English signage, the place is also called Party Well Buffet.

My father’s side of the family seems to be a lot wealthier than my mom’s side. With the financial backing of my better-off uncle, my parents opened a Korean joint called Mae Il Jahnchee in the early ’80s. This was actually the first business of its kind to appear in the states (or at least in New York City), which begs the question of whether or not my family coined the term “jahnchee.” Perhaps “jahnchee” had already existed as the Korean word for lunchbox, but I’ve heard that my parents were the first to use it to refer to a restaurant. (Take that, DJ Conner!)

The first incarnation of Mae Il Jahnchee was a no-frills catering operation in Flushing, Queens. It was a one-story building with a picture window that gave passersby a glimpse into a chaotic kitchen. There was some sort of rudimentary counter behind which my mom and dad took orders, but for most of the day all hands were on deck in the back, and no one really manned the front of the house.

In the late ’80s, my uncle decided to invest in expanding Mae Il Jahnchee. He purchased a large building that was catty-corner from the business and set about renovating it into a catering hall. No one in my family seems to know what this building was used for before my uncle bought it. I’d imagine it was for some kind of entertainment. I remember seeing red vinyl columns but that’s about it.

The renovation took several years. My family moved into a house right next to the new store. My sister and I played in the construction rubble.

My mom and dad dealt with a lot of stress for this long stretch of time: signing a lease on a house; raising two dirty, accident-prone little girls and one teenage boy who had taken to good old American rebelliousness a little too much; overseeing the construction of a new business while still operating the old one. And during all of this my father’s health was declining.

I remember one late-night argument my parents had during this time. My family must have just recently moved into our house, because we were all sleeping together on the living room floor in a mess of blankets. I pretended to sleep as my mom and dad raged over their kids’ prone bodies.

My father passed away in 1990. He never saw the finished, new Mae Il Jahnchee Jeep.

The grand opening was a huge event; pretty much the entire Korean community in Queens was there. Mae Il Jahnchee continued to be the happenin’ spot for weddings, babies’ one-hundredth day celebrations, decade birthdays, and other significant events in the lives of local Korean Americans.

In addition to the main hall on the ground floor, there were two ancillary party spaces that I’m sure were more affordable. One was in the basement, past the bathrooms and sharing a wall with the kitchen. The room itself had low ceilings, terrible lighting and a tacky linoleum floor.

The other party space was on the second/top floor, and though it was airy and spacious, it was also obviously just part of a cleared-out apartment. The room was flanked on either side by bedrooms that came to be occupied by my brother, my cousin (rich uncle’s son), and my grandmother, as well as a couple of bathrooms, complete with bathtubs and toiletries that shouted, “Someone lives here!”

Strangely enough, business moved so briskly that it was a common occurence for each party room to be booked on weekend nights. When karaoke mania hit the US in the mid-early ’90s, I usually fell asleep to the cacophony of not one, not two, but three drunken revelers belting out K-pop ballads.

Meanwhile, Mae Il Jahnchee still did out-of-house catering. My brother and the aforementioned cousin (who deserves his very own essay) earned their keep as delivery boys, driving aluminum trays of food out to Korean businesses, churches and households all over the tri-state area.

Though the store had assumed a more presentable reception area, there wasn’t a lot of walk-in business. Most transactions were conducted over the phone, and the drivers received cash on delivery. The kitchen produced a handful of small styrofoam trays of snacks – jahnchees! – everyday, and what didn’t get sold was usually forced onto me and my sister.

Over the years, as more Korean establishments popped up in the area, Mae Il Jahnchee didn’t change much about its business model. There are still no computers; all numbers are crunched on laypersons’ calculators and documented by hand in composition books. Though I’m sure they’ve started taking credit cards, I don’t recall ever seeing any sort of card reading device.

Thus, business slowed down at Mae Il Jahnchee. As the glamour of the party halls deteriorated, they booked fewer and fewer in-house events. The bedrooms upstairs emptied out as my brother quit his delivery job and moved into another apartment, my grandmother passed away, and my cousin took on a new house and some sort of managerial role at his dad’s newer, grander party hall in Astoria. (That is, until his drug use landed him in a rehab program in Hawaii, where he seems to have been for the past decade or so. Hm, maybe he doesn’t need his own essay after all.)

The basement party room now houses teetering piles of dry goods – napkins, Sterno cups, to-go containers – and, in recent years, the occasional cat. Every now and then the staff will welcome a new cat into the kitchen for mousing purposes. They always name it Nabi, which is Korean for butterfly.

