At first I was like, who is this guy?
With his size 38 jeans riding his size 32 waist, the whole getup hanging precariously over his hips.
An oversized polo, perfectly color coordinated with a fitted cap and matching Nike kicks.
Plus that hair, buzzed short but sporting the most pristine of outlines.
I would later learn that this sort of haircut, with the perfectly formed lines, was called a “shape up,” the sort of cut you could only get at your local black or hispanic barbershop.
Of course this guy chilling in front of me, anything but black or hispanic, would stand out like crazy at any such establishment.
No, this guy was a FOB.
Fresh off the boat.
But Sammy was by far the freshest of them all.
I met Sammy the first week of school at NYU.
Well, first I met Eunice, who also lived in my dorm. She was the first Korean FOB I ever met.
I grew up in Poughkeepsie, which is a couple hours north of NYC.
I was like one of five Asians in my school.
This was, I would later learn, apparently by choice.
After we moved back to the East Coast after a super short stint in Mountain View, my parents needed to figure out where their kids were going to grow up, how they were going to grow up.
And so my mom did her research, we scoped out all the various options.
But you know, every discerning parent is looking for the same sort of thing.
Good schools, good neighborhoods, good price point.
Some sort of modest suburban existence so we could go about living the American Dream.
So my parents did their homework.
We had a bunch of friends in Jersey and so we checked out Jersey.
They invited us down and showed us around.
It’s great, they said. Look at all the Azn food and stores and stuff.
I was in second grade at the time and I had no mind for the decision making process.
The first season of Power Rangers came on when I was in second grade and I had also recently gotten my first pair of Converses so my mind was in much kewler pastures.
But years later, my mom would flatly explain to me why she decided against Jersey.
“Too many Chinese,” she told me.
At the time, I lol’ed.
Always the hipster, my mom.
And yet, that singular decision would have a wild impact on my development.
Anyway, she was a huge fan of the Hudson Valley. I mean, it was beautiful, no offense Jersey. (<3)
My mom, always aspirational, drooled over the prospect of living in Westchester in a neighborhood like Scarsdale or Bronxville with their world class school attended by the children of elegant, rich folk.
We weren’t elegant though, and more importantly we were definitely not rich.
Our entire budget would have afforded us a meager two bedroom unit in a not so suburban environment.
So my mom looked further north, Dutchess County.
There lies Poughkeepsie, just under two hours north of the city and east of the Hudson River.
It was hardly perfect.
The city was a blob of festering grossness. (It still is, TBH, aside from a few pockets of gentrification. Bill Gates is worried about the Spanish Flu 2.0. The relentless epidemic he _should_ be scared of is the Brooklyn aesthetic.)
The schools were pretty good. Not super incredible but solid.
There was also IBM, a big respectable company.
Because before Bill Gates dedicated his life to helping African babies and stuff, he was obsessed with stealing Big Blue’s lunch, but not for real until the 90s.
So at the time, IBM was still solid, still kewl.
And there was this little oasis right by IBM Poughkeepsie, a little enclave called Spackenkill.
Emphasis on little, it’s a cute little community.
My graduating class had like 150 kids in it.
150 kids who were mostly white.
There were maybe 5 that were Asian.
And I mean, Asia is big. Those five included China and India and Korea and Japan and Taiwan, etc.
(Although there were no Korean kids or Japanese kids in my class.)
I’m not complaining or anything.
Like I said, this was partly by design.
This is what my mom had wanted.
Still, we were way outside our comfort zone, our only refuge, a hole in the wall Chinese takeout place called Chan’s Peking ten minutes from our house.
The food wasn’t even that good.
Anyway, growing up with all those white people proved formative.
In that, by the time I got to college, I hadn’t seen very much and I hadn’t seen very much of people who looked like me.
So when I got there, I was very hungry to learn more, to explore that part of who I was.
It was so novel and so new.
(For about two weeks, I was even Vice President of the Asian Cultural Union, which, through its subsidiary club, ACE, hosted an annual fashion show on campus, which was sort of a big deal. I had no hand or part in any of that stuff or really anything, period. More just making the point that I was “there.”)
I had grown up surrounded by about five Asians, one of whom, by the third grade, became my arch nemesis.
(Darren. We even dated the same girl at one point in middle school! I dated her first, obviously.)
Now I was in the big city at a school just teeming with Asians.
And so those first few weeks of school, I was all about meeting this new type of person.
But little did I know, standing in front of me that night was the kewlest Korean FOB from all of Korea.
The first time my mom met Sammy, she was horrified.
I mean, she didn’t say anything out loud, and she was really nice but she was totally horrified, I could tell.
Her little chickpea, flies out free in the wide world, and this is his first pit stop?
This was the kind of friend he chose?
I could smell not only her horror but her disappointment.
Before age 18, I had never listened to rap.
