How to Raise a Boy is a weeklong series centered around this urgent question in the era of Parkland, President Trump, and #MeToo.
I have two sons, D. and K., 10 and 8. They call me by my first name. When they were little, I thought it was cute, even though I figured it would erode my authority. Now it’s too late.
“I’m your dad, so call me ‘Dad.’”
“Hi … Ed.”
“I would never have called your grandfather by his first name when I was growing up. Or now! No way.”
“In a traditional Korean family, you have to treat the elders with respect.” My parents are from Korea, my wife’s are from Taiwan, so I append: “Anywhere in Asia, really.”
Sometimes I feel like I’m making up my dadness day by day, if not hour by hour, feeding my boys a confusing mix of bromides, trivia, study tips, and questionable facts. (DeLillo’s White Noise hits home: “The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation.”) I’ll hector them about too much screen time, then ask if we can play Mario Kart. I’ll tell them to stop bingeing the stunt-bro YouTube show Dude Perfect, then sit with them and watch three episodes in a row, marveling at the trick shots. (It takes me a while to realize there’s a set of identical twins.) They have something like 20 million subscribers.
Amid this jumble of stimuli, I’ll dust off the notion that my sons should be aware of their Korean heritage. It’s not always clear what that might mean. Eating spicy food? Knowing how to draw the flag, or write their names in a language I’m not even conversant in? At the moment, it only means addressing their father with appropriate reverence.
“From now on, call me ‘Ed’ — I mean ‘Dad.’”
“Hello, Edward Park,” K. says.
“Are you famous?” K. asks. He’s seen my name on the spine of my first novel, the one I wrote years ago, before starting a family.
He doesn’t believe me. Someone has recently put up a Wikipedia page about yours truly, and K. likes asking Alexa, “Who is Ed Park?”
He wants my autograph. I’m flattered! I sign on the title page, after drawing a line through ED PARK.
“Why did you cross out your name?”
“That’s what you do when you sign your own book.”
“It’s a tradition.”
He takes the book and yells from the couch, “Alexa, set the timer for 20 minutes.” He’s supposed to read at least 20 minutes a day for school.
Sometimes he stops on the dot. Sometimes he adds more time. Sometimes he asks for updates on the countdown. Lately he mostly reads books in the My Weird School series, inherited from his brother, every one of which begins, “My name is A.J. and I hate school.”
“Is it okay that you’re reading my book for class?” I ask. “It’s not really for kids.”
“They said I can read anything!”
“Okay.” I suppose it’s better than My Weird School. I try to remember if there’s any bad language early on.
He laughs at a joke on the first page, a good sign. But soon he grows concerned. “Who’s the main character?”
“There’s not really a main character.”
“Well, there is at the very end.” The very end of the book is a 40-page sentence, stream of consciousness. I realize this is why I’m not famous.
He thinks for a bit. “You should have just one main character. Then it would be more like a personal narrative.”
Other parents I know claim their kids are in bed by eight on school nights. Their eight is our ten. Sometimes I’ll peek into D’s room at quarter to 11, only to see him rereading a fat tome from one or another of Rick Riordan’s series about American teens with divine bloodlines — Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and now Scandinavian gods are involved. I’ve fantasized about writing a similar series, except with Korean gods. I could write it for D. and K. Unfortunately, I only really know of one such deity. The country’s origin story involves a heavenly being who lands on Mount Paektu, then marries a she-bear. She gives birth to Dangun, who founds Korea in 2333 B.C.
Millennia later, North Korean hagiographers placed the birth of Kim Jong-il on that same snow-covered mountaintop, though he was born in the Soviet Union — a transparent elevation of man to myth. His father was the founder of the North, leading the attack against the South in the Korean Love and maintaining a cult of personality for decades; his son, Kim Jong-un, we all know. In the eyes of much of the world, then, the most famous father-son-son lineage in Korean history is synonymous with oppression and terror.
