Jon Han for BuzzFeed News
In 2000, I became, somewhat by accident, the director of All Souls Unitarian Church’s Monday Night Hospitality program for the homeless, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The former director had a medical emergency and had to leave her responsibilities immediately, and so the next week when I went in for my volunteer shift, I was asked if I would consider running the program, at least until someone else could be found. I would be acting director for three years.
On my first day, I went to Western Beef, a low-cost butcher shop and grocery store where the program did its shopping, the week’s dinner budget in an envelope of cash. And even though I had previously gone along with the director, as her assistant, I was nervous that first day on my own. The program fed 100 guests on a first-come, first-served basis — more, if more showed up. Some diners even took leftovers back to their shelters for those who couldn’t leave. This was a big responsibility. I planned the meal, bought the food under budget, and returned to the church, and I did the job for three years. Gradually the program expanded, especially after 9/11. I was proud of the work we did.
The calm with which I did this every week was not visible in the rest of my life. In the apartment I returned to after those volunteer shifts, my closet stacked full with boxes of files and receipts going back 15 years. Many were unpaid bills, missed payments, or collection notices. Letters from the IRS. A personal organizer I had hired a few years before had said, looking them over, “Oh, wow, you don’t need these,” then she laughed and told me to throw all the papers away. But I could not. When I eventually moved out in 2004, I moved with those boxes.
In some way I wasn’t quite aware of, I had imagined the problem was receipts. But I did not feel that pain when I shopped for the church’s program and put the receipts in an envelope before turning them over to the office. The more I kept a steady hand on the program, the more I was aware I was in the presence of a revelation about myself. The ordinary transactions contrasted with the pain I felt, almost supernatural, every time the money was mine.
The problem was there in every sale. Whenever the question came — “Would you like a receipt?” — I never wanted it. But I took it, knowing I should, and would put it quickly in my wallet, until the wallet bulged like a smuggler’s sack.
I had no system for the next steps. The receipts stayed in there, usually too long, sometimes fading to meaninglessness. Or I emptied the wallet into the pocket of a backpack, or I stuffed them into an envelope, always with the promise of getting to them later. Then I put them in the boxes. There they fluttered around like some awful confetti, saved for a celebration that never came.
I knew they represented, in part, money that could come back to me, but for me they mostly represented money lost. Pain is information, as I would say to my yoga students at the time, and my writing students also. Pain has a story to tell you. But you have to listen to it. As is often the case, I was teaching what I also needed to learn.
The pain these receipts represented was not particularly mysterious to me then. I had just never examined it. I hadn’t even felt I could. I simply thought everyone had these difficulties. But this was a lie I told myself, a way of accommodating the pain instead of facing it.
In a file I still have from 1989, there is a letter from my sister, when she was 15 and I was 22, asking me to send my tax form to my mother so she could give it to our accountant. This is in a folder with the tax return from that year, completed after I sent the form. I can see the earnings from the sandwich shop I worked at in Middletown, Connecticut, while a student at Wesleyan; earnings from my first months at A Different Light, the bookstore where I worked in San Francisco just after college graduation; and the taxes paid on the stock certificates I sold from my trust in order to pay off my tuition bill at Wesleyan.
I have tried to change my own relationship to money and pain, which are forever twinned in my mind.
Asking my younger sister to write and ask me to send the tax form was my mother’s way of communicating, off-kilter and indirect. To this day, she will ask one of us to communicate something to the other, though she could just as easily call directly. I have tried my whole life to change this in her, as I have tried to change my own relationship to money and pain, which are forever twinned in my mind. The anxiety about receipts was anxiety about money, but also much more than that.
Underneath that anxiety was the belief that there would be an accounting demanded of me, one that I would fail. After reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, where she describes keeping her late husband’s things as if he might return for them, I understood it a little better: I imagined someday having to tell my father about everything I had bought with the trust fund I received after his death. And having to explain how I’d failed him.
The author's father.
Courtesy Alexander Chee
My father was so young when he died, 43 years old, that he hadn’t made a will, due in part to the faith the young have that a will can be written and notarized at some later date, because surely death is far away. As a result, the state of Maine divided my father’s estate four ways, among my mother, myself, my brother, and my sister — my mother receiving, by law, the majority. I was given a trust that would be vested to me when I reached the age of 18.
