I’ve always tried very hard to be like my mom. When I was eight that meant magically liking cilantro after hearing my mom say she liked it. Today it means adopting her mannerisms, trying to see as she does.
I only recently discovered how much I had tried to be like my dad. He was, as many Korean fathers are, an unknowable presence. Gone many days out of the week. Silent on many occasions. Unaware of the ways I sought his love and approval, eventually, to the ways, I resented it. Of course, as I grew older I learned how to hear the utterances of love in his absence and silence.
Despite how wordless he had seemed to me, as I shuffle through the various events in my now 28 years of life, I’m shocked by the ways my life has been so deeply shaped by him. For example, I started off college as a psychology and sociology double major, confident in my choice, but by year three when I transferred, I declared a literature and creative writing double major. I didn’t know at the time, but now I wonder how much of that shift had to do with his praises for the humanities.
First you must be a good human.
How do you do that? You study the humanities. HU-MAN-i-ties.
And what is that? English, history, and philosophy.
Then you can become a good human.
I can still hear this in his immigrant intonations latent with the scholarly dreams he never did achieve. He said screw business, engineering, law, medicine. There’s no point if you don’t have a foundational understanding of what it means to be alive and human.
First, it’s English.
Then next level, language.
Then, it is all written things.
You can read the Bible well, and your mind is like the horizon:
wide and brave.
Can you imagine hearing this as a 5 year old? Doesn’t this make a lot of sense knowing me?
I’m reminded of another moment in the past. I’m five years old. My family is finally situated in a new home in the US. My dad stays at home with me and my sister, studying during the day and working in the night. My mom is never home. Maybe my mom’s absence pushed me to my dad more, I don’t know, but I clung to him the way baby monkeys do in National Geographic photos. My dad is deeply, deeply introverted, and I intuited early on that the best way to bond with him was to do what he does: pick up a book and sit quietly. Looking back I can trace my lasting love for books back to these moments spent with him. Had he taught me to love reading? Did I find my career while searching for him? That was his language, the way it is now mine.
Also when I was five, my dad began seminary and started his pastoral journey. So, naturally, I wanted to be a pastor. Immediately, my dad fell in love with the idea.
A woman pastor, a prophetess is powerful.
Don’t be a pastor’s wife; you be the pastor.
Go to Talbot, like me.
When I “came to my senses” and realized with horror the realities of pastoral life I quickly recanted and regretted my words and ran headfirst in the other direction. So how is it that I ended up in seminary while on the run?
After a year of intensive ESL (English as a Second Language) coursework, my dad started seminary at age 37. I, on the other hand, entered seminary when I was 27, an entire ten years before him, after completing a prior MA in English. My dad graduated at age 40. I’ll finish a MA in Theology by 30. How can we be on such different yet parallel paths? I can count the number of times I told my dad I loved him. I never once (to my memory) told him I needed him. I can’t remember what a hug from him feels like. But I’m so much like him. How had I not seen that until recent years?
Then I wonder. Could my dad, at 18, ever have imagined the woman, the daughter, the life he’d have by age 28? And at age 28—would he, a young captain in the Korean army, have believed it if someone told him that in another ten years time, he would be vacuuming floors in a foreign country to pay for his education? That he would be in seminary, following the footsteps of his own pastoring father?
My parents didn’t immigrate to the US until they were 38 and 36, and that’s a terrifying thought for me. Sure, I’ve known difficulty and disappointment in my life, but I don’t even know how to digest the idea that something as difficult as 470,000 words, and as disorienting as the Pacific Ocean–could still be up ahead.
I know every season comes with gifts and terror. Sometimes these surprises compound, each one like a wave pulling you deeper and deeper in the direction of the current, and before you know it, you are buried in a foreign land away from generations of ancestors. (On a side note: Have you thought about how strange a thing it is to be born in one country… and buried in another? I mean have you really thought about it, beyond the globalized norm we’re born into? Thought about it until it becomes strange the way words do upon a hundred utterances?)
This year my parents are turning 62 and 60. We’ve encountered a number of twists and turns, and we’re in the thick of a few as I speak. Four years ago my dad left the church he served by for over ten years. He immediately picked up Uber, and just a few months ago he became a truck driver in his old age.
If I traveled back in time to 1988 when he was my age, and told him that he’d better get a head start with that tricky reverse driving for his 25 ton truck—would he believe me? Or would the impenetrable pride of a young airborne officer render him unbelieving? Would the confidence of a man on his own soil keep him from believing me if I told him that in the eyes of many people, we are losing?
How do you win? What puts you ahead? Who are we racing?
My parents taught so me so much about surviving. Not of knocking down each barrier with a clean KO, but of weeping through bruised eyes with fists in the dirt. Until it’s time to get up again. Grit ungraceful. Surviving is not a beautiful thing. It smells like kitchen living rooms, cheap cooking oil on your clothes; it looks like verandas with hand washed garments in the sun. It sounds like parents who yell at you and hit you, and children who can’t differentiate between exhausted parents and unloving parents. Like “I love yous” and “I need yous” crinkled and warped with time.
Thankfully, my family did much more than survive. Of course the above happened. But we also became the kind of family for whom something as simple as a meal at a restaurant becomes a treasured thing. A minimum wage increase of a dollar became a moment to stop and give thanks. And 28 candles blown out in the presence of so many loved ones is the greatest blessing–the evidence of a winning life.
Over the last several years I’ve learned that the people around me are not objects of my competition. I’m not running against people but running with and alongside them, and what they did at 28 doesn’t matter to me because I’m not them, and they’re not me. Instead, what they did at 28 helps shape me into the version I’m supposed to be at 28. When I turned 24 I said that “the standard to which I am judged has my own unique name on it, not anyone else’s. Therefore, I can only compare myself to me, not any other.” The idea is certainly true. But now I’m seeing this with a new eye for detail.
In reality, we’re all only racing the millions of versions of ourselves. I have many ideal Julies running around in my mind. One went to law school, one became an award winning writer. Another is the singer who got the record deal I never could get. We’ll say she’s been on a world tour for 18 consecutive months. Another found a good man and started a family with him, right on track with my mom, dad, and sister.
Then there are the Julies who have learned to cower, who, as Koreans like to say, are so defeated that they grovel and crawl before the first fist. The one who stopped going to school and stayed out, the one who never did quit drugs, the one who remained in the box of her undocumented life. Another who forgot how to tell her dad she loved him and needed him, and never learned again.
How do you win? What puts you ahead?
Maybe when I realize that these figures disappear in my health and reappear in my un-health, that they are not me and will never be me. When I learn how to free myself from their grip.
Maybe when my sense of “I” and my sense of “us” exist in healthy tension, and I offer myself up to the people around me, allowing them to shape me into the person they need me to be because, really, all I want is to be a champion for them.
Maybe when, finally, my “I love yous” and “I need yous” open up as signs of a heart coming back to life.