Friday, June 21, 2019


Sometimes when I think of our family's trajectory, I fill with a deep sadness. There's an overwhelming sense of defeat, of despondence. Over forty years ago, we traversed to a new land, and it feels as if we never found our grounding. Our family still feels lost. I wonder if others who attempt to transition from one culture to another feel the same. Is this the story of other displaced people?

I feel this sadness most acutely when I spend time with my parents. They are usually during time spent together as a result of my well-intended effort to provide a semblance of a better life, as I perceive it. Left to their own, they would probably go for months without social contact. They would eat, go on daily walks along the same stretch of land, and go to their doctor's appointments. They would lock the little gate to their front yard around 5pm and from inside the walls, watch some Korean television while dozing. They live as if in a bunker, holed up against a hostile world.

I arrange almost all social events that occur on their calendar. Over the years, I've sent them to Broadway shows, to the US Open, on a trip to Europe, to countless restaurants. I have organized family vacations around their longings, including a trip to Sedona, to Hawaii, a cruise to Alaska. I arrange all birthday celebrations. Two years ago, I organized a gathering for them in Hawaii with my mom’s two sisters and their husbands from Korea. Most recently, I took them on a trip to Northern California to attend our niece's graduation. I’ve organized dinners with friends with elderly Korean parents so that my parents could meet some people. Most of these events occurred despite resistance from my parents. They often say no initially, and I take it upon myself to persuade them to engage with the world.

I've tried to cajole my parents to attend church, just to meet other Koreans. People who speak the same language. People who may share a similar outlook. People who have a chance at understanding their perspective. I’ve chatted with random Koreans who own dry cleaners and work at restaurants to inquire about which church they attend so that I could suggest them to my parents. Even when I offer to drive them or line up an Uber, they refuse.

It is difficult to watch them live out the last decades of their lives. Their lives lack mirth. They don't have much in common with each other, and they know no other people in town, apart from us. Their time, often marked by anxiety, is spent tending to repetitive daily chores. Their loneliness is palpable, and their frustration, close to the surface. They seem afraid to hope, reluctant to demand more.

They see danger in everything. A lot of my suggestions are met with resistance, an admonition of possible risk, an assessment of the money spent against the possible benefit. When I invite them to my children’s birthday parties, they huddle in the corner or indoors by themselves, eat their food, and tell me I shouldn’t spend so much money on the party favors or so much time preparing the food. Their advice usually reflects positions of retreat, like warning me against extending myself too much, conserving my money and energy, and guarding against possible danger. In their advice, I see the hallmark characteristics of the vulnerable, defenseless, community-less.

There are glimmers of their yearning. On a recent flight, my parents sat next to a Korean family. In their presence, my mom became an engaging person, someone with a social presence. She treated my daughter with more gusto and made an effort to be seen. I have seen her do this on another occasion. She emerges from her invisibility and takes on a social identity. It is a drastic transition. Her passivity falls by the wayside, and she becomes a functioning human being. She becomes the kind of grandmother I want for my children. The kind of mom I want for me.

I think of the audacity of uprooting oneself to go to another land. Anyone who has spent time trying to grow roots from a cut plant knows how tricky it can be. Thick, fleshy, water-retaining succulents may be easier than most, but stems of mature trees with histories in its rings may not root at all. Even a new shoot needs to be cut at the right angle at the right part of the plant, during the right stage of growth, and sometimes even at the right time of day to have the optimal chance to survive. The cutting needs to be handled properly. Many require specific conditions to grow, like proper level of humidity, good drainage, and the right type of soil mixture. And even as the roots start to grow, they need constant care to thrive and to avoid decaying. I wonder about the conditions we need as people.

Our family never set out to traverse to another land. We came for what we thought would be a temporary stay, and here we are, 40 years later. We are accidental immigrants. We didn’t come equipped with the kind of audacity needed to make this crossing. We lack the toughness, the know-how, the optimism needed to thrive.

Every non-Korean I speak to about this situation has basically told me to leave them alone. Maybe they prefer it. There is nothing I can do for them. Don't let their sadness interfere with your happiness.

It's difficult to explain that my life cannot be separated from the journey we took together. It is unacceptable to have their story arc turn downward, toward despair, while mine turns upward, toward hope. We are entwined. We are made of the same cutting. Any roots I grow have to supply water to their branch.

