Here are some things that kids would say to me when they learned that my name was John Kim:
“Your last name is Kim? I think I know your dad.”
“Is your dad Master Y.C. Kim?”
“Does your dad own Kim’s Karate?”
My dad was not an expert in Karate. He was an insurance agent who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. He wore white Arrow Dover oxford shirts to work with gray dress slacks and Florsheim side-zip boots that I polished and spit-shined for him whenever he asked. His office was located in a suburban office park outside of Dayton, Ohio. Plaques and trophies for hitting sales targets lined the walls and took up space on bookshelves. His desk and the floor around it were covered in stacks and rows of manila file folders and DO NOT BEND large white 9” x 12” business envelopes with an address window on the front and first-class green triangles around the edges with one side tattered and jagged where he’d torn them open.
Like everyone who had to serve in the Korean military, my dad had some knowledge of Taekwondo, but it’s nothing he ever talked about with feeling. As a teenager he had been a short track speed skating star. He qualified for the Olympic trials for Korea, but his parents said he couldn’t go.
My dad loved watching speed skating every four years during the Winter Olympics and would sit a few feet from the TV, counting the number of strokes the skaters would take around the bend of the track and provide side-commentary on who was going to win, on which skaters were getting tired. Did they have both hands clasped behind their backs, or was one arm waving in sync with the legs? Were both arms flailing at their sides? My dad announced whether it meant they were picking up speed or losing strength. We rooted for the South Koreans and the Americans. Sometimes he would pretend to speed skate while we watched, getting into the crouch and sliding his feet side to side. I could picture him in spandex and skates rounding an icy track. I couldn’t picture him in a white gi with a black belt tied around his waist.
I knew that a lot of Koreans shared my last name. It’s one of the most common last names in Korea. Just because you had the same last name as someone else didn’t mean you were related. In fact, both of my parents are Kims, but can trace their families back to different Kim clans. This is something they always pointed out whenever I asked them what my mom’s last name was before they got married.
“Kim, but a different Kim.”
Despite the prevalence of Kims in the world, I didn’t know any other Kims. The Korean families that we spent time with were: the Lees, the Mahs, the Parks, and the Moons. No other Kims.
Master Y.C. Kim wasn’t my dad. He wasn’t even related to me. He had a son named Doug, who was older than me. I knew about Doug because sometimes kids would ask me, “Are you related to Doug Kim?” Doug had a sister named Jenny who apparently was less popular. Kids rarely asked me if I knew Jenny Kim or was related to her. I did have a real life cousin named Jenny Kim, but she lived in New Jersey and her real name wasn’t Jenny. Her name was Jaehyun. She had immigrated to the United States in the 80s and had picked her new name “Jenny” as a close approximation of her Korean name. My dad had done the same thing a decade earlier. He originally went by his Korean name, Joon, but after receiving sales award plaques embossed with the figure of a woman in a skirt suit carrying a briefcase, he changed his name legally to “John.” My uncle Kisuk immigrated in the late 50s and wasn’t so lucky. He was given the name “Charlie” by co-workers who didn’t bother learning his real name and simply addressed him as “Charlie Chan.”
I got asked about Master Y.C. Kim so often that I had to ask my own dad, “Do you know Master Y.C. Kim?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Everyone asks me if he’s my dad.”
“He’s not your dad. I’m your dad.”
“Yeah, but who is he? Are we related to him?”
“He’s a narrow-minded asshole.”
Any Korean person that my dad referred to as a narrow-minded asshole was definitely someone from the Korean church that he’d had a falling out with before I was born. Bringing up Master Kim seemed to make my dad angry, so I didn’t ask any other questions about him.
There were two major shopping malls in Dayton. The Salem Mall was on the north side of Dayton. My parents sometimes called it by its real name, but also called it the “black mall” because the surrounding neighborhood was mostly black. The Dayton Mall was nestled in the southern, mostly white suburbs where we lived, and across the street from the mall there was a big yellow sign with black lettering that read “Kim’s Karate” in the kind of fake Asian calligraphy you might find on the plastic wrapper of a fortune cookie. Underneath it, in red block letters: “Master Y.C. Kim Black Belt.”