And then – this past Christmas – my brother mentioned that there is now a restaurant on the main floor. Somehow I’d missed this development in preceding months, during which I guess I managed to entirely avoid this area. Anyway, this is when my already weak grasp of the family business reached new, hypoglycemic levels of weakness. My mother sort of just shrugged off our questions, apparently not understanding why this was such a big effing deal.

“Is it ours?” “Did rich-uncle finance this?” “Does the downstairs kitchen make the food?” “Will there be a grand opening?” “If there is a grand opening, can we come?”

Over the course of last night’s very tasty dinner I learned two things from my mother. First, they did not – and will not – have a grand opening. Second, this place is called Mae Il Garden.

I also observed some things which may mean different things about this restaurant and my family’s relationship to it. There is a small, separate kitchen from the dining hall, which I guess means the restaurant’s food prep is under some other jurisdiction. (Although my mom said the kimchi we ate was ours.) We were given a check, which means the place is not ours, though the check had a significant “working staff” discount applied to it. Serving as hostess was a cousin of mine – one of my father’s sister’s daughters – indicating that my father’s sister has some money in this venture (and/or which may also explain the “working staff” hookup).

After the barbequed fatty pork and assorted VIP freebies including shrimp tempura and sizzling stir-fried mushrooms, we were unable to eat a lot of other items on our table. Worried that it would get wasted, my mother picked up a bowl of spicy seafood stew (one of the bahnchan, or non-VIP freebies one typically gets in a Korean restaurant) and carried it into the staff’s plating area, asking them to put it somewhere safe so she could eat it at work the next day. Though they were nice about it, I could tell that her actions were somewhat out of bounds.

All told, I am still pretty confused by this place. I eagerly await someone’s Yelp review to help fill me in.

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March 5, 2013 · 3:25 am

100 Days EDITED

Korean parents traditionally hold a celebration when their baby turns 100 days 1 year old. I believe this goes back to the days when health care was spotty, especially in rural areas. The idea was that if your baby had survived this long, it was probably in it to win it, so it was officially party time.

What they do is lay out a spread of foods that were probably fantastic to ye olde Koreans but aren’t super sexy these days: piles of apples, pears, dates, rice cakey things, etc. Alongside the food is a collection of symbolic items. Each item represents something about the baby’s future; whatever the 100-day 1 year old child plays with or touches first is supposed to be a prophecy.

  • A pen and paper (which, I’d imagine, was more like a scroll and brush back in the day) – The child will grow to be learned and wise.
  • A bowl of rice – The child will be well-nourished, healthy… fertile, even?
  • Some string – The child will live a long life.
  • Money – Cha-ching! Hold onto that one, fer reals.

Here are some photos from my 100 day 1 year celebration.

I asked my mom what symbolic item I touched. She wasn’t sure, but she thinks that both my sister and I went for the pen and paper. Cool, right? I asked what my brother touched, and she said they didn’t get around to throwing a party for him. Sad. She then laughed, “[He probably would have wanted cigarettes.]”

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UPDATE: On Christmas day Alice informed me that I had it wrong; the baby goes through this rite of passage at a year old. Honestly, I did find myself marvelling about how huge I looked at 100 days. I just didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to draw attention to what a fatty I am.

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Thanksgiving with Mom

My sister was involved with a speech team in junior high school, and I remember her telling me this story from one pre-Thanksgiving session. A bunch of participants were passing the time talking about their plans for the upcoming holiday: where they’d go, who they’d see, what they’d eat, and so on. Someone asked my sister about her plans. Being from a family of caterers, she replied that we don’t really do anything for Thanksgiving. Said person then went, “Oh I’m sorry. What do Koreans celebrate?”

At the time we were all like LOL RACIST. But later I learned that it wasn’t just us: many many Koreans don’t know a turkey dinner from a hole in they ass. This is why my mom’s business blows up on Thanksgiving.

Koreans don’t do turkey. (It took several Googles to find a reference to a Korean turkey dish, and even that is considered an “oddity.”) And so these Korean-Americans pick up their Korean phones and order a Thanksgiving spread from the same Korean place that caters their other Korean events: my mom’s store. But they forget that my mom’s store is also Korean, which means that their turkey dinner is prepared by people who are equally perplexed by this culinary tradition. And unfortunately, this means that it comes out awful.

To explain: Once a year, my mom’s store sells four things they never sell for the rest of the year: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce. And once a year, my mom’s store purchases four ingredients that they never use for the rest of the year: turkeys, mashed potato mix, gravy mix, and cranberry sauce in a can. This is what they sell to fellow Koreans. I’ve been informed that this year they sold 86 of these atrocities. Koreans apparently don’t know the difference, or don’t care enough to say, “Hey that wasn’t so great, can we go another route next year?”

