My father, then, was the sheath that shielded her from her own sharp edges.
The Eldest Son of an Eldest Son
In Korea, being the eldest son is a very, very big deal. I’m the eldest son of my family, my father was eldest of his, and his father of his.
Like my mother, my father was born in the north just as the Japanese surrender ending WWII dropped Korea into chaos. I don’t have a clear picture of exactly when and how his family fled to Seoul, save that they ended up in the Myeong-dong 명동 neighborhood on the north slope of Namsan 남산 (literally “south mountain”).
Today Myeong-dong is a trendy shopping district full of cafes and boutique stores; back then it was a slum for war refugees. My grandfather, the eldest son of the clan, was responsible for providing for his 7 children, the families of his siblings and younger uncles, plus the employees of the textile mill he operated: all told 32 mouths to feed in an unending struggle to make ends meet.
Between these grinding circumstances, the drinking he resorted to to cope, and the general Confucian ideal of the aloof patriarch, my grandfather never had time to show affection to or even interact with his children. My father’s only words with him were to request money for school fees and textbooks. And he knew just how dear this money came – his younger sister eventually had to drop out of high school early to fund his schooling.
Nonetheless, my father thrived in the simplicity of poverty and academics. He relished spending the week excelling at school and then the weekend camping and fishing with his friends. He would spend the rest of his life striving to recreate this childhood dynamic of mental work and outdoor play.
My father was a math prodigy and always wanted to go into engineering, but his uncle recommended he go into medicine for better job prospects. Thus he found himself at Severance Medical School, one year ahead of one certain ambitious young girl.
My mother loves to recount how my father initially didn’t register her until his friend who was interested but too shy to talk with her asked him to arrange an introduction. At that point my dad took notice and decided to court her for himself (she’s quick to add that she eventually found out about this arrangement and would had no interest in this other chap anyway).
She would tell us how he had to sell his textbooks – which he crammed in advance – to subsidize taking her on dates, either up the hill of his beloved rustic Namsan or on field assignments tending to rural patients.
Patriarch and Sheath
My grandfather’s passing at age 49 of drink-induced liver cancer – just as they were wrapping up medical school but before they could marry – was the only time my mother ever saw my father cry.
It was time to follow in his father’s footsteps as patriarch and make the necessary sacrifices for his extended clan.
He had already stepped off his preferred path of engineering for the greater earning potential of medicine. My mother, knowing the limited prospects of a woman without wealth or family connections, asked him to take a second step and leave his home of Korea America, where she could achieve her full potential.
And how she achieved.
My mother’s chosen field of child psychiatry turned out to be the perfect niche: playing to her strengths in English while minimizing exposure to her weaknesses at math and gore. The need for 2 extra years in adolescent training meant a small number of peers – fewer than 7,000 practitioners nationwide – among which she could stand out and make her mark.
Not to say that it was easy by any means; New York and New Orleans were not exactly easy places to be an Asian woman during the 1970’s, but crucially she was given a chance to show that steel she’d cultivated for so long.
Thus over the years she has risen to prominence in her field: partner at Kaiser Permanente, published author, professor at USC, and frequent speaker at conferences nationwide.
Also, once my parents naturalized they sponsored my mother’s entire family to migrate over to the US, whom they helped land on their feet with financial support.
My father did well for himself as breadwinner and bedrock of stability under my mother’s mercurial family, but never relished it as my mother did. He always pined for the simple old days of school and nature that he’d left 5,000 miles and 2 decades behind him.
He never overtly asked anything in return, but my maternal grandmother read his mind and chastised my mother that it wasn’t enough to have had 2 daughters; he needed a son to carry on the name.
Thus I was literally conceived as a singular and monumental act of reciprocation for all that my father had done for my mother and her family.
My father died 15 years later of a heart attack at age 49. The consensus in my family is that, high sodium content of Korean food notwithstanding, the culprit was stress.
Aside: I’d always known his father had died of liver cancer, but only learned last year that they were the same age. Of course I don’t believe in superstitions, but of course it’s easy to say so when it’s not relevant for another 15 years.
It was only after his death that my mother came to realize the degree to which he shielded her from those aspects of life – paperwork, long drives, vacation planning, DIY – that induced the crippling anxieties and depression she inherited from her father. She never realized the degree to which she suffered from these until his absence exposed them.
The degree to which she missed and depended on him was compounded by the guilt she felt. More than once she has speculated that had he pursued his dream life of staying in Korea as an engineer he’d have no doubt thrived much as my mother did as a psychiatrist in America.
I’m never sure what to say in such situations. Rationally, I could point out that he’d already stepped away from engineering to medicine before he even met her, or that Korea is no longer the place he remembered and idealized.
But these are besides the point.
The fact is, he gave my mom a life where she could be free of the Confucian constraints that would have suffocated her – and her children – in Korea. And the highest tribute my mother paid to his sacrifice was through her grief or her depression, but through her success that he made possible.
My mother has been quick to note the irony of how today, now that she’s established a name for herself that carries weight in America, Koreans fall over themselves to invite her for speaking gigs in Seoul. The mindset that lavishes her with free junkets is the same one that denied her even a chance fresh out of medical school. She gladly accepts the free vacation and chance to see her friends, but she’s under no illusion about coming back to live so long as that underlying mindset – one which elevates those with power and dismisses those without – remains in place.
Which is where I come back into the picture.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told how much my internal personality resembles my father’s – natural introversion, strong analytic bent and athleticism.
But only since my arrival in Korea have I realized how much of my external outlook has been shaped by my mother, from workplace productivity (she pushed me to read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People a decade before my first job started shoving the word “proactive” down my throat) to communication (she was the first effective public speaker I’d ever seen) and networking (always be nice to secretaries – always). Far more significantly, her stories of why and how she migrated shaped my conception race, gender, social justice and above all Korea itself.
In short, I came to realize she’s one of my intellectual role models.
And that realization gave clarity as to what I want to do here in Seoul: pass those lessons she taught me – how to recognize the constraints of the Confucian mindset and stand free of its shackles – back to Koreans.
At a professional level, I’m going to do that in the form of my technology consulting business, breaking down the top-down mindset in favor of grassroots Agile development. But that’s just the tip of the spear; I want to break down Korean Confucianism at every level of society.
I’m not quite sure how yet. I’m still working through my thoughts, which is the point of this blog. And given the likely need to vocalize and not merely write these ideas, I suspect Toastmasters will figure prominently into it.
Is this some deluded megalomania I’m spewing right now, thinking I can go about starting a one-man revolution of Korean society? Yeah, well for sure I’ve got no shortage of cockiness.
But Korean society needs to learn this message. Not just for the sake of the women and the dispossessed (honestly, I’ve never been a social activist before) but because Korea is holding itself back. It hungers for international standing, but needs to reform its Confucian tendencies if it wants to be credibly treated as a truly enlightened first-world nation and not just an affluent banana republic.
And I don’t know many others who are position to deliver this message:
- Native Koreans are so busy spinning their wheels scrambling up the hagwon/university/corporate ladder that they can’t take a breather to consider, let alone try to change the system around them
- 위국인 (weh-gook-een) foreigners will be dismissed out of hand as being culturally insensitive
- Perhaps other 교포 (gyoh-poh) like myself, but how many of them have the analytical skills to make a cogent case, or the speaking skills to convey it? Or even just the financial reserves to take the time to work on a such a quixotic cause?
It’s a long shot, sure.
But no longer than the odds my mom took and beat.
This project is the best way I can think to honor the sacrifice my mother made in showing us how to succeed in America.
Happy belated mother’s day, mom.