What I learned in Houston, Texas
A week after we came back from our fasting retreat at TrueNorth Health Center, my parents and I flew to Houston, Texas.
My parents had asked me to accompany them so I can help them take care of few things in Houston where they had lived before moving back to California almost three years ago. Even though we lived in Richardson, Texas when I was growing up, my parents moved out of Texas after all the kids left home and had lived in many different places including California and Seoul, Korea before finally moving back to Texas in 2006. They chose to move to Houston because it was much cheaper to live there back then and in lot of the areas in Texas, it still is.
While they were living in Houston, they had acquired a few real estate properties and had done well. Both of the properties were rental properties that were generating a fair amount of income and had tripled in value in the last ten years. Despite the profitability, it was becoming increasingly difficult to manage the properties while living in California. So, they put both of the properties on the market and had recently sold one of the properties. With one property remaining, my parents wanted to check out the housing market in Houston in hopes of selling it if the timing was right.
We arrived in Houston late Monday evening and drove to our hotel in a rental car. As expected, it was hot and humid. I definitely didn't miss the weather in Texas. While we were in Houston for five days, I drove my parents around to meet different brokers to evaluate the market and to check on the last remaining rental property. Everything went well, and we received a lot of information from various people regarding the current market. Unfortunately, the real estate market in Houston was currently at it's lowest point so we were advised to wait a few more years before putting the remaining property on the market.
When my parents first asked me to go with them to Houston, I wasn't very thrilled. It meant missing work for another week after coming back from a three week vacation, but since my parents are in their 80's and didn't speak English, I was concerned about them traveling alone and their ability to manage their affairs. What I ended up learning in the process was something I had never expected. I came away having more respect for my parents than I had ever imagined, and more importantly, I got to know a little bit more about myself and what it means to feel belong.
While we were there, my parents wanted to meet some old friends and get in touch with some people they had done business with over the years. Since there's a huge Korean population in Houston, many businesses catered to non-English speaking Koreans by employing Koreans. When we visited the bank that my parents had established a relationship with when they were living in Houston, we were met by the vice-president (a Korean) who greeted us with the warmest welcome I had ever experienced in my entire life. She treated my parents like her own family and with utmost respect. Even at a short notice, she took us out to lunch despite her busy schedule and gave us a box of Asian pears as a gift.
When we visited another branch that was closer to where my parents had lived, my parents were greeted with more hugs and smiles and of course, more gifts. Koreans love to give gifts, no matter how small. It's a sign of their appreciation and respect. It was such a treat to see my parents having such a great time with the people they could relate to. They were totally in their element and thoroughly enjoying it. it was a side of my parents that I never knew and missed out on all these years. I couldn't help feeling how lucky I was to be there with such a great parents that people respected and admired.
My parents also got to meet some old friends they haven't seen in almost three years. A lot of them were in ill-health but came out to see my parents regardless. Just like my parents. they were all first-generation Koreans who had come to this country for a better life and worked hard all their lives to be where they are today. As we had lunch at their favorite restaurant, they talked endlessly. We even went to McDonald's afterwards for some coffee. I found out that McDonald's was their old meeting place where my parents and their friends used to hang out on a regular basis.
As I sat there watching my parents and their friends reminisce about the past and drinking McDonald's 99cents coffee, I couldn't help thinking about how little I knew about my parents. Even though I was their daughter, I had left home a long ago and knew nothing about their interest or their circle of friends. It was precious to see them mingle with their friends in their native language and not worry about being able to speak English. It was like being home where they belong.
When I was growing up, I tried to avoid being around older Koreans. I always felt judged for who I was and wasn't. Being a 1.5 generation Korean, I felt like I didn't belong anywhere. I wasn't a full American but I wasn't a full Korean either. Growing up in the US, my ideas and values were different from my fellow Koreans especially in the eyes of the elderly Koreans. I often got criticized for having bad manners and not conforming to the traditional Korean culture. So, I tried to escape and tried to be an American but never felt like I belong there either. I felt left out and was lost in a lonely world with no identity. So, I kept my distance from most Koreans because I didn't want to be judged for who I was whoever that might have been.
While I was in Houston, I met a lot of Koreans through my parents. Even though they were brief encounters, they were all genuine and kind and made me feel welcomed in every way possible. For the first time in my life, I felt comfortable with who I was, where I had come from and who I am today because I now realize that I belong to myself and only to myself. I finally understood what Maya Angelou meant when she said,
“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”
Back at the hotel, we spent time talking and playing my parent's favorite Korean card game in our spare time. I listened as my parents told the stories of their immigrant life and everything they had gone through. It's something most of us can only phantom. All my life, I took them for granted and never fully appreciated what they had done for me. If what they had accomplished is not a miracle, I don't know what is. They may not be sophisticated as some people are or savvy in using the latest iphones or computers, but they are the most courageous people I will ever know.
They came to this country with five young children and with very little money. They came here only with the determination and hope. They had raised all five of us in a foreign land where they didn't even speak the language. They worked hard to put all five of us through college and two through medical schools. With sheer determination, they had somehow managed to do everything all parents hope to do for their children and more. How they had managed to do it all is beyond my imagination.
Like most parents, my parents were not perfect. Despite all their sacrifices for their children, there were times when I wasn't proud of my parents. My parents were not affectionate and believed that showing affection was a sign of weakness. They were traditional parents and had lots of old-fashioned ideas especially when it came to preferring sons over daughters. It bothered me a great deal when I was growing up, and at times, I resented my parents for the way they were. I wanted to reject everything about them including my heritage.
So, I rebelled and kept my distance. Event though we were always on a speaking term, we were never close. I almost dropped out of college and didn't want to become a doctor like three of my siblings did just out of spite. I also went through a divorce against my parent's wishes and was a single mom for a long time which they didn't approve of. I never became financially successful despite my efforts, and it led me to feeling like I had failed my parents. So, I stayed away refusing to get close or maybe I didn't know how...
Spending a week with my parents in Houston had changed our lives forever especially mine. I got to know the parents that I had always avoided due to my own insecurities not knowing what I was missing. They were so grateful to have me there supporting them and listening to their stories of hardship. We had bonded in a way that none of us had ever expected. I got to see my parents in a different light and have come to appreciate them for who they are.
Fortunately for me, I also got to meet all the people who had helped my parents over the years. These were the people who had been there for my parents when I was too busy living my own life. My parents were grateful for their help even after all these years and so was I. I was grateful for their kindness and made me proud to be who I am and where I had come from.
I went to Houston thinking I was going to help my parents because I thought they needed my help. Instead, I came home with a wisdom that has matured me in a way I never thought possible. My parents and I have created a loving bond that we will cherish forever. Even as they age and become physically more fragile, they're still strong as ever, stronger than I will ever be. Little did I know that I was going to be lucky enough to witness the side of my parents I have never seen before and learn so much about myself in the process. It was the greatest gift I could have ever received.