One of the longest running dramas in Korean-American history

David Choi
Corinne Chateau
THR 501 106 – Basic Technique I
October 22, 2015

An Actor Prepares

October 19th, 2015 marked the 41st anniversary of one of the longest running dramas in Korean American history. 41 years ago two immigrants from the rural Chungbuk and Chungnam provinces of South Korea were brought together in an arrangement pre-set by the families of the two and wed in holy matrimony in Seoul. Having known each other for just two months, Jung-Yol and Soon-Keum Choi embarked on a migratory course to the United States in search of a better life. A better life meant the possibility of rising up out of a nation still recovering from the Korean War, of which many parts remained leveled and impoverished with many of its citizens left to subsist on handouts from the American government. A better life in America meant raising a family together in a land free of economic destitution, political turmoil and rampant corruption; the mere possibility of realizing even a fraction of the lore that was the “American Dream” was enough to send them packing for a transpacific adventure into the unknown. As the story’s tagline goes, “Their lives began as a mystery, and it will end in a mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between1.”

Like many Koreans before them, they came to the US in pursuit of making a life from a small business of their own, having heard the stories of their predecessors, the famed Korean wig businessmen, and their haute couture street hustle in New York City2. They envisioned managing their own food store, having been raised on countryside farms themselves. Taking on the American names, Andrew and Johanna, the Choi’s immigrated to the US, settling first in Waltham, Massachusetts, with their sights set on the bright lights of New York City. After working in electronics factories and religiously attending ESL classes for several years, they went on to open their first food operation in 1980, a fried fish joint in midtown Manhattan aptly named “Fried Fish”. After a successful three-year run they sold the business and in 1984 opened the first Korean restaurant in New York City to great fanfare. Named after the Nam River which runs through the city of Jinju in the southern Yeongnam region of South Korea, Nam Gang Restaurant served high-end authentic Korean fare to the New York Korean populace in the heart of their primary area of residence, Flushing, Queens. Famed Korean celebrities and politicians alike came from far and wide to dine and perform in its capacious banquet halls. To NYC’s Korean-American community, Nam Gang was the Flamingo casino in the heyday of New York; it was a fabulous time to be a Big Apple small-business owner in the land of grandiose opportunity. The hoopla generated around Nam Gang bellowed down Main Street for years, inspiring many others to open their own Korean restaurants and karaoke bars (noraebang), invariably leading to the proliferation of Korean cuisine and nightlife in New York. But they would learn quickly that the pioneer’s course is often heavily moguled, fraught with slippery slopes reserved for the unfledged; the role of the first to a fast-burgeoning market often brings with it the curses of fame, fortune, envy and extortion. As quick as Nam Gang and its cast of characters rose, its precipitous fall was at times violent and gut-wrenchingly tragic.

Suzy and I were cast earlier on in this drama series, more specifically three years apart, starting in 1975, acting in large part as the leitmotif of a great number of the episodes in the series. Suzy, born first on August 22nd, 1975, was older than me by exactly three years and one month. Our tragic heroes, working as assembly line workers for Sylvania, Honeywell and several other electronics outfits mostly soldering motherboards and electrical circuits, alternated day and night shifts to maximize earning and saving potential and to provide round-the-clock childcare for me and Suzy. Any other free time was spent studying and learning English. Tragedy befell us early as Suzy was misdiagnosed at the age of four; a flawed second opinion made by a young, inexperienced doctor in the renowned pediatrics unit of the Waltham Children’s Hospital led to a series of chemotherapy sessions for intestinal cancer, albeit erroneously administered. The last of ten chemo sessions resulted in an irrevocably damaged heart muscle. From there Suzy suffered a series of iatrogenic illnesses from persistent medical treatment throughout her life; heart failure, a heart transplant and a subsequent coma plagued her at age 13. Her childhood went on repeat from periods of convalescence to hospitalization again. Like a human science experiment, Suzy tested a panoply of assumed disease-fighting pharmaceutical medications in dizzying combinations, the side effects of which led to her final cards: a failure of the lymphatic system and breast cancer. Taking on chemo again at age 20, she finally succumbed to a fatal bout with pneumonia on December 15, 1995. As a direct witness to all this, I can attest to how hard my parents, addled by the inherent cultural and language barriers and unable to fully grasp the system that was working them, labored to keep Suzy alive and to help her to feel secure and human in an otherwise perilous battlezone of illness and medicine.

