I’ve been running for a long time, both literally and figuratively. I’ve been an active runner for seven years now. First as a cross-country runner in high school, running has become my biggest means of stress relief. Figuratively, I’ve always thought of life as a marathon, but this past summer it was put to me in a different way. Life can be thought of as more of a relay race. Generation to generation, the torch is passed down to continue the work of those who came before us. This fuels the altruistic thought process: “I may suffer, but I have great hope and promise that my descendants will not.”
My leg of the relay started almost at the onset of my birth. I am the son of one of the few people I legitimately know who has carried out the American Dream; the promise to anyone in America that if you work hard enough despite your background you’ll be able to achieve your goals. My father, born in the destitute farm lands of Korea, worked his way to a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan. An epic in and of itself, I am often inspired by his hard work. Today, that dedication is channeled into his children, never treating himself.
Currently, many individuals in this country also aspire to similar dreams. However, the reality is often different. In an era of increasing wage gaps and sky-high college costs, it has become all but impossible for most people to find the right help and resources to overcome social stratification and move up in class. The “Dream” that many people all aspire to — one of true meritocracy — is instead biased, based on the resources and opportunities you are born into. It is no longer just as simple as just going to college, let alone being able to even get in. It begs the question: would someone like my father be able to exist today?
When people ask me about the American Dream, I have vivid images that immediately pop into my head.
Ann Arbor, 2004. I was with my dad and sisters at my mother’s graduation. After years of studying, my mom had finally graduated with an associate’s degree in nursing from Washtenaw Community College. I ran up to hug her as I saw her leave the crowded auditorium, approaching us in her black graduation robes. I squeezed her waist and smiled at her. It was an interesting moment, filled with so much innocence of a child’s love for his mother, but at the same time, an extraordinary amount of ignorance and bliss. At the time, I did not appreciate the amount of sacrifice my mother had just made for our family. At my father’s urging, she had given up her master’s degree and career in art to become a nurse for a more stable career to help my family. I struggle with pre-med courses these days even though I’ve grown up speaking English from the age of three; I cannot imagine what it must have been like for my mother, who was just picking it up.
As I continued squeezing my mother with all the power a first-grader could muster, I suddenly felt something wet hit my hair. I looked up, and from my mother’s eyes came tears, dripping onto my head. “Umma (mother in Korean), why are you crying?” I asked. My dad pulled out tissues from his pocket. How little did I understand what those tears meant to her.
Those sacrifices did not come easy. What I can look back on now — but did not recognize at the time — are the many summers I was babysat by various relatives and family friends in exchange for housing. I did not know about the times my mother struggled to even understand sentence structure, let alone the more nuanced biochemical principle of glycolysis. The times she went to our next-door neighbor, a University Biomedical Engineering professor, to ask questions, sitting for hours to understand only a fraction of the words coming out of his mouth. The time she failed her first nursing license exam, felt dejected and almost gave up entirely on becoming a nurse. The time she studied even harder and finished the same NCLEX in record time. The many times my sisters and I would fall asleep at her feet as she stayed up late night listening to audio recordings of lectures on cassette tapes, highlighting textbooks and making flashcards. The time she started working as a nurse at the hospital and struggled communicating with others. The times she still made sure my sisters and I were being fed and taken to school. Through all these obstacles, she overcame and did the biggest favor she could for me; feigning ignorance. Ignorance of the struggles and hardships behind her warm smiles and delicately prepared rice and side dishes.
Incheon, South Korea, 2006. I had just spent my first weeks in Korea after my family had moved to the United States. But the trip was now over, and it was time for me to go home. My grandmother had accompanied my mother, my sisters and me to the airport. As we waited in the cavernous terminal for our flight to depart, I sat in those black cloth seats, feet dangling, unable to put them on the ground. My grandmother reached over and patted my head. She handed me my favorite Korean snacks as I looked into her eyes and smiled warmly. My younger sisters were getting restless, unused to having to wait for long periods of time.
Eventually, my mother and grandmother exchanged some words and my mom started grabbing my hand and packing all the bags around me. We started heading toward the security check as my mother gently guided me through the airport. I stared as the linoleum floors passed by. I turned around to see my grandmother’s beaming eyes and warm smile one last time. As a kid, I had no conception of time. I did not realize it would be years before I saw her again. With one hand still clasped in my mother’s hand and my feet working overtime to keep along, I waved back to my grandmother with my other hand as we boarded the plane.
Soon, we safely found our way to the right seats in the airplane. As we got ready for takeoff, something felt off. I looked over and my mom’s body was slowly moving up and down, and when she took off her glasses I saw those tears she’d been holding in for so long. Perhaps if the stress of taking care of three kids for two weeks wasn’t hard enough, I knew it was harder for her to say goodbye to her parents once again. “Umma, don’t cry!” I begged as she pulled out some tissues from her purse. Though I was small at the time, my heart ached. What could a little boy do? My incessant pleas fell on empty ears; the tears kept falling and falling.
Years have passed since these moments, and I am working my way toward my goals. Though my surroundings, friends and experiences have changed, one thing remains: a burning passion to work hard. Friends, mentors and advisors alike have told me to take a break and to relax, that I don’t know how to enjoy myself. My calendar is always filled with varying shades of colors and deadlines and responsibilities. There are many days when I almost come to the end of myself, but it’s the only way I can make peace with myself.
I’ve often heard advice from others that they don’t owe their parents anything, as it’s not like they chose their parents. While I can agree with this sentiment on some level, as you don’t want to spend the rest of your life living out someone’s vicarious dream, it makes it sound easy. To just not care. Maybe it’s just my personality. Maybe it’s a lot of other things. Maybe it is the best thing to do, but damn is it hard.
To my parents, for the many times I have blown up at you, I hope you can forgive me. I was just scared, scared that I wouldn’t be able to live up to your sacrifices. Scared that I wouldn’t be able to look you in the eyes as an adult and say your sacrifices were not for waste. Scared I wouldn’t be able to provide you a financially comfortable life as you both got older. That my grandparents didn’t send their eldest children to a foreign country for no good reason. I didn’t want to take on the torch; I wasn’t asked to run. It was never really about the shame or you scolding me. I’m sorry about that. I just couldn’t bear the weight.
To be honest, I will always be the young kid in the airplane, unable to stretch his hands fully to wipe his mother’s tears and say the right comforting words. Alone in America with only my parents and sisters. When I see myself in the mirror, I’m the little boy standing in the airport, waving back to my grandmother who I’m not sure when I’ll ever see again. I’m the boy who goes back to Korea inches taller only to see my aging grandparents. I see my father unsure of his future on the farmlands of Korea, and I see my mother missing her family and struggling to understand her professor and coworkers because of the language barrier. I see their sacrifices in me.
I know it’s not just me. I have had the honor and privilege of meeting folks at the University of Michigan who strive just as hard, if not harder, to make a name for themselves and not waste the opportunities presented to them by those before. You know who you are. Here’s to immigrants and all the other runners in the world who are bearing the torch and striving for a better future. Fight on.