In June 2020, MAEKAN and Intertrend, a multicultural agency based on Long Beach, co-presented a virtual iteration of our speaker series Unexpected Connections. Talks, for the most part, were formatted in this way: two people from different backgrounds come together in conversation, finding through discussion the ways in which their worlds overlap and relate to one another.
Three serendipitous conversations that took place that day which represent this format working beautifully are Kristen Kish and James Whitner speaking about small businesses, Evan Kleiman and Craig Mod on the subjects of walking and cooking, and Trevor Moawad and Jason Mayden talking about resilience. None of the individuals in these pairs had met, and in some cases were not familiar with the other person’s work, prior to speaking live together.
In organizing Unexpected Connections, we asked participating speakers to be willing to share their spotlights and to give up control. The nature of these conversations is unscripted and depends on two people’s willingness to be vulnerable with a virtual stranger and in good faith—a bit like improv—find how their individual perspectives add to what is being shared.
On his own, artist David Choe demonstrated having total trust in strangers: the unseen viewers. In the middle of the all-day live programming was a one hour pre-recorded segment supplied by the artist. He spoke on the theme of the event, “It All Adds Up”, in a way that will seem meandering and at times shocking, but reaches, in the end, a deep personal reckoning and a call for you to do the same.
The transcript that follows has been edited to reflect the source material as closely as possible but may contain errors.
Hey, Asians. Hi, Asians.
I realize there’s probably also non-Asians also listening to this, but I’m guessing it’s mostly Asians, so non-Asians let me address my gook brethren first, and then you guys can play along.
So speaking gook to gook, I know you’re good at math, try to add this up for me. Try to solve this equation. If you need pen and paper, do it.
I want to fuck my mom. I want to kill my mom. These are two things that I addressed with my therapist today an hour ago on our Zoom chat during this pandy. Just kidding. I don’t want to kill my mom. “Notice how he didn’t correct himself about the fucking part. He must want to fuck his mom!”
Maybe if she shaves. I’m exaggerating right now. I don’t want to kill my mom or fuck my mom, but I do have a love/hate relationship with her. And, um, it’s hard for me to grow as a human being and assert myself and be an individual because part of being Asian is very clan-like. There is no individual. Everything is family-first. “So where do you start? And where do I begin? And where do you end and where do I end and begin and start and begin and…” Infinity loop. And crossing boundaries. And…
“Mooooom!” That’s what I sound like when I talk about my mom and I’m 44 years old. “Mom! Get out of here, mom!”
My mom used to manage this apartment building in Koreatown and every time a tenant moved out me and my brothers would come in and we’d repaint the rooms and sometimes if there were a lot of rooms and we had to paint the outsides, then we’d use a painting service and that’s when I met Pablo, the artist.
Not Pablo Picasso, he was a painter, Pablo the painter, but not Picasso. I actually don’t know his last name. And he’d have his painting crew and we’d paint with him. And, I don’t know, we were in high school. And Pablo and his crew, they’d have this old beat-up stereo and as we painted everyday, boom bink bink boom bink bink doom dum dum doom ba-da-bum bum bink, like the accordion.
I just asked him one day, “Hey, um, I know you’re Mexican and you don’t speak English that good, but, I don’t know…”, and this is pre-Internet, pre-YouTube and all that, I go, “Is there anything else you listen to? I mean, I love new music and all that, but everyday, day in and day out, there’s no variance on that?” It’s ranchera banda norteño music.
“Hey, come on, man”, I’m not being racist, that’s what he sounded like, “Hey, come on, man”, and I said, “What?” I would identify at that age as a punk rocker metalhead and yet I still listened to hiphop and TLC, ABC, Boyz II Men, not a lot, but I’d be like… I’m like, “Okay, cool, 90% of the time?” Boom bink bink boom bink bink
Is it a translation thing? I mean, there’s Gloria Estefan, if you’re into metal sepultura, Kid Frost, I mean, there’s other genres. I’m like, is this just a thing with day laborers who only listen to this music? I had questions. His English wasn’t that great.
“Does it get you guys fucking pumped up? Ready to paint? I don’t speak Spanish, what are they saying?” And he’s like, “Hey, man, listen.”
And he explains to me, “I miss home, it makes me think of home, it makes me think of my family there that I’m working for. This music is romantica, it’s romantic, there’s songs of redemption and revenge and there’s a story.” And I’m like, “Okay, I’m just curious, I just wanted to know.” I mean, I can’t listen to heavy metal 100% of the time, you gotta mix it up. And, I don’t know, is Brahms, is classical… I’ve never walked past a construction site with a bunch of Mexican guys working and they play classical music, that’d be pretty cool, I mean, there’s no words in that. You don’t need to speak any English to understand that, but no Beethoven or…?
“Hey, why you give me a hard time? Let’s just get back to work.” And so we finish, you know, that’s when I was a real artist, a real painter, not a fancy painter, just painting gesso, white walls. Boom bink bink boom bink bink boom bink bink.
So I had a show about two, three years ago, called The Choe Show and I won’t even begin to try to describe it, but what I did realize is that I hate, for the most part, the art going experience today, in modern society. You go to an art museum or gallery, take out your phone, you take a selfie, you just post that you went to the show. You don’t sit there, you don’t appreciate it, and why would you? It’s fucking boring. Why would you stare at a painting when there’s Destiny and Warcraft and porn and video games and Netflix and Hulu and Amazon blblblblblblblhrptt… somebody put in some crazy like time lapse montage right there, like, “I’m going crazy, it’s too much! Too much!”
So I thought I’d slow down my entire life and go against my instinct, my instinct with my fragile ego and my sensitivities was that I had not had an art show since 2009 and so “I’m back!” If I’m coming back in 2018, or whatever year that was, I gotta get a publicist, and I gotta have people ‘gramming about my stuff and tweeting and saying “Dave’s the best!” to feed my fragile ego, but that’s just… it just… I had to have that kind of validation. I had to have my peers and the press and the fans come and be like, “Wow, this fucker’s on fire!” Thousands of paintings!
