Pictured: My Korean-born father and my now-9-year-old son.
A Korean Sandwich
How the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang pulls at one Korean-American daughter and mom
I’m sitting on a plane headed for San Diego, where I’ll drive straight to the beach for a run and a jump in the ocean before heading north to Encinitas. There, I’ll walk through the locked doors of the memory care facility where both my parents live. On this trip, I’m pulled by the Olympics being televised from PyeongChang, South Korea, and the thought of watching the Closing Ceremonies with my South Korean-born dad.
My dad, Larry, has been in a wheelchair for about 18 months, in hospice care for eight months, and unable to verbalize more than a sentence for at least a year. He gets tears in his eyes when he sees me and especially when I say goodbye, often trying to say something, to tell me something, with nothing but a two-syllable word that sounds like, “oy-ya” coming out of his mouth, over and over.
I am part of the sandwich generation. My two young, quarter-Korean sons at home with my husband Mark this weekend, and all others, when I travel from Boulder, Colorado to visit my ailing parents in San Diego. My older son, Sam, had a fever last night and a headache this morning. He’s nine years old and often says things to me like, “It’s important for you to go visit Grandma and Grandpa, because…” then he has a hard time explaining that they won’t be alive forever, mostly because he’s sensitive to my feelings. He’s not all that close to them because he’s always lived in Colorado, with once or twice yearly visits to see them.
I loved watching the Olympics Opening Ceremonies with Sam, Mark and my six-year-old son Ben almost two weeks ago on our TV in Boulder. We all cozied up on the couches together, watching the Ceremonies unfold with their pastoral images (“Is that why I’m a gardener?” I thought), a 77-year-old Korean man singing a traditional song of the country, and a light show of two doves symbolizing North and South Korean morphing into one while four Korean singers performed the Beatles “Imagine,” a song that makes me cry no matter the circumstances. In this instance, the tears streamed down my face as I achingly hoped my dad’s caregiver—or my mom, ill with Parkinson’s disease and increasingly forgetful—had the TV on the right channel and my dad was able to watch this.
Earlier that evening, I called them. My mom answered and I reminded her of the Ceremonies. She thanked me and said she’d turn it on, and I rushed out the door to jump in the car with the boys. We spent the evening at their elementary school carnival before watching the show on delay.
In the days that followed, I tried calling and asking my mom if my dad liked the Ceremonies, and I realized I was oddly fixated on knowing the answer. Trapped in his wheelchair, behind locked doors, and in his failing body and mind, he has few joys. I felt like watching his host country, which he left during the Korean War when he was a boy, seemed like something he would enjoy.
Growing up in North County, San Diego, I didn’t know a lot about my Korean heritage. I knew how to count to 10 in Korean, and say phrases like, “Dad, It’s time for dinner!”
My dog was named Kimba after a white lion in a Korean cartoon. I was very familiar with the smell of kimchee, which my dad had on the side of almost every dinner my mom cooked, including spaghetti night. I know how to eat with chopsticks.
I knew my dad and his family fled the War when my dad was “8, 9, 10, 11 or 12;” his age varied every time he told the story. My grandmother was a businesswoman in Seoul. She owned a hotel, while my grandfather was a Methodist missionary with ties to the United States. My dad, his two older brothers and younger sister lived well in Seoul.
One day at school, the nurse came into my dad’s classroom and said something like, “You have to go home because someone is sick.” My dad and his siblings returned to their house to find their parents packing up a few bags. They family loaded into their car, leaving the dog behind, and drove south. The next day, the North Korean invasion crossed over the Hanh River into their neighborhood.
A month-long journey to Pusan Harbor, South Korea ended when my dad and his family boarded a U.S. ship headed for Seattle. My young dad watched the coastline fade as they traveled across the Pacific Ocean. He didn’t know if he’d ever seen his home country again.
Decades of rebuilding his life, including working for pennies in Los Angeles, putting himself through college at the University of Kentucky (where he lived in a fraternity house that made him dress up as a “China Man” to serve food at parties; he lived there because it was cheap), and going to flight school at Cape Canaveral on the weekends worked out. Larry Jhung eventually became an American Airlines commercial pilot, met my mom who was an Irish-Catholic flight attendant from Boston, and moved from Chicago to sunny San Diego where they built a Spanish-style home with a pool to raise me and my sister.
My dad was forced to retire at age 60, after 35 years of flying, as one of the senior-most pilots in the company. He flew the prestigious route from Dallas to Tokyo in the final years of his career, and loved wearing his American Airlines uniform in Asia.
That was over two decades ago, when he retired. His mental health has gone through major struggles since then, including the ailment that has put 81-year-old, Korean-born Larry Jhung in his current state.
He has passed down a lot of things to me: I’m certain his survivor instincts directly influenced my passion for outdoor adventure and racing; His love of sports and competition (GOD, I love sports), as he was my soccer coach, and sat on the sidelines during all my years of volleyball, track, etc.; His competitive nature, likely stemming from his having escaped a war-torn country, which transcends sports into everyday life; His sentimentality. No one, besides me, perhaps, is as sentimental as Larry Jhung.
And so I’m flying out. To sit next to my dad’s wheelchair and hold his hand while the Closing Ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics airs from his homeland in South Korea. (My sister says she replayed the traditional song, “Arirang” from the Opening Ceremonies for him from her computer, and he sang along.) I hope, desperately, that he finds joy in whatever scenes appear on the TV: dramatic Korean landscapes, traditional songs, even just the South Korean flag. And I hope my boys at home watch it and feel something, too.