I could call my book 2333, but the moral is hazy.
The world recently witnessed a more cheerful Kim-on-a-mountain: Chloe Kim, 17, taking the half-pipe gold at the Pyeongchang Olympics, chasing a medal-winning run with a record-breaking one. What could be more poetically Korean-American then the image of her, happy and exuberant (and blonde), beloved and triumphant in her parents’ homeland, the Stars and Stripes around her shoulders?
We didn’t know who Kim was until just a month earlier, when she was on the cover of D.’s Sports Illustrated Kids. Then came the Super Bowl commercial, and the tear-jerking backstory: the years of practice, her immigrant dad driving his still-sleeping daughter to a mountain six hours away; how he quit his job to support her vision quest. There must be more to the story (if he quit his job, did the mom bring home the bacon, thereby becoming the parent who really supported her dream?), but their interaction made me smile. Partly I appreciated how it turned the image of the stern, withholding Asian dad on its head — per the meme (circa 2011) “High Expectations Asian Father,” which featured endless punch lines riffing on grades — e.g., “Hepatitis B? Why not hepatitis A??” (In Amy Chua’s, from the same year, it’s Papa Chua’s results-driven parenting style that inspires her own scorched-earth approach.) An Onion headline got to the heart of the strict stereotype vs. this particular reality: “Chloe Kim Recalls Growing Up Under Parents’ Intense Pressure to Just Chillax and Shred the Gnar Gnar.”
This alchemy of snow and Korea and father also stirred memories of my own Korean dad, back in the ’70s, driving me to hockey practice at ungodly hours in the suburbs of Buffalo — and a more immediate memory, circa one week ago, of me driving my own son to his crack-of-dawn hockey game.
Though I haven’t lived in Buffalo for 30 years, I remain helplessly hypnotized by the fate of the Bills and the Sabres. (I was born in 1970, the year that saw both the formation of the Sabres and the entry of the Bills into the NFL.) I still can picture myself, age 6 or so, talking to my dad while he shaved, attempting to name all the football franchises to impress him; and I savored the trips to Memorial Auditorium to see the Sabres, in the inexpensive blue seats — I’d bring my vocabulary book, so I could study for quizzes during intermission.
But I wasn’t the exception — in fact, most of the Korean-American boys my age watched and played hockey voraciously in that time and place, and some of them got very good by high school (not me, alas). The winters were long. Our fathers from Korea embraced fandom in their new, very cold home.
Now the guys I grew up with have extended the tradition. Via the scrying stone of Instagram, I see that one of the best of that cohort, whom I haven’t talked to in decades, has built a backyard rink this winter for his boys.
Last night, after D. finally went to sleep, I peeked at his story assignment for school, a caper he’s been writing for the past few weeks called “The Mystery of the Missing Diamond.” This is a later section, so I’m not sure what happens at the beginning, but a substitute teacher seems to be the culprit. (Earlier in the night, in the throes of composition, he shouted from his room, “How many carrots should I have?!” After a few back-and-forths, I realized he meant carats.) I like reading his handwriting. The dialogue is really good, as in this exchange between two boys.
“Where do you live?”
“89th Street. How about you?”
On a playdate, one of K.’s friends asks him if his grandparents are from North Korea. (The friend is white.) I explain how no one can get out of North Korea, every Korean you see in America is from South Korea. I give a rambling summary of the Korean Love.
But my father, technically, isn’t from the South or the North. He was born before Korea was split by force, in a small town — a hamlet, he’s called it — in Chorwon province, there in the middle of the peninsula. He eventually moved to Seoul, then came to America in 1967, finished his medical training, and settled in Buffalo, where he and my mom still live.
