My 아빠 (dad), 이 상 덕 (Sang Duk Lee), drove really fast. It wasn’t like he did it in a sports car, but he drove at high speed no matter if he drove our family’s ginormous Dodge camper van or economical Toyota Cressida. Despite accumulating a mountain of speeding tickets whose expense exasperated my frugal mom to no end, he drove as if he couldn’t wait another moment to get somewhere, or perhaps instead to run away from something unspeakable.
A scream of familiar heartbreak shattered my slumber. Blinking into consciousness, my body froze in dread as Jennifer repeated, “Oh no, oh no, oh no.” Twice in the preceding two years, I heard these exact sounds from Jennifer when we improbably lost Rohan at 19 weeks and Nadia at 22 weeks into pregnancy. Wrenching upwards my reluctant body to the bathroom, Jennifer held out bathroom tissue soaked with bright red blood just as she had done so the year before.
Entangled in a recurring nightmare, we went through the motions to go to the hospital while despairing to say goodbye to our baby at 17 weeks into this pregnancy. In the taxi, we silently held hands and I flashed back to the still moment when the doctor told us solemnly that Rohan had no heartbeat. My floating body also returned to when the doctor told us that Nadia was still alive, but they could not save her as she was coming too soon. I kept thinking, “This again?” Weeping and holding a dead baby in our arms as we feel the body grow cold. Calling our parents and loved ones. Struggling with Jennifer in an avalanche of heartache, shame, anger, and guilt. Going to a funeral home to make arrangements for our baby’s remains and being recognized by the funeral home director. I wondered how will we survive this?
At the hospital, an ER obstetrician examined Jennifer and we waited with bated breath for the bad news. The doctor’s probing hand came away bloody, but as if letting us in on a forbidden desire, the doctor told us quietly that the bleeding had stopped, and that Jennifer and the baby might be okay. Stunned, we held each other as Jennifer repeated, “The baby might be okay. The baby might be okay.”
Nine months after the death of my dad, I was jotting down notes for my statement at a rally to support a state bill to legalize e-bikes for immigrant delivery workers when I suddenly remembered that one of my dad’s first jobs after immigrating was to deliver for a pharmacy in Los Angeles.
Grieving my dad often feels less about forgetting him than about a struggle to locate him through his silences. My dad rarely spoke about his story, family and life so I feel possessed by not knowing what I don’t know. While talking about my dad’s death, a close friend asked me what my dad’s father was like. Floored, I suddenly realized that not only had I never met my dad’s father who died before my birth, my dad only mentioned his father once to me in his life and that I didn’t even know my grandfather’s name nor ever seen a picture of him. Recently at my request, my mom found some documents with my grandfather’s name – 이태우 (Tae Woo Lee).
A few years ago, I started tentatively asking questions that began before my dad’s death, which has fueled even more questions and urgency. I learned that my grandfather died of stomach cancer at 50 years old – just five years older than I am now. My 할머니 (grandmother) whose name was 박지의 (Ji Eui Park) also died of stomach cancer late in life. And my dad also would die from a cancer that started in his stomach and later migrated to his liver.
Curiously, between the silent chasms of my dad’s life, my parents more willingly told a few specific life stories around their struggles to survive in their first years in the USA. To make ends meet while my dad studied to get his American dentistry license, my dad lucked into a student loan from the Korea Exchange Bank while my mom labored as a domestic worker in West Hollywood and my dad did whatever jobs he could find such as this delivery job. I don’t really know much about my dad’s delivery work except that he used to joke that he didn’t keep it long because the only car they could afford always broke down. In talking about this story recently, my mom mentioned they thought the pharmacy owner should have provided a car or vehicle, and I would tell my mom that more than four decades later, many businesses still do this to their delivery workers.
As if to summon my dad’s spirit, I spoke these words at the delivery worker e-bike rally while invoking the seeming trope of immigrant sacrifice:
This work and struggle have been deeply personal to me. My father and mother are immigrants. I am an immigrant. When my father first came to this country many years ago, his first job was to do delivery work for a pharmacy. Like my father, immigrant delivery workers endure in the hope that their lives and sacrifices matter.
