In My Words: To connect with my father, I had to stop rejecting the culture we share
Daily Bruin senior staffer Samuel In describes his journey of learning to understand his father’s isolation as a Korean immigrant through asking questions and being receptive to answers – something all Americans must do to form a more accepting future. (Courtesy of Samuel In)
By Samuel In
July 26, 2020 12:05 p.m.
The COVID-19 pandemic and national demonstrations against the deaths of Black Americans have shed light on the brutal manifestations of systemic racism. Across humanity’s collective history, stories have elevated marginalized voices and breathed life into once broken structures. Through “In My Words,” community members and Daily Bruin staffers share their own experiences with racial identities and perspectives on the current state of race at UCLA and across the nation. If you have a story or an opinion you would like to share, complete this interest form.
I always wondered why my dad wasn’t like the other dads I knew. So I asked him one day.
“How come you don’t have any friends?” I asked. “Are you a loner? Why don’t you have any social skills?”
Except I wasn’t looking for answers, so he didn’t give any.
I used to tell my dad to stay in the car when he dropped me off at baseball practice.
He would. But when practice would start, he would get out of the car and watch me from the outfield.
Once practice ended, he would make his way over to the dugout and wait for me to finish packing so he could carry my bag to the car. Every once in a while, coach would go up to him and say, “Hey, Sam’s been looking real good lately.”
My dad would jumble up his words and say something like, “His batting hard now.”
I would cringe at every word and as soon as the car door shut, I’d ask, “What did you mean? Are you dumb? Can you just stay in the car next time?”
Again, I wasn’t looking for answers, so he didn’t give any.
Back when Subway still had $5 footlongs, my dad and I would eat there a lot. One time, we were the only ones left late at night when two Hispanic men around my dad’s age walked in and started to order. I couldn’t help but notice that the men were speaking exclusively in Spanish. I looked up from my sandwich and saw them struggle to communicate their order to the workers.
After about 10 minutes, they got to the cashier and rang up the total. Twenty dollars for two sandwiches.
I looked at my dad and at that moment, I finally started to understand. It could’ve just as well been my dad paying $20 for two sandwiches.
My dad immigrated to America from Korea when he was 27. He didn’t know anybody or have any friends here. He just moved.
And for the past 24 years, he’s struggled to make this place his home.
From the way he eats his lunch in his car to keep the smell of kimchi from spreading in his workplace to the way he has me proofread his emails so his coworkers won’t think he’s dumb, my dad struggles every day.
And part of that struggle is trying not to embarrass me. Because for most of my life, I was ashamed to be Korean.
In elementary school, I told my mom to stop packing me kimbap and bulgogi. In middle school, I yelled at my parents for speaking Korean to me in public. And in high school, I pretended like I got bad grades in math class to avoid being labeled as “that Asian nerd.”
In my shame, I did everything I could to run away from my ethnicity.
And in my shame, I ran away from my dad.
I don’t remember exactly when I started to understand. Maybe it was that night at Subway, or maybe it was some moment before then. All I know is that it took way too long.
I’m ashamed it took years for me to imagine my dad’s anxiety of keeping stories bottled up because he didn’t want to embarrass himself with his broken English. I’m ashamed it took me so long to understand how alone my dad feels being unable to express any of this to his son who still can’t fully comprehend his Korean.
But most of all, I’m ashamed it took this long for me to start looking for answers.
How come my dad doesn’t have any friends? Because he never thought he fit into this country.
Does my dad lack social skills? No, he has so many things he wants to say – he just doesn’t know how.
And what did my dad mean when he said, “Sam’s batting hard now?” He meant, “I love you.”
Perhaps the reason my dad feels uncomfortable speaking isn’t a language issue, but a reception issue.
A protest happens when people who have not been heard come together and stand for each other. The recent racial injustice protests across the country in light of George Floyd’s death are so powerful because individuals are able to identify with others who share a similar struggle. The issue is that for some, it’s not until these movements for social change take place that they finally realize there are other people who share similar stories.
Yes, this is the result of the media and other institutions failing to fairly represent and give voice to particular communities. But it’s also the result of individuals like me who didn’t take the time to listen.
It’s a simple idea, but there are answers to the questions we ask, and there are stories behind the answers we receive.
The fragile state of this country is largely fueled by many feeling like they don’t belong here. It’s nothing new – it’s just that some of us are finally listening.
My dad has yearned for a sense of belonging for the past 24 years, and there are still so many questions I have for him.
But my prayer is that we don’t just ask questions, but look to seek answers.
And maybe in doing so, just maybe, a son will finally begin to understand his father.
Samuel In is a fourth-year communication and business economics student and is a senior staffer for the Daily Bruin.