Before we get too far, I wanted to make known that I’m not an expert in the field of “How the industry can be better.” I love story-telling and it is what I aim to do here, combined with some insights from my life. As an industry, we can always “do better” but I hope the focus for this narrative shifts away from “these are the answers” because I don’t have them. Instead, my goal is to provide honest and real moments in time because one of the strongest bonds we have in the face of adversity is that which forms with those who have a shared story. And with that bond, we are stronger in the face of those that would break us down.
“Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.”
I first got news of my uncle’s cancer as I was standing in front of the snacks section at H Mart. My mom was calling. Something told me to answer the phone, even though I would normally have just called her back when I got home. She explained to me that my uncle was dying. I could hear the steadiness in her voice, even though it was filled with an unbearable sadness. One thing about my mom: she always showed her strength before she gave in to her weaknesses. The following silence that formed could have filled the physical space between us 100 times over. It became deafening. And there, surrounded by childhood snacks, I broke down. Years later I would read this opening quote and learn of another woman’s story and connection to the famous Asian goods superstore and I cried all over again. Not because I was reminded of my uncle but because it became clear that many of us have mirroring moments and stories. I was her and she was me. You recognize that the shared ancestry runs deep and can be filled with trauma. And we seek shelter and comfort in the stories that our ancestors shared as they tried to simultaneously try to protect us from the world that wanted to harm us.
As a young child, my mother always had an abundance of Korean rhetoric that she shared with my brother and me. Stories filled with tigers, green frogs crying, swallows bringing fortune (or misfortune)… each with a special message tied into a neat and poignant package. You would find my brother and I rolling our eyes every time she reached into her neverending well of idioms and sayings meant to teach us a symbolic lesson. I remember these moments so clearly… the colors, the smells, the way my mother’s hair was styled, the prepared food waiting on the table as she reminded me I hadn’t yet practiced piano. And sometimes I giggle because I realize how “super Asian” we were; how we fit so many stereotypes. These were the practices my mother brought with her from Korea when she was 20. And before long I’m overcome by waves of sadness as I also remember these moments are followed by intense transitions into
whiteness, so that we could appear less of who we are by blood and more like everyone around us. Childhood is so strange because I’m not entirely sure how these memories are kept. Did I choose to remember these places in time because I was proud? And did I choose to forget those later in life because I didn’t want to be who I was?
The hope is that we can exist in the diaspora as who we are by blood and ancestry but also as who we are meant to become as children of immigrants in a land that wasn’t built for us. Sometimes it feels so heavy. Can we find the intersectionality of who we are and who we are meant to be? How do we carry the stories of our ancestors with us as we continue to move forward through life? It is our assignment to remember a history that is passed down through words, stories and dishes that scatter the kitchen table. A lot of people will tell us it’s an impossible task because we are seen as both victims of racism and beneficiaries of whiteness. That even we don’t know where we belong. I often think back to the opening statement made by Min Jin Lee in Pachinko. She says, “History has failed us, but no matter.” To better understand what that statement represents to her and to others like me, I wanted to include an excerpt from an interview here:
“History has failed us, but no matter” serves as my thesis statement. I believe history has failed almost everybody who is ordinary in the world, not just the Korean-Japanese, who are the subject of Pachinko. I am also arguing that the discipline of history has failed. It is not that historians aren’t doing their jobs but rather that the memory of history has been reconstructed by the elite, because the overwhelming majority of ordinary people rarely leave sufficient primary documents; they do not have others recording their lives
in real time. The phrase “but no matter” is a statement of defiance. It doesn’t matter that history has failed us because ordinary people have persisted anyway. This idea gives me an enormous amount of strength and hope as a writer because I am an ordinary person. Those of us who may be women of color, immigrants, or working class aren’t often meant to be people who write novels about ideas, but no matter.”
There is a tipping point for all of us. Mine came post-college when my relationship with my mother became strained. We fought a lot because her old school ideals didn’t match my “new world” thoughts. I didn’t realize it then, but I see now, that I was running from so much of what made me her daughter. I began to research Korea as a time and place when she was born and even before her birth. My grandmother lived through the Japanese occupation of Korea. My mothers siblings were born during the Korean War. My family’s history is filled with moments of defiance. And with that defiance we are able to keep our legacies alive. The title of this editorial is a saying my mother used to share with me. She said that we must sleep before we can dream. I always thought she was telling me to finish what was in front of me in order to move forward; I was notorious for starting many projects and getting frustrated when they didn’t come to fruition. I realize now, it is bigger than that. She stated that things do not just happen and that we have to work for them. We have to be the change we want to see. In many ways she wanted me to know that before we can understand what we need, we have to first understand what we don’t have.
Fortunately, my mother is still alive today. I use her stories as a reflection of who I am, especially as it translates to my career. Growing up in the shade of a strong woman can mess with your head, because I wondered if I would live up to her standards. But to turn that around, I now use her standards to keep myself focused. There were moments in my career where others questioned my capabilities. Staying steadfast, just as she would have, allowed me to prove that not only was I capable but that I was the best possible choice for that job or role.
A little known fact: I was passed over for the bar director role that I ultimately held for many years and then left in 2021. I was not the first choice… so I quietly and diligently worked my ass off to prove that I was just as good if not better than the person brought in, and eventually convinced them of my worth. And this colleague and I are friends to this day. But… I will always remember the feeling of betrayal because it meant I wasn’t worth the fight.
I was conditioned from a young age to know that there would always be battles to fight and to pick which were important because you cannot win them all. I found strength in my role as a white-passing woman of color; honestly, this was a space where people became uncomfortable because the topic was for many, unknown territory. As an industry, we had not blown the top off of that yet… it was still coming. I leveraged that part of who I was so it was built into my image. I was not just Alexis, bartender or bar manager. I became Alexis, a Korean-American woman who was running one of the best bars in the world alongside another strong woman of color, Jarmel Doss. For the two of us, it felt like a major win. At some point others will take that from you and turn you into a token, and those in positions of power did just that. And so we find ourselves back at the beginning asking who am I? and where do I belong? I think back to my mother’s statement that I must sleep, so that I can dream and I imagine what it looks like to lay the groundwork for evolution in our industry. Taking my experiences and distilling the moments that make you proud and finding ways to replicate that type of success so that others can join in. For me, it starts at the ground level with the people that work for you. Building a space that supports others while they learn and grow. I think we have to, as a new generation of bar owners or operators in this industry, lay the correct framework and then build on it. It’s really hard to gut and renovate when the foundation is rotten because that toxicity will find its way back into the living spaces. This was one of the greatest lessons I learned in the last 10 years. And it reinforces the idea that we must sleep before we can dream.
And before I sign off, my name is Alexandra. My middle name is Kye, from my mother’s name Kyesook. I am my mother’s daughter and I am a second generation Korean-American. As they say, we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams. So don’t forget to sleep so that you can dream.
Photo Credit: “Natasha Moustache”
ABOUT ALEXIS BELTON
Up until recently, Alexis was the Cultural Brand Ambassador for Johnnie Walker, Chicago. Prior to that, she spent eight years with The Alinea Group helping to run the beverage program for The Aviary. She is a Cocktail Apprentice Program 2023 White Coat and spent the last year with the program as a White Coat Manager. When she isn’t consulting she is spending time with her dogs and in her pottery studio.