Lessons from my North Korean Appa

Lessons from my North Korean Appa
Simmone Park
June 17, 2022
Editor’s note: 
In honor of Father’s Day, I wish to commemorate my father, Jong-Kap Park.
My father just so happens to have been born in the northern part of Korea subsequently deemed North Korea. When he was 2 years old, he escaped to South Korea with his family before the Korean War on an auspicious hunch his father had before the borders closed. My father smoked like a chimney most of his life, and on May 18, 2021, the world lost him to lung cancer. He was 79 years old.
Jong-Kap Park
Jong-Kap Park, 1942 – 2021
Truthfully, I don’t think my father ever got over the guilt of escaping his hometown knowing that so many were left behind. He used to dream of opening a free ramen factory so that no more North Koreans would die of starvation. Asian parents are often tough on their kids to become doctors, lawyers and engineers. I, on the other hand, felt pressure to ensure the Koreas would reunite. No biggie!

Leaving Life Lessons Behind

Asians do not typically air their “dirty laundry.” Revealing something “shameful” could negatively affect your family’s reputation. However, I will attempt to break that stigma here and now. Someone has to be the first – it won’t kill my father. And if my words can somehow help someone just a little, my father would have been down for the cause since that is exactly the type of person he was.
April 15 – my father’s birthday – is the same date as “Day of the Sun,” which is the most important public holiday in North Korea. Considered to be the equivalent to Christmas, it is the birth anniversary of Kim-Il Sung, founder of North Korea. Sung is attributed with conceptualizing Juche, the state ideology of North Korea which, according to scholar Grace Lee in “The Political Philosophy of Juche,” is described as self-reliance. After his first job in Canada at Dominion Glass, where he rose through the ranks to the position of foreman, my father took the Juche mentality to heart and eventually became an entrepreneur who never worked for anyone again.
During his upbringing, my dad was abused by his alcoholic father in ways you can’t imagine. When he was an infant, a large portion of his body was severely burned and scarred. As a young child, he was hit so hard for losing his school uniform cap that he became permanently deaf in one ear. I believe my father consciously decided never to drink alcohol because of his traumatic upbringing, and he was always very protective – not only of his wife and children, but also any women and children he believed were being abused or assaulted. Until his very last day, he loved his parents dearly, and true to Asian form, wished he could have done more to make them proud. Despite everything, he was a great man and left me with many important lessons, one of which I am honored to share with you here. 

Lesson #1: Always Choose Love Over Hate

When I was 10 years old, my father purchased a small restaurant cafe. My family and I moved to a suburb called Scarborough on the outskirts of Toronto. Although it was a beautiful lakeside community, dangerous areas surrounded it. White supremacy was interwoven into the fabric of everyday life – our schools had jocks, nerds, drama kids, break-dancers and neo-Nazi skinheads.
We hosted my 11th birthday at our family business, and all my girlfriends celebrated with me. As I went to blow out my birthday candles, something else took my breath away: the sight of three hooded males clad in full KKK regalia standing in a row outside the window. Schools don’t teach much about the KKK in Canada, but I knew these people didn’t like us because we weren’t white.
What my father did next might come as a surprise to you. He was a very gentle soul – children and animals were drawn to him, but his possible bipolar disorder or traumatic brain injury-associated mood instability could have him occasionally fly off into a manic rage. He never hit us, but he wasn’t immune to throwing a plate of food at the wall or smashing our electronic typewriter to bits on the floor. (Yes, I am dating myself here – remember, airing dirty laundry!) My father had two rules growing up: First, you never throw the first punch, and second, it is better to fight at least two to three people at a time since it keeps your mind sharp.
My father was a fifth-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and I think he actually welcomed anyone testing him so he could respond with “self-defense.” After seeing the three hooded males close by, he swiftly leapt over the counter where he had been preparing our meals. He then charged outside, calm and cool as a cucumber. The men came at him. He dealt with each one of them until they retreated like cowards into the night.
Over the course of the next decade or so, my father somehow managed to learn their identities, talk to them, gain their trust and become their mentor. He eventually helped these three men convert to Christianity, and if that isn’t the most Korean thing you’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is. He even helped one of them figure out their career path and helped another meet their significant other, for my father loved to play matchmaker.
Around four to five years after my 11th birthday, one of the males apologized to me for being a skinhead. He would even tell me stories about how cool my dad was. I think this just goes to show that racism in Canada is similar to racism in the United States… except in Canada, you just might get an apology after a hate crime.
My father taught me in this situation that you should always choose love over hate. Only hurt people hurt people. Responding to hate with more hate brings about more of the same. Choose love and you will bring even more love into the world.

Lesson #2: Always Choose Compassion

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, my father owned a convenience store in the Regent Park area of Toronto. Let me tell you, Park’s Convenience was very different from Kim’s Convenience on TV – people have tried to rob my dad more times than Justin Trudeau has made questionable costume choices.
One day, a young man did a grab and run, stealing enough to warrant filing a report. Later that evening, a police officer burst into the convenience store, holding a suspected assailant by the collar. “I think I found the guy,” the officer said. “Is this him?”
For some reason, the young man had a look of fear and remorse. My father ran through a situation in his head, thinking, “He looks scared, not like someone who does this regularly. He is young and if he goes to jail, he is going to be surrounded by other criminals and probably be bound to a life of crime.”
My father shook his head and said, “Nope, that’s not the guy.” As the officer turned to leave, my father locked eyes with the thief and winked, letting him know that he did indeed remember him. That was the grace my father showed people.
Fast forward a decade or so. As crime was on the rise in Toronto, robberies were becoming more and more dangerous. Someone once came in wielding a knife, and at the first slash, my father quickly took a metal hanger for potato chip bags. In one fell swoop, he cut the man’s ear off. My father was told to go to court to deal with the situation, and he was worried. “Yes, the guy had a weapon, but I cut off his ear. What if I get a judge who doesn’t see my side? What if I go to jail? Who will take care of my family?”
My father sat in the courthouse and eventually heard, “Mr. Park, you are free to go.” He was confused. How did this happen? He realized that the appointed prosecuting attorney was the young man who he had let off the hook after the convenience store robbery many years prior. As my father exited the courthouse, they locked eyes, and the man winked back at him.
My father’s second lesson is to not Van Gogh anyone… you might go to jail. No, the lesson is that you need to give people a second chance sometimes. This might not always work out the way you hoped, but it is better to try. Always choose compassion – when one person is given the opportunity to be better and takes it, we cumulatively become better as a collective. We all win.
About the author: Simmone Park is a multipotentialite born in Toronto and currently living in Honolulu, Hawaii. She is using stand-up comedy as a platform to bring awareness to the plight of North Koreans, racism, and Asian American hate in her show “Once You Go Asian…”. She misses her father every day.
Featured Image via Simmone
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