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“Liam! Come look at all the sea creatures!” my brother exclaimed. He was perched precariously on a mossy green rock, hunched over a tide pool crawling with hermit crabs. I felt my nephew, Liam, shift gingerly beneath my hands, as I held his shoulders. Jaesun was about 4 yards from us and Liam’s sweet voice danced its way up to my ears: “Gomoh? Can we go to Obba?” his still pudgy index finger swinging out like a tiny vector towards his father.
I looked down at the floor of uneven stones, the carpet of slick green moss that peeked out from beneath our sneakers. Next time, galoshes, I thought to myself for the 107th time in the past 5 minutes. “Yes, but Gomoh needs to figure out the best way,” I said, hoping my sing-song delivery masked the panic gurgling up my throat. While Liam’s parents frolicked confidently between tide pools, marveling at “sea creatures,” all I could think about was making sure my 4-year old nephew didn’t slip and fall and crack his skull on one of those slippery green rocks.
But Liam wasn’t having it. He pried himself out from my Kung-fu grip, crouched down to gain his balance, and expertly stepped his way from pool to pool until he was bent over and oohing and aahing with his father. Soon, Young Jung, my sister-in-law, joined them, and a trio of long shadows stretched protectively over a family of happy hermit crabs.
Later that evening, at home, Liam toddled over to me as I scrolled through my phone. “Let’s do funny faces!” “Funny faces” is Liam’s code for TikTok filters, a relatively recent discovery of his. I smiled welcomingly, began to pull him up on the couch with me, when Jaesun said, “Can you ask nicely please?” It was a request, not a command, like he was attempting to model the behavior he was encouraging, but Liam ignored him as he leaned back into the couch cushion. Jaesun repeated, “Can you ask nicely, please?” with only the bare hint of steel entering his voice. “Oh, it’s ok,” I offered, as I positioned the phone out in front of us, swiping over to TikTok. But, Jaesun rode right over me: “Liam. Can you ask nicely, please?”
“Gomoh? Can we please do funny faces?” his perfect face turning up to peer at me.
“Of COURSE,” I crowed, as if he’d just offered me the chance to join him on an all expense paid cruise round the islands of Hawaii.
Two days later, a hole tore open in my chest as Liam wrapped his small arms around my waist and chirped, “Bye Gomoh! I’ll see you in Chicago!” He pumped both his arms and legs to my brother’s rental car, the new backpack he’d been gifted jostling loosely against his rear. “Bye!” I said, sweeping my arm in a broad arc above my head. “Bye!” I said again, as Jaesun climbed into the driver’s seat and shut the door. And one more time, for good measure, “Bye!” doing my best to press back the grapefruit in my throat.
My parents stood about 30 feet in front of me, Omma waving at the car, my father standing silently with his hands tucked inside his pockets. And just like that, they were gone. It struck me that this was the scene I’d played out in my head many years ago, in 2015, when Jaesun and Young Jung moved out of my apartment. I’d just made partner and Jaesun was preparing to begin grad school. As Jaesun and his bride packed what little they had into boxes destined for Champaign, Illinois, a crystal ball came into focus, and in it, I could see that Jaesun would one day create a miniature version of himself while living far far away, and in that not-too-distant future, I would have to figure out how not to sob every time his car drove off, as I spread all five fingers of my hand into the air and waved goodbye.
Jaesun, the Tiger.
Just before her 30th birthday, Omma had a strange dream. She was out in the yard in front of a home she didn’t recognize, somewhere in the province Gyeonggi-do–where her parents lived when she was in nursing school. She was squatting over the ground, sunlight oozing down the nape of her neck like a thick braid of honey as she dug her bare hands into the black soil. She didn’t know what she was digging for, only that the dirt was somehow still cool despite how hot a day it was. Before long, though, her fingers felt something cold and slippery. Gripping it with both hands, she heaved back with all her weight. She fell on her rear and looked down at what she held.
An enormous silver pike.
Amid her shock, she cradled the live fish to her ribs, wondering how it survived being buried. Wriggling and kicking fiercely, its sterling body shimmered like running water in her arms.
A few weeks later, Omma found out she was pregnant with me.
