Posted on December 5, 2016
I shared the following with parents and staff who attended a Literacy Information Evening held at a downtown Toronto high school.
My family and I immigrated to Canada in 1975. I was seven years old. Because I didn’t speak any English and our family was very poor, my brothers and I were bullied very badly in school. A little boy who lived in my neighbourhood used to enjoy taunting me more than anyone. One day after he had hit me with a wrench, he accused me of starting the fight. Because I spoke so little English, I couldn’t defend myself. Worse, I had no idea what the adults who separated us were yelling at me, but I understood by their tone and body language that they thought I was at fault. I learned very early in life how important language was and the power it possessed. Later, I learned how important choosing the right words were for creating understanding. One of the things I used to hate doing most as a child was translating for my parents. Unlike myself, who had the opportunity to develop my language skills in school, my parents’ English remained poor. I remember being in a hospital emergency room and having to translate for my mother, describing the pain she felt in her stomach. I hated seeing my mother, who was a teacher back in Korea, so vulnerable and unable to help herself. All my combined experiences shaped my determination to learn English, a language I have since fallen in love with and come to appreciate for its endless beauty.
I wrote my book largely to share my family’s immigrant story with my daughter who has no idea just how difficult things were for me and my parents when we first came to Canada. Writing has been a wonderful way for me to work through personal pain and challenges. Writing the book has given me many personal insights and helped me appreciate all the hard work and sacrifices my parents made. As a teacher, I encourage my students to write – about their feelings, their hopes and dreams, as well as to explore their thoughts. Research has shown that writing is an excellent way to deal with some forms of depression and anxiety, and certainly something I encourage my students to do as a guidance counsellor. Also, we’re constantly telling our children to read but it’s important they know why. Yes, reading exposes us to new ideas and promotes creative and critical thinking, but it also makes us better writers. We build vocabulary which makes us better communicators and without consciously trying, we often start writing in the same styles as what we read. This is called modelling, and why it is important that we read content that is well written whether it is fiction or nonfiction like newspapers and magazines.
Reading actually makes us smarter. As parents and guardians, we can help our children by showing them that we read. It doesn’t have to be in English and it doesn’t have to be for long periods of time. As a child, seeing my mother read despite having so little time for herself taught me how much she valued it. I’m grateful to her for that. It’s something I want to pass along to my daughter and to my students.
Posted on December 1, 2016
There’s been a few changes since I last posted a blog in the spring …
My debut novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, was released by Simon & Schuster Canada … I finished my MFA studies in Creative Writing … I’m now working on my second novel set in 1924 Korea …
It’s December. I think I’ll take some time to reflect on this past year … it’s been quite eventful!
Posted on June 30, 2013
I finally saw Kim’s Convenience. What a great play! It made me laugh, and when it hit a little too close to home, it made me cry… The play, written by Ins Choi, takes place in a Korean-owned convenience store in downtown Toronto. I’ve wanted to see this play for a while now and wrote about it in an earlier blog. The play begins its national tour next month.
Read more about the play:
Posted on December 18, 2012
My first memory of Christmas is back in South Korea. I must have been five or six when I found a green-beaded necklace under my pillow. I remember that the first thing I did was look at it under the blanket to see if it glowed. It didn’t. Still, it was the most precious gift I had ever received. When I asked my mother where it had come from, she told that Santa-harabahji (Grandpa Santa) had left it for me.
Although we dutifully gave presents to all of our elementary school teachers for Christmas once we immigrated to Toronto, we didn’t have a tree. My mother made all the gifts we took to school – knitted hats and scarves.
By 1991, I was working part-time and had money for the first time. I decided that year I would give my family our first ever Christmas tree. I spent over a thousand dollars, spread over three different credit cards, on a tree and gold music-themed decorations. My parents didn’t object and even seemed to admire the seven-foot evergreen that I plopped in the living room by the TV. My brothers referred to it as the “Buddha Tree.” I didn’t tell any of them how much I had spent.
The beauty of growing up in a Canadian Buddhist household was that we were open to celebrating and acknowledging other faiths. As children, we decorated and looked for Easter eggs, learned the rules to play the dreidel game during Hanukkah, and ate rice-cake and dumpling soup on lunar New Year’s Day. Being in Canada, surrounded by people of so many different ethnicities and cultures, it wasn’t about religion. It was about having a reason to celebrate and have fun; a reason to be together and be happy.
Posted on December 12, 2012
My 13-year-old daughter had never expressed an interest in learning the Korean language until “Gangnam Style” by Psy, the Korean rapper, gained worldwide popularity. In her eyes, it was suddenly “cool to be Korean”.
Her question to me: how come you never learned Korean?
When we first came to Canada, my parents’ biggest obsession was for their children to learn English. We were even encouraged to speak it at home. I never stopped to think that we were sacrificing the Korean language in the process, especially because back then, all I wanted was to lose whatever was Korean about me. I was in grade three when it hit me that I could lose my Asian last name by marrying someone white one day.
I keep thinking that it’s too late for me to learn to become completely fluent in Korean. Maybe. Maybe not. It would be wonderful to have access to Korean literature as it was written instead of in translation. The Korean language is beautiful and there are some phrases and expressions that don’t exist in English.
Worth checking out:
Posted on September 14, 2012
“Noranbang: The Yellow Room,” is written by M.J. Kang, a Korean-born playwright. I found her play in a collection of contemporary Asian-Canadian drama entitled, “Love + Relasianships.”
“Noranbang” is about a Korean family living in Toronto, Canada, during the late 1970s. This is only the second play that I’ve read by a playwright of Korean heritage with a story set in Canada. I especially enjoyed seeing the Korean words and phrases woven throughout the dialogue. I wish such books and plays existed when I was a child, or if they did, I had known about them. I was never exposed to any books by Asian writers in either high school or university. I hadn’t even thought to think about them.
The other plays in this collection are: “Yellow Fever” by R.A. Shiomi, “Bachelor-Man” by Winston Christopher Kim, “Maggie’s Last Dance” by Marty Chan, “Mother’s Tongue” by Better Quan, and “The Plum Tree” by Mitch Miyagawa.
Posted on September 2, 2012
I was at a really great little bookstore earlier called Theatre Books. It was my first visit there. I went in specifically looking for Kim’s Convenience, a play by Ins Choi (no relation) that I’ve been wanting to see for a while now. It’s about a first generation Korean immigrant family living and running a convenience store in the heart of downtown Toronto.
My family did the same for thirty years. Our store was open 7-11, seven days a week. My friends used to feel sorry for me because my family never ate meals together, and because my brothers and I were always working in the store. But that was the only life we knew growing up. The worst thing of all though was living with the constant threat of being robbed which happened so often, we lost count over the decades.
The book that I’m currently writing is also set in and around a family-owned variety store. Mary, my protagonist, is a Korean-Canadian immigrant who struggles to break free from the rigid expectations imposed on her by her parents and her culture.