During a workshop I participated in last summer, we were each asked to share our “immigration story.” I didn’t end up sharing with the group as I didn’t necessarily feel like I had much to say: My parents immigrated here from South Korea in the late ’90s, and I was born and raised in the U.S. End of story, at least on my end.
I recently wondered, however, if my parents have ever been asked this question. Have they — my mom in particular — ever had the space to recall the past 20-plus years of lived experiences in this country? Have I ever asked them — or her — to share it with me?
This past week, I set up an “interview” of sorts with my mom to genuinely ask her about her immigration to the U.S. and everything that followed. My mom was taken aback by my request and sheepishly told me she would jog her memory, and then she told me her “immigration story” for the first time in my life.
It was 1999 in South Korea, she said, and my dad had gone to the U.S. a year prior. Originally, the plan was for them to live in the U.S. while my dad furthered his education and then return to Korea a few years later. When I asked her about how she felt on her plane ride to the U.S., I thought she would tell me about how she had felt scared, nervously anticipating the future that lay before her as a 29-year-old. Instead, she laughed and told me that the whole time she had only been thinking about how to occupy my older brother for the duration of the 14-hour plane ride, as he was just over two years old at the time. She said she had just been so excited to see her husband on the other side.
When she landed in Portland, Ore., my dad was excited to take her home in a real American car. It was an old 1984 Buick and, despite his enthusiasm, she said it buckled and spewed and could barely last more than an hour’s drive. She laughed at him endearingly while sharing this story, telling me that she had wondered to herself if this was what the rumored U.S. was really like. My mom arrived in the U.S. with my older brother on July 3, 1999, and she believed the people around her who told her that the fireworks the next night must have been to welcome her into this new land.
For the first three years or so after their immigration, my parents lived in Eugene, Ore., where I was born. My dad had been attending graduate school at the University of Oregon at the time, and my family lived in the housing complex for graduate students and their families. Eugene was the perfect place to be, she said, a gorgeous Pacific Northwestern city with a breezy small-town feel. Surrounded by trees everywhere and only an hour’s drive from the ocean — which was good, because the Buick couldn’t take any more than that — she recalled this period of her life in blissful memory. I listened to her tell me about the huge lawn that stretched between the student apartments, how she would spend her days barefoot on the grass and read at the picnic tables while letting me crawl around.
Even though my parents didn’t have much money — my dad was a faculty student assistant and washed dishes at the dining hall — Eugene was a place where they didn’t need much to enjoy life there. None of the other students were particularly rich, she said, and she would give and take from the local community clothing drives as she shared with her neighbors. My dad had been pursuing a master’s degree in international studies, and my mom told me that many of their days were spent with these fellow graduate students, faculty and their families. She still recalled their names: Sabrina, Rachel, Karen, Kong, Dr. Proudfoot … Whether it was because they were in the international studies department or simply because Eugene was such a special place, she said these students and faculty were incredibly open-minded and instantly provided a safe community for them, chatting with my mom and enjoying her Korean cooking whenever they invited one another over. With them, she said, she could speak and laugh and meet people of other cultures without feeling self-conscious of her English or being treated as a foreigner. There had never been a time where she conversed with such a diverse group of people than those three years in Eugene, she said.
After my dad earned his degree at U of O, the original plan of returning to Korea started to shift as he felt that his education in the U.S. was only beginning. So, after my dad was accepted to Syracuse University College of Law in hopes of becoming an international human rights lawyer, my parents rented a U-Haul and set off for a 15-day road trip from Oregon to New York. The two of them, my five-year-old brother, my 18-month-old self and two of their friends were all they needed — the six traversed across the country, sightseeing during the day and camping at a different national park each night, all sleeping together in one tent. When I asked her if she felt nervous to be moving to another state, she told me that it was a little frightening to have to relocate to an entirely new place again. However, she said, her excitement and love for adventure was more than enough to trump any of those feelings. She loved the idea of traveling to a new place knowing that she would not be turning back, she told me as she motioned a straight line with her hands across an invisible map of the U.S.