Kim’s Karate was one of the only places in Dayton where someone could learn martial arts. Did it matter that a Japanese martial art was being taught by a Korean man? No one seemed to care.
If my dad and Master Y.C. Kim were friends, maybe I would’ve taken Taekwondo lessons as a kid—I’m assuming of course, that Master Y.C. Kim was a master of Taekwondo and not of Karate and that he named his studio after the Japanese martial art instead of the Korean one for branding and alliteration. Instead, I simply had to endure the questions about whether or not my dad owned Kim’s Karate. And for those kids who had never heard of Master Y.C. Kim, there was the standard question I had been asked since I was probably five or six years old: “Do you know Karate?” Or the oft-accompanying taunt of a kid making a high-pitched “hwaaa” sound, his hands flat, ready to chop, like he was in a Hong Kong Kung Fu movie.
My mom told me that when she first moved to Ohio in the early 1970s, little kids would follow her around grocery stores out of curiosity. None of them had ever seen an Asian person before. I turned twelve years old in 1990 and according to the U.S. Census taken that year, the suburb where I lived the first 10 years of my life was 98.7% white. Out of 6,511 people there were 40 Asians—and among them, half were South Asian—and just 20 black people. The suburb that I moved to and then went to high school in was 96.3% white. I had been asked if I knew Karate countless times by random kids who had never met an Asian before, and I knew that they were only asking me because of the way I looked. They would ask me if I knew Karate before even asking me what my name was. Though sometimes I’d be asked if my name was “Ching-chong Ding-dong.”
Every time someone asked me if I knew Karate, I said no, and I liked being able to say no. It filled me with immense satisfaction to not fit the stereotype in their heads. Not knowing Karate felt like a fuck you to them.
In the third grade I had an issue with a bully. He was a second grader, but had been held back a grade, and he was as big as the biggest third graders at our school. Neither of us took the bus home, so we had to wait for our parents to pick us up. He tracked me down after dismissal when there were no teachers around. He would grab me and start doing wrestling moves. Mostly headlocks, sometimes a full-nelson or an arm twist. When I told my parents about it, my dad went about teaching me how to fight back. We practiced punching, but my punching wasn’t very strong. I was good at soccer, so we decided that if it happened again I should kick the bully. My dad had my older sister put me in a headlock, and he showed me how to bend down at the waist and flip her over my back. She thought it was fun. The next time the bully put me in a headlock, I flipped him onto the ground and repeatedly kicked him in the midsection as hard as I could and told him to stop bothering me. I left him on the ground moaning and holding his stomach. He never approached me again.
After that incident, my dad asked me if I wanted to take Taekwondo lessons. He said it was good for discipline and self-defense. I knew some kids who took lessons. They said they did a lot of pushups. That didn’t sound fun. Also, there was something so stereotypical about me knowing martial arts that I didn’t like. Kids used Karate to other me—surely, white kids in my neighborhood didn’t walk up to new white kids they didn’t know and ask them if they knew Karate or not—and so I knew that if I actually knew martial arts it would other me further. They teased me by getting into a Karate fighting stance. What would happen when I needed to use it and actually got in a fighting stance? They would laugh at me. And it would be even worse if I tried to use martial arts in a fight and lost. White power beats Asian martial arts in a miniature clash of civilizations. I would want martial arts to win out in a fight like that, but could I win a fight using martial arts? First, I’d need to learn. I imagined being in a martial arts class with a bunch of white kids, and them wondering—What’s he doing here? Doesn’t he already know how to do it?—and then laughing at me.
I didn’t take any martial arts classes until I went to college where it was mandatory to take two semesters of physical education in order to graduate. I signed up for a Karate class—the only martial arts class offered. There was something about being in college—where you were given the freedom to learn—and being at a college, Columbia, and in a city, New York, that were both far more diverse than where I had come from that allowed me to shed all of my baggage about being an Asian American who could get in a fighting stance and then land a roundhouse in someone’s face before they could blink—full disclosure: even at my most flexible, I’d probably land a roundhouse closer to someone’s thigh or hip; landing a roundhouse in someone’s face is really hard.