This sounds harsh. But anyone who’s spent a good amount of time in an typical asian person’s kitchen – or at least, read food blogs by asians – is probably familiar with the all-too-accurate stereotype of how oven-averse they are. Take a look inside a very traditional Korean person’s oven and you’ll probably see something like this:

So it shouldn’t be surprising that my mom also doesn’t brine her turkeys or slip little pats of seasoned butter under the skin or anything like that. And her store doesn’t even acknowledge stuffing, which is the best Thanksgiving food anyway THAT’S RIGHT I SAID IT.

So in light of a long day of slinging sub-par turkey dinners, I like to visit her and do it up right. Since it’s only the two of us (my sister usually spends T-day with her roommate’s family in DC, and my brother does stuff in New Jersey with his wife and their friends) it’s pretty scaled down. This year I made sausage stuffing, green bean casserole, and sweet potatoes (click the link for a bomb-ass recipe). I also warmed up a small turkey ham because ham is my holiday meat of choice and the turkey part made it seem more seasonally appropriate.

Over dinner I asked my mother if she’d ever eaten turkey at all in Korea. She confirmed that they’re not really a thing there. I said, “Not like chicken, huh?” And she said yes, not like chicken, but that also they didn’t have a lot of meat growing up. She really liked it, but it was hard to come by and expensive. Even fish? Even fish, simply because her village wasn’t near any body of water. Remembering how much shit she gave me when I went through this phase in high school, I pointed out that she was kind of a vegetarian, too. Heh.

I decided right then to add to the list of things-that-I’m-thankful-for the fact that my mom can have meat at every meal if she wants to. Yes, part of that is due to industrial farming which is awful and ruining our environment. But I bet my mom thinks she’s kind of a baller now, and do you really want to take that away from her?

Happy Thanksgiving, folks! I’m thankful for everyone who’s given this little navel-gazing blog a chance.

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Father’s Day

This is a tribute to my father, who I’m sad to say I didn’t know very well because he passed away when I was six years old. He had cancer in his stomach that went untreated for too long because he worked almost nonstop. But I want to talk about his life.

His name is Kil Sung Ahn and he was born in 1942. He grew up in a very small, rural village; a cousin of mine liked to mention that it was literally a one-horse town. My father’s father was a political dissident during the Japanese occupation of Korea. He was taken away from his family when his children were pretty young. Women didn’t really work or get educated in her village at the time, so my humiliated grandmother had to scrape and beg to support her family. Her husband was never heard from again.

Though it’s likely that my parents’ marriage was arranged, they look reasonably content in early photos together. (As a rule, Korean adults don’t look happy in old-timey pictures. They broke this habit long after the Western world did. Peace signs abounded.)


I once sat down and tried to list every memory I had of my father, and I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t quite hit ten. From the few pictures I’ve seen of us together as a family, though, it’s clear that he really liked being a father.


I’ve never really celebrated Father’s Day in any meaningful way before, so apologies for this somewhat bummer of a post. But I want to end on my favorite picture of my dad.


This was taken at the wedding of some cousins of mine – his side. I love the expression on my dad’s face; he’s clearly telling a funny story but he also seems to be holding back, letting the funniness creep into the narrative a little at a time and relishing it. But the best part is that my uncle, the groom in the foreground, is laughing his ass off. And his bride next to him doesn’t look quite as pleased; perhaps the fun is at her expense? I just love that my dad would tell a story like that at a wedding.

Happy Father’s Day, y’all!

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Three in One Holiday

My hipster mom holding my big sister Alice.

Today is a special Mother’s Day because it happens to fall on the same day as what my mom refers to as Korean Mother’s Day. (Actually, it’s considered Parents Day in South Korea, but why not let her reappropriate it all for herself?) Being that this blog is almost entirely a big fat love letter to my mom, perhaps it goes without saying – HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY! If your mom is anywhere as awesome as mine, you better not fuck today up. Please make her happy.

Today is also the 37th (I only know my siblings’ ages in relation to my own, and I’m not even good at keeping track of that) 38th birthday of my brother Young. He was born in South Korea and moved to the US with my folks when he was 5 or 6 years old. The family originally settled in some ghetto in New Jersey, where Young was picked on for being a tiny little asian boy. Even though he’s 11 years older than me, I feel my face getting hot with rage whenever I think of my brother dealing with injustices like that.

My brother settled more into a typical Asian-American lifestyle when the family moved to Flushing. He made close friends – some Korean, many not – and briefly went by the name of Paul. (Yesterday he explained to me that an elementary school teacher of his asked him to pick a Western name because Youngho was too difficult. As a boy growing up in New York City in the 70s and 80s he loved Bruce Lee, but didn’t feel that he could live up to that name.) His Korean has deteriorated a bit as he’s gotten older, but he still speaks a lot better than I do, and he communicates with his wife mostly in Korean.

