Who is Culture Fest For?

Yesterday, I rushed from work to the store to the school and to home to get things ready for Culture Fest at the kids’ school. I regretted signing up to represent Korea. Back in September when I filled out the form, it seemed like a good idea. But yesterday, I was grumbling because I didn’t want to put on my big complicated Korean dress, hanbok.

By the end of the night, though, I was proud of our school community, happy that our kids go to such a diverse school, and grateful that our kids – who are American-born who have never been to Korea and do not speak a lick of Korean – had an opportunity to feel a sense of pride for their heritage.

For days leading up to Culture Fest, our 4th grader was excited about putting the display board together, asked me about what kinds of food we might take, and set his mind to wear his “Korean pajamas” to the event. Our kindergartner really didn’t know what was going on but was happy to go along with the whole thing.

At the event, we were pleasantly surprised that the cafeteria was packed with attendees with “passports” visiting the various countries and culture represented. Many people stopped by Korea to try a bite of gim-bop, persimmons, and Korean pears. And they were more than happy to take home a Choco-pie and a origami hanbok that my husband and I folded over the course of a couple of weeks. Our kindergartner passed out information about Korea. We dubbed our 4th grader’s friend an honorary Korean for his love of Korean food.

Our 4th grader was busy running around with his friends, visiting other countries. He tried chicken adobo in the Philippines, made his own olive oil dip in Italy, and tried juice from Ecuador (which according to him was the best juice ever).

Later on in the evening, there were performances by a Irish step dancer, a team of high school step dancers, and a hip hop dancer. A friend gave us dreidels and a game sheet to take home.

Cultural events like “culture night” or “international night” are about raising awareness and sharing information about various cultures. But as an immigrant raising children born in this country, I feel like cultural events like this benefit families like mine by offering us the opportunity to teach our own kids about our heritage. So, it’s not just for others that we set up a display board about Korea. It’s for us.

If we can keep up this sense of appreciation for our Korean heritage, maybe they will one day want to visit Korea and one day learn Korean. Maybe that’s how we stay Korean-American in America.


Learning to Read by Faking It

My literacy narrative (created as an example for students in first-year writing course)


When I was a kid, still living in Korea, my mom read to me all the time. We had a set of Disney books that I loved. Sleeping Beauty. Snow White. Cinderella. My mom loves to tell this one story about how after she read a book to me a few times, I’d take the book and “read” it myself.  At age 3, I couldn’t yet read, but I would memorize (poorly, of course) the words on each page and recite the story as if I was reading the words. I even pointed to each word as I “read” it.

Since back in those days there were no smartphones and home video recorders were not common, there is no record of my doing this.  I can only imagine in my mind what I looked like or sounded like. My mom says that I’d sometimes surprise a guest or a relative by “reading” to them.  But now, as a mom of two boys, I have two videos of my sons – both at age 3 – “reading” the same way that my mom described I did. Despite what my mom says, I was not some kind of a genius.  It’s not uncommon for kids to do this.

(Sammy – at age 3)

(Danny – at age 3)

Perhaps it’s because we live in a text-based world, surrounded by words, children seem to develop almost a natural desire to want to read.  My boys were both so excited that they could “read” – and they really thought they were reading. They didn’t know how reading worked.

By the time they were turning 5 and getting ready to start school, my sons were eager to learn. My older kid was so excited that he could read signs at the store and road signs. My younger kid, who is learning to read now, gets frustrated when captions or subtitle show up on the television or movie screen. Even though it’s hard, he powers through the early reading books and sight words and phonics books, because he wants to be independent.

You know that saying, “Fake it ’til you make it”?  That’s what 3-year old Laura, 3-year old Sammy, and 3-year old Danny did as they began their literacy journey. We began by mimicking.

the sound of his music

2017-10-22 11.25.55
가톨릭 성가 – 주여 임하소서

Korean Catholic hymn – 가톨릭 성가 – 주여 임하소서 (audio)

This past Sunday, this particular hymn – #151 in the Korean Catholic hymn book – brought me to tears during mass.

