She’s the pun queen of the LPGA Tour, especially when it comes to her name. “Gives new meaning to ‘egg on Joh face,’” Tiffany Joh posted on social media after one of her faceplants from a surfboard (Joh’s other athletic passion).
There are plenty of online “Joh mama” jokes and other witticisms from the 10-year Tour veteran from San Diego, long known as one of golf’s all-time comedic geniuses. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram and you get a sense of just how quick her mind operates and how easily she could make a living writing comedy for any number of shows.
But last month, during a spate of violent crimes against Asian Americans, from elderly couples being assaulted on street corners to innocent women being gunned down in the workplace, Joh used her platforms for a somber message of both anguish and hope.
“The rise in hate crimes toward Asians is frightening and heartbreaking,” Joh wrote, accompanying a photo of her holding an old picture of a beautiful young couple. “These are my parents,” she continued. “We are damn proud to be Asian American.”
“My older brother was born in Korea. So, I was the first person in my family to be born in the U.S.,” Joh said with a smile after finishing her third round at the Honda LPGA Thailand. “My dad was accepted into the Ph.D. program at University of Pennsylvania and that’s why I was born in Philadelphia.”
That wasn’t her parents’ first trip to the United States. In fact, even though “Momma Joh,” as Tiff refers to her mother, was born in Seoul and her father is from Busan, the Johs met in Ohio where they were set up on a date by family members.
Theirs is a classic American immigrant story.
“My parents both worked full-time,” Tiff said. “My dad was professor at San Diego State University and Momma Joh, oh man did she ever have some side hustles. She had her real estate license, so she sold real estate. But she also did tutoring and she did SAT prep all while raising my brother and me. She was the epitome of scrappy.
“They were definitely not sports parents. They were 100-percent about education. My golf was really about getting my college paid for and maybe getting into a better school than my grades would allow. I’m super thankful that (my parents) never put any pressure on me to become an athlete.”
Like so many first-generation Americans, the Johs displayed a work ethic that would jar most natural-born citizens. According to their daughter, “They never took anything for granted. My mom is someone who can take two dollars and turn it into 10, and then take that $10 and turn it into $100. She’s very creative. She’s the one who thinks outside of the box. My dad is much more regimented and does what he’s supposed to do. Their golf is even that way. Dad is the one who is grinding on the range, believing that if he just works harder, he’ll improve. My mom freewheels it a little more. And at the end of the day, Momma Joh beats Papa Joh’s butt.”
As American as the Johs have become – and they have embraced the spirit of their adopted nation with a passion – the family did not want to lose their connection to Korea. When Tiff was in the third grade, her parents sent her back to their native land for six months to attend school, so she didn’t lose the sense of her heritage.
“When I was in elementary school, I was one of two Asian kids in my grade,” Tiff said. “I just wanted to be like everyone else. So, (any cultural differences) were things that I kind of hid. If my mom packed sardines in my lunchbox, I would hide that from the other kids. But as I got older, I appreciated my culture more. Once I got on tour, it was something that I really embraced.”
Ask almost any LPGA Tour player from Korea about her inspiration in the game and it won’t take long for the answer to land on Se Ri Pak’s momentous 1998 U.S. Women’s Open victory. Even players who weren’t born in ’98 talk about watching replays of that championship. But many Americans who watched that week were pulling for the amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn, the Duke student who took Pak to a playoff before losing.
Not Joh. “The reason I took up golf was because I saw Se Ri Pak when the U.S. Women’s Open was at Black Wolf Run,” she said. “It was so iconic. Prior to that, I didn’t see any professional athletes who were Asian. (Se Ri) opened my eyes to the possibility of (being a professional athlete). I’m super thankful that I happened to turn on the TV that day.
“When little kids see people who look like them, it’s so impactful. You never know where that might lead.”
That is the perfect message for our current, challenging time. And it’s one that Joh wants to deliver with love.
“I can’t tell you how much my parents have embraced being American,” she said. “Yes, over the last year, there have been some troubling times. It’s possibly the most negative backlash we (as Asians) have gotten since my family immigrated. But still, we are so proud to be here. My family is so proud to be American citizens. That’s something no one can take away from us.
“Sure, there have been times when I’ve met someone who was just a little ignorant. But I’ve found that humor is not only a good defense mechanism, it’s also a good way to educate without coming down too hard on someone.
“I was on the Symetra Tour and staying with a host family who were from an older generation. They are not bad people. It’s the era they grew up in. We were sitting at dinner and they were like, ‘Are both your parents Oriental? Because you’re pretty tall for an Oriental.’ And I thought, this could go a couple of different ways. I could either lash out at people who were kind enough to welcome me into their home. Or I could use this as a teachable moment. So, I made a joke, saying, ‘I’m not a rug or a chicken salad, so there’s really nothing Oriental about me.’
“I think it’s our responsibility as Americans to help educate each other without dividing us further. That’s the one thing I’ve learned in this last year. There is a way to go about it. I have never seen anyone after being called a racist who stopped and said, ‘You know what, you’re right, I am a racist.’ That never happens. Nothing productive comes from name calling.
“I’ve made a ton of mistakes, too, from not knowing. I think if, in those moments, someone had gone straight to name calling, I’m not sure it would have been easy for me to change.
“Our responsibility is to be gentle. We’re all Americans. It’s so easy to think about what makes us different. But what about the things that make us the same? That’s what I want to focus on. We’re all happy to be here. That’s the biggest message I want people to take away.”