How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] about Anything

When Parents Going Back 'Home' Changes Everything

Episode Notes

After living in the U.S. for 40 years, Eddie's parents surprise him with the news that they're moving back to South Korea. And, psychologist Sarah H. Moon  helps us grieve and celebrate our parents' lives and triumphs.

Eddie Kim wrote an article about his experience for MEL magazine titled "When Your Immigrant Parents Move Back Overseas, Where Is Home?" Find it here.

Our expert today is Sarah Hye Lim Moon. Sarah is a queer, Korean American, immigrant, who found her passion in working to decreasing the mental health stigma in BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities. She's a clinical psychologist, consultant and writer dedicated to training mental health professionals to become more skilled and thoughtful healers. Learn more about her work, here. If you liked this episode, be sure to listen to Explaining She's Isolated, Depressed, and Caring for a Newborn and When They Want More Family Time and You Don't.

We’d love to hear your stories of triumph and frustration so send us a detailed voice memo to virginia@lwcstudios.com. You might be on a future episode! Let’s connect on Twitter and Instagram at @TalkToMamiPapi and email us at hello@talktomamipapi.com. And follow us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts.

Episode Transcription

Juleyka Lantigua:

Hi everybody, today I'm speaking with Eddie. Eddie's parents moved from South Korea and settled in Hawaii where he grew up. After almost 40 years in the US, they recently told him they're moving back to South Korea. Eddie was caught off guard and their decision is making him question what his family's hard work and sacrifice really mean. Let's get into it.

Eddie: My name's Eddie Kim, I'm a features writer with MEL Magazine and I'm Korean and I grew up in Hawaii. And when I was a kid I called my mom and dad eomma and appa. I was actually born in Bakersfield, California. It was part of my parents' story in America where they had come in 1980, well actually '79 or so, and really hit some success running some small businesses after a few couple hard years of working different part-time jobs. And it was always this dream of my parents to end up in Hawaii, one of the few places where Asians have a majority in the population, which makes it culturally pretty special.

It was strange because even in Hawaii, we stuck out. My parents didn't speak great English, my dad was much better because he was sort of the front man for the business. And when they got to Hawaii, it was their dream to open a take out sushi franchise. When I was growing up, it really did feel like in a lot of ways the American Dream. There were the kinds of people who worked 80 hour weeks, I never saw the struggle growing up. The struggle was really the amount of work they did and the fights they got into over money, over life decisions, just the stress. And I see that now.

My dad in his very nonchalant kind of way called me up and he was like, "You know, we're thinking of buying a condominium in Korea." And I thought, “Oh, as an investment?" And he was like, "No for your mom and I to live there." So it wasn't like a moment of, "Hey Eddie, let's sit down. What do you think about this decision?" I know my parents, I love my parents, they know that I would overthink it if I got involved in the decision-making, "Oh my gosh. I mean, what about the future? What does that mean? What does that entail?" My heart and gut response was that this was a disaster, like a tragedy. After all this time, 20 years in Hawaii, sending me through private school, through university and then for them to be like, "Yeah, the experiment is now done. We are pleased with the results." And the whole framing is, "We did this for you," and I'm just like, gosh, should you have done it for me?

Eddie: What I imagine growing up was my parents are going to make it big, they're going to be rich and comfortable and then they're going to just be able to buy a dope house like maybe an hour away from me. That's good. I don't want them down the block I don't want an Everybody Loves Raymond situation. Listen, it's not like I didn't feel or understand that my parents felt like they didn't fit in, it's not like they had a big network of either other Koreans or just people that they were close to. Our relatives, many of them obviously, are still in Korea. So it makes sense for them to find a comfortable sunny place in Korea. They're moving to an island off of the south shore.

It's just strange for me because once I'm excited, "Oh, I'll be able to take my partner or my hypothetical kids and we'll be able to be so immersed in the culture that I love so much." But then again, it's just the reality of, "Oh my gosh, I'm not going to get to see them very often." It's that debate, right? Like I want to be by my parents, but do they deserve to be in their homeland and spend their golden years reuniting with the culture that they left behind? Absolutely! Am I torn up about that and feel almost excluded? Yes. Yes I do.

