Grads, Dads, and All Those Things That Parents Do

Our oldest daughter, with a freshly minted college degree, hand-me-down Prius, and a little bit of savings to her name, departed to a new city to start her first real job.

In the process of searching for job prospects, she asked for — and I provided — advice. I reviewed and commented on her resume, gave pointers, referred her for open job positions that I had some tangible connections to, and made introductions to people I thought might be of help — and she seemed to appreciate whatever input I gave.

What she may not have realized is that I did all this with a degree of reluctance, and a sense that perhaps I’m not doing the right thing. I’ve always been a hands-off parent, and gave my kids a lot of latitude in what they do — as I firmly believe that the path they chart for themselves, is ultimately the best path of all. I had zero involvement in my kids’ college applications (other than to pay fees), and they’ve been in charge of their own college experiences.

As I suggested (ok, maybe “made” is more accurate) edits to her resume and cover letters, I cringed a bit, with a voice in my head saying don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it … she needs to learn and grown on her own.

My friends also generously offered to meet with her, to get her in touch with their own networks, to impart their wisdom and guidance — all of which felt like uncomfortable burdens that I didn’t know how to bear.

And then, it suddenly occurred to me — these are exactly the things my father had done, for me.

My father was stereotypically Japanese of his generation — married to his job, and detached from his family. His presence at home was rare, and involvement in day-to-day affairs minimal. The hours at the office were long, he travelled incessantly for work, and whatever weekends he had free were spent on golf outings.

The one time he seemed to take any interest in me was when I was accepted as an exchange student (from my college in Japan) to Georgetown University. He studied up on Georgetown and all its history, and was far better versed on Hoya Basketball than I.

At the time, he was on his second expat assignment in New York. My father worked for a Japanese investment bank, and he was assigned to their newly-opened Manhattan office back in the 70s (and I grew up there as an expat-kid, through fourth grade). He returned to NYC in the mid-80s (we didn’t go with him this time), when the Japanese bubble economy was starting to develop — and then rode through the years of great economic expansion. Until early 70s, exchange rate was fixed at 360 yen to $1 USD, which meant that his yen-denominated salary didn‘t go very far. During his second assignment, Japanese yen and its business influence was on the rise — as were the Japanese salarymen contributing to it. To illustrate — my father went through initial housing at Gramercy Park Hotel as an extended-stay resident, then to Museum Towers next to New York MOMA, and eventually purchased a condo near Union Square on 14th Street. He travelled around the world and had a passport full of stamps to prove it. He was in New York when Mitsubishi Corp purchased Rockefeller Center, and Sony purchased Columbia Records. Those were good years for Japan, and good years for him.

Those good years were also an enormous anomaly. My parents grew up during wartimes and came from extremely modest backgrounds. My father was from a remote town in the Tohoku region, and through discipline, education, and a little bit of luck, made his way to a job in Tokyo with coveted overseas assignments to follow. I can only imagine how he felt of the enormous divide between where he started, to his 5th Avenue existence.

As for me, the only privilege I felt were having grown up in New York, and having learned the language. Family resources always seemed in short supply. Education came first, with not much else left for anything else. I always felt that things were on a precarious tight rope. My goal was thus to be of no burden to my already heavily burdened parents, and to make my own way into the adulthood.

When I got to Georgetown as a senior from my Japanese college (and generally feeling lost), my father was in what I think were his American heydays. He flew down from NY to Washington DC from time to time , for what seemed improbably fancy affairs, like the “World Bank/IMF Annual Meeting”. When in town, he would take me to dinner at one of the posh Georgetown restaurants. He always started with a martini (with an olive), and was through the first glass by the time the waiter came around to take our order. I started to learn the basics of wine, where you start with white, and move on to reds. White with the fish, and red with the meats. I learned how to pay at restaurants with a credit card (put a “$” in front and “-” at the end of the total amount, so the waiter can’t sneak in an extra digit) and that young women should not tip (because young women should be treated nicely anyways — although I’m not too sure about this one).

My father knew that I wanted to find a job in the US, and not return to Japan after the program at Georgetown. He was generally supportive of this plan. At the time, career opportunities for young women in Japan were extremely limited. Especially for a bilingual female, “you’ll be a convenient presence in the office, but not much more — and burn out quickly” was his advice. (I hated hearing this. But, he was right.)

He had made the acquaintance of high-level people in and around Washington DC, in the finance world and US-Japan organizations. He said I should meet these people, as they may lead to job prospects and career opportunities. He arranged dinners, to which I dutifully showed up.

I’ll start by admitting — I knew nothing of anything at the time. I was so naive, I had no idea how naive I was. I had no idea how much I didn’t know.

I’m absolutely positive that I said and did things at these dinners that made my father cringe. I’m sure he disapproved of whatever sales rack outfit I was wearing. (He, on the other hand, was a Wall Street investment banker, and knew how to dress the part. Even his underwear was from Brooks Brothers.)

I still remember the people I met through my father. One of them invited me to a Fourth of July party at his gorgeous Georgetown home (at which I spent some of the most uncomfortable hours of my life), and his young associate with an M.B.A. invited me to an after-work tennis outing (she was blond, beautiful, super nice, and a fabulous tennis player to boot.) My father’s message was that, if I were to build a career in the US, I needed to put myself on a certain path. That path involved things like a graduate degree, and a “profession” — not just “a job.” And the people he put me in front of, all reinforced the same messaging.

As the poorly-dressed and ignorant young brat that I was, I fashioned an attitude of resistance. My father was not in the kind of position where he can make a phone call and get me a job — but even if he did, I wouldn’t have strongly refused it. Accepting any level of help or advice would diminish the value of any achievement. Nothing meant anything, unless I did it myself.

Again, I was so very, very stupid.

I honestly cannot recall whether I thanked those people properly, and showed my appreciation for their time. I regret not having brought my best self to those few encounters I had with them, and having caused my father to cringe. Being young can be a dangerous thing. And getting older with regrets of your young self just adds to the pain.

My father passed 6 years ago. In one of the last conversations we had, he reminisced about those years in NY and the people we knew in common. He asked if the introductions he made were helpful to me. I assured him that they were. He seemed pleased. It was comforting to know that my father seemed to have long made his peace with whatever disappointments I had caused.

After my father’s passing, I sent a note to one of his friends I had met. The friend responded with sincerely warm comments about my father, and fond recollection of our encounters. Whatever injustices I thought I had done seemed to have faded. And perhaps I had made too much of the situation than needed. Now being on the receiving end of requests to meet young graduates embarking on careers, or the offsprings of friends — I realize now, those are just things one does. When duty calls, one responds. We all pay it forward.

Just as I did when I graduated college, my daughter ultimately found her first job, all on her own. The process was (in my view) somewhat random, but what made it valuable was that she got there on her own. She’s signed a lease, bought some real work clothes at Nordstrom Rack, and ready to work. It’s all very exciting, for her, and for me.

It’s now one down, three more kids to go. I’ll have more favors to ask of my friends in the coming years. All those things that parents do — and those will never be in short supply.