at the risk of seeming ridiculous…

In One, Find All?

Posted in written thoughts by Charles on November 27, 2009

About a week ago, I was featured on  It’s a cool project that features various korean-americans that submit a mini-profile from all over the country (and a number of those overseas).  In writing my little blurb, I was reminded of a few things I experienced while living in Chicago, the Austin neighborhood of the west side.  According to those wonderfully horrid urban planning fact sheets, it was a predominantly black, low-income community where most were on some form of state welfare.  Stereotypes, now enter.  Negative images of black folks, on.  Not trying to point the finger though.  I mean, you should’ve seen my face when I first moved into my neighborhood.

On an honest note, the neighborhood was aesthetically discouraging.  Broken glass on sidewalks, park fields… trash left on the streets… and unhealthy amounts of noise.  The toughest thing to stomach was thinking about the kids who had to grow up in such circumstances.  But you know, ponder a step deeper and you start to ask those peculiar questions.  Broken glass, why are folks drinking so much?  Trash, why hasn’t the city’s garbage trucks rolled through yet?  Noise, what are people really trying to say?

An old pastor of mine once said to me, asking questions gets in the way of faith.  What a tragic thing to say.  But I guess that’s what makes heaven so appealing… you don’t have to consciously walk through hell on Central Avenue.  Life is cool when you cruise on by.  You just glance, and drive on.

I walked into church one morning.  There was a seminar of some sort.  Black man sitting on his piano bench, shoulders rested, hands fluid.  He sang, he sang, he sang.  Thrusts from the throat, diaphragmic vibrations, vocal trills.  Take a step back.  Praises, cries, wails, yearnings… silence.  Perhaps it was a step deeper.

“Did you feel that?”

Nods, all at their own tempos.

“What you feel… is the struggle.”

Never got to play music much growing up.  We were one of those families struck with the immigrant dream, yet flailed with its american backhand.  Call it bad economic timing, poor planning, lack of ingenuity… But I’ll call it the woes of unrestrained capitalism.  When you look at those U.S. income level sheets, we were what society would call “poor”.  It’s unfortunate, that same society should also have a subjective happiness meter, we would be what you call “fuck this game, we know joy”.

Mama loved to sing.  She had a song for each situation I was in.  When happy, when sad, when frustrated… and my favorite, “mommy sohn-eun yahk-sohn” for when my stomach hurt.  Even though she could only sleep two, maybe three hours… she sang.  She sang because she needed to, we needed her to.  You should’ve been there.  They say music most closely resembles spirit because sound is merely compressed air.  It quite literally passes through you.  And after it does, it dissipates.  My home was a sanctuary.  Saturated, drenched.  My dad may have been the priest, and a powerful, soulful one at that.  But my mom was the curator.

The green line train runs from downtown Chicago to the west suburb, Oak Park.  My stop, Central Avenue, is about 2 stops before that.  In other words, I lived in one of the most heavily policed areas of the chi.  The barbed fence of handcuffs, batons and flashing lights, I like to call it.  One day, as I was spending extra time riding the trains so to avoid swimming in the humidity, I looked out and saw something … something ecstatic.

Children dancing.
Meat grilling.
Elders sitting.

I got off and walked over.  Before I knew it, I was pelted with water balloons.  Better drenched in cold water then humidity i guess.   What was really beautiful was that an urban geyser had been created.  Folks had shoved a wood board up on a fire hydrant, held it there by wrapping an old tire around it, and cranked it full blast.  In my mind, it was as if God had sent a special cloud full of water and showered the street corner.

Three cars parked, all amping the same radio station.  And yes, we were dancing in the streets.


I am korean-american.  But I figured that out while dancing on Central Avenue.  I realized why my mom needed to sing, why my neighbors had to dance, why that black man sat at the piano.

I discovered something profound, or perhaps peculiar.  The more I was myself… the more I owned up to my own narrative, my family’s history, my parents struggles, my community’s well-being… the more I was able to relate to those Central Avenue dancers.  The more I had reason to dance.

In essence: the more particular I am, the more universally human I become.

So you know what… fuck this whole conceding who you are because others don’t want to be uncomfortable.  Be who you are.  And make others respect that.

Dance, so others may dance.
Sing, so others might sing.
Feel, so others can feel.


6 Responses

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  1. Peter said, on November 27, 2009 at 16:59

    hey charles thanks for the shout out on your blog and thanks for submitting — really liked your post. u a real soulful dude. btw, i definitely know what it feels like being pelted by water balloons – u probably acted more graciously about it than me.

  2. awj said, on November 27, 2009 at 19:42

    beautifully written, friend.

  3. mrschung said, on November 29, 2009 at 17:00

    i always struggled to put into words that very thing you described when someone sang in that way. alot of people can sing but what you describe when your mom sings, when that black man sung, when my mom sings, what i saw when certain people sang from their soul, is the very thing you described…the struggle, the wind from the spirit, that thing that comes from the depths of someone’s being. i’m glad i stumbled onto your blog, i really am enjoying your blog.

  4. jaron said, on November 30, 2009 at 18:42

    great entry, chucks. can’t wait to read your autobiography someday when you’re all distinguished.

  5. william james said, on December 2, 2009 at 03:42

    wow charles i didnt know u spent time with black people.

  6. Joseph Lee said, on December 6, 2009 at 00:34

    Came across your blog via Great thoughts, keep on writing.

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