Almost three years later, she had another strange dream. She was back in Seoul. Instead of digging through the soil, she was pulling on the thick leaves of an arrowroot. The starchy bittersweet flesh was one of her favorite snacks. But as she pulled, the ground crumbled and a vast, dark cavern opened up beneath her like the mouth of a giant whale. Peering in, she wondered at how a space so black and empty could hold an arrowroot. Her eyes, adjusting to the dimness, all of a sudden, spied the curling striped tail of a tiger. It then dawned on her that she’d stumbled onto a tiger’s den.
She started to run as fast as she could towards home. But the tiger lurched towards her and followed at her heels. Omma wasn’t fast enough and eventually, the tiger leapt onto her back. But instead of tearing her flesh, he cried,
“Omma, Omma, Omma!”
Omma carried the tiger on her back. All the way home. Right past the threshold of her front door.
She found out days later that she was pregnant with my brother, Jaesun.
Jaesun came into this world with about as much fanfare as is typical in a Korean household. His name is the marriage of my father’s name, “Jae,” and my mother’s name, “Sun.” Jaesun. He was the firstborn son of the firstborn son. Thus, my grandmother (i.e., my father’s mother) booked a one-way ticket to Chicago and moved in with us. She raised us both for the next ten years, but Jaesun was the undoubted Fuji apple of her eye. I remember talking with our cousin, Joy, many many years later when my grandmother passed away. The first and only thing she said about Hahlmuhnee was,
“She loved Jaesun so much.”
My little brother and I had a pretty “normal” childhood. Growing up, having a “baby brother” meant different things. When he was two and I was five, it meant avoiding him at all costs–he could barely talk and spent most of his time pooping and biting anything that made him mad, including his older sister. When he was four and I was seven, it meant that in lieu of my two imaginary friends (yes, I had two), I had a built-in, real-life guaranteed companion for hide-and-seek, tag, Barbie, and dress-up. When he was seven and I was ten, it meant that I had to peel him off like an old bandaid; it was way uncool to have a baby brother tagging along while I hung out at the park, went bike riding with friends, or played spin-the-bottle with the popular kids at school. And when he was 13 and I was 16, it meant that we would basically fight all the time, over who had to make the rice or do the dishes, who would man the remote, or whose turn it was to take out the garbage. And when he was in high school and I was in college, it meant chauffeuring him everywhere and one-upping him during our endless games of “Name that Movie.”
Despite my ever-evolving role as big sister, there were a few constants throughout our childhood–things that never really changed no matter how old we were. At two or 22 years old, he was my charge, my ward–that meant sneaking him bottles when my mother wasn’t looking, removing the chewy casing from the sausages my grandmother prepared for lunchtime picnics, making sure that nobody picked on him too much at school, reading to him into the wee hours of the morning when my mother had to work the night shift (I am intimately familiar with the daily rituals of both the Bernstein Bears and one Curious George) and of course, intervening when I felt my parents were being unreasonable with him.
Perhaps it was that pernicious “night shift,” those evenings my mother would leave for work at around 3 p.m. and return after midnight, exhausted and carrying the unwelcome sterile scent of the hospital into our home. My grandmother wasn’t always with us–she’d often take “leaves” to South Korea, her absence itself a wound to Jaesun. One afternoon, after Jaesun and I had been unruly enough to make Omma regret ever having a uterus, she packed up a suitcase, put on her nursing uniform, and walked out the screen door of our Skokie house for work, threatening to never return home again because she was tired of being a mom. I was maybe 7, Jaesun 4. I’m not a parent so I won’t make the mistake of judging my mother’s methods, but, I will say, it left a mark.
For the rest of our lives, there lingered the fear that Mommy would walk out that door during the light of day and disappear into her brown Nissan Sentra, failing to return even when the day grew dark and my eyes would eclipse the Bernstein Bears’ latest misadventures. While my mother toiled away at the hospital, Jaesun would spend hours on the brink of those big fat tears I grew to hate. I felt hands fluttering around my chest, the thick pages of Jaesun’s worn little books pressing up against my neck while I pretended to read out loud (I was only 7!), my cheeks aching at the pretense that of course, everything would be ok, that life was as carefree as a little monkey dangling from the maple tree in our backyard. But inside, I was already planning how I would pack lunches for both Daddy and Jaesun by myself if Mommy never came home.
