On She Goes

Returning to My Father’s Koreatown

Looking back at family, food, and memories in this Los Angeles neighborhood.

Margaret Rhee
Margaret Rhee
August 18, 2017
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For many, Koreatown’s bright signage, plethora of restaurants, and popular bars make it an exotic and trendy section of Los Angeles to visit. But for me, within its large communities of ethnic diversity—Salvadorian, Mexican, and Korean immigrants—is where I feel at home. My parents immigrated to the US from Korea in the 1970s, and I was born in Los Angeles. They first settled in Koreatown, then soon moved to the northern part of Orange County, where I grew up.

It wasn’t The O.C. you remember from the popular TV show; it was less dense and more sprawling, with modest cream-colored homes in our suburban neighborhood. It had quiet residential streets, not like the bustling streets of Koreatown lit up with signs in Korean. After my parents divorced in my early teens, my father moved to a small apartment in Koreatown. Whenever I went to visit, we would frequent restaurants in the city together for lunch or dinner.

photo by Margaret Rhee

When I was younger, my experience of travel was mainly with my father. I would visit him in Koreatown, and we took road trips to the nearby bordering states of Nevada and Utah. We’d visit national parks and spend time in the outdoors, and my father loved to document the nature we saw. Although he immigrated as an auto mechanic, my father dreamed of traveling the US and taking video of national parks. At one point, in his characteristically eccentric way, he thought he would sell the video footage to other Koreans thinking of immigrating to the US. Usually it would be me and him, but when my sister was home from college, she would join us too. Once we even attended an air show in the desert, and in Vegas we visited the bustling and busy casinos where my father would gamble. Like the games in the casinos we frequented, my father’s immigration was a gamble, one he often did not win because he was unable to pursue much outside of his daily work because of his limited English language skills.

He would always let me choose the place, but if he could choose, he would take us to a “Omma Jip” restaurant. Often my choice would be to let him choose, so Omma would be where we’d go.

The travel wasn’t to Italy, Switzerland, or even Korea, but when I visited my father in Los Angeles, it felt like another world. Although the community where I grew up in Orange County had a sizable Korean population, it lacked a variety of Korean restaurants that my father and I could frequent together. After the divorce, the hour-long lunches and dinners we planned, mostly every two weeks, would be the only time I would see my father. He would always let me choose the place, but if he could choose, he would take us to a “Omma Jip” restaurant. Often my choice would be to let him choose, so Omma would be where we’d go.

Omma Jip means “Mother’s House” in Korean, and it was appropriately named for the comfort it offered. These storefront restaurants are small, comfortable, and no-nonsense. Prices were cheap, with the caveat that you would only get one small dish of banchan along with your bowl of soup and stew. But that was okay. For the steaming seolleongtang stew, with its green onions and thick white soup, one would only need a side of kimchi anyway. There are a couple of Omma Jip restaurants that still exist, with names such as Halmae Restaurant (“Grandmother’s Restaurant”), and they still serve people who would like a simple and cheap Korean meal, and a comforting space in the busy city.

photo by ARTRAN/Shutterstock

These Korean restaurants would never make a “best-of” list—they were not hot spots. These restaurants, I soon realized, were also a place where bachelors could go eat alone. The atmosphere was antithetical to trendy. There were no tourists here, just simple wood tables and chairs, and an ah juh ma who would serve you swiftly and without frills. During the times I went to Omma Jip with my father, I noticed that there were not many families there. Instead, there were single, older Korean men who could eat Korean food at low prices, without the self-consciousness of not belonging. My father, who had no family to eat dinner with, would often come here to have a Korean meal. I was happy to visit the restaurant with him. 

When I reflect on it now, I feel sad that my father would have to go to these restaurants for a home-cooked meal, but I am comforted that they existed. I wish we could have cooked for him more, even if his apartment didn’t have a large kitchen, or even if there was not much I could make at that young age. However, when we went to the restaurant together, I felt it was a time to connect. At Omma Jip, we could enjoy a Korean meal and talk about school or how my father was doing with his work. If we had time afterward, we would stop by the nearby cafe for dessert. It was just a block away and a “trendier” place—Korean pop music, large white sofas, and young Korean waitresses and waiters dressed in black. While it was more expensive than Omma Jip, my father never complained when we ordered bing soo, the popular Korean ice cream, or his overpriced Korean tea. We sat outside and watched as people went about their day in K-Town.

