One More Shot
The Great Recession has led many young adults to move back in with their parents. But for actress-comedian Kat Ahn, it was her parents who moved in with her. And that was just the beginning.
story by Kat Ahn
photographs by Luke Inki Cho
“Kat … Mom and Dad are coming to L.A.,” my brother tells me in an angrier-than-normal tone. “For how long?” I ask, thinking they’re coming for a visit.
“They’re broke, and they’re moving in with us,” he says. This is news that would obviously be devastating to average 20-somethings, but for my brother and me it wasn’t exactly shocking.
Throughout our lives, our parents had run various businesses in Philadelphia, from a hoagie-and-cheesesteak shop to a hip-hop clothing store. This led to interesting stories, but sporadic income. Money was a source of constant struggle in our family.
As a child, I remember how difficult it was to watch my parents work, especially at the hip-hop clothing store. I loved the loud N.W.A. and Biggie that would blare through the speakers, but I didn’t love watching my parents get disrespected by their customers, a regular occurrence. I quickly learned that the most important things in life were financial stability and money. Because that meant that you’d have no problems or worries, right? Or so I thought.
So I went to NYU to study journalism and economics. But I soon found myself unhappy. I’d always wanted to pursue acting and writing, but would always hear the voice in my head saying, “Um … do you really want to be a starving artist?”
Apparently I did. Fast forward to 2007, and I was in L.A., chasing the dream of being an actress and writer, living with my brother, an aspiring producer. After struggling for a little bit, I had just started booking acting gigs. I had finished my first feature film script. I had actually started to like living in the dry heat of L.A. I felt close to having my weekends back, when I would no longer have to ask, “Hi. My name is Kat, and I’ll be your waitress for the evening. Can I get you anything?” Things were looking up.
And that’s when the call came. My father’s last venture—an attempt to take a Putt-Putt mini-golf park franchise to South Korea—had failed, and my parents had lost everything. So they were moving to Los Angeles.
I faced a tough choice: Either get a desk job to help support my parents, or continue to work survival jobs with the hope of booking that huge role that would jumpstart my career as an actress. But I already knew the answer. It was something I just knew I had to do. It’s that Confucian mentality that we, the children, must take care of our parents. No questions asked. It’s the kind of thing that was so difficult to explain to my friends because I don’t think it’s something that is inherent in American culture.
A part of me died when I called my agent to tell her that I could no longer audition. For years, I had taken classes and worked two or three jobs at a time, just to follow my dream. It seemed a cruel fate to give it all up now. But I made that call because it was the right thing to do.
Everything moved quickly after that. I took a day job at a tech start-up. My brother found a small apartment in Koreatown where the four of us, the Ahn family, who had not been under the same roof for years, became a family unit once again. But now things were different. This time, my brother and I had the jobs; we were the providers. With the Great Recession going on, I knew that my family was just one of the many affected. But the usual scenario was adult children being forced to move back in with their parents, not the other way around.
The first months were the hardest because my parents had no job nor any money. This meant that they were home 24/7, watching my comings and goings and being the nosy roommates that you see in sitcoms. But, this was 100-percent real, with my parents commenting on everything from my yogurt choices to nagging me for not doing the dishes well enough. Did I mention that they tried to give me a curfew?
It was like being transported back to being your 14-year-old self, even though you’re in your 20s. Except this time, I was helping to pay the bills, and had to deal with problems that couldn’t be solved by going to get a Dairy Queen Blizzard.
Life has a way of making you face issues that you’ve long since buried deep into your subconscious. For me, it was my relationship with my father. I had never had a chance to really get to know him because he was always working, or he was on one of his frequent trips to Korea. My brother and I didn’t have the luxury of a dad with a secure job, who could come see our softball games and ask about school dances. Our father was instead preoccupied by concerns of day-to-day survival.
But, during our family’s “forced” domestic reunion, I started to realize something. My dad, John Ahn, was just a human being. He was someone who had an enormously difficult childhood in Seoul, where his family was so poor that they lived on sweet potatoes, kimchi and rice. My dad told me stories of how he would walk the streets as a child, selling roasted sweet potatoes to locals and to American GIs. Yet, he always kept a smile on his face and maintained a positive attitude. After immigrating to the States, he tried hard to make his dreams of economic success come true. And despite his many trials, he would get right back up and try again.
Even in L.A., he never lost this spirit while looking for a job in the newspaper classified ads, from the break of dawn to late in the evening. It was with this positive attitude that my dad worked menial jobs and eventually got hired to manage an after-hours cleaning crew. He left for work at 4 p.m. and came home at 2 a.m. But not once did he complain. Instead, he told funny stories about the men and women with whom he worked. There was Jose, who taught my dad how to make authentic guacamole and got him into eating raw jalapeño peppers. There was Marie, who told my dad that he was the funniest Korean guy she had ever met.
My dad also never missed church, and he even helped his church friend get a job with the cleaning crew. Sometimes I wonder how he remained so upbeat. I learned that, ultimately, it’s just a choice. Life is hard for lots of people, but you wake up and decide whether to laugh or bitch about it. He chose to laugh, and I chose to do both, through comedy.
Little by little, my dad and I began forming a relationship through our arguments—over which brand of coffee tasted better, why I was an awful cook, and even how loud I could play my music in the middle of the night. I was incredulous that my dad would treat me like a teenager considering that I’d been on my own for so long. Then again, I realized my dad was trying to relive the time of my life that he missed. Better late than never, right?
I had seen my parents as hardworking immigrants with an American Dream who lost their way. Now, I see things differently. Their lives, in a roundabout way, taught me the point of the American Dream: to never give up and continue on toward the pursuit of happiness.
Now we’re all pursuing our happiness. I’m working toward my goals by acting, writing TV pilots and doing stand-up. My brother has produced a Foo Fighters music video and recently finished work as a producer on his first independent feature film, Ruby Booby. My mother rediscovered her talent for calligraphy and, two years ago, even earned a fine art scholarship to Daebul University, in Yeongam, South Korea. Her works have shown in South Korea and Japan.
Meanwhile, my father got laid off from his graveyard shift job, but he never lost hope. At church, he met a business partner with whom he is now opening a new business in the trendy Silver Lake district: Boo’s Philly Cheesesteak & Hoagies. The store’s name is an ode to my grandmother, Boo Soon Lee, as well as to our roots in Philadelphia, where he had first settled in America.
I have since moved out of our Koreatown abode and had a chance to take a step back and see how far our family has come. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my dad about his Korean co-worker and his Mexican co-worker, who, he said, would communicate with each other using hand motions and by sharing food. My dad said to me, “We are all human. All the same.” And he laughed his signature laugh and continued to speak of the next business he would open one day. “Your daddy is going to be success. I promise.”
“Well, Appa,” I said. “I believe you.” And I did.
Oh, and I wrote a TV comedy pilot based on this whole situation. C’mon. This is L.A., right?
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Kat Ahn’s brother worked as an assistant director on Ruby Booby. He served as a producer.
This article was published in the November 2011 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!