Thursday, May 29, 2008

Happy Birthday, Mommy!!!

In lieu of being a good daughter who wrote a card or sent a timely present, I want to talk about the two most important people in my life. I want to tell you, the Internet world, about two of the most amazing people I know. In case you were thinking Senator J. William Fulbright or the first person to make chocolate chip cookies (a close third), you're wrong. The two most amazing people I know are my parents.

Sometimes you never really realize how great your parents are until you hear someone else talking about them. It sometimes comes to me, randomly; the thought will just enter my thinking sphere and flit across my consciousness and just as quickly disappear. But every now and then, I have a moment, something happens, or a light clicks, and I go, "Wow, my parents are so amazing."

Example 1: 
Immigrant Family on Ellis Island

In college I took some random classes and somehow ended up working with recent Hispanic immigrants. A lot. I studied them, I spoke with them, I taught them, I volunteered in community centers with them, I called them on behalf of their kids' school. I spent a lot of time observing and interacting with Hispanic immigrants. I saw (kindof) how hard their life was, what kind of roadblocks America threw at them, how difficult it is to sustain yourself and your family while building up a solid foundation for what I would call a fulfilling and satisfying life in America. This was really my first experience with what life was like for recent immigrants

I mean, I knew my parents were immigrants, it's not like I grew up without the customary
"You have no idea what your dad and I went through. You have no idea what we had to sacrifice and put up with to get here. You're so ungrateful and you're so spoiled."
I knew they had "had it rough," that they had started off in a studio apartment in Queens. I knew they had both worked and gone to night school at the same time. But I never really FELT it, I never really SAW it, I never really BELIEVED it. Because of all that they had done and endured, I was so sheltered and far removed from those experiences that they were never REAL to me.

My experiences with the Hispanic community in Durham gave me my first glimpse into the life of a recent immigrant. It gave me a feel for what it's like to not be at home. What it's like to play someone else's game by someone else's rules. You're just an impromptu player. Sure, you wanted to join, but you didn't really know what the game (or sometimes even the stakes) really was. Whenever we had the essay prompt: Who is someone you admire and why? I would always answer with "My parents because they immigrated to America and went through a lot so I could have a better life." But that was so cliche. I didn't REALLY know what I was thankful for. I didn't UNDERSTAND why my parents were defaultly admirable for producing a second generation kid like me. I just knew that was the right answer. 

Consequently, doing all the community service and ESL work I did in Durham was one of the FIRST times that the meaning of what my parents had been through even flickered across my consciousness.

Example 2:
When I first got to my placement city in Korea, I was finally striking out on my own. I had left the nest and was supposed to figure out how to do this flying thing without crashing and breaking my little bird skull on the concrete sidewalk (or in Korea, the brick sidewalk). Anyway, I had been playing with the idea of "parallels" in my mom's and my life (I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this in earlier entries). 

1. My mom got married when she was 22 years old and immigrated to America. 
2. I graduated college when I was 22 years old and accepted a yearlong fellowship in Korea.
Both the same age, moving in opposite directions across the Pacific, and setting upon totally different journeys.

Okay, so I know I've said it before. But yea, this was the first time I realized how difficult exactly it is to try living in another country. Let's not count the benefits I had that she (and my dad) didn't, shan't we... 
I had a secure, guaranteed, highly respected job waiting for me. I had room and board supplied for me. I had a 6-week Orientation including foreign language classes. I came with a coterie of compatriots, 70 to be exact, to share my triumphs and sorrows. I had a strong support group in place that I could contact with the click of a mouse or a few buttons on the phone (GOOO 28 years of technology!!!). I had grown up learning the language in context. I had grown up with access to both the culture and the greater Korean community. I LOOKED like I fit in. I knew that if I hated it, I was definitely going to be able to leave after a year.
In short, I had it so much easier, and yet I still felt like I had it so rough. And that only highlighted how much harder it had to have been for my parents, newlyweds with two suitcases and rudimentary English skills. (I've been teaching here for a year, I KNOW the school-learned English they took with them was useful for, um, NOTHING save describing the weather perhaps).