And what I did instead was I went against my instinct and I said no phones allowed and instead of making it a free for all, I just wanted people who actually really cared to come and the way I found that out was by doing an application where I called… Well, 2,000 people came to the show and I took a year to call close to 20,000 people by telephone.
And it was amazing what I found out after talking to 20,000 people, which is one, I start sounding like this at the end of the day when I’ve talked on the phone like a telemarketer for eight hours. And the other thing I found out was one of my questions was, “What is your greatest wish or desire in this life?” And I found out that most immigrant kids, second generation, third, fourth generation, the newbies, the new ones to this country, was that, their greatest wish and desire in this lifetime is to make their parents proud. And I’m not judging, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s an honorable—“Yes, honorable mother and father!”—that’s a great wish or desire to have.
Do white people care about making their parents proud? Serious question. I have no idea. Answer in the comments. And as I look at this nation, this great nation of immigrants, people say, “Hey, if you’re an American, that means you’re from somewhere else. You’re a nation of immigrants from Italy and Spain and China, Japan, Africa.” Yeah, that might be true, but what I’ve realized is that we’re a nation of workaholics. Workaholism, that’s an addiction when you work, when you’re not present. There’s no present. If you’re not present, there’s no presence.
So what do I mean by that? I mean, nobody was born in their country and was like, “Fuck this place, let’s get on a boat, let’s get on a plane, let’s get on a bus, and go to another place.” Unless! War, famine, violence, poverty. So everyone that’s here is a trauma survivor escaping a horrible situation, so they hit the ground running when they get here, they’re like, we didn’t fucking just travel, all these hundreds, thousands of miles to come here to fucking slack. So they carry all that burden from their generations of their families here and they put that onto you. “We didn’t fucking come here for a second-class life. We came here for a better life.” That’s workaholism. That’s trauma surviving workaholism. They put that shit on you so you fucking hate your job. And, um…
That was very presumptuous, I don’t know if you hate your job. I don’t even know if you have a job. Probably not, we’re in the middle of a panda right now, everyone’s losing their jobs. I’ve been jobless. Job-less, is that a reggae scene? I hear “job” in reggae songs.
My greatest wish or desire in this lifetime is to honor thy parents, make them proud of me. Make them proud. There’s nothing wrong with that. And for me, I had a… because I have the “I want to fuck my mom, I want to kill my mom” dynamic, I just…
I love my parents, I do want them to be proud of me but I also fucking hate them. And I wasn’t brave enough to become homosexual so I went to the next best thing of graffiti artist, comic book artist. That’s the absolute, shameful job profession. That’s not even a job. Doing graffiti. That’s not even “artist”, it’s graffiti vandal. It’s criminal.
It’s like, how can I humiliate and embarrass my parents? Well, I can start sucking dick even though I’m gay, but I’ll do it just so that they’ll be pissed off at me. I have a very fragile sensitivity to emotions and very sensitive butthole so I didn’t become gay, even though I thought about it, just to piss my parents off, so I went to the next best thing of graffiti vandal. Which gets me in the most shameful situation of prison in Japan, Tokyo, Shibuya, Shibuya Station, over fifteen years ago. There’s nothing more shameful and embarrassing for a parent than for their children to become criminals and end up in prison. That was the hardest time of my life.
And it felt a little bit like right now, when I talk to my friends and I say, “Hey, how are you doing during this pandemic, this panda, this pandy?” They go, “Man, I can’t tell if time is moving slow, fast, time’s moving weird.” I go, “You know what you call that time, it’s jail time. When you’re in jail with other inmates and they’re like, ‘When are you getting out? Three days? Oh, when are you getting out? Thirty years from now?’” It’s like you’re living a half life. You’re still alive, you’re still breathing, and eating and shitting, but this, “When I get out of here,” that’s very similar to now when people are like, “When this thing is all over I’m going to do this and I’m going to make these great changes in my life.”
“I love my parents, I do want them to be proud of me but I also fucking hate them. And I wasn’t brave enough to become homosexual so I went to the next best thing of graffiti artist, comic book artist. That’s the absolute, shameful job profession. That’s not even a job. Doing graffiti. That’s not even “artist”, it’s graffiti vandal. It’s criminal.”
The first part before I was shipped off to solitary confinement in Kosuge was Shibuya Station’s dirty downtown Tokyo prison with tons of inmates, mostly Japanese and 10% foreigners all in for some type of drug possession. So you’re sort of packed in like sardines and I was in there for a few weeks before they shipped me off to solitary confinement, which is for every inmate, I wasn’t special. It was just for everyone. Everyone gets their only little tuna fish can cell.
And I was in a cell with a Japanese guy that looked like Ross from Friends, except he had these fucking long, long dreadlocks down to his asshole. And this shit smelled like soy sauce, nigiri, spicy tuna handroll? Maybe just because it looked like… maybe it was psychological placebo, like it looks like a long handroll so maybe I thought I smelled it? But shit smelled like premium soy sauce to me. Low sodium. The green top. And a Korean breakdancer. He had four fingers. His name was Jin. Or he had nine fingers. He had four on one hand. I never got the full story of why that was.
I’ve told this story before, but in any prison, Japanese prison, American prison, Afghani prison, you’re just killing time. You’re just sitting there in boredom, killing time and waiting, waiting to get out. And so, they don’t give a shit what you do in the outside world, what your job is, what’s your profession, the only thing that matters is killing time and if you have any skill to kill time, you’re a juggler, you’re a magician, you’re a comedian, you’re an artist, you’re a dancer, you’re an actor —anything to entertain you and get your mind off this desolate situation, you become a celebrity.