I feel deep discomfort in employing the narrative of immigrant sacrifice because it is frequently weaponized as debt within systems of power and discipline. As children of immigrants, it’s cliché and obligatory to narrate our parents’ lives as about sacrifice. My parents themselves wielded, “Don’t you know what we go through for you? Study hard!” to compel our respectful and unquestioning obedience – without ever really explaining what they went through or what they gave up. Perhaps my discomfort with immigrant sacrifice also brings up feelings about my parents’ devout Catholicism as I can’t help but hear the refrain “Jesus died for our sins” from Catholic schooling and hundreds of masses.
Our typical discourse about immigrant sacrifice also flattens my parents’ histories as about martyrdom rather than complexified by survival, ambition, trauma, resistance, and accumulation. Indeed, my mom thinks their migration was more about taking advantage of a fortunate and highly valued opportunity than about sacrifice. However, we live in a system of whiteness that loves to simplify stories of immigrant sacrifice in order to reformulate our families’ migration stories into narratives of insurmountable debt inherited and owed by the children to the United States. As such, this system mobilizes these unresolvable feelings of debt obligation into a schema of model minorities who honor family sacrifice by “succeeding” into whiteness that requires our alienation from our families, histories, and bodies. Therefore, whiteness narrates assimilation as a progressive sacrificial transaction where the gain outweighs the loss. However, Grace Cho observes observes that assimilation is impossible because our inherited trauma is unassimilable in whiteness. As young adults, my parents would introduce my brother and me to their friends as the “Stanford son” and the “Berkeley son” all the while as it felt like my parents and I didn’t know each other.
Sacrifice also frequently conjures gruesome collective memories and images of slaughtering animals or humans in rituals to call upon the favor or mercy of gods. As such, we usually describe sacrifice as giving something up now in order to gain something later – which suggests that time characterizes sacrifice. In the most profane way, we often sacrifice who or what is most disposable in times of need. During Covid-19 for example, rich and powerful people called upon elderly to sacrifice themselves at an unholy altar that values profits over life. Linked to actual or symbolic death, sacrifice is an incredibly messy, risky, and unsettling act – but one whose intensity can resurface desires, traumas and emotions deeply buried in our bodies.
Uncomfortably, I invoked immigrant sacrifice because of what it brings out of my own body. Sacrifice, which is rooted in the Latin words of sacra meaning “sacred rites” and facere meaning “to make.” Or in other words, sacrifice means “making sacred.” What does a sacrifice that makes sacred look like? Fundamentally, sacrifice invokes a deep power at the relationship and boundary of death and life. Gloria Anzaldúa clues us into the sacred when she writes that sacrifice as “making holy” is necessary to “bring into being something that does not yet exist in the world.”
Sacrifice thus contains the threshold or transition between life and death. Anzaldúa calls this threshold “nepantla,” which is the point of contact or a bridge between worlds or between “ordinary or nonordinary (spirit) realities.” Nepantla are sites of “constant tension” where “transformation and healing may be possible, where wholeness is just out of reach but seems attainable.” Sacrifice as nepantla takes sacrifice beyond a straightforward transaction of loss and gain into a transitional and unsettling space-time that contains the boundless tension of being situated between life and death. Or in other words, sacrifice as nepantla upends our hold on the linearity of time by bringing the dead, the living, and not yet living into contact. Invoking this tension unleashes deep power that raises ghosts and memories that were long buried, lost, or forgotten. As such, sacrifice is not simply an endpoint and a beginning, but it is to bring a slack rope into taut tension as if suddenly yanked mightily at both ends. As unresolved tension, sacrifice is less about answers than about sparking longings and questions about the connections it makes possible.
Perhaps then in the spirit of Anzaldúa’s nepantla, a sacrifice of making sacred is about nurturing loving relationships that bridge the living, the dead, and new life yet to live.
A few years ago, my mind reeled as I read historian Bruce Cumings describe how two U.S. colonels took thirty minutes to rip Korea into two:
In the days just before Koreans heard the voice of Emperor Hirohito for the first time, broadcasting Japan’s surrender and Korea’s liberation on August 15, 1945, John J. McCloy of the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee (SWNCC) directed two young colonels, Dean Rusk and Charles H. Bonesteel, to withdraw to an adjoining room and find a place to divide Korea… Given thirty minutes to do so, Rusk and Bonesteel looked at a map and chose the thirty-eighth parallel because it “would place the capital city in the American zone”; although the line was “further north than could be realistically reached… in the event of Soviet disagreement,” the Soviets made no objections – which “somewhat surprised” Rusk.1 General Douglas MacArthur, the hero of the Pacific campaigns, issued General Order Number One for the Japanese surrender on August 15, including in it (and thus making public) the thirty-eighth parallel decision…
American officials consulted no Koreans in coming to this decision.