Dad was a lovely singer.  The sound of his singing hymns is one of the most vivid memories of my faith life.

The ritual of going to mass every Sunday was a given when I was growing up. Every Sunday, my younger brother and I would fidget and try to stifle the giggles that would come out of nowhere – you know how it is: when you know you can’t laugh, the stupidest things set you off.  But even as a child, even when I couldn’t appreciate the mass, I knew my dad’s singing was special.  When he sang, people listened.  Many of their friends – and even strangers – commented on his beautiful singing.

Dad singing karaoke at a friend’s house

I am far from being a “good Catholic,” but my faith has been strong enough to always guide me back from difficult times. Wherever I was – even away from home – I could find a church, walk in, sit down, say a prayer or sing a hymn, and walk back towards peace. After I left home for college, an 8 hour car ride away from home, my parents wrote me a letter saying, “Let’s meet in mass every Sunday.”  Well, there was no way a college freshman was going to get up every Sunday to go to mass (even at a Catholic college).  Later, I thought about all the Sunday mornings I wasn’t at mass and wondered if Mom and Dad could feel that I was not there with them and if it had saddened them.

After many years of absence – we were very good “Christmas & Easter Catholics” – my husband and I returned to church with our children. We went back to the same Korean Catholic church where my husband became a Catholic, the same church where we got married, the same church where we baptized our children, and the same church where we said our funeral mass for Dad 7 years ago.

The Sunday mass has become a family affair once again.  It is a ritual that Mom and I can share most weeks, sometimes exchanging knowing glances during a particularly meaningful homily. Those Sunday mornings when I feel that I’m really present – not thinking about the grocery list and not worrying about the papers that need to be graded – I think I can hear Dad’s singing. So, finally, we are  meeting in mass every Sunday.

While “the Church” is complicated and even controversial – for me and for many others – sometimes the strength of my faith just boils down to the faint memory of my dad’s singing and the act of sitting in the pew with Mom. And that is certainly not complicated or controversial. It’s rather simple, real, and beautiful.

what the art books don’t tell me…

A few months ago, Mom told me she finally got rid of Dad’s old books.

Well, given the way I reacted – with horror and crushing disappointment – she fished them out of the recycling bin and gave them to me.

I flip through Dad’s gorgeous art books time to time, hoping to learn a bit more about him.  I slide the open palm of my hand across the glossy pages of his art books, wondering about the man who looked to these books for inspiration.

Dad was born in 1949 in South Korea. He is the fourth child among seven. His father died in a ferry accident when he was young. Despite his mother’s hard work, they grew up poor, and Dad bounced from one relative’s house to another.  Mom tells me that when he was a young man living with his married elder sister, there was a famous artist who was interested in teaching him. But the family could not afford to support such an opportunity.  So, that was the end of his artistic aspirations.

My family immigrated to the United States in 1989, when Dad was 40 years old. For over ten years, all he did was work. Long 12+ hour work days. In his fifties, he decided to paint again. No training. No classes. At home, he claimed a small space near the sliding doors for natural light. His art stuff spilled into the dining area: paint, canvases, multiple easels, finished and unfinished paintings on the wall, sketches, and stacks of art magazines and books. After long work days, he would spend evenings and late nights painting. He wanted to travel, to see things with his own eyes so that he could paint them. Later on, he even bought a fancy camera. But traveling was not a luxury he could afford.  So usually he turned to magazines and art books to find his muse.

Many times, I would come out of my room in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom or to get a drink of water and catch glimpses of him, sitting in the dark except for the lamp shining on his canvas. A glass of scotch in his hand. Neat.

This is the image of Dad I cling to. From that man sitting in the dark, I learned what it means to have passion, to have creativity inside you that needs expression.  And this is the image that I recall when I read birthday cards and letters he wrote to me – always encouraging me to live a full life, to live a life without regret, to live this one life with everything I’ve got. He was also a bit of a poet – and his cards and letters were never ordinary. They were written in beautiful handwriting, always with a flair of poetry.