And because I could draw I became a celebrity in jail and this guy Jin with nine fingers would start the day spinning on his fucking head. He was a Korean breakdancer. I mean, I don’t know if that’s what he did for a living, but this guy was fucking amazing.
Now, he wasn’t a Korean American, he was a Korean Canadian, and he got into pot dealing out in Tokyo and got busted. Now, I fucking hate Canada and I hate reggae. Like everyone has a, “March to the beat of your own drummer.” Well, my drummer plays… what do you call it? Blast beats! My drummer plays blast beats. Double bass, Metallica: One, Lars Ulrich, that’s my speed. So when I hear slow music, like reggae, I get, actually, angry. I get pissed off.
Canada? The fuck outta here. I was hitchhiking across America and Canada when I was 18 with Harry Kim. I had a car that we bought. I guess that’s not hitchhiking, I just lied to you. I bought a car with all my friends and it broke down at Niagara Falls. And the guy fixed the car for us for cheap, super nice, he could’ve ripped us off, I don’t know shit about cars, I’m not an auto dude. And he said, “Let’s take it for a spin. I don’t want to get you on the road.” I was like, “Oh, you don’t have to go that far.”
The guy stops at his preschool and has his granddaughters come out to kiss grandpappy, mwah mwah. “Now that’s what it’s about. That’s what life’s all about. You know what I’m talking about, eh?” I wanted to fucking kill this guy. Like, this isn’t real, this isn’t life. You’re an auto guy, you should be trying to rip me off. You shouldn’t be taking me to your preschool and showing me how much your granddaughters love you. Fucking grease monkey. Maple leaf wearing fucking hockey puck sucking fuck. I don’t know where I’m going with this story at all, I’m hoping this all adds up in the end.
So I’m in the most [sobbing sounds], that’s an impression of my mom. I feel very liberated and free to make fun of her because I know she’s never going to listen to this. [Sobbing sounds] That’s my mom crying, “My son!”, when she finds out I’m in jail. The most shameful un-proud moment of my life. We raised this little snot-nosed little fucker from a child and he gets to somewhat of a reputable place in his profession where he’s being flown to Japan for an art show and he blows the entire opportunity by drawing bucktoothed whales on the wall. It just doesn’t make any sense.
My mom’s birthday always falls around Mother’s Day. Her birthday is May 13 and Mother’s Day is… so it’s always around the same time or on the same day. And because I want to fuck her and kill her, there’s a mental block, a psychological block, that creates… I’m 44 and I can’t remember my mom’s birthday. I almost forget it every year. Sometimes I do forget it. But it’s not like that with any other member of my family.
The first time I made a lot of money, you best believe that bitch got some shrimp with the tails on, surf and turf, she got both, cause as a son, I wanted to make her proud, like, “Look, mom, I got a credit card now and I can buy you these fucking red lobsters, these fucking insects, these things that crawl in the ocean and taste so meaty in their ass, butter it up. Lube the asses up with butter, you want another one? You want two?” “Excuse me, can you go to the tank and get the ones with the biggest claws, my mom would like two.”
And that’s what I did. It’s her birthday, it’s Christmas, it’s Thanksgiving, it’s Mother’s Day. Doesn’t matter. Go on Yelp, do the dollar sign, four. Four dollar signs means the most expensive restaurant and that’s how I show love, that’s how I show that she should be fucking proud of her rich son, and I take her to the finest restaurants in Los Angeles and all over the world.
We just took a trip to Espana and Italia, right before the panda. And we can’t do that, we’re in the middle of a panda right now, that’d be irresponsible. Unsafe to bring my senior citizen parents to a fucking restaurant, eatery. Alright, whatever, I know a lot of chefs. I know fancy chefs. I know ching chong Chang. He’s a Momo-cuckoo. She don’t want that.
What? This is what rich people do. They go eat out at nice restaurants and if they don’t, they get a private chef or they have the food delivered. “No. I want my son to cook for me on my birthday.” “What? That’s poor people shit. I’m not going to cook for you. That’s gross.” “No, I’m 74 years old and I want my son to cook for me.” Fuck, man, like I don’t got enough shit to do. Okay. I have literally nothing to do, if you don’t remember, job-less. So that doesn’t add up. I want to spoil my mom, I want to…
So that morning I call her and I say happy birthday and she breaks down into tears, but it doesn’t sound like the time I called her in jail fifteen years ago, it’s a different [sobbing sounds]. And, you know, fine, okay, those are happy tears, you’re joyful, whatever, I don’t know why you’re crying. But it just went on. It went on. I don’t know. I don’t know what the appropriate length of time when someone says happy birthday and you burst into tears you should cry for. Ten seconds? Thirty seconds? This went over a minute, probably closer to two or three minutes. I could’ve defrosted a bean, rice, and cheese burrito from Trader Joe’s in that time, but that’s how it long it lasted, cause I looked at my watch. Sorry, my phone, and it just kept going on.
I said, “You okay?”, and said, “No, I’m fine. I’m fine, I’m fine. I’m just happy. I’m happy that my son loves me.” I say, “Okay, so, look, I’m going to be in the fucking kitchen all day. Come early.” My parents are old, they like to eat early, sit on the deck, watch the sunset.
So I become, uh, I’m on YouTube, I’m Master Chef, I gotta make her a cake, but it can’t be too sweet because my family is mostly diabetic. So I’m going to make a light, fluffy, Japanese sponge cake. I’ve never made a fucking sponge cake before. Do you know how hard this shit is? Do you know how hard this shit is? It’s actually not hard at all, it’s soft and fluffy. But making it is hard, real hard. You gotta get the eggs, you gotta separate the egg whites, you gotta make a separate thing with the this, and you gotta have these tools where you’re like folding shit in, you gotta get that little spatula white thing and fluff it in and then you fluff the egg white mixture and…
“I’m a chef! I’m a chef! I gotta fucking tattoo of a butcher knife on my fucking forearm and I have produce and vegetables and meat products on my biceps!” I don’t know why I just made fun of chefs, they never did anything to me. “Well, I’m an artist. I got a fucking jar of ink tattooed on my nut sack and my penis is a brush.” I don’t have that, I don’t have any tattoos. “My body is a temple.”
