I dread looking for a Father’s Day card for my appa each year.
I can’t find one that holds the multitude of emotions and experiences of what it means to be the daughter of a Korean immigrant father. Cards that say things like, “You make the best BBQ”, “You are the best soccer dad”, and “I will always be Daddy’s little girl” are expressions that I know nothing about. Because of these notions about what it means to be a father, I think I considered myself without one: fatherless.
In Korea, my appa didn’t hug me or offer words of affection. I am sure he did when I was a toddler, but none that I remember. Nor do I remember missing it or needing it. It was what it was. It was a mutual understanding that we are loved. Around us were all Korean fathers, without physical affection, but love was shown through working hard to feed and clothe your family. In America, Appa was the same; still no physical affection or words of affirmation to show his love for me. But never questioned his love for me until I became acutely aware of other dads — American dads.
It became clear to me in my fourth grade class, when I had only been in American for about a year, that simply learning English wasn’t enough. My actions, my gestures, the way of being myself had to change if I wanted to truly fit in. This was the same for my parents, which I didn’t think about at the time. Every year in elementary school, my teachers would have us make Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards for our parents. I recall feeling awkward. While my classmates drew pictures of their dads holding them or playing sports with them, the experiences we had together as a family, as father and daughter, were difficult to translate on paper. I wonder if embarrassment and sadness was part of this awkward feeling of wanting to just run away. One year, after making the “ideal” Father’s Day card like everyone else, when my teacher wasn’t looking, I secretly threw it away.
Suddenly, my deep knowledge of my appa’s sacrifices of working hard, which meant being physically absent until dinner time, wasn’t enough. I resented this kind of love. What seemed like enough was not; not anymore. If I had wanted my appa to be someone else, how must he have felt navigating his identity as a father? How could he reconcile with the fact that being a Korean appa might not be accepted here, even to his daughters, who were growing distant from him as years went by?
In recent years, I started to collect my parents’ stories out of my own curiosity of the lives they had before having kids, before immigration. It was through looking at old photos of my parents and asking them questions that it dawned on me that I was never fatherless. What do you do when you are just learning to be a Korean father — and now suddenly you have to learn how to be an American father, which is a very different type of dad?
People paint a glorified image of what immigration is: Providing for your family so that your children will have a bright future. Immigration was always bathed in the light of what your new home would be able to give you. Education, better jobs, more opportunities, freedom, even safety … so you go. You go where your family might have that fullness of life.
But no one told us — no one told my appa and umma — that what you decide to take with you determines what you have decided to leave behind. It is a continual leaving. Leaving home, leaving the community, leaving the tongue, even leaving the definition of what it means to be a parent. Leaving behind what feels natural.
My appa doesn’t play sports or makes burgers on a hot summer day. We never went to father-daughter dances together. When you’re used to loving each other in one language, it’s hurtful when the society around you tells you that actually, your dad doesn’t love you.
My appa’s love is spoken in the details of my being. He will notice when my eczema spots have flared up and will ask questions like, “What are you eating these days?” or “Is that itchy?” The way he prepares han-yak (Korean herbal medicine) for me without me asking. Even though sometimes it takes more than one full day to make han-yak, where he has to get up in the middle of the night to watch it brew, he will. And when I tell him I have enough at home, because I am secretly trying to save his time and effort, he will know by heart how many portions I should have left, which is usually none. Growing up, I couldn’t appreciate this. My clothes smelled like tree roots, dirt, bitter, and strong, and it permeated the skin too. I was embarrassed. And of course, the medicinal, bitter, pungent taste.
But now I realize that the way my appa takes care of my health is a love that is hard to explain. Maybe this is because it’s a love that is grand, too grand to put into a card, into a perfectly checked-off box that says, “the American dad”.
What does it mean to be a Korean-American dad? I really don’t know. Living in two cultures, there is always a sense of loss from one or the other, negotiating constantly. But perhaps it’s more about the Korean we wish to hold onto than it’s about the American we think we should adapt to. There is not a doubt in my mind that Appa has experienced something similar — his coworkers talking about their relationships with their kids. I wonder if Appa felt out of place, if he’s doing enough, is he a good dad? How could he have made time when surviving was all that he could do? Time with his daughter was a luxury.
Of course, there are aspects of American culture I wish were part of who my appa is — the affection, for starters — and it would be nice to actually hear, “I miss you” or “I love you.” I am human, so I still long for that; at the same time, though, I can still experience the love that is already there.
Nothing about family relationships is simple. And when you layer in immigration, it redefines, shapes, demands, and diminishes roles — and how we communicate and show love. Nothing about it is simple. But while it is complicated, it is also intricately deep, wide, and beautiful, if we just choose to see it.
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