At Jefferson Elementary School, while I did not necessarily fit in with the kids around me, I did find places where I did fit in. GATE stood for the Gifted and Talented Education program. Students recommended by teachers and administrators were assessed for the program and, if qualified, became participants in a curricula designed to stimulate academic achievement and research-based skills. As I recall, it provided me with a lot of unique learning opportunities. My favorite memory from GATE was when we had a scientist come in to visit who had brought all sorts of samples from her ocean studies. We sat and read a book about ocean creatures and she would bring out physical samples for us to look at and touch to understand what the book was talking about. I was amazed by touching whale baleen and thinking about how much water needed to be filtered out of a huge gulp of the ocean to get at a bunch of tiny krill.
In third grade, I was also selected to be a student representative, which meant going to meetings with the school administrators to talk about what was good and bad about the school from the students’ perspective. I remember nervously having to speak in front of a fifth grade class and introduce a new school program – to which many of them seemed indifferent. The biggest regret I have being part of the student representative program was the playground safety review. Our school playground was a classic 1980’s structure – a large hexagonal dome, monkey bars, swings, handball court and tire stack all cushioned by hard rubber tire chips. Most of the features were constructed out of metal tubing painted with brightly colored paint that would flake off into tiny pieces on your hands each recess. Everyone knew someone who had been injured playing on the playground – running into the metal bars while playing tag, falling off of the tire stack and breaking an arm, or someone taking a headshot to an aggressive handball throw. To us, the risk of injury was part of the fun of having the playground, but as our group of student representatives stood there and gleefully recalled all of our friends’ injuries, I can remember the administrators jotting down their notes. Less than two years later, the playground was replaced. The tires and metal dome were removed and the remaining features received a new turf of soft and bouncy bark chips. My generation was the one where we remember the transition from exciting playgrounds to safe ones, and unfortunately I had some role to play in that change.
Like students today, we also raised funds. Today’s school fundraisers revolve around most topics involving “a-thon” words. Jog-a-thon, Read-a-thon, Phone-a-thon. But back in the day, we were given a packet and told to do things the hard way: door to door sales. Inside the packet were instructions, order forms, a sales list and best of all, a glossy brochure of all of the prizes you could earn for selling different products. Each sale of an item from fancy chocolate Easter eggs to magazine subscriptions would earn you points that could be spent on a cool prize – the more you sold, the better the prize. It was the perfect introduction to the every-man-for-himself capitalist childhood rat race. Kids with loaded parents or family connections would get walkie-talkies or telescopes, but I was satisfied if I could just get a digital watch. One year I can remember having my heart set on an expensive prize – the Kodak Ektralite 500 folding camera with built-in electronic flash. After spending all of my savings, annoying my parents, selling to everyone I could think of and giving a guilt trip to one of our apartment neighbors, I finally earned my prize. Now broke and with frayed relationships with everyone important to me, I finally had my camera – which in a twist of irony, I could not use because I still needed to buy batteries and 110 film, let alone the staggering cost of developing a roll of film. I carried that camera around for years, carefully selecting each precious piece of film and then hoping that something good would turn out after developing.
Settling in involved many exciting educational experiences, but also getting to know my real relatives. On the mission field, it was common for MKs to consider other adults in our mission as pseudo-relatives – even calling them “Aunt” and “Uncle”. But returning to America, I had to figure out who my real relatives really were. My mother had prepared a photo album complete with names and locations, but fortunately for me, many of my real relatives also lived on the West Coast so meeting them in person was easy. Everyone needs that cool relative – that Aunt, Uncle, Grandma or Grandpa that lets you do things otherwise frowned upon by your parents. For us kids, that relative was Aunt Erica, my Dad’s younger sister. On one particular weekend my parents left us three kids in her charge. She took us on a drive in her car down to a movie theatre – a very special treat that was a luxury item for our family – to see the movie “Willow”. That movie had everything that a young boy could hope for: castles, heroes, villains, evil witches and plenty of sword fighting. Ahh, that was a great movie. But on top of that, we were spoiled with popcorn and sugar – who could ask for more? On the drive home we laughed gleefully as we drove on the highway with the windows down and exiting to the streets close to our house, slowly cruised along while booming unacceptable rap music. Arriving home, my brother pitched the idea of playing video games, to which Aunt Erica said that we could play as late as we wanted. I remember watching my brother play a particularly difficult level well until two in the morning, when we both decided it was time for bed. We were groggy, whiny, useless kids the next morning, but I still remember that night as one of the greatest in my childhood.