So I’m in the kitchen slaving over this fucking cake and I’m making food for her, I’m making my famous pasta. It’s not famous, it’s just people in my family like it. And I’m reading these instructions and I’m watching the YouTube of, like, you can’t over-fluff and fold because then you over-beat the eggs. I don’t know how the fuck you over-beat an egg, then you’re not going to get the bubbles and it’s not going to be… So I’m trying to not over-beat my eggs. I’m trying not to over-beat my thick mixture and keep it the right consistency.
And I’m folding and I’m folding this cake in and my parents show up and the food’s about ready, and we have a nice dinner, we watch the sunset. I bring the cake out, we sing happy birthday, and my mom, she starts crying again, “Yo, mom, enough.”
I want people to feel their feelings. I want you to emote if you feel emotional, but, you know, talk it out. It’s just weird when someone’s just… you know, my dad tries to shut it down immediately. “Yeah, okay, enough, enough of that.” He can’t stand displays of any kind of emotion. “Okay, okay, okay.” “Dad, let the bitch cry, it’s her birthday. She wants to fucking cry, let her cry it out.”
And she just goes into one of her rants. Here she is just dripping, just it doesn’t add up at all. She’s dripping with emeralds that I bought her from Colombia and diamonds from France and mixed in with like PlayDoh brooch. Is that what you call it? A brooch? A broo-chay? A broach? Whatever. She’s got PlayDoh brooches all over her breast, chest, and neck area from when I was in kindergarten. She saved everything. Everything I’ve ever fucking made for her. Cheap plastic McDonald’s toy pin, cheap PlayDoh shit that I made when I was in second grade mixed with the most expensive jewelry known to man. And just sitting there looking like a Batman rogue’s gallery villain. Like she should be in the next Batman movie. Warner Brothers, call me! DC, call me, Jim Lee! If anyone out there has heard my mom’s laugh, it’s maniacal, it sounds insane. It sounds like Satan is whispering right into her ear.
So she goes on this rant of, “Oh, my son, oh, 74 years on this planet and this is the first time cooking me a birthday meal.” I’m like, “Bitch, I cook for you all the time!” It’s not true, sometimes I do. And I guess I sat there and was like, “Wow, in 74 years I guess this is the first time I actually cooked something for you for your birthday. I thought taking you out was the answer but apparently doing something from your own hands is more ‘special.’”
I know my mom, I know her patterns, so this is the part where in the mixture where she starts folding her lies and her feelings of victimhood and right on target, right on time, there she goes, “Oh, I love you son, you’re so wonderful, what did I do in this life to deserve such a wonderful son.” She starts folding in the guilt, right in there. It’s like three parts compliment and then two parts guilt and then you just spin it up in the egg beater and all points K-rage self-hatred, nicely baked K-rage cake.
“Why don’t you just get married? Why don’t you just get married? You live in America! You need that piece of paper, that paper, that paper that says you’re a citizen! The paper that says ‘I’m a married!’ You’re 44! About to be 45! Why don’t you just get married? Why don’t you…”
So, it didn’t matter that I fucking killed, killed, with this sponge cake, killed with the pasta and pork “ming“ balls, right, with the little Asian twist, my little fucking Italian fusion with Chinese style, right. I fucking killed this meal. Perfect dessert and now you got to fucking end it? I said, “Look, look bitch, it’s your birthday, I’ll let you cry as long as you want, I’ll let you fucking talk down to me, I’ll let you manipulate me and tell me dumb shit that I’m doing wrong with my life. But even me as a human being has a limit. I can’t just let you walk all over me, but because it’s your birthday, I’ll let you tread on me a little bit. I’ll let you step on my nuts a bit, but at some point, hop off those nuts. Hop off those nuts, bitch. I can’t let you just fucking grind my nuts in the meat grinder. We have enough meatballs in this dish, I don’t need anymore.”
And I’m in the prison, with the fucking dreadlocked Rastafarian Japanese Ross from Friends looking motherfucker and a guy who won’t stop spinning on his fucking head. I mean he had a little bald spot on the top where he would spin so much. This shit don’t make sense to me. It’s like, how is reggae… how did you learn about reggae in Japan? This is fifteen years ago. And how did this guy get so good at breakdancing? It didn’t add up to me.
And I sat there. I thought of April 29, 1992, LA riots. The riots hit LA, Koreatown was in flames. It’s like, kick these fuckers out. There’s a popular recording artist at the time, I don’t want to say it, it’s N.W.A., so I’ll just say Nigiri With Attitude. There’s a guy in there, the main guy, I mean, if you want to debate whether it’s Ice Cube or Eazy-E, for me it was Eazy-E, but Ice Cube went solo and he had an album come out at the time right during the riots, right before the riots, called Death Certificate, and the last song on the album, on the CD, excuse me, I sounded dated there, on the CD, was called “Black Korea”. And the song is a very short song about how he’s going to fucking kill Asians for following him around the supermarket assuming that he’s shoplifting. And then it ends, I don’t remember all the lyrics. So pay respect to the black fist / Or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp / And then we’ll see ya / Cause you can’t turn the ghetto into Black Korea. I think that’s how it goes.
A painting as part of David’s digital care package, given to viewers of Unexpected Connections 2020.
