By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"Would you stop smiling, it makes me feel bad," whines Grandpa Young to Grandpa Um as he lays his stones. They’ve been partners for over four years. It’s another weekday afternoon at the Gi Won, and their game’s almost finished. Grandpa Young has lost all hope of winning; he’s just trying to minimize his losses.
Grandpa Young stands almost 6 feet tall and has a long, statesmanlike face. At 77, he’s five years older than Grandpa Um. He splits his weeks between the club and the National Asian Pacific Center downtown, where he teaches English to senior citizens applying for U.S. citizenship.
"I learned English during the Korean War," Grandpa Young says in English.
"Interpreter," Grandpa Um chimes in.
"Yeah, that was 1950," continues Grandpa Young.
Again, Grandpa Um butts in, "At that time, he was —"
"Just a minute! When I talk, you shut up!" Grandpa Young yells.
"I explain for you," Grandpa Um says, ignoring him.
"No, I can explain myself, I don’t need your help . . . During the Korean War, the North Korean army attacked Seoul, and so everybody moved south. I was in college in SuWon, so I run out. Then they picked me up and put me in the army . . .
"I know that as a private, I’m nothing but bullet target . . . One day I read a flier, it said, ‘We need interpreters who can speak a little English.’ I applied and they took me in the U.S. Army as an interpreter. Two months later, they gave me" — he draws stripes on his shoulders — "and made me second lieutenant.
"So now I need to learn how to speak the English language or else I’m in big trouble. In the beginning, it was very difficult to follow the American-style dialogue. So I asked my boss, a major, ‘I need a favor.’ I ask him to write everything. Within three months I improved a lot, because otherwise I get killed," he says, laughing.
"Four years ago, my daughter said, ‘Come live with me, because I have kids and my husband is always working in Korea. I need your help.’ So I did. She got me a green card. But I like Americans now. They take care of old people . . . So we come here to have fun and killing time — no-where to go. We go all over the place, it cost money, so this is better."
Even when you bet?
"Oh yeah, we bet," Grandpa Um pipes up.
"No, we don’t bet!" Grandpa Young yells. "Don’t write that — the police will come," he orders. "We say ‘donation.’"
"Nobody takes money home," Grandpa Young assures me. "If he wins, we go by drink house and maybe have a beer."
"He’s crazy for the drink," gibes Grandpa Um.
"What! Wait a minute. You shut up!" Grandpa Young says in a flawless GI accent.
Later, downstairs at the sushi bar, it becomes obvious that it’s actually Grandpa Um who’s crazy for the drink. Being crazy for the drink at 4:30 p.m. is something only old men can do without much reproach. At the club, they can also get away with throwing stones at each other and storming out after losing, only to return the next day as if nothing happened. They do it with such tongue-in-cheek zeal that it’s clear they’re playing out their roles as old men, and at the club — and really in all of Koreatown — their shtick is understood and accepted.
When I walk into the sushi bar — a space that fits about five tables — Grandpa Um, Young and the third musketeer, Grandpa Paik, are singing Japanese folk songs for Fujino, their captive audience. Though they were forced to learn these songs as boys during Japan’s colonization of Korea, they sing them without a hint of irony. In fact, here, as in the club, they sing more than they talk.
"We’re old and have known each other for a long time — what do we have to talk about? So we sing," explains Grandpa Paik before breaking into "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." A song in English for me.
"Be-ing-uh Kuh-roh-juh-be sang that song," Grandpa Paik says wistfully. "Now that was one stylish guy."
Grandpa Paik works his rugged appeal. He wears his white hair in a crew cut, and he’s dressed in a gray-plaid flannel shirt and khakis. He’s got a certain outdated, unabashed and charismatic confidence — Hong Kong movie star Jordan Chan as an old man.
"You know, after a couple of drinks, we start to feel good. Then we catch the bus to go home. If it’s not too crowded, we sit together and watch all the women come onboard. ‘Oh, she’s a little large,’ we might say. Or ‘That one’s too skinny.’ But every once in a while a beautiful woman comes onboard . . ." He pauses, as if savoring the image.
"What the hell?" Grandpa Young shouts, and then apologizes to me for cursing.
"She may be a young woman, but she’s also a reporter," Grandpa Paik says matter-of-factly in Korean.