Ever since I’ve graduated from grad school, I’ve made an annual pilgrimage to Columbus, centering around making it out to a football game. The sport, once unfamiliar, has grown on me each year I’ve been in America. The electrifying experience of cheering in unison with a crowd of strangers in a packed stadium never fails to set my adrenaline pumping. 

This past weekend marked my third consecutive return for this cherished ritual. The Buckeyes were facing off against Michigan State at home, and my friends and I made it to the game a few minutes late. By the time we found seats, OSU had scored their first touchdown. We were in for a blowout. Abruptly, a friend in our party received a call. After a while, they left their seat and disappeared. Our other friend close to him told us that he had just found out his grandfather had passed away and that his parents were at the airport heading back home to India to see their family. Although we expressed our condolences and offered to leave, the friend insisted on staying for a bit. We eventually left a little after halftime after concluding that the game had been a complete rout. 

The events of that evening have lingered with me for the past few days. Earlier this summer, my grandpa passed away. He had struggled with some health issues for a while and, as a family, we knew his time was coming soon. Even so, I was shaken up when my sister texted me and broke the news. That night, we went out with some friends to some bars and I was confused. How do you grieve for someone who you hardly know? My sister and my parents were packing up to fly out to Korea from Egypt the same day.  

Although I’m Korean, I’ve spent time in Korea only on eight different occasions, ranging from two weeks to six months. Every time I’ve been, I have stayed at my grandparents’ place. The grandpa I have in my memories is composed of glimpses that I’ve pieced together over the years to form an idea of who he is. 

Some of these pieces, I’ve gained firsthand. He would always treat us to delicious Korean food (some healthy, others not so much) when we’d visit. I remember he would quiz me on my hanja, or Chinese characters used in traditional Korean writing. Other pieces I’ve learned secondhand. As the oldest of many siblings, he took care of many of his younger siblings and their families in addition to his own. He was a math teacher and eventually a school principal, and once he retired he traveled extensively throughout the world, visiting the US, Europe, and even Egypt to visit us. 

Despite all these memories, I’m not sure I knew him that well or if he knew me well either. Every time I saw him, I had probably put on a few inches and was interested in some new hobby. Building a strong connection is a bit challenging when there’s not a foundation of shared extended time. Yet, I trust that he did care for me in ways I didn’t appreciate as a kid. 

I’m certain that my experience of grieving for a family member lost in a place far away is not unique. Many people move away from their families for different reasons. I’ve felt that for Korean culture as well as many other Asian cultures, the sense of duty to family often comes hand in hand with guilt of failing to meet a standard. If you have a chance, I’d recommend watching the film Farewell, where a Chinese American family does not tell their grandmother of the extent of her sickness and instead calls for a family gathering. The film like many other films, stories, and essays captures the intricate interplay of family and grief. 

My personal experience grieving for my grandpa is colored with a sense of guilt and regret. It’s challenging not to imagine how different of a relationship we’d have had if I had grown up in Korea or even chosen to move there after high school. Perhaps instead of going to football games each year, I would have built a tradition of hiking and traveling with my grandpa. These days, I try not to dwell too long on the what-ifs but rather make sure I spend time with my parents and sister. As I prepare to visit them soon, I truly appreciate the chance to spend time with them, cognizant that none of us are getting any younger—but hey, who’s counting?

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