When I was around 12 years old, a friend of mine asked me why my dad wasn’t around much. She found it curious that he wasn’t ever home for dinner. At the time, I didn’t think too much about her query and honestly answered, “Oh, he’s just at work.” Looking back, I think she assumed my parents were divorced, or that, like many other Asian American immigrants, my father still worked abroad while our family immigrated to the States. Truth was that I was so accustomed to not seeing my dad at dinner that it didn’t occur to me that most of my friends came together with their families at the end of the day to eat. For me, the routine I associated with Dad was him coming to find me at the end of the day to dole out sage advice, only to be met with my impatience to return to homework and Disney shows.
As a small business owner from Seoul, my dad is the embodiment of the classic American dream. He moved our family to the States 15 years ago in hopes of greater success and a better education for my sister and me, and to say that my father has worked hard to secure such a future would be a gross understatement – the man gets up at 8am and leaves for work half an hour later and comes home roughly around 9 or 10pm. Every day (including weekends) is a twelve plus hour work day, yet for a majority of my life, I failed to recognize the significance of my father’s dedication to take time at the end of his long day to offer guidance or reiterate a new life lesson. I oftentimes dreaded our talks – they felt contrite and I couldn’t understand how his perspective would guide me through my teenage problems. To be honest, I underestimated his capacity to understand what it would be like to grow up as an ambiguous 1.5 Generation adolescent. And so I tuned him out and didn’t even try to hide my agitation when he knocked on my door or sat beside me in front of the Tv for another life lesson.
Thankfully, a semblance of maturity decided to finally find me these last few years, and I have noticed how all of Dad’s talks have indelibly served me well throughout my college career. He stressed the importance of curiosity because even when a formal education ends, learning is a lifelong process. He warned me to work hard but to work even smarter because time is the most precious commodity and there is no excuse in wasting it. He reminded me to be brave and generous with my heart because no one ever became less happy from connecting with another human being. My dad has provided me with a wealth of knowledge, but amidst all of them, the greatest lesson he taught me was not in words but in action.
Frankly, my dad never stops working. In the last fifteen years, I can count on my fingers the number of times he took a day off. When the Great Recession hit, my dad was forced to scale back his company and experience a dramatic decrease in profits. The economic downturn was hard for all families, and we were no exception. Family vacations, carefree back-yard barbecues, and flashy holiday gifts became things of the past and were replaced with worried arguments between my mom and dad and envelopes in the mail stamped with scary labels like “overdue” or “final notice.” During my high school years, I saw my dad grow greyer, older, and more tired than his age would suggest, yet the man never failed to wish me the one word that sums up his greatest lesson: “hwaiting”.
You see, hwaiting is the Korean word for “fighting” and commonly used as a form of encouragement or cheer. Beyond everything that he is already, my dad is the true embodiment of resilience. He began a new life in a new country all on his own, faced soaring success and crushing setbacks, yet remained optimistic and continues to fight for prosperity, not for himself but for those he loves. He endures failure but doesn’t allow it to distract him from achieving happiness, and he serves as a pillar for our family and friends with no ulterior expectations. For all these reasons and more, I no longer roll my eyes or sigh with impudent impatience at the prospect of our talks. I listen to his every word with humble enthusiasm, in awe of the incredible man I am lucky to call Dad.