Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Distances and Passing Days

I left New York in 1999. New York was home, as much a home as I ever had. New York is where my family lived, the only family I had. I left behind my parents, brother, and sister, and moved 2500 miles across the country.

I was in my late 20s. Back then, 2500 miles didn't seem like much. Just a 5 hour plane ride, I said. I could fly there and back in one day. As I did one day in September 1999 to interview in San Francisco. For the interview, I took the first flight out of JFK to SFO. That night, I was back in New York. That same night, I decided to move west. It had been my first visit to San Francisco.

If I didn't like it, I could always move back, I thought. Decisions can be un-done.

The decision to move was impulsive. I didn't have as much a reason to move as a reason not to. "Why not?" was my attitude. I was young and single. No responsibilities and no attachments. I was offered a job, and that seemed good enough. All San Francisco offered was a job and two acquaintances. The rest of the city was a stranger.

I didn't think about what that meant until I was asked to provide my emergency contact at my new job. Suddenly, I realized that my closest family member -- in fact, my entire family -- was on the other side of a continent. On the form, I wrote in my father's name and his phone number with its Long Island area code. And then wondered about the three hour time difference. What if I were injured in some horrible accident and they needed his authorization to operate? Would they catch him in the middle of the night? Would he answer the call in his pajamas? Would he be able to find a flight out in an emergency?

Lately, I've been wondering about this decision. Not the decision to live in San Francisco, but the one to move myself 2500 miles away from my family. This decision made on the whim of the day, given not much more thought than choosing a soup or salad for lunch. My cavalier attitude.

We live 2500 miles away from our little guy's grandparents, his cousins, his uncle and two aunts, the only relatives he has in this country on my side of the family. To try to overcome the distance, we skype once or twice a week with my parents. We pop open the skype window, click their login name, and wait for the ring tones. When they respond, there is always an initial flurry of just sound, no images, as they try to find the right icons to click.

"Can you hear us? Why isn't it working? Is it working? Oh, I think I see them. Can you hear us? Is the baby with you?"

Then their faces appear. Two bobbleheads, illuminated by a florescent light behind them. My mom is always in the center, where she sits in front of the computer like a train conductor. She is the one who knows how to operate it. Even though the computer has been occupying a corner of their living room for two years now, my father does not know how to turn it on. Sometimes, when they are not online, I call ahead the traditional way. My father picks up the telephone, and as soon as I say, "Should we talk on the computer?," he responds, "Your mother is starting the computer now." In their household, it is her job to manage the kitchen as well as the computer.

So when they appear on screen, my mother sits on her throne. My dad hovers in the periphery, sometimes to my mother's left, sometimes to her right. As he shifts from one leg to the other, we catch parts of his chin, cheek, mouth, nostrils and at times, even his eyeglasses in the corners of our screen.

"How much he has grown. Look at him now. He looks like a little boy. Already no longer a baby. He's so much taller, and his eyes are so big. So handsome!"

The initial few minutes are always the same. The gushing, the fanfare, the exclamations of surprise at his growth, even though they saw him a week earlier -- and said the exact same thing.

"Over here, over here, look at us. Can you see us?"

They waive their hands, lean in closer, widen their smiles, and make clucking noises for his benefit.

On our end, Jeff and I hover around my 13 inch MacBook on the futon, one of us holding the little guy on our lap. We pick up the baby and try to present him the best we can. I'll often pick him up, let his legs stretch out, and pass his body from top to bottom over the screen, so they could see his full length. I'll also push the computer further out so that the video camera can capture the length of his whole body on screen. After, we'll tilt him over closer to the screen as his head flops forward and his arms flounder as they try to reach out to touch whatever they can.

Usually, at that moment, my dad will exclaim, "Look, he sees us! He sees us. He's reaching out to us. Look at him smiling!"

Then they will have an E.T. moment, where the two ends will try to touch across the screen.

In the way my parents lean forward and gaze at him, I could see how much they want to touch him. And hold him. The way I hold him every day, his little body bundled against mine, and nuzzle my nose against his neck, kiss his cute chubby cheeks, and inhale the sweetness of his baby scent. The only way to experience a baby.

I then vow to plan a trip to visit them -- sometime soon, really soon. But once I start thinking about whether I need to take the playpen, the car seat, the stroller, and the infant tub, I wonder if it would be easier when he's a little older. Then I think about having to take my breast pump on the plane and find a way to pump in that hole of a bathroom or under a blanket in my seat, I start wondering if my parents can't fly out to see us instead. Until I find out my mom's back's been acting up.

That's when the distance I created for myself seems like a burden and not the liberation I used to believe it to be. I'm sure it served some purpose and gave me an escape when I desperately needed it -- and probably still does to some degree from the sense of suffocation that can come from a family that has overtaken you, like overgrown ivy around a building. But nowadays, I seem to have lost memory of that suffocation. Instead, I wonder why I live 2500 miles away from them and what it means to be a family. Are we a family if we live 2500 miles apart but see each other once or twice a year? I guess we are a family by definition, so maybe the better question is what kind of a family are we. What does it mean that we live like this? For whose benefit? Why has it become so normal, so commonplace to live as we do?

Now with the baby and with my parents' aging, the passing days seem precious. I don't want them to miss out on him, and I don't want him to miss out on them. They are on opposite ends of the timeline of my life, and I want those two ends to join and form a cohesive circle, as I think a family should. That my parents should live out the rest of their lives so far away from us seems unacceptable, even cruel. But the thought of moving to the East Coast seems unthinkable. Not with our lives here, with our friends, with our jobs, without East Coast snowstorms and New York cynicism. The roots we have grown here seem too deep to uproot. So Jeff and I talk about the prospect of my parents moving out to California, but it's not so easy to move others to suit your own purposes and notions, especially when the others are set in their ways -- not too dissimilar from the way we are.

