In wrestling with a number of feelings surrounding giving and resentment, I share my thoughts here with hope that doing so might be cathartic for me and perhaps others who might stumble upon this post and feel that they are not alone.
My parents immigrated to Canada from Korea in 1971, two years before I was born. Details are fuzzy, but my understanding is that my father decided to explore prospects of a better life outside of the Korean Air Force, and word from his brother who had already emigrated to Canada was that it was a fine place to start anew.
So my father left my mom and older sister who was just six months old to begin a six-month stay in Toronto. Though he had a Bachelor’s degree in English, my father ended up working double shifts frying up Fish and Chips for $ 1.50 per hour to cover his living costs, crying himself to sleep most nights believing that he had made a mistake in leaving Korea.
When he made the call back home to let my mom know that Canada was not the place for them, and that he would return shortly, my maternal grandfather decided that my father’s judgment was clouded by loneliness, and since Canada was considered a peaceful land in which to raise one’s family, my grandfather packed my mom and baby sister up and had them on the next flight to Toronto. That was the decision that led to my siblings and many younger cousins who grew up in the Greater Toronto Area to become second generation Korean Canadians.
After short stints doing factory and secretarial work, like many Korean immigrants, my parents decided that they wanted to have more control over their livelihood, so they operated a gas station until they saved enough money to open up a small variety store. December 9, 1982 was the day when we opened the doors to our nickel and dime shop where we sold milk, juice, kit kats, cigarettes, magazines, lottery tickets, Hallmark greeting cards, and an assortment of household consumables like detergent and odd collectibles like giant ceramic piggy banks.
I was 9 when we opened Family Variety in Bolton, Ontario, and for the next several years, life was good. To this day, I fondly recall jumping on my bicycle to get to the store early on Saturday mornings to put advertisement inserts into the Toronto Star newspaper. Once all the papers were stacked, my father would give me some change which I would use to purchase 4 freshly made chocolate dip donuts from the bakery just a few stores down – they were still hot, fresh out of the fryer with warm chocolate icing melting on top as we gobbled them down, 2 each. Yup, those were the days!
By disposition or perhaps by choice, my father is more of a scholar than he is someone who likes to roll up his sleeves, chop wood, and carry water. The old Asian adage that says don’t open up a business if you don’t want to smile? Let’s just say that my parents didn’t foresee how miserable my father would be standing behind a counter selling and bagging stuff for the general public. This existence hurt his sense of self, so he didn’t win a lot of love from our patrons.
My mom did all she could to keep the store going, but in realizing what the inevitable outcome would be, she and my father decided that it was his calling to go to Theological Seminary and become a pastor. Being quite devout with Christianity, my father was already an active elder at our church, and being relatively well known among the Korean population in Toronto, starting his own church looked like a good life choice.
The transition created significant financial hardship for our family. When the store was history and we were in full flight as a pastor’s family, we lived on a modest income from the church. More often than not, as a university student, I was lucky to have twenty dollars in my wallet for food and subway tokens. Rather than purchase textbooks, I mostly photocopied what I needed. I paid for tuition and other essential expenses with student loans, and when I went to chiropractic school in the States, it was with more student loans, a roster of several personal credit cards, and on-campus work.
Through those lean years, I dreamed of being able to provide for my family. It was my obsession to earn enough money to clear my parents of their debts and ensure their comfort and security.
Upon graduating, I decided to move to the San Francisco Bay area to begin my career. My parents joined me in my trusty honda civic to make the 5-day journey from Chicago to northern California. What a memorable road trip that was – we averaged about ten hours a day and soaked up the best of Americana. At a rest stop near Amarillo, Texas, I remember my dad asking me to take a picture of him beside the public restroom with a massive field of wild grass as the backdrop. Why do you want a picture of yourself beside a washroom? Because we are in TEXAS, son! Truly, every moment of that road trip was a new experience for the three of us, with the highlight being a stop at the Grand Canyon.
After rolling into the Bay area and finding a room to rent in Berkeley, I purchased one-way tickets for them to get back to Toronto, put on one of my cards, as we simply didn’t have that money, and there began my official journey to figure out how to survive with my own hands. I was 24, and my life was just beginning. Yes, I really felt like Jerry Maguire at rock bottom – slightly overwhelmed but very hopeful for the future.
Soon after beginning life in California, I found a post for a chiropractor wanted in rural Alaska. It was a unique opportunity to run a clinic on my own, help a lot of people who really appreciated the care, and earn enough to fulfill part of my dream to change the financial momentum of my family’s life. I earned more per year in Alaska than I have made in any year since as a chiropractor. Within two years, I was able to pay back all of my student loans, credit cards, clear out my parents’ debts, and even take a solid chunk out of my older sister’s mortgage as a thank you for making my first student loan payment when I was fresh out of school. It was a huge sense of fulfillment – those were big goals for me as a young fellow, and to knock them out within two years brought me great happiness.
My parents were extremely grateful and proud, of course. But I knew that it was just the beginning. I wanted to give them much more.
