I shared this image that I created on Instagram last week a few days after my grandmother died. She was 94 when she passed away and lived a far longer life than I think anyone would have expected, given that she outlived pretty much all her peers. Still, as ready as she was to go, a death of a loved one – whether or not we are prepared for it – is always hard. We’ve lost quite a few family members over the last few years and the girls have gone to more funerals than I ever have at that age. Death was such an abstract concept to me as a child because I never experienced that kind of loss until much later in life, but I did go through a few traumatic separations early in life. I shared a little bit about our immigration story on Instagram, mostly because it’s hard not to think about those early years when I think about my grandmother, but also because sharing our immigration stories seems so important right now given the current political climate.
My mother was the first from our family to come to the US. She was also the first in her family to get any sort of professional education degree and came to NYC through a nursing job at a hospital in Queens. But she had to make a difficult decision and a huge sacrifice because she left me when I was just a baby to take that job. My grandmother raised me those early years; I thought she was my mother. So when my dad and I finally obtained our visas and green cards a few years later to join my mother in NYC, I was separated again from the only maternal relationship that I knew at the time. My dad said I cried and wailed so much on that airplane from Seoul to New York that the flight attendant took me from coach and put me in a seat in first class. I was only 3 years old, but I recall the first time I met my mother. That memory, the earliest I can remember, is as clear as day. I pummeled her with my little fists as she tried to hug me, and screamed that she wasn’t my mother. I pointed repeatedly to the sky that my real mother was somewhere “up there”. I’m not sure how my mother and I repaired our relationship, but it took years of getting to know each other again for our relationship to normalize. What I do remember vividly is crying every morning and hiding under furniture when both my parents left me with babysitters for the day as they went to work. I was told that I cried a lot back then. Childhood traumas run deep and manifest themselves in ways you least expect. I would still have recurring nightmares years later of a mother figure in my dreams wearing a frightening paper mask, her face hidden. Of course, my mother went through her own private trauma of having to leave her baby to pursue a better life, only to be soundly rejected by her child years later. I didn’t know it at the time, obviously, but I often think about the strength that’s required to make sacrifices that big. It’s a common thread, I suspect, in many immigrant stories and I’m sure the depression and isolation that my mother experienced her first few years alone here are fairly common too.
It would take 3 more years before my grandmother would arrive in the US shortly after my brother was born. By then, she had almost become a stranger to me, but we quickly reformed bonds while she lived with us for the next five years, helping to raise me and my brother while my parents worked. My mom systematically brought over her entire family over the course of a decade on her visa. One by one, they arrived at JFK and stayed with us until they had the means to get a home of their own. My grandmother left us when my brother turned 5 and from that point on moved from house to house to help raise all of her grandchildren.
Why do immigrants take that leap to leave everything behind to come to a country they’ve never set foot in, with a language that is not their own, and a culture unfamiliar to them? Assimilation into foreign cultures, even as a toddler, can be a herculean struggle. But I’ve always believed that immigrants have a certain appreciation for this country that can only be gained by these early struggles to assimilate into our adopted country. Most parents (and maybe immigrants more so) want their children to have better opportunities than they had. It’s why I never take this country for granted, despite the state of political affairs because I know that my life was made better when my mother chose to come here. It’s enabled me to have many first experiences of my own: the first in my extended family to earn an advanced masters degree, the first to move away to a different state from our New York based clan, the first to marry outside of our race.
Coincidentally, Miss C is studying immigration as part of her 5th grade social studies curriculum and one of her projects involved doing a report on a family member who immigrated to the US, so we’ve been talking about our family history quite a bit. I could tell that this was the moment the girls saw their grandmother, my mother, crystalize into a person (and not just a grandmother) whose childhood was so unlike theirs. They never knew that their grandmother lived in poverty and lived through a war, that she and her siblings often went hungry and were abandoned by their father, and that she was separated from her mother when the family fled on foot from Seoul to Busan during the Korean War. Or that she left me to build a new life for her entire family. Our story is just one of the millions of immigrant stories our country is built on.
My grandmother died a US citizen. She, like many immigrants, never looked back when she came to this country 40 years ago. She and my brother are the first in our family to be buried in a NY cemetery that has now become a family plot. I’d like to think that their spirits are together again, somewhere out there.