I rarely talk about my father because I don’t have a close relationship with him. He was always more or less a fearful and distant figure in the family. Let’s just say there I can probably count in two hands how many times he’s ever smiled or been nice to me, or anyone else in the family, for that matter. But although I can’t excuse his behavior, I do understand why he is the way he is.
From a very young age, my father has always had this responsibility on his shoulders. The Korean War happened when he was around nine years old in Korean age, eight in western world. His family obviously fled to the south to escape the war and North Koreans. There was no steady home or employment. Although my grandfather was a skilled carpenter, the family subsisted by selling goods on the market, which meant both his parents worked long and rarely paid attention to home life.
As the oldest child, all the responsibility of taking care of his family was put on him. I don’t agree with this Korean custom, and no matter how many times my grandparents and my father say that was the way things were in those times, I actually know it wasn’t. Not really. None of my father’s friends’ families actually behaved this way. Just my family.
No matter the reason for the grave responsibility, it was my father who had to go wash rice in the cold stream with other mothers, who always complimented him on how well behaved he was. He had two younger brothers and a baby sister, the older one who always followed him to his elementary school. As part of poor public school post war, children received small bread and drink while in school. My father’s brother knew that and would stand outside so he could take my father’s bread. Feeling responsible, my father always gave away his bread, knowing his younger brother wouldn’t even share with his other siblings. My father went hungry regardless.
Let’s say such sacrifice has made none of his younger brothers better men, since they are selfish to this day. But that’s perhaps a story reserved for another day.
Growing up like this, my father had to give up his desire to be a farmer and an artist. He became a pharmacist instead, so he could make money. He was smart, so he attended one of the premier pharmacy schools in Seoul (and yes, it is a big deal to attend a university in Seoul for those living outside Seoul). It probably never occurred to him to question what he wanted.
The family brainwashing essentially had him work immediately after his graduation. It didn’t matter that he got married and had a family of his own. He spent all his earnings providing for his younger siblings and his parents. And yes, what I was told was… that’s the way it was at that time. Also, false statements.
I still laugh (not a funny one) since my mom, who worked full time to provide for her children (my father’s children obviously) and the household, was the only mom who had actually worked at the time. In those days, in most other households, the father actually provided for the family while the mother took care of the children. But my father’s earnings were reserved for “his family”. He supported both his brothers through university. One didn’t even finish since he could have cared less. He supported his sister through studying abroad. And to this day… even when my father is the one who needs help, they’re not the ones who support him.
But even as I don’t agree or excuse him for his behavior, I do understand why…
I just wish he’d stop saying that “It’s the way things were in those days.”