Material Object: Jennie Yoon
As told to Joshua David Stein. Illustration by Lucilla Tubaro.
What's the most important item in your home? In our series Material Object, we explore that very question, asking some of our favorite people which of their possessions connect them to their past, to their family, and to themselves.
In Seoul, where I was born and raised, I was Yoon Hye-Jung. In America, where my family emigrated when I was 12, I became Jennie Yoon. Like so many immigrants, we came to the United States for opportunity and education. Back at home, my father, Kwang Yol (or "Steve" in America) had worked for the construction division of Hyundai. But he had an entrepreneurial spirit and Korean work culture at the time, and still somewhat now, rewarded loyalty more than it did ambition. He wanted to make his own future. So we ended up in California and I ended up as Jennie.
Here in Los Angeles, my father started off with a smaller company but eventually started his own, building restaurants and warehouses. Construction is a 24/7 job, and an unforgiving one at that. You have projects. You have crews. You have deadlines to meet. My father, especially when I was younger, was away constantly for work. Though I missed him terribly, I was still learning lessons about hustle and grit that I’ve carried into my own career.
"Every spoon represented a trip for my father and a story for me. Every spoon represented another notch toward making it, toward making sure that, even as a hustling entrepreneur, he still found time for himself."
When my Dad was younger, before me, he satisfied his travel lust in Southeast Asia, amassing a collection of souvenir spoons. But by the time we were living in Los Angeles, he found himself working all the time. Nevertheless, no matter how busy he was, he tried to travel as much as he could. "Hye-Jung," he would say, "the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page." Whenever he was gone, he’d return with a silver spoon, emblazoned with the names and images of exotic seeming destinations like Half Dome and the Grand Canyon. He’d tell me about where he’d been the last week and I’d tell him what he missed.
Eventually, this collection of spoons made its way from a drawer to a display rack in the kitchen. Every spoon represented a trip for my father and a story for me. Every spoon represented another notch toward making it, toward making sure that, even as a hustling entrepreneur, he still found time for himself. Eventually, as I got older and his business became successful and he and my Mom began to travel, the humdrum cities he went to for work became more glamorous: Florence, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Beijing.
Now my Dad is retired and the task of replenishing the spoon rack falls on me and my family, including my kids Mady and Kaia. Just as when I was younger, each spoon carries a story and it’s those stories, more so than the silver spoons themselves, that I want to pass down, just as my father passed his on to me.