My Big Loud Korean Family Reunion

Saturday was the big day: about 30 relatives convened in Changwon to see us–more specifically, my sister, brother-in-law, and their baby girl Maren. I had met all of them before, so for me it was a chance to get reacquainted with my massive Korean family (of course they remember me) and see how well my Korean language skills have held up without much usage since the last trip (much better than I had expected).

It was a joyous, raucous occasion, one that made me long for a big, close-knit family structure back in the states, where I live a life largely independent of any family in New York. That of course isn’t possible, so the best that I can do is make the most out of rare opportunities like these. It’s good motivation to keep my Korean language skills in shape and even improve them. Hopefully I’ll start to make it a habit of coming out every few years to see them and build on these relationships. And hopefully they–or more likely, their kids–will make some visits to the US.

One of my relatives put it best: “blood is thicker than water.” In this case, even thicker than the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

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Christmas in Colorado

Agnes Lee, January 19, 1952 – October 21, 2004

My mom passed away five years ago this day. Looking back, I realized I wrote at least two different versions of her obituary during her last days. An extended version is below.

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Myung Ja Lee, known as “Agnes” by her many friends, died October 21, 2004,, at her home in Birmingham, AL, after battling cancer.  She was fifty-two years old.  Agnes was born on January 19, 1952, in South Korea.  After completing nursing school, she moved to the United States with her husband Sang Dae in 1975, where she began working as a registered nurse.  In 1989 she moved to Birmingham, AL, with her family.  While continuing her nursing career, she became involved in the local Catholic and Korean communities, providing both with the love and compassion that everyone around her came to know.  A very spiritual and generous woman, Agnes devoted her life to giving glory to God through the care of those around her.  Her selfless care was witnessed by everyone she came to know, from elderly priests to whom she would provide food and company to her entire extended family who came to and settled in the United States through her support.

My Family, in Korea and the US, 1984-1990

Continuing a series of retrospectives on the life of my grandmother, who passed away recently at the age of 76.

Below are two pictures I found from a family trip to Korea in 1984 (incidentally, the only time my dad returned to his homeland since leaving in 1976 before finally returning on the recent trip that this blog has devoted much attention to).


Top row, L-R: Mom, Grandmom, Mom’s sister, Mom’s brother
Bottom row, L-R: My older brother, me, unknown.

What strikes me about these pictures is how rural this scene is. This is the real deal: dirt roads, huts with grass roofs, and no high rises in the background (which is how my dad’s old village is like now). I again feel compelled to state the obvious: this is where I came from.

Below is a great picture of my grandmother serving a pitcher of Coke at my brother’s 8th birthday party (1986). Upon closer inspection, I realized that this was at a Show Biz Pizza (now Chuck-E-Cheese).

Think about this. In 1984, this woman was in the first two pictures, on a dirt road in Korea. In 1986, only two years later, she’s in suburban Augusta, GA, at a Show Biz Pizza. I can only begin to imagine how out of place she must have felt during this time, but here she is, three white kids on her right, her three Korean grandkids on the left, at a gaudy American pizza parlor.

I really know how to read too much into photographs. Moving along, on a similar vein, my grandmom and my sister at a roller skating rink, circa 1990.

Also circa 1990, my gradmother and my two uncles who made it to the US first at my first communion in Birmingham, AL.

What struck me the most about these pictures is that these folks have really been with me for the vast majority of my childhood. But I think the language gap created an artificial sense of distance from them, as if they had just showed up sometime the mid 90’s, then slowly faded out of view.

Such was not the case. For my grandmother, she had made it about 20 years in the USA, and she saw all of us grow up from children to young adults. She was there for it all.