For much of the pandemic, while without childcare and school, we left our city apartment and went to my parents’ house in the suburbs to stay for an indeterminate amount of time. My husband and I slept in my childhood bedroom, while our kids, 3 and 5, shared a queen bed in the next room. We landed with a heavy footprint, during an emotionally heavy and stressful time—the kids were wild, our belongings were in boxes all over the house, and we had no idea when we’d be able to go home again. And yet, I had also somehow imagined this would be a time for connection between my biracial city kids and their Korean grandparents.
When my daughter was born, I wanted her to be bilingual in a way that I wasn’t. Her mind was a fresh canvas, and her capacity for language and for learning would be rich. She was the first grandchild, and I had visions of her learning the stories and language about my extended family that I barely knew. She’d be fluent in the language I wished I could speak, and she’d eat the foods I’d grown up with, still adopting the palette of flavours from foods that I couldn’t cook.
I’d imagined that moving into their house and having their language, the Korean food, their stories, and their help with childcare would be seamless.
My mom insisted on sneaking out to the grocery store multiple times a week even in those scary early days, when we were advised to stockpile food and everyone was still disinfecting their purchases. My dad entertained the kids with an assortment of YouTube videos and large bowls of potato chips for hours on end while my husband and I were working in other rooms. “Speak in Korean!” I would still insist, hoping that what was lost in edifying childcare would be made up for in cultural education. “Can you read some Korean folktales?” “What if you made dukgook for dinner?”
My dad came from Seoul, Korea in 1968, to get his PhD. He was the sole member of his family to emigrate, a top performing student from Seoul National University. My mom arrived a few years later, by way of Alaska and by marriage, and she spoke no English, didn’t drive, and came to meet her husband in upstate New York, a far cry from Seoul, where she’d grown up.
My mom’s main memory of this time is of going to the rec room in their apartment complex, and playing pool, alone, for hours. She claims to have had ace precision, shooting one ball after another, into the corner pockets.
As they moved into the only house they’ve lived in since then, they began to assimilate, sometimes intentionally, but more often incidentally. My mom took a cooking class and learned to cook meatloaf and roast a Thanksgiving turkey. My parents took a waltz class, because this is what newlyweds, and North Americans, did. They also began to navigate the world in English.
The pressure to assimilate, or the desire to not be different in a town that was nearly all white, meant my two brothers and I grew up with only fragments of Korean culture. But our parents had deep national pride, expressed most strongly during global sports events, like the World Cup and the Olympics. If any Korean athlete or team exceeded expectations, we would open some Martinelli’s sparkling grape juice, as if we had all won. But we didn’t speak Korean, and we left the house not knowing how to cook any of the dishes we’d grown up with—dukgook (rice cake soup), Doenjang-jjigae (soybean stew), muk (acorn jelly topped with seaweed and soy sauce), and kimchi—and didn’t have any close Korean friends from our town. In my 20s and 30s, I went off to college, moved to the city and then married a Jewish guy from New York, so fostering my Korean heritage was fairly dormant until my kids arrived.
But as the pandemic dragged on and the death toll grew, somehow, my insistence also grew. Were my parents going to make it to the other side of this? My dad was about to turn 80. We didn’t suggest that out loud, but if they didn’t, would my ability to pass along their traditions and their language be lost? Would my kids ever learn to speak Korean? Before the pandemic, we knew that a short grandparent visit is a respite to tired young parents. It’s the ability to go on a date night, or a chance to have your favourite childhood meal. But living with my parents for weeks on end unearthed much more: a confrontation with expectations that my parents would make up the gaps in my own cultural knowledge. I was realizing they won’t be here forever.
The way a child can sniff out their parents’ pressure or growing panic, my parents could also sniff out mine. They didn’t want to be told what and how to pass things on to their grandkids, and they certainly didn’t want to be told how to grandparent in their own home during a pandemic.
My desire to “get something” from this terrible time revealed a deep anxiety of what might be lost—a lot of expectations placed on the weightiest time we’d all known. It was untenable for us all, with tension growing and our arguments becoming more commonplace and more absurd. So four months after moving in, my husband and I packed up the kids and left, because we needed the distance in order to mend what had become fraught.
My husband and I flailed without my parents’ help—we struggled over what to cook, how to work without childcare, how to get the kids outside enough—but the relationship with my parents did mend with distance, and time. And as it healed, I looked for other entry points of cultural exposure that didn’t have to come from them. I sought out children’s books by Korean authors from the local library, and found the Korean folktales I grew up hearing about, like the mountain rabbit and the tiger. A few times I tried to make dukbokki, and my kids took to it, even though I was clumsy with this new set of ingredients and I could tell my creation didn’t taste quite right. I found some Korean kids’ music videos, and we listened to songs from The Octonauts dubbed over in Korean.
Months later, after all the adults finally got vaccinated and we began to see my parents again, it was my kids who ran up to my mom and said, “Do you know the book, Where’s Halmoni? There’s a halmoni just like you and she takes care of her grandkids. And there’s a rabbit and a tiger.” And they explained how to play “rock, paper, scissors” to her in Korean, which they learned from the book, and from me. She was happy to hear it all.
For my dad’s 80th birthday, my entire family—including my two adult brothers and their wives and kids—came together for a three-day weekend, our first big reunion since COVID hit. It was spectacularly rainy for three days straight, but we didn’t mind. During a brief hiatus from the rain, we all went outside and whacked at a COVID-shaped piñata, with the grandkids scrambling for the candy and toys that fell to the ground. Even my parents took a blindfolded, cathartic swing. The grandparents could finally just be grandparents, without some expectation of caregiving or pseudo-parenting. My mom cooked Korean food for the whole giant group, this time as part of a joyous celebration, rather than the obligation of feeding my kids day in, day out. Her meals are always delicious, but somehow, with all of us together, it tasted so much better.