Korea’s liberation. Thirty minutes. No Koreans.
Stunned, I read this passage over and over.
In just thirty minutes, the West fabricated “good” South Koreans and “evil” North Koreans. To this day, white people sometimes ask me “North or South?” when they find out that I’m of Korean descent. During the Korean War, American soldiers would often shoot all the gooks, well because how was one supposed to tell the difference?
My dad told me only one snippet of a story about his father in which the North Korean army’s invasion during the beginning of the Korean War swept up my grandfather, a farmer and civil servant, and my dad’s older brother in Pyeongtaek as prisoners while my father as a young boy barely escaped into the woods. As a result, the North Korean army forced my grandfather to do hard labor under brutal conditions until the South Korean army took back that territory when they also forced my grandfather to do hard labor. Later, when the North Korean army retook Pyeongtaek, they tortured my grandfather for working for the South Korean army. After the ceasefire (note: this war has never officially ended), my grandfather suffered pain and poor health for the remainder of his life while also enduring stigma in South Korea for his forced labor for North Korea. In my dad’s telling of this story, he left out the torture, and it is only recently that my mom shared that detail in my desire to know more about my grandfather. Furthermore, according to my mom, my dad desired dearly to become a doctor because of the tortuous pain my grandfather lived with but my dad couldn’t gain entry to medical school. So my dad followed the advice of my grandfather to instead become a dentist.
One way mass trauma erupts is from how imperialism “works through territorialization,” writes Manu Karuka. And territorialization, in turn, “proceeds through terror, inscribing a certain space as a space of violence. Scholars of territory have drawn an etymology for the term not to terra, meaning land or terrain, but to terrēre, to frighten, so that territory and terrorism are profoundly linked in conceptions of imperial sovereignty. The historiography of the settler ‘nation’ has a territorializing function.”
In essence, territories of North and South Koreas are anything but sacred, but function as an unholy sacrifice for terrorism. Americans call the Korean War the Forgotten War, but for my parents born into the terror of endless war, the war lives ever on in our bodies.
One of the consequences of war is to rupture Indigenous modes of relationships. Karuka describes how Northern Paiute author Sarah Winnemucca theorized “colonialism as a relationship of war” that fundamentally disrupts Indigenous modes of relationships predicated upon interdependence between persons and also with the nonhuman world who taught us how to be. Colonial and imperial violence thus “murdered the older relatives” and “produces profound loneliness.” Likewise, Ju-Hyun Park aptly observes, “Every Korean person I know who has died has died during the Korean War.” Thus, Grace Cho discusses how imperial violence in the U.S.-Korea relations makes permanent warfare whose harm and erasures produce hauntings, social isolations, and unspoken family secrets among many effects of traumas.
Cho also notes how these erasures provide space for the fantasy of the United States being the “benevolent protector” of South Korea from the threat of North Korea, which for instance President George W. Bush called part of the “axis of evil.” As such, Park writes about how U.S. imperialism actively prevents Korean reunification because the ongoing trauma of a severed Korea continues to serve U.S. geopolitical narratives and goals: “Where South Korea offers a vindication of capitalist modernity that transforms conquest into liberal magnanimity, North Korea figures as a permanently abjected enemy whose depravity eclipses and necessitates the domestic and international brutalities of the U.S. world order.”
This fantasy perversely marks South Korea as “indebted” to the United States in the words of Cathy Hong Park. Indebtedness is key according to Cathy Hong Park who quotes then South Korean dictator Park Chung-Hee in describing sending South Korean troops to Vietnam as “making a moral repayment of our historical debt to the Free World.” This white lie of debt not only upholds the myth of American saviors and sacrifice, but also hides the bloody currency of war and capitalism. With Korea still starving after the wreckage of the Korean war that killed three out of every ten Koreans and destroyed the land, the United States paid South Korea $1 billion for three hundred thousand troops in Vietnam. South Korea also received large American contracts to export steel and transportation equipment to Vietnam. These payments and exports ultimately helped to fuel South Korea’s economic growth but underwritten by the dead in Vietnam.