Who knows how it happened? Maybe it’s just the inevitable inheritance of older-sisterhood, or some cultural genome appurtenant to noonim-ship, but from a very early age, my heart was grafted in front of Jaesun’s, so that whenever and in whatever shape life came at him, it would have to get past me first.
Who is the “Golden Child”?
Jaesun always joked that I was the “golden child” of the family. I did well in school, never drank or did drugs, and graduated at the top of my class in both high school and college. I ended up going to law school and landed a pretty good job. Got married and bought a house with a 60-inch large screen TV, a two car garage, and cable. Jaesun’s path wasn’t as smooth, and there were plenty of required pit stops aimed at improving report cards, repairing broken bones, and eradicating “bad influences.”
My parents were always worried that despite their efforts, Jaesun would eventually veer off the side of the road and head straight towards certain doom–mediocrity. But, as is often the case, things weren’t as they seemed.
In 2013, the door to my quiet suburban house was flung open and my brother was given a front row seat to the utter failure that was my domestic life. Divorce soon followed, and before I knew it, he and his wife were my new roommates. At the age of 34, it was the first time in my entire life that I’d ever lived alone. And although I still tell people that the reason I invited Jaesun and his wife to move in with me was because I was (am) afraid of the dark, the truth was, I knew I’d be excruciatingly lonely and depressed. Who better to turn to than my best friend?
Jaesun claims that my “offer” to come live with me when I moved out “saved” him–he had just permanently moved back to the States, bringing with him a young new wife and only the foggiest blueprint for their future. But, the truth is, they saved me. They taught me how to organize my wardrobe, hang up my photos, throw a party, change the sheets, cook an entire meal for two, stack tupperware, and make friends.
When I finally started dating again, I tried on men like pairs of shoes, discarding the vast majority of them at the store. Those that made it home with me almost never lasted longer than a couple of brief spells around the block. It occurred to me that my biggest problem with men was not a fear of commitment (a popular scapegoat for divorcees), but that I didn’t respect any of them. At some point, I’d learned that men–particularly the men in my life–required protection, above all things. How do you “look up to” the ones you are carrying, when you are too busy making sure their feet never touch the ground?
But, as I watched my brother and his new wife hurdle past their own set of “firsts,” often, I would think to myself that I was somehow shrinking, that I was getting younger and more juvenile as Jaesun was getting bigger and more “adult-y.” Despite the occasional spat, Jaesun and YJ seemed to have the “love thing” well in hand. All of the sudden, questions like, “How can I tell whether he likes me?” and “When do I know he’s my ‘boyfriend’?” and “Why the FUCK won’t he text me back already?” became a refrain in our apartment. I sought out my brother’s advice on a subject I had once considered myself an expert in, and while he schooled me on the finer points of proper texting etiquette and management with the opposite sex, I learned how to let my guard down just enough to fall in love with a man who deserves every last shred of the respect I’d been hoarding since I was charged with reading my baby brother to sleep.
When my brother got the news that he’d been offered a full time position at one of the largest and most prestigious corporations on the planet, it was sort of like a mini-earthquake in the Lee household. Foundations were shifting beneath our feet as my parents scrambled to call every living human related to us and brag about how their only son managed to procure a job a year before he’d even matriculated from grad school, and I finally got to pass the “golden mantel” to my little brother.
I was elated, proud, excited, relieved–every good emotion one would expect. But, as with a lot of good things, it came laced with a bit of not-so-good: he would be moving to Seattle after graduation, where he and YJ would set up house for the indefinite future.
Although I always knew that my brother’s future wasn’t necessarily bolted to Chicago, I had assumed that I would get to watch his life play out from the wings–not from across the country. Mostly, though, I always envisioned myself being in the thick of things when he and YJ had kids. Our aunties–particularly my mom’s youngest sister–were kinda like second mothers to Jaesun and me, and I guess I always thought I’d be close by to fill the same role. Sure, I can do a lot from where I am–Amazon Prime provides an excellent vehicle for nephew/niece spoilage.
But, as I’ve tried to show Jaesun many times, especially during the 17 months right after my divorce, it’s those small, mundane, every day moments–like the first time his son says the F-word, the first time he spits out his kimchi, the first time he comes home to see YJ singing along with Kermit and his son, the first time he agonizes over his son’s report card and wonders “did I do good enough?”, the first time his mini-me cracks open a bright yellow book with a curious chimp on the cover, the first time he picks him up off the floor so that his feet never touch the ground, the first time they count the number of hermit crabs zigzagging across the lip of a shimmering pool… These are the moments that bind pages into stories, fingers into a promise, a t-shirt full of crabapples strung together like Skokie summers, perilla leaves into a fan covering our grandmother’s mouth as she hollers from the screen door to call us in for supper, wringing hands into the votives we whispered to the streetlamp outside our door while waiting for Mommy to come home.
