My Father’s Stories
Don Ha (1932-2015)
The thing I will always remember the most about my father is what a wonderful storyteller he was. He had a story for everything and there was always a message. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always meaningful.
When I was little, I once came home from school all beat up and bruised. And my Dad asked me what happened. I said some other kid called me a chink and beat me up. My Dad looked at me and said, “let me tell you a story.”
“Once there was a widow who was bringing food home to her children when she ran into a tiger who said “give me some of your food and I won’t eat you.” So the woman did that. But the tiger kept following and he kept saying ‘give me some of your food and I won’t eat you. So she kept giving the tiger all her food until finally she had no more food. And the tiger ate her. Your bully is the tiger, and if you don’t fight back then he will never stop.”
"But Dad! I don't know how to fight!"
And he said, “If someone hits you once, you hit them back 10 times harder!”
Maybe this was not such a good advice because after that my parents kept getting phone calls from school. I was always in the principal’s office for fighting. But my Dad never yelled at me for that. He would be angry and punish me if I got a B on a test, but never for fighting.
Until one day I got into a fight with big Maria. She was very big. Too big. And I got beat up badly. And my Dad said. “Hmmm, I forgot to tell you the rest of that tiger story. You see, after the tiger ate up the widow, he dressed in her clothing and went to her house to eat up her children. But the children saw the tiger’s tail and they ran up the tree, and the tiger tried to climb the tree, so the children prayed for help and then a rope came down from Heaven. Then they climbed into the sky to become the sun and moon.”
I was a little bit confused about what this had to do with big Maria until my Dad said, “Sometimes you have to run away.”
My Dad was a very smart man. He believed deeply in the importance of education. He graduated from Keio University in Tokyo Japan and was studying for his PhD at Georgia Tech. He almost completed it but with a young family to support he ended up having to take a job offer in New York instead.
New York City is such a tough place especially during the 1970s. Working in corporate America is hard when you are an immigrant. My Dad would tell me so many stories about how hard it was to be an Asian person trying to succeed in America. He would remind me that we have to work ten times harder, be ten times smarter in order to succeed. And even then, sometimes it is just not enough. Because my Dad was the casualty of corporate racism, instead of going back into the business world, he became a social worker and worked for the rights of Korean Americans in NYC. He fought for the rights of those who couldn't fight for themselves. It is because of my Dad and his sense of moral justice that I became a lawyer.
My Dad loved his adopted country. He truly believed in America and the American Dream. Even when faced with the worst, he would always look for the best. The silver lining, the moral, the lesson to learn.
My Dad understood that being both Korean and American would be hard at times for his children. He didn’t want his children to forget their Korean side. So he shared all of his stories about growing up in Korea. He told us about a world so very different from our own experience. About war and hunger and running away at a young age to escape the communist recruiters. These stories reminded us who we are and where we come from. A reminder of our heritage. It was my father’s stories that made me rediscover my pride and love of who I am - a proud Korean American.
My father was also a great writer. He would write every single day. Pen and paper. Everything handwritten. He published 3 books in Korea and many many articles for several different Korean newspapers. He also became a columnist for the Korea Times. He wrote about so many things from social injustices that happened in this country that he loved, to teaching Korean immigrants the modern day “slang” of the times. He was not only a passionate write, he was a prolific one. He wrote so much. I was always so curious to read what he wrote, but I cannot read Korean very well. So I would sit and try really hard to read his articles. He would laugh and tell me a story.
“Once there was a man who did not know how to read. He was ashamed of it so he would pretend he could read by always carrying a book and staring intently at the pages and muttering something under his breath. One day, a scholarly man watched him curiously. He was very interested to know what this man was reading so seriously. So he stood very close and he heard him say – the white part is paper and the black part is ink, the white part is paper and the black part is ink.”
Because he knew how hard it was to get a book publishing deal in the US, he was so proud and happy when I got a 3 book deal from HarperCollins. When I was writing my books, he was so supportive of me. When I needed research on Korean history for my books, my father brought me Korean history books from everywhere he could. He even got me books from Korea! I was so excited except that they were all in Korean. I could only stare at the pictures. So he translated all 3 books for me himself. He used big post its so that his handwritten translation notes are on every page of these books. They are now my greatest treasure. Proof of how much my father supported and loved me. How much he wanted me to succeed.
The last story he shared with me before his stroke took away his ability to talk was one he wanted me to write into a book. It was about a remote train station deep in the rural mountains of Korea. Where a stationmaster sits and waits for a train that comes only once a day. Sometimes a few people get off and disappear into the mountains. Sometimes nobody gets off, but always the stationmaster is there. Every day. He waits. Everyday. For years. He is always there. Until one day, he is gone.
What happened? I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You’re the storyteller now. You write the story. That is your job.”
Yes, that’s my job now. I am my father’s daughter. I too am a writer and a storyteller. I will continue telling my father’s stories for him. But my father is not gone. He is here in my heart and in my memory. His stories are all there. I will treasure them forever. And I will pass them on to my children so they can always remember their grandfather.