Center of the Universe (47)
When Maria was approved for citizenship and Kang — who’d submitted at the same time — was not, when the dot-gov form-letter told Maria she was cleared to come aboard, at the same time telling Kang they’d lost his paperwork, I ventured a dinner-table improv about a Trumpland security stooge reacting to an application from North Korea.
“Oh, sure, I’ll get right on that — in hell.”
If it wasn’t as funny as I thought, it also wasn’t, in this historically xenophobic context, farfetched. And certainly the good reverend’s timing was unfortunate. The very moment his forms — painstakingly completed with the help of Sonia — were making their way through the lower intestine of the approval process — this close to freedom’s ring — their Supreme Idiot decided to threaten Guam, and our Supreme Idiot threatened to nuke North Korea back. And here comes Kang’s application. But I guess there aren’t enough stormtroopers yet installed to carry out the Orange Supremacist’s every base-licking whim. And last Friday, Kang announced — in his inaudible way — that he’d been approved, too.
He was obviously relieved, and, sure, proud. But it wasn’t exactly American-flag undies time. Because Reverend Kang isn’t so much into patriotism. And in a country as self-congratulatory about self-love — as porch-flag-flying, lapel-pin-wearing, grade-school-allegiance-pledging, pre-game-anthem-singing (with or without knee), seventh-inning pseudo-anthem singing and novelty-underwear-gifting — that kind of thing, in the blue and red eyes of some white Americans, is the mark of a turncoat.
“I’ve had four citizenships,” Kang explains, sitting beside his Brazil-born bride at the Family Table, counting for emphasis on his fingers. “Korean, Japanese, Brazilian. Now US.”
He pauses. “When I arrived in Brazil, I had to list nationality as ‘indefinite.’”
He reminds us of the history of Korea, annexed by the Japanese in 1910 and partitioned — “temporarily” — by the UN in 1945, with the north, after an election overseen by the Soviets, becoming a one-party Communist state under Kim-Il-sung — Haircut 100’s grandpa — in 1949.
“I learned more about Japanese history than Korean,” says Kang, born in 1928 and schooled under the occupation. “I only studied Korean language until third grade. After that, it was all Japanese. In school, in public places. Speaking out loud in Korean, we would be punished. We couldn’t sing the Korean anthem. They even changed my name to Japanese name!”
“And then,” he points out, “Communists took power and reinvented history all over again. So, really, idea of citizenship to me is meaningless.”
Not to say he isn’t happy with his new status. He is. They both are — although, once more, the motivation might not be what you’d expect.
“I want to help someone,” says Maria in the near-whisper that is her conversational voice.
“You mean you want to help bring other friends and family members in?” I try to clarify, leaning closer.
“No,” Maria says, “I want to volunteer.” She means, officially, become part of a volunteer staff. “You can’t if you’re not a citizen.”
“Brazil was so poor it was easy to help people,” Kang chimes in. “Here, I can’t help so much.” He’s talking about helping with money, donations, and his point — which is also something of a mea culpa — is that a struggling American may actually be better off than a preacher from Korea, via Brazil, on a pension.
Their daughters take turns helping “Mommy” and “Daddy” get all they need (which is sometimes off the menu and spoken in Portuguese). While the younger, Sonia, was born in the States when the Kangs were at the seminary in San Anselmo, both sisters went to high school here, living for years with the families of seminary friends. And now in a gentle statement of distress that’s as close as she comes to an emotional outburst, Maria shares a couple other reasons she wanted to stay in America.
“My kids were here. When my kids were here, I was miserable in Brazil.”
“She got an ulcer from worrying,” says Kang. “Brazilian doctor said, Why your children in US?!? This is the problem!”
Kang adds, “And we had no phone. Thieves cut wire. For copper.”
The Kangs got their green cards in ’93 during his second seminary stint, studying for a Ph.D. They returned to Brazil for another decade, but finally in the early Oughts retired to Fairfax and an idyllic cottage with a vegetable garden behind Soy and John and the grandkids.
