A Day for Fathers

Today I want to talk about Father’s day. In the US we are celebrating a day to honor our fathers and father figures. This isn’t just a space where I want to share about my own father, I could take to facebook with that kind of a post. That being said, I do want to center the discussion and begin by talking about my dad’s experience.

When my dad was 15 he lived in Hanoi, Vietnam. His family was pretty poor, but not entirely destitute. His father was a chauffeur to some of the elite of the communist party there. In Vietnam, most people didn’t know how to drive, so my grandfather provided a necessary service to even those of a much higher socio-economic standing than him.

Nonetheless, things were very hard in the country, and my family was struggling. My grandparents didn’t want their children to have to grow up in those kinds of conditions. So it was arranged that my dad, two of his uncles and one of his cousins would escape as refugees. They took a small fishing boat and pushed off into the South China Sea, hoping to make land in some better place. They floated for three whole days, where they ran out of water, had little shelter from the sun, and ate almost nothing. When my dad told me about it, he said it was the closest he’s ever felt to death, that he was pretty sure he was not going to survive. Thankfully, near the end of the third day they made land on the shores of Malaysia. There were other Vietnamese refugees who had also made land here. The Malaysian government had agreed not to turn them away, but they also would not offer any assistance. They had to remain around the shore. The refugees built shelters, caught and gathered their own food, and essentially lived like castaways for two years, until my father was 17. He had experienced all of that, living under an oppressive regime,surviving a death-defying escape, and two years of making a living with nothing but the land and your hands, before he was even 18.

There was a program in effect in the United States where patrons could donate money and agree to support a refugee like my father. When he was 17 he was somehow selected by this program, and he was provided a flight to the US from Malaysia. He boarded the plane with no bags and a scruffy face, probably looking very out of place. When he arrived in the United States where the donor was supposed to be waiting for him, he quickly realized that the donor was not going to come. He was on the other side of the planet from his family, he was 17, and he didn’t speak any English.

Eventually my father was shuffled into a group home, and then for a short time, into a foster house. He got a job working as a chef in a couple different restaurants (nothing glorious, he was good at cooking but had no training, of course). He finished high school-level education and went on to finish an associate’s degree in computer programming. Not 4 years earlier he’d been entirely, utterly alone in this country. His college degree didn’t just make him a first generation college student. He was generation zero. Nobody in his family was even here. Eventually he worked to help bring over other members of our family, his sisters and brother, and then their parents.

I’m telling you this story because I didn’t hear it until I was 17. The same age he was when he left Malaysia. I grew up through most of my formative years not realizing what a badass my dad was. To me he was just that guy who refused to pronounce “Florida” the same way as other people, or who always had to check the locks on the house more than once before he was satisfied and could leave.

Meanwhile I think we hear it all the time that “being a mom is the hardest job there is” or “moms are superheroes!”. We learn to appreciate what our mothers do for us, and even about their lives because for a lot of us (and this is changing) who grew up when I did, mommy was the premier force in our early lives. In my case, my dad was always out working overtime to support us, because he was living his version of the American dream.

We’ve put mommy on this beloved pedestal (and rightfully so, lots of moms out there are tough as nails and work hard as hell to raise a family), but we’ve replaced daddy with figures from Krypton and Gotham. I think that we in America send a very weird mixed message to dads. To assume the traditional role of patriarch is reprehensible, but there is definitely still that expectation to be able to support a family. We skewer the importance of men at large in society from day one. We make them dispensable but still expect them to fill some of the most important roles: father, provider, teacher.

I understand there was some recent controversy over a fathers’ day ad which celebrated single mothers. I don’t really want to get into that kind of discussion, but I do want to remind us that even though they may not show emotion or articulate the need for appreciation as freely as mothers can, Daddies still deserve our love and honor. They won’t make the same fuss about their day being co-opted into celebrating people who aren’t fathers, but I think it should matter to us that they feel sufficiently appreciated and at least a little understood.

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