How American Dads Made Me Question My Korean Father's Love

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. 

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