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.
Then, the pandemic wiped away how to protect anyone from anything. The map of Covid cases in Koreatown bloomed like spilled ink on paper. The virus attacked households with family members working in the service industry, the lifeblood of the neighborhood. My father and his fellow guards, cleaners and shopkeepers tasked to keep essential services open in the plaza were given reduced hours as the city settled into quarantine. He counted himself lucky for receiving full-time pay even with a shortened shift. But in April 2020 — just a few days into this new schedule and four months shy of his 70th birthday — he was lying on his stomach with wires crisscrossed over his body that plugged into a ventilator.
In my head, I traced the different paths this illness would drag my family through, all leading to dead-ends that have played out in hospitals all over the world. I jumped to the worst-case scenario because this is what thinking about nuclear war trained me to do. But as much as I know about catastrophes, I was ill-prepared for this. With Covid, death didn’t barrel through like a radioactive fireball, but crept stealthily under the folds of daily life.
This virus threw social roles into disarray. Now, the new battlefront runs along the supply chain; its footsoldiers take the form of farmers in agricultural zones or grocery store owners unprepared to confront an ill-tempered customer who refuses to wear a mask. Workers like my father became celebrated heroes and called “essential,” while citizens grew wary of “intellectual elites” like me and governing bodies that could not protect them from a real, immediate threat. In this new world, my father and I swapped places. Yet this version of living does not feel any more just or secure.
Security can take the form of fortress, bunker, asylum — spaces that separate the vulnerable from harm’s way. Nuclear weapons offer a different kind of security by doubling down on the danger, a willingness to destroy and be destroyed, to prevent an enemy attack. The military calls this “mutually assured destruction,” or MAD for short. Under MAD, there is no shelter; everyone is vulnerable, protected only by an assumption that no one will dare launch their missiles first. As my father’s health declined, I thought about how MAD the world is now; behind all the well-meaning gestures to honor frontline workers like him, there is the willingness to endanger their lives to keep commerce flowing. A willingness to destroy and be destroyed for a sense of normalcy.
My father survived. He returned home with sagging shoulders and a withered face but functioning lungs, every heave of his breath an act of defiance. He now awaits his second vaccine dose and talks openly about resuming work once the virus is “controlled,” although no one knows what control looks like. The virus seems to recede in Koreatown, but it stalks the trail of inequity that encircles the city, finding more low-income communities to destroy. Time folds and begins again.
For now, my father patrols the family garden and tends a makeshift pumpkin patch, its yellow blossoms draping over the backyard fence. He cooks Filipino dishes, pulling recipes from childhood memories, relying on taste and intuition to get it right. He takes my mother for morning walks around the neighborhood block, on guard after seeing reports of strangers attacking Asian-American elders. He shares these vignettes during our daily video call, always careful to say that life goes on, and he is doing fine. But I can tell he is not the same. I sometimes catch grief on his face, an unfocused gaze to a place I cannot see. He is a foreigner in his new life at home.
I am also not the same. As I try to re-establish the rhythm of work in this new year under a new administration, I hold my father’s survival close to heart. To be in the business of protecting the world demands appreciation of every single life. The word “everybody” is empty unless it is filled with human value, like the work-hardened faces of Black and brown people who remind me of my father. Or the essential workers performing the gloss of normal routine to survive this perilous time.
But as more people regain confidence and dare cross the line of security to venture outdoors, I worry that the glory of essential work will fade until the people carrying the heaviest burdens become what they were before: invisible.
In a strange way, Covid brought my family closer together. For most of my life I did not spend time with my father, but now I see him everyday making funny faces at me through our video calls. He declares his daily oximeter readings as normal, although a dull tiredness still sits inside him. Then, we daydream about all the Korean foods our family have come to love because of the shopping plaza my father guarded for decades: glass noodles, fish cakes, yuja tea. My mother’s face appears on the screen as she leans against my father’s shoulder. They ask me how work is going, and try to talk about the latest nuclear-related headline they saw in the news.
As I listen, I also daydream about a different world, where the invisible survive everything. A world worthy of building and protecting.
Lovely Umayam is a writer, creative producer and nuclear nonproliferation expert based in Los Angeles.