My father, who had no family to eat dinner with, would often come here to have a Korean meal. I was happy to visit the restaurant with him.

Koreatown is densely packed with terra-cotta apartment buildings, towering palm trees planted on sidewalks, and folks walking in the neighborhood. Bright signs with Korean lettering are juxtaposed with high-rise buildings. Along with newer blue glass buildings, there are Korean BBQ restaurants and countless karaoke bars. Rental signs are in Korean, Spanish, and English. My father’s apartment was near a laundry/fast-food restaurant where you could eat french fries while waiting for your clothes to dry. If we didn’t meet at Omma Jip, we often met him there because it was convenient. Going to K-Town was also a way to connect to Korean culture and language. Since we didn’t visit Korea when I was a child, Koreatown was a stand-in for my understanding of diaspora and the first country my father called home.

My father passed away now almost fifteen years ago, and I’ve almost forgotten those times we spent at the restaurants. My nostalgia and grief changed into trying to remember, but I do not attempt to place the memories in language. My father, while he could not take me to many places growing up, prompted a love for travel in me, even if only in words. My father loved to explore the US, and he loved to see the new country he adopted as his own. Through travel, I believe it was his way of feeling he belonged. The author Edwidge Danticat wrote something that I always found resonant, but I am reminded of it even more when I think of my father and why I write:

“ . . . the immigrant artist must quantify the price of the American dream in flesh and bone. All this while living with the more ‘regular’ fears of any other artist. Do I know enough about where I’ve come from? Will I ever know enough about where I am? Even if someone has died for me to stay here, will I ever truly belong?”

I hold Danticat’s words on the fears of the immigrant artist. I realize my father’s American dream was quite simple. I think back on one of our trips, when we traveled out to the ports in Southern California. There we stood, looking through the round windows of ships, where he shared he would like to live on a boat and travel. He dreamed of travel and how it offered a sense of autonomy and belonging, something oftentimes withheld from the grasp of immigrants’ hands. I wonder what I inherited, if I will “ever know enough,” and even with my father’s passing, “will I ever truly belong?”

Restaurant sign at a Umma Jip in Koreatown.
photo by Margaret Rhee

Writing, like travel, is a means of escape. It is also a way to belong, even if only on the page, or on the airplane. After 15 years of devoting myself to writing and with my first book coming later this year, I was suddenly reminded of my father and why I travel and write. My book isn’t about my father, Los Angeles, or immigrants. It is a poetry collection about robots and love. But the experience of taking author photos for the book in Koreatown reminded me of how a place has so much to do with memory and family.

Writing, like travel, is a means of escape. It is also a way to belong, even if only on the page, or on the airplane.

I had decided that I would return to K-Town to have my photos taken, for a small portrait on my first book that would forever serve as a reminder of home. The photographer met me off Wilshire Boulevard, not too far from where my father had lived off Bonnie Brae Street. At one point, we walked on Wilshire, past Western Avenue and into an alleyway with two Korean newspaper vending machines. The photographer asked me to lean against the green metal box with black and white Korean lettering, and I was suddenly struck with a memory of my father.

Growing up, my father loved to read the Korean newspaper. When he was ill, before I went to the hospital, I would stop by these vending machines to buy a newspaper for him. I remember holding the newspaper up with both hands so he could read from his hospital bed. I turned the pages as he read the headlines. I remember him telling me, after reading each headline in his usual curmudgeonly way, that the headlines were no good.

In his last days when he was ill in the hospital, I remember him telling me in Korean, I can’t wait until you, me, and your sister travel and drink soda again.

My father never was able to travel with my sister and me again. Sadly, he passed away soon after. On the day we took the author photos, I had almost forgotten the memory that helped explain why I had returned to Koreatown to take these photos to accompany my own writing. Since I write about science-fiction worlds, the book reminded me of how I too travel, even if only through literature. Perhaps I write in order to remind myself that through language we all belong. After I said goodbye to the photographer, I stood for a moment at an intersection on Wilshire. The cars passed me, fast and hurried squares of color. As I stood there, the cool California breeze softly met my face. When the traffic lights turned, I began walking. I was not lost. I knew exactly where to go.