I am an only child, no siblings and so really it feels like they poured all of their labor just into me. And now I'm standing here like, "Well, what am I supposed to do with it?" I got the freedom. I got the education that they dreamed of. I made it to a point where they now think, "You'll be good, you'll be okay," which is a great honor, that's incredibly flattering to me because I'm like, "Hmmm, check with me next Tuesday and I'll give you an answer on how well I think I'm doing." And so I think it's just a transitional phase right now.

Ironically, the onset of the pandemic did give me a trial run for what it feels like to know that they're right there, but also out of reach. Now I'm planning on a visit to Hawaii finally, it's just bizarre because I'm like, "Oh my goodness, will this be my last Christmas in the paradise that I called home? And that my parents, it was going to be their resting place? They bought burial plots and they sold them! They made some money off of it. I mean talk out the symbolic becoming literal. I don't know what will happen. I know that this is good for them, but I also know that it will be very hard. 

When I go visit them, I think the most important thing that I want to express is there is nothing I can say or do that can express my appreciation for how much they did in this damn country. It's just such a crazy arc for them to have lived through all of this and I just wish that they could have had more fun doing it. America was a fight and a great one.

Lantigua: As we spoke, it was so clear that Eddie's story is full of joy and heartbreak. On the show, we often talk about why our families come to the US, but what about when they decide to leave after living entire lives here? How can first gens process the news and how can we prepare for a long distance family life we never expected to have? You know I called in an expert.

Sarah Moon: My name is Sarah HyeLim Moon, she/her pronouns. I am a Korean immigrant queer psychologist practicing in private practice currently and as a consultant as well around DEI issues and instructor and writer as well.

Lantigua: You heard Eddie's testimony. What did you hear as you listened?

Moon: He had a beautiful way of holding the tension of so many different feelings he's feeling at once. He talked about loss, he talked about being grateful for his parents and all that they've sacrificed for him, the joy he feels that his parents get to go back to Korea and be immersed in that again, but also a sense of loss for himself and what he thought his life would look like with his parents as they got older. So, he described his experience and his reactions and emotions in a very nuanced and complex way.

Lantigua: Yeah. I also was really paying attention to the themes of joy and loss as I was talking to him. So can you zoom out a little bit for us and talk about, what is it that is both joyful in this, in the ability of a parent to do this, in the ability of a child to be independent? And then what is it that we lose when something like this happens?

Moon: I'll start with the loss piece. I think the experience of being an immigrant or a child of an immigrant is that grief and loss is just inherent and kind of interwoven throughout one's life. There is kind of the loss of what is, what could have been, lost time. I think, especially for children of immigrants who are so accustomed to work hard, keep going, pursue career, pursue financial stability, that's the reason why Eddie's parents moved to the US, it's easy to get caught up in that and not pause for a moment. And this is a moment for Eddie where he is able to pause and describe moments where we're reminded of the hopes and the dreams that our parents had.

Lantigua: Like they're whole people outside of being our parents. It's always shocking to discover that.

Moon: Mm-hmm. Especially when they're communicating to us that they are doing this for us, that's their whole goal, that's why they moved to the US, that's why they're working so hard, long hours. And we forget that they are human with their own desires and dreams. And I think the joy, going to the joy piece, is they must have worked very hard, I don't think it's just about hard work, I'm sure there were other aspects that allowed them to succeed enough to be able to afford a condo back in Korea. And for Eddie to be in a place where it isn't a huge crisis for them to move back. So there's joy in that and recognizing, "Oh, my parents can really enjoy the rest of their life where they feel most comfortable and at home."

Lantigua: One of the things that this impending separation and the impending move back to South Korea has done for Eddie is giving him a deeper context for understanding his parents' American dream. And he's become very doubtful about whether that concept is even acceptable or relevant anymore. Do you hear things like that or conversations like that when you talk to your clients? At moments of big changes and transitions, do they start to think about, "Well, we've been in pursuit of the mythological American Dream?”

Moon: What I hear mostly or most often is that they recognize that the American Dream isn't what they thought it would be pretty early on, not towards the end, but they've had time to grieve and to recognize that it's not that easy to reach the American Dream and it wasn't as rosy as they maybe thought it might be, or the success wasn't as big as they might be. I think that's where the children start to take on that dream of, "Okay, I want to do better or succeed even more for my parents because they can only reach a certain level of success."

