Before it was a shiny, gated, upper-middle-class suburb with good schools and a Mercedes dealership, in the early Eighties, Sugar Land was the wide blue sky of Texas and acres and acres of sugarcane owned by the Imperial Sugar Company for which the town was named. My parents searched for almost a year for a house to buy in that magical-sounding place where the cane was being tamed, but my mother and father stayed away from the neighborhoods too close to the prison, and did you know that even in magical-sounding places there are prisons?
The lady from the custom homes company sat with us in the air-conditioned trailer among gurgling Poland Springs coolers. My mother patted the space next to herself and I ran up to a book which was the size and thickness of a wedding album and paged through the samples with Mother’s hand on my small round child shoulder, and I could feel the lady’s eyes on me, curious and disapproving: she wasn’t used to having her customers incorporate their five-year-old children into serious deliberations. But that is what happens when you are the eldest in an immigrant family and your mother is gentle and dotes on you as if you are her whole world.
“Hyeseung-ah, kong-ju, princess,” my mother said. “What do you like for the wallpaper?” She had big eyes, my mother, like blinking saucers, and I look like her, big blinking saucers in a small round child head set jauntily on a thin neck. I blinked at the custom homes lady and her eyes fringed with Maybelline blinked back at me, and probably she didn’t think I had big eyes, but I did—I did not have small eyes just because I was Oriental. I saw in her empty blinking that she thought nothing of me, and did not see me, not because I was a child but because I was that kind of child, and I would carry those imprints forever in the book of my life.
“I like the flowers, Ummah,” I said in Korean, and I turned the page to a pattern of small tulips, and I had said that I liked the flowers because I knew that my mother liked flowers more than anything, and even then I was trying to please, especially her, and I had learned to do it well.
“Yes, that is nice and quiet.” And my mother stroked my hair, nicely and quietly. “If the pattern is too busy, it’ll look garish and maybe give me a headache.”
And my mother, father and I chose the color of the exterior of the house (raw umber), the carpet (low-pile in white, which would prove, unsurprisingly, defenseless against cherry Kool-Aid), the tile for the foyer and fireplace mantel (white marble), and the patterns of the wallpaper (the nice and quiet tulips in the kitchen; light peach dots in the master). Brand new house, brand new school for me, brand new spindly little oak sapling (one planted in the middle of the rectangular yard).
And a brand new mortgage, which coincided with my father’s regretful decision to quit his salaried engineering job in order to do what he felt he was meant to: heed the siren call of the American dollar. Enormously ambitious, idealistic, mono- and hypomanical, he is a man for whom it has always been Go Big or Go Home. In his mind, he is neither several-hundred-thousandaire nor millionaire: he is a titan of the billionaire variety—a Carnegie, a Bloomberg, a Buffett—and his decision to crawl towards this very distant mirage, dragging us with him through the much-traversed Desert of Broken Dreams, set off what was almost forty years of our family’s financial underperformance and serious domestic strife. My father’s emigration promise to my mother—“Five years and we’ll go back to Korea”—was never made good, of course, and the grand theme of my childhood was watching my mother play The Good Wife and support my father through dozens of failed businesses while The Life That Could Have Been slipped away.
When the Sugar Land house was finally built, the wallpaper hung, the fireplace mantel installed, and the carpet laid, we bade farewell to our previous home, a small second-floor apartment in the bustling neighborhood of Bellaire where every street had a strip mall and every strip mall was book-ended by an Exxon. A mortgage had to be tended to now, and with my freewheeling father working through my parents’ savings to start something big—always big—my mother sat the nursing boards, found a job at a hospital an hour away in Houston and, like that, she wasn’t around much anymore. My father, on the other hand, didn’t seem to work at all—or maybe he worked all the time, toiling, just not in the same way my mother did at a job outside the home. He soon took my little brother’s room as his office, and the two of us of kids would sit cross-legged on the floor there while our father chain-smoked Marlboros, flicking the ashes into empty Cup O’Noodles bowls. Surrounded by pads upon pads of paper and crumpled up napkins, Houston Chronicles, Yellow Pages, books with exclamatory titles like How to Make a Thousand Dollars a Day from Home!, Be a Millionaire Tomorrow!, or Don’t Be Left Behind: 10 Foolproof Ways to Get Rich Quick!? and Post-its, everything covered with numbers written in my father's decisive hand, he seemed a possessed man—a John Nash, an Alan Turing. Except my father was not establishing the fundamental principles of game theory or cracking the Nazi Code to save Western civilization: he was working to save some overwhelming part of himself. And in that smoky room, answers at the ready, I would conspire with my father.