Another one of our relatives was Uncle Bob and his wife, who lived in Riverside, an hour and a half away. I had been familiar with an Uncle Bob in South Korea – he had diligently and at great cost sent us kids American toys over the holidays – so I was anxious to finally meet him in person. I can remember going to his house and watching him carefully and skillfully make bread from scratch –talking about each detail in the process. Following a time conversation and catching up, he treated us to a gourmet meal and let us go explore the house. In the back of his house was a large fenced garden of sorts, full of plants and ponds – of which I used to go wandering through looking for bugs or aquatic creatures. But even more impressive was the garage located next to the garden that stored his many collections, one of which was World War II memorabilia – including his prized WWII jeep.
While most people are reminiscent about the childhood dining experiences, it was particularly special for me. First, with our limited income, dining out was reserved for only special occasions and second, the restaurant choices were very different than what we had been used to in South Korea. When we were in the mood for Chinese food, we would drive east to a little but popular restaurant called the Panda Inn. As authentic South Korean food was hard to come by, Chinese (even if not completely authentic), was the next best thing. The familiar offerings of green tea and soup to start the meal gave me a sense of home, as did the family scorning the use of silverware in lieu of chopsticks. Steaming plates of meats and veggies would arrive, but most importantly, large individual bowls of rice. While most Americans pass the entrees around and fill their individual plates with rice being just another side, we would use our chopsticks to pickup individual bites from the entrée plates and eat each bite with a healthy side of rice, much as we had learned in South Korea. The experience was a little piece of “home,” a reminder about where we had lived and how it had changed us. Several years after we left Pasadena, the family that started the Panda Inn began a different restaurant chain, Panda Express, which is now arguably one of our son’s favorite places to eat.
Pasadena was full of dining experiences. In South Pasadena, there was a classic 1960’s diner complete with red shiny plastic seating and waitresses wearing aprons. Besides absolutely fabulous hamburgers, the restaurant was known for their soda shop, which made hand scooped milkshakes, malts and multi-colored Italian sodas. But the best feature of this restaurant for me was the ceiling. It was composed of white mineral fiber – the type of ceiling that you would stare up at during class and count how many holes were on each individual tile. The ritual was simple: after receiving your burger, you would take the toothpick topped with the colorful plastic threads out of your burger, load it pointy end into your straw and then blow the toothpick up and into the ceiling. The ceiling was lined with thousands of said colorful toothpicks, to the point that you had to travel around the restaurant to find a good empty space and use good aim to leave your own mark of the restaurant’s history. Decades later, I excitedly took my wife to visit the restaurant. “You’ve gotta see this place” I said as we were walking down the block to the door. But alas, it was gone. The diner was still there, but it was nothing of its old self. The floors had been covered with polished white and black checkerboard tile; the seats were clean black vinyl and the celling was painted an ordinary semi-gloss white. All of the character had been cleaned away, as had the special menu items, and in the end, even the food tasted sterile.
Despite being the grandson of “Mr. McFry,” I would only infrequently visit the McDonalds close to our apartment. When we did, it was a very special treat to play on the character themed outdoor playground. There was a jail tower shaped like Officer Big Mac, the Hamburgler spring ride and a slide. Often there were also characters outside you could sit on top of or next to like Birdie the Early Bird, the Fry Kids, Grimace and of course Ronald McDonald. Inside, I would normally not be able to get a happy meal – the upcharge for a box, toy and separate fries not justifying the additional cost. But that didn’t matter. I was happy and content just to be eating out at McDonalds with my family. On the few occasions that I did get a happy meal, it was truly a happy meal. It meant not having to share a family fry, having that special red box appear at the table, and looking to see which toy was inside – from pull back cars, miniature food transformers or a figure from the latest movie.