And yet, at times, I long for a little separation. To not carry the weight of their desolation on my shoulders. To not have my slivers of hope dashed by their ever-present despondence. To live cocooned in optimism, not dejection.

I feel something akin to survivor's guilt. I made it across more or less intact. They made it across as well, with their limbs and financial security, but also with a profound loss they do not name. I wonder if the decision made 40 year ago was a mistake, and I spend my life looking for evidence that it was not. I desperately search for some signs of redemption, signs that are not easy to find.

On this day, my parents and I are on yet another journey, a short stay in Hawaii before we travel back to Korea for a few weeks with my husband and children. We have many reasons for returning. To meet with our relatives. To see the land we left behind, to see how much the country has changed. To test our memories against the reality of a life we could have had.

It is my children’s first trip there, and surely my parents’ last. My dad is 80, my mom, 77. It feels like a ritual of sorts. To show my children the starting place of our family while giving my parents a chance to return.

In this process, I have this fantasy to be absolved of the what ifs and could haves that have permeated my existence. I will no longer see my mom and wonder about the person she could be if she lived among her people. I will not see her invisibility and pine for a life where she can be a socially engaged person. Even if for just three short weeks.

On this day, redemption feels elusive. I see no upturn in the arc of our story. We are a family who left for another land and became lost. We lost each other and perhaps ourselves, even as we discovered new things along the way. And I, one who found a way to grow roots here, have no insights to offer my parents. All the effort I have made to try to help them enjoy the perks of our new land have amounted to little. I can pay for dinner, but I cannot give them a social existence.

And still I look, for this elusive redemption. I remind myself that this is a tremendous opportunity, one not often available to others. We return bearing gifts for our many cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. We return with intentions to be a part of a larger family, a larger community. We return to be understood, to be seen, to belong, to once again be a people with history and context. I carry images of us surrounded by our aunts and uncles, laughing, exchanging stories. I carry visions of my mom holding hands with her sisters, reminiscing, finding a version of herself that has became obscured. I carry a picture of us visiting my mom and dad’s hometowns and coming back with a new lens through which to see them. I carry a dream that by returning to the land of what could have been, we will also see what we avoided. Maybe if we meet some who aspire for a life in America, we will be able to recognize all that we have become, all that we have gained.

I return with a hope that we still have something to find, something to restore.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

In Response to Min Jin Lee

In a recent op-ed, Min Jin Lee defines power as the "confidence to speak for yourself."

In 1979, three years after Min Jin Lee's family, our family moved to the US for what we expected would be a three year stay. Those three years turned into forty. Like Lee's family, we also landed in Queens. We arrived over the weekend, and on Monday morning, I was registered to attend P.S. 20 in Flushing. I didn't even know the alphabet.

Like Min Jin, I never felt like I had the right to speak publicly. In eleventh grade, I had something to say to a teacher. Not knowing how to speak out, I wrote a letter overnight and watched, as if mute, while she read my words. During my first job at a big law firm, after also graduating from Georgetown Law, a well-established litigation partner pulled me aside to admonish me about not displaying enough confidence. I don't remember his exact words, but he told me that he had seen many Asian-Americans come through the firm and wondered why so many of us, who were clearly bright and talented, did not carry ourselves with more confidence.

I've wondered about confidence. Where does it come from? And why do some people have it and not others? I wonder why it matters. Confidence seems foreign to me. What does it even mean to feel confident about some future event? It rings of a mainstream substitute for what religious people call faith. It also feels misbegotten. I recall reading a survey of American kids who reported high confidence about math scores they did not achieve. Confidence does not correlate to results, yet there seems to be an assumption that it leads to something, that it is a necessary ingredient. Forget about confidence, I wanted to say. Just look at my results.

An online etymological dictionary defines confidence as "assurance or belief in the good will, veracity, etc. of another." By this definition, confidence reflects a relationship, not an inner trait. It is a concept about how one relates to the outside world. It is a knowing that others will respond with good will, that those around us will respond with affirmations. It is akin to a sense of security among our fellow beings. As an eight year old from another culture, I received no such assurances.

What I knew was the opposite. The country we had moved to was not sophisticated or complex enough to hold space for people like me and my family. It wasn't hostile, at least not generally in my experience, but those we encountered on a regular basis made it known that they were not of us, and we were not of them. We did not belong to the same tribe. The two simple syllables of my first name did not exist in juxtaposition here. I was relegated to a color. As for my body, my face felt too big, my torso too long, my calves too stumpy. A small sampling of the food we ate was reserved for international day festivals. The words we used had no expression outside of our household. The values our parents taught often clashed with what we learned in school or saw on TV. The stories I read in elementary school (I recall Judy Blume most vividly) were not stories of my family. My upbringing was marked with more negations than affirmations.

