Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Longings and Expectations

I had planned out the whole weekend. First, a quick drive to Half Moon Bay from the airport to see the magnificent view of the Pacific. From there, a drive up Highway 1 straight to the Mark Hopkins where we would have brunch overlooking the beautiful city. Then, a quick tour of the city and then Vietnamese dungeness crabs for dinner. For the overnight stay, a room at a Sausalito hotel over the Bay. The following day, a drive through the Marin Headlands and a stroll through Muir Woods.

It was my parents' first trip out to San Francisco. I had been living here for a few years, and they were finally coming out for Labor Day weekend. Because they opened their store on Saturday, they were flying out on Sunday morning and then flying back Monday night. Abridged by six hour flights on both ends, the weekend was not much more than a respite between two flights. For them, it was an unusual two back to back days off, and they were spending precious 12 hours of it on a plane in order to visit their daughter who lived on the opposite end of this country.

So, I carefully mapped out the weekend. I wanted to make it worth their time. I could count on one hand the number of trips they had taken in the past decade and a half. Two to visit relatives in Korea, one to visit me in Chicago while I was in college, fourth to attend my sister's college graduation, and the fifth to DC as I started law school. In addition to my planning, I had cajoled and bribed my sister with airfare to join us for the weekend. Living in NY, she saw my parents regularly while I saw them no more than four or five times a year. I was worried that I wouldn't know how to talk to them and keep them entertained for two consecutive days on my own. I redeemed my long accumulated miles for my parents' tickets in business class, and for my sister, I purchased her ticket, but upgraded her to the same class so that they could sit together.

From the minute I picked them up at the airport, things didn't go according to plan. As soon as I met them, I asked how their flight was, only to hear that the airline had refused to allow my sister to sit with my parents in business class, even though I had already used my miles to upgrade her. Citing some rule that upgrades could only be used by the mileage holder, the airline had placed her in coach, despite what they had told me on the phone when I placed my order. This little mishap upset me more than it should have, and I quickly turned the conversation to our schedule.

When I announced that we'd drive straight to the restaurant after seeing Half Moon Bay, my mother asked, "But what about all the food I brought for you? Shouldn't we put them in the refrigerator right away?"

"Oh, Mom, you didn't have to do that. We don't really have time to go by my apartment first. Our lunch reservation is at noon..."

"What if it keeps leaking?"

"What if what keeps leaking?"

"The food. The kimchi is starting to leak a little. It was leaking on the airplane and the stewardess was giving us funny looks. I think the other tupperwares are ok..."

"Oh, you brought kimchi?"

And so it went with my mother, who shows her love through food and then worries that her children are becoming overweight. She must have known that there are Korean grocery stores even in the hinterland of San Francisco but couldn't resist an opportunity to show her affection the best way she knew how.

Leaving the decision to a later hour when we'd be denied the inconvenience of having a choice, I drove them across CA-92 toward the California coastline. Even from the airport, I saw the fog looming in the distance. It was as thick as velvet. Yet, I continued to drive because that was the first stop on my schedule. I wanted to show them the coastline along Half Moon Bay, the breathtaking beauty of this land that I now called home. And I hoped that as we neared, the fog would miraculously dissipate.

As we approached, the fog seemed to be getting thicker and thicker. After our twenty minute drive across 92, I turned right onto Cabrillo Highway and entered a parking lot. When we stepped out of the car, the wind slapped our cheeks and whipped our hair. We turned our backs against the wind to catch the front flaps of our jackets and zipped up. When we turned to face the ocean again, all I saw was a swath of fog across the entire stretch. There was no vision, no vista, no ocean. All that appeared to us was whitness. And all I could think was that the ocean stretched out in the distance in all of its beauty and magnificence behind this stubborn sheath.

So for the next few minutes, we stood there, staring at the fog obscuring our view. Then disappointment set in. This view - my view - seemed deliberately to choose this day to hide from us, to taunt us. How I had wanted to share the view, to show it off. This desire came with an urgency that made no sense, even to the point of making me want to throw a tantrum. As if seeing this view could make a difference or change our lives somehow. As if so much depended on it.

As I loudly lamented the cloaked beauty of the place, my mother turned to me and said with such earnestness, "I imagine it is very beautiful."