These are the things that have a tendency to slip by and become yesterday’s rubbish, if someone isn’t there to collect them.
These are the things I write down, as I watch my little brother disappear around the corner, one more time.
A Conversation with Jaesun.
If you want to hear more of Jaesun’s incredible story, be sure to check out this week’s podcast. Among other topics, we discuss his sojourn in South Korea: how he left the comforts of one home to more fully explore another, his strategy for building what is now a very successful career at Boeing, and his exciting side hustle as a highly respected YouTuber— launched long before the phrase “content creator” was even a thing.
Easy Peasy End of Summer Recipe.
My parents have been visiting and, the other day, I wanted to treat them to a classic “Korean Vegan” lunch–something I developed while in the car on the way back from the gym, designed to use up a bunch of leftovers in the fridge while also serving as a great recipe to film for my YouTube channel. I call this one my “Potato Corn Salad with Doenjang Mustard Dressing.” I know, such an original title! But sometimes, the straight forward titles are the best, no? My parents LOVED this salad. My mom said, “I could eat this salad every single day” (which would make her vegan!). This one will go into the TKV Meal Planner (along with my corn ribs), of course, but wanted to share it as a bonus for all my newsletter subscribers because I really really really love you guys.
Servings: 4 servings
For the Doenjang Mustard Dressing:
1/2 small shallot, rough chopped 2 cloves garlic 2 tablespoons sweetener of choice (I used maple syrup) 2 tablespoons doenjang (fermented soybean paste) 2 tablespoons yellow mustard 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil pinch of salt ground black pepper 1 to 2 tablespoons water (depending on your preferred consistency)
For the Potato & Corn Salad
2 cups small yellow potatoes, halved 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 2 teaspoons salt ground black pepper 2 cloves garlic, minced 2 tablespoons medium diced onion 1 cup corn 2 stalks celery, medium diced 2 green onions, chopped 1 jalapeno, seeded and small diced 4 cups fresh delicate greens (I used frise, but you can also use baby arugula, spinach, even chicory) 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
- Make the dressing by blending all of the ingredients together. Start with only 1 tablespoon of water, adding more if you prefer a thinner dressing.
- Toss the halved potatoes with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 1 teaspoon of salt, and a couple turns of fresh cracked black pepper. Cook them in the air fryer at 400° F for 15 minutes or bake them in a traditional oven on a baking sheet at 475° F for 17 to 20 minutes.
- While the potatoes are cooking, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to a sauté pan over medium high heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, at about 1 minute, add garlic and onions. Cook until the garlic begins to brown around the edges (about 1 to 2 minutes). Next, add the corn and sauté until the corn begins to brown (around 1 to 2 minutes). Set aside.
- To assemble the salad, in a large bowl, mix together the corn, cooked potatoes, celery, green onions, and jalapeno together with at least 2 tablespoons of dressing (add more if you like it creamier). Season with additional salt and pepper to taste (I didn’t need any more).
- In a separate bowl, dress the greens with no more than 1 tablespoon of dressing (you don’t want these to be overdressed). Add the dressed greens to a large platter. Spoon the corn/potato salad over the top of the greens. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds and any leftover green onions.
Enjoy this very last bite of summer!!
Updates/Random Things (Show Notes)
- Upcoming Live Event: I’ll be doing a LIVE event at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (my alma mater!) on September 23!! Make sure to secure your spots NOW!!!
- What I’m Watching: After finishing up Only Murders in the Building (a second time–for Anthony’s sake!), we started Blackbird on Apple TV. Based on true events, the story circles around a convict’s attempt to extract a confession from a serial killer in exchange for a complete commutation of his sentence. We are on episode 3 and so far, it’s quite gripping. I also must mention, we wrapped up Better Call Saul a couple weeks ago and it is, in my opinion, the best television show ever made. If you haven’t watched it (or you got stuck a season or two ago), I strongly recommend that you muscle through the whole show. The finale is WELL WORTH IT.
