My mother and I do not have much in common but we do have a mutual and deep-rooted understanding of the struggles of female immigrants. We are female immigrants ourselves, accustomed to the hardship of a new language, complicated immigration policies, and the melanin in our skin. That changes things.
We left Seoul in December of 2009 to settle in Brookline, Massachusetts. My father was going to study at Northeastern University; his job in Korea supported his education. We moved into an apartment wedged between the city’s library and a Starbucks. Compared to the apartment’s expensive rent fee, its features were at most mediocre(picture a frequently leaking stove range), and within a month, my mother relocated us to a suburban neighborhood, convenient for its proximity to Boston(and Harvard University) and stellar education programs. From then on, my life resumed, with difficulty at first, and smoothed out as my childhood brain absorbed the flexible tongue of the English language. In contrast, her life was put on hold. As time passed, we found ourselves relating to each other less and less. I was managing the notorious college application process and she, who juggled the virtual life of a single mother of two children,(my father returned to South Korea for his job) with barriers in language and culture, often played the role of the devil’s advocate.
For a long time, I failed to empathize with her reality. To me, I seemed so American, and she seemed to disapprove of my assimilated attitude.
When my mother was 21 years old and attending Seoul University in South Korea, she had a dream of going to Harvard. She was ambitious and talented, prodigious even. Her music teachers extolled her incredible drive, which had her mastering Chopin within three years of her starting piano. Nevertheless, she chose to study business in the nation’s top university, with an unyielding philosophy that kindled her lifelong dream of going somewhere bigger.
Her parents disagreed with her vision. They told her it was best to settle down and get married, like most of the women(even the well educated) at the time. She persisted for a decade before giving in. It was a choice she believed was premature, but she made it work. When she had children, she developed an additional purpose for her quest of immigration to the US: providing progressive education for her kids. For the first nine years of my life, she researched ways a nuclear family could move to the US on a budget. This was not an easy task as we had no family in the United States nor did our family in Korea support the decision. Although, to me, I had been seemingly ripped out of my comfort zone against my will, my mother had been bracing for an opportunity for many years.
At age 42, my mother, along with her husband and two children, moved to the United States under a pretense that we were only going to stay for two years. However, two years stretched to three, then four. We were lucky that we were able to stay. At times, she struggled to find the appeal of staying. Then, there were daily difficulties. Store clerks spoke to her like she was a child. She was advised to give up in case of conflict, because there was no “winning” in America for Asian immigrants. Nevertheless, she persisted.
My mother’s version, a more complex and sentimental retelling of our family’s immigration, is a tale of continuous persistence. Her life story, which has been told in snippets during long road trips and tearful family arguments, is a collection of her decades long endeavor. As a child, I have always viewed this woman as just a mother, my mother. Still, in those stressful beginning years, I wish I had understood her more as a fellow immigrant than an invulnerable grown-up, because our immigration was for herself as much as it was for our family.
She is still trying to make up for those twenty-one years. She wants to go back to school. She wants to resume learning piano. She continues to persists every day.