Over Thanksgiving break, I was with my roommate and her family, as has been our tradition since freshman year. One night, her dad was showing us these old college photos from when he met his future wife, my roommate’s mom. (Picture this: round wire-rimmed glasses, ‘80s big hair, couches covered by white sheets).
I loved seeing these old pictures, now digitized; I loved being transported back to the past. Families often tell stories through photographs, dusting off that bulky binder full of laminated photos to regale children and grandchildren about ye olden days of yore.
Not my family. Yes, we have photo albums, but the two we have are ones from my childhood, memories that are already vaguely familiar in my head. If my parents have photo albums from their college years, they are either tucked away in some secret cabinet in South Korea or they don’t exist at all.
My family is not exactly a sharing-stories kind of family. If you’ve ever been on the Facebook group “subtle asian traits,” then you know that this is a common thread, besides all the bubble tea and anime memes. I’m hesitant to generalize family dynamics based on race, because not all Asian American families are the kind that don’t talk at all, and besides — it’s not just Asian American families that might have this dynamic.
But I think there is something to be said about cultural expectations (the immense respect for elders in Korean culture, for instance, makes personal bonds between parent and child, grandparent and grandchild, different than in cultures where there is not as much emphasis on respect for elders); language barriers (both my parents’ and my first languages are Korean, but after ESL and living in the United States for approximately nineteen years, my Korean is at the level of a first-grader’s, while my English is at the level of a college student’s, making communication between my parents and I not the smoothest); and socioeconomic status (when I was younger and my parents couldn’t get a babysitter, I’d tag along with my mom to the nail salon she worked at, trying not to bother her as much as possible. My parents worked every day during the week, sometimes on the weekends, and when I was old enough where my parents felt comfortable leaving me at home by myself, I always felt like I was missing out on lost time with them — which is maybe part of the reason we don’t always tell each other everything).
Even though my parents might not be the type to gather the family around the couch to look at old photographs and reminisce about the past, and even though I might not be the type to ask them directly about what it was like growing up in South Korea during a military dictatorship and then a transitioning democracy, I’m finding new ways to get past these unsaid and unseen barriers in our relationship.
This semester, for the first time ever, I’m taking a course in Asian studies, on the history and present life of Seoul. I wish I’d done this earlier, or used Korean as my language requirement instead of French, or taken an API/A studies class, but alas — next semester is my last semester and I don’t have any room for more. Although there is this regret that bubbles underneath the surface, there is also the discovery of something I have never done before in a class — mined for family history.
In two weeks of the class, we focused on the development of Seoul post-Korean War and the preparations for the 1988 Olympic Games. In my professor’s lecture slides, there were pictures of student protests in the ‘80s, juxtaposed with protests in the ‘60s. Looking at these black-and-white photos, I wondered: were my parents there? My grandparents? I was born in Seoul and yet before this class I knew the barest minimum about the city’s history and culture. What is it to be learning about a place your family is rooted in, and yet to know nothing at all about your family’s history in this place?
I haven’t been home since August, but my parents visited for a day the first week of November. Over dinner, I told them about this class, and asked: Did you ever go to those protests against the military dictatorship? Yes, they said — only a few, perhaps two or three. I was busy studying, my dad said. We had other things to do, my mom said, looking a little sheepish.
Did grandfather go to the protests in the ‘60s? No, my mom said — he was in dental school. But his brother went to many of those, and they turned violent, quickly.
Where did you grow up? I asked both of them. A suburb north of Seoul, my dad said. Gangnam, my mom said (yes, Gangnam of PSY’s “Gangnam Style”).
The conversation ended pretty much there, and we moved on. I didn’t get a detailed rundown of their experiences at the protests, as my parents and I aren’t well-versed in the back-and-forth follow-up questions and tangents about family history (I didn’t ask how they felt during the protests, what it was like to be growing up in such an authoritative yet increasingly capitalist environment, and they didn’t elaborate on their own). But I am beginning to learn that it is okay to not delve into every minutiae of our family history. There is, sometimes, something comforting about being able to exist together in silence. And perhaps there are many reasons why my parents tell me so little of their lives — there is trauma in revisiting the past, after all, and perhaps there are memories that are better left buried underneath the rubble of our minds.
More than anything, though, I’m glad that we were able to have that conversation, grateful that I took this class that sparked those questions from me, that gave me their answers, an insight into my parents’ lives, even if it was just for a few minutes. But a few minutes is better than none at all. Maybe, in the future, we’ll be brave enough to move onto more than just a few minutes over dinner.
In class, we continue to learn about the past and present of Seoul, through text and photos and video. With each passing slide, I wondered: what does it mean to be learning about a place your family is rooted in, and — despite not seeing the full picture — to still recognize your family’s history in front of you?