Friday, June 21, 2019

Returning


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.

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