Growing Up in a Very Catholic Family


This is the apartment in National City where my mother and I saw the cloak of God.

I'm mildly obsessed with my family. It's awash in death, mystery and religion--spattered with contradictions. My younger brother, with whom I currently live, is also obsessed. Maybe we're both POsessed. He takes pictures of us all the time and did an art book last year called Affinities that's basically a family album. He's doing a follow up book this year, that's how obsessed he is. If my family were a TV show it would easily be The Thorn Birds; sweeping, epic, Catholic. And this line about The Thorn Birds from wikipedia nails not only a very Korean predilection for the gorgeously tragic, but captures the bittersweet aura that looms over my family: "The book's title refers to a mythical bird that searches for thorn trees from the day it is hatched. When it finds the perfect thorn, it impales itself, and sings the most beautiful song ever heard as it dies." Reading that makes me want to brawl, fall in love, and run crying through the streets naked in a downpour.

This is a picture of us at the airport the day we immigrated to the States. My uncle, father, grandparents, brother, mother, me.

My parents are both fascinating in mythical, immense ways. Each has a life story that's more fantastic than the other. My father survived a flood that drowned his entire village as well as a North Korean firing squad. My mother was born dead. Really. I did an interview with her about it for a magazine once. In it, my mom talks about how she and I both saw Jesus's hand materializing from a wall of our apartment in National City, CA, when I was 3 years old. The hand was floating, emanating from a misty cloud, peeking out from a white cloak. She said the entire room flooded with perfume. She claims I pointed it out first and said, "Mommy it's God" or something like that. We'd recently immigrated to the States and it was tough days. My dad went from being a head of the English department at a major university to bagging groceries at Safeway. Actually he always held multiple jobs at a time. Multiple menial jobs. This is why I have so little tolerance for asswipes who whine about certain jobs being beneath them. You can tell a lot about a person by the things they complain about.

Day of my first communion, in front of the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala.

I grew up in a pious household along with two brothers. We're all named after saints. I was named after my father's favorite saint, Saint Camillus. He was a gambling addict who fought for the Venetians against the Turks and was eventually canonized and declared patron saint of the sick. I also had a twin brother but he was stillborn. If he'd lived, I wonder if he would've been named Camillus and I would be named something else. My older brother is married to a beautiful Buddhist lady but they raise their kids Catholic. My younger brother is agnostic.

My mom.

Going to mass on Sundays was one of my favorite things to do as a child, even though my mom likes to say I was born bad. I grew up attending a magical church, The Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala. I also went to school there. It was the first church built in California by Franciscan Friars, the "Mother of the Missions." It was old and cavernous, plumes of myrrh and frankincense constantly billowing through the Spanish style adobe chamber. I remember the way it felt during the summers when the warm air outside would mingle with the coolness inside and I'd watch tendrils of incense wrap around and languidly mate with smoke from the votive candles. It's the first place I saw a human corpse (open casket funeral) and where I took my first communion. It was built on Kumeyaay Indian land and there was an archaeological dig right on the Mission grounds where you could see all the artifacts that had been dug up.

My dad.

My brothers and I used to give my parents a lot of grief about their beliefs and what we perceived as hypocrisies. As I've gotten older, I think I've become a lot more understanding. We still disagree on the usual things like gay rights, abortion, premarital sex, etc etc, and I wish they would be a little more tolerant of divergent spiritual views. But they're totally old school Catholics. For them, there IS only one god, one way, and one true religion. They've been lay Franciscans for the past 7 years now which basically means they try to live in the spirit of St. Francis. They go to church almost every day of the week and on special occasions they whip out the brown robes and celebrate Franciscan style. So now my mom has her very own cloak to wear in which she can, if not be Christ, at least be an imitation of St. Francis.

Pic by Peter Ha. My parents in their Franciscan cloaks.

Pic by Peter Ha. My mom in her cloak exchanging heavy vibes with St. Francis.


- CH