Just Tell Them We’re Korean

The past two years I’ve done Slice of Life, I had a larger story to tell before I started. And while I still wasn’t sure where I was going each day, while those pieces strayed to some pretty bizarre places, I have no such plan in place this year. And, honestly, perhaps that’s a better fit for this platform, rather than the larger, rambling pieces I’m used to scribbling. Stay tuned.

Dear Reader,

We’ve all pretend to be something we are not at some point in our lives, I suppose. At school. With our parents. In a relationship or at work. Hell, the reason I’ve learned so much about technology was because of a job I had a decade ago where an administrator asked me if I knew much about computers. Sure I did. How much is much? The reasons we pretend these things are just as varied as the situations can be. Self-preservation. A job opportunity. The glow of perfumed Love. Often it’s just the ignorance of not knowing oneself enough to know better. Or because we do just really want to be Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago.

No other place have I enjoyed watching humans pretend to be other things than with my own children. We get to be superheroes. Pokemon. Royalty. Famous musicians. Firefighters. Masters of the Kids Baking Championship. Race car drivers. Big-league ball players. Architects. Scientists. Nothing makes me smile more than stumbling upon the two of them (5 yrs and 7 yrs) playing at some extravagant scene. Their sheepish smiles when they catch me looking. The scene halted as they scramble out of character, often to hide. And then I’m a bit sad that I shattered the magic. Unless I ask if I can play too. I often get to be ‘Mr. Nobody,’ the bumbling, know-it-all goof who fits into any concocted scene, so long as he is the adversary, and an idiot. And I play along, embellishing Mr. Nobody’s voice and actions so he becomes the ideal nincompoop villain. The laughter is real. The snorting, chortling giggles that pull us out of character and back to ourselves.

“Time! Utensils down. Hands up, bakers!” The judges always annihilate Mr. Nobody’s creations, or he’s eaten by a dragon, or an asteroid hits him on the head as he makes away with the treasure chest of jewels. And the laughter carries on forever.

Real life has a way of making you appreciate those chances at imaginary play, even if I’m stuck being that ass-hat, Mr. Nobody. This is also why I love books and film and music. That wonderful escape. Call those folks playing dungeons and dragons at the local park what you will, but you cannot say they lack imagination. And no one should be criticized for having an imagination, especially as an adult. The rest of the world can be too bleak. Too ugly. Too raw. Because there are too many things we cannot escape, even with imagination. Cancer. Death. War. Racism. Sexism. It’s far too easy to get caught in the negative things we read about in the paper (for those of us who still do), watch on the evening news, or tiptoe through in our Twitter feeds. We can though, as my daughter, Emma, reminded me yesterday, still try to have a sense of humor about all of it.

Emma is funny. She just gets it. As one of her teachers told me last year, she’s the student that gets all the jokes, even when they’re intended for the adults in the room. Probably a bit too much like her father, poor kid. Her laughter detonates. A clap of thunder, with ripples of squeals, punctuated with raspberry tarts. In rarer moments (and these are the absolute best) she completely loses control, and she cannot contain the tears that stream like rain down her cheeks. It’s uncomfortable for her, crying as she laughs, and watching her fight to keep from being swallowed by the two is the best thing I’ve witnessed on this earth. And she’s funny even when she’s not trying to be, which is difficult to explain to her because she abhors feeling embarrassed. But her understanding of the world is complex for a seven year old, and that creates some comical moments for context.

This time it started with masks.

My mother-in-law wanted respirator masks in response to the growing fears over the Coronavirus. She wanted, in fact, “two whole boxes” of them. Now, I’ll save the lecture about how much protection those actually provide for something like that, but my wife’s family is still fairly traditional when it comes to generational respect. If an older family member asks for something, you do it. No questions asked. And this request was for all the right reasons. I can say, without asking for clarification, that the request wasn’t for herself. These are most certainly for her 6 grandchildren, and her 5 children and their significant others. She has put herself last for the better part of 70 years, and her dedication to her family is truly staggering. My wife managed to talk her down to just one box, but the request was still a difficult one.

