A coil of red string — a serendipity of fate that connects three high school girls. (Nisha A. / Flickr)
Arnold O. Beckman High School

A serendipity of empathy

This is the story of three friends that met through church, who all encountered hardships as they came to live with a single mother, and ultimately walked their journey together.

Introduction: Sorry… Can I Have a Ride?

In the sunny and warm location of Orange County, California, there is a typical situation that often occurs with a certain group of three high school girls

“Dude, can you go ask him?” a teenaged girl jutted her elbow in the side of another girl.

“Ow! What, no I asked last time. You ask!” another girl exclaimed, holding her side.

“What, I totally asked him last time. Come on, I really want to go the movies this time, we like never have the chance to go!” the first girl responded.

“Oh my gosh move, I’ll ask, you cowards,” the last girl proclaimed exasperatedly, pushing the other two girls aside and marching forward.

“Uh, I’m really sorry, but can we have a ride?”

Yes, it’s perhaps the question that we ask the most. Rather, it’s the problem we encounter the most. “My mom is working so I don’t have a ride” or “Sorry man, I’m broke as heck.”

None of us drive and we all live particularly far from each other. Even if we want to spend time together outside of church, the opportunities are rare. Our families are also particularly poorer and money is something that shouldn’t be used carelessly for eating out or going to the movies. Not that we’re complaining for not having rides or a lot of money. It’s mostly us lamenting ourselves for not having the ability to drive or buy a car, or a job to have money.

I met them quite long ago. I can’t really remember my first encounters with them, but one way or another I met them at a younger age at church. We all have been attending Sarang Community Church, a Christian church, for practically all our lives. I was friends with them in elementary school, but we mostly stopped talking in junior high. Then we became friends again in high school during sophomore year, and we became closer than ever.

We mostly met often because all three of us were on the student leadership team in our youth ministry at church during our sophomore year, but we found something in common that connected us like nothing else.  

Act One: Chaewon Kim

Chaewon Kim. Long, straight hair dyed brownish-orange with the iconic front bangs. She’s a fun person to be around, constantly lifting up the mood and making random, weird comments. She’s more introverted and reserved.

I particularly have a lot of memories with Chaewon. We met during sixth grade at church because we were in the same “dalakbang” group, which is a group of adults that met up weekly to read the Bible together, worship, and share life together. The kids usually tagged along. I remember the two of us having a blast every week at the house we always went to, jumping around on the couches and making pathways with pillows to avoid the lava.

We were also in the same class for Korean school at our church, where we learned Korean and acted like rebellious little kids who seemed to be so cool because we were the “top of the food chain” in the Upper Elementary Department (UED) in our church. We stopped talking when we went up to English Junior High (E. Jr. High), but we became close friends again during sophomore year.

I never suspected that she would be having family issues at home. Since I was so young and ignorant in sixth grade, I never noticed. The “dalakbang” that we were in was for adults who were single. Not because they didn’t marry or date anyone yet. I noticed that I never met her father before, so I remember asking her once about it. She seemed pretty nonchalant about it.

“Oh, he lives in Korea,” is what she told me. Young, ignorant me just thought, “Oh OK. Maybe he has a job there.” How ignorant.

Chaewon was always very reserved about her issues and her life, so opening up was pretty difficult for her.

“I don’t really have a lot of memories of him because I was five. I only really remember going to Universal Studios once and him trying to teach me how to ride a bike,” Chaewon explained.

From the young age of five, Chaewon had to witness her parents getting a divorce.

“The biggest hardship for me was not having a fatherly figure to talk to and guide me through life,” she said. “It was honestly really hard.”

The reason behind the divorce was a variety of issues. Money, disagreements, and conflict. Chaewon was very young, so she has trouble remembering exactly what happened. But she still remembers her father. Her father still lives in Korea, and Chaewon and her older sister, Hyewon, visited him once or twice before.

But perhaps what really affected her family were financial issues. Because of the absence of her father, it was extremely difficult for the family to be financially stable. Their mother worked several jobs over the years, but recently lost the job that she had. Thus, Hyewon works in order to support the family, and she only graduated high school a year ago. I have heard Chaewon talk multiple times about how her mother and herself go to festivals and events in order to earn money. They ask their father to send money, but there are always miscommunications and a lack of money being sent.