On my 19th birthday, he warned me that there’s nothing sadder than existing neither here nor there, in a state neither this nor that. He told me to make decisions carefully and to act upon them with passion. He reminded me, “Your life is all yours. All of it.”


Dad himself found inspiration in Claude Monet. And the art books reflect this inspiration: Monet and the Mediterranean, Monet’s Giverny, The Garden of Claude Monet, and simply Claude Monet.  He didn’t paint in the style of impressionism. Nonetheless, now I can see the resemblance in the brush strokes and of course his love of painting nature. Like Monet – or perhaps because of Monet – he was interested in painting waterlilies. Later on, he became very focused on painting water falling over rocks.  He said it was challenging – getting the strokes just right to represent the motion of water falling over the hardness of rocks.

I wish I had taken the time to ask him more about his art. I wish I had asked him, What makes you paint? Why water lilies?  Why waterfalls? Why Monet? Are you happy? If you could do it all over again, what would you do?

These are questions that these beautiful art books do not answer for me.  They are not telling me as much as I want to know. Still, I turn to them, as if a response will emerge and I will know a bit more about the man who was and always will be my inspiration to live a life of passion, compassion, faith, love, and optimism.

Poetry Day 30 – in my own words


On the last day of the National Poetry Month, I am sharing something I wrote a couple of years ago and have been tinkering with since then.  I have never claimed to be a poet and I won’t start doing it now.  Just seems right to share this on the last day of a 30-day challenge of reading, watching, listening to, talking about and thinking about poems of others.

The Persimmon Tree


In the sloped backyard

Under the unforgiving July sun

The tree yields fruit

Smallish and green

Quite feeble –

She says over and over

“It’s too soon” –

They never make it to the

Size or color

Worthy of the ceremonies

She must now observe in


This new kind of October –

Because it’s not their time

Because it’s their time

They fall

Unceremoniously –

And this leaves her yearning


Even guilty

Though she doesn’t know

What she could have done

What could she have done? –


This new kind of October approaches

Again for the third time – she

Keeps sorrow at arm’s length

With her attention on the ceremonies –

She prepares the fish

just the way he likes it – the fruit

just the way tradition demands – the  photograph

just the way he used to be – the smile of Buddha


For the man who left

Three Octobers ago

When October was just October –

He seems to leave again and again

Each October

Though he had not fulfilled his destiny –

Because he had fulfilled his destiny


Quite unexpectedly

As the finishing touches

Grace the ceremonial preparations

The tree yields fruit –

Quite unexpectedly

Again – this time to grow large

Turning from vibrant green

To warm, mature orange –

Just in time she plucks the fruit

Stacks first three

One on top –

When the white smoke rises

She pours a drink

Which she will later empty into a bowl –

And for this gift of grace

Of the persimmon fruit –

She kneels

Bows her head

Folds her hands together in prayer

Of thanks


If this be October – and the fruit bears again

She just might make it to another October

And another October

And another October

And maybe even another


Laura Yoo

October 27, 2013

Poetry Day 29 – “Kindness” by Yusef Komunyakaa

                When deeds splay before us
precious as gold & unused chances
stripped from the whine-bone,
we know the moment kindheartedness
walks in. Each praise be
echoes us back as the years uncount
themselves, eating salt. Though blood
first shaped us on the climbing wheel,
the human mind lit by the savanna’s
ice star & thistle rose,
your knowing gaze enters a room
& opens the day,
saying we were made for fun.
Even the bedazzled brute knows
when sunlight falls through leaves
across honed knives on the table.
If we can see it push shadows
aside, growing closer, are we less
broken? A barometer, temperature
gauge, a ruler in minus fractions
& pedigrees, a thingmajig,
a probe with an all-seeing eye,
what do we need to measure
kindness, every unheld breath,
every unkind leapyear?
Sometimes a sober voice is enough
to calm the waters & drive away
the false witnesses, saying, Look,
here are the broken treaties Beauty
brought to us earthbound sentinels.

Poetry Day 28 – “Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall

(On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)

“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”
“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”
She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.
The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.
For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.
She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”