As we head off on spring break, many of us will be returning to ever-changing home environments. For one thing, college is often the first major life juncture where we experience deaths in our families, and returning home can be scary, alienating and confusing. That is an environment I’ve been lucky enough to be unfamiliar with, until now.
Two weeks ago, I learned that my grandfather from South Korea passed away. I met him only a few times in my life and have just two conscious memories of him. He lived almost completely in the stories my mother told, and in this way, he is as alive as ever.
My mother is an immigrant from South Korea, who came to the United States after high school. My father is the son of Mexican immigrants, who gained their legal statuses after years of hard, honest work in Northern California.
Being a second-generation immigrant leaves me in a strange middle ground — not quite knowledgeable of the culture my family left behind, but fully cognizant of the important sacrifices made by relatives. I find myself constantly in limbo, balancing expectations from parental stories of how “back in my day we didn’t have running water,” but also explaining to friends how “that’s just not something my people do.” In relation to my cultural identity, I am both far away and close, complicated even more by a mixed heritage that leaves people always asking, “what are you?” The question digs so much deeper than just skin color or appearance, and is made even clearer in light of a family death.
Since my grandfather’s death, I have spent many days crying, not from memories or denial, but from grappling with the relationship between who he was and who I am. The emotions have been complex, and I have sometimes felt shame for not feeling enough.
As time goes on, I am seeing this period as an opportunity to think about how my family’s history fits into my identity. Most importantly, the grieving process has helped me to acknowledge the many sacrifices my parents have made. To create a better life, sacrifices are necessary, and family ties are often given up in the process. My mother could have stayed in Korea and maintained a closer relationship with her relatives, but instead she set out for her chance at the American Dream. These complicated feelings I have are a part of that deal she made. It was a choice supported by my grandfather, and in this way he will always be with us.
Those familiar with the immigrant experience understand the weight put on families that pursue the American Dream. Every second on a phone call and every moment spent in person carries infinite meaning, while the instant after goodbye can feel like forever. This weight even applies to our relatives in the United States. My Mexican grandparents live just 15 minutes away from me, but because of language barriers, I sometimes feel oceans apart.
Still, at the heart of the immigrant experience — beyond the weight of distance and time — is the love expressed in the unspoken. While weeks could go by without communication, my grandfather’s unconditional love for my mother and our family spoke far more than words.
When I left for college, my Mexican grandfather pointed to his heart and said in broken English, “I will always be here.” It was a simple gesture that communicated all I needed to know.
As a mixed race, second-generation immigrant, my relationship with identity is complex and frustrating. My grandfather’s death has taught me to love these complexities and try to communicate them as best I can, though real love is not something that needs to be expressed in English.
The sacrifices of immigrants in my family have left a mark that will not be seen in my accent, dress or appearance. But their marks remain within me: through my parents’ toughness, my sisters’ resiliency and my experiences at Yale.
Caught between two cultures, I feel both deeply rooted in my history and also somewhat disconnected. And I know that’s not a sense unique to those from immigrant families — that’s something all of us feel, neither fully part of Yale nor of our families. It’s a disconnect that deepens when we return home for spring break, every trip back broadening the gulf between who we were and who we are, leaving us both far and close to a sense of identity. But let’s take the next few weeks to consciously think about our families, and appreciate how their actions, both good and bad, are integral to the people we are.
John Gonzalez is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .