I’m surprised to find that, in my middle age, I feel like I am failing you more than ever. These days, I can’t protect you enough.
I remember being five and wanting with every cell in my being to make you feel safe and seen. This was my first and most important job. “I am not the dummy,” you would say whenever someone who spoke English more fluently than you made you feel less than. It might have been a passing stranger, or my grade school classmates who shoplifted from your corner store. “I graduate from Ewha Women’s University, oldest women’s university in Asia!” you’d tell me and never them, as if I had some superpower that could replenish your reserves of respect.
I know you were worried that their ways of thinking of would infect me, that I too would see you as the “other” and try to dissociate from you. But I would never, ever do that. Couldn’t you see that I was trying to protect you? If I could have shielded you from every hurt and racist abuse of power, I would have.
I would have stood up to the Canadian manpower officer who suggested that you take an English name that would be easier for Canadians to pronounce and remember than your Korean one. He threw out the name “Silver,” because it’s the literal translation of the first character of your first name, “Eun.” You felt like your identity was being stripped away. That officer lied to you and told you that you couldn’t attend university as an immigrant, even though you were a citizen. He crushed your dreams of becoming a doctor with the single phrase: “We brought you here to work, not to take a spot at our medical school” and steered you toward a job cleaning hotel bathrooms.
When you went to clean those bathrooms on the weekends, you couldn’t take me, so you left me at the nearby public library with a bologna sandwich and a stack of ruled paper to write out my multiplication tables. I was the library’s most loyal visitor. You told me to sit close enough to the librarian so that I would be safe, but far enough away so that she wouldn’t see I was breaking the rules by eating there. She of course noticed this anyway, yet she and I developed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” understanding. That was my first experience with the delicate push-pull of allyship.
One time, you picked me up after dark, and even though you wouldn’t look me in the eye, I could tell that you were crying. When I asked why you were sad, you said you felt suffocated by the flatness of Toronto. You missed the way the mountains in Korea would orient you. Without them, you sometimes felt like you couldn’t breathe. I remember wanting to fix that someday when I grew up.
At home, I remember how we were co-conspirators in trying to keep Dad from giving into rage. He was angry because the border between North and South Korea went up between him and his parents when he was nine, you told me. Because he was forced to grow up on his own. Drowning in his Johnny Walker, Dad once explained to me that the DMZ had started out as a harmless checkpoint, so when it closed, he couldn’t grasp the permanence. He would go back day after day, asking, “Can I go home to my parents today?” The answer was always no.
At first, he would try to console his 4-year-old sister when she cried. But eventually, after listening to her insistent sobbing night after night, he lost his patience.
“So what did you do?” I asked him, trying to take advantage of a rare opening when he was willing to talk.
“I punched her,” he admitted. Right then, that conversation closed. Throughout his life, the guilt of not being able to care for his sister has been crushing. On him, and through him, on all of us.
Rage is the outward expression of grief. But it’s hard to make sense of your pain when you are working 14 hours a day, earning your living in penny increments. Mom, if my first goal in life was to protect you, the first real team I belonged to was the two of us, trying to save Dad together. We are still trying, even though I worry none of our efforts have ever made him feel like he was worthy, like he was enough. Not even the time that you finally saved enough money to send the family on a vacation to the Dominican Republic while you stayed back and watched the store. Dad just needed rest, you thought. But not knowing what to do and who to pay and where to go ended up making him even more anxious. Throughout his life, he’s been convinced that people are always looking down on him. I feel powerless that I’ve never been able to convince him otherwise.
. . .
I find it strange that when I learned that six Asian women were among the eight shot and murdered in Atlanta in March, I called to check on how you and Dad were doing before it occurred to me to check in on my own children.
I wish I could have protected those women. I wish I could have protected my Yale-educated friend who got spat on in New York City a few weeks ago and was told to “go back to China,” even though she was born in Los Angeles. And I wish I could protect you.
For the children of immigrants, the recent violence is a double harm. Of course, there is the rising fear of our parents or ourselves being attacked. But layered beneath the fear is a sense of failure. We were supposed to be the ones who could replenish our parents’ sense of worthiness and belonging.
And yet these days, the hole keeps getting deeper.
Mom, you have ingrained a deep and abiding belief in progress into me and my sisters. You believe in making things better, because that’s what you’ve done in our lives. Each of the 11 apartments we moved into in Toronto were better than the last. But the recent anti-Asian violence is shaking my faith in “better.”
These days, I feel powerless. I can’t make it stop. I can’t do enough.
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