Any other Generation X’er remember this slogan? It became almost a clarion call in the early ’80s, and it appealed to my father’s innate stoicism. Considering that he hailed from the less straight-laced far south of Korea, near Taegu, he was remarkably uptight, almost zen in the way he internalized every little thing in his life. Even me. This is a man whose boisterous uncle once, during a visit to Taegu when I was 13, slipped me a shot of soju under the table. “You’re a member of this family,” my great-uncle told me, “so by God, you should learn to drink like it.” I remember my Seoul born-and-raised mother on the verge of a conniption, my dad embarrassed into complete silence by his hayseed relatives, when I did what my great-uncle told me to do. A superficial analogy of Seoul vs. Taegu, my mom vs. dad, would be a member of the English upper crust and their stiff upper lip, vs. a loquacious Liverpool dockworker who likes having a pint with his mates.
Among the things I learned from my dad were: how to hold it in. How to not give anyone the satisfaction of seeing you under any stress whatsoever. Maintain an even strain. Emotions are for the weak. Be strong – if you aren’t, then at least fake it because one may never show any hint of vulnerability. My god, but how I hated that – I wanted my inscrutable as hell Asian father to be Cliff Huxtable, or any other ’80s tv dad who’d hug it out, instead of one whose silences hurt worse than physical beatings. When I was in high school I wanted him to hug me, encourage me, let me know it’d all work out – anything; I got bupkes. Or rather, “you obviously aren’t trying hard enough,” “I don’t know why you’re having problems with [sports, girls, school, etc.],” “you are such a disappointment.” And my all-time fave, “every time you tell me you’ll try harder, this [worse than expected grades, primarily] happens and it’s like you’re screwing with me.” I didn’t have to try to decipher Korean with him – not my dad, whose tangent to this post’s title should be “I will sound more American than my own son if it kills me.” He was so secretly embarrassed by his accent, he worked on it, he even once hired a speech coach.
To this day, half a decade after he passed, without having met his grandson, I cannot remember him telling me he loved me. I’m sure he did at one point, and I do have fond memories with him, of him … until he started stepping out on my mother when I was in junior high school, then our relationship just tapered off. It’s as if he lost interest by the time I hit my teens. When he was proud of me, it was usually because I did something that helped raise his standing in the pecking order of his church. When I turned 15, I decided I neither wanted nor needed his approval to feel personally validated – truth be told, I still don’t. I did the usual rebellious stuff: I joined a band, becoming possibly the worst guitarist to ever try to play the opening lick to Sweet Child O’ Mine; I played football, which will actually be a secret to my mother until I publish this blog post; I smoked Luckies, a habit I didn’t kick until I finally promised my mother in ’96 that I’d start smoking something with a filter; I learned how to drink John Daniel’s Old No. 7 straight from the bottle; unlike our 42nd President, I inhaled.
Ryan turned 6 last month, a milestone we celebrated with cake, candles, and Lego toys that he leaves lying on the living room floor like punji sticks on an unsuspecting American patrol in Vietnam. Like clockwork, as with all 5 of his previous birthdays, one aspect of his personality changed soon after February. This year he became whinier, all clenched angry face and crossed arms, on the verge of tears if he disagrees with something we tell him to do. The main culprits are bedtime, and the limits we try to impose on time spent on
my his iPad. A composer knows exactly which key, which note, will elicit the desired response from the audience; Ryan knows the whining annoys the hell out of me and his mother, but he’ll press forward with it, damn the consequences. In that, he is his father’s son.
One day last week, I almost got whiplash from anger I’d suppressed (again, part of my inheritance from my dad) for 30-odd years. Ryan was in full whiny mode, and we’d told him no tv or iPad during dinner, our family’s rule for any meal we share together, a generally rare event considering my work schedule. He started crying, because there was a show he’d wanted to see. I didn’t raise my voice at him, but I did tell him firmly that his behavior was unacceptable. Then, I said this, which triggered my old anger to resurface: “I know you’re upset, but this is our family’s rule during dinner. I don’t want to see you cry. Hold it in. Wipe your face and don’t show it.” As soon as the words escaped my mouth, only to further anger my beautiful boy without giving him any opening for redress, I regretted them utterly. He cried even harder, which made me feel like the biggest scumbag father on the planet, and he went to bed angry. I mean, Jesus H. tapdancing Christ on a motorbike, when had I turned into my dad? Emulate his work ethic, desire to excel, and his business acumen? Sure. But this? No mother loving way.
Another thing I learned from my old man: how not to express myself to my children. There isn’t a day that goes by without a hug, a kiss, some physical contact, or me just telling them I love them; I do this even if it’s the only interaction I have with them all day, since I invariably won’t get home until they’re asleep. They might be little, but neither of them harbor any doubt that I love them and would do anything for them. With any luck, they – unlike me – won’t try to glean some morsel of approval from an uncommunicative father’s odd grunt or unfamiliar gesture.
There were scattered moments between my teens and 30s when I still wanted that affirmation, moments that I still look back on with no small personal pride. My promotion to sergeant. Ranger School graduation – I secretly wanted him to pin my tab on me, but we were in the middle of a decade-long silence. My first job as a restaurant manager in a suit, as opposed to a waiter or bartender. The birth of my son. Even that joyous time in my life felt diluted somehow, because of his pained (feigned?) disappointment; I steadfastly refused to spend any time with his wife and her kids, whom he adopted and doted on. I had met them once, but it was such a mind-f**k to hear someone call him “Dad,” to see a woman who wasn’t my mother holding his arm, that I couldn’t deal. I removed myself from the situation and avoided contact with them.
“You learn far more from negative leadership than positive leadership. Because you learn how not to do it.” — General H. Norman Schwarzkopf
Following General Schwarzkopf’s logic, I learned a hell of a lot from my father. I can’t bring myself to have my kids grow up in the same environment, envying friends publicly professing their affection for their dads with a hug and kiss, hating themselves for not living up to their father’s unspoken ideal. When I put Ryan to bed the other night, I asked him if he knew I loved him, if he knew how proud I was of him. He laughed. “Of course. Don’t be silly.” I guess I’m not my dad after all. That isn’t such a bad thing.