Hello Beautiful People!

This is another extract from my book – How  To build a Hotel From Scratch

The house was built with the help of our entire community: neighbors, friends, colleagues, even my brother’s friends, all working alongside hired construction workers. Because the house was made of clay, in summer it was cool inside, and in winter it was warm.

I recall very vividly when we finished building our own house. It took us 16 months to build a beautiful, spacious, solid, and hospitable place. We celebrated and hosted a housewarming party with so much joy and happiness. All the neighborhood women gathered to cook a traditional festive dish called plov for our housewarming party. We expected no more than 100 guests, but over 300 guests, friends, colleagues came through the doors of our warm and beautiful house and brought gifts such as Persian carpets, Uzbek traditional tea sets and dining sets, Czechoslovakia crystal vases and glasses, money, and rice, bulks of melons, watermelons, grapes, and dried fruit, alongside offers to provide “anything you need—eggs, sugar, flour—just come to my house. Don’t hesitate.” It was our official welcome into the neighborhood.

Our house would see many celebrations throughout the years. My mom was a natural at organizing events and hosting dinner parties. She always threw the best birthday parties for my brothers and me. She was also a talented seamstress. Every birthday, I would get a new dress, silky and satin, always a new color. She would make pigtails so tight and high that would make my eyes shaped like diamonds.  She even sewed our dresses for my older brother’s wedding, where we hosted perhaps 200-300 guests at home. For the wedding, I remember clearly how every dish was cooked. In Korean cuisine, it’s the preparation rather than the cooking that takes a long time—the meticulous slicing and marinating of meat and poultry ensures that the dishes themselves are ready quickly. For an event as grand as a wedding, the preparation starts with making rice cakes from scratch, cutting and slicing the bean sprouts, and setting up the kimchi.

The preparation of the food was as sacred as the traditional customs that marked each ceremony. One such beautiful tradition was Hwangap, which celebrates reaching 60 years of life. We dress in traditional, Korean gowns for a special dinner and dance reception. We, as children, honor our parents by expressing our deepest gratitude in the form of a toast. Each child, beginning with the eldest, takes a bow, kneels, rises, holds a champagne glass in their right hand, placing the left hand under the wrist, and bows again. Only then do they commence their toast. For my parents’ Hwangap, I remember that halfway through my toast, I was overwhelmed with tears of joy in appreciation for my parents and the realization that they are the only people in this life for whom I am eternally grateful. I truly have the most amazing and understanding parents, a fact that I found further attested by the 300 guests who showed up for the event. Many were former patients of my dad from decades before. Every guest came up to me, held my hands, and told me all about my Dad saving their relatives’ lives.

Our driver gave a very emotional speech about my parents:

“You have a golden heart and a great soul. It’s an honor for me to work for you. I owe you. When my father passed away, and I had no money for a funeral, you paid for the funeral and never mentioned anything to anyone. You Mrs. Li bring clothes for my children and food for my family. I love you and respect you very deeply.”

My mom’s generosity was consistent. She breastfed our neighbor’s baby for one year before she had me. To this day, my brother from another mother always sends flowers to my mom on her birthday and cognac with chocolate for New Year’s Eve. These instances of gratitude were humbly received by my parents. My father always insisted that humility is the foundation of honesty and decency. He was a firm believer that those who boast most likely have absolutely nothing about which to boast, and they are usually boasting for publicity or to seek attention. For that reason, one should be careful to never boast or to self-praise what one did for others, and especially one should never take credit for someone else’s well-done job. Just keep doing what you were doing. His philosophy was simple: If you do something, make sure you see it gets done till the end. If you promise someone something keeps your word. Trust is hard to regain.

My mom values loyalty as one of the most important and precious qualities. She strongly believed that the strength of our family is in our loyalty to each other. She was a soulful power that kept our family very close and tight and raised us best for which I am immensely grateful.

Most importantly, be tactful with your words. Think twice before you say something because once said, you cannot take them back. Words can be sharper than a knife.

These lessons on loyalty, nobility, and humility, coupled with my mom’s example of attentiveness and generosity would set the foundation of my own approach to the field of hospitality, a world that I would soon enter professionally by happenstance.