I got fat the old fashioned way. I ate too much. Actually to be precise, I was fed too much. When it came to food, my parents had no concept of scale. Big or small, young or old, in my house, portion control meant however much the plate would hold.
In the morning there were bowls of cheerios heaped so high that O’s would spill over the sides. At dinner we had plates mounded over with white rice. On Saturdays Dad would grill hot dogs by the dozen. Later we would line up at a trough of hot dog fried rice smothered in ketchup.
I hated meal time. As the youngest and smallest, I always had too much food but Dad would glower if you so much as made a peep of complaint, and I was more afraid of him than anything else in the world. In my house you finish your plate. And you do NOT complain about food. These were first truths.
I still remember the first time I ate at a white kid’s house. It was like visiting a magical realm where fairies dipped nectar out of flowers. I learned that bourgeois white people have a completely different relationship with food. They ate critically, as though taste mattered. They ate different stuff in portions so minuscule that you had to ask for more. They had discriminating palates. I had a food hole.
Throughout my childhood, mealtime was a ritualized psychodrama where I would eat until I gagged. I dreaded sitting at the table and I hated my parents for making me eat.
One weekend, I was around 7 years old, my dad and I went on a camping trip with a group of Korean ministers. My sisters got to stay home so I was the only kid in the group. Bored and lonely, I befriended a frog I found hopping around the campsite. As the last born, and only boy in the family, I frequently made do with imaginary friends and was delighted to have made a real one, even from another species.
At dinner time I went to eat with the grownups, and left my frog in a brown paper bag outside our tent. During dinner, rain started to come down in buckets. When I returned to the tent I found the bag had blown over in the wind and my frog had run away. I was crushed and began to wail inconsolably.
Dad came running through the downpour to see what was the matter. Through blubbering tears, I explained that my frog had gotten away. I’ll never forget the moments that followed. Dad’s face went ashen. His eyes dimmed and lost focus. He went someplace else.
This incident haunted me for years. Where did you go? What happened? I wondered but could never bring myself to ask.
The pieces fell into place many years later when I interviewed my father for his life story.
My dad grew up as a peasant farmer in rural Korea during the Japanese occupation. His father died when he was seven years old and my father went out to work the fields, doing man’s work at a tender age, because that’s what you do in the Third World when you’re poor and hungry.
Dad had a little brother who was immensely gifted and radiant. Dad loved him with all his heart. During a particularly rough patch there was nothing to eat but frogs. But Dad had to work in the fields all day and wasn’t able to catch enough frogs to feed his little brother. His beloved brother starved to death in Dad’s arms.
At this point in our interview my father broke down and wept. This was the first and only time I ever saw my father cry. The stoic, dignified man I knew was replaced by a starving little boy, terrorized by war, racked with guilt, and more intimate with death than any little boy should ever be.
As my father wept, I recalled that camping trip decades earlier when I cried over a lost frog. To this day I burn with shame when I think what daggers of pain my tears must have caused this man.
I realized that Dad walks on a psychological tightrope. Keep moving forward, don’t look down, lest you fall into the pit of despair. I realized that those who survive war live the rest of their lives in hell.
Imagine what it’s like to live in a world where there aren’t enough calories to sustain human life. Men and women who survive that world are different. They’ve seen things that most of us have only read in books. You can a refugee out of the Third World but you can’t take the Third World out of his heart.
So when a Korean mother says “eat” the subtext is “so you don’t starve to death”. Now I finally understand why I was perpetually overfed and why my father would rage when we fussed about food.
Back to the camping trip and the lost frog. Later that night my dad returned with about a dozen frogs in a brown paper bag to replace the one I had lost. I don’t know where he found them or how long it took. He put the bag next to me without a word and climbed into his sleeping bag.
Dad lay close enough that I could feel his breath, but I’ve never felt so distant from another person. I didn’t know enough about the man to appreciate the horrors he must have relived, wandering in the dark, catching frogs, with a child’s cries ringing in his ears.
I’m forty five years old. In my entire life my dad has never told me he loves me. But he doesn’t need to. From catching frogs in the rain, to filling and over-filling my plate, to working grueling hours without complaint, he
shows me in a million different ways.
Acts of love are safer for Dad than words, because if he opens his mouth, he might scream.