Though my parents have lived in Canada for more than 40 years now, they still walk with the same core values that were created during their first three decades of life in Korea. They were a part of a generation that was blessed to survive the Korean war and was faced with the task of figuring out how to survive in a country that had to rebuild from massive mountains of rubble and political chaos.
For centuries, Korean culture has been largely son-centric, meaning that parents have long viewed the firstborn son of a family as the one who they can rely on to take care of their needs – financial and otherwise – when they are older. Given this obligatory duty, the firstborn son has long been favoured to some degree over other siblings – for example, firstborn sons would traditionally sit and eat dinner with the father, and the mother and remaining children would eat after. This has changed with the current generation, both in Korea and with Koreans living abroad, but the mindset of expecting more from the firstborn son is still strong in many Koreans, including my parents.
Let me be clear in writing that I feel extremely blessed to be helpful to my parents. There is nothing that I find more fulfilling in life than giving to others, especially my parents. My soul is saturated with memories of the many ways that they have shown me their love over the years. Like the time when I was trying to make it out west and my father, on his way from Korea to Toronto, stopped by the San Francisco airport and gave me five hundred dollars – it was all he had left from his trip to publish a book in Korea, and though he needed it as much as I did, he gave it to me. That day when they drove 8 hours from Toronto to Chicago to bring me a cooler full of frozen food that my mom prepared so that my transition from a dormitory room to off-campus housing would be a bit easier. Buying me and my older sister our first cars with the little savings that they had left when they transitioned from the variety store to building a church. My mom coming to stay with us for several months to help when our first son was born. The memories are endless. And the bottom line is this: I know that my parents deeply love and care about me, my sisters and now their grandchildren.
And yet, there are times when I feel resentment. I think I have identified the source of my intermittent pain as the sadness of wondering if part of my value to my parents is what I do to support them financially. Again, I am grateful to be a blessing to them, and I want to continue to do all I can to make their lives more comfortable in the years ahead. But I do feel some sadness and resentment at times and struggle with figuring out if I am being petty, even though I have identified my feelings about my value to them being partly tied to what I can do for them.
It’s been said that life gives us the same lesson over and over until we learn it. This feels like the case with me and the relationship between giving and feeling resentful.
One of my favourite ways of injecting happiness into my day is to cover the bill of someone behind me at a drive-thru. This type of giving never causes me to feel resentful, which tells me that giving is best done anonymously. When I give anonymously, the act is pure and simple, with the only reward for me being a feeling of happiness that comes from wondering if I have brightened a stranger’s day.
Can I think of situations where I have been giving without anonymity and still felt good about it? Absolutely, and in discussing this at length with Margaret, we’ve realized that giving is enjoyable unless the recipient shows that they are not grateful or that they expect more to come. As Margaret put it, it’s like you have a basket and it feels really good to gift things out from your basket, but when someone reaches into your basket to take something without you offering, you feel violated – you want to give of your own accord; you don’t want to feel like someone is taking advantage of you.
We all have our reasons for being giving. I remember me and my dad going to lunch with another father and his two sons during a baseball tournament when I was no more than 10 years old, and when the bill came, my father took care of it without hesitation. I was surprised and remember thinking that was unfair, since we had just met them and there were three of them and only two of us. I remember the other father looking very surprised but saying thank you very much, and my father being gracious in saying it was his pleasure. That moment may have sparked my desire to be a giving person.
My mother told us several times throughout our childhood that in Korea, you always give your first pay check from a new job to your parents to show them respect and gratitude for all they have done. She has also told me throughout my adulthood that any mistreatment that they encounter at the hands of those who don’t mind taking advantage doesn’t matter because I am their pillar, the one that they can lean on. And over the years, my father has been loud and clear in crucifying others who have not taken care of their aging parents. I’m sure that my desire to support my parents has been shaped by these thoughts and experiences.
With my parents, I believe I have to reconcile intermittent feelings of sadness about my value to them being partly tied to what I can do for them with the awareness that they have made me feel loved to the best of their capacity throughout my life. They grew up in a culture that taught them that their firstborn son would one day be the one to take care of them, and I need to continue to work at being grateful that I am able to fulfill this duty. I accept occasional bouts of resentment as moments of my own frailty and I remain indescribably grateful for all that they did for me in earlier years.
With being a giver outside of one’s family, I wonder if it is better to continue to give freely and generously and work at not being let down and disappointed when people are ungrateful or begin to take advantage, or if it is better to lean towards just being an anonymous giver. I would appreciate any commentary that others might have on this issue – there is a comments section below in the article tools box for sharing.
One uplifting aspect of struggling through this issue is that my radar has become more honed to recognize people who are incredibly thoughtful, giving, and would rather punch themselves in the face than knowingly take advantage of others. The funny thing is that when you encounter such people, you want to give them the world, but they would never take it from you. Yes, Alanis, life can definitely be ironic.
I bring this stream of relatively unfiltered thoughts to a close by raising my goblet to those who don’t take advantage, and those who have gotten to a place in their lives where they can give in any circumstances without resentment.