Thursday, August 1, 2013

An Unexpected Sweetness

My dad is a bit shy. And a little awkward. In a crowd, he'll be standing near the periphery with a big grin on his face. And twenty minutes later, he'll still be there, with the same grin. Without even a drink in his hand.

He never drives the car over the speed limit, even when other cars backlog behind him, honking, and they finally pass, revving up their engines and craning their necks to see who the hell drives at 55mph during rush hour.

His weight never fluctuates. For most of his adult life, he weighed exactly 120 pounds, a slight weight even for his 5 feet 4 inches. Now in his 70s, he has the shape of a skinny pre-teen. At mealtimes, he used to lecture us never to eat until we were full. Just stop before you fill up, he advised, because your stomach needs time to register its fullness. He rarely eats dessert, never a bite after he brushes his teeth, and rarely snacks, only relenting when my mother goads him repeatedly.

When we were in elementary school, he was the guy who doled out our extra homework. He filled up pages and pages of composition notebooks with math problems in columns so perfectly straight that you would have thought he used a ruler to guide his handwriting. When writing his checks, he always wrote in perfect block letters that I have since seen from some other engineering types.

During his 50s and 60s, he spent most of his days hunched over a table shaped like an ironing board, surrounded by tubes of chemicals. I never learned the names of chemicals, but I knew they were noxious. He used them to clean the mounds of clothes that arrived by armfuls everyday at their busy dry cleaner. He went over each piece of clothing slowly, meticulously, as if he were studying some engineering problem to be solved. The clothes came out perfectly, but his fastidiousness irritated my mother, who often complained that they could leave the store at a reasonable hour if he simply worked faster.

When he returned home, he holed up in the bedroom to count the day's earnings, dollar by dollar, quarter by quarter. He logged the earnings into a composition notebook, in the column next to the date, along with the number of the day's customers. When he finished, he placed the notebook next to the other two dozen he had maintained for the past 20 somewhat odd years of running the business.

Then when he had free time, he read the New York Times from beginning to end, with the paper spread out in front of him, a dictionary to his right. If we ever needed to know anything factual, like the population count of the people in Indonesia, we would ask him first before consulting the encyclopedia, because he often knew the information on the spot. He would tell us what we needed to know, along with other tidbits, like its status as the most populous Muslim nation.

I never quite know how to interact with him.

He is the guy who established the rules in our household. The one who refused to let us grow out our hair because he said it would interfere with our studying. The one who refused to let us wear makeup. The one I was reluctant to show my report card to when it had anything less than straight As. The one I was afraid to ask for permission when I was asked to go to the senior prom my freshman year.

While growing up, my sister and I huddled around our mom to chat, but never our dad. We told our mom about our daily lives, and he learned about our lives through our mom. And when we needed his permission for something, we always asked our mom, and a day or two later, she would tell us his response. Even these days, when we call, he says a perfunctory hello and hands the phone over to my mom.

For most of my life, I rarely made physical contact with him, except for a stretch when I was in the second grade and decided that we should kiss our parents goodnight before going to bed as I had seen on TV. Even now, whenever I have an occasion to part from my parents, I give my mom a hug. But with my dad, I give him a quick bow of the head and an awkward, half-hearted wave with my hand as I mutter "bye" in English.

We grew up hearing stories of his upbringing, of how he lived in a room in someone else's house as a child so that he could be closer to his school instead of walking miles each day. Of how he moved in with a doctor family in Seoul when he was accepted into a university in the city. We accepted these stories as an explanation for the state of our relationship.

When my son was first born, my dad came out with my mom to help. While my mom hurried around to help with the cooking, the cleaning, and all other tasks that go with running a house, he sat around, unsure of what to do with himself, first clutching my copy of The Aquariums of Pyongyang and then the week after, The Rape of Nanking. But the minute we stepped out with the baby in a stroller, he claimed his spot behind the stroller. You walk, I'll push, he always insisted. No, no, Dad, I would say, it's okay. You guys walk and enjoy the view. He would refuse to release his grip from the stroller, and I would relent. Then we would walk, my mom and me, purposeless for a change, and my dad steady in his role.

During those walks, my mom never failed to remind me how he had never pushed a stroller when we were little, and how he never held a newborn until I popped my son into his arms the day he was born. When we were little, my dad was often abroad, sent to work in places like Europe and Japan. My mom told us of how my sister cried when she first met him because he was away during her birth and for the first months of her life. I didn't understand how long that was until I had my own children and found out how long it takes for infants to develop stranger anxiety.

This past month, we stayed with my parents in New York for a couple of weeks. My 18 months old daughter had met my parents a few times before, but this was the first time she was old enough to interact with them in more substantive ways than just crying or smiling at them.

