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An Asian man and elderly man hug with backdrop of razor wire.
Illustration by Teresa Tauchi

The first snow of the season had already fallen. It was the start of a bitter winter. 

I was working the chow line in the prison kitchen, scooping ladles of mystery slop onto hard plastic trays. 

“On the new!” I yelled out, notifying everyone that new arrivals were lining up to get fed.

Looking over the motley crew, I saw an outlier amid the usual sea of Black, Brown and White faces. 

He was a tiny little thing. He stood at barely 5 feet and weighed nothing. His silver hair was matted and disheveled. His eyes were bloodshot red. And his skin was weathered from a lifetime of hard work. 

The little old man was dressed in one of the thin cotton, mustard yellow jumpsuits designated for new arrivals. He shivered from the cold as he blindly plodded forward with the rest of the scared, tired, hungry newbies.

Something stirred within me. I instinctively knew he was Korean. 

I walked over to the old man and tapped him on his shoulder. I greeted him in our Hangul language. 

“Hello father, are you OK?” 

He looked perplexed. But after a few moments, there was a flash of recognition. I saw his dull, tired, almond-shaped eyes light up because he realized I was talking to him in our native tongue. 

Exchanging a few quick words with him, I knew he needed my help. I placed my hand on his little shoulder and told him, again in Hangul, “Everything is going to be alright.” 

He looked back at me. A thin smile spread across his face, and his weary little eyes started to water as he nodded with understanding.

I volunteered to be his interpreter and was summoned to orientation for the new arrivals. I smuggled him a winter hat, a pair of gloves, a bar of soap and a small bag of peanuts. His fingers trembled as he accepted my meager gifts. 

He thanked me and called me “sir.” I was taken aback and embarrassed that this man, who was many years my senior, thought this was necessary.

Unable to speak English, this petite 75-year-old Korean man was thrown into the American criminal justice system to fend for himself. 

He would spend the next year navigating the brutal world of incarceration, where he tried to avoid the predators of prison and came to rely on the kindness of strangers. 

I pulled a few strings and had him moved into my cell for the next 18 months, so he could finally breathe. He no longer needed to worry about navigating the prison alone. I was there and would be his voice. 

During our time together we developed a familial bond. I do not remember how it happened, but I jokingly started calling him my ggangpae ahbuhjee, which literally translates to “gangster father” in Hangul. 

The old man laughed when I shared this, and he readily embraced his newfound moniker. From that point forward he was my prison dad, and I was his prison son. 

When I started down this path, it was simply instinctual to help a Korean elder. How could I have possibly known then that my kindness toward him would help me heal my own traumatic past? 

I had a biological father who loved me, but cancer ripped him away when I was 11 years old.  Then through this serendipitous set of circumstances, destiny intervened and brought me a  prison dad to heal my wounded soul.

I cooked for him, cleaned up behind him, spent time with him and listened to him talk. I still see his wrinkled face and hear his quirky little laugh as he reminisced about days long gone. 

Over countless hours in our tiny cage, we talked in Hangul and bonded together as father and son. In a desolate world of incarceration, we found a glimmer of love, happiness and healing.

As with most stories, there are highs and lows. 

Unfortunately, my prison dad had to deal with the reality of his declining health. He had a laundry list of ailments: high blood pressure, diabetes, a broken bladder, a serious case of insomnia and a persistent cough, which would later be diagnosed as lung cancer. As his interpreter, we spent hours together in the prison sick cell waiting to see an empathetic medical professional. 

I know he felt guilty that my days were consumed with his problems, but I felt this was my filial duty and I loved him.

Once, I remember he hesitantly told me that he was unable to hold down any solid foods and had not eaten anything since the day before. It was the weekend, and the prison’s medical unit was a ghost town. 

Reaching into my old-school Korean cookbook, I whipped up some jook. For the uninitiated, jook is a bland Korean version of rice porridge that is served to the sick or infirm. It’s comfort food when you are feeling horrible. 

The preparations are simple enough on a stovetop. You need regular rice and a bit of time. But try making this dish in a dingy prison cell, with a rigged up prison-issued tea pot and some rehydrated instant rice. Despite it all, I managed to pull off a copycat version that any respectable halmeoni (grandmother in Hangul) would be proud to say was her creation.

I prepared a small table for him. A mug of cold water, a bowl of steaming hot jook and a spicy and salty hot sauce concoction to dress his bowl. I positioned my prison dad in front of his meal. 

After a few small spoonfuls, he put the plastic spoon down and started to sob. He grabbed my hand, looked away and sighed heavily. He composed himself and, in a shaky voice, said, “You take better care of me than my biological son.” 

Listening to these words broke my heart because of all his suffering, but it was validating too, because he saw me. He knew I loved him.

When my prison dad was released, we both shed tears. We knew the bitter unspoken truth — we would never see each other again. I had too much time remaining on my sentence, and he did not have enough time in his life to survive my incarceration. 

Holding him close for the very last time, I felt him trembling. 

He sobbed and whispered to me the same thing I told him the very first time I saw him, “Everything is going to be alright.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Andrew Suh is a Korean writer incarcerated in Illinois.