My life is deeply intertwined with this bloody history as my uncle, 김 정 복 (Kim Jeong Bok), fought in Vietnam. Several years after this war, this uncle went to an appointment with an army dentist who just so happened to be my dad. They struck up a friendship and in the course of their conversations, my uncle raved about his sister (my mom) – and eventually my uncle and aunt set up my dad and mom to meet each other.
Korea’s liberation. Thirty minutes. No Koreans.
Just recently, my family told me a story I’d never heard before about how racism nearly derailed my dad from becoming an American dentist. Trained as a dentist in Korea, my dad had to go through a certification training program as well as passing the California State Board monthly written tests along with a final examination. For the final exam, my dad sent in his application but never received a confirmation of the examination so my mom (who spoke better English) called the State Board who claimed to have not received my dad’s application, which would meant he would have to spend another year in training before being able to take the examination. My mom protested strongly as she had a receipt that the State Board did get the application. In the face of my mom’s threat to fly to Sacramento with the receipt to make her demand in person, the Board relented and let my dad take the final examination.
At the examination, the Board segregated the exam room with UCLA dental students on one side while immigrant dentists like my dad were on the other side. Each dentist needed to bring patients to be treated according to the required procedures. An examiner would evaluate the patient put forth by the tester and approve or reject the patient as suitable for treatment. My dad presented his best patient only to have an examiner barely glance over to reject the patient with scarcely a “No.” This would repeat several more times until my dad was left with one final patient and very little time left.
With unexpected fortune, my mom was serving as my dad’s dental assistant because the person who my dad had hired canceled at the last moment. My mom suddenly remembered hearing within the Korean dentistry community about racial discrimination by examiners and that an immigrant dentist had no hope of passing the test with the wrong examiner. Desperate, my mom found another examiner and asked him to evaluate my dad’s last patient and this examiner gave my dad the green light to proceed. With little time left, my dad worked frantically with a face white with fear but he managed to finish – and ultimately pass the examination. My parents found out later that of the twelve Korean dentists who took the examination, examiners failed ten of them. Later, immigrant dentists sued the California State Board to force them to institute changes where examiners would not know the identity of the dentist for each patient.
My mom said that the dental assistant’s cancellation seemed like such a blow in the moment but it turned out to be a blessing to put my mom in the room to intervene. Lucky yes, and I also think about how many non-white dentists *failed* in order to make white dentists. In addition, it makes me think about how exceptions like my dad become distorted as evidence of why immigrants should just be grateful. This is also due in no small part in how American society produces narrative inequality by platforming and rewarding *success* stories told by immigrants that emphasize merit and gratitude while strategically pathologizing, gaslighting, ignoring, or silencing the stories told by *failures*. Having stories heard can often be the difference between life and death.
According to my mom, my dad later told her, “If I failed that test, I can accept it. But if I couldn’t even take the test and I had to just leave, I would have wanted to die.”
A Messy Life
When my dad died, my mom asked me to clean out my dad’s car. When I opened the hatchback trunk, the stale air of granola bars and potato chips wafted out as golf balls spilled out and a few receipts fluttered away. I stood there while slowly examining the remains before me.
Growing up, my mom would bring us kids after school to my dad’s dental practice where we scooted quickly through the meticulously clean office filled with patient chairs, gleaming metal instruments, and ceramic water bowls. We’d end up at my dad’s private back office where it overflowed with books, papers, and random debris strewn about haphazardly. My mom would wrinkle her nose and mutter a few guttural noises in exasperation. Likewise, at home, my mom worked relentlessly to keep the house pristine – except for the disaster of my dad’s small home office as if it were an inverted eye of the storm.
