My Father, the Imperfect Hero

One of the few photos I have of my family, taken in 2008. Pictured from left to right: my mother, cousin, older brother, aunt, grandmother, uncle, my father, and myself

Our family moved to the United States from South Korea when I was 6

I was originally born in Seoul, South Korea but our family immigrated to the United States when I was 6 years old in 1981. It was a bit of a culture shock, to say the least when we first arrived as none of us really knew how to speak English and we were nearly broke. The first few years were very tough as we struggled financially, emotionally, and even physically. The person that held us all together during this most difficult time was my father, whose unrelenting work ethic kept us all fed and led us to greener pastures. And while our current relationship is less than ideal, he remains the paradigm of how I conduct myself as an adult as our lives have eerily mirrored each other in more ways than either of us would like to admit.

Life in South Korea and my childhood

As I only spent the first few years of my life in South Korea there is not much about it that I remember. I recall that we had a nice house, a nanny, chauffeur, and did not lack for anything. My father worked very hard as I hardly ever saw him and would come home many nights in the AM, drunk and carried home by his employees. I would come to learn later in life that my father attended Seoul University and had graduated with a law degree. Instead of becoming a lawyer though, he married my mother and started to work at a bank. He would eventually open his own construction company and built that into a successful enterprise. But sometime around my 5th year of life things started to change. We moved out of our house into a condominium complex and all of a sudden my father was home all the time. I remembered enjoying this time of my life a great deal as my father and I were able to enjoy much quality time together, something I sorely missed in earlier years. We did not spend too many months in that complex though as I was told that we would soon be moving to the United States. My grandparents on my mother's side resided in America and had sponsored us to come. But as they were only able to do so for a limited number of people we would have to leave our grandmother on my father's side behind. On our final day in South Korea, we all gathered in a room and made our tearful goodbyes as my parents, brother, and I headed out to our new lives.

The early life of my father in war-torn North Korea with his parents

My grandmother whom we left behind played an integral role in the survival of our family. Both her and my father are actually from North Korea and lived through the war. My father was only 3 years old at the time and I have heard the story of how they both escaped countless times. The only way to escape from where my family was living in the North was via a train. But as there was limited space not everyone could board and there was a general understanding that only women and children would be allowed to board and escape. My father once told me that only cowardly men would try to board the train, but that his father refused and stayed behind as his wife and children were sent to safety. Once in South Korea, my father had to assume the role of man of the house at the tender age of 3, both for my grandmother and his younger brother. He would never see his father again and had to become an adult entirely on his own. From these humble beginnings, he worked as hard as one could and studied his way into the top university in the country.

Struggle after moving and early days in the US 

While my father did work very hard to find initial success, the economy in South Korea turned and his company went bankrupt. Although I did not know this at the time, this was the reason why he was all of a sudden home so much during our final year in Korea. He could not find work and was too proud to ask his friends for money. With no other options left, he accepted the help of my mother's parents and accepted their sponsorship of our family to move to the States. Our first apartment in Los Angeles was paid for entirely by my grandparents, a humble "one-bedroom" but really just a studio that had a curtain down the middle of the room that separated the living quarters from the bedroom. My parents soon found work at the same photo processing company as office clerks as my father's law degree from Korea meant very little in the new country. Good meals were very hard to come by during this time and we often ate what we could. This meant eating a lot of Spam as a substitute for "real" meat and even cut up hot dogs, fried on a pan and eaten with rice. My parents worked 40 hours per week but took whatever overtime they could and whenever they got paid on Fridays they would still take me to my favorite restaurant. They did much to shield both my brother and me from these tough times as they bore most of the stress from life's struggles.

The breakthrough and rewards of the hard work that my father did

As hard as they worked it became apparent to my father that his current employment situation was not going to get our family very far. So he decided to take on a second job at night as a janitor that would ensure he would have 60-70 hour work weeks. He and my mother would go to their day jobs, be home by 6:00 PM to eat dinner with the family, and then my father would be back out the door by 8:00 PM to literally clean toilets. My father worked so hard that he eventually developed a stomach ulcer and became so violently ill that he could not work for a month. As soon as he was better my father would return to both jobs and continue his monstrous work schedule. On top of all this, he picked up an extra job on the weekend working once again as a janitor in a luxury condominium complex. He impressed enough in just the 2 days per week that he worked that he outperformed his boss and caught the attention of the facility's management office. They eventually gave my father the contract for the cleaning of the entire complex and with this, he was able to quit both his day and night jobs. He would go on to form his own cleaning company and after picking up a few more contracts was able to move our family out and buy a proper home.