Lantigua: Yeah. He alludes to that. And it was really interesting because the way that he talked about it was to say if they've been yearning to go back home, if they've been yearning to do this thing for themselves and they stayed so long and they sacrificed so much for me, was it even worth it? Should they have even done that?

Moon: That is such a hard question. I became really curious about how his parents would narrate or tell their experience. And there's something really beautiful about Asian culture, Korean culture is that there's so much that's unspoken or unsaid. And whether that's due to language barrier or feelings not being processed verbally, that's not the norm. You really start to master this intuitive communication, especially between parent and child. I think that's a blessing and a curse because you can start intuiting one's needs, but you don't really know what our parents are thinking or feeling or what they've gone through. And so it made me curious, I wonder what kind of relationship Eddie has with his parents, whether he'd be able to ask them, "Was it worth it?"

Lantigua: All right, so I have a couple of questions that are really more about you thinking forward because for kids of immigrants like me, a lot of our identity is tied to how we are reflected in our parents, especially if we immigrated with our parents at a young age, we have that bonding experience of: we were transplanted. And so when I was thinking and listening to Eddie's testimonial after I was wondering, well, how is his identity going to change, right, if he doesn't have that constant reminder of who he is, where he comes from, how he was raised? And so I would love to hear your thoughts on that.

Moon: Yeah. I already feel a sense of loss for him. And I'm kind of remembering an interaction I had with my own eomma last week where she made me one of my favorite Korean dishes that I don't know how to make. And I said, "It's so delicious. So delicious." And she's like, "I'll make you more because I know you can't make it, and as long as I can make it for you, I want to make it for you as much as I can." And even just that, the food, those are small things but a huge reminder of our parents and our own culture and where we belong, where we come from. So not having moments of that, is he going to go find his favorite dish somewhere else? But there's something different about coming home to it, having it prepared. Yeah, so I already feel a sense of loss for him and even the language piece, I'm not sure if he is fluent in Korean, but there's something about him talking about wanting his future kids to be around his parents and language is a huge part too.

Lantigua: Yeah. And so my last question to you is, any suggestions you have about how first gens, second gens when they are facing this impending separation or when there will be huge physical distance between people, and I guess the pandemic has helped us think that and act that through, what are some of the ways that we can maintain sort of that emotional connection, that being spiritually tethered to one another, right? Because that's what closeness does to you. That's part of why your mom making you that dish that you love is so important because it's part of that you're emotionally tethered to her and no one can make it just like that.

Moon: Yeah. I think it requires, or it's going to require, a lot of intentionality, seeking friendships or communities that help you remind yourself of your own culture, whether it's through food or celebrating holidays. And I think visiting if they have the financial means to do so, to visit parents as often as they can and immersing themselves in the motherlands too is going to be an amazing experience that they can really internalize and bring back with them when they come back to in the States. But it really does take an intention to make an effort to continue to connect with their own culture as a way to connect with our parents. The more you do for yourself in engaging with your own culture, the more you have things to talk about with your parents, ways to connect with them. It creates that bridge when they feel so far away.

Lantigua: Sarah, thank you so much. Thank you so so much.

Moon: Thank you for having me here.

Lantigua: All right. Here's what we learned from Sarah today. 

Celebrate and grieve. During times of transition, take a pause to acknowledge the losses your family has lived through and sit with the joy change can bring. 

Consider their version. Your parents' experiences in the US are certainly different from yours. Knowing how they tell their story can help you get a fuller picture of what it has all meant. 

And remember, connect intentionally. Spend time with friends and other people close to you who can help you stay engaged with your culture and traditions, even when your parents are far away. 

Thank you for listening and for sharing us. How To Talk To Mami and Papi About Anything is an original production of LWC studios. Virginia Lora is the show's producer, Kojin Tashiro is our mixer, Manuela Bedoya is our social media editor. I'm the creator, Juleyka Lantigua. On Twitter and Instagram, we're at Talk to Mami and Papi. Please follow us and rate us on Apple Podcast, Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify, anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. Bye everybody, same place next week.

CITATION: 

Lantigua, Juleyka, host. “When Parents Going Back 'Home' Changes Everything.” 

How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] About Anything, 

LWC Studios., November 8, 2021. TalkToMamiPapi.com.