As poor as the imagination seemed compared to the real thing, we stood there for a few minutes while my mother imagined the view. In my poor Korean, I tried to describe the gulping vastness of the Pacific, the translucent blue color of its water, the anger in its waves. And with her fluid Korean, she supplied the words I lacked and helped appease my eagerness to share. After a few more minutes, we loaded ourselves back into the car.

The rest of the weekend was more or less the same. There were a few moments that went according to plan and others that didn't. Like when we went to my apartment after lunch and my parents fell asleep for the next three hours on my bed. Thinking of the limited time we had together, I impatiently waited for them to awaken so that I could take them on a driving tour of the Embarcadero, but they were simply too exhausted from their days of working 14 hour days and the flight from NY. Or the Vietnamese crab place that couldn't seat us indoors and we huddled under the space lamps as the garlic noodles quickly turned cold.

Looking back, I can see how much I was trying to pack into a mere 30 hour period. I had wanted to share a piece of my life with them, my life that was now so different from theirs and so filled with freedom and beauty. Maybe by sharing, I thought I could alleviate some of the guilt I carried about escaping their grueling lives. I had also wanted to show them a world they did not often see from their neon lit storefront window. And I guess I had wanted to create some memories as a family because we had so few beyond my childhood days. These desires, neatly laced together by my anal planning, held together so well until the fog got in the way, until my parents expressed needs of their own, until the world put my plans in their place.

I remember that weekend with wistfulness. There is so much to long for, so much that is not ours even though we plan for it.


  1. This is so beautiful. When one is from two (or more cultures), having lived in one and inherited another by blood, it is often hard to relate to your parents. Especially when they seem to live and breathe a language, a culture, a way of being ... that seems so alien to your own. I can relate to that. So, as an adult, you ask yourself what you can do to establish similarities - that sense of "being the same". As I have got older, I have reached back and embraced my own non-western culture. Within that realm, I feel a sense of belonging. I belong. I don't have to explain. I understand. And I am understood. All this to say that in doing so, I feel closer to my family, regardless of my inability to speak my native tongue fluently (or even well). I don't know if you can relate.

    On another note, I hope you realize that you deserve every single cent that you earned during your years as a high-salaried attorney. Based on your stories, it is clear that you have had to work hard to be where you are. You didn't have a well-connected parent to guide you here, or there, or send you to work at a friend's firm over the summers. You have done it all yourself - and with the support of your hard-working parents. I am sure they are proud of you, whether they say so or not.

    And thank PH for letting you go. If you were there, you would not have the opportunity to think through all these things. You wouldn't have the opportunity to grow in the way that you have.

  2. Hi, 7:52,

    Thank you so much for your words. Yes, I can relate. Very much. It is a difficult divide that we straddle, but I agree that there is room for bridging them. I am so touched by your thoughts. Thank you so much for sharing. I hope to hear from you more.

  3. I've only read a few of your posts so far but your writing is beautiful, clearly crafted and really enjoyable. As a woman, a child of immigrants and a lawyer myself, I'm really able to relate to your stories. Hope you keep it up - clearly your calling over Biglaw. I hope you don't mind, but I would love to link to your blog from my blog (a cooking blog...my creative outlet from being a NY corporate lawyer). Congrats!

  4. this reminds me of the trip my mom took to visit me and meet my future wife, whom i had been living in sin with shortly after college for only 4 months yet.

    it turned out to be an early Thanksgiving. she drove 11 hours straight from the east coast with a fully-roasted 20-lb. turkey in the trunk, stuffing and all the trimmings.

    we unwrapped candied yams, green bean casserole, 잡채, 빈대떡, the whole Koreanized deal. my to-be wife quickly filled in the rest with Vietnamese details; homemade banh cuon, nuoc cham, mint and basil, strange and familiar tastes for my mom and sister.

    it was an instant success. we sat around afterward and marvelled at the triumphant hybridization of our meal, and lives, over even weirder desserts (still fruit, according to Korean tradition, but distinctly un-Korean - mango with sticky rice, jackfruit with palm seeds and agar jelly in sweet milk).

    i was all too happy to be caught in the crossfire. some things you just can't plan.

  5. Hi, sev or should I call you D-- J---- = ),

    I love the story about your mom with the turkey! And a Thanksgiving with Vietnamese food sounds heavenly. Thank goodness for cultures shaped around good eating.