So as a Korean kid growing up in Los Angeles, I felt scared, I felt fear, I grew up in Black neighborhoods, I grew up in Hispanic neighborhoods, I grew up in all Jewish neighborhoods. I never went to a school that was mostly Asian or had a lot of Asian people around. It was always me and my brothers were the only Asians. So I felt very unwelcome and as you can tell right now, I’m very sensitive about everything, so those words hurt me. People hurt me with their words, with their insults, with their racial stereotypes, and then, to have one of the most popular, you know, the kids all love N.W.A. and Ice Cube and he’s writing songs about kill me? Kill my race? And then let’s burn these fuckers out? You know, of their own city? Like the police did nothing? They burned our stores down. I felt very scared. I felt very… and I don’t like to be scared, I don’t like to feel fear. So I turned that into rage. I’d rather be angry than scared, but it’s all based on fear. And what do I do with that rage? So where are we now.
It doesn’t make sense that this guy Jin with nine fingers is the best breakdancer in our cell. There was a Black guy there from Nigeria. It’s like, it’s his culture, breakdancing comes from Black culture, it’s like he should be good at it. Why is it this guy? And then once I got out of jail, I found out the Jabbawockeez and the Filipinos and the Koreans and the Japanese always compete… the best breakdancers in the world are Asian. More specifically, Korean. The best breakdancers in the world are Korean. How? How is that possible? It doesn’t add up.
Well, it adds up when you put in K-rage. And who was popular at this time? As dreadlocked Ross from Friends used to like to tell me, “Oh, man, you’re from America? You meet Michael Jordan? Michael Tyson? Michael Jackson?” Right? Everything back then was “be like Mike”. “I want to be like Tyson, Jordan, Jackson.”
I didn’t have this insight then. You wouldn’t want to be these people, especially Michael Jackson, he’s dead now, but, Jordan, you’d want to be Michael Jordan? That guy was the greatest basketball player, is the greatest basketball player, he’s a legend, because he used rage and anger to get to the top. But he seems miserable. I know certain stories that I’m not going to retell here. Because I’m not that kind of person. I’m growing as a human being. No I’m not or maybe I am. Who knows, baby steps. Fail forward. Progress not perfection.
And so, you would want to be Michael Jordan with that sensation of what it feels like when you dunk and you score the last point and you save the day, but everything else? The guy seems fucking miserable. Gambling addict, workaholic, drugs, alcohol, I don’t know what other shit he’s into. But he just seems, like, plagued by his own demons, and so when we come to this year and Parasite, a Korean movie from Korea, not translated, wins the number one movie. Oh, and my dad’s pride! When people call me, like I had anything to do with the movie. “Hey, Dave! Congratulations!” “For what?” “Parasite won best-” “But what does that have to do with me?” “Well, you’re Korean right?”
Koreans are very prideful people. Asians are very prideful people. And so when you look at Korea and you go, wait, not that long ago, 1990s, it was “Fuck gooks! Fuck Korea! Fuck these fuckers! Get them the fuck out of here.” And then you fast forward to 2020 and it’s like, “David Chang: Best Chef. Best Director: Bong Jong Dong. Best everything. Best fucking breakdancers in the world: Korean. Best soap opera…” I mean, we’ve completely, completely, I don’t know what the words are, my vocabulary isn’t that big, that’s why I cuss a lot, taken Black culture.
Think of the biggest pop act in the world, which is basically all stolen, Justin Bieber, N’sync, or, I don’t know, all that stuff is stolen from Black culture. And we’ve stolen from that. All the K-pop, the boy bands and the girl bands, they’re the biggest. It’s all Black culture. They stole it and they mutated it into this fucking crazy shit. The best breakdancers. The best living artists in the world. Me. Thanks, mom. Where does that come from? It doesn’t add up. How would the best fucking breakdancer in the world be Korean? Anger, hostility toward the opposition, that’s how I used you saying I can’t, I can’t do it, you’re not supposed to be, and I fucking took it.
Well, Black people and Hispanics, that’s who does graffiti, not nice little Korean boys. Oh really? Well, I’ll show you! Michael Jordan’s entire career was “Well, I’ll show you.” To the point where it was even an imagined threat. There weren’t even real. He was like, “Oh, that guy slighted me. He didn’t say ‘What’s up’ to me.” And some of that shit didn’t even happen. And that’s my world. I’m hyper-vigilant. I’m hyper-alert cause of all these threats and some of them are actually real, but most of them are imagined. And I use that hate and I use that. So, oh, okay, I guess that’s how you became the best breakdancer, Jin.
And so, yeah, Koreans are the best! What, you would want to be in… what’s the name of the K-pop… I don’t know, it’s all dog shit. I mean, now, okay, so you have billions of hits on YouTube, you’re the biggest stars of the world playing this music, doing trap verses on your… it’s dog shit. The music’s absolute dog shit.
Except for maybe that BLACKPINK. Do do do, do do do. That one’s pretty cool. I play drums to that. I do drum covers of that. Do do do, do do do, do do do, BLACKPINK! That’s one’s alright, but most of them are dog shit. And a lot of these K-pop people, oh, they’re suicidal, they hate themselves, of course you’d be. Because there’s no love. It’s coming from a place of anger and fear. And you can’t win that way.
Why does this Ross looking fucker have dreadlocks? And only then do I find out, you know, Japan is a country of workaholism, of “You must be number one. And if you don’t do good then you are ashamed and you must be proud, and we are number one at everything. And if you don’t do a good job and you don’t bring in the numbers you commit seppuku, you kill yourself, you jump.” So the suicide rate is out of control in a lot of Asian countries, cause it’s all based on performance. And that performance is based off of fear. You must succeed. Or else.
“So the suicide rate is out of control in a lot of Asian countries, cause it’s all based on performance. And that performance is based off of fear. You must succeed. Or else.”
