Korea Part 3: My Dad

Travel

My dad, the hero and villain, both the protagonist and antagonist, a human by any other name.

His moods waver from each interaction to the next, steadfastly living the idiom you teach people how to treat you. I sometimes walk faster to maintain a distance between him and me. At times, I’m embarrassed at the latest outburst with a submissive service worker seemingly depressed behind a glass window or maybe bitchy with an all too cheery façade. Sometimes, I’m frustrated at my dad’s incessant need to school others as if he were exemplary. As if any of us are. At some point, what you may call impossible standards are frankly just good standards against the low ones we have all succumbed to.

When I was younger, my friends would respond to me with a familiar detachment, exasperated sighs, and rolled eyes when I called shit out, proclaiming, “Someone has to do it!” I would not be accused of being sheepish or not brave enough to defend my principles – that was the worst thing to imagine. How much have I really changed?

As my dad bought our bus tickets to go from Seoul to Cheongam, he went fluidly from politely requesting the later bus at 9:20 am to scolding. His precise delivery translates to something like the following:

You know, you need to look at people when you talk to them. Did something bad happen to you this morning? Put me in a bad mood.

My dad has bad hearing so when he yells, that’s a ready excuse. He didn’t say anything wrong. It was the delivery. Another reminder of my own opportunities as I have been advised before. I must be careful of my tone and speak to people softer, not like a submissive lady but rather respectful and calm, coming from kindness and not anger. Traveling with my dad is a lesson for me, not the other way around.

As I vented then to my mom about how my dad acted, I felt that familiar distance and exasperation from my mom. She was feeling the same towards me as both she and I had so many times felt from my dad’s actions. At that moment, I woke up from my anger and heard what she had asked me before – what are you going you to do about it?

Complaining has always been a pet peeve. It’s an act that accomplishes nothing, indulges in self-pity, and sticks the speaker and all those around in a bubble of negativity and inaction. This is why I write, how a hypocrite learns.

It’s not the words we say that are the most important – it’s the essence. My casual dread of powerlessness had started to inflate each additional day of travel with my family. That’s a fallacy to break, and I remember how it’s been done. The trick is doing it. It’s understanding my dad’s needs and expectations, changing the turmoil to a matter of fact. Any action can be handled tactfully, supporting my dad while also mediating the situation to help the person not feel like shit.

In Korea, there is a greater acceptance – call it camaraderie – of speaking loudly, emotionally, and authoritatively to get your point across. Koreans are an enthusiastic, passionate crowd, and it became clearer again as I walked down the street with my dad the morning after the burial ceremony. He fit in with the crowd and didn’t give a fuck about his mannerisms while others, younger people, did. He requested a discount from the middle-aged and round-faced fruit guy once we bought 50,000 KRW of fruit (about $50 USD worth), and we got 2 free plums. At the rice cake shop, he negotiated 500 KRW off some traditional dduk. As we were walking out, my dad said See you in a few years! The reserved, young lady said the respectful affirmative nae, not recognizing the tourist joke or even calling out what could easily have been construed as rudeness. The subtle hit was hilarious, and I instantly felt proud to take after him.

Later that day, we visited a traditional palace where we took candid and characteristic photos, took in our ancestral heritage, and enjoyed a modern art museum, but not before my dad yelled at the ticket lady for charging us another 2000 KRW for museum admission.

Korea Part 2: Reunion

Travel

With travel comes tests. With family comes drama. With humor comes ease. I wrote this in the computer room on the 16th floor of a hostel in Myeongdong, a bustling discount shopping district infused with tourists from China, the Philippines, and of course the USA. It wasn’t a computer room as much as two computers on a dirty white table in the hallway between a couple rooms. Kind of like how Step Inn wasn’t an inn as much as a hostel. The power of marketing compels you! I sat there graciously ready to write and physically and emotionally manifest peace in another space, any space, outside of the tiny room my parents and I were staying in.

There was no use having a bad attitude for not anticipating the hostel/inn discrepancy along with my dad’s history of high expectations and low patience. Who am I to interpret cozy as good enough for my parents? Call it the immigrant family trap, model minority rap, of wanting the best for a pair who have roller-coasted around both extremes of the economic ladder in Korea and the US. All so I could write this post.

Before arriving at the Step Hostel, my parents and I stayed at my grandmother’s home for one night where I saw glimpses into my dad’s past. A black and white photo of him with his parents, his twin brother, and older sister was placed on my grandpa’s desk. My dad must have been no more than 14 years old and was in the middle of laughing, his mouth wide open, and I laughed at all the times he scolded me to keep my mouth closed in photos. As I took in my late grandpa’s room with his clothes still hanging on racks and documents lying about his desk, I wondered if he looked more and more at that photo as his time neared. In the hallway, there were three glass cases with military ribbons, medals, and the like. I quickly snapped photos before considering the metaphorical peace and dignity I was stealing by resigning them to tiny squares on a screen.

The day before, we went to the burial ceremony, which involved a 3-hour bus ride both ways, incessant bows, obliging naes, and feeling fed up then resigned about the tense nature of a formal, buttoned-up family who never quite listened or understood one another. At least we were well-rested and, well, alive. Lucky enough to have the time to pay our respects; lucky enough to leave afterward. No more getting told to get married or work somewhere for 10 years. No more expectation of female servitude, at least in close quarters. When you know there’s a limit, anything that may bother you is more tolerable and then at once you may become a saint or, God forbid, the perfect granddaughter – a feat I don’t know if any of conquered while my grandpa was alive.