My father protects for a living, but he is invisible by design. For more than two decades, he watched the halls of a shopping plaza in Koreatown in Los Angeles as a security guard. Three stories of salmon-colored walls with a signature glass skylight, the plaza is a community landmark for Korean immigrants who weathered financial uncertainty, language barriers and other trials that come with forging new ground in a foreign place. In 1997, my father went there looking for a job. Our family had just arrived from the Philippines, and he needed to anchor our landing with steady income. An electrician with no history of security work, he was hired on the spot. Over time, he found meaning in keeping his new life, his family and his shopping plaza secure.
As a child, I enjoyed walks around the plaza to look at foreign goods that gave me a sense of home: copper bowls that can hold an ocean of stew, K-pop tunes on imported speakers, red bean pastries plump as clouds. Most of all, I loved watching my father during his patrols. It was a rare glimpse into his full expression of self, temporarily untethered from fatherhood. He chased shoplifters a few times a year. Once, he rescued a store owner who suffered a concussion after a faulty metal grate dropped on him while closing his stall. My father played peacemaker, moderating business rivalries he barely understood. But as he grew into his job, it made him small. He hardly made minimum wage. Shoppers walked past him, unaffected by his presence. As I grew older, it pained me to see him treated as a silhouette of himself, faceless.
Like him, I took on a profession preoccupied with security, but a vast gulf divided his work and mine. I researched one of the most violent forms of destruction invented by human hands: nuclear weapons. I armed myself with the power of speech and text — books, policy memos, and conferences to persuade governments to secure nuclear facilities and pursue arms control. I imagined my work helping prevent a hypothetical terrorist from building a dirty bomb or an erratic politician threatening nuclear war. Security became an intricate patchwork of policies and diplomatic agreements that, theoretically, would save everybody from nuclear annihilation. “Everybody” is vaguely defined, but it sounds impressive.
I sensed my father’s pride in my career, but we lacked the language to express the depth of our working lives. Through the years we stayed silent, convinced that if we spoke, we would talk past each other. It did not occur to me to connect what I do with my father’s work, or him to mine.