While their years in Eugene had been filled with warm, friendly company, Syracuse, N.Y., was different. Besides the handful of Korean students and Korean church members, they didn’t have the same sense of community as they did in Eugene, she said. Especially as my dad navigated the competitive and stressful nature of law school, he felt the people there were colder, less inviting. Even now, whenever my dad looks back on and compares Eugene with a certain fondness, it is clear that a lot of the loneliness and hardship he felt was after the move to Syracuse. When I asked my mom about when she felt most lonely in all of her years in the U.S., she paused and said she simply felt alone when my dad felt alone.
Without too much deliberation or a necessarily conclusive decision to stay in the U.S. permanently, we moved to the suburbs of Chicago for my dad’s job and have lived there ever since. Over the last decade, my mom has been heavily involved in our local church and Grace Moogoonghwa Korean School. She graduated from Kyung Hee Cyber University last summer with a master’s degree in Global Korean Studies and hopes to publish a Korean American history textbook one day. Today, she works at KAN-WIN — an organization dedicated to combating gender-based violence and domestic violence in the Asian American community — as a faith-based field advocate, working with pastors and other leaders from the surrounding Korean churches on domestic violence education and providing other important resources. She believes that her faith and identity as an immigrant plays a large role in her work, as she recognizes the importance of cultivating Korean American identity in future generations as well as loving and supporting other immigrant women in need.
I learned a lot about my mom during our conversation. I learned about the Oregon blackberries that she would pick and bake with each year and about the chalk-red Utah roads that astounded her most on that cross-country road trip. I learned about how the enclave of the Korean community, especially in the Chicago-area, has been a source of shelter but is simultaneously cut off from the rest of our local community. I learned that, when we visited Korea a few summers ago, she felt like she had returned home; and when she saw a Chicago-set movie appear on the television there, she suddenly felt scared and didn’t want to go back to the U.S. I learned that for someone whose first language is not English, it depends entirely on the listener’s posture and effort to actually listen; and when she had dinner with my brother’s Black roommates at his grad school last fall, she felt heard for the first time in a very long time.
Near the end of our call, I asked when, if at all, she had felt that she could call the U.S. her home. Her response was that she felt like the U.S. was her home when she realized that she needed to make it a home. I could see both of our eyes begin to well up as she paused in silence, and she continued on deliberately: No matter how high the odds might be stacked against her, no matter how rejected or ridiculed she might feel at times, she said she felt that she needed to lay roots and make this country a home for her children. She had brought my brother and me here, and she was responsible for whatever followed.
During this past winter break, my mom did a good amount of deep cleaning in the basement of our childhood home. Among the fifth-grade art projects and secret cash found wedged within books, she also found a stack of U of O and Syracuse U-emblemed notebooks in which she had written all kinds of things — grocery lists, assignments from her English classes, scattered diary entries, letters to her parents and old friends in Korea. As she read aloud the budget lists of tee-ball practices and piano lessons, first drafts of letters sent to her loved ones and the thoughts and worries of her past self, I could see a light sheen cover my mom’s eyes. She laughed and endearingly called her younger self so gitteughae (admirable) as she flipped through these pages, and I think I now understand exactly what she meant at that moment.
My immigrant mother is more than admirable. As I look through and listen to these archived stories of my mother, the mementos and scraps jotted down as she both led and followed my family in each stage of our journey, I realize that an immigrant mother is one who collects, necessarily — who, with her family in mind, unreservedly gathers each moment of happiness, hardship, unknowing and surprise alike. She is one who feels so much for her family. She is one who fearlessly faces and diligently picks up whatever lies before her, no matter how difficult or unprecedented, simply because she believes that she must. And she is one who steadfastly carries along this thread of experiences, beaded with fragments of memories and episodes that have still yet to be fully internalized.
This thread of my mother’s has grown long and wiry, weathered by cold Chicago winters and frayed at the edges after 22 years of living in the U.S. It has been mangled by tiny hands, scented with Oregon pine and stained with tears of hurt and joy. Yet it is one that has been beautifully crafted and is telling of divinely enduring love. And as my still-maturing eyes begin to see the glow of my mother’s thread form in all of its nuances, a wave of emotion comes over me. I proudly say that I love you, umma, and I hope to be half the woman you are one day.
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