All That My Father Asked of Me
Sunday, September 30, 2007; Page B08
Although our family left South Korea to begin a new life in America over 30 years ago, I didn't know that my North Korea-born father was such an American patriot until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
While I was growing up, my father was the epitome of the silent type, never raising his voice yet guiding his children by how diligently he worked as the owner-operator of a tiny dry cleaning business in Yonkers, the blue-collar New York City suburb.
My father rarely talked about his childhood in Pyongyang. He never mentioned that he had been accepted to medical school in Moscow on a full scholarship before the Korean War obliterated that option. He never talked about escaping alone to the South when he was 16, and he still doesn't know what happened to his mother and baby sister. He never talked about fighting in the Korean War at 17, though when my brother and I were little, he let us play with the scar that a North Korean bullet left across his chest.
These details we got in rare bits and pieces from our Mom, who isn't exactly voluble herself.
I never even knew my father spoke six languages -- Korean, English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Russian -- until I was in college. And there I was, all smug about being able to speak Korean, English and some Spanish.
This was the father I knew -- silent, hardworking and very Korean -- until he called me a few months after Sept. 11 and told me to come home. For the first time in memory, he said he wanted to talk to me.
So I was on the next plane to New York. When I arrived, expecting the worst, it was past midnight. My father was waiting in his car. He said he wanted to go for a drive into the city and handed me the keys. He told me to head downtown along Fifth Avenue.
All the way, he was quiet. But as we approached Washington Square Park, I stopped the car without my father having to tell me to. The absence was so striking. The twin towers of the World Trade Center, usually framed by the Washington Square Arch, were gone. There was just an eerie glow where they used to be.
Then, for the first time in my life, my father asked me for a favor. He asked me to quit my job and go to work for the U.S. government, in whatever capacity it would take me.
My initial reaction was to dismiss this as ridiculous. I was chief of staff for the founder of an international consulting firm and the fastest-rising executive in the company's history. I had a guaranteed, financially secure future. This was the American dream for which my parents had sacrificed all their lives. And he wanted me to go back to school and apply to become a government bureaucrat?
Like any other American, I was deeply affected by Sept. 11. Three students from my high school were killed that day. But this was out of the question. I couldn't give up what I had worked so hard for.
He talked about gratitude. His gratitude to America for allowing a North Korean orphan to take care of his family and send his sons to the best schools in the world. His sense of thankfulness at being granted the freedom and privilege to make his life worthwhile for his family. He said that real patriotism came from acting on your sense of gratitude for your country, not just talking about it. Having one of his sons contribute to the protection of America was his only way to pay back what he had received. I hadn't known my father was such an eloquent man.
So, finally, this June, I began my new life as a bureaucrat, working at the Transportation Security Administration. Along with 50,000 proud colleagues, I am responsible for safeguarding America's freedom of movement for both people and goods.
My father is quietly ecstatic and plans, finally, to retire. He is 75. And he is a Korean American patriot.