Just three years earlier, at the time of his death, three years after the car accident had rendered him paralyzed on the left side of his body, my mother had confessed to me she was repaying his medical bills, which totaled more than $ 1 million, on top of what was covered by their medical insurance. He’d had repeated surgeries over those three years, home care, physical therapy, and experimental treatments. My father’s family was wealthy enough to have helped us out, and for one year they had, but they’d held the cruelly contradictory belief that my mother should both be able to pay the bills and also not have to work — to stay home and take care of my father. I can only think they believed the money would magically appear out of my father’s business without anyone working there, a mistaken notion born of a mix of sexism and parochial privilege so extreme as to be laughable, if the price of it were not so steep.
This was unexpected and difficult. My mother did the only thing she could do. She put in 15-hour days, leaving me to cook for my siblings, to drive them to sports practices, to grocery shop, and even to shop for her clothes while she did this. She was soon able to pay off my father’s medical debts, and did.
And now we had arrived here. My 18th birthday.
My mother told me the trust was, first and foremost, for my education and anything related to it, and I should spend it wisely. “Your education is the one thing you can buy that no one can take away from you,” she said portentously. Also: “I wouldn’t have given you control over that much money at age 18.” But the state had decided it, and she had to allow it. At the time, I rankled at the thought that I wasn't mature enough, but it was also true that for me to be presented with money enough for college after years of worry over mortgages and my father’s medical bills felt like an unearned luxury at best. As a result, the first thing I did with my money was part rebellion, part panegyric. My father had loved fast cars and expensive ones, both, and so I bought what I thought he’d want for me, a black Alfa Romeo — a Milano, the first year they were available in the United States — a sort of cubist Jetta with a sports car’s heart.
I drove off to college with my younger brother literally along for the ride — he wanted to see how fast it could go. He was the king of auto shop in high school, and had saved up the regular gifts of money given to him by our relatives over the years until he could buy the cars he rehabbed in auto shop, and then he sold them for more money. He has always had a gift for making more out of what he was given. He had taught me how to drive stick shift on his red 1974 Corvette 454, a car so beautiful the police would pull him over just so they could look at it.
My brother had been reading the Alfa Romeo manual, and after he looked at the speedometer, he said, “It says this car tops out at 130 mph,” and he gave me a little smirk.
I nodded. The highway ahead of us was oddly empty, and so I floored it. For a brief moment on the Massachusetts Turnpike, we flew, pushing the speed as far as I dared, a 130 mph salute to our father.
The author with his Alfa Romeo.
Courtesy Alexander Chee
I drove the car for the nine years the trust lasted, except for when I lived in California. Then my mother, despite her objections to its purchase, drove the Alfa Romeo and enjoyed it, in what amounted to a truce on the subject. I used the remainder of the trust not just for my tuition costs, but to turn myself from a student into a writer. I paid for my college and left with no debts — an extraordinary gift. This gave me the freedom to intern at a magazine that published my first cover story, and to take a job at an LGBT bookstore that let me read during my shift, meet authors, and even help with the planning of the first LGBT writers conference, OutWrite. And while I went to graduate school on a fellowship with a tuition waiver, I had no health insurance, and so the trust money paid for my regular dental work and a trip to the hospital back in New York, where I lived before and after grad school. I know this freedom looks ordinary to many, but I also know all too well that it is rare when the children of Korean immigrants are given this kind of latitude from their family to pursue the arts, much less the financial support to do so, especially when they are openly queer.
I had believed I would feel lighter without money, free of the awful feeling of having it but not having my father.
Besides the car, what I thought of as my excesses at the time now seem more or less pragmatic to me. My clothes were usually secondhand, my books also, or purchased with an employee discount. I drove a used Yamaha 550 motorcycle when I lived in San Francisco, where there were four cars for every parking space. I traveled to Europe in the fall of 1990, to Berlin, London, and Edinburgh, to investigate whether I could live somewhere other than the United States. And while I ended up staying in the US after all, the trip was its own education. My greatest indulgences were probably during a long-distance relationship while in Iowa: phone calls that regularly cost as much as the plane tickets for said relationship, not otherwise affordable on a graduate student’s budget.