“Hyeseung-ah, what do you think of these products?” My father would ask, pushing forward a stack of shiny catalogues.
I pulled up my metaphorical seat at my father’s metaphorical board table and flipped through the books advertising wrought iron railing, doorbells and knockers and other decorative wooden items.
I was his direct link to the American consumer psyche, his top consultant, his chief strategist.
I was also seven.
Pointing his lit cigarette at me, he’d say earnestly, “I’ll need your help on the sales calls.”
Puffed up, I’d reply, “Yes, Appah. I can help you sell these. I’ll hold everything in my purse.”
And I thought about how we would dress up, where we would drive, the men we would talk to, what the offices would look and smell like, and I knew I would help my father with his pitch and his English and that I knew I could do this well.
“Appah,” I’d begin my warning (not my first). “You need to make sure you buy only a few of the best samples at first, and when we go talk to customers, don’t ask for just a little, ask for what is fair.”
“Don’t beg because they always know when you are begging.”
Even at that young age, I knew that the business world was unstable, dog-eat-dog, us-versus them, purifying even, that the worthy would rise to the top and we were certainly worthwhile. But because I was still a child, after a period of intense strategizing, our conversations would invariably degrade into hilarity. My brother in diapers, seeing us laugh, would follow us into it not knowing why, and my father’s chortling, wherein he would call me ee-sseki, or little rascal, was an inconsistency in his otherwise serious and severe demeanor which, because makes its appearance so rarely, still fills me with tenderness, for it is also when I love him most.
In the end, despite all our planning, my father and I never went on any sales calls. The foot-tall wooden giraffes and cigar cases lined with red felt became the castaways of his big dreams, enjoying second lives as props in my plays or tchotchkes on the windowsill of my childhood room: Barbie, Ken, animal carved from Kenyan wood.
My father’s business was, simply, opening new businesses. In the Sugar Land years alone, there was the time he rented a stall in a huge warehouse called “the Bazaar” and sold Seiko watches, lacy undergarments, and cotton socks, of very good quality, with funny little cartoons and awkward English phrases like “I Am the Fun” stitched around the ankles. Another time, he peddled fake Guccis from a shack below a stretch of unpaved two-lane farm-to-market road; two or three purses, a few Velcro wallets a day, and then, if there was a sale before we’d had lunch, he’d take the cash, go out to the road, and looking both ways, dash across the thoroughfare through the honking Chevys to Granny’s Chicken on the other side. And yet another time, my father started a recycling business, accumulating hundreds of pounds of colored plastic shards and storing the heap in a garage-sized unit in an outdoor storage facility. And of course there were more scrap businesses than I could count, the backside of the poor family station wagon never quite regaining its buoyancy after towing old transmissions all around southern Texas.
Needless to say, my father’s businesses were seldom more than just schemes—and short-lived ones at that. This isn’t to say he ever did anything illegal; his business plans just didn’t seem, even then from my young perspective, to be very business-like. As for my father’s ambition, if he had been a Ponzi or running a pyramid scheme, he might have enjoyed more success. How many times did we hear, think, say, or shout Success in our barely furnished house in Sugar Land? Success: so easy to envision, but so hard to recognize when it might appear, as it sometimes does, in a different guise. Now, near the end of my father’s life, to end it with a bang—Success!—is the same as to end it with a whimper: all those years of yearning and ambition were also years of our collective sacrifice and failure. The dark side of perseverance is awe-inducing thick-headedness: at best, there are wounds you inflict on yourself; at worst, the damage you cause others, and perspective all depends on how romantic poverty is to you. At our doorstep, anyway, Hopelessness and her twin sister Pity were more frequent visitors than their glitzier sister Success, who, frankly, was a withholding bitch.