Like most Koreans, I don’t call my brother by his first name. I call him Oopba, which means “older brother to me (if I’m a girl).” I will further discuss this naming phenomenon in a future post, because I feel like it will illustrate how hard Korean is, and validate my failure.

Brother with mother. Note the wooden bow in his hand, and the arrows in hers. She's a cool mom.

My brother is a super laid-back, well adjusted man. A real guy’s guy; he can bro down with anyone whether it’s over sports, barbecue, cars, or Dungeons & Dragons. We don’t have terribly much in common, and sometimes I do find myself wishing he made different life decisions (like watching and quoting so much awful tv), but I care about him a whole lot. He’s a sweet, patient, caring big brother and just an all-around decent person. And if you’re anything like my sister and I in the picture below (and I’d like to think that we all are), you’d probably like him, too.

My brother, my sister, and me. Alice remembers this moment and she told me that we were somehow reenacting Snow White.

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Eunhae Kyohae

Happy Easter! I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk a little about the Korean church (kyohae) that my sister and I used to go to when we were little.

Like many people, my family decided to turn to God when they needed a favor. We all started going to Eunhae Kyohae when my father was diagnosed with cancer.

From left to right: my grandmother, my father, my mother, and some random choir member. Grandma looks uncomfortable, probably because she was a Buddhist.

After my father passed away, my mother and brother stopped going to church (perhaps they felt cheated that the hours they logged in with God didn’t save his life) but it was an unspoken agreement that my sister and I would continue to attend on Sundays, as sort of religious embassadors for the Ahn family. Meanwhile, my brother and mom worked at the family catering business on Sundays, oftentimes delivering food to Eunhae on their weekly Korean church rounds.

Sunday mornings worked like this: My sister and I would wake up and dress ourselves in anything that was pretty clean and slightly nicer than what we’d normally wear to school. This meant no jeans, but I could pull off wearing a cotton t-shirt tucked into a satin skirt (or so I thought). Then we’d stop by my mom’s store, collect a dollar* from someone to put in the collection basket, and get a ride to church in a delivery van, which of course mortified me to no end. (*One time I showed up early and some adult handed me a dollar for church. Since I had not  specifically asked for cash for the collection plate yet, I assumed that it was just spending money for my personal use. I raced over to the general store across the street and bought myself a Hello Kitty slap bracelet. Later, in the ride to church I freaked out because I didn’t have anything for the collection plate. My brother took pity on me and gave me a dollar, but not before giving me a bunch of grief. The end.)

My sister and I disliked going to church, but neither of us really admitted it to each other until we stopped going, when I was in junior high school and we were thinking more about college. Also, at that point our youth group started getting heavily into street-evangelizing, which I was not about to do. The main reason we didn’t like it was because everyone was awfully cliquey. The girls in my grade all seemed to know each other intimately and hang out during the week. They were all skinny, had perfectly straight hair, and their parents also attended Eunhae Kyohae and were friends with each other. But I’m sure I wasn’t too welcoming to these people, either. Whenever someone was nice to me I assumed they just felt sorry for me because my father died and I looked poor. My sister and I would sullenly accept rides home from church with these people when no one from the store was available to pick us up.

The other reason church was uncomfortable for us was that we didn’t understand most of it. We sang along to the youth group band when they played a song in English, but the pastor’s sermon was almost exclusively in Korean. (I can remember exactly two times that he threw us English-speakers a bone. Those sermons were fun.) When the congregation stood up to recite the Apostle’s Creed and The Lord’s Prayer, we were encouraged to recite it in any language we wanted, but everyone seemed to choose Korean. I can’t speak for my sister, but I never memorized these verses so I would just move my lips along with the group and try to look appropriately enraptured.

We did make a couple of friends during our time at Eunhae Kyohae. The Rhee family had a girl about my sister’s age (two years older than me), a set of twin girls who were my age, and a youngest sister. They got along with the rest of the church folk, but my sister and I still related to them because they were also poor dressers, spoke perfect English, and they had working-class parents who didn’t always go to church with them on Sundays. These girls lived two blocks away from us, so when we got a little older we would sometimes walk home from church together in a big, all-Korean-girl group.

The twins – named Helen and Christina – were born sometime around Easter. I remember this only because I was at their birthday party one time and their father presented them with storebought Easter baskets and I got SO jealous. So happy birthday to Helen and Christina, and warm thoughts go out to the entire Rhee family. Thanks for making church a little more worthwhile for me. Happy Easter, everybody!

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