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 hard to eat!” my father teases, eyes crinkling. “Ho! Ho! Canadians eat strange cookies!” my mom laughs back, digging her fingers into her side because she is laughing so hard it hurts. I imagine now that the hurt of that moment must have traveled inwards to join together with the hurt of her homesickness in one black hole of ache.
She had been so happy to see the blue box with the purple stripe that she hadn’t stopped to focus on the unfamiliar word “Tampax” in the unfamiliar language. She had thought she could reclaim a piece of home from the grocery aisle.
I don’t remember if I laughed that night with my parents or not, since I was a pretty earnest and serious child. There are no pictures of me actually smiling until years after we immigrated to Canada. And although I am a big laugher today (too big, if you ask my teenage kids), right this very moment, as I finally pin this story down on my laptop, I empathize with the bewildering loneliness that must have set in after the laughing was done.
“The woman who mistook a Tampax box for cookies,” is a story as hilarious as it is tragic, the kind that happens many times a day to immigrants trying to make a new home in a strange land.
So just under the surface of every conversation is a pit of sadness. It swirls beneath, rising up at unexpected times, like when I ask my parents to move to Seattle to help me take care of my kids while I am starting my new company. My mom says (in Korean), “Okay. Because of the mountains. Toronto is so flat, I get lost, I can’t breathe. But when I see the mountains, I can see everything. I can find everything. I can find myself. ” So to be an immigrant is to be a poet.
To be an immigrant is to be a fierce survivor
My mom was a chemistry major at Ewha, “the oldest women’s university in Asia,” she always says every single time she mentions her alma mater. She had wanted to study medicine when she immigrated to Canada, but her “Manpower” immigration officer told her that Canada was letting in immigrants to work hard, not to take the spot of real Canadians in medical school. So even though she was a Canadian citizen, she thought immigrants couldn’t apply for educational opportunities. She only found out decades later that this was a lie. Imagine making such big decisions based on such a careless, cruel falsehood. Imagine not tearing everything apart in bitterness when you found out the truth. To be an immigrant is to be a fierce survivor.
To be an immigrant is to constantly rename yourself
When you are an immigrant, these memories bubble up sporadically and unexpectedly, like after you have just signed up to go on your first cruise with your church group, and your friend decides that you all have to take on English names because you want to fit in. Everyone picks an English name, but the problem is that no one can remember anyone else’s new name. So you gather to try to memorize the new names of your old friends by sitting in a circle like kindergartners and playing a clapping name game.
At first, my mom takes the name “Silver,” because her friend points out that her name, “Eun-Ho” in Korean (or the Chinese characters that make up her Korean name) means “Silver.”
But when they clap: lap, lap, clap, “Silver” suddenly my mother remembers the mean, lying immigration officer who told her she couldn’t go to medical school and in that instant she knows that she CAN NOT be “Silver.” Not even as a fake, temporary, cruise name. Nope. Not gonna have it.
“No,” she announces calmly. “I need new name.” Even though everyone is annoyed, they don’t actually ask her why. It be that way sometimes, among immigrants.
“You be ‘April,’” suggests my mom’s good friend Mrs. Pyo. The Pyos lived on our street, and my parents were initially conflicted to learn about their presence when we moved in and became the second Korean family in the entire neighborhood. “Two Korean families on the same street — what will the neighbors think,” my parents wondered, even though we were half the equation. To be an immigrant is to constantly worry over every move.
“Pyo” in Korean is pronounced as one syllable, like “yo” with a consonant “P” sound in front of it, but we all call her “Mrs. Pie-o” because that’s the way the Canadians say it. And so Mrs. Pie-o christens my mom “April,” and my mom likes that much better.
Out of all the male names in the English language, my dad chooses the name “Steve.” I revisited the reasoning behind this choice when I watched the 2000 Sundance winning romantic comedy, “The Tao of Steve”, which went into detail on the solid macho virtues of this manly name. Take Steve McQueen, Steve Austin, Steve Trevor (okay, so I’m a Wonder Woman fan and added that last one). Even though my dad wasn’t raised in the language, some how he just knew.