“Because of this hardship, it was really hard for me to talk about it and open up about it,” Chaewon said. “Not only my hardship, but just like in general, it became really hard for me to open up to others.”

Her parents’ divorce mentally took a toll on her. It just became really difficult for her to open up to anyone anymore. She talked about how she always used to pray to God that her family would be restored when she was little. She stopped praying that prayer, because there was a time that she felt hopeless about the situation and she still feels some of those emotions lingering. But as the years passed, she became more able to talk about her feelings and emotions to her mother and older sister. They were the ones that could understand her the most because they went through the same struggles that she did.

Now, Chaewon feels as if this experience made her mentally stronger. She still doesn’t understand why it happened, but I assured her that everything is part of God’s plan. She assures me that she’ll keep that in mind.

“I remember when he tried to teach me how to ride a bike,” Chaewon said. “I kept falling like again and again. And right now I don’t know how to ride a bike either. You know, like how I don’t understand why this all happened. But one day, I’ll be able to go and push the pedal without falling.”

Act Two: Joyce Chang

Joyce Chang. Long, straight black hair and an average height. She’s a rather smart girl with high grades. She does well in school and is mostly an outgoing and smiley person. She laughs a lot and has her signature “I’m so tired” face that cracks me up.

I remember having Joyce in my small group class for church during sixth grade. We weren’t particularly very close. She was someone I knew and was familiar with. It was only during sophomore year that we became close friends. And again, she seems like such a happy and cheerful person.

But I remember the year of 2016.

I was sitting in the dim room of one of the worship halls in our church. I was clutching at my gray and black jacket, desperately trying not to cry, but failing as silent tears streamed down my face. I kept dabbing at my eyes with my jacket sleeves, the light gray becoming largely stained with a darker gray. Chaewon sat next to me on my left. Her head was down, but I could tell that she was sobbing.

I turned my eyes away from her and looked towards the front of the room and watched Joyce as she stood, dressed in all black. She wasn’t crying, but I could see the pure lostness in her eyes.

There was a time when everyone lined up to say their last farewells to Joyce’s father, Chris Chang. A sea of black was stretched across the room, as people approached the flowers and the smiling picture of the well-known man who was a faithful servant of the church. People were also giving hugs to the wife of Chris and the three lovely daughters of the family.

The line slowly moved along before I arrived at the picture. I gazed sadly at the picture of the man, wiping my tears and bowing (bowing is a form of greeting or a farewell in Asian culture), thanking him for all that he has done to contribute to the youth ministries and to the church. I sniffed, walking along and nodding to the other sisters before stopping at Joyce.

Chaewon was in front of me and she was hugging Joyce. Both of them were crying. I couldn’t help but choke up.

When they let go, I made eye contact with Joyce before engulfing her in a hug. I could tell that the message was passed clearly.  A lot of people were crying and giving hugs to the family that lost their father or husband. While that is great, I could tell that a spark of connection was inflamed between us. Most were feeling the emotion of sympathy. What Chaewon and I had was different. It was empathy.

“Just seeing him in pain and just watching him… die was so hard,” Joyce spoke softly.

He had received treatments and fought hard against his illness. She had tried her best to help her father, but he ultimately passed away by cancer in 2016.

Joyce recalls the day that her father passed away.

“My sister woke me up at 5 a.m. We went to this hospital house he was staying in and you know, just going inside… just…” She paused, swallowing. “Just… watching him die and saying goodbye was… really hard.”

Her father’s death also greatly affected Joyce’s family. Her eldest sister and her mother often had fights, where they would scream and yell at each other out of frustration. They also went through depression from the absence and loss of their father and their husband. There was a heavy tension that hung in the air for a long time.

She was in denial of her father’s death at first. She refused to acknowledge her pain and tried to become numb to it, saying that she was OK. That she didn’t need anyone to help her or comfort her. That she wasn’t mad at God at all. That she could get through this hardship by herself. Joyce wanted to hang out with her friends less and stay home instead. She locked up her feelings and threw the key as far as she could.

