I’m not the only Korean kid whose parents acted as if becoming a lawyer or a doctor were the only career options. For my parents, the doctor path was the first line of offense. Throughout high school, we were barraged by comments like, Don’t you want to become a doctor? Dr. Rosenberg is such a gentleman. He always pays his bills on time. Look how well his wife dresses. Along with some downright dirty, guilt-tripping pleas like, Wouldn’t it be nice to have a doctor in the family? Think of how you can help us when we grow old. Imagine if we developed heart problems… They found ways to weave these hints into any random occasion, bearing testimony to their faith in the Chinese water torture method. If you repeat it often enough, my mother once confessed, it will seep in.
Every time I tried to point out that I fainted at the sight of my own blood and that I hated chemistry, my parents dismissed me with a wave of the hand. You can become a doctor if you try hard enough. As if it were only a matter of effort. Their bombardment continued until I declared myself an English major in college. Soon, my parents began telling their customers that English was a perfect major for pre-law.
Their imposed career path hung like an albatross around my neck. Perhaps a common legacy for immigrant children, my life felt ransomed. As if it had already been paid for by my parents who worked fourteen to sixteen hour days, first at a hamburger joint, then at a dry cleaners. When they lifelessly dragged themselves to the store at the crack of dawn with the same packed lunch of rice and chicken they had eaten daily for years, bickered over the smallest cleaning mishaps, or snored heavily in front of the tv on their one day off, I felt responsible.
We moved to the States in 1979 when our dad was transferred to the NY office of Hyundai Heavy Industries. When Hyundai asked him to return to Korea after six years, my dad quit after weeks of hand-wringing. It was the first time we saw him cry. Our parents said that returning to Korea would jeopardize our futures, especially of my brother who was already a high school sophomore and would not have enough time to prepare for Korea’s rigorous college entrance exams. Almost overnight, our father went from being a managing director of a Korean conglomerate who gloated in retelling the tales of his business trips to Scotland, India and Amsterdam to a guy who served strawberry shakes and french fries, from a father who steadfastly doled out extra homework to the man who sat alone in the corner and could muster no more than a few perfunctory words for his children.
It was our fall from middle class grace, where we left behind full service gas stations, Jordache jeans, and company picnics. The transition may have been less traumatic had the success come easily. But our father had paid for his success with defiance, loneliness, and hard work. For a boy who, through sheer persistence, had propelled himself from a life of rice paddies, manual labor, and flimsy plank outhouses above the pig’s trough to scholarships to Masan High School and then to Seoul National University, it must have felt like waking from a dream.
When our family returned to Korea for a short visit in the late 80’s, my dad’s relatives looked at his haggard face and my mother’s emaciated frame and interrogated, Why did you go to America? Was it worth it? Those questions must have seeped into my veins, because I found myself struggling to find a way out of this confounding riddle. The move that had beckoned with a promising future brought instead a crushing end to a cherished career and threatened to drown us in regret. The need to find a way to redeem the difficult lives we were living, to find a way out, felt pressurized, as if we were living in an underwater bubble about to burst. To my teenage mind, all the answers pointed to our career choices, and I wondered how to surface without suffocating myself in the process.
My career path started at a fork, leading to either redemption or rejection. On the one hand, I could choose a career that answered for my parents’ difficult lives in the US. To the question Why did you move to America?, my life could supply the answer Why, for the children, of course. Look where they are now. It was all worth it. And my parents could smile at their relatives with some level of self-satisfaction. Alternatively, I could do what I wanted, answer to my inner desire, and fulfill my potential in a field that fed my urgings. But this choice would afford my parents no bragging rights, no sense of redemption. The first choice seemed misguidedly too old world, too self-sacrificing, and the latter childish and selfish, too American.
If only I had been inclined to become a doctor or a lawyer. Instead, I found it a painful dilemma. I timidly wanted to write. My parents had invested in a future lawyer. My brother buckled under the pressure of being a first-born son and rebelled. The burden fell to me, the second born. I took my LSAT during my fourth year of college. When I scored in the 98th percentile, I bragged to a few close friends but hid the results from my parents. When I received my acceptance into Georgetown Law a couple of years later, I cried. I remember asking my mother, with all the angst of a 24 year-old, why I, and not my siblings, had to be the one to be sacrificed, why couldn’t I be free to live my own life. And I self-pityingly mulled over the injustice that someone else’s mere wish should shape my life.
For the past decade, I worked as an attorney without too much regret, but still wondered if this is all there is. When I lost my job in 2008, my parents surprisingly encouraged me not to look for work immediately. You need to rest your body to have your baby, they said. You can always look for some part time job later. Initially, I felt as if I had been betrayed for the past fifteen years, as if my career, which they were now dismissing so casually, never really meant that much to them. But then I started to realize that sometime during the past fifteen years, the pressures we used to have must have been released. Somewhere along the line, the wounds we had as a family healed, and we were no longer in such desperate need of a salve. We could now make room for other priorities. I felt as if I had been released, as if I had repaid my dues.
In our lives, I see the Gift of the Magi, where a sacrifice is returned with another sacrifice. Where for the future of his children, a man gives up his dreams, and his children sacrifice some of their own to restore what he lost. Instead of a thwarted career smothering another, I’ve wondered if there could have been another way. I struggle to find some insight and wisdom admist the clutter of cultural rifts, unfulfilled dreams, and the painful lament that love should demand so much. But I remember what my mother told me a few years after I received my JD. You don’t know what you have done for your father. You gave him his spirit back. And I fill with a quiet pride and whisper a silent thanks that all is not lost.