Andrew first learned the story of his traumatic childhood at the age of 21, and he was surprised he’d survived. Here he reveals how life lessons from his grandmother, and a passion for dance, brought him safely to adulthood
I grew up as an only child, cared for by my grandmother. We were a team. We drove each other nuts, but we always knew we had a deep, underlying love for one another.
I first learned the story of my childhood from her when I was 21. She had waited until then – when I came home after graduating from university – because she felt story could have been too disturbing for me when I was younger. I’m happy she did.
Given the circumstances, I’m surprised I wasn’t orphaned or dead by the time I got to be three months old.
I was born to an immigrant South Korean mother, who had been brought to Canada by my grandmother and dad in 1988. Shortly after arriving, my mom and dad got married, and I was born in December that year. Although, just before I was born, they divorced.
I lived with my mother for a month, but things started to get messy. Being a single mother, newly arrived in a foreign country, finances were tight and our living conditions very poor.
So my grandmother ‘kidnapped’ me. But a police SWAT team surrounded her place and took me back to my mother. It was a couple of months later that my mother realised she couldn’t afford to raise me, and legal custody was given to my grandmother and my dad.
When I was three, my dad decided to leave us for a ‘job’ (it later turned out to be a woman) in California, leaving sole legal custody to my grandmother – a 70-year-old seamstress who could barely make ends meet. My grandmother and I would end up spending the next 13 years together in the suburbs of Ontario.
Looking back, I developed a deep fear of abandonment, and separation anxiety. I remember constantly asking myself: ‘Why does everyone else have a mom and dad? Why did they leave? Is there something wrong with me?’ This would be a mystery growing up, and it still haunts me to this day.
I didn’t have much as I grew up. We were close to poverty, so we had to move around a lot, and I never really got to form meaningful relationships or have many friends. My grandmother was always very strict with me, keeping me sheltered, and forcing me to work and study hard – she didn’t want me growing up to be like my dad.
The fear of rejection, and my lack of confidence, made it very hard for me at school. When you don’t conform, teens can be such jerks sometimes, and I ended up being bullied. One of my teachers even threw my books and pens on the floor for not paying attention, and made the entire class laugh at me. I never really told anyone about this stuff then. I just thought this was life.
Throughout my teens, I lived in fear for my life. I had suicidal thoughts almost every day. But I told myself that I could not give in. I think my grandmother indirectly gave me hope, that when we hit obstacles in our lives there are always two paths we can take – give up, or persevere. I chose the latter. So I kept going until high school was over. But in the summer of 2006, my perseverance was tested again.
I was about to go to university, when I found out that my close cousin had completed suicide. The emotions that flowed through me, I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I decided I needed a fresh start. It wasn’t the city I was living in, or the school I went to. It was the people around me, and the reputation I had for myself. I couldn’t be in this environment.
We each have our own story to share, and we all have something to learn from others
So technically, I did give up, but I did it with an objective. Go to university, rebuild my life from the ground up, and treat people the way I wanted to be treated. Support those who are facing challenges, and give them the motivation to keep on going.
It was at this point that I came across a YouTube video of someone dancing. Their entire body was fluid, as if the music and body were one. So I started copying some of the moves, and practised every day.
I eventually got better and better at it, and at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, I fell in with a crew of hip-hop and breakdancers at the orientation event. I decided to hop in and show a few moves. I was pretty bad, but I really enjoyed it, and seeing the smiles on people’s faces really brought one to mine. I had found a passion.
My newfound friends and I decided to start a hip-hop dance club called FLOW, that held classes, organised live shows, and taught the true meaning of hip-hop culture and what it stood for.
I fell in love with it so much that it took me to the early stages of the So You Think You Can Dance Canada TV show in 2009, and as an opener for the rock band Hedley when they were on tour in 2008.
I was getting better and better, my classes were getting larger and larger. More people looked up to me. I was having an influence on peoples’ lives. Dance saved me from the trauma and horrors of my life. I felt like I had accomplished a mission.
I always wondered what it felt like to be truly passionate about something so much that you didn’t fear to express it. That all that mattered in that moment in time was you. That’s the feeling I felt with dance. Being able to move my entire body, to music that means so much to me, is a deep feeling that I wish I could express more vividly in words.
I left university in 2011 with a degree in mathematics. I graduated as one of the more popular kids in school, and FLOW eventually became the largest hip-hop recreational dance club in the city. But more importantly, I developed lifelong and deep, meaningful friendships, with good people, and we helped push each other further every day. Even better, I found my confidence.
Today, fresh into my 30s, I use my solitude, confidence, and perseverance, as a freelance marketing architect in the beautiful city of Toronto, and I continue to dance as a passion. Dance has helped me during the best and the worst times of my life. It’s the closest thing that I can call my own.
We each have our own story to share, and we all have something to learn from others. It’s OK to be vulnerable, especially as a man, and I thank all the incredible women in my life for teaching me this.
As traumatic as the memories will always be, I’ve become a stronger human because of it. There is a silver lining to everything in life.
We have to learn to live our lives incomplete. No human being on the planet is perfect. Learn not to take people for granted, to be kind to others because you never know what they may have gone through, but don’t allow people to take advantage of you.
At the end of the day, the person you have to truly love and trust first is yourself. When you achieve true independence, and can give back to those who are near and dear to you – like I do with my grandmother – then meaning has been truly fulfilled in your life.
Rachel Coffey | BA MA NLP Mstr, says:
Andrew survived the most challenging of circumstances, from his very youngest days, right through his teens – situations he may still be coming to terms with today.
Importantly though, Andrew realised he had a choice. After another traumatic event he decided to take action – reach out to others with similar interests, get involved. This proved a turning point for Andrew. Though it felt like vulnerability, Andrew found the strength to open up to possibilities of friendship, creativity and support. Clearly gifted, Andrew continues to share what he has learnt, and lives as the person he always truly was inside.