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She's a Rebel Columnist With a Cause : Multiculturalism: 'Dear Immy' dishes out advice for the Korea Times. Her bold, feminist style has attracted fans but turns off some traditionalists.

July 21, 1993|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Im Jung Kwuon rarely prepares lunch. Or any meal for that matter. "I am not," she says, "an obedient, boring Korean princess."

Tell that to the waitress at Kang Suhr Restaurant in Koreatown, where Kwuon, sitting with two men, has just been handed raw chunks of chicken and beef to cook over a built-in gas grill at her table.

The men at other tables are sizing up Kwuon, staring between bites of kimchi and gesturing to other men to turn toward Kwuon's corner. "They see that I am doing the talking, that I am being listened to," she says.

Kwuon is at it again: breaking the rules.

She's had lots of practice. Throughout most of her life, Kwuon, 35, has rebelled against her traditional upbringing in a culture she says values men more than women, doesn't readily accept interracial marriage, considers children born out of wedlock as throwaways, and frowns on women who are controversial, insightful and sexual.

As a result, she says, she tried to kill herself twice, dropped out of college, plunged into cocaine and alcohol abuse, and eventually, committed one of the biggest taboos of all--she married a non-Korean.

Now as the woman behind "Dear Immy," an advice column in the English-language edition of the Korea Times, Kwuon is breaking new ground.

Biweekly, 10,000 readers turn to her smiling photo and her "Dear Immy" questions that are usually sprinkled with no-nonsense responses. Topics range from the serious--interracial marriage, intimacy, sex, illegitimate children and prearranged marriages--to the amusing--nerdy men, kimchi for breakfast, and whether you are a traitor if you don't buy a Hyundai.

Says Kwuon's editor, Sophia Kim: "She has her league of fans who look to her for compassion, comfort, advice and empathy, but there are also some people, especially traditional-minded men who find her ideas rooted in feminism and democracy, somewhat threatening and radical."

Marcia Choo is a fan, but she doesn't always agree with Kwuon.

Still, "It is very healthy for the Korean community that she take on controversial subjects because many people in our community refuse to acknowledge that these issues exist," says Choo, 28, program director for the Asian Pacific Dispute Resolution Center in Los Angeles.

"Too often our community would prefer to bury its heads in the sand and hope that through silence the problems will go away. She is very honest and candid about her feelings and sharing her experiences. This is not common in the Korean community, especially for a woman to do that."

*

Kwuon started the column three years ago after she wrote to an editor at the Korea Times about her struggle to both acculturate and assimilate. Maybe she could write a column, she asked. No, came the reply. But 18 months later, another editor gave her a break. The only writing experience Kwuon had until then were high school papers, college dissertations and the entries in her "Dear Greenie" childhood journal, 11 diaries she kept while growing up--a time of her life that certainly was rocky.

For starters, at 17 and while a senior at Hollywood High School, Kwuon tried to kill herself with an overdose of sleeping pills because she felt disowned by her family when she couldn't fit into the typical Korean mold they had envisioned for her.

"My upbringing was very traditional," says Kwuon, who at age 4 emigrated from Seoul to the United States with her parents and sister. "I felt very isolated. We went to school and we were good schoolchildren. Then we came home and we had a very complete Korean life with very few non-Koreans coming through the front door."

"As a result I always felt quite a bit like a hothouse plant. I was being nurtured to fulfill a role my parents considered the most important role for a Korean woman, and that was to be accomplished, educated, obedient, a lovely young wife and mother. That was the role that I was taught and that role had me very depressed."

Her mother found Kwuon sprawled on a bed, a suicide letter nearby. "My mother threw away the letter," she says, and the incident was never discussed. "My life didn't change after that."

Halfway through college she dropped out. Another strike.

Throughout her early 20s she dated Korean men--handpicked by her parents. But none were her kind of marriage material.

"I was looking for a man who would support my identity and my career, not a man who would control my life," she says.

"But I didn't know how to ask for that, and the only way I could find out was to see if the Korean men I dated supported that: like if they came to my political meetings, if they cooked dinner for me, if they helped me cram for exams, if they entertained my network. I used to do all that for them. And so they would all come and not do that. They would ask, why are you out there doing all this crazy stuff?"

At 24, feeling "rejected by my Korean culture and community" she again tried to kill herself, this time gradually, with nightly binges of Scotch and pot.

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