Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Lens of Money

Since my teenage years, my singular image of my father is a vision of him crouching alone, at the end of the day, on the floor in his bedroom in front of his file cabinet. In front of him sits piles of coins: quarters, dimes, nickels, and reams of bills. First, he tackles the bills. He sorts them into twenties, tens, fives, singles. Then he returns to each pile to straighten out the bills, unbending the dog-ears, turning each face side up. Then the coins, each clanking as they fall onto the pile, while he counts softly under his breath. After each mound, he logs the amount into his notebook, marking the sum of his earnings for the day. This ritual is repeated day after day, with the exception of Sunday, when their business is closed. For a man who had no words left for his children, he spent a remarkable amount of time with his earnings.

In our family, life was understood through the lens of money. It represented the hours my parents spent cleaning, pressing, and bagging other people’s dirty clothes at their dry cleaners, where my mother worked through her bleeding hemorrhoids and talked of her simple longing to treat herself to a cup of coffee in a coffee shop one day like everyone else. It represented our mirthless days in the musty store, nodding along with customers who wanted a discount or expected us to carry their clothes to their car when their nails had just been manicured. It represented the monotonous years that passed, while the children graduated from high school and then from college with no parents to witness the commencement. It represented the decades spent away from our extended families in Korea who would eventually learn of our success in America.

Money was precious, precisely because they stood in for the lives we should have lived. A quarter wasted or an irresponsible purchase became causes for rebuke. “Do you know how much longer your mother has to work for that?” When I asked mother why we never invited others over to our isolated house, she responded, “Do you know that costs money?” Doctors went unvisited, gifts unpurchased, all social rituals foregone because money was something to be held, not used. To spend it meant we had no proof for the life we had lived.

Money wasn’t just our past. It was also our future. As we continued to hear stories of other dry cleaners dying of cancer, my father, who spent the most time hunched over chemicals, put off his retirement year after year so that he could save enough to cover treatment if he got cancer. Money was also our language of love. When they could not visit their parents in Korea, they sent money. On special occasions, my parents sent us money in an envelope addressed in block letters with a check inside, no note. When my mother sent me a check to prepare for my wedding, I cried in the dressing room as I tried on wedding dresses.

It would be dishonest to describe money only as a source of oppression. It provided for our food, our shelter, our clothes. It gave my parents a goal and structure when we had none. But we could only fit so much onto these flat, green surfaces already occupied by Washington, Hamilton, and Jackson. These objects offered no space for emotional connection. They didn’t console us when we felt alone. They didn’t comfort us when we needed a hug. We children didn’t understand the language of money. Even though we didn’t know it as we receded to our disparate corners, we were hungry for warm embraces, understanding, words of empathy.

I didn’t realize that I had become trapped on these flat surfaces until I was in college. I remember observing myself, devoid of emotions, intellectualizing everything, disregarding my yearnings. I did not know how to speak the language of emotions, even though I longed for connection. The intellect is superior to emotions, I remember arguing. My closest friends were those who saw eye to eye intellectually; they sufficed. The emotions flooding inside me felt illegitimate; I shouldn’t have those feelings and what was the point anyway. I didn’t know how else to be. The world of emotions was not mine, and I did not belong there.

When I started working, I too adopted the language of money. It was the only way to trump my dad’s power. No, Dad, let’s go out to dinner; I’ll pay for it. Yes, you can afford to take a vacation; I’m sending you. I paid for my mom’s doctor appointments when they had no health care. I helped them buy a new car when theirs broke down in the middle of a parkway.

No one event drastically changed my relationship with money; rather, it slowly became more grounded by the mere experience of living. Making my own money bought me liberation from my parents, and it allowed me the means to distance myself from them. From this distance, I was able to negotiate my own, direct relationship with money. It was no longer mediated through my dad’s anxiety or my mother’s longing for a life she couldn’t have. And unlike in my parents’ case, it bought me freedom, dinners with friends, membership to the ACLU, and a second career.

I am still very reactive when my parents, now in their mid-70s, choose to forego instead of spend, when they cut the paper napkin in two to share. It reminds me of their lives that passed uneventfully in a dusty enclosure, unnoticed by others, with no real sense of purpose or meaning. And no matter how much they have saved, it restores nothing. It saddens me that all they have to show for their lives is their savings.

My relationship with money hasn’t been a jig, but a slow dance. At times, I let go too much, and other times, I embraced it too tightly to find my own footing. In this clumsy back and forth, I learned that money is just a thing, an object, like a car or a chair, with no power over us apart from what we bestow on it. In my family, it often felt like the only thing. It held all the promise for a better life, but no matter how much we had, it was never enough. It was a currency of anxiety, insecurity, and desperation, but it also offered a glimmer of hope. My parents latched my hands to this glimmer until I was delivered to a safe landing. And like many children of immigrants, I suffer a sense of guilt for all I have and all they lack.

These days, I do what I can to alleviate my parents’ anxiety, buy them some enjoyment, allow them some moments of relief. But my offerings are delivered in the hands of my young children, who come with promises of an afternoon of giggles, a meal to be enjoyed together, and a reminder that there are relationships to nurture. And such afternoons restore my hope in all that is possible, in all that I can do, and all that a family can mean.