Why My Dad Doesn't Brag

A grateful son reflects on the sacrifices made by his Korean parents.

July/August 1997

Reading time min

Why My Dad Doesn't Brag

Illustration: Linda Helton

Exams are over, and I'm home. I brought with me some souvenirs for my dad, including a Stanford T-shirt, a coffee mug and a sticker for his car. The sticker says: "Proud Stanford Parent."

My dad wears the shirt and pours milk in his mug every morning, but he won't put the sticker on his Taurus. I ask him why. He responds, "I don't want to brag."

That's when I realize that the fact I go to Stanford is a much bigger deal to him than to me.

You see, my parents are Korean and have always been pressured by family, friends and even co-workers to produce "successful" children. At our New Year's celebrations, my aunts and uncles gather at my grandfather's house. At the dinner table, they eat dumpling soup and compare their children's GPAs. They perform the ritual of bowing to the elders in traditional costume and discuss the value of high school extracurriculars. At work, in the garment manufacturing industry in Koreatown, all of my parents' business associates know where I go to school and what my SAT scores were.

For many Asian parents, their children's admission into a good school is one of the most important moments of their lives. Read any Korean newspaper; good students get the star treatment, and their bios show up next to gossip about Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Only the star students' mothers get more respect. If the reporters could have gotten a quote from my mother's uterus, trust me, they would have.

Asian parents are often criticized for this "obsession" with ivy-covered walls. Supposedly all they care about is success and status. But it's more complicated than that. My parents, for example, are new to this country, and they're still trying to find their place here. They've taken adult-education courses on civics and practiced their verb tenses, but sometimes they wonder if they really fit in.

For them, acceptance to a place like Stanford is a form of validation--something that makes them feel less like members of a minority. They have something in common with CEOs and cabinet members; they move closer to mainstream society.

And this explains the kind of admiration and respect that people like my parents get from other Korean parents. A child's entrance into, say, Harvard or Stanford neatly proves the family's "success" and provides a feeling of satisfaction.

But even so, my dad, being so humble, doesn't want to "brag." Which prompts me to wonder, "Why not?"

Like many other immigrants, my parents spent most of their lives as part of an underclass. They dealt with every disadvantage so that my sisters and I could have every opportunity. They worked 70-hour weeks so I didn't have to earn money during high school; I could just study. They struggled so we could afford a place in a nice part of town. I didn't have a language barrier; I got A's in English. No one treated me badly because of my skin color. I had no culture shock; sitcoms like The Facts of Life taught me all there was to know.

In a sense, my parents did all the plowing of the tough soil so I could simply harvest the fruits of their labor. My going to Stanford is as much a part of their achievement as it is mine. It makes sense that they should enjoy it and be proud of themselves.

During every guilty lunch I while away in White Plaza, and in every weekend I spend partying more than I should, I remember that these luxuries have been made possible by my parents' past and ongoing sacrifices and hard work.

In the end, I think the bumper sticker is not about me at all. It's about them. That's why I want to grab a thick black marker and change it to say, "Proud Stanford Son." Which, as soon as I get a car, I might put on my own rear fender.

Sam Park, a senior from Torrance, Calif., is majoring in English.


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