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And Piecing It Together with the Help of an Old Bulova
Haraboji = grandfather
Halmoni = grandmother
Como = aunt; my father’s younger sister
Com-zee = aunt; my father’s youngest sister; technically should also be Como but -zee was made up to help us distinguish between the two aunts
I put my watch on today for the first time since March 13, 2020. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the date counter was caught between 13 and 14. If the second hand was ticking compulsively in place like it wanted to push time forward but couldn’t. I feel like everyone’s collectively been living the same hour, day, week, month, year on repeat—and just now I’m realizing that the recent slew of time-loop movies was actually quite apropos, even if the storylines got increasingly threadbare. (The best one was Palm Springs, thank you for asking.) I digress. I put on my watch today for the first time since March 13, 2020. While the fashion world gives the watch its singular moment as we rediscover our typical experience of time, my watch catches me in a tangle of moments.
After my Haraboji died in 2016, I didn’t expect to inherit anything significant. Kim Jae Ho came to the states in 1974 as Joseph Kim. Growing up, I romanticized the idea of a hard-working luggage salesman who packed up his wares at 5 a.m. for flea markets, wore the ribbed white tank tops emblematic of his era’s working class, who smoked in Seoul but quit in Bellflower, CA. I mostly dreamt about a man who saved enough money, worked enough markets, and denied himself enough comforts to bring his wife and three children to America.
So when my Halmoni—Kim Sa Sook—felt for my hand on the couch, I thought she just wanted to squeeze it. (She does that occasionally, and part of me thinks it’s her saying “Amen” after a prayer for my damned agnostic soul.) Instead, she uncurls my fingers and drops something substantial into my open palm. She closes her hand over mine and says, “Haraboji.” Her eyes look like they’re focused on the chair beside me, which means she’s actively trying to see my face; she relies on her peripheral vision as a result of severe macular degeneration.
I pull back my hand to inspect the offering: a two-toned, stainless steel Classic Bulova with a bracelet strap and fold-over clasp. The flat face is nothing fancy and the links are caked with a dark tarnish. I look up at my Halmoni and she laughs, “Como and Com-zee bought for him maybe 10, 11 years ago.”
“And you’re giving it to me now? To keep?”
The next time I travel home to Wisconsin, I have a few links taken out and replace the battery.
I’ve worn it ever since—while giving tours of USC to prospective students, while traveling across state lines and continental divides, while writing this essay and the ones that came before it. It’s one of those accessories I never expect anyone to notice, but somehow, people still do. An eight-year-old student I tutored, a former boss at an internship—they comment on its simplicity and elegance, giving me the thrilling high of validation that we all crave. (Some more than others, but it’s always there, lurking.)
Maybe it’s the Leo in me. Maybe I’m just desperate to share that it was my Haraboji’s—though, I never use that word in casual conversation. Should I? Am I doing my culture a disservice if I choose assimilation over history? Isn’t a watch—or any inherited jewelry, for that matter—one of those rare, seemingly innocuous invitations for passersby to do more than just dip their toes into your stream of consciousness? They ask and suddenly find themselves awash, even drowning, in the multi-generational current that has pushed, wound, and planted you in this particular moment. Isn’t a watch the perfect window for outsiders to peer into who [read: when] you are and how you got there [read: then]?
Part of me wonders what, if anything, I’d have to say. My Haraboji was a man of few, grunted words like, “You hungry?” “You full?” “D’as good.” “So strong!” And not much else. I suppose I wasn’t the best conversationalist at age eight or nine; but quite frankly, I hardly knew the man. In hindsight, my trust in, and knowledge of him relied entirely on the sparse stories I remembered from childhood.
But knowing that doesn’t make confronting the prickly reality of my Haraboji’s faults any easier. Because contrary to the narrative I grew up believing—and the narrative my family immortalized as he neared death several times over six years—Haraboji was not a man who saved or denied. In conversation with my Como, I learned that my Halmoni was the one who brought our family to America. It was her connection who helped them. It was her ingenuity and vision that turned the tide. In fact, Haraboji was little more than dead weight in their passage and progress. He gambled, and like most gamblers, felt that his first big win was just around the corner, except habits like those exist in liminal spaces defined by second hands that tick without moving and date counters caught between numbers.
It’s been years since I learned this, during which time, wearing this watch has come to feel like a lie, a truth, and a challenge all at once. It’s a revisionist history about a father who was less-than in life and greater in death, a testament to the masculine reverence perpetuated by Korean culture, a calling to celebrate my Korean-American hyphen through all our collective missteps, and an appeal to do better.
Now, I wistfully dream of the day when my Halmoni tells me herself, “It was me. I got us here. I took care of the family. But men are fragile, and immigrant families are, too. And it was easier for us to uphold the culturally acceptable façade of a man in charge.” But unless I learn Korean—or she dramatically improves her English at age 85—neither of us will ever share the words. Still, I wonder if time will feel suspended then, how many scuffs I’ll have left on the two-tone finish.
Whether out of convenience or something more profound, I have a habit of leaving the watch in PST. It reminds me of the time where my family put down roots, where I rediscovered those roots, where I started to reconcile my Haraboji with all he wasn’t, and where I first celebrated my Halmoni for all she is. It keeps me on, and in time, like every good watch should. And when I pass it down, it will be an ask to look upon our story with a keen eye for growth, with not a gavel but a notebook, with grace and patience in the face of generational difference.
Or, depending on who receives it, it will just be an old watch with a dead battery—and that’s OK, too. I will say, “Take,” and it won’t be a request—God forbid, an order—to carry the weight of our family’s chronic feud between hard facts and convenient fictions. At most, it will be a door left open to explore the delicate genre of memoir, both written and spoken, so that its recipient may exist in an actualization of moments all their own.
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