GRACE CHON

GRACE CHON

The first time I met Grace was at a photoshoot for Jax & Bones.  It was early, a weekend, just before 8AM in a misty neighborhood in the valley.  I had been up for hours, making sure to take my dog for a vigorous hike beforehand so he would be calm for the shoot (didn't work).  Ike had never modeled professionally before - I'm not much of a stage mom - but when I saw Grace's name on the casting call, I decided to go for it.  I knew of her and her photography, as you do, from Instagram, so when we met I introduced myself by mentioning my handle.  She quickly and enthusiastically recognized who I was, despite the fact that she was already very involved with greeting Ike; who was, for his part, leaning up against her with a smile as if to say I found my new mommy and I'm very proud of my decision.  Now - I don't know how you judge other people, but I do it based on how they respond to my dog.  If he isn't the first thing you notice, and you don't pretty much ignore me to talk to him, I don't see us getting coffee any time soon.  So of course I immediately loved Grace.  Though it shouldn't have come as any surprise considering her wildly successful career in the world of animal photography.  At the same time, getting to watch her work it seemed obvious that her love of animals isn't that only thing that accounts for her success.  Like most commercial photo shoots, it was fast paced, no time for chit chat, but Grace was warm and generous, taking the few moments of downtime we had to ask about Ike and his origins as a feral dog from the Bahamas.

Almost a year later we crossed paths again at her DOG IS LOVE fundraiser.  This was shortly after the 2016 election and she was raising money, doing five minute photo shoots and donating the proceeds to the ACLU.  We arrived around lunch time, and she and her crew were growing understandably cranky, trying to figure out how to eat lunch despite the gaggle of people outside with their dogs.  Afterwards I remember her posting that she hadn't stopped shooting all day, and I believed it (Grace is a self diagnosed workaholic).  Needless to say, we didn't get much of a chance to chat then either, so I was pretty excited when she agreed to let me interview her, in light of Mother's Day, about the other side of her life: being a mom to her three year old son, Jasper, and her dogs Maeby and Zoey.

When you think about it, it’s not often that we get a chance to witness the entire career of someone whose footsteps we will someday walk in ourselves. We follow celebrities and athletes because they possess qualities that we admire, but for the most part won’t ever possess.  But as women, we bare witness to the career of our mothers in it's entirety.  We're there when no else is, in the difficult moments, without giving much thought to the fact that we may someday do the same.  Grace admits as much, reflecting on how becoming a mom has made her see her own mother in an entirely new light - a light which can only be described as glowing.  It's the first thing I ask her about and it immediately feels indispensable.  Her parents are originally from the South Korean city of Jeonju.  She explains how it's become a popular destination in recent years as the food capital of South Korea.  Anyone who follows Grace on social media knows she loves to cook, and I find a little bit of magic in the fact that even though she was born and raised in Pennsylvania, her parent's hometown lives on through her in this way.  Like many first generation citizens, Grace's parent's story is one of sacrifice.  After living through the brutality of Korean War, they fled to the US, going into the dry cleaning business when it proved more profitable than the careers they left in Korea.  When Grace reflects on time spent there as a child, the way she says the word "hot" makes me understand exactly how unfulfilling and grating of a business it must have been.  To make matters worse, Grace's father passed when she was a teenager, leaving her mom to care for her and her two siblings by herself.  It's easy to say a person is strong, but its things like this that make you question your own understanding of the word.  

When she tells me all this, I instantly understand her better, how she got to be where she is, and why she brings such a strong voice to the things she cares about most.  There are several times during our interview when I fight the urge to go off script, suddenly wanting to profile her about another interesting facet of her personality or experience.  The entire interview takes just under an hour, but I easily could have talked to her for five more.  When she tells me her dogs are immigrants, I bite my tongue, being especially careful not to bring up my own foreign born dogs and launch into a conversation about the ethics of international aid for animals.  Because the subject we're here to discuss is motherhood - limited in scope but not in depth, something our hour long conversation only begins to scratch the surface of.

