May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (AAPI). This month, many people are celebrating by reading books by AAPI authors, gathering with friends and family, and finding ways to support local AAPI businesses. I am reminded of how diverse and rich our community is. Even in my Korean American community, we are the same and we are different. We have our own stories to tell, and most of these go beyond us. They are connected to our ancestors and parents.
One of the most powerful ways to connect with our heritage is to explore the stories of our parents. I grew up in a traditional Korean family, where my relationship with my parents was only as far as what I wanted to eat for dinner or how I looked on my report card. There were of course many moments of wishing for a different relationship with them when I heard stories about how my classmates at school actually hung out with their parents. They talk and share about their days.
My parents’ lives, like many others, lived mostly in immigrant survival mode. My mother is only 32 years old and my grandmother is 37 years old, with two young girls to take care of. I turn 42 this year and what I remember about my 30s is discovering myself, navigating my newly married life, cultivating friendships and finding my foundation as a teacher in school. I’m just starting to become an adult. My 30s are completely different from my parents’ 30s. Before coming to America, what was their dream – Individually and collectively? When they were young, how were they with their peers? Do they also fight with their parents? It’s hard to imagine them outside of their parenting roles.
If we want to honor our legacy to its fullest, we must believe that each of our stories matters. And when we know a person by their stories, it is to see their humanity, their strength, their courage, their dreams, their hopes, and to say that we know their name. Who they are is part of my story and the story of Korean Americans. Here’s what I did to foster a different kind of conversation and interaction with my parents to know what kind of person they are. I hope it also encourages you to know yours.
Old photos as conversation starters to discover new stories
I am grateful that my parents have a lot of photos in many cardboard boxes and photo albums. Previously, I went through these photos and saw the age and time. How young my mother looked, or how cute my sister was when she was a child. And our conversations remain at the surface level. Now, I see them as building blocks for new discoveries. You can view a photo on different occasions and a new story will emerge. This can happen with purposeful questioning, a vulnerable safe space, and time to sit and listen without rushing.
When we were at my parents’ house celebrating my appa’s birthday last December, I purposely took out one of the cardboard boxes and went through some photos. An outstanding photo for me and I want to know more about it. My Appa is probably in his 20s, and he’s with some friends on a mountain somewhere. I asked him where it was obtained and why they were there. He smiled and suddenly repositioned his body and sat up straight, as if to make a big announcement. He looks engaged. My Appa shared with me that the photo was taken when he was 16 years old, and three other young men were his close friends. Their favorite weekend spot is Seoraksan, located in a national park near his hometown of Sokcho. They will be hiking, talking, drinking and eating for hours. The first thing that popped into my head was, “This is where I got my love of hiking.” Here I think my dad probably studied day and night, even on weekends. But no, the weekends are for friends, and away from school.
Honestly, I don’t think he and I have much in common. The Appa I know is a stoic person who doesn’t have many hobbies outside of work. When we know our parents’ stories, we are humbled and that allows us to see them beyond our own experiences with them. Many of the AAPI stories told about our parents are stories of hurt and sadness. Equally important is amplifying the extended stories – many different parts of who they are. Our parents are not a monolith.
Some questions we might ask when looking at photos taken with our parents are:
- Where were you in this photo?
- Whom are you staying with?
- Why are you there?
- Tell me what you remember about this time.
- How do you feel when you look at this photo?
- Do you remember what else happened in your life during this time?
I know for me, asking personal questions like these are a few firsts. My parents were equally awkward and surprised. It takes time and patience. Eventually both my parents started to open up and share. As we try to change the dynamics in any relationship, growing pains are inevitable. And the change happens over time and it’s not linear. Intentionally assessing the atmosphere, seeing how my parents are feeling at the moment, if we had enough time, helped start these conversations. And, it’s also helpful to start with one question per visit. Choosing a photo that can evoke joy and positive moment can also be helpful, even though we may not always know what they are.
Finally, I am honest with my parents. I told them I was asking these questions because I really wanted to know them. And how do I know it can feel weird and different and that’s okay.
Connect our stories to theirs
Another way to know our parents’ stories is to share our own. This is harder for me; because my parents can be quick to judge or give unsolicited advice, I don’t always find that effective. But, I can choose what I share and when I share it. For example, when I started my teaching career many years ago, I told my mother that working was hard and I couldn’t go to school. I asked my mother what she remembers about she first profession. What is difficult about it? What did she miss before work? These questions led to some tough, heartbreaking conversations for us, but I was honored that she opened up to me. Sometimes, my parents don’t open up, and I have to be patient with them. I also have to make peace knowing that there may be parts they don’t want me in, and I have to be okay with that.
Intentional conversations over dinner
My favorite thing is to talk during a meal. In my Korean culture, food is everything. Gathering for dinner after a long day at work is something we look forward to. No matter what our day is like, or the argument in the morning, we can all slow down together at the end of the day with food. I’m still figuring this out, as we’re used to a lot of silence at dinner – at least in my family.
I set myself a goal to ask my parents a question while eating. I find our conversations richer before asking relevant and organic questions. For example, my mother is the best cook I know. I would ask her about the first time she had that particular dish and tell us about it. This is how I discovered her favorite Soy Milk Pho (kongguksu) shop near the middle school where she grew up. She told my husband and I how she and her girlfriends sometimes have to wait an hour on a sweltering hot day for this refreshing bowl of soup. We listened as we enjoyed it one day last summer. I looked at her, and the way she smiled, she was transported back to a good time with her friends. When you get to know someone beyond their role, your heart opens to greater empathy and healing.
Whether we are sharing our own stories, looking at photos or sharing a meal, we can be encouraged that it is never too late to know and congratulate their parents. us this way. I often think about how maybe my parents never shared because immigration made them believe they were faceless and voiceless. This AAPI Heritage Month and beyond, let’s remind our parents that they are not anonymous by giving them the space to show us who they are. Because of who they are, who are they part of we And we can’t forget that.
https://www.sheknows.com/parenting/articles/2566733/celebrate-heritage-through-parents-stories/ I’m Celebrating My Korean Heritage Through My Parents’ Stories – SheKnows