Scenes From the City: Un Jin
Writing and photography by Abby McGuire.
I’m on time and my stomach is ready to eat the bricks that make up the storefront of Tucker’s Restaurant. The last time I had Tucker’s, I don’t think I was drinking coffee every morning or ordering the specials, but the second time was the ultimate charm. If a third time came around, I am not sure I would want to risk overriding the perfection of the meal and conversation I shared here with Un Jin.
Un Jin was a woman described to me that I knew I had to meet; a woman who asked me out to breakfast instead of just coffee. To learn about someone over a meal has taken on a new importance after sharing huevos rancheros, grease, and bottomless diner coffee.
People see everything pure about her because she wears it comfortably.
She must have been the coziest person in the place, wrapped in a perfectly oversized sweater leaning into a scarf, and personal items shoved up against the tiled wall. It is a Sunday morning scene that I almost don’t want to interrupt, but I have been so looking forward to meeting. She reaches out for a handshake and I panic, wondering if my outstretched arms waiting for a hug screams unprofessionalism.
We both laugh as I try to hide the awkward parts of me in my overalls. I drop my things next to me and we sit in the booth she has chosen. She knows everyone in this place. The server recognizes her immediately and they laugh over jokes only a regular would understand. She orders extra veggies on her meal, I take the same thing minus the green stuff. Un Jin made everything feel like a habit so fast, it felt like I just slipped into being myself.
She has a way of doing that sort of thing by simply taking you in like an old friend – touching your hand when you say something meaningful and never breaking eye contact for anything but coffee. Un Jin wells up with confidence and passion as she begins to explain her life to me.
She is the youngest of two daughters that immigrated to Cincinnati from South Korea. She grew up being told it was a move made to invest in her education. Un Jin told me they later learned that it was an ultimatum her mother proposed to her father after a life of miscommunication and alcohol in South Korea. Her father was giving to a fault. I think Un Jin has found a balance in what to give and what to save for herself after all she has been through.
We have to know when we run out of pieces of ourselves to give.
She is expressive and unapologetically honest about all the details she shares with me. Here I am – a 23 year old with a recorder hanging on every word. She became a mother younger than expected to Bella, who is now 15 and dreaming of teaching people to learn how to snowboard in Vermont with her then-husband. As life usually does, it threw her for a loop into the corporate world with a headset and benefits to help her with pregnancy. She invested so much into something that just doesn’t sound like her, to build a family that she wanted to thrive.
Un Jin has an eye for a silver lining without any complaints. I haven’t heard one negative comment to anything she has explained to me and my mouth is wide open just listening to it all. In the corporate chain, she found an outlet within the company to invest in great causes; a way to see her impact in the world and the company. And after quitting on something that cut out a part of her and put it into something she couldn’t get behind, she took her skill sets to Public Allies – an Americorps affiliated leadership program.
Un Jin told me it was the beginning of the end for her marriage, but she wasn’t afraid of the new vision she was creating. Her badass self created a new pathway for herself to better the world she believed in. She tells me the changes were unreal, dropping from a position of making money to serve her family to a livable income based on the Americorps codes. She put herself in a position to question her privilege – an experience that makes space for acceptance and change. She tells me about the team building activities and how they affected her view of privilege. Having books in a home, parents that own that home and pushed your education, the ability to give life to a child…
She knew her position and wanted to give more, but ultimately we bond over the fact that giving and living off of nothing to keep on giving can skew our inner voice. We have to know when we run out of pieces of ourselves to give. After miscarrying a child in the midst of all of her intense passion for helping others first, Un Jin knew something needed to change.
I think Un Jin has found a balance in what to give and what to save for herself after all she has been through.
She goes into the detail of what it is like to lose a child even if you weren't necessarily wanting it in the first place and I can almost feel it. She begins to fold the napkin in front of her, looking away to hide hard parts of the story with distraction.
Un Jin didn’t give up and eventually, she gave birth to her second child Mari, who questions everything and never stops talking. Un Jin did it her way this time around, naturally and on all fours breaking the industrialized system of giving birth to make it easier on the doctors. She told me it was some warrior shit and I believe her. She understands how to break the system in the best ways; inspiring me to question more things in my life as a woman. I never wanted to be a mom until she began to describe the beauty of being able to give life like we are born to do.
I hope she can see her words have visibly affected me. As I think this, Un Jin mentions she woke up needing to be consoled by her fiancé to help her understand why anyone would want to interview her. After I heard that come out of her mouth, I almost stood up in the booth and yelled to her from way up there how important stories like hers are.
She has seen it all. She has built her story with her own hands – from nothing into something. Anyone would want to hear about it over breakfast or a microphone. Un Jin is selfless and intuitive beyond belief, in ways I haven’t ever heard. People see everything pure about her because she wears it comfortably. The waitress knows it, the man in the booth behind us complimenting her hair knows it, I know it, and I won’t ever forget her.
I look up to see the hands of the clock have danced around us all morning as we sip our fifth cup of coffee talking about the importance of accepting our worth. Un Jin laughs as she describes giving herself a pep talk in the mirror during her morning routine and I use every part of my being to thank her for being her. I ask her what is next and she humbly tells me she has no idea, but she is ready for anything that comes her way.
Have a woman in mind that Abby should chat with? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, check out past Scenes from the City columns and stay tuned for more of the city's hidden gems on the first Saturday of every month.