Unlike McDonald’s, Taco Bell was a Southern California creation. My one memory of going to Taco Bell was in anticipation of the well-hyped original Batman movie. For weeks before the release of the movie, commercials for the movie and the Taco Bell partnership had flooded the TV. I knew that it was unlikely that I would be able to get to go to Taco Bell, but by some fortuitous circumstance, we managed to go with some friends. I was able to order what I wanted – tacos, a giant soda (to get the commemorative cup of course) and even a little packet of cinnamon twists. For years after I can remember using my special Taco Bell Batman cup – a functional memento of a happy memory.
We kids were not the only ones having to settle in. Returning to America, Mom and Dad had a steep learning curve as well. When they left for Korea in 1982, the use of personal computers was still in the offing. When they returned, there was not only more to want – including mobile phones and computers – but also socioeconomic changes in the number of people who could buy them. The sheer number of changes were dizzying: Consumer VCRs and video rental stores had become commonplace as had Nintendos and video games. Cars had become smaller and more efficient in design, more like our Pony in Seoul, and cellular telephones were much more commonplace. Minivans had arrived on the American scene as had cocaine on LA streets and Fox became the fourth TV network along with ABC, NBC and CBS. Some of the culture changes were as striking for Mom and Dad as they were for us. We had moved from Middle Class to lower Middle Class just by being gone for four years. Fortunately, by spending so much with other missionaries, pastors and international students at Fuller Mom and Dad were among other like-minded people and thus shielded from most of the rat rice. They were conscious, however, of their kids not having the things other kids had and grateful for supporters who at holidays helped to make up the difference.
Several months after arriving back in Pasadena, after school had begun, our crates of possessions finally arrived. The process of shipping via ocean was a long and involved process that involved building a crate, packing your stuff, calling a freight company to transfer the shipment to a broker, the shipment being loaded into a container for shipment, the boat crossing the ocean, the container being offloaded and emptied, a different broker clearing the shipment through customs, and another freight company delivering the crate to your house. I can remember the day that a large truck pulled up and offloaded the crate and barrels using a lift gate and pallet truck Suddenly, sitting in the sidewalk of our apartment was a large wooden box housing items from a previous life. Dad took at the crate with a hammer, slowly loosening each nail until the lid could be lifted off. As we sorted through the stuff, each of us kids were excited to see our toys and belongings re-appear. “Oh, I remember that” I said as if my memory of a few short months had spanned years.
There really wasn’t much to do around the apartment. The two bedrooms provided cramped quarters for five people – two of them active boys. The simplest activity was sitting down in front of the television. Despite being old and small by American standards, it was large compared to what we were used to in South Korea, was in color and the television shows were in English. To operate the TV, there was a knob that you would pull out to power it up and use the dial selector to choose which one of thirteen channels you wanted to watch – assuming you could get reception of course. When changing the channel and hearing the audio of a particularly interesting show, someone would get up and adjust the rabbit ear antennas – forward, back, in, out, left, right – and just as you found the exact position where the picture showed up, it would disappear as soon as you let go of the antenna. We would sometimes go to work with pieces of aluminum foil, working to create a custom solution to improve the antenna with varying levels of success.
My favorite activity at the apartment was watching Saturday morning cartoons. All of the other mornings had a hurried pace to get out the door to school or church, but on Saturdays you could sleep in, eat breakfast at your leisure, and lay around and watch cartoons for hours. Bugs Bunny, the Smurfs, Scooby-Doo, Alvin and the Chipmunks were some of our favorites. Our parents, exhausted from their rigorous week of studies and assignments welcomed the break and everyone got a chance to sit around and relax. But the best part of Saturday morning cartoons were the commercials. Since companies knew they had a captive kid audience, all of the commercials were focused on getting the kids to convince their parents to part ways with their money for a super cool awesome toy. There were action packed commercials for GI Joe’s, Thundercats, Transformers, Slip and Slides, Kool-aid, Teddy Ruxpin, Cabbage Patch kids, Rainbow Brite, My Little Pony and more than can be listed here. The advertisements made the products look so awesome, that I often found myself enjoying the fast paced, action packed commercials more than the cartoons.