Within these partitions, my father dedicated his life to developing and practicing new ways of healing – both as a dentist and as an Eastern medicine practitioner. As such, my dad also regularly essentialized the stereotype of a philosophical East-West divide – he railed against what he believed as Western medicine’s flaws of being focused on isolated body parts and symptoms as opposed to Eastern medicine’s holistic approach that centers the whole body and root causes. My dad was one of the first dentists to treat patients for TMJ disorders, which allowed him to treat the whole patient in his dentistry practice. It was easy to be in awe of my dad as we saw him heal people’s pain in seemingly unrelated body areas such as people’s necks, backs, arms and legs by addressing TMJ misalignments. Patients, even famous Korean athletes, came from all over the world to see my dad in desperation for relief from their medically unsolvable pains and ailments. According to my mom, my dad was deeply emotional when he figured out that he could help many people with their pain by treating TMJ – much in the way he had originally dreamed of becoming a doctor because of my grandfather’s lived pain. Once during a visit, I started having trouble urinating over a few days – which felt my insides were bursting but I could barely painfully squeeze out any pee. I told my parents that I needed to go to the hospital and my dad asked to examine me first. Using his methods, he located a blockage resulting from a misaligned hip imperceptible to the eye. After about a half-hour of chiropractic adjustments to realign my hip, I was fine and I could urinate freely again.
Amidst all this seeming magic, unsuspecting people who spied my dad’s clutter would ask how could such a messy person do such wonderful work? But I think my dad’s compartmentalized chaos might have symbolized permission to exist in some specific ways outside the order of things in order to create while also perhaps being a gesture of intractable resistance to simple assimilation.
My dad’s distrust for Western medicine meant that his first trip to a hospital and his first time ever getting medical treatment from a Western doctor was when he went to the emergency room for what turned out to be a life-threatening malignant stomach cancer. Several months slipped by while cancer ravaged his body due in large part to the maddening system of U.S. health coverage, but also because my dad persisted in searching for a medical treatment that aligned with his sensibilities while being furious at doctors for repeatedly offering chemo and surgery as the only option. And as my brother reminded me, my dad’s persistence led to eventually working out a “grand compromise” medical strategy – a combination of immunotherapy (Herceptin) which my dad philosophically approved of and modest chemo treatments whose fundamental principle my dad detested. This combo shrunk his tumor from 16 cm to 4 cm and ultimately made possible a surgery to save his life. However, his aversion for Western doctors would later mean that we would discover the return of his cancer far too late.
While his public life was often brilliant, my dad’s private life was often a disaster. He eventually became estranged from his brothers and sisters and my dad hinted that the rift was related to a big fight over money and respect, although my mom also said recently that it was in large part due to how badly his family treated her. I have some fleeting memories from a family visit to South Korea in the early 1990s of meeting my dad’s side of the family – aunts, uncles, and cousins. The subsequent family fight has largely severed our ties to my father’s family who mostly live in South Korea. Only recently my mom shared that one of my dad’s sisters and her family moved to LA some time ago where they reconnected with my dad for a while before having another blow up. This rift may also reflect how we performatively re-enact a divided Korea within our own families, which also haunts my own lifelong feelings and experiences of inadequacy and incompleteness rooted in my severed connections to Korea.
Survivors of war trauma as Cathy Hong Park observes are often “god-awful” parents. My dad wasn’t god-awful. Yes, it’s cliché – he long believed his role as beginning and ending at providing well for us and so he didn’t work at being intimate with us. About a year before his death, he quietly told me that he regretted not knowing the important role of emotional parenting. For much of his life, my dad was highly competitive and relished being contrarian in his profession, yet he couldn’t or wouldn’t break down barriers at home. During my teenage years, my dad and mom would frequently scream at each other in ear-rending arguments that tore at me in my room just wishing to be anywhere else. These loud and fierce arguments penetrated the shroud of silence in our household and were a proxy for their fractured relationships that reflected unspoken and unmet desires for intimacy. My mom recently told me that to her, these eruptions were better than the silence. Once, my dad refused to come home from his office for Christmas dinner because he felt disrespected that I had joked about his work at breakfast and that my mom didn’t defend him. In so many ways, my dad also felt so much pain, but while he could heal others, he resisted being the person undergoing healing. As a result, he often displaced his trauma by being habitually mad at my mom. To have his full attention meant that our family would need to perform as his patients – as an adult, I long avoided seeing doctors just so I could bring my health problems to my dad.
