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  • Choosing Burden
  • Phil Choi (bio)

My mother tells us we are descended from royalty—the Lee dynasty from generations back. On my side were kings, she says, and your father’s father was a gold baron, the richest man in all of Korea. She picks her teeth with her pinkie and pauses to make sure that we children are listening. We’re in the backyard eating corn on the cob, being told that we’re princes, golden children. My father knows these stories, pays little attention; he tends to the grill with one hand, a beer in the other. They’re ready, he says. My mother stops her story to go open buns.

I have a hard time believing these legends. Where is our kingdom? Where is our gold? My father, dressed in plaid shorts and a tank-top undershirt, flips blackened burgers. His stomach—a little soft from too much Budweiser, the King of Beers—hangs comfortably over his belt. Maybe my mother doesn’t see what I see: the back of our brown one-story house, our trampoline and crab-apple tree, and our lawn of almost a half acre, which my brother, Charlie, and I mow for ten dollars apiece. Maybe my mother can feel the royalty in her blood. I don’t feel a thing. Next to me, Charlie yells at our sister, Annie, for getting the top of the ketchup bottle messy. If I am a prince, then living in Greenville, Michigan—where farmers outnumber bankers, and everyone seems more American than I do—puts me as far from my kingdom as possible.

We sit down at the picnic table with burgers on Chinet plates and try to eat and to swat flies at the same time. After a few bites, I remind my mother that nearly a third of all Koreans are named Lee. How do we know we’re the kings, I ask, and not some other Lees? She tells me there was proof once: a record of generations, a book swollen with memory, which was lost in a fire during the Korean War. My mother was only eight years old when the fighting neared their home in Seoul. In 1952, her family fled to Pusan, at the southern tip of Korea, to avoid danger and to hide my grandfather, who had refused to be a soldier. They left at night, taking only what was essential. In war, survival depends only on the present; the past is luggage—a luxury too burdensome to carry. They left the book behind, and it burned.

With the proof destroyed, my family has only stories left—remnants of the truth as passed down through the generations, remembered at barbecues, [End Page 127] weddings—blurring the line between how it was and how it was interpreted. I was cut off from my own history twenty years before I was born. But even if there had been a book, a whole library of proof, I would still have worked to sever my ties to the past. From my American vantage point, I saw Korea as an ancient myth, a folk-legend land of dragons and magic teas, blue-green earthenware, strict mothers and distant fathers. I wanted to have nothing to do with it. I was too busy trying to be like everyone else in my small town to worry about things like the past—things that made me more different than I already was. To me, who grew up amidst cornfields and high-school football games, my family history sounded like the stuff of fairy tales.

The first of these tales is of my parents’ arranged marriage. There is nothing spectacular about the story, but for a young kid trying to be the same as everyone else in his American town, it’s a story he hopes is only a myth—like the story of my grandfather killing a wild boar with his bare hands, or of my father earning a gold belt in tae kwon do. The most un-American thing I could think of being was the child of an arranged marriage. During my parents’ time, marriage in Korea was more an act of family than...