And so what happens in the 60s or 70s, I don’t know the exact year, is this long dreadlocked motherfucker Bob Marley rolls into town. Bob Marley rolls in on a cloud of weed smoke into Tokyo. And he’s, like, “Yo, Japanese people, chill the fuck out.” And he plays his “Buffalo Soldiers” and redemption songs. So these three birds show up on my doorstep and told the Japanese people, “chill the fuck out, nigiri please! Chill the fuck out!”
And, so, it would make sense to me that a culture so driven by work and succeeding and “must be the best” and this mythical figure just rolls into town with his guitar and says, “Hey, one love. Job less.” And so Japanese people took onto reggae like no one has. No culture, outside of Jamaica, I think Japan is, like, the number one import of all things reggae. Have you seen a Japanese person’s hair? It’s long and silky and black. Do you know how much work, like, artificial work, it would take to dread a Japanese person’s hair? It’s like 48 hours sitting in a chair where they’re using all kinds of artificial machines to twist and turn, fold that shit up into looking like a long nigiri roll, a spicy tuna hand roll. Oh, man.
So my mom’s folding her guilt into her compliments. “Oh, you’re such a good son. But you’re not married.”
And I presented her with this sponge cake and then I let her go. And I let her go and I let her go and I let her go. And I say to her, “Listen, bitch.” I tell her about The Choe Show, I tell her that thousands of kids out there want to make their parents proud. All these Asian kids out there, “I just want my parents to be proud of me.”
Let’s fucking play this out. Hey fuckface, mom, dad, you stupid motherfuckers. You seem to be pretty good at math. You made fun of me when I didn’t do that good at math so let’s see if this shit adds up. Let’s just go down the list. Let’s do it. One two three. ABC. One two three, it’s easy as… you know, let’s just do it.
I, David Choe, want to make my parents proud, what does that require? Number one, I would be fucking married right now to a power ranger twenty years ago in a fucking miserable marriage. “Oh, but she’s Korean! And she’s Christian!” I’d fucking be on my third divorce right now. “Oh, you’re not smart enough to be a doctor, but something like doctor-ish? Like acupuncturist?” I’d be a fucking acupuncturist in a fucking miserable marriage playing golf on the weekends.
“Well, well, okay, what is it that you want to do?” Well, fucking, well. Like I said, I wasn’t brave enough to be gay, but I… I… I want to destroy shit. I went to jail. I did every fucking shameful thing that you can imagine. Every fucking shameful thing.
And everything you would want for your son, well, I think he might be gay and he has purple hair and he’s been to jail multiple times in many different countries, he’s not good at math, science, he’s not good at sports. He’s not good at anything! He’s just good at getting in trouble. And jerking off a lot and playing video games. It just doesn’t add up. Like we came here, we provided every opportunity for you to be great and to do all these things and it’s just failure after failure. Disappointment and disappointment.
And and and, you’re ashamed of me, mother, father. You’re ashamed of me. And what would you have of me? You want me to live a life where you want to be proud of me?
I’m in a band called Mangchi. It means hammer in Korean. And we did a world tour. We did a U.S. tour. East coast, west coast, and… so the day I dreaded, we get close to… we get close to the border. Vancouver.
And I already know that I’m not allowed into Canada because, um, I found out the hard way when I was 24 years old, I got my first high-paying gig, five thousand dollars with the ad agency Wieden & Kennedy in Portland. And they got me a job for Need for Speed Underground 2, the video game. And I was going to… And my star was starting to rise and they were like, let’s get this fucker his own car in the game. They gave me some skins. You could unlock the special David Choe car, it wasn’t on the actual video game but it was on the Mac or IBM version or something.
So it was me and Chingy the rapper, the musical recording artist Chingy. Me and Chingy. So I was like, “Mom!” I called her, “Listen, I’ve arrived. Me and Chingy are getting our own Need for Speed Underground skin wraps on just the IBM version.” Like, “Okay, cool.”
We landed in Vancouver. And I get off the plane. And they say, “Oh, Mr. Choe, they need to talk to you over there.” And the two guys that flew with me from Wieden & Kennedy are like, “Everything okay, Dave?” And I say, “Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on.”
And we get there and I’m 24 years old, I’m a grown man. I’m a young man but still a man, I think. And they say, “There’s nothing you’d like to share with us? No criminal records? Nothing?” And I go, “No, I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m fine.” And they go, “Well, looks like you got caught shoplifting and did some graffiti and public nuisance and all this kind of shit” from when I was fifteen, fourteen years old, a juvenile. Back that ass up.
And I go, “Well, I was a kid then, I was fourteen years old.” And, you know, in America they close your records after you turn 21 on those kinds of things, if it’s not like a felony or something. And he goes, “Yeah, America might have a short memory, but not us. We’re Canada.” And I was like, “Well, hold on, what does that mean. This is my first high-paying gig.”
These Wieden guys in the back going, “Hey, Dave, everything okay?” And… and they rejected me. Like, “Sir, you’re not going to be entering the country today.”
And I’ve been rejected by my family members, by women, by my friends, by distributors, by art galleries, by art directors, by magazines, by comic book companies. I’ve dealt with a lot of rejection in my life. This is my first time being rejected into a country because of something that I did when I was fourteen.
“America might have a short memory, but not us.” I don’t know why I sounded like that. “America might have a short memory, but not us. You know what I’m talking about?” Fucking maple leaf motherfucker.
Who puts gravy on french fries? Fucking cheese curds. The fuck is that?
And people always ask me, I’ve always stuck to my first story. They go, “Hey, why do you hate Canada?” I’m like, “Oh, because some fucking guy fixed my car and went to hug his granddaughters and made me feel gross.” “That’s why you hate Canada?” “Well, that, plus I was rejected by them.”
So now it’s… I was 24 then… it’s eighteen years later. I’m with my whole band, Mangchi, Korean for hammer. And I spent a lot of money and immigration lawyers to get my record expunged, and yet they still fucked with me at the border. Cause they’re like, “Oh, it looks like you had your record expunged? That must mean you did something.”
