Yeah, me neither. But I got what I needed, in the most unexpected way.
My father is a traditional Chinese man.
He grunts in response to “I love you.” He “doesn’t understand emotions” (his words, not mine) and he processes information like a computer. As a former mechanical engineer and self-taught software developer, he literally thinks in 1’s and 0’s. Right. Wrong. Good. Bad. Acceptable. Unacceptable.
I can’t remember him ever hugging me, although I can remember sitting next to him on the couch once when I was eight years old. He was eating a Dove ice cream bar, watching the Pistons play the Bulls.
My little body was shaking with anxiety and excitement, overwhelmed with the thrill of sitting so close to him for so long without him shooing me away for bothering or distracting him. My little heart pounded as I wished hard for him to reach over and give me a hug, or maybe just a simple pat on my pigtailed head.
Instead, he glanced over during a commercial break ($5 for a Little Ceasars Pizza, Pizza!) at my nervous/joyful shivering. He interpreted it literally. “You’re cold. Go and get a blanket.”
That was a happy moment.
There were more less-than-happy moments, many filled with rage. Tense evenings spent tiptoeing over eggshells, unsure of what mood he would be in when he came home, uncertain of what might trigger an explosion. A firestorm of verbal bashing, barbs, and insults. A hand. A hanger. The hard end of a feather duster.
Over the years, I worked on acceptance and forgiveness. But there is one incident that stands out that I’ve had a really, really hard time letting go of.
It was the day I graduated from USC with my Masters in Marriage & Family Therapy. I’d worked hard to pay my way through grad school and I was proud and excited to walk across the stage with my family cheering me on.
Things didn’t quite work out as planned.
As I was driving my family to campus for my graduation, already wearing my cap and gown, my father sat in the passenger seat of the car, his face cold and angry.
He called me a “stupid idiot” for not having chosen a “smarter, more useful” career path and a “dumb loser” for not having a six-figure paying job lined up and ready for me to begin fresh out of grad school. He yelled that I was a “waste,” that he was ashamed to have me as a daughter, and that he wanted nothing to do with me or my graduation. He announced that he was disappointed in me, and shouted that I would never amount to anything.
My mom and sisters sat still as stone in the back seat, deathly quiet.
I parked the car upon reaching campus and ran off blindly, tears streaming down my face. More than anything, I wanted to make my father proud. I wanted his acceptance. Support. Validation. Kindness. Love.
And once again, today of all days, his anger took over. I accepted my diploma with a heavy heart.
Afterwards, I discovered my dad had taken a taxi back to the hotel with my mom. He hadn’t even stuck around to see me walk across the stage.
I took my sisters to the beach, trying to make the day a happy one. I splurged and bought myself a t-shirt. This was my graduation present to myself.
It was a Peanuts shirt with Lucy sitting in her homemade booth with a sign above it that read: “Psychiatric Help: 5-cents.”
My dad never spoke of that day again. And I didn’t bring it up, either.
Resentment, bitterness, and anger brewed inside of me for a long time. Even as an adult, it wasn’t safe to express my anger towards my father (his response would be immediate — to out-rage me, and he would always win, even if it meant destroying us both). So I turned my anger inward. I self-sabotaged. I made dumb, stupid decisions, many that hurt myself, to prove my father right in some self-righteous, super fucked-up way. I picked partners who were like him — emotionally cold, unavailable, and angry. If I couldn’t change my father, maybe I could change them. I tried to fix them, hoping that if I could help make them happy and better, maybe one day they would be able to help and fix me.
That never happened.
Finally, I stopped trying to fix everyone else and started to work on myself.
I deep dove into the world of therapy and personal development in order to save my own life and sanity. I learned how to feel and express anger in a healthy, non-destructive way. I titrated down the self-sabotaging and bad decisions. I took nine months off from all dating, sex, and relationships (that’s a story for another time) in order to go into a cocoon, completely dissolving myself and all that I thought I knew I was, and building myself into something different from a blueprint of Truth, based on love. For myself first, and only then for others — including my father.
Through this work, I imagined my dad not as an overworked and raging adult, but as a young boy growing up during the Depression in Hong Kong, his mother the third of three wives, lowest on the totem pole, barely ever seeing his father. He slept on a wooden bookshelf nailed to the wall, stuffed into a studio apartment with two other families. A bucket for human waste was next to the single hot plate for cooking. In order to make ends meet, his mother worked as a janitor in a fast food joint and as that lady in a club bathroom who gives you a towel and hopes for a tip.
