In my English class, we have guest writers come into speak every class day. We recently had the author E.J. Koh come in and speak about her new memoir “The Magical Language of Others” that was inspired by her South Korean parents. Koh talked about the trauma and gaps within her family that both unite and separate them. When Koh was 15 years old, her parents left for a new job in South Korea, leaving E.J. and her brother behind in California. In her culture, it was completely normal for parents to go off to a different country for a job, it was what E.J.’s grandparents had done as well. But, she discusses how she grew some slight resentment towards her parents for essentially abandoning her. Koh ties this to the unrealistic expectations she had about her parents, how living in America led her to expect something from her parents that was impossible. E.J. had expected her parents to be the perfect American caretakers, not realizing that they would never be that, because it is not who they are. Koh’s realization about her parents and about her unrealistic expectations for them made me realize I have largely done the same for my parents.
Much like Koh, I too have had unrealistic expectations of my own parents, and I think that’s incredibly common within individuals who grow up stuck between two cultures. My siblings and I are first generation Americans. In growing up, I wasn’t really aware of any dramatic differences between my white friends and I. I spoke a different language at home and I had a darker skin color, but that was about it. I quickly learned just how different we really were.
I would get invited to sleepovers or birthday parties as a kid and I wasn’t able to go as our Mexican culture meant spending the night at what my parents thought of as a stranger’s house was a no go. Having play dates was pretty much impossible as there was a language barrier between my parents and my friends’ parents, so they would never fully get to know them. While my friends were having sleepovers and their parents were becoming friends as well, I was not experiencing the same thing. When it was homework time, I would go home and struggle and have little to no assistance. My parents hadn’t received a lot of education in Mexico and I couldn’t translate a question when I couldn’t even understand it in one language. My only resource was my sister, and as she is four years older than me, she could only do so much as well.
As a child, I expected my parents to be the same as my friends’ parents. I didn’t understand why they didn’t teach me when I didn’t know things. Why my dad never came to parent teacher conferences, why my mom wasn’t a PTA mom like the others. I didn’t understand why they weren’t there for me. Why they weren’t affectionate and why they didn’t comfort my sister and I when we were sad. What I understand now, is that my parents weren’t like my friend’s parent’s because they couldn’t be.
The cultural differences between us didn’t allow for them to adapt to a different way of being. Not even a differencing parenting style but a whole different lifestyle. Their culture shaped who they were. The unrealistic expectations I had were unfair to my Mexican parents as they never had a chance. They are the type of parents and individuals that they are because that is all they know and all they can do.
What I also didn’t realize was how my parents had done all of what I wanted them to do, but in different ways. While my white friends had their parents teach them addition and subtraction with numbers, my mother taught me the only way she knew how: with beans. My mom showed me addition and subtraction by having beans in a pile and either adding or removing beans from the pile and have me count them. My father who struggled with English more than my mom, taught me the only way he knew how: through stories. The life stories my dad provided me with were his way of instilling his values, they were his way of teaching me about my culture and my past, and the history of my family. I didn’t realize that while my mother carried my sister and I to the car in the mornings to take us to my grandmothers while we were wrapped up in blankets at the ages of 6 and 9, that she was telling us she loved us. I didn’t realize that my dad through waking up early in the mornings to go work and coming home from work and still having the energy to take us outside to play, he was telling us he loved us.
The unrealistic expectations I had for my parents made me blind to the times in which they were so desperately trying their best. I was so caught up in fitting into the culture around me that I didn’t take the time to acknowledge the cultural differences between my parents and the world around us. The danger with having two cultures is that it drives us to have expectations that are just downright impossible and unrealistic. These expectations hide the beauty of what it means to be different.