Anyways, I get in the fucking country and the whole time I’m angry. Like, fuck these motherfuckers, fucking cheese curd eating motherfuckers. And we have a show that night, and, of course, there’s a reggae band opening for us. And guess what? The bass player’s Japanese. So these long dreadlocked motherfuckers get up on stage, they’re opening for us. And they go into their reggae set and I look in the audience and I see something I’ve never seen before, smiles.
I’m used to going to concerts where people are getting kicked in the face, diving off the stage, moshpits, doing hardcore kind of weird dance moves, throwing their bodies into people, and everyone in this audience was grooving. The bass player was smiling, the drummer was smiling, the singer was smiling, everyone in the front row was smiling, everyone in the back row was smiling, the fucking conga player was smiling, the fucking security guard in the front was smiling. And I was like… Does. Not. Compute. And then I was like, “Oh, of course it makes sense, fucking reggae.”
I was shipped away to Korea when I was four years old, because my parents were too poor to raise three kids and it fucked me up for the rest of my life. That wound was so deep. And although it’s both my parents that shipped me away, I put my mom’s face to it and that’s why all these conflicting feelings come up.
My mom, if you’ve ever met her, has an infectious laugh, killer smile, she’s always laughing, always saying, “Hallelujah, I love you, I love you.” She’s an upbeat personality.
And so when I think of Canada, “Fuck you, fuck you poutine sipping motherfuckers.” Reggae. Shut the fuck up, dude. Can you fucking 120, 180bpm, speed the fuck up, dude? Ugh.
What is it? What is it? It’s these feelings of acceptance, because I was shipped away and that’s scary, it’s like my mom who loves me, sent me away, those feelings of rejection and abandonment… I feel worthless. I feel like I need to do something. I need to fucking train hard and become someone important and work hard and keep succeeding and getting accolades and achieving, and only then will I be accepted.
And then once in a while, you meet someone, and they’re like, “I accept you.” Friends, lovers, there’s good people out there. Weird people, and they go, “You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to make me laugh. You don’t have to buy me dinner. You don’t have to put on a show. I accept you, just as you are.” And to that, you should cry with joy, “Oh my god, you accept me just as I am.” That’s even worse, it’s like, “Get the fuck away from me.” And so in that way I can accept death metal music and grindcore and hardcore music, cause it’s, that I know, but if you love me and accept me just as I am, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. That’s Canada.
Canada’s a neutral fuck of a country. Never in any wars, has no beef with anyone. Makes me feel weird. “I want to go hug my grandchildren.” What the fuck? Reggae. As I look at the smiles on their faces, it’s like, wow, everyone in this audience and the band is enjoying themselves. Welcome one, welcome all.
I can’t accept myself just as is. Just as I am right now in this moment is not enough. My love must be performance-based. Only when I achieve, perform, when I do something good, “Oh, he made a free throw! Oh, he knocked that guy out! Oh, his painting sold for 40, 50, 100 thousand dollars, a million dollars, 200 million, 500 million, sold! To the highest…”
That’s when people accept me. That hole will never be filled. That hole is bottomless. This is a bottomless party. You can fill it with sex, drugs, money, achievements, cars, houses, goals… “My next project is I sold a deal to Netflix!” It’ll never add up. It’ll never be enough. More, more, more. The disease of more, the root of my addiction is more, not enough. I’m not enough, I don’t have enough, I need more, I need more, it’s not enough.
Come back home, to yourself, to your heart. I am enough, you are enough. I am worthy, you are worthy. To add it all up, to get to that place where you’re like this makes sense, this is a life that I want to live, with acceptance, gratitude, presence. Be present, be grateful. And positivity. Positive attitude. I love you, Canada. I love you, mother. I love you, Korean breakdancer, Jin with nine fingers. I love you, sushi smelling dread-locked Ross from Friends-looking Japanese guy. I love you, maple leaf wearing, hockey playing, puck-sucking, poutine-eating Canadian. And I love me. I love myself, and not in a vain way, but in a truly genuine, authentic, I deserve to forgive myself. I deserve to be kind to myself. I have a hard time accepting love and kind words and it has to start here with me. And that starts by me growing myself up. Grow up! Big boy!
So I sit there with my mom and I say, “Hey, listen bitch, you want me to fucking get married so I can have a piece of paper? Will that make you feel validated as a mother? If I have a piece of paper that says I’m married and validated as a human being if I get my college degrees?”
“Yes, that’s what America’s about. A piece of paper. When you buy a house, you need the piece of paper! You need the piece of paper!”
And I said, “Okay, you dumb fucks, it just doesn’t add up. Are you proud of me?”
“Yes, we’re very proud of you!”
For me, to make you proud of me I had to fucking disappoint you. Not kind of, ultimately and totally, completely. Totally destroy that part of being proud. You came all the way from another country, you didn’t speak the language, you were made fun of, you didn’t have a good paying job, you were fucking below the poverty line, you had three kids back to back. You did all this shit so that your son could be, like a, questioning sexuality graffiti vandal? That’s… that’s… you must’ve cried yourself to sleep at night.
By going to jail, multiple times. By committing crimes, by becoming a graffiti artist. By ultimately, ultimately, disappointing you. Now you’re proud of me.
Think about it, you dumb bitch. If I did every fucking thing you asked of me… think about that! Does that add up? If I did what you asked, high SAT score, go to Harvard or Yale, not that I even could, and get the best score and become a doctor or lawyer, I’d be a failure as a human being.
I did all that just to make you proud? You’re proud of me today because I disobeyed you.
“The disease of more, the root of my addiction is more, not enough. I’m not enough, I don’t have enough, I need more, I need more, it’s not enough. Come back home, to yourself, to your heart.”