Grace is a true animal lover, more connected to nature than the average person.  If you don't believe me just ask the little bird who regularly shows up at her door looking for snacks.  Growing up she had an assortment of small pets; birds, fish, hermit crabs.  She tells me the story of her first and only family dog, Jenny, and how when she passed her parents opted to lie, telling the kids she ran away.  For some reason this strikes me as quintessentially American, a story I can't personally relate to but that has it's place in modern American folklore - the proverbial "farm out in the country" where all our childhood pets live.  It also illustrates how the times have changed.  Grace is confident that if/when it comes to pass for their dogs, she'll find a way to explain death to Jasper in a way he can understand.  She cites the accessibility of books designed to explain difficult subjects to kids, something that wasn't available to her mom but is just a Google search or Amazon order away for modern parents.  Similarly, whereas Jenny had to live outside, Zoey and Maeby are integrated into their lives and home as part of the family, so to not have closure surrounding their disappearance would be more difficult.  Not that anyone blames her parents, the dynamic of pets enjoying family member status is relatively new - something that has changed temporally as well as cross culturally.  Even still, I find myself struggling when I want to ask about the dynamic between she and her husband before Jasper was born, with regard to the dogs.  It suddenly feels so absurd, and I dance around the question before she realizes what I'm asking and just comes out and says "Oh yeah, we were mommy and daddy".  She goes on to describe the all-to-familiar experience of spare time entirely consumed by her dogs, taking them on adventures and to pet stores, obsessively buying all the newest and cutest toys.  I find myself relating to every word she says.  When she describes Maeby, her first dog, as her "soul mate", I immediately see Ike's face and fight the urge to set them up on some sort of doggie soul mate blind date.

But the story of how Maeby came into her life is different than Ike's and worth telling here.  This was back in 2007 when Grace was working in commercial advertising.  Deciding she was ready to adopt, she sent applications out to local rescues.  When you imagine what a great dog owner looks like, you might as well picture Grace, but no one was accepting her applications.  She suspects it was her work hours (which were pretty normal by LA standards) and her small, yard-less apartment. But knowing how many homeless dogs there are in LA shelters and rescues, I find this baffling, a can of worms I'm tempted to open but don't.  Ultimately she ends up adopting Maeby from a negligent rescue outside of a Petsmart just north of San Diego.  I say "negligent" because not only did they let Grace take her home that day, without a home check, they failed to disclose (or didn't know) that Maeby had most likely been hit by a car, resulting in various poorly healed injuries and a torn ACL - something that was going to cost $3000 to fix.  This is usually the point at which most people, unable to afford the appropriate vet care, return the dog to the rescue, as many people encouraged her to do.  But that's not Grace.  This was before the days of crowd-sourcing websites so she made her own, adding a Paypal button and raising the funds to pay for the surgery herself.  When I marvel at the shoddiness of a rescue not vetting an animal before putting them up for adoption, Grace agrees, saying "I understand.  I'm a very responsible dog owner, and I don't necessarily believe that what happened that day was the most responsible thing, yet at the same time I couldn't adopt a dog in LA no matter how hard I tried".  I'm reminded how quick we are to judge, and how often we get it completely wrong. 

When it comes to humans, I don't really believe in the concept of soul mates, but for dogs I do.  It's something I've learned from fostering - even when you have a dog who you don't think anyone will want to adopt, you're wrong.  There is always someone who needs that dog just as much as the dog needs them.  It's a sentiment I've held onto for a while, but it takes on new meaning when Grace goes on to talk about her second dog, Zoey.

 

Maeby and Zoey share a history that started on the streets - Maeby from the streets of Mexico and Zoey from the streets of Taiwan - but that's where their similarities end.  Maeby is easy-going, Grace describes her as a "a little Buddha", whereas Zoey has runt-of-the-litter syndrome, something I wholeheartedly relate to with my own second dog.  "A handful" - fearful, anxious, reactionary, challenging.  My own fears about how a child will fit into the picture echo in my mind as she talks, so I have this kind of eureka moment when she goes on to talk about the experience of actually confronting this fear with Jasper.

The transition between being a "crazy dog mom" and being a "real" mom of a human child is at the heart of why I wanted to talk to Grace.  When I was reaching out to different women I knew for this project, a lot them echoed the same sentiment: they swore when they had kids they would never be one of those people who forgets about their pets.  And here's where you can relax - they've all confirmed that it doesn't happen, including Grace.  At the same time, things definitely change.  Grace admits that the first year was really hard, and that Maeby and Zoey probably got a little depressed.  Zoey was so scared of Jasper that she didn't go near him for eight months.  When Grace describes the moment she finally let her guard down, rolling over and allowing a tiny Jasper rub her belly, I tear up a little, knowing how indescribably potent that must have been.


