The summer of 1996 was a difficult one. Earlier in January I had come out to close friends having been tired of trying to pretend to be straight. I did have a girlfriend at the time of coming out which didn’t make things easier. But it needed to be done.
However it didn’t need to be done to my family. I knew how such a revelation would be received to a Korean family. I didn’t want to have to deal with the fallout and felt more comfortable with my family thinking that I was a fuck up. They could deal with that. An atheist queer, not so much.
During the summer I decided to visit Cathi at UCLA where she was doing a summer program thing where she would receive college credit for taking summer courses while living in the dorms there. So it was a nice time to go out to Westwood for the day.
I got home late, and all hell broke loose. My mom laid into me, and I stupidly blurted it out: I’m gay. It’s not anything you can take back. My mom promptly went into the proper Korean response to crisis: wailing, hysterics and melodrama. She was going to kill me and then kill herself if this subject was ever brought up again. So yeah, it was just another healthy Korean household with a teenager.
With all of this in the foreground, the problems with my dad were simmering in the background. Thanks to his excessive drinking, in 1995 my dad had a series of three strokes at our house in Zachary, LA (outside of Baton Rouge) that rendered him paralyzed. Since he refused to come out here, we put him in a nursing home. Imagine that, being in your early-50’s and being in that environment.
And to top things off because of his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, he had severe emphysema. It was so bad that at times in the humid heavy Louisiana air he would be unable to breathe forcing him to constantly be ambulanced over to the emergency room.
In the summer of 1996, just weeks after the atomic bomb I unleashed to my mom, we got word that he had a pretty bad spell and probably would not make it. So my mom and I had to travel out to Baton Rouge. Since we’re not the rich type, of course that meant a road trip which is a great environment for two people as strained as we were.
We left Los Angeles just after dinner time to hopefully avoid the traffic and the heat of the desert. By around midnight we were in the Arizona desert on the I-10, and I decided to turn on the radio to see what was out there. I found a college station that was playing “That’s What I Get.” As if driving in the isolated desert wasn’t David Lynchian enough, the surrealism kept pouring.
“This is a good song,” my mom noted. Huh? I was in love with Nine Inch Nails at the time (going so far as wearing a trench coat into the summer months), and my mom likes the song?
I realized that my mom made an effort, and that she did what she could with what she was equipped with. Having her only son tell her he was gay was something she had no coping mechanism for. We were mostly silent throughout the road trip, but that moment in Arizona while listening to Nine Inch Nails was probably the most civil discourse we had in a year.
Anyhow, my dad didn’t die that summer. In fact we took him off the tubes the day after the bombing at the Olympics in Atlanta. He made it through another year before dying the week before my high school graduation. By then my mom and I were more at ease with each other. Like the Korean War even though there was no peace treaty signed, we did have our demilitarized zone. I never talked about being gay – even to this day. And my mom was just resigned to the fact that I was too far gone for her autocratic control.