Hugging my niece Erin Yi in Baltimore. ©2021 Yunghi Kim/ Contact Press Images

A Patchwork of Matriarchs

My family today is a patchwork of strong women, absent of men, by circumstance. They are true matriarchs in the image of my grandmother who raised me from infancy and my mother, a physician, who guided me to adulthood.

This is the complete, unpublished essay text I wrote for the New York Times piece — what love looks like in my family in this time of anti-Asian hate.

One often hears of a child raised by a single mother as a disadvantage to the mother, child, or both. I was raised by a single mother and it was a good thing. Dr. Ouk Lee Kim, MD had to do everything herself. She might have been a petite 4’11” inches tall, but she was a pillar of strength and always walked with purpose. She was a true matriarch.

From New York Times, “Keeping Love Close”

Men were frequently absent or “disappointments” in my family. The tradition of strong women in my family goes back to my grandmother who lost her husband during the Korean War and was forced to raise six children on her own. Later, my grandmother took on the responsibility of raising my sister and me when my parents left South Korea to immigrate to the United States in the 1960’s seeking a better life. This was common for my generation of Koreans: children left behind while the parents sought to establish a better future with the intention of later calling for their children. I understand this process continues today with many immigrant families.

My brother’s wife Katherine and her daughter — my niece — Tasha, one month after my brother sudden and unexpected death. ©2021 Yunghi Kim/ Contact Press Images

My older sister and I joined our parents (my brother Albert was born in the US in 1965) in the states in 1972 when I was 10. My early childhood had been spent waiting to go to America to be reunited with my parents; soon after our arrival, my mother left my father. Despite it all, my mother prospered without my father.

Though my mother’s written English was perfect, I can recall store clerks being rude to my mother when she asked simple questions with her thick Asian accent. French accents may be desired but Asian accents were scorned and made fun of.

Summer 1973 when our grandmother came to visit from Korea for few months to help my mother who was working as a physician full time, including nights and weekend on a 2nd job. Those were tough years of modest living and devoted saving. My grandmother visited us twice in America. My first visit back to the motherland Korea was not until I was 25 and already a professional in photojournalism and had money to travel to Korea. The other woman on the right is my aunt from New Jersey — our only family in United States, every holiday was spent with “the NJ family,” as my mother geographically referred to them. ©2021 Yunghi Kim/ Contact Press Images

As a teen, I would find myself repeating what my Mom said to the store clerks as if I was translating. But my mother was not phased by any of this. She had her eye on the bigger picture: buying a house and sending her three children to college. For her it was not what you said but what you did. She showed her love for us with her actions.

With steely determination and frugality, my mother raised three children. Those early years in the United States were tough. I was left with the impression that we were poor. My mom’s idea of going out to dinner was ordering slices of pizza and not spending money on soda. At age 12 or 13, I started working part time jobs; delivering weekly flyer P, newspapers or babysitting to earn spending money. One day in the late 1970’s when I was in 9th grade, my mother announced to us she had saved $50k to buy her first house in the suburbs of NYC; a house she lived in until she passed away in 2010.

Since my brother ‘s sudden death a month ago, old family photographs have become comforting as I keep thinking back to the tough years — my early years in US of scrimping and saving. Lower left photo is a picture of our grandmother with my sister lovingly leaning against her back in Korea early 1960s. ©2021 Yunghi Kim/ Contact Press Images

A few weeks ago, when my younger brother Albert, 55, died suddenly, it made me think back a lot on those early, tough years. Albert’s wife Katherine and her three kids, whom I was not always close to, now need to be strong. I have been sending them photos of Albert as a child. I am happy she finds comfort in the images I text to her. Their household has reverted to the Matriarch model, aided also by two strong daughters — my nieces — and a nephew.

My older sister has had a complicated life and raised three children by herself in a Matriarchal model. At one point, she moved in with my mother; there was no question about that plan in my mother’s mind. Again, my mother’s love was implicit by her actions. Owing to my sister’s complexities, my brother, Katherine and I found ourselves stepping in to help raise her children at different times. We were their safety net. Our love was implicit in our actions. Now my sister’s middle daughter, Erin, a graduate of Cornell works for a military contractor in a crucial national security role. This “yimo” (Korean, for aunt on the mother’s side) is quite proud!

My niece Erin Yi, a graduate of Cornell University, now works for a military contractor in a crucial national security role. Like her aunt, she’s got grit and determination! ©2021 Yunghi Kim/ Contact Press Images

In retrospect, I don’t think I ever really hugged my mother or told her that I love her. Our relationship was more formal. Likely, the distance in our relationship was because she didn’t raise me. I’m not sure what she would done had I told her, I loved her. I imagine she would have responded by asking If I had enough to eat. But my mother, by her actions and her sacrifices, showed she had a huge heart as well as nerves of steel. My friends who were amazed by her must do attitude used to call her “a pistol”. That pistol personality has been passed to me and I treasure it; it’s the best gift a daughter could receive. Time and again it has helped me navigate with courage in war torn assignments and sometimes harsh urban street photography as I made a name for myself in a male-dominated photojournalism profession I entered in 1984.

Katherine and Tasha at their home in Connecticut. My younger brother died suddenly in his sleep a month ago. My family, once again, is this patchwork of matriarchal leadership. ©2021 Yunghi Kim/ Contact Press Images

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