Estimated reading time 9 mins.
My father said he would come to pick me up. I had made it from my junior high school to my friend’s house, but it was still kind of a long way home, so I thought it was a big score. It might take him several minutes to arrive, so my friend and I happily went downstairs and played mini hockey to pass the time.
“Beeeep!” (Was there something in that?) “Oh, he’s here!” I ran up the stairs and rushed to get my shoes on and my stuff together as I saw my dad’s car out the window. I had a smile on my face on saying goodbye to my friend, and I was feeling pretty light as I had just had fun and now didn’t have to walk home.
As I approached the car, however, something was changing inside my stomach.
‘I can’t see exactly; is his face angry-looking? Is that whole car somehow shaking with stiff agitation? Taken together with that beep…But why? I came up and out immediately—and with hustle. Maybe if I just pretend to keep up my light attitude, he’ll also understand that all’s good.’
I knew it was a weak idea before I got in. “Hi,” I ventured. This was on now. A complete turn in my day, my mood. This man was steaming. He might have glanced my way, but was mostly looking straight ahead. He didn’t speak for some moments, and I didn’t dare open my mouth again. I waited.
“When someone comes to pick you up, you’d better be ready for them.” This was after he could bring himself to speak, but he was far from brought down to “Okay, now. I’m over it, but here’s the lesson, and don’t do it again, okay?” He was still outraged at the impertinence and was speaking harshly. At least a dialogue was opened.
“But I came right away. I rushed up.” He went on—again, in irritation—that a person coming to pick you up is doing you a favor, and that you‘d better accommodate them. He didn’t yell at all, but it was scary. I also felt bad, bad about myself. My day had gone from feeling some kind of buoyant gaiety to feeling serious, dark, guilty.
There was a lot more to what he said, as he seethingly went on, although I can’t remember the details. But the impression it left on me was deep.
Good character pays
This could be seen in how I acted from that day on. For instance, whenever a friend’s parent would come to pick me up for hockey, they would see me on the way out the door as they pulled into the driveway, or at least see a big wave from the front window as I ran down. My gear bag would have been packed with sticks lined up by the door long before pick-up time, and I would be at the wide living room window looking out to the large street off which ours was a side street, checking each car, deciding whether each passing car was theirs or not. Nobody coming to do me a favor was ever waiting for me.
Fast forward to my late twenties in Korea, where for a period, I lived in an apartment complex off a long highway road a little up from the university I was teaching at. I didn’t have much money at the time, and I pretty much agreed to any extra work I could get. I had one conversation class of company workers that would start a couple times a week at 6:30am, organized by a small company which included my (future) wife, one other girl, and my wife’s cousin “Kate,” who was the head agent.
My not having a car at the time posed a particular problem in getting me to this early-morning class, which was in a remote location. Being a small concern, Kate sometimes drove teachers to classes herself when they couldn’t arrange their own transportation, or sometimes paid for cabs, etc. Often, her own father would even drive foreign teachers to classes. He is one of these elderly Korean men who love to go to a mountain in the early mornings for a hike (Korea is 70% mountainous), so for this class, it was arranged that he would pick me up at my apartment complex on class mornings at 5:30am, as he regularly goes out then anyway.
To get to my apartment, you come off the main highway road, then drive in past some of the buildings to mine. Now, given what you now know about me, you might bet that I wouldn’t be up in my apartment waiting for a text that he’d arrived before I was down outside my building—and you’d be right.
Only, I had learned to really appreciate the perspective of the person who was coming to pick me up. This man was going out of his way to pick up a foreigner he didn’t know and couldn’t speak English to at all. I decided that I would not have him wind past parked cars and buildings in the dark, cold morning looking up for my building. The first time he came—and every time after—he saw me out on the highway road at the entrance to my complex ready to hop in. Nobody waits for me, and I would have him put through as little inconvenience as I could relieve him of.
We didn’t talk too much, as my Korean was very poor at the time, but the ride was always pleasant. I learned something years later which was rewarding to hear.
My wife reports that he often had to go right up to other foreign teachers’ doors when they didn’t come down, sometimes not responding at all. Or they might apologize to him after he’d already arrived, saying that they were “sick” and couldn’t go to the class, etc. Of course, he did have several experiences with teachers who he picked up without incident. But I had made a particular impression on him above others.
When he learned that my wife and I were going to marry, it is now known that he remarked to my mother-in-law-to-be, “This is the right man. He’s a man you can rely on,” going on in other words of praise. He talked of how I was the only teacher who was always there before him—and waiting out on cold, dark mornings on the highway no less. And he had talked of this often it turns out. Indeed, he had been responsible for bolstering my reputation among many aunts and uncles in the family. After a dozen years, he still talks about it whenever I see him.
Lesson must trump feelings
This aspect of my character was developed ever since that day in my friend’s driveway. But I don’t think the lesson would have taken had my father kept as a policy to, above all, never upset me, which is what I think a lot of parents today are admonished to remember.
“You know, you shouldn’t keep people waiting when they come to pick you up. They’re doing you a favor, and you ought to be ready for them.” If my father had said this in a soft, token manner intended to not make me feel bad, I at best might have said, “Yeah, I guess so,” and maybe even thought a bit about it. More likely, I would have said, “Sorry,” but still believed in my own mind that I did appreciate that he had come. That’s why I rushed up and hurried as I did. I know that already. But this made a deep impression on me because I was made to feel bad.
I can hear some modern therapists now, offering that this incident has stuck with me so deeply because I’ve been traumatized. But this is not something that has me engaging in some impulsive, destructive behavior as an adult whenever I think of it. Rather, it has led to developing in me an admirable character trait. I’ve emphasized the stark emotional change that occurred that day because I believe it is that which has made it such a formative experience for me.
And the issue besides is why I felt bad. It is true that people can be angry for irrational reasons, and they are in those cases wrong to make a child feel bad. But I felt bad, not because of something he did wrong and for which he irrationally laid blame on me. He was offended, and he was right to be. I knew he was right; I knew from that first ‘beep’ that I was in the wrong, although not to what extent. But I learned through seeing and fearing his reaction, and by being hurt by it. I felt bad because I had offended him. He offered to do something well out of his way for me, and upon arriving, he is made to wait like a cab driver, a servant, rather than being shown appreciation as the benefactor he was. He is indignant, and as he sits and waits, his anger builds.
I now understand that these things matter to people. Ask my wife’s uncle whether they matter. This is the kind of behavior my father doesn’t respect. Unacceptable if his own son were to grow up to become an adult who lacked this mindful courtesy he valued so deeply. But I would not have come to understand any of it had he checked himself as to not make me feel bad.
Whether conscious of it or not, this was a “teachable moment” that was taken with gravity by him and so which taught me a valuable lesson in respect and which has shaped my character for the better. And there were many such moments growing up, lessons which would have mostly been left unheeded had they not been impressed on me through some accompanying emotional pain.
It is important to note that in all of these, I never questioned my father not loving me, which I know is the fear of most parents in upsetting their children. I can recall many instances where, after hours in my room—and usually after I had had a good cry—he would then come in to talk to me, reasserting the lesson, but only now discussing it calmly and lovingly. It did make me feel better, but I know that the time I spent hurting alone was where the lessons sunk in.
I have always had enough evidence to assure me that my father was proud of me and loved me. So it’s okay that when I did not live up to what his idea of a good person was, his disappointment was evident. This is a good thing. It is a parent’s job to instill strong values in their children, and I’m forever grateful that my father was scary when something meaningful to learn was at stake. I’m a better man today for it. Thank you, Dad.