When I was growing up, my parents rarely talked about confidence. Instead, they encouraged us to apply ourselves, to practice, to study, and to keep trying. They told us that we could not rely on America to do anything for us. We were outsiders, we were alone, and we had to rely on ourselves. Our relationship with this country was one of uncertainty and insecurity. We did not have the luxury of confidence.

To me, this poses a conundrum. If confidence is a feedback loop dependent on an affirming environment, what happens to those of us who grow up without such affirmations? What does it do to our identity to not see ourselves reflected in others, and vice versa?

I know I carry a timidity I've seen in some others like me. Immigrants. Racial minorities. Those with a past that disqualifies them from automatic membership. I see it in their smiles, the way they smile too readily. The way we let others lead the conversation, passively nodding along, and rarely speaking up even when we disagree. The way we divert attention from ourselves, even as we perform like good soldiers, saying the right things while dressed appropriately. I know I don't like attention on myself. Sometimes when eyes are on me, I find myself muttering, repeating myself, tapering off. Often, the burden of being an individual feels like too much, of finding something to say that is worthy of attention. It feels easier to take on a role - the room parent, the organizer, the foodie, the reliable friend, the easy-going sidekick. Better to pass the evening smiling affably and glibly.

I don't always know how to relate to the external world. The world I see doesn't feel multi-faceted enough to hold the complexities and contradictions I carry within. And even when I am sure that the person on the other end similarly holds those complexities, it takes effort to bridge over and create enough safety to discuss them. Sometimes, in those moments, I retreat, and silence becomes my home.

Recently, in a conversation, one of my professors said that when others don't know enough about us, they project qualities onto us. In one of his books, he wrote (applying concepts from Foucault): “Within human communities, what can be said, and who can speak, are issues of power.” It makes me wonder about all the stereotypes put on Asian-Americans. The model minority. The inscrutable. Lack of personality. So many others. And it makes me wonder about my relationship to silence and how I don't show up in certain spaces -- and whether the silence should be filled by me or others. Who should define who we are?

As I was thinking about this, I ran across this article. It calls for a reframing of perspective, from the myopic to the universal, from what we can see immediately in front of us to a larger scope. It also suggests the ability to create a community with those not just in our vicinity. A selected community with those who may be able to affirm us in ways others cannot, those who may be able to be a sounding board for our confidence loop. It invites us to zoom out, to reflect, and to search.

It's complicated for some of us who arrived as immigrants, as outsiders, and are now trying to figure out how to make this country our home. I'm like a latecomer to a party who now finds herself moving in. Do we spend the rest of our time hovering at the corner, or do we let ourselves settle into the sofa? Do we dare speak up, stake a claim, and assert that we belong?

I've spent a lot of time in the corner. Like a timid turtle, I shrink into myself when I'm not sure how to fit in, when the world does not feel receptive. Despite my wavering confidence, I think about how I want to show up in my own life. I want to have a say. I want to be in my own story, not someone else's and not some other people's rendition of how my story is supposed to unfold. I want to be a leader in my own life. It feels like an obligation to myself, something I owe myself more urgently as the days pass.

I think about the importance of sitting in our own discomfort. Of sitting in our confusion, in situations that don't make easy sense, in a state of limbo where easy templates don't suffice. Of seeing and hearing our stories for what they are, not through some contorted lens to fit someone else's version. Maybe if we take the risk of telling our stories, we will find others who understand our stories. Maybe we will find others who have similar stories they are willing to share.

The benefit of a loop (or a spiral) is that the beginning and outcome have no clear boundaries. One merges into the other, and there is no obvious starting point. Confidence may be a consequence that comes from doing: from finding community, telling our stories, and having our stories heard. And while doing may require some confidence as an ingredient, maybe we will find another substitute, like a sense of responsibility. Confidence may also come from taking the risk of letting ourselves be seen.

So in my pilates class, I take a reformer in the front row, right in front of the wall of mirrors. I look at myself, not with my usual disapproval or shame, but with curiosity. What have I not noticed before? What is there to be discovered? I give myself permission to be and to belong -- before I look around the room.