by Ji Yoon Noh
It’s 9:15 p.m. in Jeju, South Korea, and I’m sitting on my bed, about to start another episode of The West Wing. I’m 15 hours ahead of Chicago, and I do my usual calculation: 9:15 a.m. minus three hours. It would be about 6:15 a.m. there. My parents are probably waking up to the sound of their alarm now. Winter in Chicago is bleak, so there’s probably not much sunlight to welcome them to a new day.
I recall how remarkably fast my parents are at getting ready in the morning. Their routine is mechanical. They brush their teeth and get dressed. My mom packs lunch, while my dad heads down to the garage to take the dog out and start the car so it can warm up before driving to the dry cleaners. By 6:20 a.m. they are out the door. I used to wake up for school when I heard the sound of the garage door rumbling to a close. I’d get ready in an empty house and prepare for the day as my parents began their 50-minute commute to another suburb, where they cleaned clothes for 12 hours a day, six days a week.
It’s 9:19 p.m. now in Jeju, South Korea, and 6:19 a.m. in Chicago. I hit the “video call” button on Kakao messenger and the familiar jingle signals over 6,700 miles, virtually connecting me to my parents.
“Ji Yoon-ah,” my mom endearingly answers.
My mom’s natural tendency is to yell when she’s on the phone as if the connection will get stronger if she gets louder, but it never does.
I don’t call my parents often. We mostly keep each other updated through our family chat room on Kakao. I send pictures of various parts of my day, and my mom replies with a picture of our family dog, Ivy. Today was different, though. Today, I needed to hear my parents’ voices.
Since I moved away from Chicago in July, I had been struggling with homesickness. I had spent five years in Chicago. There, I rode my bike to church, jogged around The Point, and shopped at the grocery store where the owner shared his peach cobbler recipes with me. It was in Chicago that my favorite bike shop owner became a close friend and mentor. There, I developed rituals and cultivated relationships that have shaped my identity today. I chose to temporarily leave Chicago to experience Korea, and to finally live in the country that others assumed was my “home.” The place where I was born — my 고향.[1. Gohyang, Hometown] I’ve been in Korea several months now; the semester is coming to a close. And yet, I still feel like a foreigner here.
“Are you well?” my mom asks.
“I’m okay. Today was a little bit difficult.”
“Why? Were your kids bad?”
“아니… [2. Ani, No]” Immediately, my voice breaks. “It’s just… no. I’m just really homesick.” I swallow hard in order to hold back the tears.
It’s 6:25 a.m. now, and my mom patiently listens to my sobbing: how I’ve been missing home; how lonely I’ve been; how thankful I am that they moved to the U.S.; how hard it must have been for them to immigrate.
While in Korea, these moments of loneliness and homesickness have helped me understand the sacrifices my parents made as immigrants. They sacrificed living near their families, their comfortable lifestyle, their privilege as members of the majority, and their ability to fluently speak the predominant language and to communicate with their daughters. How painfully difficult their transition from locals to foreigners must have been.
“Hi! I’m here, too!” My dad abruptly chimes into the phone conversation. Usually, I would be annoyed by this. But today, I weep even harder at the sound of his voice.
My dad’s voice reminds me of how much resentment I had toward him. Resentment that built up over years of miscommunication and mistranslations. The time I attempted to explain to him my plan to become a social worker ended with my father insisting that I become a CIA agent. Tears would well up during conversations like these, when shame and frustration overwhelmed me. I mistakenly accused my father of patronizing my dreams. Why doesn’t he understand? I’d assume. Why doesn’t he hear what I am saying?
In reality, though, he couldn’t understand.
Today, resentment towards my father coalesces with the homesickness that I now realize my dad and I share. For different homes, but the same sickness.
Living in Korea has been a grieving process. I’ve been grieving the loss of all of the things my parents sacrificed when they immigrated. How they must have felt the same visceral aching that envelops all those who suffer from homesickness. And I’ve been able to experience, firsthand, what my life could have been if we hadn’t immigrated. I was angry when I first realized that I was robbed of a childhood in which my parents were available on weekends. A childhood in which I didn’t have to translate for them during parent-teacher conferences.
Although I have been grieving, I have been simultaneously healing. Living among Korean natives has allowed me to better understand where my parents come from, what rituals they followed in Korea and the relationships they had cultivated. I’ve been getting a better glimpse of their homeland, so that I can understand who they are and ultimately, who I am. While I grieve, I am also struck with gratitude for their sacrifices.
“Hi, Dad. I’m sorry for not calling you more often.” I try to get my voice back to normal.
“Things must have been difficult lately.”
“Yeah. I’m feeling a lot of 향수병.[3. Hyangsubyeong]” I use the Korean word for homesickness to show off. I want my dad to know that I’ve been improving my vocabulary. “You must have felt it a lot when you moved to the U.S.”
I hear my mom chuckle over the speakerphone. “He’s the king of 향수병.” I laugh to show solidarity. At the same time I wipe away tears.
It’s 9:36 p.m. in Jeju, South Korea, and 6:36 a.m. in Chicago. Our conversation doesn’t go on any longer. They never extend beyond 15 minutes. I say I have to go and my mom insists that I eat well and take care of myself. Before I hang up, my father reminds me to be strong; to rely on people, to struggle together and to build community.
“울고 싶을 땐 울어도 돼.[4. Ulgo shipeul ddaen uleodo dwae,’ “If you want to cry, you should cry”] Weep and be brave,” he says.
Ji Yoon Noh is a 2015-2016 ETA at Seogwipo Middle School in Seogwipo, Jeju-do.