The Boy Reads At Last

Early this morning I dreamed that all the animals had gotten out of the zoo and were running rampant through some new little city my family was living in, and at first I could see the lions chasing after the buffalo through the tall golden grass outside and I only wanted to photograph them with my cellphone, and snapped a good picture of a lioness leaping toward our wooden hotel through the grass, a ghost at first and then fully-formed as she drew nearer to us on the second floor. Then I yelled at someone to lock the door to protect my son, but as I woke with mounting dread I sensed that the lion would come for us anyway, and after I was awake the dream continued playing on inside my mind’s movie theater: the lioness bursts through the door and wants to go for my wife and child, I get between them with a big knife and go for the lioness, but she mauls my throat and kills me easily, the blood draining out of the punctures in my neck.

In the last few days my love for my son has grown because he has started to enjoy reading. I know I shouldn’t say this, and that I’m acting a little like the unfeeling ultra-conservative oriental father Wang Lung, whom I’m reading about in The Good Earth (which I started to get a better feel for old time Korea)—loving the boy for what he achieves rather than unconditionally, but I didn’t realize how worried I was about this, over the past few months, that almost every time I approached him with a book he would push it away almost immediately. My East Coast American Elitist self suppressed the thought that he would turn out to be something horrific—a sports star! a KPOP star!—even though I had said to myself repeatedly that the boy was free to choose whatever he pleased, so long as he dedicated himself to it in the same way that I have dedicated myself to writing, that my father has dedicated himself to guitar playing, that my mother has dedicated to her gardening and her previous professional life; his Korean parents and aunt and uncle have all worked very hard to succeed (his grandma and grandpa pulling themselves up with their own labor and cleverness from dire poverty to the middle class, his aunt starting and maintaining a successful hair shop, his uncle joining the Military Police in the army, a position, I’m told, that had hundreds of applicants and only two openings), and so long as he does this, I thought, I would be happy. But there was always this little fear of anti-intellectualism inside me, that he would grow up into an Ayn Rand-loving Republican if he didn’t start enjoying Goodnight Moon, despite all the evidence for his goodness and intelligence.

I used to write frequently that these people had worked like slaves to achieve what they did, but they were not slaves because they earned money and had hope of advancing themselves without risking their lives attempting to escape, so I have stopped using this expression.

After having read a statistic, that kids who read are better off than kids who don’t (duh), I redoubled my efforts, as they say in Star Wars, and checked online for less than five minutes to see if there were solutions to this issue. Three bits of advice were key: keep at it, read in a ridiculous voice, and let him turn the pages. On the first day we tried reading a few times and it was the same thing as always. He would grab the book out of my hands and throw it away. I didn’t get angry and I let him do what he wanted, but kept pressing him, and then on the second day I tried again, this time lifting up the next page for him just enough for his finger and then asking him to turn it for me. He understood me and did it—he can understand a lot more than we all think, even if he can only say a few words—and because he had some control over the book, he enjoyed reading a lot more, and now goes through several books each time we read together (at least twice a day), enjoying them and asking me to read his favorites to him again.

I criticized Korean parents for spoiling their children and letting them do as they pleased so long as they did well in school—this was also a bone of contention in my own house, since I was a bad student (unaware, despite what many mentors told me, that if I merely tried harder I would get the A’s I wanted) while my sister was good, which meant that I was being punished for bad grades while she never was, although I’m sure my mom will post a dissenting comment about this here (I am merely trying to pre-empt her).

As a parent rather than a brother I understand this now. When I saw my kid enjoy these books I felt for the first time that there was really nothing to worry about. As long as he’s reading he’ll be okay. He’ll have the wits he needs to provide for himself and pass our DNA on to the next generation; I was a lazy student until I went to a great college that is not famous, but I was always into reading, and now look at me: the wheel of fortune has been turning in my direction for almost a year: I work a job that I can be proud of.

I’ve noticed myself feeling far more content with this boy than ever before because of these books (much as a farmer might be content to see his baby working the soil), and even rethinking the idea of trying to get him a sister. Almost everyone, everywhere, has been pressuring me to do this, because everyone knows the kid’ll be screwed up if he doesn’t have a sibling (regardless of plenty of evidence to the contrary), but because I didn’t want to get married or have kids there was a sense that I had lost all control and agency over my life. The one thing I held out on was having another kid: this, at least, I would be able to control, as I worked at the university during the day, took care of my son in the afternoon, and tutored kids in the evening, all while living in a strange foreign country that I would hate if it were not for the company of my helpful, bright, and highly ambitious wife. There was always this hope inside of me that I would have more of my freedom back soon enough, that the boy would get older and easier to handle in a few months or years, and that soon things would be just as carefree as they were before my wife and I got pregnant, though in those days I was not proud of my job (working at an elementary school in Korea, which any American without a criminal record and with a college degree can do) and I had much more of the manchild in me. Now that things seem all set with the boy—for the time being—I’ve begun to reconsider this sibling business.

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