Lessons from my immigrant experience in navigating change
In the era of Covid-19 and racial reckoning, we are all immigrants. We had to leave our safe home country for unknown territory, and find ourselves struggling to remake our lives in an unfamiliar world with unfamiliar customs. We feel like elephants in a china shop. We keep saying the wrong things, making the wrong gestures, and missing, oh so deeply missing, what it felt like to be engulfed in familiarity. The rules are ever shifting, and we just want to go back, even though with every passing day, return becomes less possible.
Instead, we must engage in the crushingly hard work of reinventing ourselves at every minute. We must figure out what we owe each other and ourselves. It is exhausting and exhilarating, exhilarating and exhausting.
Here’s what I’ve learned about living “immigrant-ly” from my experience immigrating from Korea to Canada with my parents when I was four.
To be an immigrant is to live inside a poignant sitcom
Like when my mom really misses these cookies she used to eat in Korea, so she parts with too many of the precious pennies she saves from tearfully scrubbing bathrooms to buy her favorite sweets. She presents them proudly to me and my father after Sunday night dinner a couple of months into our new lives in Toronto, Canada.
But the delicious cookies of her childhood are not what she pulls out of the box. Instead, what is served for dessert is a plate of tampons.
My parents are so confused that they each pick one up and examine it, peeling back the plastic wrapper. Are they hoping that the cookie was actually in there, just disguised in long, pen shapes instead of the round ones they were used to? I am only four at the time, and even though my parents are in their mid twenties, this is the first time any of the three of us have encountered this particular kind of feminine hygiene product.
When they are finally convinced that there is nothing edible in the contents, they stop to read the box. Then they laugh. Then they belly laugh. Then they are tearing up and gasping for air. “These are very…