Some of my favorite moments in our conversation are when Grace talks about Jasper, about what he thinks and says, or how she explains things to him.  To set the record straight - her maternal instinct took a while to kick in.  She laughs when I ask if she always wanted kids, answering with a blunt "no" and explaining how she assumed that if she ever did have them, it would be in her 40s and she would adopt.  I think this is something a lot of women (myself included) can relate to, so it's really encouraging to see not only that she changed her mind, but that she's taken to the role with such humility and grace.  She's a particularly good resource when it comes to the transition of bringing a child into a home with animals.  Just like with dogs, it's all about setting everyone up for success - this means never leaving them alone together and taking the time to teach your child how to understand and respect the signals animals use when they want space.  Something that I don't doubt greatly contributed to the fact that after the infamous belly-touching moment between Jasper and Zoey, they've grown to be the very best of friends.  Even if you don't follow Grace on social media, these photos from her Zoey and Jasper series might feel familiar - they're so popular that they're commonly used illegally or even copied, much to her frustration.

At face value - they're positively joy inducing, but knowing the story behind them adds layers of depth and meaning that almost feel like fiction.  Grace uses the term "Zoey's journey" to describe the way in which her relationship with Jasper was "like watching this little caterpillar turn into a butterfly."  When I ask if she thinks that bringing Jasper into the family has helped Zoey, it's a resounding yes.  Jasper gives Zoey a purpose - to be the friend and the protector of this small human.  We laugh in sheer delight when she explains her theory that Zoey sees Jasper as a small version of her husband, whose strong, calm presence has always helped quell Zoey's anxiety.  Up until this point, it had never occurred to me that my dogs might actually benefit from bringing a child into the family, and it cracks my heart right open.  I'm fascinated by how Jasper seems to be this missing puzzle piece for Zoey, the soul mate she had been waiting for.  I don't think I can say it better than Jasper himself when he tells Grace "Maeby's your best friend mama, but Zoey's my best friend".

But what about the struggles?  In my experience something as rewarding as the magic between Zoey and Jasper usually comes as a consolation prize for something sacrificed.  And it's this concept of sacrifice that I ultimately find myself returning to, again and again.  Grace's parents sacrificed when they moved to the US and went into the dry cleaning business to support their family, her mom in particular when she suddenly found herself a single parent going through menopause.  When it comes right down to it, the story of motherhood is a story of sacrifice.  We briefly touch on the impossibility of "having it all", and Grace admits that what gets sacrificed for her is undeniably self-care.  At the same time, she reflects on how important it is to take care of yourself and be healthy for your children.  It feels like the pinnacle of the dilemma women have faced since the beginning of time.  While the choices we have to make are different now than they were then, they remain choices none-the-less.  Ultimately, it becomes a question of what you are willing to sacrifice.  When you have a career as exciting and fulfilling as Grace does, it's not your career.  When you love your dogs as much as Grace does, it's not your dogs.  When you have an amazing husband who is involved and present with your family, it's not your marriage.  So that really only leaves one thing: you.  I'm struck with the realization that despite the fact that we're both smart, creative women, neither of us can offer a solution.  In fact in this very moment as I write this, there's a cold little nose nudging my elbow - wanting something.  To go for a walk maybe, or food, or attention.  But I'm up against a deadline and emails are piling up.  It's 3:30 and I haven't had a proper meal yet.  There's a sink full of dishes in the kitchen and dog hair collecting on the stairs.  And before I talked to Grace, I would have used this all as evidence that I don't have time for kids, that it's impossible.  But now all I can think about is Zoey, about her early and difficult life in Taiwan.  We can never know what happened then, if it was something traumatic or if she's just pre-disposed to anxiety - whatever the case, she ended up with Grace, and ultimately with Jasper. 

When I ask if she can think of any specific lessons learned from her own mother, she says, quite frankly, "more than anything she just taught me what motherhood is.  It's just being so there for your kids".  And it's this simple presence of a mother that I find so powerful - stripped away from the impossible expectations surrounding motherhood - just being there, as a catalyst and a caregiver, there to facilitate and nurture the relationships of those in her care.  And I don't know about you, but for me, that's enough to cast my worries aside, start making a list of my priorities, and figure out which ones I'm going to sacrifice.

The Gospel of Sterilization

The Gospel of Sterilization

DOG COLLARS: TOP FIVE

DOG COLLARS: TOP FIVE

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