So we talk about planning a vacation with them. Maybe a trip to Hawaii. Days filled with sun, the beach, and carefree togetherness. Protected time where they can have their fill of the little guy to last them for the time being.

I think about the day when our little guy will grow into a man. And I wonder if he will move away from us. That thought makes my heart ache and I start to miss him already.


  1. You know, I've been thinking about this very thing with respect to my own family (on the East Coast also). And then I think about my parents and how they also moved away from their own families to another country while in their 20s and made yearly visits to see them. You're not alone in thinking about how to maintain a connection between your baby and your parents. We're also dealing with that very issue. Skype helps (and I had to laugh at your description of your parents communicating via Skype - mine behave the same way except it's my dad in control and my mom's head bobbing to the left and right - lol) but it's really not the same. But back in their day, my parents didn't have have that technology - just the good old telephone. My parents were actually considering moving to the West Coast but since we decided to leave CA and move up the coast tot he Pacific NW, they are having second thoughts. I have no desire to move back to the East Coast so I hope that they will entertain the thought of moving closer to us. However, I think about the community that they are established in. They were basically pioneers when they arrived in this country and now they have everything that is culturally important to them at their disposal. It would be like they were going backwards if they moved to Portland. I suppose if we remained in the Bay Area, it would be a different story. It's a big move, lots of change but who knows, maybe they'll reconsider the more they visit and interact with our little one. All this to say, thanks for writing your thoughts out and sharing them with us. I suspect that there are many that are in our situation.

  2. so beautiful.

    i'm still somewhat afloat on the "i'm young, single, unattached..." cloud but am undeniably descending by growing weight of the concerns you've just expressed. decisions!

    but shinyoung, would you have become the woman you are without having moved away to fend for yourself? maybe a different woman, but certainly not as strong. i think we are fortunate to have been allowed a freedom that allowed us to grow fully into stronger, more well rounded, thoughtful human beings.

    with that strength and collection of wisdom, i know your forthcoming decisions will be ever rewarding for you and your family.

  3. All I can say is, a beautiful post as always.

    Fellow U of C grad

  4. Thanks for continuing to keep us posted! I love your writing and appreciate your sharing with us.

  5. With my brother in the military and his family being all over the world through the past years, we and my parents have become very good at keeping the lines of communication open. We also have Hubby's dad who is in FLA 9 months a year. Remember - distance comes in many forms. Hubby's siblings who live three towns away are hardly ever heard from, and I have cousins in my hometown I never see.

    This "Sandwich Generation" thing stinks.

  6. go see your parents! It will be harder to travel when you have an older baby who wants to stand, cruise, walk all over the plane. It will be harder when you have more kids. It's an inconvenience for sure, but you have to fill your days somehow! I have Asian parents who rarely fly, I have half-Asian kids (the youngest is 4 months), I understand a lot of the stuff you write about. One difference is that I lost my dad last month after a long illness. Go see your parents, make some memories, take lots of pictures.

  7. We are having the same issue. But my parents are not even in the US, they are in Asia. When I read your post I am thinking "oh, east coast is no problem, you can go there very often". I am not saying it is not a problem. Just saying you have it easier than me distance wise, so go see your parents. 5 hours flight is doable. I think you can even make it to NY without pumping on the plane.

  8. You are already aware of this issue, so act on that gut instinct. Don't let the fear of inconvenience stop you. My children's grandparents are all gone now, and all I can think is how I wish we had visited more often. We were opposite coasts too.

    Bring hubs with you if you can. Skip the breast pump--you'll have the baby with you the whole time, right? Ask your parents to find out if neighbors or friends can loan you a car seat or a playpen to use during your visit. If not, pay the extra luggage fee, and check them both at the curb when you are dropped off at the airport, along with all your luggage. This leaves you with just your baby, your diaper bag, and your stroller for the flight time.

    If the baby's carseat clips on to the stroller, keep that with you. Consider buying a seat for the baby too, so you can strap the infant carrier into the seat next to you. I know it is expensive, but what will the memories be worth when it is too late? If buying the extra seat means you are not completely exhausted before you even arrive, then that will make it more likely you will go.

    Keep the stroller all the way to the gate, then you can fold it and check it at the gate, to pick up as you disembark from the flight. The stroller will help keep you sane in the airports.

    Pack extra clothes for you and the baby in the diaper bag, and more diapers and wipes than you think you could possibly need. Messy accidents happen. Pack new toys or rarely seen toys for the baby to help entertain on the long flight.

    There will be lots of people willing to help you on both ends of the flight with all the stuff you had to check--tip any of them who are in uniform, and don't be shy about recruiting a bellhop. You'll need them.

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  10. Good Luck! Air travel is a pain, no doubt about it. Especially with a baby going through security.

    You will have to collapse the stroller to put on the conveyor belt, and if you still have an infant car seat, that has to be X-rayed too. You will have to hold the baby in front of you at arms length, out of the carrier as you walk through the Xray. And God forbid you should get randomly selected for a pat-down. This is why it is so helpful to have hubs.

    Once you get through security, the rest is really not bad, so long as your diaper bag is well stocked. Consider buying a new baby toy at the gift shop.

    Most of all, enjoy the time with your family on the other end. It will be precious. REMEMBER THE CAMERA AND VIDEOS!

  11. Wow; this could have been written about me and my family - only in reverse. My husband and I moved from the West Coast to NYC a little over three years ago for nothing more than the promise of jobs and 3L offers. And now that our little son has just passed the three-month mark, we are planning to move back "home." Skyping with my parents no longer seems like enough now that we have a baby, and the thrill of the "big city" has definitely worn thin. West Coast and family: here we come.

  12. this made me smile yet it stung my heart. thank you for blogging!