Not only did he go without hugs, but he went days without food. His favorite toy was an empty medicine bottle that he would go to the water to refill over and dump out, over and over again.
His mother screamed at him, yelled at him, hit him, and hoped that her shrill attacks would motivate him to do better and to be better. So maybe he would have a better life than the one that she could provide for him. And so he screamed at me and yelled at me, repeating what he’d learned was love.
My father didn’t love me the way that I wanted him to love me, but he loved me the best way he knew how.
He gave me all that he could. His maximum capacity for care. More than his own father or mother were able to love him. And I could choose to resent him for it, want him to be different, wish for something more… or I could accept it. I could choose to reject him and what I judged to be not enough, or I could receive it with honor, with appreciation, and with gratitude, knowing that he loved me the very best way he knew how. And I could choose for that to be enough.
I chose acceptance. And forgiveness, for both of us not knowing better for all those years.
And in that moment, the resentment weakened. The bitterness began to dissolve. And the anger shifted into sadness. For me as a trembling little girl, and for him as a lonely little boy who was never hugged by his parents. A little boy who maybe secretly wished for a hug or word of kindness from his angry mom, his absent dad. And in their passing, a little boy who would never have the chance to hope for one again.
We can choose to repeat a cycle of suffering, or we can choose to change it.
Today, during a quiet moment alone with my father at the breakfast table, I told him that I wanted to forgive him for what happened on my graduation day. That I love him, and that I am grateful for him and all that he sacrificed for our family. That I am happy as a therapist, with my chosen lifestyle, and with who I am now. That I accept him, exactly as he is now and as he has always been. Tears welled up and rolled down my cheeks.
He looked at me quietly, without emotion. Then he said, in his logical dad voice:
“That graduation day was different for you than it was for me. Let me explain.
There is a part of you that is a dragon. You were always the best at school. Smart, good at tests, academics always easy for you.
So that day, I was angry. Angry because you weren’t using your smart dragon to make money with a good job. Angry because you had gone to three elite universities with nothing to show for it, just traveling and wasting time that way. I was angry because I always knew you could be a good doctor or lawyer, but you didn’t use the smart dragon to do that.
Now I see that you value different things. Happiness instead of a stable job with a stable paycheck. Traveling instead of consistency. I don’t understand what is in your head but maybe I understand better who you are.
And maybe it is more important for my daughters to be happy. If you are successful as a lawyer but not happy, then that is no good. Now after all these years, I start to see. As long as you are happy and safe, then maybe that is okay.”
Those words may not mean much to others, but they meant everything to me.
The moment I was able to see my father, not as I wished he was, but as he is, he began to see me. Not as he wishes me to be, but as I am.
I cried and gave him a hug. He awkwardly patted my back in return. Then he thoughtfully said, “This is a good lesson that I’ve learned. I think I will share it with people at my Chinese church.”
He stood up from the table, clasped his hands behind his back, and began walking away. Then, he turned around.
“You are still the dragon for your little sisters. You must watch out for them, help them, love them, and take care of them. Since Mom and I won’t be around forever. You are the oldest, so you must always be this dragon for your sisters.”
I promised through my tears. “I will, Dad.”
He walked away, nodding slightly.
And with that, a huge weight lifted off of my chest. When I saw, loved, and accepted my father as he is, he began to see and accept me as I am.
And so it is.
I’m in no way guaranteeing this is what will happen if you do the work. And you 100% need to go through the “Fuck You” in order to get to the “Forgive You.”
That being said, strange and wonderful things may begin to happen as you do the work to forgive, heal, and learn to love yourself, first.
Then and only then will you be able to forgive and truly, freely love others. And even if you don’t get the exact results that you want outside of yourself, you’ll finally have freedom inside of yourself. Joy. And deep, unshakable peace.
The work isn’t easy, but it’s hands down the most important work you will ever do in this lifetime.
If reading this made you think, feel, or somehow connect with your aliveness, click here and I’ll keep you in the loop for more.
Are you done self-sabotaging? Are you committed to ending a cycle of suffering? If you’re ready to do the work, reach out and send me a message, or request a complimentary 30-minute call. We’re not meant to walk this journey alone. Reach out and let’s do this. -Ivy Kwong LMFT, BareIvy.com