- International Editions of The Korean Vegan: I am BEYOND excited to announce that The Korean Vegan Cookbook will be published in several different languages this fall!! You can check them out here!
“Can you buy for me…?” was a phrase heard often around the apartment I shared with my little brother and his wife, Young Jung.
My sister-in-law tossed around this short hand for “love me, please” like handfuls of bright paper cranes, inviting my brother to collect them while dishing out the remonstrations that his salary demanded (he was an ESL teacher while he studied for his GREs), then placing them on the very broad mantel of his memory so that when he got a “real” job and things got better, he could pick them off, one by one, and hand them back to her.
In the evenings, I often liked to plop down on their bed to surf the web and listen to them grapple with newlywed life. Jaesun would be sitting at his desk, watching Naruto or scrolling through Facebook and YJ would be lying in bed with me, similarly scrolling through Facebook.
One evening, Jaesun and I happened upon the same article while scrolling: “6 Toxic Behaviors That Push People Away.” Jaesun read the article out loud to both of us (though YJ, understandably, paid little attention) and we launched into a discussion, immediately, regarding which of these “poisonous” (the word I used to define “toxic” for YJ) attributes the three of us most exhibited. We determined that Jaesun’s propensity to dismantle public property or hurl four-lettered invectives that even I’ve never said out loud labeled him “Excessively reactive.” And even YJ admitted that she had a tendency to believe that everyone hated her, which was the first of the 6 toxic behaviors (“Taking everything personally”).
Meanwhile, my addiction to approval (particularly from my parents) made me a dead ringer for “Needing constant validation.” YJ vehemently disagreed with my self-assessment, though, reminding us that I eschewed all my designer handbags for my free Foley bag–an old, ugly, backpack that the firm gave me several years ago. Someone as obsessed with the material trappings of success (as the article described) would never be caught dead in public wearing that thing, she concluded in the most deadpan imitation she could muster (in Korean).
This had me rolling on the floor, nearly in tears. It is during these moments, when my mind is wrapped so securely in the gauze that only family can provide, that I realize how few and precious these moments are and will grow to be. Though I am only 3 years ahead of my brother in age, I’ve already been married and divorced. I’ve already experienced the chest-flattening “firsts” that attend–exclusively–first loves, and this is nothing extraordinary. However, what they cannot know is that I have gained a vantage that they have not–looking back, I now know that far more indelible than the moments that Hollywood has deified (e.g., first kiss, wedding night, 5 year anniversary) are the ones that drift, unnoticed, into the blue-grey recesses, where they stack against one another like a library of love-worn books. First time she takes the wheel while Jaesun is gripping the dashboard of their Hyundai Sonata for dear life. First time he takes YJ’s hand in his while strolling down North Avenue one particularly scalding August afternoon, because he promised her a long walk the night before in a moment of (regrettable) infirmity. The time he explained to her, with his trademark patience–a rhythm of speaking patented for natural-born teachers–why the fog rolled so thick and lazy over Lake Michigan, how Americans preferred running over speed-walking, how ketchup was most unwelcome on a proper Chicago hot dog.
Back then, I sometimes felt like I was living my life backwards. Jaesun and I spent the latter half of the evening debating the merits of two people “merging” to form one. He calls me a cynic, I call him a romantic–I don’t believe “merging” is ever a good thing, and he thinks it can be, especially when the two minds are too fragile to survive alone. I don’t think frailty should be a prerequisite for soul-matehood. I believe the opposite: self-sufficiency is the most vital ingredient to a successful relationship. It is easy for me to tout the above, to type these words into my journal, to fling them at my brother with all the surety that inheres to my “noonah” status. But, I often wondered whether I allowed myself to disappear too much in that home of ours, whether I was growing complacent with merely sitting in their backseat, collecting all their precious moments as if they were my own. I was single and terrifically frightened that I would never find a love that consumed me in the way that my first love had.
But, even as I sit here today, typing away at my kitchen table–one my brother sat at only a few days ago while my husband Anthony entertained Liam–I thank God for that blue-grey chapter in my life with Jaesun and YJ, where I could watch, from the backseat, as two people bickered and pulled each other apart in a manner more loving than I could ever remember seeing in my own lost love, without having to be concerned, in the least, where we were all headed.