Father, son, and a dream deferred

Author's father.

“Ta Kalo Topi Kaile Lauchas?” – “When are you wearing the black cap?”

Almost every single day in the spring of 2015 my dad would call me to ask me the same question. Some days, he would use different variations of the same question:

“When’s your graduation?”
“When are you walking across the stage?”
“When are you getting your degree?”

My dad was living in Iowa at that time and I was in Seattle, completing my final semester of college. I had no desire or plan to participate in the University’s graduation ceremony that June – I really didn’t care about it. All I wanted was my degree and I would’ve received it despite my not participating in the ceremony. My indifference was partly fueled by the fact that my family wasn’t in the area and I felt like graduating without them would’ve been a hollow experience. The deadline to register for the ceremony had also passed and I would have to pay extra fees to register late. Not to mention, caps and gowns are kind of expensive, at least for someone who had to work more than one job at a time to afford college.

I kept ignoring my dad’s questions. I would say something like, “I don’t know, dad, we’ll see” and brush off his curiosity and desires.

Until the questions started changing to:

“Are you going to invite me to your graduation?”
“Should I come?”
“Do you want me there?”

This startled me a little. He was halfway across the country, and had never traveled on a plane by himself. He wasn’t working, and I knew I would have to buy him his plane ticket myself, which is kinda silly looking back, but finance was an issue back then. Again, I hadn’t even planned on attending the graduation in the first place, and I truly didn’t care to.

However, my dad was persistent and wouldn’t stop bothering me. The calls kept coming everyday and the longer this went on, the more he started sounding like I had already complied. Until I completely shut him down.

“No dad, I’m not participating in the ceremony, so no, you’re not coming!”

What I failed to immediately understand was the historical context of where my dad was coming from.

My dad never had any formal education. He grew up in rural Bhutan where schooling was a luxury that he couldn’t afford. He had bigger things to worry about – help his parents on the farms, among other responsibilities. There also were hardly any schools in his village, so the issue of access was another barrier. Instead, he married my mom before they turned 20 and had six kids before they turned 35. Just as they were starting to settle their family down and make a living, they had to leave the country because they, along with other Hindu minorities, were persecuted by the government of Bhutan on ethnic, religious, and political grounds. They fled the country, marched across India, and ultimately settled down in a refugee camp in Eastern Nepal. Just like that, my parents became refugees, and that would be their only identity for the next 16 years.

Life in the camp was difficult. At times my parents had nine mouths to feed on rationed subsidies provided by the World Food Program and the United Nations. They didn’t have any skills they could trade on the market for cash except physical labor. My mom would get up in the morning and go to the nearby village to plant and harvest crops, or any other labor job that was available to her. My dad would do the same.

With the passage of each year, and as his hopes and dreams of returning back to his motherland diminished further, my dad started showing signs of mental distress. He started becoming easily agitated, and manifested his anger upon his children frequently. He would whip our ass almost anytime he desired. He terrorized us so much that a routine glare out of the corners of his eyes was enough to get us to move out of his way. He had hypertension, mood disorder, and suffered occasional seizures, among other medical issues he endured.

Medical help did alleviate some of his sufferings, but it could only do so much without social and environmental interventions.

Despite all the challenges however, our dad made sure that his kids kept up with their school work. At times it felt like all that our dad cared about was for us to get an education. There was a small, impoverished refugee school where we obtained most of our education. My dad would diligently look over all the progress reports we’d bring home, and was ever ready to argue with our teachers if he perceived any errors in their gradings. I vividly remember this one time when a guest asked my dad what grades his kids were in.

“25”, said my dad, tersely.

Before the guest could muster a reply, my dad added, “well, people keep asking me about my kids’ education, but let me tell you this: they’re still young and no one is in college, so instead of spelling out 8th grade, 6th grade etc., I like to just add them all up, it’s the collective I like to celebrate.”

In fact, this is how he usually answered such questions. His kids’ education was such a matter of pride for him that he wasn’t going to let anyone humiliate him for any of his children still not having completed secondary education.

Reflecting on my dad’s life finally made me understand what my graduation meant for him. My graduation was my dad’s dream deferred. In my graduation my dad achieved what he couldn’t by himself. By envisioning me in a cap and gown, he saw himself in one. In my diploma he saw his own aspirations and desires that he had put off. Up until that point in his life, my dad had had very little to celebrate, and he had already turned 50. He had never owned a house, his citizenship had been terminated for decades, and was living in a country where he couldn’t understand its primary language or its dominant culture.

What makes it even more painful is that my dad had a brain to achieve whatever he aspired to if he had access to education. I know this because I remember up until 3rd grade, he had no issues reading my books from school and helping me with arithmetic operations, including 3 digit multiplication and division. A couple of years ago, he even passed his citizenship test to become a naturalized citizen, and that test is notoriously difficult for anyone that’s never read or spoken a word of english in their life.

My dad had a brain that was never nourished, and in my graduation, he could finally reconcile with a part of his dream that he never could realize.

I bought him a round-trip ticket.

Last summer, we attended my sister’s graduation at Iowa State University. In the middle of the ceremony our dad got up and left. We thought he needed to use the bathroom. When he didn’t return in a timely fashion, we got a little worried and my brother went looking for him. A few minutes later, we saw him across from where we were seated, on the other side of the indoor stadium, just wandering around in awe, marveling at the incredible scene of hundreds of graduates lining up to receive their diplomas, one of his daughters among them. When we later asked why he’d left us, he said he just wanted to see his daughter from a closer range. When he said that, I felt a tight lump in my throat.

I managed to defer my tears of joy that day for another time, just like my dad has always deferred his dreams.

Happy father’s day, dad!

The author is one of the editors at this news site. 

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Hem Rizal is a former high school teacher and college adjunct who taught mathematics on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota from 2016-20. He attended the University of Washington in Seattle where he earned a Bachelors of Arts degree in Political Science and minored in Mathematics and Human Rights. He is a Teach for America alum and also served as an AmeriCorps member for the Des Moines Public Schools in Central Iowa. Prior to that, he lived in a refugee camp in Eastern Nepal where he attained most of his pre-college education. He is interested in the intersection of politics, policy, and data analytics in order to leverage a more equitable, sustainable change in the lives of marginalized communities and people of color.

Mr. Rizal is a recipient of a Public Service Fellowship from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government where he’ll begin his Master of Public Policy (MPP) program in the Fall.

Mr. Rizal has previously worked for Bhutan News Service in various capacities and is returning back to the platform as a Managing Editor.