There’s an inevitable collide of two worlds when your parents visit. I say this as a Korean child whose parents came to Calvin for the first time a couple of months ago.
They live in Uganda, and we Skyped a few weeks before their flight. My father loves to travel and told me to start planning a trip to Niagara Falls. We’ll drive all night if we have to! My mother just asked me the usual: any food you want me to bring? I told them I’d probably be busy with exams and that we had plenty of food.
After our conversation, I quickly became nervous thinking of when they’d come to Michigan. I imagined them meeting my Calvin friends and professors and struggling to understand quick bursts of American conversational English. They’d gasp at the dishes stacked in the sink in my apartment, and my mom would chide me about how I hadn’t bought any fresh kimchi for so long.
Because I spent most of my school years away from my parents, I’ve come to hold the moments when I meet and part with my parents with an overbearing sentimentality in my autobiographical memory.
The first that I can remember was when my parents dropped me off at boarding school in Kenya for the first time. I was twelve, and our blue Toyota Land Cruiser disappeared behind wisps of brown dust as it did a final hop over the hill next to my sixth grade dorm. I remember standing still, looking over that hill, and waiting to see if the cruiser would reappear through the curtain of dust. It didn’t. All of a sudden, a realization smacked me in the head: I had to do my laundry, cooking, dishes, cleaning all by myself! How was I going to do all of this without mom and dad?
It turned out I didn’t have to do most of those things; the school did them for me. For the next seven years, I attended boarding school in Kenya while my parents worked in Uganda. After that, I spent four years at Calvin, living and studying on a different continent than my parents. This persistent geographical separation allowed me to developed two separate lives: one with my friends and one with my parents. I’d briefly have “overlapping” moments at airports and bus stations, but my parents rarely met any of my friends.
In time, I came to believe that a perfect union of my two identities in one person at one time and place was impossible. That’s why I dreaded my parents visiting me. They’d lock me in a paradoxical space where I had to hold two irreconcilable yet naturally expressive selves. I would have all my friends and loved ones in one place, but I would have no place for me.
I think that’s really the source of my fear when my parents come to visit. On the surface, it’s a fear that when they leave, there will be another thing I have to do on my own. Deep down, it’s the fear that what I had done and become on my own while they’d been away had turned me into a complete fraud.
They arrived in Grand Rapids on Tuesday, May 20. I had just come back to my apartment from writing my final exam.
My brother suddenly burst through our screen door with luggage in both hands. “They’re here.” I went outside, and my dad was only a few yards away. I immediately saw that he was still limping from his Achilles tendon injury earlier in the year. We hugged and then I hugged my mom, who was right behind him.
That’s the moment we met. But, in my memory, their visit is not distilled into overly sentimental snapshots of our meeting and parting moments. Instead, I remember that my mom and I prepared supper together that night. While we ate, my dad kept asking how we’d get ourselves to Niagara Falls. By the end of the evening, my mom began preparing a batch of kimchi so big it lasted us for two months.
In the next few weeks, my parents met my friends and teachers, and they understood each other just fine. We didn’t end up visiting Niagara Falls, but we did see the Sleeping Bear dunes and spent a few nights at a cottage on the lake.
I remember it all with a feeling of a relaxed warmth, much like an evening in the early Michigan summer. I suppose it’s the feeling you get when you realize your fears—of new responsibilities and discrepant self-exposure—have no place in the presence of people who embody deepest love for you.
Greg Kim (’14) graduated with a BA in history and international relations. He lived in Grand Rapids for a year and has since moved back to South Korea to fulfill his mandatory military service.