And soon, my father’s low voice speaking strange words on the phone—“aluminum fin tubes,” “scrap metal”—became the white noise of my childhood, and I forged ahead with plans of my own, dressing up my brother in a purple dress whereby he would transform into my more beloved sister Stephanie, who didn’t mind playing Barbies: she was just happy to be around me.
After the Bazaar and the fake Gucci watches and the plastic shards, there was the factory. In an industrial park in West Houston out near Katy, my father soon built a warehouse of steel, wood and concrete on a one-and-a-half-acre plot of land among dozens of other sites just like it.
My father forgot to smoke when he began the factory: no time. He was working fourteen-, fifteen-hour days, and when I left for school in the morning, he would still be asleep in bed. Soon my mother took an earlier shift at the hospital so she could be home in the evenings now that my father was getting home close to dawn.
Never a good sleeper, I would awake from dark sleep as the unobliging faucet in the utility room at the other end of the house turned counterclockwise with a squeal. Hearing the subdued middle-of-the-night tones of my parents’ voices, I’d get up and, bleary-eyed, pad to the living room in my underwear. I would stand swaying a little against my mother and blinking groggily, watch my father scrub his hands and arms with a scratchy cake of green Lava soap, eyes closed, while he’d grouse, “the low prices of aluminum,” “the lazy workers.”
And then one night the faucet groaned and I heard my mother's frightened screech when my father had arrived home with his chest torn up from scalding water that had shot out of a fired aluminum fin tube when he’d thrown it, like a javelin, into the bed of the truck.
“Hyeseung-ah, get me the Silvadene and gauze from Ummah’s bathroom,” my mother called to me as she hunched over my father who lay prostrate on the living room floor with his shirt off. His breaths were ragged, and my mother worked quickly and with focus. A burn is pink at its start, but my mother, the nurse, already saw in the skin the portents of scars.
Right after the accident, my father had applied ice from the Igloo onto his left pectoral and continued working for three more hours, at which point his breath had gone completely ragged and there was no more energy to move thirty-pound aluminum ingots, only strength enough to drop off the workers after buying them Big Macs and Cokes at McDonald’s.
When my father bought the parcel of land, the park was covered in white limestone rocks the size of oyster shells, and despite the cover they provided, giant weeds sprung up with obstinacy from tiny crevices between the rocks, and their hairy, cruciferous stems, thick as my legs, had to be axed down. On the four corners of the site, near the wire fences, stood a wall of heavy brush, an almost solid mass of closely intertwined branches and leaves. In its cool darkness, thick-coiled snakes slept complacently on their eggs as my father’s men, a few yards from them, doggedly toiled like a chain-gang and without shade in the Texas sun for five dollars an hour.
Father Kowalski, the priest from our church, came by and called me “Swan Neck” as he always did, and sprinkled holy water on the factory’s concrete foundation which my father had poured by the determined strength of his own hands and back. Beyond this Catholic assurance of success, we also had positive feng shui: the entrance to the factory faced east—where everything begins. In the pivot of the L-shaped warehouse, the steel furnace stood, the workhorse of the whole venture and my father’s Minervan mindspring. When alive, it sounded interminably of fire and efficiency. In it, cans, tubes and other industrial scrap material high in aluminum content were melted down at 4,000-degrees Fahrenheit until all was transformed into silvery molten syrup which was then poured into Toblerone-shaped molds. After the liquid had cooled on the rocks, the workers would pick up the molds and lash them against the cement until there was a dull pop as the ingot divorced the confines of the tray like a frozen pound cake from its tin. Everyday, regardless of the heat, my father and the men wore long pants and shirts to head off sparks, and when chopping off the curly rogue tendrils which had formed when the hot syrup was poured into the molds, two pairs of gloves.
And every night that he was at the factory, without exception, my mother took my father a full Korean dinner. A bit before seven, after our own dinner had been cleared away at home, my mother would take out the round pa chim, a dark lacquered serving tray which had been a wedding gift years ago in Seoul, and arranged on it small covered dishes filled with spinach, tofu, bean sprouts, kim chee, and oily mackerel, the same we’d eaten for dinner except that my mother had put aside these portions for my father before giving us any. His rice bowl, which had also been filled before any of ours, was also waiting, topped with a stainless steel lid and then wrapped with care in a thick yellow towel as if the small pot were a Fabergé egg.