How my father taught and inspired me to work hard

Around this time we used to spend Saturday evenings with my mother's sister and her family. I remember they had an apartment very much like the one we just moved out of and had been in the States as long as we had. I asked my father why they were not able to get ahead like he had and he gave me an answer that has weighed heavily in both my heart and mind since. My father told me that my aunt's husband was not able to find consistent work because he too had come from a prestigious university in Korea and that he found much of the work that he was able to find in the States beneath him. Then with all of the seriousness of the world, my father looked at me and relayed to me words that I would never forget. He said that when your family has to eat, and more importantly if you want for them a better life, there is no such thing as a job that is beneath you. You have to do whatever you can to provide, even if that means working 70 hours per week and cleaning toilets to the point you become sick. My father was nearly the literal representation of working oneself to death because he knew that nothing short of that should stop one from working and providing for one's family.

In search of my great grandfather who we lost in the war-torn country

Finally, things were looking up for our family as we lived in a nice house, in a great neighborhood and my father was the head of a successful company. We were even able to sponsor my grandmother from South Korea so that she could finally join us in America. At this time we would receive news that both my father and grandmother thought would never come. A family friend who was also from North Korea headed back in search of his father, whom he had lost in a similar manner. While he was there he offered to look for my grandfather as well and after a few weeks sent word that while his own father was since deceased, that he had found my dad's father who was remarried but very much still alive. Upon hearing this news I recall thinking that I had never seen my father and grandmother so happy. She could honestly care less that my grandfather had remarried as she was just so happy to hear that he was still alive. My father also found out that he had stepbrothers and sisters and was excited at the prospect of at least speaking to them and his father through letters. While he and my grandmother were discussing the possibility of going out to North Korea themselves, they would receive a phone call that would immediately reverse all the happiness they were feeling. With all the sorrow and regret in the world, our family friend relayed to my father that a horrible mistake had occurred. The information he had received was incorrect and it was his father that was still alive and that my grandfather had passed away several years ago. My grandmother did not come out of her room for two weeks as she spent most of that time crying endlessly. We had to leave meals for her at the door, many of which went uneaten. To this day I cannot imagine what my father must have been going through but he carried on as he always had. He went to work every day and held things together during a most tragic time for our family.

How I started to play poker and my plans to settle in Cambodia

Much of what remains in the history between my father and me is largely negative. This fact revolves mainly around two things, my decision to be a poker player and pursue a career in this game and my decision to not only come to Cambodia but to start a family here with a Cambodian woman. When I first started playing poker the fact that I lived in Vegas was a well-kept secret in my family. When I would return to Los Angeles for holidays my other family members would ask me where I had been, not having a single clue that I lived 5 hours away. After I had reached some level of success as a player I invited my parents for a visit after I started renting an 11th-floor condo on the strip right behind the Wynn Hotel. When my mother and father entered my new home, they took a careful and long look around before uttering a sound. Then after a dramatic pause that seemed to last forever, my father finally said, "This is not your home. Whose home is this?" To be fair there was a lot right about why my father was thinking. I have mentioned in a previous blog post that the condo was much too expensive and that I had no business renting it. Not to mention that I would go broke within 12 months of that visit. Even though I eventually came to have more success and stability in poker, the reservations they had were completely understandable and justified. And I imagine that this is not what he exactly envisioned for his son when he moved the entire family to America for a better life.

How I persuaded my parents to marry a Cambodian girl, our present-day, and plans for the future

What remains and brings us to the present day is even more complicated. Neither of my parents was thrilled with my decision to visit Cambodia. They had horrifying thoughts in their heads of me sleeping in a hammock outside, catching malaria, and worst of all meeting a Cambodian woman. There is no delicate way of saying this, but it is largely true that 1st generation Asians in America can be racist. I have had many conversations with my father about whom I am allowed to marry in terms of race, with a sequential order no less. The list is as follows:

• Korean
• Chinese
• Japanese
• White

The following are strictly prohibited:

• Blacks
• Latinos
• Indians
• Southeast Asians

My father's worst fears would come true as I did meet a Cambodian woman who would eventually become the mother of my first and only children. Neither of my parents has met nor spoken to any of my kids and we have not spoken to one another in nearly 6 years.

Planning to reunite with the family again in the States

With all that is happening right now in Cambodia with covid-19, I have thought that this might be an opportune time for a visit to the States. It would allow me to get vaccinated and I can run my business there easily and send money back to the family. I have already emailed my mother about this possibility but have yet to get a response. It would be the first time in 5 years since I have been in America and perhaps may serve as an opportunity for a reunion with my parents. There is a lot that has remained unsaid regarding our relationship in this blog post. And I have done much as well to contribute to the current state of our relationship as I have not always played an innocent role. Therefore such a reunion remains unlikely and I am not getting my hopes up too high. I doubt that my children will ever get to meet their grandparents and I remain unsure whether I even want them to. I have resigned myself to the likelihood that I will not be around when my father passes. But in many ways, my father will live on in certain ideals that I have adopted from him and hope to pass onto my own children.
2466.060 SEREY
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