Go Away With … Jimin Han

By Jae-Ha Kim
Tribune Content Agency
May 2, 2017

Born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Ohio, Rhode Island and New York, where she is based, author Jimin Han says road trips are a wonderful way to see the United States.

“We drove through Colorado one summer and (though) I get car sick, it was so spectacular I’d definitely do it again,” she says. “We flew into Denver and drove to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and then to Telluride. The landscape changed dramatically within hours. It was a snapshot of the diverse vastness of the United States — in just a couple of days — that only a car ride can show you.”

In her novel “A Small Revolution” (Little A, $14.95), Han handles serious topics — mental illness, political activism, domestic violence — deftly. Stay in touch with the author on her website, Twitter and Tumblr.

Q. What was the first trip you took as a child?

A. When I was about 10 years old, we drove to Boca Raton, Florida. I remember being told it meant “mouth of a rat” and I couldn’t shake that image from my mind. I pictured an ugly, awful place, but it turned out to be something out of a Hollywood movie with its beaches and palm trees. My great aunt joined us, flying in from South Korea. I’d never met her before. She bought me Japanese cosmetics — I don’t think she knew how old I was — and was dressed in a pink Chanel suit. She fit right into Boca. We went to the beach a lot, but one afternoon we went with her to a cemetery. She knelt at a grave and cried. I heard later that it was the grave of her estranged son, who had been a marine biologist and died in a scuba-diving accident. I’ve developed a novel around that visit and that mysterious great aunt.

Q. What is your favorite vacation destination?

A. One of my best friends took me to Mahale Mountains National Park in western Tanzania when she turned 40. It was an amazing way to celebrate a birthday. She’d been to Tanzania before, so she knew exactly what she was looking for: something remote and unusual. We flew into Arusha and then took a small plane to Mahale, then took a boat up Lake Tanganyika to the camp where we were staying. Each morning, we were woken with a lovely breakfast and then taken by scouts to the part of the park where chimpanzees were sighted. We spent the morning observing them quietly. In the afternoon we could hike or swim. In the evening we had dinner on the shores of the lake and took a boat out to look at hippos swimming.

Q. Where have you traveled to that you ended up including in your work?

A. For 15 years, I lived in a small town in upstate New York that had very few Asian families. In 1985, my parents sent me back (to Korea) by myself for the summer. The experience was odd because I’d heard so much about Korea, but I felt like an outsider when I was there and, of course, I was. “A Small Revolution” draws plenty from my experience. Another place was Greece. We traveled there with the same friend I went to Tanzania with, but this time our husbands and children came with us. Our friends arranged for a boat to take us to Drakonisi Island in the Aegean Sea. I wrote about it for my favorite series in The Rumpus.

Q. Where are your favorite weekend getaways?

A. Being in Westchester makes you central to anything in the northeast. You can hop on Amtrak to Philly or Boston. You can drive up along the Hudson River to Rhinebeck or out west to the Poconos. You can pick delicious blueberries up in Red Hook. But my favorite short trip is to go into New York City and stay overnight. I guess because I don’t have an apartment there anymore. It feels like a gift to be able to stay out as late as I want and eat at all of its fabulous restaurants. It’s such a great city to walk through. Also, there are so many literary events in Brooklyn, which is even more south of me than Manhattan, so it’s a longer trek. I’d go to a reading every night or maybe even two without driving home in the middle of the night.

Q. When you go away, what are some of your must-have items?

A. Comfortable shoes specific to that climate for my terrible feet. Notebook, pens, books, probiotic supplements for a sensitive stomach, a wrap for cold mornings and nights and maps for when cell service or Wi-Fi fails.

Q. Where would you like to go that you have never been to before?

A. Jeju Island in South Korea. I’ve flown to Korea three times but missed Jejudo each time. I’d love to learn more about the history of the shamanistic rituals and the role of women divers on this island that is reputed to be so different from the rest of Korea and yet integral to it.

Q. What would be your dream trip?

A. Your questions are so fun! A lot to choose from. Maybe I don’t have to choose? I’d love to live in a different city every month for a year. Take my husband on a year abroad. We’d start in Paris for a month and see his favorite Le Corbusier building, and then go back to Rome because he loves it, and then the rest I’d choose: go down to Windhoek, then Istanbul, and then Lhasa, Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul and see my relatives leisurely rather than rushed. … Tokyo — but take trips to Kyoto and other parts. How many months is that so far? Okay, three left: So from Tokyo, we’d fly to the Big Island in Hawaii then on to Chile — Valparaiso, where Pablo Neruda lived, then up to Costa Rica — maybe Montezuma. Even just listing these places is thrilling.