“I still have family in Brazil,” Maria goes on, “and I miss them. But with a green card, I could only visit for one month. And last time I was there, I got very, very sick. When I came back my face was so, so pale, and my eyes were so red, and I was wearing a mask. Immigration lady wanted to know why I was wearing a mask. I said, Very sick. And she made me take off my mask, and they took a picture, and they were not going to let me back in. After that, I said I don’t want to do this anymore.”
I expect them to say they applied for citizenship now because of worries about the new president — Kang always clucks at the mention of the name.
“Were there political reasons for you to apply at this time?” I probe.
“I like to vote, ” says Kang. “Maria, I don’t know.”
“Well, in Brazil,” says Maria, “until you’re 65, it’s an obligation to vote.”
“In North Korea,” Kang notes, with a chuckle that glosses over the years of torment, “party picks one candidate, and everyone must vote for him. If party member in street asks you about candidate, you must know where he studied, where he works, his family, qualifications—or be punished.”
“And what about all the questions on the citizenship test?” I ask them.
“Oh, the test was hard for me,” says Maria (though her husband wants me to know she still managed to get all 20 questions right). “But the hardest was when they asked: Can you defend the US? And I said, Well, I never learned to use a gun. But if somebody teaches me, I can. And then they all” — Maria puts her hands together and almost laughs — “clapped!”
The application process took seven months total, the in-person part an hour.
“Everyone at immigration was so nice,” says Kang. “While Brazilians are very kind and generous people, in public business they are corrupt. So corrupt! Many governments, so corrupt. The man at the dry cleaner” — Kang points out the window to where my new car is parked — “he is Korean. He said it’s nice here because the taxman doesn’t come first and ask for a bribe.”
John strolls in and sits next to me. I indicate the laptop on the table and warn I’m interviewing his in-laws for the blog. He says, “You should’ve seen him preach. Quite a spectacle.” And if his relationship with his father-in-law is not always silky, there’s unalloyed affection in that comment. Gary rolls in and sits next to Roni and starts talking about my next-door neighbor shooting coyotes in last week’s post. I point to the laptop and tell him I’m interviewing the Kangs for the next one. Then a gray-maned Brooklyn imp appears at the open window, and all hope is lost.
With one hand, George lights a Jamaican-style spliff and, with the other, tries to fan the smoke into the restaurant. Not so much upset as a-flutter, Maria looks left and right and smiles. She’s seen this act before, and, besides, I’d guess the compact bad boy with the butt-long ponytail is a favorite. I‘d guess he’s everybody’s. The ex Merchant Mariner returned last night from three weeks in Europe and a pleasure cruise down the Danube. With the family table at capacity, he sits at the nearby four-top and turns his chair sideways.
“The Danube is not blue!” he exclaims in his dense accent. “I told the people on the boat, Look, the Danube is not blue. And this lady said to me, When the sun is overhead, shining a certain angle, it is. So on a gorgeous day, when the sun was overhead just right, I said to her: See, lady, the Danube is not blue!”
I say to George, “Well, the guy did write that song like 300 years ago.” [Actually, 151 — ed.]
In any case, it’s clear the interview has been irrevocably swamped by surging bonhomie. I tell the Kangs I might call them tomorrow and urge George to tell us more about his trip. But that just makes the salty Old Salt determined not to — George don’t jig for no man. And eventually I see Maria and Kang are tiring, and since I’m still not drinking and it’s Wednesday — no Wendy, no Gio — I am, too. Roni and I exchange eyeballs, and I offer our friends, the Sisters’ parents, a ride home.
“Mind if we make a quick stop?”
Kang snaps his head sideways in a way I know means yes, but to the uninitiated might seem grudging. And, as I make my now standard apologies for the e-Tron not being as roomy as the Prius, we jam our creaky bods into cramped seats and drive on electric power the five blocks to the PO Box. As we wait for Roni to grab the bills, we chat some more. Kang doesn’t remember that we’re departing the US in two weeks.
“For how long are you going?” he says, with concern.
“Are you going far away?” says Maria.
“Italy,” I say. “Florence, Italy.”
A citizen of the United States draws a breath and puts her hand to chest as if to say oh my.