My Dad


I remember growing up thinking of my dad as a few adjectives – “strict,” “cheap,” “mean” and “embarrassing” were the more popular of them.

As the only girl in a three-child household, I always felt I got the short end of the double-standard stick. I remember it being an unspoken rule in my home that I couldn’t have a boyfriend until I was 45 years old. One time, in high school, my good friend John called my house. He literally was calling just to see if I could help him with his home work. Unluckily for him (and me and, come to think of it, my dad), my father answered the phone.

“Is Nila there?” John had asked.

“Nila?!” my dad asked pointedly. “Nila doesn’t live here.” And he hung up the phone.

Tales of how cheap my dad is has become legendary and no doubt permeated through the small town we grew up in. He prided himself for rarely having to buy condiments at the grocery store. For years he’d grab handfuls of ketchup and mustard packets from McDonald’s or Wendy’s and stockpile them in our kitchen drawer. “You’ll thank me for this when you run out of ketchup from the bottle,” he would tell me.

And whenever us kids could get in for free or at a reduce rate somewhere, he’d take advantage of it. “Kids eat free with an adult meal” was a popular dinner option for us. Once, I remember my dad convincing a manager I was under 8 so he didn’t have to pay for my admission to the county fair. And I was 13 years old.

Another time I remember being around 10 or so and at the mall, The Avenues, with my parents. In the center of the mall there was a free giveaway for all kids. You just had to go up to the guy manning the booth and ask him for whatever trinket he was giving away. The shy kid that I was, my dad basically forced me to go up to get the freebie. I don’t remember what the gift was, but whatever it was, my dad thought it was legit enough that I should get another one for my brothers. Tormented by the fact that I already went up once, I argued back and forth with my dad that I didn’t want to go again. But guess what. I lost the argument and had to go see the same booth guy within a matter of 15 minutes.

“Weren’t you just here?” the guy asked.

“No,” I sheepishly fibbed. It was a different 10-year-old Asian girl with glasses, pink shorts, and a white shirt with a pink shell on it that you saw earlier, I wanted to tell him.

I ended up getting that second trinket, and I remember walking away, praying the guy thought he was talking to my twin.

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But while those dad stories make me either smile or laugh, other dad stories make me want to cry. For as long as I can remember up until I was around 12, my dad worked two jobs five days a week. He would wake up at 5 a.m. for his first job as the maintenance manager of the local high school. He’d get off at 2 p.m., pick my brothers and me up at the bus stop, drive us home, and then put on his work shirt for his shift at Sears that lasted until 10 p.m. There was about a 30-minute interval from when we got home to when he had to leave to work at Sears. In that half-hour, I remember him taking advantage of all 30 minutes he got to spend with us, watching with us our favorite after-school cartoon, “Garfield and Friends.” He’d laugh with us, comment on how sly Garfield was, and tell us he couldn’t wait until tomorrow’s episode.

Later in life, he would tell me how it broke his heart every time he had to leave us to work at Sears. As a little girl, I remember begging every single day for him not to go to work. “Don’t go, Daddy,” I would implore as tears ran down my face. I didn’t understand why he was leaving. I didn’t understand he was leaving to make a little extra cash for us to live a bit more comfortably. I was just upset that my daddy wasn’t able to spend some time with me.

I think at some point, my dad started emulating Bill Cosby. “The Cosby Show” was one of my dad’s favorite shows and it eventually became one of mine. He loved Cosby’s humor. He especially loved how Cosby used that humor to teach kids life lessons and to become better people. My dad would joke around, poke fun and use his own humor to lighten up any situation, just like Cosby did. But I can’t tell you how odd it was growing up with a diminutive Asian man trying to mimic a black comedian from Philadelphia. To this day I’m still confused.

My dad taught me a lot of things that I still carry with me today. He taught me how to kick a soccer ball and how to hit a tennis ball. I could tell my dad was an excellent, probably elite, athlete when he was younger. Back in Vietnam, he was his school’s starting soccer goalkeeper, a role he relished in the soccer-crazed country Vietnam was.

I don’t believe he ever really played basketball as a kid, but he picked it up quickly here in the States. Up until about eight years ago, he’d dominate me in a game of 21. Same with tennis; I much doubt there were too many hard courts in Vietnam as he grew up, but man, today he has a killer one-handed backhand (a southpaw, to top it off) and a crafty game plan up at net.

And as cheap as he was, my dad taught me always to give to others. He said that no matter how sucky I think my life is, someone else’s life is worse and I should always remember how lucky I have it. He taught me to let go of the material things in life. He urged me to volunteer at local museums and hospitals with hopes of bettering others and eventually myself.

Now that I’m older, I constantly think about how he left Vietnam with the goal of making life for his family and children better than his own. My dad was an officer, a sergeant, in the South Vietnamese Army (though as a kid, I used to tell my friends he was a four-star general). He left under terrible conditions – the Vietnam War and the communist party tore apart any inkling of what he called home. He was one of the thousands of boat people who ended up landing in America. And so he created a new home here. I was a baby when my mom and dad became naturalized U.S. citizens, but I remember seeing pictures of them celebrating, of them cutting a cake and holding an American flag. To this day, his drives a car with a bumper sticker that reads “Proud to be an American.”

I find myself thinking of what I’m going to tell my children about their grandpa. Should I tell them how he embarrassed me in front of John? Do I delve into how cheap grandpa was? Or, do talk to my kids about the points that really matter the most. I look back at all the moments he’s given me, all the opportunities, all the life lessons, and I really begin to realize how incredible he really is. Yeah he was embarrassing, but who really cares?

Just like many kids, I still want my dad’s approval with everything I do. I’m almost 30 years old, and I still get upset if he doesn’t like what I do. I can’t say his opinion doesn’t continually wear on me. When I became a journalist, I wanted him to be OK that I wasn’t going to be the doctor he always dreamed I be. When I started dating my fiance, I wanted my dad to like him too. Even with this blog, I hope he likes it.

My dad’s now retired and living in central Florida. He’s loosened up a bit and doesn’t mind if John or any other boy calls me. And, I’m happy to say he still is hoarding ketchup packets from the local fast-food joint.

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3 responses to “My Dad

  1. Nila — this was a pleasure to read. It’s nice for those of us who know you with your professional hat to read a bit about your person al side. From remarkable parents come remarkable children — your folks clearly got it right.

    • Lesley: What a fantastic comment. Thank you so much – your words really do mean a good deal to me. As most people would agree, I owe a lot to my father. One of which is my unfortunate small, 5’2” stature! I should have known I was never going to be a pro volleyball player!

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