I was riding my scooter down K street in Washington D.C., when I caught a glimpse of myself in the enormous glass doors of what passes for skyscrapers in this city. I did not like what I saw:
Gray socks pulled up past my ankles.
Leather slip on shoes.
And plaid cargo shorts.
I hadn’t dressed like this on purpose, as a kind of ironic hipster fashion statement. Had it been, I would have worn suspenders to complete the look. No, this was just the way I had chosen to go out that afternoon. And a stunning realization hit me like a ton of bricks, a realization that had been years in the making – I had officially become my father. Because this is exactly how he dressed when I was a kid.
I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to make some sense of it all. I had not always dressed like this. Although I was never overly fashion conscience, I did dress well in the past. I never wore designer brands or anything, but I could make clothes from Old Navy and Costco work remarkably well. A few years ago, I definitely would have never stepped out the way that I had that afternoon, and especially not in a scooter, for all the world to see.
The more I thought about it though, once I got over the initial shock at my deteriorating fashion sense, I realized that it didn’t really bother me. I no longer cared how I dressed, and whether or not it was appropriate to wear gray ankle socks with slip on shoes and shorts. Fashion had never been very high on my list of priorities, and now it had dropped off the map completely. Now my priorities almost completely focused on my family, providing for them, trying to be a good father and teacher and friend and counselor and rule-enforcer. And without my knowing, that new set of priorities had pushed my fashion sense off the edge of a cliff. I wasn’t a slob, not really. I just had become one because my priorities had shifted so dramatically from when I was younger. So a few people see me on the street and chortle at my expense. Whatever. I have bigger fish to fry, or kids to raise, as it were.
This initially gave me some peace of mind. But then it made me very sad.
You see, I was often embarrassed of my father for the same reasons. He dressed the exact same way that I dress now, without any discernible sense of fashion. It was just goofy to me to see him wearing sandals with socks, shorts and a wifebeater undershirt (wow…that is a terrible name for a kind of shirt). I couldn’t understand how a self-respecting adult could dress like that. And this was not the only time I was embarrassed by what my father would do.
He also delivered furniture for a living, and so drove a delivery truck that was covered in the most obscene graffiti that you had ever seen. Not the pretty kind that is a form of modern art, but terrible expressions that described vulgar human body parts and functions. I remember riding with him in that truck for deliveries, people screaming obscenities at him as he double-parked to deliver a sleeper sofa far too heavy for his relatively small frame. And the worst was when he would drive me to school, and I would sheepishly ask him to drop me off two blocks before my junior high so that no one would see me come out of that truck. I hate to admit it, but I was at times embarrassed of him – the way he dressed, and what he drove.
But I realize now that that the exact same process that is taking place in me probably had taken place in my father as well. After all, I had seen pictures of him when he was a youth, and he was a strapping and dapper man. I’m sure he had a high level of self-respect, maybe even too much, as is common with Korean men. But just like with me, the priorities of family and fatherhood had pushed those concerns to the periphery, and eventually into non-existence. It’s not that he didn’t know about fashion, but was too busy working to spend any energy on it. It wasn’t that he didn’t want a fancy car to drive, but was unwilling to spend the money on himself.
I’m sure that my father dressed and acted the way he did not out of a lack of self-respect, but a lack of selfishness. And in the stupid vapidity of youth, I got those two miserably confused. While the story and our fathers’ specific fashion choices are all different, I suspect that this is the case in many of our families, especially for immigrants. Only too late do we realize that our parents did what they did not to embarrass us, nor because they didn’t care about us, but because they cared too much for us to care about themselves.
And so, 34 years too late, I can say that I am deeply and unequivocally proud of my father, and hope my children will one day be proud of me… socks, shoes, shorts and all.