I don’t know if my father was handsome. It’s not something I ever seriously pondered until one day not long ago, when I found myself talking with someone about the old photos I’d found of my parents.
Growing up, I always thought my mom was a beautiful woman. She was a homecoming queen in high school, pursued by all the ruggedly handsome white boys in her New Jersey suburb. She was there in the photos I found, her blonde hair perfectly coiffed, a sparkling tiara upon her head. The photos were old, almost but not quite fully in color, yet her bright blue eyes sparkled through.
My father, though—I had never thought much about his attractiveness. So when it came up—when my friend asked, Was your father good-looking?—I had no answer. I don’t know, I said. He kind of just looked like another East Asian man.
Once, when I was younger, I did ask my white grandmother if she thought my father was handsome. “Oh my gawsh, yes!” she exclaimed, New Jersey accent boldly returning in her excitement. My mom would later tell me this was false; her parents did not find my father handsome at the time, but viewed him as more acceptable than the black and brown men she had dated before him. Finding him handsome came later—after grandchildren; after success.
I’ve been thinking about how my parents met, and how unlikely it was that my Korean father caught the eye of my stereotypically “all-American” mom. Even now, forty years after they met, a partnership like theirs is still rare. The cutting remarks they heard have not entirely disappeared; queries my mother fielded about my father’s manhood from the white people around them still flicker in shows like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and in films like The Hangover . Korean ahjussis still grunt in disapproval over their sons abandoning Korean blood quantum in favor of people Not Like Them, and therefore inferior.
I often reflect on how improbable it was that in a random New Jersey hospital in the early 1970s, my father was the one who caught my mother’s eye. I imagine them then: My father, overwhelmed by the newness of America, perhaps still longing for the odd comfort of the decimated homeland he had left; my mother, the Nurse Chief of Staff of the hospital, an ambitious, no-bullshit woman whose hard exterior belied a deeply emotional and giving nature. What was their first meeting like?
I never got the full story from my father, who died when I was thirteen. Even before his death, he was a man of few words and seemingly fewer emotions. I have only ever been able to understand their courtship from the perspective of my mother, a white woman in love with an Asian man at a time when a war in Southeast Asia raged and the only knowledge the average American had of Korea were fleeting memories of newsreels, battles of a forgotten war.
photo courtesy of the author
I have pressed my mother on this: What did she see when she saw my father? What did she see that I can’t see now? She always says the same thing: “He was handsome, and when I saw him, I knew I wanted him.” But to me, this doesn’t seem like enough. There had to be something more, I always think, so unexpected was their love.
My father, who was pursuing a medical career, had landed in New Jersey after a distant relative sponsored his visa. He predated, by several years, the influx of Koreans who would later make parts of Jersey—Palisades Park, Fort Lee—their home. Back then my father was a stranger, adrift with only his education and a too-large lab coat. He didn’t know anyone in the area; he barely spoke English. Once he was more fluent in English, he could be very charming, but my mother had no way of picking up on that charm when she first met him at the hospital.
“He said the word hopefully as ‘hopely,’” she has told me, many times. “After our first date, he said, ‘Hopely we can do this again!’”
That word—and her mimicking of his English—became a long-running joke for her. It was one way she revealed her affection for him while also noting his otherness.
I can picture my father, overwhelmed by the prospect of this white woman, this symbol of America, the homecoming queen herself, approaching him—maybe mocking him, but wanting to spend time with him, too. At the time, he was barely bilingual. They couldn’t converse easily, and she had no idea if he even had a good personality.
What was at the root of the love my mother says she felt at first sight? I’ve long wondered whether she was seduced by his difference, the exotic contrast to her own Polish and Hungarian roots. Asia and Asian people had always been fascinating to her. As a child, nuns at her Catholic school had told her that “the ‘Yellow People’ would inherit the earth,” and that had stuck with her. As a young woman she was drawn to novels by James Clavell about “the Orient”; to exploring the limited Asian cuisines on offer near her home.
photo courtesy of the author
Perhaps she was thinking of all of these things when she met and decided to pursue him, a man who seemed to embody the world, the culture that had always fascinated her. The way my mother tells it, their beginning was all her: the first approach, the first moves, their first date. As Nurse Chief of Staff, she had a say in which doctors worked on which floors. She had wondered about him, had gazed at him, and so assigned him to her floor. She arranged the schedule so he would have to check in with her about patients. She often teased him about his broken English, and he would blush and nod and push through with his work. She’d ask him to go outside for smoke breaks with her. He praised the famous coffee she made in the break room, the coffee that doctors from other floors would come down to drink. My mother never wavered, entranced as she was by this man and perhaps by what he represented: a country she knew nothing of, a world she could barely understand. He taught her Korean words like “halmeoni” and “umma,” words my mom clumsily tried to use when she met his family. Later, he introduced her to to Korean foods she loved, like the pancakes no one would ever give her the exact recipe for.
She brought him home to meet my grandparents, a white, working-class couple: my grandfather, a serious-looking but inwardly jolly man with a large appetite; and my grandmother, a vivacious and sociable woman who, at eighty-nine this year, still laughs with uproarious force. Years later, after my parents were married and had children, my father and my grandfather would become best friends. But throughout that first dinner, my father stammered in his uneven English, never revealing that he hated roast turkey (the meal my grandmother had decided to cook). He was certainly not handsome to my grandparents in that moment. But he was a doctor, and kind, and clearly in love with my mother. For them, that was enough.
“Hopely I can see them again,” he told my mother afterwards.
“Hopefully, you mean,” she said. “And yes, hopefully we’ll eat with them again soon.”
Because my father is dead, there are things about him, about my parents’ marriage, that I’ll never fully understand. All I have left of him are scattered photos and videos. I still don’t know if he was handsome. When I look at him in the pictures I’ve found, I see my skin tone, my eyes, my nose—all the things that, as a younger person, made me feel unattractive. At other angles, though, I can see his strength. He possessed a confidence I have never had, and that, perhaps, was the source of his attraction.
I still believe that for my mom, it might have been even simpler, especially when they first met: My father was different from anyone she’d ever seen or loved before, and that was what she saw and what she wanted.
I have spent a lifetime confused about this—about how a person could feel drawn to someone, desire their otherness, yet still find genuine love and devotion buried within the fascination. My mother has never been able to explore this with me, no matter how often I’ve asked. To her, love was love, no matter the catalyst. I wrestle alone with interpreting the stories she has told me about their love, her attraction to him, and my existence as a product of their unlikely marriage.
My parents’ life together ended in a place much like the one where it first began. When I imagine their last meeting, I can see my mother walking into a hospital, determined to catch a glimpse of the man she loves. She glides through flocks of nurses, across a floor reflecting the fluorescent light fixtures, into a small room. Once upon a time, seeing my father in the hospital where they both worked brought her the greatest joy. As the whirring of machines tie him to what remains of his life, he is handsome to her even now—no matter that the chemo has taken his hair and the cancer has taken his weight, his voice, his lucidity. She looks at him, still in love, still seeing something wonderful in his face, but she also knows she has lost him. I see her sitting beside him after the ventilator is turned off, holding his hands the same way she used to during their smoke breaks, saying goodbye. Thinking, Hopely I’ll see you again.