That went on for a year before Joyce became a sophomore. But it was during one Haven, which are the Friday night services that our English High School Ministry (E-High) holds every week. She managed to lie to herself, attempting to put mere bandaids over a broken heart for a year. But she finally broke down. All the tangles of emotions that she kept bottled in a ticking bomb finally exploded.

She began bawling during the worship service, practically having a mental breakdown. But it was finally then that Joyce became relieved. Everything that she had held herself back from finally poured out of her. A large weight was taken off her shoulders.

“After that, I went on the journey of accepting his death,” Joyce explained. “Visiting him at the cemetery is still hard and I do still feel sad, but it’s not a ‘I’m mad at God for taking him away’ sad. It’s more of a ‘I’m cherishing all the memories I had with him.’”

Joyce realized that she had friends and family to talk to about her struggles around her and she learned to better cope with her mental health and hardships. Not only did the people around her help her, she also prayed a lot and went on missions, which is when religious people travel to other areas to spread their beliefs. I went on missions with her to Mexico twice in high school and I was overjoyed to see her serving others with a joyful smile on her face.

Ultimately, the hardship that Joyce encountered helped her to not be afraid to express her feelings and open up to others. Her father inspired her to be a faithful Christian like he was and it motivates her to live how her father wanted her to live. She also learned the importance of her loved ones and she learned to cherish them more, spending as much time with them as she can and saying “I love you” more often.

“Losing someone is definitely hard. But I think it has taught me a lot about myself,” Joyce declared. “You should cherish your loved ones and hold onto them as much as you can. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”

Act Three: Leena Shin

Leena Shin. That’s me. I guess I should introduce myself like how I did for my other friends. I’ve got long, wavy black hair and most people call me tall. I’m pretty shy and reserved around people I don’t know, but I can be pretty energetic and talkative around people I’m comfortable with. I’m an introvert all the way.

Just in case you haven’t picked up on it yet, Chaewon, Joyce, and I are similar in the way that we all lost our fathers in some shape or form. For Chaewon, it was a divorce when she was really young. For Joyce, it was her father passing away when she was a freshman in high school. What’s my story then?

My story falls into the middle of my two friends chronologically.

I was always really close with my dad ever since I was little. My mom always tells me about how he would squeeze in my tiny twin bed just to hear my laughter and would always take me out to places. I remember how on Saturdays he would take me to places like the Irvine Spectrum mall and he would walk around with me, holding my hand. He was pretty slim in most areas of his body but his stomach was bigger, so I remember always plopping myself on top of him.

I was young. I can’t really remember exactly when he got it. But I just remember being too young to understand. All I knew was that my daddy was sick, and that he was in the hospital. I don’t remember visiting him in the hospital. I think my mom didn’t let my older sister or me go see him because she didn’t want us to be traumatized or scared.

There was one moment that I remember. It’s perhaps the clearest memory I have of my life. I was playing with my sister, Hannah, in our room. We were playing with our stuffed animals and doing kung-fu moves with the toys because of our obsession with “Kung-Fu Panda.” Our mother called for us to come out and that dad had come home. I remember being so excited.

Daddy! It’s daddy!”

My sister and I zoomed out of the room and down the hallway. I didn’t think about it before, but now I remember that my dad slightly staggered out of master’s bedroom and the look on his face showed that it took him a lot of effort to even walk. But when he saw us, a smile came on his face. I remember running to him and wrapping my arms around his stomach. I thought everything was going to be OK.

It was after school. I was with my best friend at that time and her mother, because they had to pick me up from school. I didn’t know why.

We were at a plaza. I can’t remember exactly which one, but I’m pretty sure that it was the Orchard Hills Plaza. I sat at a table with my friend and her mom, talking with them. My mother soon arrived, looking extremely grim. I remember suddenly thinking of my dad and for some reason, I felt compelled to ask my mom, “When’s dad coming out of the hospital?”

My mom stopped for a second. She looked really sad and almost sympathetic as she looked at me. As if she was so extremely sorry for something. “He’s not at the hospital, Leena.”

I was happy. “Oh! Then is he out of the hospital already? That’s good, is he at home?”

“No, he’s not at home.”

I was confused. He’s not at home? Where else would he be? “Huh? Is he at uncle’s house then?”

