Growing up Buddhist at Christmas time

musicMy 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.

Koreans here and there

I was surprised to see so many books about North Korea in the Social Science section at Chapters, the bookstore. I picked up Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

Nothing to Envy chronicles the lives of six North Koreans – a teenage couple secretly in love, a female doctor, a homeless boy, a factory worker, and her rebellious daughter – over a period of fifteen years.

My fascination with the lives of ordinary North Koreans grew after hearing about a friend’s son who, upon turning 18, actually visited the country on his own. I’m sure that he stood out. He’s over six feet tall with strawberry blond hair! It was fascinating to hear about his visit, and I couldn’t help but think about the stark contrast between the lives of North and South Koreans. It also got me thinking about the lives of Korean-Canadians which again is so different from the two Koreas.

 

We need more of this…

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.

An inconvenient life

A play by Ins Choi

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.

The single story

Chimamanda Adichie is a novelist originally from Kenya. In this clip, she talks about the danger of listening to a single story about a culture or a country, and about how she found her authentic voice.

Does it even need a name?

Just added some background information about the book that I’m writing. The convenience store in my story remains nameless. I often struggle with names and sometimes even dread having to name a character. Like many writers, I often look up names to see if their meanings match the characters I’m creating. The other challenge is knowing people with the names I want to use in a story.  I still need to overcome my fear of offending readers – although I’ve come a long way since I first started writing. Writing, even fiction, requires courage sometimes.

I’m wondering if the store in my book needs a name or if it should remain nameless, a generic random store in the heart of Toronto to represent the hundreds of other convenience stores all over the city. Thoughts?