My sister called to inform me that one of our cousins from Korea had just landed in Los Angeles for an overnight stay with her travel group touring across North America. She asked if I could come over and meet for dinner.
It was around 5 o'clock in the afternoon when she called, but I hopped into my car right away with no hesitation despite the daunting prospect of driving nearly two hours through rush hour traffic which included downtown LA. I had not seen Mi since my visit to Korea in 1989, and I was not about to pass this one up.
Mi is the second oldest of my aunt's five children all of whom are older than me and my sister. The seven of us grew up together practically as siblings under the same roof at least over three different periods in my childhood years.
There is something you should know about my family.
When I was about four, my father left the family, leaving Mom to fend for herself and the two young children. It was at a time when single motherhood was unheard of and career opportunities for women scarce in this third world country ravaged by war and political and social turmoil. We had nowhere to go when my aunt took us in even though she had her hands full with five rambunctious school aged children and her husband's meager teacher's salary.
Mi greeted me with a warm hug and tears. It was great to see her.
You young people out there may want to note that when we old people get together, we scrutinize each other for signs of aging. I did what I could so as not to highlight my wrinkles and angled myself to conceal the gray around the temples. Sometimes my smile looks more like a scowl because of that.
We reminisced about the past as old friends and family do. Although it was a very difficult period for all of us, there was no shortage of hilarious stories which had us gasp for air. What a time warp that was.
Mi was my favorite cousin. Although some of my cousins loved to terrorize and pick on the baby of the family as you could see below, Mi always loved me and took good care of me.
Then the subject turned to the family dog that we had. She reminded us that his name was Meh-ri. Meh-ri? Doesn't sound like a Korean name, does it? Where did that name come from? I asked.
Following America's military involvement during the Korean war and also generous aid after the cease fire, Koreans got to befriend American soldiers and relief workers who brought them food, medicine, and shelter and helped rebuild the war-torn nation.
They came to owe Americans a debt of gratitude and apparently one way to express it was by naming their dogs after their American friends. Thus two of the most popular dog names to this day in Korea are "Meh-ri" and "Chon" which are the Korean variations of Mary and John respectively.
Since it was against tradition to give their children non-Korean names, this was how Koreans honored their generous American friends who touched their lives in the postwar era. They named their beloved family pets after Americans.
And they ate them.
That was stupid. My joke was, not how Koreans including my aunt's family honored their American friends. So let me make a commitment not to burden you with another stupid dog meat joke again.
BTW, Noah has been doing this a lot lately for some reason. Do you think he's praying? Hey Noah, it's just a joke.
Back to Meh-ri.
I remember the dog very well. He was a Korean Jindo. All of my aunt's five children and my sister were school aged, so they were at school during the day and my mother worked two jobs to save up money to get a place of our own.
My aunt was home with me, but having five children left her very little time to look after me as you can imagine. So Meh-ri was my babysitter and we became inseparable companions.
One cold winter day, Mi recalled, Meh-ri and I were nowhere to be found. They frantically searched all over for us. The gate was locked and I was too small to reach the latch, but my cousins combed the neighborhood and the woods nearby to no avail for hours.
Then it occurred to someone to shine the flashlight into the dog house just in case.
And there we were in the dog house: Meh-ri and I cuddling up together and keeping each other warm and shielded from the cold and harsh world outside. Apparently we had been there huddled up for hours.
Even though it was a period when I first became cognizant of the harsh realities of life and my carefree childhood was nearing an end, Meh-ri showered me with unconditional and pure love. He loved me and took good care of me when no one else could.
That is how I came to love dogs. That is how I became a big dog person.
So what happened to Meh-ri, I asked. Did you guys Wok him?
Mi didn't get the "joke." Understandably so because I said the above in Korean except for the word "Wok.".
Note to self: When you play on words, you should not mix three different languages (Wok is Chinese), one of which originated from vastly different linguistic roots. I knew that, but I still couldn't help myself. Sometimes a man's gotta do what he's gotta do.
When my aunt's family packed up and moved to Seoul, they couldn't take him with them. So they gave him up for adoption after crying buckets. By then we had moved out to another place, so thankfully I was not there when this happened.
After they settled in Seoul, my uncle took a five hour train ride to visit Meh-ri's new family and to check on him. He could barely afford the trip, but he missed the dog that badly.
By then, Meh-ri had gone to dog heaven. He never ate, my uncle was told. My best childhood friend never recovered from a broken heart when his loved ones left him.