My father had the vocabulary of a children’s picture book and even those words he mispronounced. His speech was like Mexican food: a few choice ingredients used over and over again in different combinations. The only thing worse than his English was my Korean, so obviously, we hardly spoke. Our days at home were spent staring at one another, grunting, pointing, and generally acting like cave people. When he said, “Beer,” I got him a Schlitz. When he said, “Door,” I closed the patio screen. When he said, “TV,” I clawed through the couch cushions looking for the remote. His curt barks and my servility probably looked abusive to people, but what other people didn’t understand was that my dad and I loved this interaction. We were like owner and show dog. Every time I could understand him, it was worthy of honest-to-God applause. Standing ovation kind of stuff.
My dad owned a donut shop. It was his life, and he worked longer hours than any human I have ever met since. But despite all my father’s problems with English, he had a particular gift for saying the names of donuts. He had practiced for years to get the pronunciations down just right for the sake of his business. Every time he said a donut name, his tone would lower and he’d sound disingenuously proper like those recordings that give out flight info or movie times. Oftentimes I would point at a donut and say, “What’s this one again?” just to awaken my dad’s donut voice. It was like making a demon-possessed girl speak in her devil tongue, except my dad’s diction was beautiful and perfect. I especially loved the way he said, “Éclair.” He almost sounded French. It was amazing.
Because sage advice rarely comes in the form of donut names, my dad worked diligently on learning three speeches. These three speeches were intended to ensure that I would grow up to be a proper young man. There was the Hard Work speech: “You work hard, okay? You alway work hard. No matter what happen, you work hard, you feel good.”
There was the Stay in School speech: “Stay school. Alway you stay school. Okay? Study hard now, easy live later.” To illustrate his point, my dad would open his palms and show me the white cracks in his bronze hands. “You no want my life,” he’d say.
Lastly, there was the Respect Your Elders speech. First, he’d raise his hand as if he were about to spike my head like a volleyball and then he’d say, “You talk back?” It wasn’t really a speech, but it was the advice he most used.
When I was twelve, I got suspended from school for selling candy. I was sneaking around the halls, hustling suckers, gumballs, and sour tarts at exorbitant prices. I would come home every day with pockets full of crumpled-up ones, quarters, and dimes. When the teachers caught me, they sent me home suspended and shamed. I thought it was the end of my life.
When my father received news of my suspension, he couldn’t understand the lady on the phone, but eventually he got the point. He brought me home and sat me down on the couch. I was crying, and his eyes were bloodshot angry. I expected the triple whammy – all three speeches in succession – but that didn’t happen. Instead, my dad looked at the holes in his socks, nodded, and said, “Just be good person. That all I care. Be good, and I proud. You promise?”
“I promise,” I said. And that was it. No punishment. No speech. Nothing. My dad just patted me on the shoulder and gave me a respectful nod, a man-to-man nod. I was left on the couch with my jaw hanging dumbly.
In retrospect, my dad probably knew he was sick. He died two months later.
No one expected it. No one knew. But there were clues. He started acting strangely. Nicer than before. Gracious and affectionate. Just weeks before we put him in the hospital, my dad approached me with the idea that I should learn the donut trade. I suppose he wanted to pass down the only practical wisdom he had. I suppose he wanted to leave this world knowing that he gave me more than just a warm bed and a few platitudes: he wanted to leave me with a life.
What happened the night I started training was something neither of us expected, and it would be difficult to describe as it actually happened. Our secret language of broken sentences, gestures, and droopy-eyed glances took years to develop, and it would be impossible to convey without translation. So if I could lend my father the words that always escaped him, not just give him fluent English, but give him the eloquence of everyday American, that pivotal night together probably would have sounded like this:
“I’m going to teach you how to make donuts, son.”
“So, first thing’s first: Stay awake. 2 A.M. is early, I know, but Saturday is the busiest donut day of the week, and we can’t afford to turn away a single customer. I know you’re tired. But compared to the oppressive poverty I grew up in, this is FUN! It’s amusement. Making sweet stuff at 2 A.M. is the best thing that has ever happened to me. Trust me, you have no idea. I used to steal sugar when I was young. I used to snatch a handful of powdered sugar from the GI’s after the war just so I could taste it, just so I could feel it in my hand. Before then, I had never encountered anything so white, so sweet, so refined in my whole life. So get out of bed and change out of your pajamas. You can’t make donuts looking like Spiderman.
“I know. I know. It’s freezing in this car. Here, I’ve got a blanket in the backseat to keep you warm. Hopefully, if we sell enough donuts, we can afford a car with a working heater. But until then, take the blanket and don’t chatter your teeth. I hate that sound; it reminds me of the winters back in Korea, back during the war, back when I used to loot the houses of my dead neighbors for food.
