Back in 2004, my dad and I were leaving our friendly neighborhood Blockbuster Video (RIP) with DVDs in hand, when we crossed a large Ram pickup truck in the parking lot. It slowed to a stop for us before, inexplicably, honking. Then I heard something else — some muttered words from the driver who had stuck his head out of the window. I didn’t make much of it, but after a few steps, I realized my dad was no longer next to me. He was still in front of the truck. And as soon I looked at his eyes, I knew what had happened.
Not only had this strange driver honked, but he had talked some shit.
What shit, exactly? Maybe something simple like, “Get outta the fuckin’ way!” Maybe he called us stupid. Maybe the driver had simply looked at my dad the wrong way. It doesn’t really matter. In any case, there was my father, all 5-feet-8 of him, staring down a two-ton Ram.
“What you gonna do? Kill me?” my dad yelled. “Fucking asshole. Go. Ahead.”
I had kept walking, hoping the whole thing would blow over. But the driver was mouthing back, and my dad snarled, still defiantly in front of him.
What happened next is kind of a blur. My dad turned and walked away, but the driver pulled his truck over and stepped out. The two of us were at our car now, but this guy, a younger man also of Asian descent, was coming at us, yelling. I heard more taunts from my dad. And then: “Can’t you even speak English right?” the stranger jeered. “Why don’t you learn the language better before tryna fight?”
My 52-year-old father may have had a Korean accent and some difficulty with English grammar, but he understood just fine. Kenneth Kim had grown up brawling in schoolyards and learned how to take his licks during mandatory military service. He had immigrated to the U.S. with just my mom and a fistful of cash, later getting into gunfights with would-be robbers of his liquor store in the small town of Delano, California. Now here he was, standing in front of a shit-talking thirtysomething in mellow Honolulu, Hawaii. I didn’t think my dad would actually fight someone, but he clearly felt differently, taking a beat before responding with: “Come over here. You wanna go to jail tonight? Maybe hospital better for you.”
I was mortified. I just wanted to be a normal American teenager with normal parents who didn’t do things like threaten to beat the hell out of someone outside of a Blockbuster. So I jumped in, not to defend my dad, but to try and pander to the other guy’s sensibilities. “Man, I’m sorry about this. He’s nuts,” I said, pointing at my dad. “Just go. Dad, stop being insane! Let’s go!”
My dad’s temper still simmered at a low boil as we drove home. He was no longer upset at the Ram driver. He was upset at me, for not having his back and instead apologizing to a stranger.
I’ve never forgotten that moment, and it’s been a constant reference point as I grow older. As a young teen, my cocksure demeanor hid how I was drowning in a pool of insecurity, largely because of the bullying I endured in middle school. I couldn’t relate to my dad’s confrontational nature back then, but as the years passed, my smiley, awkward timidity in the face of confrontation faded into something else. “Life is too short to take shit from people, son,” my dad would tell me in Korean. And for the first time in my life, I began taking it to heart.
In seventh grade, I punched a kid named Jay in English class when he mouthed off at me, right when the teacher wasn’t looking. It shut him up for good, and I started to fret less about which hallways I should walk in order to avoid certain people. In high school, when an old middle-school bully decided to scribble on my backpack with black marker, I pounced on him screaming, thirsty for blood with a cocked fist, until I heard voices yell at me to stop. I only did so out of fear of being suspended from what was an expensive private school, not a personal fear of what might happen to me in the moment. I even argued heartily (and sarcastically) with teachers I felt were being assholes with their interpretation of school rules, believing I was sticking up for my friends.
Ask my mom and she’ll tell you that my temper, like my dad’s, is a flicker that can bloom into an inferno. It turns out having two stubborn Aries men in a three-person household can make for some terrible, noisy verbal sparring matches, which seemed totally normal until I realized other families didn’t scream so often — or at all. It was only when I matured out of the throes of puberty, went to college 2,500 miles away from Hawaii, and started reflecting alone that I realized my fights with my dad (and everyone else for that matter) were as much my fault as his. Who had escalated perceived slights into personal affronts? Who had chosen to dial up the ferocity rather than step back and agree to drop the subject?
“That moment of realizing, ‘Oh my God, I’m just like my parents,’ is a real thing I see in my practice and in the research. We learn values from our parents from a young age, and they resurface later in life,” says Andrew Smiler, therapist and author of the textbook The Masculine Self. “The surprise comes from not having been challenged on these values while you’re growing up. Some values, like politics, do get examined as you’re growing up — you might hear things from other people, or in church, whatever. But the way we each express emotion doesn’t really get challenged until you’re in an intimate relationship, where someone asks you, ‘What the hell is with you?’”
That’s exactly what my exes told me, either explicitly or through their actions, and a series of breakups kick-started a desire to grapple with this thing I hadn’t only inherited from my father, but raised into a beast uniquely my own. Therapy sessions drilled home the idea that my instinct to lash out spoke more to my own frustration and terror in the moment than the external trigger itself. Most importantly, I started learning that I could, in fact, pick my battles more wisely — without giving up confidence or the ability to confront someone or something when it’s really needed.
Smiler points out that in American culture, women are often conditioned to think more curiously about the state of an interpersonal relationship when things start to go awry, asking why their link to a person has become adversarial. Meanwhile, men are often raised to be problem-solvers first and foremost, Smiler says, meaning that when they face a problematic person or incident, the instinct is often to “correct” the situation quickly rather than consider the context of the negativity.
I’ve taken the problems with the latter approach seriously, by working harder to pause when an altercation is heating up so that I have a moment to ask, “Why do we have to fight, again?” I always hated apologizing to my dad when we would fight back in the day, so learning to concede fault helped sand down my rougher edges and humble my ego. And over the years, I witnessed my dad go through his own transformation as he faced retirement, diabetes and the prospect of more leisure time with my mom, who was pretty tired of his shit, too.
“It took me a while, but I’m settled down,” he tells me over the phone, chortling. “I can’t justify going at people over small things. To be honest, I don’t even have the energy to get so mad anymore! Of course, I see myself in your own temper. And I’m sorry. I didn’t know how you could get so mad, but I should have stopped the both of us when things got bad. But you have to be smart. It’s in your hands now.”
Lately, I’ve been feeling more motivated to mold this trait of ours into something useful. A few of my friends laugh when they describe being stuck in “Eddie moments,” or situations where they can’t muster a confrontational approach but they know I’d be glad to step in, whether that’s facing a harasser outside of a bar or merely asking for food to be re-cooked properly at a restaurant. It’s a funny gag, but something I’m proud of.
I do remember one time when a foursome of high-school kids on the subway were eyeballing me and catcalling my girlfriend for a laugh. I understood it would be stupid to fly off the handle, but I felt the adrenaline surge as I stared back at them with a semi-crazy grin on my face, ready for a fistfight but also acutely aware of when the doors would open at the next stop if things went off the rails.
“This trait of confronting people, of being able to say there’s a problem, is incredibly important,” Smiler explains. “If nobody points out the problem that needs to get fixed, we’re in a very passive space, accepting misbehavior of others. So we can’t — and shouldn’t — get rid of confrontation. But we can teach people how to confront better. To communicate more, to know when to step away, to manage their response.”
So maybe mad-dogging a bunch of unpredictable teens while planning how I’d beat their asses in a narrow subway car isn’t the most evolved way to show my growth. I never said I was perfect. But at least I didn’t threaten to send them to a hospital, like my dad did way back when. And I guess that’s what we call progress.