My grandmother is a warm and effusive woman who, from my earliest memory, has never held back from telling me how much she loved me or how great I was. Yet beyond the usual lines of respectful greetings and wishes of good health, I’d never had a real conversation with her. As I was growing up in Canada, she was someone who physically appeared in my life only about every five years or so. Language, culture, time, and distance all stood in our way.
So in my most recent visit to Korea (where my parents now live), I made sure to have a long and recorded conversation with my grandmother for the first time. Along with my mom, we sat down for an hour and a half as she told me about her life, starting from her birth in 1930 in Japanese-occupied Korea through World War II, the Korean War, the string of dictatorships, the Miracle on the Han, to contemporary times. Her stories confirmed and rebuked fragments of information I’d collected through overheard conversations and intuition.
For instance, I knew that my grandmother had gone to university, which was rare for a woman at that time. So I knew that my mom’s family must’ve come from at least some wealth and status. But listening to how my grandmother had, comparatively, been spared the direst of hardships during the occupation and wars, I got a clearer sense of just how much. My grandmother stated that if I were to listen to the story of a rural counterpart of hers, the narrative I’d hear would be vastly different.
Of course, whatever status my family had back then is mostly lost now. We’re “just” a professional-class family in Seoul, far removed from anything remotely approaching chaebol level. Based on what my mom often said while I was growing up, I’d always sensed her regret and resentment at status decline, worsened particularly by the taxing process of immigration. My grandmother’s stories confirmed all this.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, I’d just finished reading Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. It was a book I’d wanted to read for a long time. Here’s its irresistible blockbuster synopsis: Follow the tale of a multi-generational decline of a Northern German upper-middle-class merchant family in the 19th century as political, commercial, and social changes sap the wealth and prestige of a once-venerated family. Turn the pages (all 700 of them) as bad marriages and profit-losing grain shipments lead to compounding setbacks!
Despite its less-than-enticing synopsis, the story’s premise drew me. Admittedly, I’d given up on my first try at reading it as I found there were too many characters to keep track of. Too many Johanns. But recently, I gave it another shot and after some initial diagramming to keep track of who was who, the story completely captured me. The Buddenbrook clan of Lübeck sees itself slipping on the social ladder with each successive generation after having made its fortune as a wartime supplier to the Prussian army in the early 19th century. As time passes them by, they become obsessed with maintaining family honor (as they understand it) or turning away from the respectable merchant’s life altogether.
The quiet tragedy of the novel doesn’t actually hit you until you’re well into the story. The saddest part is near the beginning of the novel, during the few months before Antonie “Tony” Buddenbrook’s first marriage. Tony is a vivacious, if haughty, girl whose beauty and brains would mark her for greater things in modern times. However, in the context of her birth, once she’s targeted for marriage by a seemingly upstanding merchant named Bendix Grünlich, her fate is sealed. Despite her instinctual revulsion at his fakeness, her parents strong-arm her into acquiescing to his proposal because of his apparent status in society. Tony’s own desire for maintaining a comfortable life plays a part as well. But right before she gets married, she spends a summer in the resort town of Travemünde with a lower-class family, the Schwarzkopfs. With their son Morten, she experiences what the reader later realizes is the closest she’ll ever get to romantic happiness. As she departs with Grünlich after their wedding, she whispers to her beloved father, “Papa, are you proud of me?” It is a devastating line that only gets worse as Tony experiences divorces, a miscarriage, and a stunted life because of a terrible decision so early in her life.
Tony reminded me of my own mother.
Most Asian American discussions about immigration stress focus on the difficulties faced by young Asian Americans (and Canadians, Brits, Australians, etc.) who had to grow up as children of immigrants. But what about the immigrant parents themselves? Often, their own children publicly portray them as stubborn and/or backwards. Or there are warm-but-condescending portrayals of them as cute mascots of a thankfully bygone era, now that their children have successfully assimilated or gotten over their racial hangups about being Asian.
I can’t exonerate myself from these offenses either. Almost all of my understanding of the difficulties of immigration comes from my own point of view. My parents’ experiences have largely been an afterthought, if I thought of them at all. Some of my earliest family memories are that of my parents fighting, often over what seemed like the stupidest and pettiest things. Such violence, both physical and emotional, was a constant in our household. It was one of the main reasons I was so eager and happy to leave home for college. At that time, after years and years of hoping and trying to fix things, I’d concluded that my parents were too damaged and beyond any healing because they were, regrettably, too Asian.
