immigration stories, and on being the first

February 24, 2017 |  Category:   family favorite posts growing up half life remembering

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.

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  • Pamela February 24, 2017 at 10:54 pm

    Thank you for sharing. I’d write more but it’s difficult with the tears in my eyes.

    • Jenna February 28, 2017 at 8:33 am

      Thank you for reading, Pamela!

  • Jen February 25, 2017 at 12:11 am

    While reading this, the term “narrow-minded” popped into my head and took on new dimension; a mind that fails to appreciate the depth and richness of experiences like this is truly narrow. Tragically so. Thank you for sharing, and condolences on the loss of your grandmother.

    • Jenna February 28, 2017 at 8:34 am

      Thank you for taking time to read the post, Jen. Appreciate it.

  • Christine February 25, 2017 at 12:41 am

    Thank you for telling your family’s immigration story. My mom and dad brought each of their 7 or so siblings to the US over two decades. Many of them left behind families. There never seemed to be a question that it was what had to be done to give them a better future.
    Your grandmother sounds extraordinary.

    • Jenna February 28, 2017 at 8:34 am

      Thanks for sharing a bit of your story. I suspect many of us immigrants have some stories in common.

  • Celina February 25, 2017 at 3:52 pm

    Loved reading this story and seeing the photo illustration you did. Thank you for sharing.

    • Jenna February 28, 2017 at 8:35 am

      Thank you, Celina.

  • Lakshmi February 27, 2017 at 2:37 pm

    What a beautiful essay. Can I share it on Facebook with my friends?

    • Jenna February 28, 2017 at 8:35 am

      Thank you for asking – sure!

  • Leilani February 28, 2017 at 12:18 am

    Thank you, Jenna, for sharing this.

    • Jenna February 28, 2017 at 8:35 am

      Thank you so much Leilani.

  • Vicki in Michigan February 28, 2017 at 9:50 am

    Thank you for sharing these family memories with us.

    I am sure that everyone has a story with many similarities to this one — but for some people, those stories have been lost over the generations. That’s a shame, because those stories of the courage of those who came (and of those who stayed behind) could inform thinking about others who are displaying that courage now. If everyone knew the stories of the sacrifices and successes of their own ancestors, perhaps they would find the stories that are are playing out today more familiar. Perhaps they could see today’s immigrants as “just like great-great-grandpa and great-great-aunt Mary,” rather than as … something less.

    • Jenna March 8, 2017 at 2:08 pm

      Hi Vicki, yes I’m sure stories get lost. In reality, I never knew much about my grandmother’s life – she didn’t like to talk about her past. Trying to get these stories down as best I can.

  • Kat March 1, 2017 at 11:20 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing your family’s story, Jenna. I agree wholeheartedly with Vicki’s comment above… I wish stories like these could be collected somewhere so that we see more clearly the common thread that runs through them all.

    • Jenna March 8, 2017 at 2:08 pm

      These stories are all powerful! That would be a wonderful project…

  • Lara March 3, 2017 at 8:55 pm

    Thank you for sharing Jenna, I am a first generation Arab-American, and though our family stories are pretty different, I really relate to so much about what you describe regarding human strength, trauma, family bonds and what it takes to seek opportunity and become a citizen of the US. I lost one of my grandmothers before she met my daughter (now age 5 1/2) and it does make me sad, though I know it’s not the most brutal hardship. It’s strange when family bonds are forged even with multiple geographic separations. My sincere condolences, and I always love reading your posts.

    • Jenna March 8, 2017 at 2:09 pm

      Thank you so much Lara, for this comment.

  • Cindy Wong March 5, 2017 at 11:29 pm

    Wow. This brings tears to my eyes. Beautifully said about the sacrifices our families make in making new beginnings in a foreign land. My grandmother did the same thing in raising her grand children while the parents were away at work. I am glad that your children are learning about your parents and grandparents sacrifices through your stories. That is one thing I definitely want to share to my child when he’s old enough to learn.

    • Jenna March 8, 2017 at 2:10 pm

      Yes, it was interesting to tell them more about their grandmother. They had no idea, and it really showed on their faces as they listened and absorbed the stories.

  • Sora March 6, 2017 at 2:42 pm

    Jenna, we have so many similarities in our immigration experience. I too was separated from my mother (both parents) at the age of 3 and lived with my grandparents for a short time in S. Korea. Although I don’t remember that experience much (all I have are stories and photos), I do know it left somewhat of a dark mark on our childhood. I believe it was harder for my brother b/c he was a bit older. I too appreciate and never have taken our country for granted. I am so sorry to hear the passing of your grandmother. I’m glad she was able to know your kids. Much love to you and your family!

    • Jenna March 8, 2017 at 2:11 pm

      Thank you Sora. I also have photos of that period with my grandmother, and also of me and my dad while my mom was away. They are some of the most interesting black and white photos. I always wondered who took them.

  • Marlena March 9, 2017 at 11:13 am

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am the granddaughter of undocumented immigrants, who received amnesty in Reagan’s time. My grandmother shares stories of crossing the Rio Grande for work – how cold the water was, and hiding in closets. She never finished middle school, and worked until her mid 70s as a cleaner. That I sit in a desk now making a salary and having full access to rights as a citizen never leaves me. My grandfather was Apache, and all of this talk about immigration is so frustrating because my grandparents and their ancestors were the first people living here. We are all living on stolen land, living stolen dreams built on the backs of slaves. My dad’s family is Jewish, and my great-grandfather remembers being held at age 3 on the boat to American from Odessa. Antisemitism also remains alive and well.

    I don’t have more thoughts that are coherent beyond a thank you for sharing your story.

    • Jenna March 14, 2017 at 10:08 pm

      Thank YOU Marlena, for sharing your story. These stories are so interesting. I wish there was a place to read more.