I Celebrate My Heritage by Giving My Parents Space to Show Me Who They Are

May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. During this month, many are celebrating by reading books from AAPI authors, gathering with friends and families, and finding ways to support local AAPI businesses. I am reminded of just how diverse and rich our community is. Even within my own Korean American community, we are alike and we are different. We have our own stories to tell, and much of these stories go beyond us. They are connected to our ancestors and our parents.

One of the most powerful ways to connect with our heritage is by discovering the stories of our parents. I grew up in a traditional Korean family, where my relationship with my parents was only the extent of what I wanted to eat for dinner or how I performed on my report card. Of course there were many moments of wishing for a different kind of relationship with them when I would hear stories of how my classmates at school actually hung out with their parents. They talked, and they shared about their days.

My parents’ lives, like many others, were lived mostly in survival mode due to immigration. My umma was only 32 and my appa was 37, with two young girls to take care of. I turned 42 this year and what I remember about my 30s is self-discovery, navigating newly married life, nourishing my friendships, and finding my grounding as a school teacher. I was just starting to become an adult. My 30s were starkly different from my parents’ 30s. Before they came to the U.S, what were their dreams – Individually and collectively? What were they like in their youth with their peers? Did they also get into fights with their parents, too? It was hard to imagine them outside of their parental roles.

If we are to celebrate our heritage fully, it is to believe that each of our stories matter. 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 them by name. Who they are is part of my story, too, and a story of Korean Americans. Here is what I have done to foster a different kind of conversation and interaction with my parents in order to know them as people. I hope it encourages you to know yours, too.

Old photos as conversation starters for discovering new stories

I am grateful that my parents have a great amount of photos in numerous cardboard boxes and photo albums. Before, I looked through these photos and saw age and time. How young my umma looked, or how cute my sister was when she was a baby. And our conversations remained surface-level. Now, I see them as building blocks for new discoveries. You can look at one photo on several different occasions, and a new story will appear. This can happen with intentional questions, a safe space to be vulnerable, 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 looked through some photos. One photo stood out to me as one I wanted to know more about. My appa was probably in his early 20s, and he was with some friends on a mountain somewhere. I asked him where it was taken and why they were there. He smiled and suddenly repositioned his body and sat up straight, as to give a big announcement. He looked engaged. My appa shared with me that the photo was taken when he was 16 years old, and the three other young men are his best friends. Their favorite place to go on weekends was Seoraksan, which is located in a national park near the city of Sokcho – his hometown. They would hike, talk, drink, and eat for hours. The first thing that came to my mind was, “This is where I get my love of hiking.” Here I thought my dad probably studied day and night, even on weekends. But no, weekends were for friends, and away from school.

I honestly didn’t think he and I had much in common. The Appa I knew is stoic, with not a lot of hobbies outside of work. When we learn of our parents’ stories, we are humbled and it allows us to see them apart from our own experiences with them. Many AAPI stories that are told of our parents are ones of trauma and sorrow. What is equally important is amplifying expansive stories – the many different parts to who they are. Our parents are not a monolith.

Some questions we can ask when looking at photographs with our parents are:

  1. Where were you in this photo?
  2. Who were you with?
  3. Why were you there?
  4. Tell me what you remember about this time.
  5. How do you feel looking at this photo now?
  6. Do you remember what else was happening in your life during this time?

I know for me, asking personal questions like this was awkward for the first several times. It was equally awkward and surprising for my parents, too. It took time and patience. Both my parents started to open up and share eventually. When we are trying to change a dynamic in any relationship, growing pains are inevitable. And change happens over time and it’s not linear. Being intentional about gauging the atmosphere, how my parents are feeling at the moment, if we have enough time, have helped in starting these conversations. And, starting with one question per visit is helpful too. Choosing a photo that might provoke joy and positive times is helpful, too, although we may not always know what they are.

Lastly, I am honest with my parents. I tell them I am asking these questions now because I genuinely want to know them. And how I know it may feel strange and different and that’s okay.

Connecting our own stories with theirs

Another way to get to know our parents’ stories is sharing our own. This one is harder for me to do; because my parents can be quick to judge or give unwanted advice, I don’t always find it productive. But, I can choose what I share and when I share it. For example, when I started my teaching job years ago, I told my umma that working was hard and I missed being at school. I asked my umma what she remembers about her first job. What was hard about it? What did she miss before working? These questions led to some difficult, heartbreaking conversations for us, but I am 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 of them they don’t want to let me in on, and I have to be okay with it.

Intentional dinner conversations

My favorite is talking over a meal. In my Korean culture, food is everything. Gathering for dinner after a long day of work is something we look forward to. No matter how our days were, or the argument we had in the morning, we can still come together at the end of the day to slow down with food. I am still figuring this one out, as we are used to a lot of silence during dinner — at least in my family.

I give myself a goal of asking one question to my parents while having a meal. I found our conversations to be richer than before by asking questions that are relevant and organic. For instance, my umma is the best cook I know. I would ask her about when she first had that particular dish and to tell us about it. This was how I found out about her favorite Soy Milk Noodle Soup (kongguksu) shop near her middle school where she grew up. She told my husband and I about how she and her girlfriends sometimes had to wait an hour on a sweltering hot day just for one bowl of this refreshing soup. We listened as we enjoyed it on a summer day last year. I looked at my umma, and the way she smiled, she was taken back to a joyful time with friends. When you get to know someone beyond the roles they play, your heart opens up for greater empathy and healing.

Whether we are sharing stories of our own, looking at photographs, or sharing a meal, we can be encouraged that it’s never too late to know and celebrate our parents in this way. I often think about how perhaps my parents never shared because immigration had led them to believe that they are nameless and voiceless. This AAPI Heritage Month and beyond, let’s remind our parents they are not nameless by giving them the space to show us who they are. Because who they are is part of who we are, and we cannot forget that.

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