13 Things My Dad Taught Me

1. Real strength is inner strength, compassion, and calmness. That kind of strength makes your own life better, lasts forever, and makes a positive difference in the world. The typical definition of “masculinity” is phony. Never buy into it. (I’m glad there’s a male role model in my life who, by example, has made me feel genuinely comfortable in rejecting everything the media says about being a man.)

2. Don’t hurt anyone or anything. (This lesson comes despite the fact that my dad knows kung fu—something he keeps secret. I discovered this only in 5th grade when I was offered his old uniform as my Halloween costume. Even when Dad captures a bee or a spider, he opens the back door to let it out—except if my sister asks him to kill a house centipede…)

3. Be simple. Save your money. You don’t need to buy anything except for food and books. (I remember when I bought a Father’s Day gift for Dad in elementary school, he said it was useless and a waste of money. Typical Asian parent. But if we were in a bookstore, no prices mattered. Dad would get me all the Goosebumps books, academic supplements, and almanacs I wanted—and yes, I was geeky enough to study those for fun.)

4. Appreciate art. (Art is important to my dad, even if he’s an engineer. My grandfather was a painter, so my dad picked up on appreciating art and creativity. Dad always listened to the smooth jazz station, brought the family to art museums and partly inspired my sister to be an art major, and rented obscure foreign films that my brother and I used to laugh about—but that I eventually appreciated before becoming a film major.)

5. Enjoy nature and the outdoors. (Even after a long day of work and heavy traffic during his commute, when Dad came home, he mustered up the energy to bring me and my sister to the park, push my sister on the swings, and play soccer with me.)

6. The earth and public spaces are yours. Do more than your share to keep them clean. Keep this world beautiful. (Dad can be found picking up litter in public parking lots and collecting cans in parks to put in his car to recycle at home.)

7. Food, eating, and meal times are sacred. Practice being grateful for any food you are given, whether you like it or not. Never ever waste food. (Dad is one of the few people I know who does absolutely nothing else while eating all his meals. He can sit for a whole hour eating alone after everyone is done—even me, a known super slow eater. He never wastes a crumb and his biggest pet peeve is when the waitstaff asks if he’s still “working” on his food. According to my Dad, no, he’s not working on it. He’s enjoying it.)

8. Let them win—especially when it’s getting heated. Whether it’s an argument or a game, winning means little as long as you know your own worth. Competition is pointless unless it’s against yourself. (When I was a kid, I beat Dad in a chess game. Today I realize how fake his disappointment was and that there was no way I really beat someone as bright as my dad. To the criticism of my sister and one of my exes, very often I replicate how my dad purposely let people beat him. It’s only a game.)

9. Give to others, especially those less fortunate than you are. (I remember one holiday season, I was supposed to gather up old toys to donate to other children. I refused to give away an electronic Pacman game that barely worked anymore. That ended in tears. Dad went out shopping alone and brought home a really awesome brand new moving robot. I knew it wasn’t for me, but I played with it and really loved it. “It’s a donation for someone we don’t know. But if you’re enjoying this so much, Nathan, imagine how much some other kid without toys will like it,” he said in his typical calm voice. End of lesson. Brilliant.)

10. Sleep, health, people, lack of stress, and a sense of peace are far more important than grades, salaries, titles, and work. (Dad said things that not many Asian parents say. One night when I was up doing high school homework at 3 am, he came downstairs to tell me to go easy on myself and that it’s okay to drop out of honors courses or get B’s and C’s. I never listened at the time—nor did my siblings—but from college onward, I’ve achieved really good work-life balance. It’s always been great knowing I was loved even if I failed. That safety net has helped me take great risks, which in turn has always resulted in lots of success.)

11. Life was meant to be slow. (Every now and then, Dad hides or turns off his cell phone. He never cares about electronic upgrades and gadgets. He’s a slow eater, a slow driver, a slow many things. One of his favorite things to do is sit in the family room, lost in thought while sometimes talking to my mom, who would be roaming around the house or watching a movie. Whenever my sister and I had too many stuffed animals on the couches and chairs, Mom would remind us that even if we weren’t cleaning up the whole room, we needed to at least clear some space for Dad to sit. I think that’s all Dad ever asked for: a place to sit.)

12. A sense of humor is always appreciated. (Dad has the funniest and most unexpected jokes. Sometimes it’s accidental and embarrassing—“ho meen mung”—and my family cracks up at him. But it’s part of his lovable nature. Other times, it’s on purpose as comic relief. A few minutes before my sister and I read remembrance speeches for our grandma—Dad’s mom—at her funeral two weeks ago, Dad told us—with his head down and eyes closed—that it’s okay to put in some jokes. Life is too short not to laugh.)

13. Real love–and real friendships—is about trust, dependability, and quality honest communication, not the physical acts on the surface, gifts, or the title of being together. Anyone who lacks the first three isn’t worth your time. This is the type of man who has zero hesitation when he says he wants to drop you off at the airport at 5 am and the type of man you feel comfortable around because you know he has no anger or bad bone to hide. (I have never seen my parents kiss, but they are the most stable relationship I’ve ever witnessed. In my entire life, I have never seen them curse at each other, raise their voices at each other, or stay disappointed in anything about each other. Both of my parents taught me not only how to treat a partner or a family member but also how to treat a friend or stranger.)

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This post sounds so much like my own belief system and life philosophy.

But all of these things were actually taught to me by my dad—my dad who sometimes forgets key facts about me and my siblings but always remembers how much patience is needed in raising kids; my dad who has never been back to his home country but who has spent so much on me and my siblings; my dad who is one of the coolest people I know but who decides to spend almost all his free time with family; my dad who wanted to teach me how to clip my nails in college (just because he’s never seen me do it.. great logic..) but who certainly knows how to teach some of the greatest life lessons all by example.

Thanks, Dad!!! Happy Father’s Day!

Also relevant: 18 Things My Mom Taught Me

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What are some things your dad taught you?

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