Once the dinner dishes were drying on the rack, my mother, my brother and I would pile into the van, which my father had bought used some time before in order to transport his business wares, and which had long replaced the poor wagon. Because I was older than my brother, I sat in the back, where there were no real seats, and had to grip random handles which stuck out like bony elbows from dusty dark holes. My whole body would tense in anticipation of the long ride during which the feast for my father would lay precariously on my lap, there being no other place to wedge the pa chim. As my mother drove the highways and byways, I instinctively grabbed the window handles as we rounded corners or stopped short at lights. Only sometimes did any sauce or marinade drip out of a covered dish and off the slick of the tray onto my shorts; I had become so talented at this balancing routine that I could even fall half-asleep sitting up while rotating the tray around on my lap, moving the cool bowls to where the hot ones had been in a strategic dance so that my exposed thighs wouldn’t get burned.
The crackling sound of the van’s tires on limestone rocks as we entered the warehouse district would set me awake. There, the ground was brittle and unsmooth, and both my brother and I had at some time or another suffered shin splints from a long day of hide-and-seek. The chalky white dust of the road wafted up from the ground, forcing us to roll up the windows and sit in the close air of the van for a few minutes. Turning into the open gates, the charcoal smoke of the furnace greeted us as it rose in salutatory waves from the steel-corrugated roof into an even blacker sky. Through the dark brush and trees, I could spy the workings of the factory, and the orange fire of the black oven pulsed—strongly, then weakly, then strongly again—as if communicating with the world in Morse Code.
My mother would park the van next to my father’s Ford 250-XLT Lariat, which my parents had paid for by taking out a $25,000 loan from the bank (BMW money for them and about a quarter of what they’d paid for our house in Sugar Land). It sat asleep under the one big tree which had escaped my father’s annihilation: a large magnolia, stately despite its mess of heavy branches grazing the ground. As we disembarked from the van, a small yellow light would appear low in the distance and tick back and forth, growing steadily larger as it approached: my father’s lantern. From the aperture of the fire, he would emerge with a mask of sweaty soot on his face and clothes wet through with perspiration, looking like a dog who had been thrown without warning into water for the first time and told to swim. He would open the Igloo in the back of the Ford and pour the cold water which had been the ice over his hands to wash them, and then take off his stained shirt and use it as a rag to wipe his face, and back then, because these were the kinds of thoughts which lived in my mind, I said to myself, as Veronica wiped the face of Jesus on the road to Golgotha. At that moment of his semi-nakedness, even in the half-light, I could see that my father’s chest had darkened, no sign of the familiar intellectual white softness of it remaining, and he appeared an exotic imposter to our family.
The four of us would sit in the truck bed under the lamp which my father tied to a branch above us and whose orb attracted a host of mosquitoes, but the light was necessary for my father to eat. My mother would make quiet conversation as his sinewy arms methodically collected bits from plate to mouth and plate to mouth with the silver chopsticks she had earlier swaddled in a paper towel. I would watch my father’s black shadow move on the greyish stones below us as it nodded up and down, betraying his fatigue. While he ate, my brother and I would go round to one of the ice buckets near the factory. There was always a lot of Big Red or some soda which my mother didn’t let us drink at home, but we were in different territory now and we hazarded surreptitious swigs from the heavy liter bottles, the sweet red liquid going up our noses and dribbling down the front of our throats in a long scarlet trail.
Having regained some strength thanks to the meal, my father would speak to my brother and me, and if he were in a good mood, I’d call him Junkyard Dog. The disrespectful sobriquet made him laugh and curse us laughingly—ee-sseki-ya, you little rascal—but my mother resented my joking. By then, it would be time to leave: the bowls were empty, and my father’s breath, which would never again smell like cigarettes, flowered instead into clouds of garlic and bean paste. Now that he’d eaten, it would be time to go to McDonald’s for José and Mike, and my mother would nod, with prostration and acceptance which in those days she did not hide well. My brother and I would pile back into the van, and I knew he’d fall asleep the minute we were out of the gates of the park. As I situated myself, bracing for the long trip back to Sugar Land, I would look out the window, back at my father, the Vulcan in the darkness. Black and anonymous, he stood in powerful akimbo, looking towards us and then back, to his small world of fire and steel, as the van crackled away on the rocks.