So the fact that I really had come face-to-face with what it's like to LIVE in another country, even one that claims to be my motherland and one whose culture I'd been sampling all my life, really drove the point home, that what my parents (and countless others of their generation) had done, was really quite remarkable, quite admirable, and even completely surprising. I could NOT believe they didn't pack up their bags, call it quits, and come back. (I know enough random families who have).

Realizing that what they did was so much harder than what I was doing and that everything they endured had been so much tougher was another, "Wow, my parents are amazing," moment.

Example 3: The thing that spurred me to write this entry
I had dinner and coffee tonight with some old family friends. They were two Korean priests who had been consecutively sent to our Korean parish in New Jersey. One had been there from 1996 to 1998. The other had been there from 1998 to 2000. They had known me and my family pretty much a decade ago, give or take a few years.

The first notable thing was that after a decade they still remembered me and my parents. They still cared about my parents enough to call me and take me out for a rather expensive and ridiculously delicious dinner. To me, this says something about their estimation of my parents and consequently how my parents treated them.

For nearly all my accessible memory, my parents have been superactive in our church. My mom has served in so many capacities, as a Sunday School teacher, a Korean School teacher, Korean School principal, youth group director, PTA liaison, education director/"provost", and those are only the positions that I remember and can name positions, too. There are so many other things she directed and led and coordinated. Even after my sister and I were no longer active members of the youth community. She both attends and teaches Bible scripture study classes. My dad has always been active, too, though in quieter roles. He would do Sunday readings, he served as an acolyte (my sister and I used to tease him that his specialty was incense-waving), he is often a Mass narrator (I forget what they're called), and he was our 구역 leader and all these other important things where he would go to official-type meetings.

I'm not particularly religious (as of the past 2 or so years) and I know I should be, especially in light of the fact that I really do think God smiles down on my life. But anyway, the point is, my parents are totally active members of our church. Everyone at our church and many people at churches in NJ, NY, PA, VA, and even CA and others know my parents. So, it's not surprising to me that former and current priests that have met and know my parents remember them.

What does surprise me, is how fondly they remember my parents. How much they seem to genuinely respect my parents, and how often this translates into how well they treat me and my sister and the respect they show us, now as young ladies entering society proper.

Tonight, the two family friend priests and I were joined by a third priest from the city of Cheongju that I was meeting for the first time. They continually praised and described my parents (and family) to the third priest. I was struck by all the good things they had to say. I've been surprised and struck by all the things they've told me my parents did for them and how my parents helped them out. I won't bore you with another list of the things that my parents did and the wonderful things they were saying about my parents.

But the things I could hear in their voices, how much they really respected my dad, how much they appreciated my mom's work in the community, and how even they, the priests, admired my parents for everything they've endured and achieved - that meant a lot to me. My eyes welled up as I tried to maintain the illusion of aloofness that is considered polite when a "young'n" is present and privy to grown-ups' conversation.

I am so proud of my parents. For the many things I know about them. And for so many more that I didn't and don't yet know about them. 
Whenever I complained that my mom spent more time at church and that I was the one who had to sacrifice playdates and prompt rides to and pickups from places she used to say:
I really believe that the more I give and sacrifice for our church community, the more that will manifest itself as grace and blessings and good fortune for you and your sister. I don't do it for me, I do it for you.
I guess you could say she believes in karma. And I'm not going to lie; I definitely believe in it, too. Especially because I seem unfittingly to be on the receiving end of it.

Clearly not following in my parents' footsteps - the kind of gift I normally give to others, exactly those things that I myself want.

And so, at the end of this lengthy diatribe, I guess it's only fitting to conclude by saying: Happy Birthday, Mommy!!! Here's to another year of happiness and health. And my strengthened conviction to make you proud of me, as I am of you. And that's the big present for this year and many to come. (In addition to your new Sony Wii and Wii Fit board).

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