The one awkward thing about taking Karate class was that it was taught by an intense, gray-haired white woman who spent an inordinate amount of time shitting on Taekwondo. She said it was a sport and not something that was actually useful for self-defense or combat. Little did I know that there was an intense rivalry between practitioners of Karate and Taekwondo, and that people who practiced Karate were jealous of how popular Taekwondo had become and how it was in the Olympics while Karate was not. Later that semester, my friend June, whose parents had immigrated from China, started making fun of me for being in Karate class. She too had spent her childhood in white suburban America shunning this part of her heritage, but now that she was in college, she had joined the Kung Fu Club. She said that all of her teachers in the Kung Fu Club were always shitting on Karate and Taekwondo for not being intense enough. “Kung Fu is more fluid and beautiful,” she said. “Every defensive motion can be turned into an offensive motion.” I don’t know if my Karate teacher would have disagreed with that. She screened the fight between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon in class one day, commenting on how traditional Karate as symbolized by Chuck Norris was limited in the face of adaptability as symbolized by Bruce Lee.
On my first day of college orientation all the first year students had a picnic dinner on the big lawn in front of the main library. I sat in the grass with Steven, a guy who lived down the hall from me and had grown up in the South Bronx. His parents had come to the United States from the Dominican Republic. I was asking him all kinds of questions about how dangerous the city was—Was it safe to ride the subway? Had he ever seen anyone get mugged? This was the mid-90s, Times Square still full of porn shops and XXX theaters. Everyone told me that New York was dangerous, to never ride the subway at night, and to never go above 125th Street in Manhattan. Truth be told, one of the reasons I signed up for Karate was because it offered some vital lessons in self-defense that I thought I might need.
Steven told me that if a bunch of rowdy teenagers got on a subway car, I should change trains immediately. He said his dad carried a baseball bat with him when he walked to the subway station, and that his dad always met him at the station—he never walked home alone. But, he said, as long as you were street smart, you could avoid confrontations. His big rule was not to make eye contact with anyone because it was an invitation to interaction and conflict. But if you did make eye contact, then you shouldn’t look down immediately afterwards. That was a sign of weakness. Quickly looking away was also bad. You should just keep your head up, keep your eyes up at all times. He took me on a walk down Broadway as we talked street smarts, and about fifteen blocks away from campus, a little kid, no older than five years old, holding his mom’s hand, saw me, and did a Karate kick at me.
“Did you see that kid?” Steven said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Did you make eye contact with him?”
“See? And he did the first thing he thought of when he saw you.”
Later that year, I started volunteering at a soup kitchen in the basement of a church on 126th St. and Old Broadway. Me and some other college students would write people referrals to advocacy support groups like Legal Aid and Urban Justice, and we would also write transit referrals that the MTA honored to allow our clients free transportation to get to court cases and doctor’s appointments. Some of the people who worked at the soup kitchen would scream “Bruuuce!” whenever I showed up. Then they would make an announcement that if anyone needed some help they should go see Bruce and the other college kids at the back table. We never talked about why everyone called me Bruce, although one day, one of the workers said, “You know you look just like Bruce Lee?” I don’t, but I didn’t correct him.
I didn’t like being called Bruce Lee, but I did like Bruce Lee. He was the only Asian American in the late 90s to penetrate mainstream American pop culture to face-on-a-t-shirt status. I never followed through with Karate or Tae Kwon Do, but I had bought some Bruce Lee t-shirts. All we had up to that point were Bruce Lee and Connie Chung, and I wasn’t about to start wearing Connie Chung t-shirts. My sister noticed this fashion choice of mine and said, “John, you don’t want to be that Asian guy with a bunch of Bruce Lee t-shirts.” But she was wrong because that’s exactly who I wanted to be.