two months ago, in seoul, i briefly met an old friend of my dad. he had a kind, tired face, and a rough voice that was true to my dad’s. i found out they had played baseball together on their high school team, which was the first time i ever learned my dad had played baseball. the man said some nice words and gave me a saddened smile before continuing on his way.
it was painful to meet a person who knew my dad when he was around my age, the “appropriate” time to be immature, lost, searching, and dreaming.
i remember when my sister and i were little, my dad would always bring home the most random presents for us, like clay bird figurines in fake birds’ nests, or model cars, and eagerly watch our faces for approval, but we would usually look disappointed. he was the kind of person who would give the customers at his body shop unrealistic discounts because they were his “friends” and buy their kids sodas and all his employees lunch every saturday. his kindness and self-effacing humor made him fast friends, including many who were very liberal with his kindness and were nowhere to be found when things got rough. i remember how he would yell konglish expressions like, “orie! orie!” as he waved cars in and out of his shop, and did it all the more when he realized it made us laugh. i remember how he’d always bring home puppies, even though my mom swore she would leave if we kept them, and we almost always got to keep them. i remember his blue and grey uniforms, his permanently blackened fingertips, and the smells of car oils and fumes that lingered with him when he came home. my mom told me about how when they first moved to the us and were struggling to get by, he bought the homeless man who would stick around the gas station where he worked a rotisserie chicken, of all things, and he would do things like this all the time, worrying my more practical mother. she told me how one time michael jackson stopped by the gas station, which was around hollywood, and it was my dad’s favorite thing to brag about for years afterward, as if it were a sign they had truly made it in america.
i now realize what an amazing feat it was that he came to the US and got a degree, in a language he barely spoke, and worked as a mechanic until he was able to open up his own successful auto body shop. it is perseverance and courage beyond my understanding. he always dreamed of more though, was always thinking of new things he could be. i regret i couldn’t understand his desire to be more than a mechanic, how i saw failure in his decision to venture beyond the stable path he had already made and resented him for it, and how his stifled dreams would lead him to give up on life completely.
after my dad died, i remember there was a lot of crying and people milling through our house at all hours of the day, but i didn’t really experience the mourning in a way i could understand until a few days afterward, when i found a business card my dad had made evidencing his attempt to become a realtor. his face on the card smiling almost painfully, desperately. the start of many attempts at different jobs he would make after becoming unemployed for the first time since his life began in the us, until he would become completely resigned.
he was an absent-minded dreamer like me, but he was given possibilities so much smaller than his soul could fit into. he once spent months and months digging a pond in our backyard, and turned a decaying paint shed into a beautiful cabin opening onto the pond, which he filled with fish and a fountain. that was the happiest i saw him in those years.
but in the end, my dad faced the reality that the “american dream” cashes out on your right to dream, in exchange for your one shot at a decent life, with no second chances. this year hurts the most, to be living in the place where he began to plan for all those possibilities awaiting him on the other side, where he probably imagined something so different from what he would get.
happy birthday appa. you deserved to create and dream and be selfish, to try and fail, and to be valued for all you were.