Outside of the apartment, there wasn’t much of anything to play or neighborhood kids to play with, so Mom would drive or walk with us several blocks away to city parks. Most of the city parks had their usual features – metal slides, swing sets, grassy areas to play on and the occasional spinning wheel of death. But my favorite park was located on the East side of Pasadena next to a “Wash” – a giant concrete channel meant to divert floodwaters coming off of the San Gabriel Mountains to the north when it rained. We called it “the Hill Park.” The park had a whole series of large mounds that were good for all of the things kids like doing – rolling, resting and running down. On occasion, after leaving the park, Mom would drive down to the local Thrifty where you could get an ice cream cone with the ice cream in the shape of a cylinder instead of a scoop. I knew that I was going to get a single scoop – cookie dough on a cone of course – but I always loved watching other people order three or even four scoops and the employee building a tall mint chip, chocolate, strawberry and vanilla tower.
At some point during the week, given that both of our parents were students, our family would make their way to the Pasadena Public Library. It was a massive and imposing structure totaling 110,000 square feet. For several years I would sit in the kids wing and scroll through the various kid books. When I was looking for something in particular, the librarian would help me go to the card catalogues – tall towers of wooden drawers containing thousands of index cards – each with information about a single book. I would ask the librarian for books about bugs or tanks and she would sift through the various drawers, reading the titles of various books. When you heard a title that captured your interest, she would use a pencil and paper to write down the book number, where you could then go searching through the shelves. The saying “never judge a book by it’s cover” quickly gave way to “never judge a book by it’s name” because some of the coolest sounding titles were horrible books whereas the simple “Tanks” book next to it was awesome. As I got older, I was allowed to wander out of the kids section and into the huge standard library. I would go exploring through the different sections, staring at the sheer quantity of books. But the section I most enjoyed looking through was science – from biology to medicine to astronomy.
Despite God providing our daily needs, each of us had our prayer requests for wants. I wanted a bed. I had been sleeping on the floor in-between my brother and sister since our arrival in Pasadena. There was not enough room for three beds to fit in the small room and bunk beds were prohibitively expensive to buy, so I hoped and prayed for a miracle. God answered my prayer in the form of the crate itself, which Dad tore down and built a a bunk bed the wood. Some friends had given some extra money for other supplies needed and a mattress and I was able to have the bed of my dreams. Today, that same bed is setup in my parents’ house, where the grandchildren sleep when visiting Grandma and Grandpas’ house – a tangible symbol of how God’s providence of the little things can have a long reaching impact.
Other prayers were answered, too. One day my brother had a hankering for Ritz crackers – something that we normally didn’t buy, nor was in the budget. There was a minor argument between Mom and my brother which culminated with Mom saying the words “If you want Ritz crackers so much, say a prayer and ask God for some.” You could tell from the tone of Mom’s voice that she wasn’t joking about the suggestion and you could also tell from my brother’s teenage reaction walking down the hall that her suggestion was not going to move hearts. Twenty minutes after the argument had concluded and all had settled down, there was a knock on the door. Mom opened the door and was greeted by a Nabisco representative, asking for feedback about, you guessed it, Ritz crackers. Without missing a beat, Mom called Josh to the door to meet the Ritz cracker lady, answer her questions and earn his free sample. As the door shut, with a small brown plastic bag of Ritz crackers in hand, each of us could see how God’s hand moved to provide my brother with his Ritz crackers and later, became a symbol of our need to ask God first for our needs.
My sister had a prayer request, too. She needed a space of her own; sharing a room with her two brothers did not lend much privacy. Although the tiny hall closet had become her makeshift space it was hard on her back and she was getting older. Dad was about to get lumber to build a small corner for her in the living room when God answered our prayers—Mom went to campus and discovered the missionary home on Lambert was available. Filling in the forms that night, we were granted access the next week to a beautiful three bedroom home, complete with a living room and fireplace and a separate dining room with breakfast nook! God’s gracious provision was so much more than we could ask or think!
Remembering back on those days of nostalgia, I can say I was very grateful for those years. Being poor kept me grounded in understanding what was important in life and being able to see God’s provision for our needs. It also gave our relatives and supporters the ability to make a real and tangible difference in our lives through the little things, for which we are forever grateful. And it was the connection through our friends and family that helped us finally feel settled in, the feeling of home.
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