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At one point, my brother and I were running around in nothing but our underwear. I was six, my brother was four, and the carpet in our new apartment was damp from a recent cleaning. We realized we could run and slide around like thieving baseball players from one side of the living room to the other. We did it again, and again, and again.
My mom saw we would not stop anytime soon and saved the rest of our clothing from being ruined. By the time we were done, our white underwear was the same color as the burgundy red carpet.
I’m 38 now and childhood memories like those are taking on dual perspectives. I can remember the fun we had and I can imagine the disappointment my dad would’ve felt signing the lease. He would’ve been a year older than I am now, and this third-floor apartment was the best he could afford as a dry cleaner. The bigger house in the better neighborhood would have to wait another 10 years.
If I could step into my memory and walk over to my 39-year-old father, I’d put my hands on his shoulders and say, “Dad, thank you. This place is great. I’m already having so much fun here.”
“Is it though? I should have provided so much more for you. I’m sorry this is all I can do.”
“Dad, why are you sorry?”
“I could have done so much more. I should’ve done so much more. I’m not a dumb person, you know. If my life was different, I would have done bigger things. But I’m sorry this is the best I could do. Don’t do what I did. Don’t make my mistakes. Do better. Dream bigger, Minnow.”
For as long as I can remember, that was the one consistent advice he’s given me: dream bigger. “You can do anything you want, so dream big. If you fall, I’ll always be here to catch you.”
I trusted he’d always be there and that has been a dam to the rapids of any anxiety or fear I had when I started my creative journey. But it wasn’t enough he’s be the last man standing for me.
What I needed was an example of what it looked like to dream big, but he always held himself as the example not to follow. When you’re a child, you learn from what people do, not what they say. You can’t think or act in the inverse, and my dad told me stories of his regrets, hoping I did the opposite.
The other night, my wife and I had dinner with my parents and he started telling us stories about his college years. I was surprised because he’s never talked about that time with us before.
He’s told me stories about his life before college, about how my grandfather’s business went bankrupt and they could only send my father to college. He told us stories about his life after college, about how he became a teacher and met my mom there, but never those in-between years.
He went to college during the late 1980s when South Korea was under the rule of a dictator. Korean citizens were being jailed and killed by the government. My dad attended Yonsei University, and he led demonstrations protesting against Park Chung-hee. He couldn’t believe his friends were being arrested and killed. He couldn’t sleep knowing other Koreans were being jailed and killed. He couldn’t understand how other people just lived their own lives, not caring about what was happening.
At one point, the government put him on a blacklist because of his activism. He never went to his college graduation for fear of being arrested. He instead escaped south back to his hometown and stayed there until a mentor of his arranged for him to become a teacher at a junior high school in Seoul.
It was there he met my mother, and married her in 1979. That year, Park Chung-hee was assassinated and Chun Doo-Hwan, who was worse than the first guy, took over as dictator. He couldn’t stand to be in Korea any longer, and that’s when he emigrated to the States.
I wish he told me these stories of activism when I was younger. I wish he told me about his big, beautiful, audacious dream of a just government that treated its citizens fairly. There was no one to catch him when he failed, and yet he gave his best years for that dream. Fifty years later, he couldn’t talk about it without crying.
My dad is turning 70 this year, but he’s young at heart, still wanting to learn and grow. We genuinely enjoy each other’s company. His humor is so corny it makes me cringe. He pranks my mom every April fool’s day (she’s as gullible as he is corny), and I think he’d slide around on a carpet in his underwear with me if I asked.
As I’m getting older, building a friendship with my dad has been a gift. He’s someone who did the best he could for me and our family. He’s spending his later years reflecting and understanding what he could have done better. Whatever example I wish he set for me when I was younger, he’s showing me today what it means to be young at heart, and continue to be curious and always learning.
I’ve always told people my personality is my mom’s and my face is my dad’s. But I’ve received his compassion, courage, and fire as much as his smile, his eyes, and the size of his head.
But the greatest blessing is how our values and beliefs resonate on the deepest levels of who we are. What he’s instilled in me growing up has now become my identity and a dream, a big, infinite dream inside of me.
As I slowly come to terms that there is, at most, 30 years we have left together I’m going to make it a point to share my big dreams with him: the dream to do courageous work and to support others who are doing the same to mend what is broken around us.
Follow Along Upstream
And feel a little less alone on your quest to your most courageous work.