I remained in the backdrop, mostly unattended and obstreperous throughout my adolescent and young adult life. As closely related as I was to the story, I realize more and more everyday how spiritually disconnected I was from my parents and reality for the majority of my life. For many years I felt like I had bones to pick, my father to show up and to prove wrong, and most of all to put on my own show. I was the ever aspiring overachiever and yet I always felt the need to describe how hard it was to be me – from the unceasing verbal and physical abuse I contended with growing up, to being the brother to the sickliest girl in town, to the thrills and agonies of Internet startup culture, to periodic cycles of intense love and heartbreak, to marriage, divorce and all the rest that life seemed to be shoving down my throat. I let my egoistic endeavors derail and defeat me at seemingly every turn. Eventually, I lost my grip and finally at the age of 34, I suffered one emotional breakdown after another. By the time Hurricane Sandy came around, I took stock of myself: I was a beaten-down, spiritless, faithless atheist. In an attempt to save myself from a life of regret and human waste, I relinquished all my worldly possessions; I packed a 40-pound suitcase and left my fiddling wife with everything. There could not be any excuse to turn back – not my prescriptions, not even a single piece of furniture. There would be no safety net as I would surrender to the higher forces of nature. It was a harrowing, ego-shattering, and yet, intensely spiritual experience of which I was rewarded a clear path to absolution.

After nearly being killed off in a previous episode, this now is my decisive second chance at life, and I don’t believe I will be granted another. The past two years brought with it a spiritual cleansing; my artistic senses have been awakened with my role in the larger drama starting to take shape. I’m finally beginning to understand my character in full as I explore the depth of my inner emotional life, that which laid trapped frozen like gases deep within the glaciers of my psyche. It behooves me now to try and make sense of how I was bestowed this gift of a developing sense of truth for my character. How this gift which brilliantly illuminates an endless series of inexplicable coincidences and thus lights the passageway to the triumvirate of inner forces3 within me, is statistically hardly a coincidence. How this newfound sight affords me the ability to discern my super-objectives from my tendencies which in hindsight had only actually served to distract me, obfuscate the overarching theme and unnecessarily delay the rising action of the main plot. How an upbringing in a pseudo-military milieu, one of constant reproach at the hands of an irascible, cantankerous Korean Army veteran as a father, granted me a degree of will, determination and perseverance beyond my own capacity as a single individual. How a manic teenager turned ambitious web developer and Internet startup maven riding the boom and bust waves of technology, finance and entrepreneurship was actually carving a path for himself as a supporting actor in an infinitely vaster drama. How I have been living a life, designed – a design of something far outside of my current level of comprehension. How it is fated that I will donate this life of mine – my body and soul – to the arts and science, and how perhaps, it was never really mine to begin with.

I realize now that my intention and purpose is to give it all back as gifts to the theatre – all the pain and pleasure, the highs and lows, are my history to be shared with others on a higher plane of consciousness. But to try and describe my history in a truncated blog post would do a disservice to anyone trying to understand my character in this highly ambitious production. The coincidences, riddles and subplots I’ve encountered on my road to artistic maturity are innumerable and altogether impossible to try and detail here in written form. They’re all just moments in my tapestry which I shall use to color my art. So instead, I offer my actor’s credo: I will always be an artist preparing, making attempts to arrange my subconscious4, and all the while yearning to discover my supreme objective5. In this spiritual journey of mine, I’m forever seeking out the main thematic artery, the fountainhead of my artistic creation, and to be in a profoundly active, yet loving, engagement with my inner creative life. I endeavor to continuously discover new ways to express my gratitude for my rebirth into the universe as a single interdependent organism among billions, or even trillions, acting as a catalyst in a vastly intelligent and interconnected network of vibrating energies steered by quantum coherence.

I am honored and yet profoundly humbled to at last be in communion with this mysterious force which guides me to my underground river, which flows continuously under the surface of both words and silences and forms an invisible bond between me and my creators. Like my parents, my life began as a mystery and will most likely end in a mystery, but I have now resolved to make every attempt humanly possible to discover the savage and beautiful country in between through my artistic craft, acting.

  1. Postscript, The Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman 309
  2. As Korean-made wigs soared in popularity across the social strata, tall tales quickly surfaced of Korean businessmen hauling on their backs very large bags stuffed with wigs of all types, walking crosstown to lower income neighborhoods and peddling them off at profits over 1000%.
  3. In other words this triumvirate of inner forces (mind, will & feelings) takes on the tone, colour, shadings and moods of the elements they command. They absorb their spiritual content. They also give out energy, power, will, emotion and thought. They graft these living particles of the role on to the ‘elements.’ From these grafts there gradually grow what we call the ‘elements of the artist in the role.’ (Stanislavski 281)
  4. It should help us arrange subconscious, creative material because it is only when it has been organized that it can take on an artistic form. (Stanislavski 304)
  5. Another type of artist may use his personal success to convey his own ideas and feelings to the masses. Great people may have a variety of high purposes. In their cases the super-objective of any one production will be merely a step in the fulfillment of an important life purpose, which we shall call a supreme objective and its execution a supreme through line of action. (Stanislavski 332)

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