Whoever named Las Vegas ‘Sin City’ saw right through it. My family went at least three times a year. In fact, my mom and dad got married in Vegas. My dad was a VVIP member, which meant that we stayed at a suite in The Cosmopolitan for free. I hated all of it. I hated the neon lights, the half-naked women–or men?–on the streets, the sexual call-cards, the stench of cigarettes and alcohol and pollution, the worn-down Korean restaurants run by sunken women. I hated it all. My dad’s love for gambling tore our family apart.
He would gamble for over 16 hours a day and smoked at least two packs of Marlboro Reds. Cigarettes, while killing him, always buy a man time.
He bet hundreds, even thousands, at a time. His favorite was Poker; he was good at it.
When he came back to the hotel room smelling of cigarettes and the cheap perfume of an unknown woman, he threw my siblings and me a Poker chip each, the same way a man throws his dog a bone.
They were like strangers, he and his kids. They called him maybe once or twice every week. With them, he felt as if he were playing a game of chess in which all the pieces were white.
It is hard to be a Korean dad.
His own father had tied him to a tree in the forest at night. He stayed there, as still as a flower in a windless summer–too proud to scream or cry.
Bellagio Casino was crowded at 3AM in the morning. The ocean rush of spinning reels, the brief snatch of victory, the hard glow of a thousand slot machines, and the rough greeting from the staff was a welcome relief from the cold silence of his family. He didn’t even mind the thick tobacco smoke that hung over his head like a piece of waterlogged cloth.
He learned how to gamble early; he was only ten years old when he played his first game of Go-stop, a Korean gambling card game–a sort of Korean Poker. Its poppy red cards mock all Koreans.
The risk drew him in every time. The belief that he was the exception, that he would beat the odds, kept him from leaving the table. In fact, coming to America was a gamble.
It turns out he was not the exception. All America had in store for him was a broken family and the constant reminder of his mom’s abandonment.
There is a woman called Doyeon; she is my dad’s mom and my grandma. She lived in Korea with her three children and her husband but ran away to America. Her story was never told until now.
She left her family, her home, because she did not know where to turn. Her children kept growing bigger, but she could not work and take care of them at the same time. Her husband was an abusive alcoholic.
She took a gamble, the same way her youngest son would years later, and left quietly while her children slept. It turns out she was not an exception either. She did not win by coming to America. All it gave her was years of suffering and humiliation.
My dad was only ten years old when he played his first game of Go-stop. I was only five. My grandma taught me the same way she taught her son.
I remember the twak twak of the red cards as they hit her fading wood floor. The sun shone through the window, casting light on the pennies we bet–their deep copper sheen becoming almost pink in the light. I was called ‘Little Tazza’–or little gambler–amongst my grandma’s friends because of my quick eyes and small hands.
I am the exception my family had hoped for; I am their ‘Little Tazza.’ It turns out the game is rigged when immigrants are the players. The odds are not for you. They’re against you. Knowing this, my family placed all their chips on me long before I was born. I had joined the game without even sitting at the table, and I can’t afford to lose now.