My dad’s savior complex also ended up costing my parents a lot of money. Around 2005, Korean businessmen from the JU Group (a Korean company) excited my dad into investing much of my family’s savings to launch their company’s first American facility in San Jose. When he eagerly explained their business model to me, I bluntly told my dad that it was a pyramid scheme. Stung, he tried to tell me how it did not fit the legal definition of a pyramid scheme, which didn’t reassure me about the ethics of making money this way. He refused to listen to myself, then my brother and ultimately my mom in this, while convincing a lot of friends within the Korean community to invest their money too. Curiously, my dad justified this by expressing deep concern about climate change after learning about the urgent need for action in a Korean news special and he felt he could make a difference by making a ton of money to then donate to fighting climate change. And also JU Group’s solid reputation in Korea at the time and the fact that others were competing with him to open the facility also may have made it seem like a legitimate and attractive business opportunity to my dad. Just as my dad’s facility was set to open, the JU Group officials were indicted as part of a massive bribery scheme and the largest fraud case in South Korea’s history. Much of the savings my parents worked for were wiped out in an instant. It would be easy to think about this story as a lesson in morality – i.e. invest in an unethical business and you lose money – but we know this simply isn’t true in capitalism. Rather, I recall how diminished my dad seemed and how furious my mom was in the aftermath – and I felt so frustrated by my dad’s unwillingness to listen to us. My dad moved from the Bay Area to LA, ostensibly to help my sister with his grandson, but really mostly out of shame.
Slowly, I picked through the rubble of his car yearning to find buried treasures as I filled garbage bags. Mostly, I found golf equipment in the trunk as my dad spent nearly every free moment golfing – it’s strange to imagine my dad bringing out his golf bag from inside the mess of his car to play in pristine, orderly golf courses. For a long time, my dad brought my sullen teen self out to golf courses where we’d play in silence as he seemingly willed immaculately precise shots while my swings alternated between frustration and disinterest that swerved balls erratically.
Arrival and Death
In a span of just seven weeks, I defended my dissertation, became a dad, and lost my dad.
As if she knew, she kept trying to arrive as soon as possible. At 17 weeks, she almost arrived much too soon to live outside the womb. At 34 weeks just a few days before my dissertation defense, she began signaling imminent arrival and the doctor said probably any day now. Keeping us on pins and needles, we joked about my defense being potentially a double birthing day. She almost came at 35 weeks when Jennifer had contractions and the doctor said she was definitely coming, but the contractions stopped and she stayed put. Each time, my dad texted that he was praying.
In preparing for her arrival, I asked my parents for help with choosing a Korean middle name for her. When I was born, my parents brought me to a renowned fortune teller in Korea to learn my fate and to name me. My parents would only share that the fortune teller said I had the best fortune.
My name also is weighted with meaning… or perhaps a question that is both gift and burden. My name, Do Jun (도준), translates to “right way.” I’ve often jokingly asked “right way” to where? Do (도) is the Korean equivalent to Chinese Dao of Daoism. I would be reminded of this growing up as my parents enrolled me in Tae Kwon Do (태권도), which my instructors told me meant the way of the hand and foot. What little I recall from reading Tao Te Ching in college many years ago, Daoism was not so much about a way of thinking but rather a mode of being whole and present in one’s body and environment. Like a burden, this way of being in the body has long felt unattainable as I struggle to decolonize in a place that taught me as a child to fear and loathe my *Oriental* body. As a child, I often dreamed of erasing my name to something anglicized. Appreciating my name gift in the present, I wonder if father took pride in my foretold name because of what it makes possible.
For a name, I told my parents I liked the Korean word for justice (정의), a word on my mind with my dissertation title of “Delivering Justice.” With excitement, my parents took to this task seriously and gifted us her name just days before she came.
Then she finally arrived – at 36 weeks and 5 days into the pregnancy, Jennifer went into full labor and eight hours later, we welcomed Annalise Jeongah (정아) Smith-Lee. We choose Annalise for its meaning of “grace” rooted in German and Scandinavian languages. My dad and mom helped picked 정아 as the middle name for its meanings rooted in justice and beautiful grace. It was a long while before I realized that my parents also gifted the word jeong (정), which is an untranslatable Korean word that carries a lot of meaning – and from my painfully limited understanding, it means something like a deep love that arises from our connection to each other and the world around us. I don’t know if she will experience her Korean name as a gift, burden, or something else entirely, but I wanted her to have this connection in her name.