The fucking Japanese guy had to spend two days in the chair to get dreadlocks because reggae music brings joy to his life. To this culture that is about workaholism. The breakdancing kid is spinning on his head because Black culture… Black people made fun of him so he said, I’m going to take your own culture and be the best at it. But that didn’t bring him joy, that didn’t bring Michael Jordan joy, that didn’t bring me joy.
To make your parents proud of you, you must disobey them. You must honor… Well, that’s not how I was raised, you honor your parents. Those aren’t your parents. Well, you know, my dad and I we have a close relationship… Yeah, you never had that. That fictional relationship that you wish you had with your parents… I wish my dad was more like this, I wish my mom was more like this… Well, you never had that. And you’re old now so you’re never going to get that.
You’re not a kid anymore. You’re an adult. You’re the parent, whether you have children or not. Everyone has a scared hurt child in them. Parent that child. You be the parent. You honor yourself by honoring your parent, which is you. Boom! I guess I am fucking good at math, mom. It all adds up!
Turns out I’m a fucking brilliant mathematician, I’m a fucking mathlete. It just happens that I’m a spiritual post-modern abstract performance mathlete, but nonetheless. It all did add up at the end.
And the cake. And the cake was fucking delicious. Egg whites mixing with egg yolks and the ingredients and the mixture and the guilt and the compliments.
Look, we’re all lost children. We’re all lashing out. I want to be the best. I want to be like Mike. Mike doesn’t want to be like Mike. I wish I was you just for one day. No, you don’t. You don’t know the fucking shit…
It’s a good thing to want to make your parents proud. But that parent is you. You’re the parent. You’re the grown up. Parent your child. Yourself. You have a lost hurt fearful kid in you who’s acted out in many different ways. The things you’ve done in your life.
“I need to prove someone wrong. I need to show them the anger, the rage. I don’t like being hurt so I’m going to turn it into this!” He’s lost, she’s lost. Parent that child. Grow yourself up, you immature fuck! Put the video games down. Put the porn down. Grow yourself up. Do some work. “Oh, I know it’s wrong of me.” Well, do something about it, fuckface! Fucking shithead.
Ah, mother and father, I just want to apologize for any dishonorable words I used against you and any Asian people I made fun of. I love all you guys. And, you know, I was given this subject, “It all adds up“, and I was like what the fuck do you want me to talk about. If you can’t tell I just riffed off every single fucking idea that came into my head. I just thought of literally every single thing that doesn’t add up: Asian people with dreadlocks, Korean breakdancers, disappointing my parents… does that fucking make sense to you? The fact that I did everything wrong and now I’m a rich, famous artist? The richest most famous artist in the world?
Was that a humble brag or an actual brag? I think that was an actual brag. And the only way that I did that, to make you proud of me, was to disobey. The way you make yourself proud is to disobey your parents and make your inner parent, your inner child proud. Honor yourself. Listen to your heart, listen to your intuition.
The breakdancer’s not happy because he’s using anger to fuel his headspins and robot moves. He’s coming from a place of, “I’m going to show you.“ He might be the best, but it’s not spiritually satisfying.
Mike Tyson, Michael Jordan, they might, “Oh, my childhood was so fucked up, I’m going to do all this shit to fucking show you that I am the best.” But at some point, you’ve got to pivot. That energy you have, that fuel that you use to get you to this point in life, it won’t help, it won’t help you in other places in your life.
It won’t add up. It’ll add up to prison and mental institutions, death. The only things that add up are joy, happiness. Honor that side. That might not get you to be the greatest whatever, but that’s overrated anyways. You don’t need that. Your inner child, the kid in you, they don’t care about that, they just want to have fun. And when you honor that and when you have true joy in your life and happiness, honor that self.
What is it that you need today? Do you need to quit your job? Do you need a candy bar? Honor yourself. Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself. Give yourself that love. Let’s look at your origin story, see where your motivations came from. You operate from fear, from that place of “I want to make my parents proud” and let’s see if it makes sense to change the narrative, change the path.
You don’t have to be scared again. I’m sending a monkey, a monkey with a huge backpack and a tiny head and a fanny pack full of all kinds of gadgets and when he opens his fat fanny pack, I’m going to send 100 million tiger lobsters with huge pincers and metallic purple butterfly wings to protect you and guide you for the rest of your life.
Let’s dissect the fear in you, the darkness, and cut it out. We’ll use the lobster pincers on the tiger lobster butterflies. And they’ll use their pincers, their claws, their teeth, to protect you, to guide you. And lobsters are telepathic to communicate to stay connected with you. And when you get hungry and you want to eat some lobster claws, some lobster tails, go ahead, it’ll grow back. To nourish you. Wings to carry you wherever you need to go so you can get new perspective on your life. A birds eye view, from the side, from the left. 100 million tiger lobster butterflies with purple metallic wings with regenerating lobster tails and claws and they’re your best friends and they will protect you. And if one of them dies, there will be a lot left. And I promise you it will all add up.
Alright, I got to stop. This is getting too crazy.
Many years later, my mom sold the apartment building she was managing and she sent me down there to pick up some checks and some furniture and I ran into Pablo and he’s older. “Hey, man.” His English got a little bit better. I’m like, “Oh, you’re still here, man? Thought you were saving up money trying to get back to Mexico.” He’s like, “No, I started a second family here. I cheated on my wife. My shithead son is over there, he’s useless.”
And he’s got his headphones on, he’s beating out to something. And he’s wearing all black. He might have been wearing makeup. He’s got lip piercings, nose piercings. And his dad goes to get some stuff for me and I go to his son, I go, “Hey, what’s up, man?” He’s got this emo goth vibe going, I’m guessing he’s listening to The Deftones, The Cure, The Smiths or Morrissey. I go, “Hey man, what are you listening to?” And he takes his headphones off, “Reggae.”
I listen to reggae now.