Heart of Treasure Valley

Remembering Won Chang

Okhee and Won Chang in 2007, about a year after Won’s stroke.
Okhee and Won Chang in 2007, about a year after Won’s stroke. kjones@idahostatesman.com

Note: The original story ran Sept. 17, 2007. Won died April 28, 2017.

Are there people in your life who, by their influence, have quietly held you to a higher standard?

Not Mother Teresas or Ghandis, but average people who helped make you a better person and, by extension, bettered our community as well?

Like a ripple in a pond, Okhee and Won Chang, who used to own Korea House in Downtown Boise, are such people.

“She always think about other people first,” Won said.

“That’s the way I express myself. My heart’s there,” Okhee said.

Okhee’s mandu — her pot stickers — are to die for, and, giving credit where credit is due, I let her know of my admiration. I’d go to the Saturday market for a couple of mandu and leave with a mountain. She’d scold me if I tried to pay.

“Food is like drumming, the heartbeat,” Okhee said. “I always pray: Lord, bless the people who eat this food. I don’t think I’m that good a cook ... but it’s always good food if you cook from the heart.”

We’d come into the restaurant, and Won would greet us like royalty. Food kept appearing on the table, but not on the bill.

“This is good for you,” Okhee would say.

“There’s always a way to give,” Okhee said. “If I give, somehow, the empty cup is always full.”

I visited Won in the hospital when he had a stroke two years ago (in 2006), and Okhee would fuss over me, sending me home with treats.

“My grandmother said, ‘Be contagious.’ (She meant) in a good way,” Okhee said. “I need to be contagious. I think right in front of me; I focus on ‘what can I do?’

“Whoever’s in front of me is an angel. I need to take care of angel. I don’t think global. When Won was sick, it is true: Angels carried me through the toughest time of my life.”

Without insurance and without Won’s strength, the Changs gave up the restaurant, but that hasn’t stopped them.

A while ago, a platter of mandu to feed a newsroom showed up at the Statesman, and Okhee’s Korean food has subsidized various nonprofit fundraisers.

“I never know when my life is going to end,” Okhee said. “I’ve been sick so much (as a child). I learned to prepare my life. Now, I don’t worry.

“What I worry about is what choices I make, each moment. ... We have to live our moments of our life like it’s our last moments of life.”

Okhee said she grew up after the Korean War, seeing impoverished people displaced, hungry, dying.

She would give her lunch to beggars and use bus money to buy eggs and food that she would set on someone’s front steps and run, so they wouldn’t be embarrassed. Her mother fed lepers.

Her family had two meals a day, which made them rich.

“From my Mom — she says giving is the most blessed thing in life,” Okhee said.

When I visited them to interview them for this column a while ago, Okhee’s purse had been stolen, along with money and Won’s handicap parking dangler.

I got upset on her behalf, but she was not.

“I will be taken care of,” Okhee said. “I worry about who took my stuff. I am willing to forgive.

“I think, how sad, a person take a handicapped sign. Making choices like that at someone’s expense. ... Instead of anger, I feel sad and hurt. Later, I feel sorry for those people. Why would they do that? So empty inside. That is really sad. I feel sorry, I start praying for them.

“I pray at 5:30 almost every morning. (Hurt and anger) just doesn’t pile up. It dissolves.”

I am humbled by their generosity of spirit. I want to be that good a friend in return — to others and in honor of them.

I want to face life with their graciousness and equanimity. I can only hope to glow my little pinpoint of light like they radiate theirs.

“Our heart is like a mirror,” Okhee said. “We can see each other’s heart. I can see people’s love and respect. We see each other.”

Katherine Jones: 208-377-6414, @IDS_Photography