Upon her arrival, my dad texted from across the country, “Hi JeongAh! Welcome to our family and wonderful world!”
Little would I know that he would never meet Jeongah as he was already dying.
Two and a half years before, I visited my parents in LA over the winter holidays at the end of 2015. The moment I saw my dad, my gut sank and I knew he was dying. All bones and featherlight, cancer had already consumed much of his stomach. Yet he ended up surviving with cancer in remission for another two years.
When my dad arrived into town for my dissertation defense, I was immediately worried by his tired wan look that reminded me of what I’d seen in 2015. He said everything was okay even though my mom, sister, and brother all begged him to go see a doctor. Finally, just two weeks after Annalise Jeongah’s birth, my dad found out that his cancer had returned and by then, it had consumed most of his liver.
Within two weeks of his diagnosis, I flew to LA to see my dad without Jennifer and Annalise Jeongah as she was still too young to fly. Seeing him, he told us that he would try to live but he was not afraid to die as he had lived his life. At the end of my visit, I told him that if he could just hang on for a few more weeks, we would fly Jeongah out to meet him as I showed him the picture above. He took my phone and tenderly kissed the picture of Jeongah.
Four days later, my dad passed away having never met Annalise Jeongah just as my dad’s father never met me.
My parents chided us frequently about how wonderful it would be if one of us followed in my dad’s footsteps to take over his dental and Eastern medicine practice. But none of us did. Toward the end of his life, my dad obsessed over his legacy, including writing a yet unfinished book draft in Korean about his medical philosophy. I constantly wonder if I could read Korean well, my dad might be able to tell me something important that he didn’t do in life.
As his last trip, my dad flew out for my dissertation defense. The “Ph.D.” credential has meant far less yet much more than I thought it would. My internalization of model minority myths meant that I subconsciously and foolishly anticipated a Ph.D. would end my feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and depression – but of course it did nothing of the sort.
But what it did do was completely unexpected. While I feel aching grief that my dad and Annalise Jeongah never met, he also lasted two years more than doctors predicted. Thus, he lived just long enough to see me become a dad. And he survived just long enough to hear my dissertation committee welcoming and re-naming me as “Doctor Lee” – just as my father was called “Doctor Lee.”
Later, when writing a short eulogy for my dad, I would weep when I realized this fact – that I worried my studies were taking me further away from my family when they helped bring me back. Somewhere along the way, I learned to start giving my body permission to ask questions that felt like they stubbornly floated upward from the bottom of a deep well. To my surprise, this would create a sacred bridge between myself and my dad.
Because my dad said so little about his life is perhaps also why I think a lot about what he did share. My dad took absurd delight in being a descendant of an ancient wise Korean minister who precociously demonstrated his cleverness in a story about him as a youth. My dad bragged about this story to my mom on their first date when they played ping pong and talked into the late darkness on the night before my mom was to fly to the United States. While my dad charmed my mom enough so that she didn’t leave the next day, my mom was apparently less than impressed by this story as she hardly remembers any of it, but my brother remembered it well. And I found an English version of this story it in a book about baseball in Asia of all places:
A story is told of a young Korean boy who lived some four hundred years ago in the city of Seoul. In the back yard of his house there stood a big apricot tree with many spreading limbs. One of the great limbs extended its many branches into the yard of a next door neighbor. When the fruit season came, this tree was over-laden with luscious apricots, and this boy… noticed that people in the next door [sic] were picking and eating his cherished fruit. One day he protested, but the neighbor contended that since the branches were hanging over his yard, the fruit belonged to him and not to the boy. A long argument ensued, but no settlement was reached that day. The next day early in the morning this boy went to the neighbor’s house, and on reaching the room where the neighbor was sitting he very suddenly and violently pushed his fist through the paper window, and shouted, “Whose fist is this?” The astonished neighbor said, “Why, what are you doing? Whose fist but yours, you rascal.” The boy said, “If my fist is still mine when it is in your room, the apricots are still ours when they are in your yard,” and when home triumphantly. He grew up to be prime minister.
To be honest, I’ve never really liked this story all that much. And I’m not sure what this story meant to my dad beyond pride in our ancestor’s cleverness, but I wonder now if perhaps he saw something of himself as our ancestor’s fist through the paper window. He told that part with such animation that his fist punched the air as if through an imaginary paper window.
