This essay is part of a Modern Love project on the intersection of money and relationships.
I didn’t grow up in a romantic household. My parents were more business partners than lovers, consumed with the day-to-day operation of our family bodega. They never touched affectionately, never said, “I love you.” Dad didn’t call Mom “honey.” Rather, he called her “Hani-umma,” or “Han’s mommy,” using my Korean name. Mom addressed him likewise with my older brother’s.
While my friends’ parents went out to fancy anniversary dinners, the only meals my parents shared were eaten standing up in front of a busy cash register. Any gifts they did find time or energy to buy were practical, like the buy-three-get-one-free men’s sweaters Mom got at Sears, or downright bizarre, like the bargain-bin vintage fox fur scarf (with attached head) that Dad, forever the clueless bumpkin, probably mistook as Gatsbian chic.
And yet, my parents had been romantic, once upon a time.
When I was very small, I would catch glimpses of proof. For instance, they used to shower together! And have tickle fights. Once I even discovered a used (ew) condom in their bedroom trash can, which Dad, laughingly mortified, tried to pass off as medicine for his “gochu,” or “chili pepper.”
These romantic shenanigans stopped as soon as the bodega business began in earnest. My parents embarked on years of herculean commutes and backbreaking labor, all for the goal of putting me and my brother through college. It’s no exaggeration to say they never took a single vacation day, much less what we’d today call a “date night.” On Christmas and my birthday, they would often hand me raw cash and tell me to go buy something, too exhausted to think of a gift on their own.
As a result, I grew up not really understanding what romantic gestures were. I didn’t appreciate the meaning of a nice dinner or a surprise gift. I wasn’t good at all the stuff that didn’t cost money, either, like the catharsis of expressing emotions (which I kept mostly bottled up, probiotically fermenting), or the simple validations of physical touch and compliments (both of which made me bristle).
Unsurprisingly, all of my early romantic relationships fizzled. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in romance. (I was, deeply, and basically nonstop.) It’s just that I was bad at it.