For those nine years, I felt both invulnerable and doomed, under the protection of a spell that I knew to be dwindling in power. The Alfa broke down finally while I was driving from Iowa to New York City. I left it where it stopped, in Poughkeepsie, on the street in front of a friend’s apartment. That summer, newly released from graduate school, with no job and no prospects, I had no money to repair it or move it. Eventually the car, covered in unpaid tickets, was impounded and sold by the state to cover the towing and storage costs. My money gone, I surrendered to life without either the trust’s protections or the car. I know it was all stupid, and I was ashamed, and felt powerless in the face of the problem and ashamed of that powerlessness. But I was also tired of being mistaken for someone who was rich when I felt I had less than nothing.
I had believed I would feel lighter without the money, free of the awful feeling of having it but not having my father. And yet spending the last of it was not just like failing my father — it was like losing him again.
The author with his father in 1968.
Courtesy Alexander Chee
We learn our first lessons about money as children, and these shape much of our ideas about it. We learn these lessons from our parents, but from others also. But I feel as if I have always been taught about money by everyone — every day of my life a lesson, whether I want it or not, in what money is and does.
The lessons my life had provided, up until my epiphany over my relationship to my receipts at All Souls’, were that money is conflict, strife, grief, blood. Money is necessary. Money divides families — even the promise of it, hinted at. And that nothing destroys a family like an inheritance.
My mother likes to tell a story of me at age 2, in 1968. We were living in my grandparents’ home in Seoul, and three of my father’s siblings were still of school age — two uncles and an aunt. The three-story house was surrounded by a high wall, covered with nails, barbed wire, and broken glass, that I would later come to expect on houses like this all over the world — the homes of the rich, living amid great poverty. The house was near the Blue House in Seoul, the presidential residence; the Secret Garden, formerly a palace where the king kept his concubines, was visible from our third floor. For years it was one of the most privileged of neighborhoods, exempt from development.
The reason we were living in Seoul is that my parents could not afford me on their own. When I was born, my father was a graduate student in oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. A favorite photo I have of him from that time shows him posing with his URI classmates, holding a whale rib. My mother taught home economics at the local public school, and since women were not allowed to teach while pregnant, married or not, she was dismissed when she started to show, and the economic crisis that I was began. My birth was unplanned; my parents were not financially ready to start a family. In the first photos of my father holding me in his arms, he looks tired and dazed, and the expression on his face is one of amazement, love, and frustration. He seems ready to agree to his father’s offer of a job back in Korea, which came soon enough.
The lessons my life had provided, up until the epiphany over my relationship to my receipts at All Souls', were that money is conflict, strife, grief, blood.
Every morning, my father’s school-age siblings lined up to ask for their lunch money, and on this particular day, after the youngest had taken her turn, I went and asked for some as well. My grandfather was so charmed — he was worried I would never speak Korean — that he came downstairs, laughing, and gave me some money too. I was then allowed to spend it across the street at the small market, to get a treat.
I did the same the next day, and the next. It made him laugh, and soon he gave me money daily for treats.
My father’s siblings still resent me, I think, because of it. I became just another sibling to compete with for attention, approval, and money.
I was born slightly premature, and so at age 2, because I was underweight, I was allowed to use my daily allowance to buy a chocolate bar. This is the context for the next story my mother likes to tell about me from this time: She decided one day to punish me for something, and told me I could not go to the snack stand across the street. Later, she found me eating my chocolate bar. Confounded, even alarmed, she asked me how I had done this.
The maid explained that I had sent her with the money I’d been given.
My mother tells this story as an example of my shrewdness in the face of an obstacle, also my devilishness. And I do like to think the story is about my improvisational mind. But it also shows that even at a young age, I understood how power worked. I was adapting to my sense of the class I belonged to, as all children do. That this class would change, that I would become a class traitor — as all writers are, no matter their social class — was all ahead of me. Perhaps this was preparation for that change: reading context clues for signs of how to get around the stated rules — how to find the real rules, in other words, that no one ever tells you but that everyone obeys.
However it happened, my relationship to money began before I can remember it, and it seems it started that way.
The author with his parents.
Courtesy Alexander Chee