“No, Leena. Listen to me carefully for a second, yeah?” My mom looked at me sadly. “Leena, daddy’s in heaven right now.”

My mom then pulled me into her lap and hugged me, as if she was expecting me to cry. I let her embrace me, but I wasn’t crying. Not because I didn’t care or that I wasn’t sad. No, it was because I didn’t understand what she was saying.

That was June 13, 2012. I was in fourth grade and I had just turned 10 years old two days before.

I smoothed my black dress as I talked with my cousins. Despite our family having nothing, our uncle was well off and provided a nice funeral service for us. I sort of went through the whole thing numbly. I still couldn’t process what was going on. During the service, the pastor asked for the immediate family of Joseph Shin to stand up, and we did. It was my mother, my sister, and I. I was 10, but I could tell what the others were thinking as they looked us. Poor wife, the poor little children, the poor little daughters.

I was startled when I realized my mom began to cry loudly. I hadn’t cried a single time since his death, but when I looked at my mom with tears streaming down her face, that was when it hit me. My dad is gone. I cried for the first time since June 13.

Honestly, my mom had the most hardships out of all of us. She literally had to start from the bottom. She managed to get a job as a sushi chef inside of an Albertsons, but she was working every single day with such long hours. She would drop us off at school and come back late at night. It was only a miracle by God that we managed to stay living in Irvine and in our house. That and the fact that our uncle kindly provided some money for us. But other than that, we were alone. My mother took on the role of both a mother and a father.

I can’t really say much for my older sister. I definitely knew that she struggled a lot mentally because he passed away when she was 12 and she became 13 that year. She understood better than I did.

My father’s death affected me a lot when I look back on my life, but I just didn’t realize it until recently. I used to be pretty happy-go-lucky and an energetic child, but I became the extreme polar opposite of my past personality when I went into junior high. Even now, I feel like I’ve become even more reserved and incapable of handling relationships well.

But I definitely did grow from the hardship. I think what hits me the most is when I look at my mom and see how hard she works for my sister and I. It motivates me to try my best in everything that I do and always work hard. I am glad that I was able to meet lifelong friends at church like Joyce, Chaewon, and other girls and guys that continue to encourage me. But I was especially glad to meet Joyce and Chaewon, whom I can wholly emphasize with, so that we can encourage one another. It was as if we were put together by a serendipity of empathy to build each other up.

Conclusion: A Red String of Fate in a Boba Shop

The entirety of the people that were present took up about two tables. We were in a boba shop, trying out new drinks and daring each other to get certain drinks that sounded strange.

It wasn’t just Joyce and Chaewon or the group of eight junior friends that I had in church. Rather there were several people there that happened to stay behind long after Sunday service had ended. We were sharing drinks with a partner in order to save money.

“Dude, I totally dare you to get that winter melon thing,” I prompted to Joyce and Chaewon, who were sharing a drink.

“What the heck is that?” Chaewon’s nose scrunched up. “Is that an actual thing?”

“That doesn’t sound that bad, it kind of sounds pretty,” Joyce laughed.

“Get it, get it,” Lois Kim, another friend of ours, bugged them.

They ended up getting the winter melon drink and proceeded to dump a bunch of complaints on us about how bitter it was. I tried it too, and it was definitely not my style.

We were sitting on the round tables, conversations firing left and right as we snacked on our drinks. Then, I can’t exactly remember why, but the topic of our parents came up. I think we were talking about the jobs that people’s fathers had.

Joyce, Chaewon, and I happened to be sitting next to each other consecutively. We were silent as we listened to the others chat about how their dads were better than others or something similar to that. It was then that we all turned to each other, and a familiar look of understanding was sent throughout our bodies. It was as if we were linked together by a red string of fate on our pinkies.

My other friend, Jason Kwon, noticed our faces and quickly changed the topic. But we sort of gave a small smile to each other before joking around.

“Aye, single parents unite,” I chirped.


We put our hands together as if we were doing a group cheer. We were laughing, but not because we were making fun of our past situations or not taking it seriously. We were laughing genuinely, because we were happy. Because everything was OK, despite everything that had occurred in our lives. We still look ahead to the path in front of us.

Age 5, age 10, age 15. We all experienced a loss like no other.

But we’re OK.