Fortunately, circumstances led me back home after college (albeit to Korea, where my parents had moved). The change of scenery calmed them down and gradually, after noticing that it’d been a long time since I’d actually seen them fight (or at least fight as viciously as they did in Canada), I finally learned to stop expecting acrimony.
Ironically, being in Korea gave me more insight into what their lives in Canada must’ve been like, because I could now sense what they’d had to leave behind. My grandmother’s stories added new sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes to those senses. For a long time, I’d been frustrated by my parents’ apparent obsession with my achieving conventional success and status, like driving nice cars or having an impressive white-collar job. Even worse, that wasn’t even real status-mongering because the true elites aspire for much more than a solid 6-figure office job. It was the worst of both worlds: snootiness in a provincial way.
But to them, such dreams probably were very aspirational. Those dreams just weren’t completely up to date in a 21st century American youth environment where “do what you love” and a leisurely creative life were the true signs of the upper class.
As Johann Buddenbrook gets older, he obsessively doubles down on maintaining what he has known to be symbols of his status, such as always dressing impeccably well. Meanwhile, his firm is slipping into irrelevance as the times simply leave it behind. His sister Tony, after being devastated by a pair of bad marriages, becomes obsessed with advancing the family’s prestige in every other way possible.
I saw my own parents in these characters. What came off to me as striving for an embarrassingly out-of-touch notion of social status might’ve been their way of trying to salvage all the sacrifices made and unfair losses incurred when they immigrated. They’d gone from people who’d mattered to invisible and irrelevant yellow immigrants with no family or friends to bond them to their new so-called home. Both of my parents had gone to the best university in Korea, but in Canada, there was hardly any recognition of that. Their family histories didn’t matter either. On the streets, they were just immigrants from a lesser part of the world. At least my dad had his job, even if he had to redo a lot of professional training and start from the bottom. For my mom, she didn’t even have that. In Korea, she’d belonged to a line of educated women, but in Canada, she was someone who’d get flustered when a cashier asked her something in English. I remember overhearing stories about how much she felt condescended to when she tried to go to ESL classes for adults. Like Tony, did she have a summer in her own Travemünde? Was immigration, or my dad, her own Grünlich? And much like how Tony pins all her happiness on her daughter Erika and her brother Johann’s successes, does my mom rely too much on me to vicariously establish the life she might’ve had if she stayed in Korea?
We 2nd-generation Asians give our parents a lot of grief for being such fish-out-of-water, but none of us know what it’s truly like to not only uproot ourselves, but to uproot ourselves to a place where we have to suffer diminished status. Our status as Western-born still provides us with a shield of protection wherever we go. In Buddenbrooks, the whole reason Tony marries Grünlich is because her father diligently investigates the Hamburgian groom’s background and comes away impressed, only to realize after that the city slickers in Hamburg conspired against him for their own financial gain. Upon his beloved daughter’s divorce, he is crushed by his own guilt after being so incapable of protecting and guiding Tony, though she unhesitatingly forgives him. I have to wonder if our parents harbor similar guilt, though it may manifest itself in seemingly irrational anger or stubbornness towards us?
In senior year of high school, my class went on the annual Encounter retreat that every senior class in our all-boys Catholic school went on in our spring semester. It was meant to be a mix of camp and spiritual retreat. One of our late-night activities was something one could call a candlelight confessional, where we all took turns talking about the things troubling us the most. I was surprised, though I probably shouldn’t have been, that most of us talked about strained relationships with parents. Since our school had a large Asian student population, I had many Asian peers at the Encounter retreat who spoke up about their family difficulties. There was no basis to think Asian kids had any more of these troubles than non-Asians, but I did notice how similar their experiences were to mine, especially with respect to the father-son relationship.
So many of young Asian America’s problems seemingly stemming from unresolved childhood issues about the generational, cultural, and lingual barriers that so many of us face growing up. Discussions like the one we had at Encounter were a good start, but there has to be a follow-up to confessionals. Non-Asian audiences love to listen to our sob stories and we mistake that for some kind of adequate end-point of our progress.
I myself have to wonder when, or if, I’ll have the same kind of discussion with my parents that I had with my grandmother. Talking to my grandmother was relatively easy because of the vast gulf between our experiences. But talking to my parents would remove that safety barrier. Would I even fully trust what they had to say? Human memory can be unreliable or self-serving. But one day, I hope to be able to do this.