- Hanna Lee
The Death-Defying Tom Ko
When I first sat down with Tom Ko, he was already somewhat of a hero to me. We have stood side by side through many rallies. Fighting to bring awareness to the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes happening across the world since the pandemic hit. I had been introduced to him during the first Asians With Attitudes rally in Oakland, California, by Will Lex Ham. He’d been standing right beside me, and we didn’t know it; two strangers in a crowd who’d only known each other through Instagram. We started chatting and I discovered that he traveled to attend rallies just like me. What I didn’t know is that he was doing it while healing from his fourth brain surgery.
Tom’s very first rally was in Los Angeles, California for They Can’t Burn Us All. He showed up on September 5th, 2020, in McArthur Park, to stand against hate and march the two-mile route, in 108°F heat. A mere six months after undergoing brain surgery to repair a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak. This surgery was the fourth, the first took place in 2000, when he’d been diagnosed with a pituitary adenoma (a tumor located at the base of his skull).
Let’s rewind to six months earlier:
Tom is recovering at home in March 2020. He has ample amounts of time to check out COVID-related information on the news. But, all he ends up seeing are cases starting to be reported of violent attacks against a community of people that look like him. That’s when he made the decision to get active online. Combing through social media he was desperate to find anybody speaking up about this increasing issue. Then, like the universe was answering, a video was posted of a group of people marching through the streets of New York City, holding up signs reading, “Stop Asian Hate,” and yelling chants lead by Will Lex Ham (one of the founders of They Can’t Burn Us All) holding a megaphone. That’s when he felt the call to action. And, he responded.
“I thought, I have to do it before I die, before this life is done, there’s no choice, I must,” Tom explains.
So, he got active. Now, when attending rallies, he can be identified by the two flags he flies, side by side on the same pole: one Vietnamese, one South Korean. The two cultures in him were brought together during a time of war. It seems fitting, then, that it would be coded in his DNA to stand and fight when a battle’s happening all around us.
Tom was born the last year of the Vietnam War, in Saigon. His biological father was a South Korean soldier stationed there fighting for the allied forces. That’s when he met Tom’s Vietnamese mother. They were only together for a short time before the chaos of war separated them. Believed to have been relocated to a different station, Tom’s mother had no other choice but to flee from Vietnam with her two children. Tom’s brother who was three, and Tom, who was three months old at the time. They arrived in Seoul, South Korea, as refugees—his mother not knowing the language, with two small children to feed and no money.
"I consider her the strongest, bravest woman ever. By the simple fact [of] what she did in my childhood years. She survived war. Taking these two children under her arms and getting the fuck out of war-stricken Vietnam. And going into a foreign country and surviving. So, I give her kudos for all of her strength."
The family struggled for years, but were fated to end up living a life far from Korea. Stationed in Seoul at the time, Tom’s adoptive father was a career military man from Logansport, Indiana. He had been fighting in wars since he first stormed the beaches of Normandy at the age of 17. He’d then gone on to fight in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as well as conflicts in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia.
"I have that sort of influence of my dad and his stories that he told me about World War II. And just how much pride I had in my white dad and how much I respected him for what he’s gone through."
When Tom was 7 or 8, he moved with his new father, mother, and brother across the sea to America, where they settled in Seattle, Washington.
"I think it was because of all of his experience in war and everything that he’d seen in war, and the atrocities and death. I think he scooped us up because it was sort of later on in his life, and he wanted to save some innocence from war. And, he just happened to meet my mom and these two kids that really needed help."
When speaking to Tom, you can hear the admiration he has for his dad. The two remained close even after his parents divorced during his high school years. Sadly, Tom’s father passed away in 2010 after a battle with cancer. He recalls the exact moment after his father’s death, that he felt the very profound separation from that side of his life.
"I was in Indiana for his funeral, and I remember this thought, or I kind of felt like my connection to the white world has ended. I just noticed it, not just because I wasn’t hanging out with my friends that were white. I think that was the beginning of me reconciling things about my Asian heritage and feeling like, I guess I need to connect back with MY heritage now. He’ll always be my father and I’ll never forget that, but the connection was severed."
Tom explains that he felt a sort of freedom within this realization. He’s began peeling away some of the psychological layers of his white-worshiping conditioning. He explains to me that the more layers he peels away, the more he’s being attracted to his cultures. Also, the more he’s growing in his identity, he’s having trouble not feeling the division between himself and the white relationships he has in his life, especially since the rise in hate crimes toward the Asian community began. Tom isn’t the only one who’s felt the silence of his white family, friends, and co-workers, placing an invisible divide in our relationships.
"For those Asians that were raised by white parents, it’s our conditioning our whole lives, and the whole stereotype of being a banana, it’s kind of true. We’re kind of white people inside, because we were raised by white people, and that’s why. That’s the definition. But we’re adults now, and we’re confronting that reality. So, yes, we do have that conflict inside. But we don’t need to feel guilty about their discomfort. Their discomfort has been put on a pedestal forever and ours has been minimized, not even addressed, forever. It’s time for us to actually amplify our discomfort. Sorry for your discomfort, we’re amplifying ours right now."
Amplifying our discomfort isn’t something Tom’s a stranger to. He’s been fighting hard to raise awareness at his place of work, relentlessly pushing important issues on education about how cases of racism should be handled in the workplace while accomplishing the task of having Anti-Asian Hate awareness banners hung up. For anyone who works for a large company, you’ll know the huge accomplishment this is. Tom plans to keep working toward progress. He’s found his true calling during one of the darkest time’s he’s lived through.
“Awareness ripples out from one person’s actions. I believe.”
During my time chatting with Tom, I often felt overwhelmed by the all the struggles, trials, and obstacles he’s had to overcome to get to where he is today. He’s survived a life that is something out of a movie or a novel. The only thing that could possibly be left is a twist ending.
Tom received a phone call one day. The voice on the other end of the line was a South Korean investigator who specialized in reuniting families. He disclosed that Tom’s biological father had hired him, and that he’d been searching for him his entire life. Since then, Tom has opened communication with him. This has ultimately bravely opened himself up to finally connect with all of who he is.
He’s a warrior, he’s an artist, he’s a survivor, he’s an activist. He’s Tom Ko the Hybrid.