By John K. Lee
It was the early `90s. Socially conscious hip-hop was being phased out by hardcore gangsta rap. Z Cavaricci and Jimmy Z were the brands that the cool kids were rocking. I’m not sure exactly how old I was, but I must’ve been in junior high, because these things were starting to become really important to me.
In those days my grandparents occupied the spare bedroom downstairs. I remember one winter morning when my grandfather asked me what I wanted for Christmas. Normally, I’d need some time to think about this, but this year I knew exactly what I wanted. Before he could even finish asking, I flew upstairs to my bedroom and frantically flipped through the latest issue of Sports Illustrated For Kids to find the ad for the ultimate Christmas present – a Swatch watch!
For those of you youngsters who don’t remember how popular Swatch watches were, let me tell you, back in the day, this watch was THE accessory to have. If you had one, or multiple ones (assuming that you had that kind of money), and a pair of Jordans then you were stylin’. The only problem was, the price for this watch was pretty steep. Nevertheless, I knew that good ol’ grandad wouldn’t let me down.
So in my best Korean, I explained how I wanted the white one with the florescent, Jackson Pollock-esque, design on the straps. (I know. In retrospect, this sounds pretty lame. But, in those days that color combination was the truth). I even ripped out the page for him to take to the store so he made sure to get it right.
At this point, he seemed to understand. I even made him repeat what I said back to me. He did. Reassured that my message was received, all I had to do was wait for the big day. This was much easier said than done. The anticipation was unbearable. I would often stay up nights thinking about how I’d casually flash my new timepiece so that the cute girls in my class would notice. I imagined slow dancing at the Valentine’s Day dance, hand on my latest crush’s waist, Swatch on my wrist. It was gonna be epic!
Before I knew it, Christmas was here. To my recollection, I slept like a log that night. Had it not been for the clanging and sizzling sounds of my grandmother cooking breakfast, I probably wouldn’t have woken up until 9:00. No matter. I needed to get my head in the game and claim my prize. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, threw on my Quicksilver hoodie, and made a B-line for the Christmas tree. There it was. Wrapped perfectly in a long, slender box, it was calling my name.
While everything in me wanted to tear into it, I couldn’t deprive the old man the pleasure of seeing his one and only grandson open this thoughtful present. As a result, in Korean I shouted at the top of my lungs, “GRANDPA!” With unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, he casually sauntered over and responded, “What are you waiting for? Open it boy.” So I did.
However, as soon as I got through the paper, I knew something was not right. The watch straps were not white. They were black. There was no florescent, splatter design. In fact, it wasn’t even a Swatch. It was a Quemex! What the heck is a Quemex?!? I wanted a watch made in Switzerland. This watch was made in freakin’ Quebec or Mexico, I think. But what could I do? He was standing there grinning. He seemed so pleased with himself. So I did what any well-mannered, but unintentionally spoiled kid who grew up in the first world would do, I thanked him then ran up to my bedroom and skulked about for a couple of hours until I got over it.
I would later overhear him telling my parents how black was a much better color for a watch because white straps would eventually turn yellow. My grandpa continued to say that, “you could buy five Quemex watches for the price of one Swatch” (Like most Asians of his generation, a good deal far exceeds any extrinsic value determined by the folks on Madison Avenue. So this was him bragging.)
By the time Winter Break was over, I’d gotten over the Quemex debacle. Surprisingly, there were even a couple of girls who complimented me on the watch. Maybe those French-Canadian/Mexicans knew something the Swiss didn’t. Or maybe, just maybe, my grandpa knew something I didn’t.
Either way, years later, as I was packing my stuff before moving away for college, I found the Quemex stashed in the back of a desk drawer. I wish I could say it was still working, (Lord knows that would make for a better story), but it wasn’t. Alas, the trusty Quemex had ticked its last tock many moons ago. At the time I didn’t think much of it and just threw it in the trash.
Just a few years later, my grandpa would die suddenly from a heart attack. I’m glad he didn’t suffer long before he split, but it still makes me sad that I never got to say goodbye. Now, whenever I think of that watch, I can’t help but feel a little regret. My grandfather had given me countless gifts before he left us, but that damn watch is the only one I remember. Man do I wish I kept it.
Thankfully, my grandfather was a Christian. When he passed away, I’m confident that he simply passed over to the other side of eternity. It warms my heart to know that we will one day laugh about that watch in heaven. But in the meantime, while I look forward to the many Christmases I hope to share with my sons, I will always look back fondly on that particular Christmas.
Merry Christmas, Grandpa! I miss you and I hope you can see your great grandsons from Heaven. The Lee name will live on!*
*FYI, I’m fully aware that there are millions of people who share the common surname of Lee all throughout Asia, but I’m the only male on my dad’s side of the family so this was kind of a big deal to my grandpa.