But of course, neither he nor any of his friends could actually remember their new names when the mashed potatoes hit the plate at the dinner table. After a couple of bottles of wine, when the waiter came back to ask “Steve” what he wanted for dessert, my dad looks around the table, wondering who he was talking to.
“We giving up after first dinner,” my mom later reports about their short-lived nomenclature experiment.
To be an immigrant is to have your most important conversations delivered in punchline form
To be the child of an immigrant is to find yourself as a supporting character in your parent’s sitcom at the most unexpected times. Like when I turned thirteen, and my mom sat me down on the corner of my bed.
“Do you know the rap?” My mom pressed urgently. Every communication is always pressed urgently with my mom.
“What are you talking about Mom?” I ask, genuinely confused about whether she is sitting me down to have a conversation about music.
“The rap, the rap.” She repeats, louder and faster.
“On the radio?” I ask, trying to get clarification.
“The rap, when man pushes on woman.”
Then the lightbulb goes off. “Are you talking about RAPE Mom?”
“Guh-rae (yes), the rap.” She confirms.
“Jane-ah, no more short skirts. In case you get the rap.”
To be an immigrant is to have your most important conversations delivered in punchline form.
To be an immigrant is to never fully leave your old world and never fully arrive in the new one
Throughout my childhood, my parents insist that we continue rituals that define what it means to be Korean. Like bowing to your elders when you come back from a long trip. Like coming to the door to greet your parents when they come home from work. Like not saying the words “times” and “equals” when you say your times tables, so you go: “two-two-four, two-three-six” instead of the less efficient “two times two equals four, two times three equals six” and your parents time you to compete against your cousin.
Then, one day, a decade after you leave the mother land, you organize your family to take a trip back home. You cry when your daughter gets the world’s worst hair cut and perm, making her look like an Italian boy, because maybe she couldn’t communicate well with the Italian-Canadian hair stylist and you sent a twelve year old to get her hair cut by herself while you were taking care of the two little ones.
When you arrive with your children to see your parents, brothers and sisters for the first time in a decade, you find that nothing is as you thought. “Go-mo, we don’t do that anymore,” say my mom’s nieces and nephews on my father’s side. “Ee-mo, we don’t do that anymore,” say my mom’s nieces and nephews on my mother’s side.
All the “rules” about what it means to be Korean that my parents had carefully transported and transplanted turn out to have been abandoned in their homeland. So who are we if everything we did to stay Korean turns out to have been jettisoned by the “real” Koreans living in Korea?
Because even after a decade, we’re clearly not fully “Canadian”. Most obviously, we are not white. My parents don’t speak English or French fluently. We are neither here nor there. Neither solid nor liquid.
So I remake myself. I decide I am solid and liquid, whatever I choose to be in that moment. I am free. I am like that Wondertwin on the Saturday morning cartoons, minus the twin, plus a bad perm.
But it is also so crushingly hard to reinvent yourself in every moment. Freedom is such hard work.
When you’re an immigrant, you give up belonging in exchange for freedom. And then you work so hard for your freedom every second to keep the world from closing in and confirming that you don’t exist.
What I’ve learned from my immigrant experience is that getting smarter is a chronic condition. It is full of painful, embarrassing missteps — should we wear a mask or not? Now you are telling us that the athletic gater ones that we wore at the beginning could be worse than nothing?! Should our son move into a dorm for school? Can I hug my mom? All of these questions come flying at us and we do the best we can in the moment until we know better, then we shift. I’m grateful to be able to use the times that I’ve felt lost and out of place to remember how I can move more meaningfully through today.
I’m just getting started as a writer, so lets do this together from the beginning. Follow me here on Medium, sign up to keep in touch at “See Jane Wonder” or on Instagram @janehspark. I also run a company called Tokki, in case you are interested in sustainable gifting or the world’s most awesome face masks.