On fatherhood

For as long as I can remember, my father always worked. The first sounds that carried through my ears almost every morning were his footsteps, followed by the opening and shutting of our front door. He was off to work.

For as long as I can remember, my father worked. 7 days a week, almost 365 days a year.

I can’t say I know that much about my father. Aside from the basics, I never got to know him deeply. From what my aunt tells me, he was quite the ladies man all his life due to his incessant ability to serenade. Until he met my mother, of course. From what my grandpa once told me, he used to cry endlessly because his family could only afford white rice for meals back in the early days. Gramps concluded he was quite the bratty child. Seems like I inherited the latter part of my father’s traits and not the former. Definitely not the former.

As I write this, my father is sound asleep in his room just on the other side of the house. Thankfully, he’s still around. I recognize how much of a blessing it is in today’s society to have a father around the house, and that after nearly 30 years my parents are still happily married.

When I was a child, I remember he’d often play Mario games with us on the weekends. But I distinctly remember those kinds of days stopped abruptly. He claimed his intentions were pure, since he wanted us to focus on our studies. But now I know it’s because his company went bankrupt around that same time.

Many of my friends know I came to the US when I was 8. Not many friends know my family came to this country to escape crushing debts and potential jail-time for my father. His company folded almost in an instant. And in his eyes, he failed. But he never saw himself as a failure, he was committed to work even harder under these circumstances.

So he sought opportunities elsewhere – opportunities that were 6,000 miles away – in Los Angeles, California.

In our first years in the US, he worked as a textile factory worker, a far downgrade from running his multi-million dollar corporation. He has an MBA from one of the most prestigious business schools in Korea and yet here he was, toiling away in a factory for $8 per hour. It only took him a year in this factory before his entrepreneurial nature took root. He gained permission from his boss to install a soda machine in the factory. The boss allowed us to keep all the profits after paying him a small fee.

This was going to be our ticket to prosperity, he told us. To him, this was our realization of the American dream. Prosperity. One can of Coke at a time.

He got the entire family involved. We’d spend Sunday mornings clipping coupons to see which local grocers sold cans of Coke the cheapest, because saving every penny in purchases meant more money for our family. We’d spend hours in the living room counting every penny, every nickel, and every dime and placing them into these cardboard rolls made for bank deposits. As a reward for our hard work, he’d let us play video games.

During our early years in Los Angeles, we struggled. I never grew up with a Gameboy. Or money for lunch. Or multiple pairs of shoes. Or my own bed. In our first years as immigrants, the four of us slept in a shoddy $49 futon every night. But we kept pushing.

We’ve come far since those days. We’re renting out a house now. My parents own their own small business, although we’ve been struggling recently. But I’m now happy to be in a position where I can start helping my parents financially. Hopefully in a few years, I can completely fund their much-deserved retirement and buy them a house. That’s my American Dream. 

In the culture I grew up in, fatherhood is defined by how much he can provide for his family. I disagree. For me, I define fatherhood by the lessons he teaches and the values he instills. Fatherhood is not about giving, it’s about leading.

It’s funny, because when I describe my mother it often revolves around her traits. She’s kind, bubbly, and a little annoying, but the most compassionate woman I have ever met. Of course, she has taught me valuable lessons, too. But when describing my father it’s never about who he is, but instead, I think about what he taught me.

He taught me the value of hard work, helping those you care about, and treating people with respect. He taught me how to deal with failure, to disappointments, and to adapt in uncertain situations. He taught me to never give up even if it’s against the odds. He taught me not to worry about things out of my control. When things go bad, he once taught me, just put your head down, stay focused, and work.

I would not be the man I am today without him. I’m incredibly thankful to have him in my life. Though I still wish I inherited his singing genes.

Happy Father’s Day, dad. Thank you.

– B. Kim

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