The visit started out as expected, with my mom cooking up a storm and fussing over the kids and my dad just smiling from the periphery as our kids roamed around their house and reached for everything within grasp. Even though there were four adults and just two kids, we at times felt outnumbered. When my mom scurried into the kitchen to prepare this or that dish or cut the fruit, I always rushed in behind her to help, which left Jeff to play defense with two kids in a house with exposed stairs, doors that jam little fingers, and glass objects waiting to fall on their heads.

The first day, my dad, in his effort to help, scooped up my daughter before I even had a chance to explain how shy she is, how she hates being picked up by anyone other than me and Jeff, how her petite figure belies her ability to scream. Miraculously, she did not scream. Or reach out to come to me. Or bury her face in her hands to pretend that she didn't see my dad. Instead, she just sat there, nestled in my dad's arms, looking as natural as an owl on a branch. She stared back at our baffled faces with a look as if to say, "What? What are you looking at?"

The strangeness continued when my mother picked her up. Whimpering, my daughter reached out not for me, but for my dad. Once ensconced in his arms, she stopped whining.

As the week continued, our daughter surprised us even more. During meal times, she repeatedly blew kisses at my dad -- and only my dad -- and waved her tiny hand at him as she whispered "Hi, Buji" in her abbreviated version of Harabuji, Korean for grandfather. My mom would interrupt my dad in the middle of his slurping and say,"She's waving! Wave back! Blow her a kiss!" In the minivan, she often tipped forward as far as her seatbelt would allow to look for him and giggle as soon as their eyes met. Whenever my dad wasn't in the room, she looked around, whispering, "Buji, Buji." Then when he appeared, her eyes lit up, and the flurry of kisses and waves resumed. She soon discovered his hiding spot, behind the desk in my old bedroom. As he sat there reading the New York Times, she ran in and crouched down to tip her head to meet his face. Once in position, she dispensed more kisses and hellos, and ran back in every few minutes until he finally gave up and came out carrying her in his arms.

My baffled mother asked her daily, "What about me? I'm the one who feeds you. Aren't you going to come to me?"

In my Facebook posts, I refer to my daughter as my angel. She seems like an angel now more than ever. She's tiny, weighing no more than 20 pounds, with a vocabulary of 50 or so words. She loves to say "neigh-neigh,""moo-moo," and "no, no!" She eats everything in birdlike nibbles, except for bratwurst or salami, which she devours like a starving hyena. This little being somehow arrived with a secret knowledge of our needs, our shortcomings, and the magical power to free us from the way we thought we were supposed to be. It is a sweetness and a generosity I had not anticipated -- and a filling of sorts, a filling we had all been craving but had not known until now.


  1. I love your posts.

  2. So sweet! Your dad must be so happy!

    1. I think he is, if you can judge by the big grin on his face every time he talks to her! = )

  3. Love this post! Glad your angel could bond with her harabuji and that she helped you see another side of your dad. -C

    1. Thank you so much for reading! So glad you liked it.

  4. This is such a beautiful post. As my dad is getting older...he's getting more and more ornery. We too, heard stories of how he was raised (left home at the age of 11 to go to school...from that young age on, basically raised himself), and I still cling to those stories to get some sort of insight into why he is the way he is. Then, during his medical Residency, my mom tells me often of how he never paid attention to us, not because he didn't love us, but just because work was so strenuous. There were times when he probably didn't see us much at all, with all of the long hours he was required to work.

    And here we are now -- my brother and I, both with our first children. And my dad -- who doesn't seem to have the patience or desire to be sociable with anyone anymore -- anyone, but his grandchildren. He changes diapers, he will hold them until his arms are exhausted -- he doesn't remember what we were like at that age, because he was so busy working. But, I look at him with our kids now, and think there must be some kind of 'fate angel' watching over him and allowing him to have this time with his grandchildren, since he missed out on it with us.

    Keep on keepin' on.

    1. I loved reading about your family situation. I think my dad should meet yours -- maybe they already know each other! Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. You continue to be an amazing writer.

  6. Would you consider publishing your stories independently? A friend of mine recently published her own short stories - it was a great experience for her, and for those of us lucky enough to buy copies. You would have plenty of material, based on your current and previous blog.

    1. Maybe one of these days, I'll do that. I love the idea of having a book, but I feel like a lot of my posts here are sketches, rather than publishable works. But we'll see how I feel about them in a few years. I'm quite happy having my posts on a blog because I really love receiving comments (from people like you!). It's so gratifying to know that people are reading my posts and that so many of you can relate! Thanks so much for commenting and for reading my stuff!