Q. What is your best and/or worst vacation memory?

A. This is a tough one. My mom was having respiratory problems in 2012, so I booked a week in the Outer Banks during my children’s March break from school. I must have read that the ocean air could be helpful. It turned out to be too cold to stroll on the beach for very long. And I didn’t anticipate how much trouble she’d have walking at all. There were stairs everywhere built into a network of boardwalks on the sand. My children were eleven and eight years old and wanted to run and swim. I felt pulled in two directions, keeping my mother company and letting her lean on me as she walked and supervising my very active children, who wanted to run ahead. I didn’t know then she’d have a stroke nearly a year later. I kept pushing her to walk more and more, trying to build her stamina. At night, my mom and I slept in a room and my children in the other. A rattling noise came from her lungs at night. But on the third night, the noise disappeared. She seemed stronger during our short walks during the day. She went home, telling my father she felt so much better and had to move to the beach and he agreed. One of the few times I saw them agree on anything as important as that.

Q. What are your five favorite cities?

A. New York, Paris, Seoul, Tokyo, Cortona (Italy).

Q. What are your favorite hotels?

A. I love the Kimberly Hotel. It’s smack in the middle of mid-town Manhattan with a cool rooftop restaurant. Most of the rooms are suites and have balconies. To have a balcony in New York City is such a luxury — gives you that outdoor privacy in a busy, crowded city. You also have a great view of the Chrysler Building lit up at night. For chain hotels, I love Marriotts — all their brands, from Courtyards to JW Marriotts. You know what you’re getting no matter where you are.

Q. What are your favorite restaurants?

A. The restaurants in Seoul were so good. My favorite is Dong Hwa Ban Jom. And in Paris: La Brasserie de I’Isle Saint-Louis.

Q. What is your guilty pleasure when you’re on the road?

A. Naps. Taking a nap in the middle of the afternoon. Just a moment to rest before the next thing you have planned. A time-out from the rush of the day.

Q. What kind of research do you do before you go away on a trip?

A. Reviews online are the best. But I have to admit, I still love to buy Frommer’s and Fodor’s for their photos and maps. I even buy them in used bookstores if I can’t buy them new. And I compare them to things I read online. Nothing like having a solid book, a bound book, in my hand.

Q. If you’ve ever gone away for the holidays, which was the best trip?

A. This past Christmas we went to Freeport, Bahamas. They were still recovering from Hurricane Matthew. Many hotels and shops were closed and being repaired. Everyone was welcoming and kind. My older daughter didn’t feel well and the staff at the restaurants went out of their way to make something special for her. It was my first time in the Caribbean and I understood finally what people meant when they talked about white sand beaches and clear water. A perk of going away for Christmas was not having to put away the tree and ornaments on December 26. But my kids missed having a tree, so next year maybe we’ll go somewhere warm a couple of days after Christmas!

Q. Where have you traveled to that most reminded you of home?

A. Rome reminded me most of New York City which I consider home because we lived there for 13 years and it always feels like home to me. Rome has the same mix of things butting up against each other, old and new, excess and scarcity, the thrilling and mundane. A hardscrabble kind of energy that feels similar to New York.

Q. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your travels?
A. I’ve learned that you can’t predict how you’ll react until you are actually there. When I went to Paris, I was shocked by how isolated I felt. I couldn’t shake the anxiety of not knowing French. I realized after a few days that the feeling I had was reminiscent of the time I’d arrived in the United States for the first time as a child. I had no idea I’d react the way I did. I’d read about Paris and couldn’t wait to see the cafes where Ernest Hemingway had written, the country of Anais Nin, George Sand and Simone de Beavoir. I adjusted after a few days, but that initial reaction surprised me.

Q. Where is the most romantic destination?

A. I have to say Maui. My husband and I went to the Kea Lani in Wailea for our honeymoon six years after we got married, because we couldn’t afford it before then. So it holds a lot of memories. We’d left a freezing cold January in New York City. The balmy, warm weather was such a luxury. Our hotel suite was bigger than our tiny studio apartment back in New York. We rented a car so we could explore the island, eating at different places. The light scent of flowering trees and tropical plants everywhere made it such a relaxing experience. And it’s not crowded, you can walk on a beach and be alone with your partner.

© 2017 JAE-HA KIM


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