“Oh, nevermind. Forget I said that. Heck, it was fun to loot houses back then. Otherwise I wouldn’t have mentioned it. Now go to sleep. I’ll wake you when we get there.
“Lights on. Nice and bright. The shop ain’t much, and it’s barely getting by, but I’m proud of this place. Shoot, I better be proud. I worked like a dog just to get the loan to buy this dump. And someday, you’ll own this shop. So you better start thinking of this place as yours. Not mine. I won’t be around forever, you know.
“So let’s get started. First, scoop out sixteen pounds of donut base. Make sure you measure carefully. Make sure you account for the two pound bucket. The scale should say eighteen pounds then, right? No, no, no. That’s eighteen and a quarter pound. Fix it. I’m serious. This isn’t like cooking scraps. You can’t just add some gochujang to fix everything if it comes out bad. This is baking, son. BAKING. I never even knew what a pastry was until I got to the States, but I know everything about baking now. And if there’s one thing you’ve got to know, it’s this: Don’t mess up! Baked goods do not forgive. They’re like the Japanese that way, except the only difference is that donuts won’t douse you in gasoline and burn you alive in the street.
“Calm down, I was just kidding. Okay, now toss the donut base into the bowl. Now scoop out sixteen pounds of sugar. Measure carefully. Good. Now for the water. Fill the bucket up to this line. It’s got to be warm water though. WARM WATER. Not hot, not cold. Just right. Okay, I’m going to throw in the yeast for you. Now while you get the water, I’m going to start kneading yesterday’s dough.
“You done with the water? Okay, good. What’s that? You’re tired? Already? Okay, if you want to sleep, go ahead. Just do it in the corner there on top of the 50lb sugar bags. When the dough is mixed, I’ll wake you up.
“Whoa whoa whoa. Hold on! You put hot water in this, didn’t you? Look at the dough. It’s ruined. It’s all ruined! I said warm water, not hot. WARM! How are we going put out the first batch now? Huh? We have to open the doors in a couple of hours.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you. This is a big deal. It’s not just a few bucks. It could be our whole business, our whole way of life. I’m not being overdramatic. Every day is a step in the dark for us. There are pitfalls everywhere. Just because I carry you, does not mean we can afford missteps.
“Listen. Do you have any idea what will happen if this experiment fails? What do you mean, what experiment? The experiment of our entire lives! The experiment of you, me, mom, your brother living in this thing we call the United States of America. If we fail, there’s no safety net. There’s no bailout for you and me. Even if Jimmy Carter had gotten re-elected, he’s not going to give us a blank check like he did for Chrysler. Do you think Ronald Reagan cares about us? If we fail, it’s the streets. Okay? We don’t have a single relative in this whole entire country.
“So what if you’re twelve? Do you have any idea what I was doing at your age? No, you don’t have any idea, do you? You don’t really know anything about my childhood because I won’t tell you. You think looting houses was bad? Heh. Trust me. That wasn’t the worst of it. So I’m not going to tell you about all the awful things I had to do to SURVIVE because those things shame me. And I don’t want my son to ever know that human beings can lower themselves in that way. Especially not his hero.
“Oh what am I talking about?
“Forget I said any of that.
“You don’t need to worry about this stuff. That’s my job.
“Don’t apologize. There’s nothing to apologize for.
“Go back to sleep.
“All I’m saying is that you’re right. You’re different than me, and that’s fine. No, that’s good. That’s the way I want it. Next Saturday, you’re going to sleep in. Next Saturday, I want you to eat cereal and watch cartoons. I want you to have something to talk about with your schoolmates. I want you to fit in. I want your life to be different than mine. That’s what this experiment is really about. It’s not about us together. It’s about us apart.
“So step away from the mixer. You don’t have to clean up that mess. I’ll wake you when the first donuts are ready. You love eating them hot, don’t you? Well, you’ve never had them hotter than today. Bright and early, they come out warm and soft. They just melt in your mouth. You’re going to love them.
“Okay, fine. You want to make a donut? Come here then. I’ll let you make one donut and then you have to sleep. Deal? Okay. You see this flat piece of dough in my hand? I cut it round and perfect just for you. Now pinch out the middle. Go on, just pinch the middle part and yank it out. You see that? You made a hole. And by tearing that piece out, you made two new things: a donut and a donut ball. But before that, that little piece didn’t even exist, but separated, it’s born anew.”
Read more about Sam Nam here.
Read more about Nate Twombly here.