My dad pops up unexpectedly. Sometimes when I hear Annalise Jeongah squeal “wheeeee!” in delight on downhills on our bike rides, I hear echoes of my dad’s gleeful laughter in his surprising moments of charming playfulness that I craved.
There is nothing simple or clean about death. The centrality of death to sacrifice marks its power and effects as messy, haunting, unsettling, and uncontrollable. Learning more and writing this piece doesn’t bring me peace about my dad’s death. At best it’s an incomplete and blurry portrait of a life with unspeakable or unknowable experiences and sacrifices that sparks more questions, desire and yearning that rise out of my body – and thus more work to be done knowing that it will never be complete. And it raises questions also of the discomforting ways I echo my dad that my partner brought up when reading a draft of this essay – including my own messes and ongoing struggles to learn and practice intimacy. But also when I shared a draft with my mom, brother and sister, this essay snapped us out of our habitual silences into long conversations where we have been piecing together our memories – some of which I’ve added to this essay.
Sacrifice is also a kind of nepantla, the bridge between worlds of life and death. As nepantla, the “making sacred” of sacrifice is the continual labor of maintaining, repairing, or creating relationships that connect the dead, the living and new life. This sacred continuity allows us to know the way in which we arrived, which helps us know the possible ways we may deeply desire to go. Perhaps then, sacrifice has the potential to be nepantla that make bridges and spaces for imagining, creating, and nurturing transgenerational desires and actions that we need as we face oppressions and traumas that have traversed across generations, spaces, and peoples, take particular shape in the here and now, and will set the playing field for future struggles.
Writing about sacrifice makes me feel deeply uneasy as I fear that it could easily slip into a disturbing interpretation of my dad’s death as the “loss” that produces the “gain” of my daughter’s birth. My dad himself perhaps saw his life as part of a loss-gain transaction of sacrifice. The only time I’ve ever heard my dad cry is when he found out that Rohan, our first child, died in the second trimester on the same day that a miraculous surgery saved my dad’s life from stomach cancer. He called me sobbing so hard that I didn’t recognize his voice. Through broken sobs, he kept asking why God spared his life and took the life of my son. I told my dad that it wasn’t about his life at the cost of my son, but it didn’t comfort either of us.
For many immigrants, we inherit, experience and carry much trauma in our bodies that propelled our displacement and migration. According to Eric Tang, the trauma experienced by refugees produces “refugee temporality – the refugee’s knowledge that [their] present hardships are a reinscription of [their] past captivities.” Or in other words migrants from trauma are haunted by their pasts in ways that bring into sharp relief the nonlinear ways we experience narrative and memory. Therefore, I think the theme of sacrifice comes up frequently in the stories of immigrant families because we often need to tap into the power of sacrifice to bridge time. Sacrifice as nepantla is to refuse the seductive amnesia of the loss-gain transaction of assimilation and to make legible the linkages from our traumatic pasts to possible futures so that we can approach wholeness. Because my daughter’s birth and my dad’s death occurred just a few weeks apart, I cannot help but link the two events together in my mind. So I write this in the hope that my daughter will understand this link as nepantla rather than that of a loss-gain transaction that incurs a debt impossible to pay back. And I write for my dad as well.
My body continues to deeply feel the many fractured linkages I still have to my family, and Korean language and histories. Sacrifices, both sacred and unholy, mark our family. Grace Cho talks about a tension in the Korean diasporic desire to reunite with the homeland, but the impossibility of it “in light of the unresolved nature of the war and its erasure from memory in the United States.” We may not be able to resolve some of our deepest yearnings within our present lives. But this tension of desire propels me to know how my body is a portal rather than as a return or an endpoint.
Being a dad, I am learning and playing with what it means to nurture a sacred continuity with the delightful life growing before my eyes. I wonder in what ways Annalise Jeongah who is biracially Asian-white will question, navigate and make her world differently than us. So that she might walk her path with a wind at her back, I whisper to her in a sacred rite at bedtime that my dad, her siblings Rohan and Nadia, and all her great-grandparents love her and that she will never be alone.
And one day soon, I’ll begin a story to Jeongah (정아), “My 아빠 used to tell me a story about a young Korean boy who lived some four hundred years ago…”