You see, my wife is Chinese. She’s lived outside Chicago (with stops in Madison and Champaign for college) all her life. Her parents left China when Communism had become all but inevitable in the 1950s. And even though she was born in this country, she and her siblings have regularly felt the sting of racism. I’m fortunate that I haven’t been around for them because I don’t believe I would have shown the restraint that she has clearly inherited from her mother. It permeates her life, as it does for so many people of color in this country who don’t fade into the whiteness around them. The “ching chang chong” bullshit people have spewed in her direction on the street. Or the man who shouted, “hey, Tokyo!” to get her attention while she was on vacation in South America. It’s as simple as last week, while she rode the train to work, our two children in tow, and she coughed at at tickle in her throat. The man next to her quickly changed seats.

And now her mother wanted her to go shopping for respirator masks.

“Can you imagine how that will look?” she asked me, chuckling. “They’re all gonna think I have the virus.” I volunteered to go for her, which she accepted, but then found herself traveling to the area right next to the store last night. And so she took the bullet. “They have self-checkout anyway,” she admitted. “Then I don’t even have to talk to anybody.” My daughter was with her, bouncing along in her usual steps. And she noticed something was different than her usual excursions with mom, which is par for the course with Emma.

“What are we looking for?” Emma asked.

“Masks,” my wife whispered, scanning the aisles, looking for some clue as to where they’d be.

“Masks? What kind of masks?” Emma had matched her whisper now. “And why are we whispering?”

“Paw Paw wants them.” Paw Paw is what my children call their maternal grandmother.

“Why does Paw Paw want masks?”

“Because, Emma. Paw Paw wants them in case the Coronavirus gets out of hand. She wants us to be safe.” They were dodging in and out of aisles by then, still whispering, avoiding anyone who looked like they worked for Home Depot. Emma was hurrying to keep up, her face trying to make sense of it.

“Well, why don’t you just ask someone?” She had my wife there. Erica will stop and ask anyone anything. To be stumbling around looking for something was probably too much like her father.

“Because Emma,” Erica whispered, finally coming clean, “I’m Chinese. And if I ask someone, they’re probably going to think I have the virus. And I don’t want them to think that.” This is one of Erica’s strengths. She can simplify some of the most complex things for our kids. It’s what makes her a great teacher. I would have spent the next 30 minutes muddling my seven year old’s understanding by telling her the finer details of constitutional racism, sexual oppression and Ferguson, Missouri.

I would have also enjoyed the privilege of not having anyone look at me funny, even if I backed a truck up to the front door and filled it with boxes of respirator masks, simply because I’m white.

My wife was scanning the website on her phone, still trying to find the location of the masks. Emma paused for a few long moments, puzzling. She had the solution.

“It’s fine, mommy. Just tell them we’re Korean.”

Thank you, Emma, for making us laugh all night, even when it made you feel embarrassed. Thank you for bringing silly to a world that’s far too serious.


Mr. Nobody

Published by laffertylrc

LRC Director at Sipley Elementary School, Maker, hack writer, lover of learning.

5 thoughts on “Just Tell Them We’re Korean

  1. Great post Ben. Children definitely have that innocence and humor that can help us overcome so many frustrations with our world.
    It didn’t dawn on me what this situation must be for an Asian person or Asian descendant, particularly in the current climate of the country.
    Always a pleasure to read your posts.


  2. So much to love here. I absolutely relate to “how much is much?”. 😉

    I also admire your wife’s willingness to meet the request of her loved one in spite of the challenge and possible difficulty. It sounds like she learned at least some of that by example from her grandmother.


  3. Oh, I enjoyed this! Thank you for sharing. I loved your line about writing for this challenge, “I still wasn’t sure where I was going each day,” and I think that is one of the very best approaches – to be present and see what ‘gifts’ are handed to you each day for writing, and then go with it. This slice is great! Your daughter sounds like a real gem. (I love your description – that ‘her laughter detonates’) Wouldn’t it be wonderful if she could live out her life in this happy spirit, not feeling the effects of racism?


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