My Father as a Young Man
Looking at photos of my overbearing father in university and the Korean army, he seemed a lot like, well, me! Awkward, solitary, bewildered, out of place, not strong: the very traits he despises me for and takes advantage of. He had none of the things a young man would want, with no prospect of ever gaining them. Nor did he have any sort of idealism, altruism, or spirituality. Despite his inadequacy for material success, he is coarse and shallow and thinks a real man’s purpose is to be someone in the world and gain money and power. Also, that it’s OK to step on people to do so if they can’t hurt him back.
In photos with other people, he looks disconnected and out of sync, looking like he has nothing in common with them. Despite the devastation, poverty, and backwardness of 1950s to 70s Korea, the others look carefree, vibrant, and unapologetically, unashamedly themselves. They fit into the time and place, or were of that time and place. Not my father. Like an unsmiling, pre-mohawk, Korean Travis Bickle, he was a misfit, an odd duck. I can’t see him having any meaningful connection or interaction with his classmates, military members, coworkers, or neighbors, and I never met any friends from his past.
This man seemed to have gained confidence, whether justified or not, from his 2 year military stint. Decades later, his self-regard rose further from moderate career success starting in his 50s, when I was already in my 20s. He was a “company man” and proud to be one, devotedly toiling for senseless, monolithic institutions that kept him in the rank and file. With age he increasingly resembled a “man of substance” and “pillar of the community”. He probably really thought he was such because he worked to his [limited] ability and didn’t drink, smoke, gamble, or womanize.
But he always had that stark inhumanity, social blindness, low-mindedness, sadism, and being out of sync. In the past decade or so, people seem to dismiss it as part of being elderly, although other Korean elders aren’t like him despite having gone through similar poverty. On the other side of the coin was an odd naivete and simplistic nature, which weren’t really saving graces.
He’s in his 80s and nearing the end of his life. He didn’t understand himself, others, or the world. With little sense of his own, this man lived his life according to lies promulgated by not-benevolent authorities, and he even made sure to instill those lies into his offspring.