No, I mainly listened to like dweeby, emo indie stuff.
And yet, here we had this Korean FOB who was the embodiment of Hip Hop, his pants were at an extra fine droop that day and I’m pretty sure he was sporting these extra large Timberlands.
All the while wearing like an XXL white t-shirt, which is a bit plain in the context of Sammy, but the final flourish that finished off the masterpiece was the pair of fake diamond studs, like gigantic studs man. You needed special solar eclipse glasses just to look at ‘em closely.
So my mom was horrified, perhaps duly.
Now, just sayin’, especially at that time, it was not particularly out of the ordinary for an Asian dude to be sweatin’ all that gangsta gear.
Truth be told, it was pretty common.
But Sammy was different.
Sammy was different because he was like me.
I grew up in a town with only five Asians.
Sammy grew up in a city (Seoul) with only five people who truly appreciated Hip Hop.
Sammy was a pioneer.
While it might be somewhat common to see an Asian decked out beyond a Reasonable Doubt in a place like Queens, Sammy was probably the only kid in all of Korea effectively doing so, not only with style but with proper homage to back it up.
With those five other kids, he started a crew.
Everyone produced their own record.
Sammy’s sold thousands of copies.
In his senior year of high school, he started growing out his hair.
No one was sure why, although his mom sort of liked it.
The longer hair brought out a sweeter, feminine side.
Of course, when it was finally long enough, after growing it out all year long, Sammy booked it to the hair salon and got a special perm.
That day, Sammy had an afro.
It was the same day his mom kicked him out of the house.
Unfortunately, he cut it off a month later, before he left for America.
There are still photos thought.
And the photos are fucking amazing.
All of that is sort of irrelevant though.
Because the only important part of this story is that Sammy is my friend.
I remember vividly the night I knew Sammy was my friend, that he would be my friend for a very long time.
This was like a couple weeks now into school and we were hanging out in a room at Bobst library.
We weren’t very kewl so we spent a lot of time hanging out at the library freshman year.
Usually we had work to do but we also spent most of our time trying to figure out how to not do it.
And so that night we just started talking about stuff and we ended up talking about like Korean culture and Korean history and stuff like that.
At one point, Sammy started showing me the Korean alphabet.
In the context of alphabets, the Korean one is pretty new, it’s like only a few hundred years old.
And the alphabet is actually phonetic! I had no idea because it looks like symbols and stuff, but they are actually all little letters that you put together, vowels and consonants.
Sammy is telling me about all of this and then telling quickly turns into teaching.
“Ca-na-da,” he said.
I repeated after him.
The sun was probably about to come up by the time we finished.
And we had done none of our homework or studying.
But it was kewl, because I was fluent in reading and writing Korean pretty much.
In a single night, Sammy had taught me the whole shebang. Like I could go over to 32nd St where all the BBQ and karaoke bars are and perfectly read all the signs. (Which I did soon after. We went to K-town a lot because that was one of the few places we could drink without getting carded.)
Anyway, that was the night I knew that Sammy was a special guy.
I have a lot of friends that I have fun with, party with, get drunk with, hang out with.
But it takes a special kind of person to teach you the language of their people in a single night.
And that special kind of person is Sammy.
Later, he would introduce me to the world of Hip Hop, starting with guys like Nas and Jay-Z and The Wu-Tang Clan.
That’s another story though for another time.
Oh yeah, just a little addendum to the story.
Many years later—in all, Sammy and I lived together for over 8 years all over Manhattan, with a two year break in the middle when he left to serve in the Korean Army—right after we had moved out of our apartment on Mulberry St. into a new place on Eldridge, my mom was in town and so we all went to lunch.
She couldn’t believe her eyes.
Sammy had since started getting his haircut at this hipster place in Soho. This was also a phase where he had been wearing more J-Crew stuff (which apparently, Barron Trump is also into, BTW).
“You look like a Korean model!!!”
“You could be in a Korean Drama!!” my mom couldn’t stop raving.
“Sammy, you look so good!!!!!!”
That day, Sammy went from Public Enemy number one to mother’s dearest.
(It helped that he was killing it in life, too. He had recently gotten his H1B visa in the most improbable of ways, through blood and sweat and grit and determination and a little bit of luck—all while marching to the beat of his own drum. Let’s just say, it’s a hard feat to achieve, getting your H1B when you have a degree in finance but end up interning at a production company because you’re super kewl. He also got his green card this year!)
And so, the greatest gift Sammy ever gave me was not that of language—I’ve since forgotten the entire Korean alphabet as quickly as I learned it (but I assure you, I had it nailed down for about a week).
No, the greatest gift Sammy ever gave me was allowing me to give my mom a quiet look that day.
A look that said all the words.
“I told you so.”
(Top photo: Sammy, me, Walter, and Sharukh went for a run last week.)