As though it too were a living entity, my relationship with my father, even after his passing, continues to evolve, reveal, and reshape itself.
What intrigued me about him was what seemed to be a distinct duality between the man he represented when recounting the fabled stories of his youth: a dashing, aspiring filmmaker traipsing around Europe, and the man I knew as my father, who lived his life like a strict machine: waking daily before dawn and working well past sunset. A man obsessed with work and routine, he would, in the rarest moments hint at a much softer, romantic nature. Sometimes, after a few glasses of soju he’d reminisce about the years he’d spent in Italy, at a film school in Milan.
A story he loved to tell took place on his first day of class. Turning down the lights, his professor played a recording of Albinoni’s Adagio, a dramatically elegiac theme used to underscore tragic moments in movies like Manchester By The Sea. He saw so clearly in his mind the scene he envisioned at the moment this music would play out: a nurse, a dying patient, a white coat. He loved to tell me that even though some nights he couldn’t afford to eat, he’d spent the equivalent of $2 in lire to buy the Adagio on cassette: a statement of his faith in art and inspiration.
I couldn’t reconcile this version of my father: the artist, adventurer, and hopeless romantic, with the man who’d raised me. What had changed for him in the years between that first day in film school and the day he decided to leave those dreams behind and realign his focus toward building a family? The way he told it, Italy was a rough place in the 70s for a Korean man looking for a job, so after two years of school he ran out of money, gave up on his dreams and immigrated to the US, starting his new life stacking fruit and vegetables in a grocery store in Queens. Reading between the lines, I sensed that the transition from worldly young artist to father and husband had not been an easy one, but he kept that part of the story to himself.
Little did I know then that I would have to face a similar arc in my own story, my own coming of age, as I would unwittingly follow in his footsteps in more ways than I could imagine. I spent my early years in a similar duality: obedient and dutiful in the watchful eyes of adults, while escaping into the cathartic world of fiction and books when alone in my room. I dreamt of a life as a writer, able to dial in on the intangible and wield words in a way that might help someone somewhere feel seen, real.
When it came time to go to college, I left behind what I believed to be my childish attachment to books, and decided to channel my creative ambitions into what I saw as a more practical trade. I studied fashion design at Parsons, graduating with awards and recognition, and was offered a design position at a major fashion corporation. In my 21 year old mind, I’d arrived. I had done it; I had given my parents a reason to be proud, an achievement to point to to redeem their sacrifice. But the experience of summitting that peak somehow left me feeling hollow. The satisfaction of achievement had come and gone without my noticing, and I found myself stuck in an endless weekly sprint toward the weekend, wondering what had gone wrong.
Still I stayed for two and a half years, too guilty and ashamed to leave. I numbed myself through television and alcohol and told myself that it was time to grow up, that I’d be selfish and ungrateful to quit. On one particularly awful day, I looked around the floor and saw that the boredom, fear, and shame I was trying so hard to keep at bay seemed also to be written across the faces of so many colleagues. It struck me in that moment that I could very well continue to be held hostage by my fear for as long as I would tolerate it. That was enough for me to put in my notice.
I left New York soon after to live and work on an organic farm in the south of France. I had never even stepped foot on a farm, but I needed a change and somehow the idea resonated with me. After a productive year and a half, I was eager and optimistic to come back home and apply that same verve to my next venture.
Upon my return however, I found myself slipping back into the same mentality I had before: guilty for having left my family behind, and needing again to prove myself through the achievement of some task. I began to work on building a fashion start-up, and was accepted to an incubator called Start-Up Chile. I built the business, managed sample production, and planned to launch my brand, Carte Blanche on Kickstarter in the spring of 2014. In the week before my launch, I received word that my father had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Without knowing what was happening, over the next few months I found myself crumbling into numbness and depression.
Looking back now, that period in my life and the years that followed have an eerily dissociative quality. I launched the Kickstarter and reached my funding goal weeks before the campaign closed, but felt nothing. I’d visit home, where we had to find a delicate balance between optimism and caution in how we handled my father’s diagnosis and the rigorous requirements around his treatment. I felt lost, adrift in two competing worlds, but utterly ill-equipped to find my feet in either one. I didn’t know how to express to anyone the fact that I was struggling with a depression so deep I couldn’t bring myself out of bed most mornings. I hid myself away, unable to escape what felt like a colossal failure, of being both a bad daughter and bad career woman.
When I hit what I can now retrospectively call rock bottom, I turned my gaze from the external world and started the work of going within. I started to see a therapist. As you might well know, most Asian cultures still hold the opinion that it’s indulgent and ego-centric to spend that much time telling a stranger about one’s problems. We’re afraid of what it might say about us: that we’re weak and out of control. We’re afraid to admit to our pain and perhaps terrified of what we’ll uncover. Having come through the other side, what it offered me was a space to examine the past through an objective lens, to connect the dots. It helped me understand the exact size and shape of my own baggage so I could finally let it go, and in pop psych terms “get out of my own way”.
The work of examining the past has had the unintended effect of deepening my love and empathy toward my father in grappling with his own dual nature: on one hand, being an independent thinker, a creative, someone who is carving his own path through life, and on the other, the desire for home, and the safety and comfort of fitting into a larger narrative. It doesn’t escape me that my father and his generation had far fewer opportunities or even the choice to explore and pursue their dreams: and the generation before them even less. The years he spent building on a new dream, rising through the ranks, eventually owning several businesses, and moving us into an upper middle class suburb outside of DC made it possible for me to access the education I had and opportunities I sought, collapsing the illusion of a border between his journey and mine.
Only now, three years after he passed away, do I feel I’m beginning to grasp how much this man really meant to me, his outsized influence on my life’s journey. Only after I began to peel back what I thought was my personal will, my ambitions and my perspective on life, was I able to see how illusory that separation is. And while in my earlier years I had felt burdened by trying to prove his sacrifice worthwhile, that feeling has transformed into a deep respect and genuine appreciation for him as an artist, a father, a human being. From this vantage point, I see the task of standing on his shoulders as a great privilege: the opportunity to take the baton, embrace our dual or plural natures, and take ownership of expanding our ancestral narrative.
These days, I carry him with me. I find myself talking to him throughout the day, I think of him when I sit down to write, and sometimes he makes an appearance in my dreams. In one of my favorites, I see him, young, healthy, full of life: he raises his glass in a toast, winks at me and says, “Live it up, kid.”
Monica is a creative director and brand strategist passionate about building and engaging communities around innovative storytelling and brand experiences.
She graduated from Parsons School of Design and spent 5 years designing apparel at large fashion corporations. In 2013, she developed and launched her own fashion start-up in order to understand all aspects of building a brand and running a business: from developing a distinct brand POV and marketing plan, to supply chain management and operations. Most recently, she’s helped launch and grow two exciting start-ups in the food & beverage and beauty industries.
When she’s not working, you can find her on the yoga mat, cooking, or on a day trip somewhere outside of NYC.