Thursday, February 25, 2016

When I was in elementary school, my parents moved my family up to Alaska for a few years to work for my aunt and uncle. Even though I was born in Queens and most of my relatives live here in New York, my father's family has deep roots in America's 49th state. It was where they first immigrated to in the U.S. from Korea, and I still have relatives there to this day.

After some years of living in Anchorage, my family decided to make it on our own and ended up moving farther up north to Nome. It was 1995 and I was in the middle of sixth grade then, and I remember being thrilled about relocating to a place that was so isolated, the only way to get there was by plane. My parents, two older sisters, and myself started a new life as owners of the only Chinese restaurant in town named Twin Dragon. And not only was it the sole spot for any type of Asian food there, but we were also one of only three Asian families living in Nome at that time as well.

After we arrived, my parents completely redid the space, breathing new life and lightness into the restaurant. The dining room's interior was totally renovated by my mom after a trip to California to purchase new mirrors, wallpaper, decorations, and furniture. My dad worked on the exterior by repainting the outside of the restaurant red and adorning the windows with new decals. The most dramatic change of the restaurant's facade were large gold letters above the front door spelling out Twin Dragon, which my mom had brought back from her trip as well. We were overjoyed at the before and after transformation, and felt extreme pride in our small family business. The moment I knew that other townsfolk had also noticed was not long after while I was at school. That's when I overheard my science teacher, who I recall was named Mr. Brannen, talking to another teacher about how great the restaurant's new look was. Words couldn't express how happy I was for the rest that school day (more HERE).

Running the restaurant was tough though, and required long hours---but it was great because my family did it all together as a team. My mom and sisters would wait tables, and my dad would cook all the food and run things in the kitchen with a few employees. I myself was the designated dishwasher, busboy, and overall gofer. If my dad ran out of produce, I would hop on my bike and pedal for my life to Hanson's Trading Company for a store run. If the phone was ringing off the hook, I would take down orders and then go back to washing the pile of dishes that were always waiting for me. In due time, my parents and family settled into our new lives and business. Thanks to my dad's great cooking and my mom's sweet demeanor, we became friendly with regulars and even started delivering our food, which I don't think was at all common for Nome at that time. I remember my dad driving around with a foldout map, trying to make sense of all the streets and addresses of the town. With Nome having such a long history connected to the Alaska Gold Rush and also being the last stop of the Iditarod, our customers were always a mix of both locals and tourists.

As a young kid, it didn't take long for me to adapt to my new surroundings. Alaska's beauty first captivated me while living in Anchorage, because all of my family and relatives were really into the outdoors. We would go camping, fishing and skiing all the time, often for long periods with my dad's huge Chevy Suburban or my uncle's RV packed to the brim with gear and Korean food. But when I arrived at Nome, its own natural grandeur and charm enraptured me in a whole new way. With tundra all around and the Bering Sea in our backyard, or looking up to discover the Northern Lights on a winter night, I relished in Nome's magnificence. Biking around by myself past midnight with the most beautiful hues of sunlight lighting my way in the summertime, or hopping on the backseat of my friends' snowmobiles to get around in the extreme winters always had life feeling like an adventure. Our restaurant was located on the town's main thoroughfare named Front Street, which was parallel and right next to the Bering Sea. During downtimes at the restaurant, I loved crossing over Front Street to the seawall of rocks so I could just sit and stare at the water. This was also around the time Disney's Pocohontas came out, so my young imagination loved jumping from rock to rock or peering between them for dried starfish or beach glass.

Back then, the outside world literally seemed so far away. With no Internet, computer, or cellphones, nor even the ability to drive anywhere far, the only connection to the rest of civilization outside of Nome was through cable television and the postal service. All mail had to be picked up and sent to a P.O. Box at the post office on Front Street, which was a short walk away from the restaurant. Since I was always helping out my parents and working, I usually had spending money. I used most of it by purchasing money orders at the post office to buy clothes from the J.Crew catalog, or seahorses and other peculiar items from the advertisements in back of Boy's Life magazine. Religiously watching MTV and my subscriptions to Disney Adventures and Nickelodeon Magazine also helped me stay in tuned with pop culture as well.

My family eventually ended up leaving Nome and returning back to the East Coast permanently after I finished the seventh grade. Thinking back on our time living there brings me a lot of happiness, but seems like another lifetime ago. I haven't been back in twenty years since I left, so a part of it almost feels like a dream that only lives in my memories. And that's how it remained, until I decided to Google "Nome, Alaska" today. 

To my absolute surprise, I not only found out that Twin Dragon is still there and serving food, but that the exterior of the restaurant is absolutely the same as we left it from two decades ago. The signage and window decals that my parents put up are still on the front of the building, while the large gold letters spelling out Twin Dragon and remnants of my dad's red coat of paint also continue to live on. When I stumbled onto a picture online dated from a few years ago showing this, I decided to call the restaurant today to verify that's how it all still looks. And I was told that it does.

Below is a picture of my dad standing in front of Twin Dragon on a snowy day in 1995. And the picture beneath that is the photo I found online, showing how the exterior currently still looks today.

Now, I hope to go visit Nome again sometime in the future. Hopefully, it won't take me another twenty years to do so.

(Photo Source: Nome Muckin' Around)

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