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Mo-Gyung Rhim

My house was one of silence. But please don't misunderstand. We had our share of yelling, laughing, and crying. With three children, the house was almost never void of someone's noise—a piano lesson to prepare for, a drum beating out the melody of the piano or my mother on the phone in the kitchen speaking rapidly at such a pace that her voice becomes a humming of tones going up and down fluctuating with natural rhythm of her natural tongue. My family was never in want of noise, but for most of my life, we lived in silence. Silence is not simply the lack of sound, but it goes deeper into the lack of information, the lack of knowledge, and the tense anticipation of waiting for something to really listen to.

My parents are immigrants from the old school ways—a different time, a different place. Dinners were quiet—a ritual to be observed and practiced. The symbolic silence at the dinner table and the strictness with which it was observed in our younger years is more symbolic of the silence surrounding my parents' lives and our understanding of their pasts than it might seem. Silence at dinner is not actually a strict cultural ritual, but to my father, sitting at the head of the table, there was never a need to talk. Simply, eating was an action to be performed, not spoken. My parents' approach to talking about themselves was much the same as it was towards dinner—they simply didn't see a need to talk about their lives or past memories. Parenting was something that was supposed to be done directly through action and through stern lectures that precisely pinpointed mistakes and ways to improve. It wasn't so much that they gave their three kids the silent treatment for more than 20 years, but it was that there was never a genuine concern with telling them anything that did not pertain directly to raising their children. Thus, it ended up that my parents were silent about most things except the more mundane everyday chores of parenting. My parents did not realize that what my siblings and I needed most from them was to fill in the spaces of question marks.

For so many years, information that most would learn in elementary school was uncharted territory for the three kids in my family. This particular silence left me unsatisfied to say the least. I felt as though I could not understand myself: who I was, where I came from, what constructed the identity that I did not know what to do with. Being a child of a first generation American brought me to a weird place of limbo where I could not fully reconcile being Korean with being American. Without being able to internalize my parents' memories I felt as though I could not remember my own identity in terms of being a hyphenated American. I could not remember my Korean side.

On a quest for some deeper and grander understanding of my identity and my history, I dedicated the middle part of my life to prying information out of my parents. At the age of nine I learned my parents full, correct names. There is something that happens when you realize that your father's name isn't actually "John;" something happens when you realize that Soo Woo and John are not your parents standing before you. At ten I found out that my parents immigrated to Los Angeles at the old age of 27. At fifteen I learned that my father was not always a Corporate Finance expert. When I was sixteen I realized he had another life before this family and before this career. He was a writer and a good one too apparently. I learned that he went to college in Korea and earned a bachelor's degree in journalism. Next, a job at the second largest newspaper in Korea. A fight with an editor. A punch throw. A job lost. A life lost. Two tickets to America with the first born on the way. At seventeen my father revealed a tryst with the KCIA, his grand life traveling as a hobo, his dangerous stunts. At eighteen I found out that my sister had spent a year of her life in Korea when she was an infant while my parents worked in LA. A year of her life that was once lost to me, was gained back simply because I knew. I believed more than ever that it was essential for me to know my parents' stories. It was necessary for me if I was ever to move from this static place of being born of two people with no memory and being thrust into making my own. How could I start when the two people who I sprang from gave me nothing to start with?

Even with my treasure chest of secrets pried out with the delicacy of dentistry, I still needed to know more. I don't know if it was the emptiness of the house after children had left to pursue the dreams he wanted them to find and the noiselessness that allowed him the space to breathe, to think, to remember, but it was on a completely unexpected day that I met my father. Sitting in the kitchen after a not so particularly eventful or meaningful lunch on a casual and unsuspecting Sunday afternoon, my sister (back from college) and I sat a little while longer after the dishes had been moved. The three of us began talking about everything—school, jobs, sports. Even though I usually remember the precise and repetitive line of questioning that it usually took to pick out the memories that my parents seemed to guard as closely as secrets, I cannot recall how we started talking on this one particular subject that I had honestly never thought to ask about: my grandfather.

To my father, his father is a great source of pride, admiration and respect. I could always sense from a young age the genuine emotion that flowed from my father to his. On that day, my sister asked something about how my grandfather was doing in Korea. My father, never one to answer a question directly, launched into a series of stories and memories that he has of his childhood and his father. My sister and I listened with rapt attention as most people do when listening to my father tell stories that seem so rare and this day he seemed to be almost giddy with remembering and with telling too. Then a pause.

My father began to cry. This wasn't the polite crying, dab the corner of your eyes, squeeze a couple drops out for show kind of crying. They were sobs—soul shredding, body shaking, rip your hair out, rupturing sobs. To this day, that remains the single time that my father has ever cried in the presence of one of his children. The moment was more dramatic than a Lifetime movie. The air was quiet and we were still. Even my father was almost motionless and noiseless as only his shoulders shook and his head bobbed up and down a little. Both my sister and I were stunned into complete shock, awe and amazement at what those wet streaks were running down his face. It was all so foreign to us.

We were silent.

My father explained quite simply that he thought of his father dying. That single thought produced this reaction. Quietly he got up and left the kitchen table to retreat into his study, his leaving in silence and my realization of what he had just revealed was calming somehow. That day it didn't matter that my father was willing to say only a couple of words of soft explanation. His silence that day did not leave me unsatisfied. It's not a story of how my father finally came to reveal himself to me in a touching, detailed account of his life. It was a handful of memories and a single serving of tears. But I felt fulfilled by that encounter. I learned who my father was at the core of things.

He is simply a man who loves his father.

And that was enough.


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