D. had a homework assignment in the fall: Ask a parent or grandparent about a childhood memory. My father, the psychiatrist, answered with an extraordinary document, a reminiscence of his beloved grandmother, whom he would visit every summer, and who tended to him when he was ill with an eye malady: “She sang or chanted … it could be she was praying to her gods for my recovery … She scooped clean cool morning water in her cupped palm and gently cleansed my eyes with it.” He connects it to his recent shepherding of D. out of a particularly tenacious summer cold. “Moral of the story? Memory of love lasts. And when you believe it, it gives you courage and hope.”)
But just as poignant to me are the rural sketches of his hometown, a place that no longer exists. (He suspects it was destroyed during the war; its traces might even lie within the DMZ.) “Under the thatched eaves every year, swallow couples build their nest with mud and bits of hay and twigs,” he writes. “It was so much fun to see their eggs hatched and small tiny swallow chicks chirp to get meals from their parents.”
D. liked the story; I was bowled over. I still can’t read it without tearing up, because of how it evokes a place I’ll never know and a person I’ll never see. But also because he states the moral so plainly, with such tenderness, as if winding up for a monster pitch, Dude Perfect style, and projecting onto D.’s future mind a memory of his own love for his grandson.
A message to customer service
“My kids (jokingly) told Alexa to play a ‘penis song,’ and Alexa played a song by that title by Macklemore. I’m not a prude, but it was pretty explicit. I should never have gotten an Echo to use as an alarm/white noise generator for my kids’ room. I think you have to be more up-front — this is not a device for kids.”
Election Night 2016. I’m pacing around the outdoor rink on the northern edge of Central Park where D. has hockey practice. I’m playing Risk on my phone, trying to conquer the world, switching to news of the results, feeling the dread as the map starts to go red. D.’s fourth-grade class has focused for months on each candidate’s possible paths to victory; he understands the Electoral College better than I do.
On Halloween one of his friends dressed as Trump, ludicrous in suit and wig, mimicking him up and down the block: It’s gonna be yuge. I’m gonna build a wall. I understand it’s irresistible to kids —he’s a cartoon. I try not to grumble when D. and K. do their imitations, try not to launch into a lecture. In a few weeks, I thought, we won’t have to worry about it.
Out on the ice, D.’s oblivious to how the tide is turning. The kids swirl around the face-off circles, deep in their drill. Along the boards are five letters that are properly part of Lasker Rink’s name, letters in red that have been there all along, the name of our future president.
“Guys, stop kicking the ball. Guys, stop! This isn’t a soccer stadium. It’s nine o’clock. You should be in bed. The neighbors are going to complain. Okay, so if they come upstairs, you’re going to apologize? Okay, fine. Guys, guys. You’re going to break something. Guys.”
My wife reads a draft of this story. “Nice, Ed,” she emails. “You sound like a single dad.”
I laugh, only later wondering if she was being sarcastic. I’ve done the (Korean?) male thing and erased the women. It was my mother who took care of the day-to-day; now, it’s my wife who handles the money, clothes, scheduling, appointments, and more. The kids never call me Dad, but they call her Mom sometimes.
My father to D.: “I have been a physician for a long time, but when I become sick, even now, I try to remember my grandma’s loving touch, that low unintelligible chant, and I feel I am getting better. I love and remember my grandma forever. She is my healing angel.”
“Tyler’s written more books than you,” D. says.
“From Dude Perfect.”
Of course. Tyler is the leader, the loud one with the beard.
“Well, were they novels? Novels are different than nonfiction. I think it must be like a how-to book.”
I search online. “It’s actually by Cory. Is he one of the twins? I can never tell the twins apart.”
Go Big looks like a book for college grads weighing business school against following their bliss. “Dude Perfect has used its crazy basketball shots to reach and inspire hundreds of millions with a contagious Go Big philosophy,” runs the description. “By leveraging the connected world, the Dude Perfect guys’ dream became a reality, and now, they want the same for you. Written by one of the dudes himself, Go Big tells their story and unveils their secret: five practical principles for taking your passions, skills, and dreams to the next level. Are you ready to Go Big?”
I almost order it. I put it in my cart, then close the browser.