I WAS CRYING in the corner of my new kitchen when my mom called. "Hi Umma," I say in the brightest voice I could muster, tightening my vocal chords to curb them from shaking. Even with states and time zones between us, she hears the slightest tremble in my tone. "What's wrong?" she asks in Korean.
With tears rushing back to my eyes, I swallow and try to mentally translate what I'm feeling with my severely limited Korean vocabulary. I decide against it. "I've been OK," I respond after a breath. As if sifting through the words themselves, she discerns what my heart wants to say.
She responds in Korean, "It's hard, right?"
"It's hard, right?"
She intimately understands what I am experiencing: the tumult of emotions that come with picking up your life and moving to an unfamiliar place. She had emigrated from Korea to the U.S.; I had recently been plucked from the land of sun-kissed freeways and açaí bowls, and planted in a town of duck hunters and snowplows. While we are born from disparate generations and cultures, her story flows in my veins.
• • •
"Did you know that I was around your age when I moved to America?" she asks.
My mom married my dad within weeks of meeting him. Their mutual friends told her he was a half-Korean American soldier with a kind heart; her parents immediately saw that he was a good man. After only a couple of months, she left everything she knew in South Korea to move to a small military base in North Carolina. At the time, Dad was making less than $400 a month.
My mom recounts navigating grocery stories and buying food without being able to read the labels. She explains how she got her driver's license — through tears and the DMV's pity when they issued it to her without the written test that she couldn't understand (which explains a lot). She tells me about her deep loneliness when she was pregnant with her first child, living in a dark condo near the forest while her husband went to work. "There were big, wild dogs outside, so I started to feed them every day," she says. "They became my first American friends."
She glosses over the rare moments of racism when she felt defeated and invisible, and how she learned to care for her three young children while her mother rapidly diminished in the hospital from cancer. It's in these moments that I take notice: her vulnerability and her weakness peeking out from underneath her chain mail of confidence and tenacity. As if for the first time seeing the humanity in a maskless hero, I begin to see myself in my mother's story.
As if for the first time seeing the humanity in a maskless hero, I begin to see myself in my mother's story.
• • •
Our transition to Erie felt like the end of the road for me. Just weeks before, my husband, Daniel, and I were starting to feel rooted in California when he was accepted into medical school on the East Coast. We had been married for 11 months and were finally catching onto the rhythm and choreography of marriage, full-time work, friends, and serving our church. We were flourishing in these different circles of close-knit friendships. Life was comfortable.
I was now waking up under an unfamiliar ceiling with our belongings in boxes. I surveyed the roads specked with potholes, streets lined with abandoned steel factories, and lingering industrial plants. I had blinked and went from a thriving community in sunny Southern California to finding myself unemployed and alone in quiet, northwest Pennsylvania in Erie.
Suddenly, I was spending many hours on our cold linoleum kitchen floor with an empty well in my chest and a loneliness that clung to my ribs. While watching my husband begin to assume his calling as a doctor, my dreams of going to seminary seemed to fade into the background as more immediate necessities, like bills and rent, took center stage. For the first time in my life, I needed to sacrifice my hopes to support someone other than myself — my student-husband.
I had no friends to meet up with and no ministry to serve in. I was just Heidi, Daniel's wife, and now, the sole breadwinner.
Meanwhile, Daniel — who was so attentive to the way the move was affecting me — was also struggling to stay afloat under the constant barrage of exams, readings, and the increasing pressure of a burgeoning student doctor.
At this stage of our lives, the transition of our roles in our marriage revealed a quiet cancer in my heart. I am quick to supplant my identity with what I do and who I surround myself with, rather than who I am in Christ and the hope I have in Him. So much of how I perceived myself was propped up by external, transient factors. Almost overnight, stripped of a job, a ministry to serve, and the encouragement of peers and mentors, I was afraid.
So much of how I perceived myself was propped up by external, transient factors.
"Heidi, I know it's hard, but I know you can do it," Mom says.
Her words reminded me of the beautiful life she's created with my dad, and the privilege my brothers and I grew up with because of their sacrifice. I begin to understand how she must have felt alone in a new country, between unfamiliar walls, with her things in boxes. The strength I admire in her was not innate or randomly acquired on any particular day — it was honed.
Growing up, I've always identified as a second-generation Korean American: not fully American, yet not distinguishably Korean. I loved eating spaghetti with chopsticks, paired with kimchi. Even as I observed my parents sacrifice their livelihoods to clear the path for me and my brothers, I grew indifferent to the immigrant narrative — never quite grasping the gravity of what it meant for my mom to leave everything behind, follow her husband whom she formerly called stranger, and make a home in a foreign land for the hope of an uncertain future for her unborn children.
I grew indifferent to the immigrant narrative — never quite grasping the gravity of what it meant for my mom to leave everything behind.
Daniel and I arrived to humid Erie with only the essentials in our trailer and barely $1,000 in our bank account. We didn't know where to begin to look for an affordable apartment in a safe neighborhood, a good grocery store, a respectable church, or friends to help us move. I know I am only getting a morsel of what Mom experienced years ago.
• • •
John Quincy Adams once wrote, "I am a warrior, so that my son may be a merchant, so that his son may be a poet." My parents started to build a home for us first by managing a burger shop, then owning a liquor store, and then a gas station. They worked tirelessly as middle class, blue-collar storeowners to ensure that my second eldest brother and I could go to a private high school. We were the first of our family to go to college, equipped with more education than our parents had, born into a society they may never truly call home. I learned to write, read, and speak English with ease — a tongue I will never fully share with my own parents.
"I am a warrior, so that my son may be a merchant, so that his son may be a poet."
In a sense, Daniel and I are writing a refrain inspired by their immigrant story. We left what we knew as home to pursue the promise of a better future — not only for us, our future children, and our aging parents, but also for our community, and our world. Daniel and I dream to create a safe home and a strong foundation, in hopes of fostering and adopting a child. We want to use the education we received and our respective gifts to be missionaries in our community and abroad. God has planted this dream in us, and we are just learning how to tend the soil.
I see God in my millennial generation and how it has been abundantly blessed in order to be a blessing; we have been given a voice to be a voice for others. Perhaps this is why so many of us are driven by our passions, burdens, and hearts that break for those who are broken.
• • •
It's been a year since the phone call on the floor of my kitchen. I still miss the comfort of my community and the sweet lulling of the Pacific Ocean, and I don't know if homesickness will ever leave me. I don't know if I'll be able to go back to school in five years or 10.
However, God is with me in my workplace, showing me that there is beauty in the mundane. Working as a fraud analyst at a technology company may not be my calling, but I am thriving there. I am learning to work hard at whatever is placed in front of me, not only because we need the money, but because God wants me there, to further bless in what ways I can.
I am told that history tends to repeat itself; as I continue to name the blessings of my parents' story in mine, I hope that what they say about history is true.
I am told that history tends to repeat itself; I hope that what they say about history is true.