When you grow up with a dad who’s probably the only surgeon in America who threw an amputated leg at his boss, you’re bound to have some pretty interesting experiences. I’m happy to finally see a sitcom about an Asian-American family on TV (only took 20 years), but if the network really wanted melodrama, they should have just filmed my family. If I had my own TV series, one of the first episodes would feature an experience I had growing up that is forever seared into my psyche.

But a little background first: My parents had emigrated from South Korea to the US in the late ’60s like many others of their generation. I grew up in a suburb of Washington, DC, in a solidly middle-class family. I had two older sisters, who were 10 and 12 years older than me (I was apparently a mistake that happened in South Carolina), and a mom who tended house. My dad was a vascular surgeon whose rounds had him driving all around the Beltway. By the time he got home, he was a twelve-pack of carbonated Psycho Korean Dad Whoop-Ass that was shaken up enough to have a cataclysmic effect when opened.

My dad used to constantly yell at the top of his lungs at my sisters and me when we were growing up—even for the smallest things. Each time he did, it felt jarring and sickening, like my innards were sliding out of my body. Given that upbringing, it was no surprise that I developed my own temper. Unlike my dad, I knew when to hide it, at least in front of him. But one day I didn’t hide it and I’ll never forget what happened.

One afternoon, I came home from high school in an agitated state, furious after yet another wasted afternoon of sitting in detention (my home away from home). To my relief, the house was quiet. My mom was out of town, and my dad was still at work. Confident that nobody was home, I launched into a lengthy, profanity-laced tirade, screaming in that empty house until my ears rang and my throat was raw.

Then I heard a toilet flush somewhere upstairs and my heart stopped. A few seconds later, my father came stomping down the stairs, his face a frozen mask of outrage. He had gotten home from the hospital early and was relaxing in the bedroom. Clad in only a cotton undershirt and briefs, my dad’s plump, ovoid shape made him resemble a gigantic, white aspirin capsule, but he was still terrifying—even more so because he was uncharacteristically silent. Bracing myself, I muttered any apology, which felt as effective as shielding myself with a Kleenex in front of a smoking volcano.

The Vesuvian eruption I anticipated never occurred. Instead, my father looked strangely tired and spoke in a subdued tone I didn’t recognize. It sounded almost like defeat. “Yoona,” he sighed and paused for what seemed like a full minute. “I grew up with my parents fighting. They fought like the cat and dog. My sisters would also scream at each other. So much yelling in that house.” He looked away and shook his head. “When your sisters grew up, I thought the famous Lee temper had skipped this generation. I was so thankful. But then you came along.”

Then his voice changed and began its inevitable crescendo. “If I ever—EVERhear you scream like that again,” and his eyes began to glow, “the next day you will come home from school and you will find me up there”—my father stabbed his finger toward the rafters of the house—“hanging from the ceiling. I will have hung myself to AVENGE you.” He fixed his stare on me for a few seconds longer and turned away. Then the angry aspirin capsule mounted the stairs and retired to bed.

Death threat

I was so shocked that I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Once my horror subsided, I phoned my older sisters, who were both remarkably cavalier about the incident. One said, “He’s all talk.” The other reassured me, “Don’t worry. He’s got too much ego to commit suicide.” Suddenly becoming a frightened little girl, I whimpered, “Are you sure? I don’t want him to ki-i-ill h-hi-i-mself,” and sobbed heavily into the phone.

That day I vowed never to show my temper around my dad again—if not out of self-preservation, for his preservation.

Some teenagers get grounded and have to forfeit their allowance or do extra chores as punishment. But lucky me, I get a dad who threatens suicide as a form of personal revenge. But it’s just another day in the life of the Lee family. Now how’s that for an entertaining (and mildly traumatizing) TV series?

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