June 20, 2014 at 3:48 PM ET
Burned out from her job and still mourning the loss of her father, Jinna Yang decided to dramatically shake up her life and honor the memory of a man who always put others first.
In April, Yang, 25, quit her job in digital media in Manhattan, sold about 80 percent of her belongings and bought a one-way plane ticket to Iceland. Before she left, she took an old photo of a tuxedo-clad Jay Yang and had a company she found online make a life-size cardboard cutout of her father, who died from cancer at 52 on Aug. 24, 2012.
Jay had always been busy caring for his two children, running a dry-cleaning business in Norfolk, Virginia, and working as an environmental engineer to have time to travel, so Jinna was going to honor his memory by taking him along for her trip to Iceland and through Europe. Her good friend, Christine "Tineey" Tsang, accompanied her on the trip and took photos of Jinna holding the cutout of her father in front of famous landmarks like the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower in France, the Colosseum and leaning tower of Pisa in Italy, and the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. She posted the photos on Instagram and on her blog, prompting an outpouring of heartfelt responses online.
"A lot of where my motivation came from was because of him, and I never got a chance to really repay him,'' Yang told TODAY.com.
"I always knew in my heart that he had sacrificed so much. He took care of his parents, plus me and my brother. My dad never put himself first. I thought that if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this in his memory, to help my family have peace and know he's with us in spirit."
Yang was not just struggling emotionally with her father's death before she radically changed her life. She said she also developed alopecia areata, a condition in which spots of her hair were falling out.
"The rate at which my hair was falling out was alarming to my family," she said. "I thought, this isn't just mental, spiritual and emotional, it's becoming physical, so I had to do something with my life. I had hit rock bottom, and I just thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
A friend who is an industrial designer helped alter the cutout of Yang's father so that it would fold in three different places in order for her to be able to carry it more easily and take it on the plane.
Yang would walk with the cutout tucked under her arm and then unfurl it for a picture, which was an immediate conversation-starter with strangers.
"When I would whip it out, people would turn their heads, smile and take pictures,'' she said. "It was a fun, lighthearted thing. They would be like, 'Is that a celebrity? Is that your husband?' When I told them who it was, people understood why.''
Yang said she nearly had an emotional breakdown once she and Tsang reached Rome.
"I asked her, 'Do you think I'm crazy for doing this? Am I stupid? I quit my job, left my apartment, I don't have a Plan B, I'm doing my laundry in a sink right now, and to add to that, I have a life-size cutout of my late father with me,''' Yang said. "She said, 'It's not like you're having conversations (with the cutout) every day.' I would've never gotten through all this without Tineey."
Yang posted her project on her blog on Father's Day. Some online comments insist the pictures must be Photoshopped.
"I feel like it's kind of ridiculous and frustrating because the project is so personal to me, and I didn't expect it to be this big and reach so many people around the world,'' Yang said. "To have someone accuse me of lying to people, it hurt. On the other hand, the amount of support and positive feedback I have received takes away the negative speculation."
Yang also believes the project has helped her family members achieve the peace they have sought in the two years since her father's death, which left them in a difficult situation financially as well as emotionally.
"My stepmom texted me a photograph of a Korean newspaper with my pictures in it last night, and I broke down in tears,'' Yang said. "This is exactly what I wanted. I wanted people to hear who my father was, and to see it in my father's home language and to know my grandmother can read this story, it just brought everything full circle."