“So do you have a boyfriend yet?” my mom asked me a few nights ago during our weekly call. I looked at my partner of six years, who was sitting next to me, before laughing off the question nervously. A 25-year-old girl who hasn’t ever dated ― I wondered if my mom really believed it.
I hadn’t told my parents about Corado for many reasons. For one, he isn’t Korean, which I think they would be OK with if he didn’t have any piercings or if he had an undergraduate degree. Despite the fact that he is an intelligent and kind person who has made his own way in life, my parents wouldn’t be able to get past his exterior and his unconventional lifestyle.
My parents have very specific dreams about every aspect of my life, including my romantic life. Corado’s appearance, his upbringing and the way he lives do not reflect what they deem to be partner material.
My parents had lived in Korea for their most of their lives, and they’re very traditional. They had me in their 40s, and unlike them, I grew up all over the place, with memories of going to school in Korea, China and Canada. They loved telling me the story of how I was their “miracle baby” because they thought they might have been too old to have another child. Following that story, they would tell me how I was born prematurely, weighing less than 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds), with paper-thin skin and suffering from sepsis. But somehow I survived, and ever since then, they’ve always seen me as the fragile, sensitive baby girl who needed her parents.
Another one of their favorite stories to tell me was how, on the first day they brought me home, they told my then-4-year-old sister that if they suddenly passed away, she would have to become my new mother. Family is very important, and family members must always take care of each other.
So it’s no surprise that when I decided to move abroad to continue my education after high school, my parents wanted me to move to Canada, where my sister already lived. They wanted me to go live in the same province and city, and even attend the same university. Family must stick together, and their fragile premature baby, now an adult, still needed to be taken care of.
They love me, and that hasn’t ever been a question. But their love for me is so protective and so overbearing that growing up, I often felt like I was being suffocated.
“Moving wasn’t just about getting distance from my parents physically; it was also to show them that I could exist without them.”
When I started grade school in Korea, my parents were worried that their small, shy, mousy girl would not be able to make friends. At a parent-teacher conference, my concerned mom asked a teacher if I had been getting along with my peers. She explained that I was very shy and reserved ― fragile. My teacher looked at her and said, “You couldn’t know your daughter less.”
Moments like this are what built my desire to move away from my parents. When I was a teenager, I daydreamed about becoming independent and living in a new country or city where I could start fresh ― a place where I could create my own path and be myself without worrying about how my parents would disapprove. To most kids, I think this just means moving out of their parents’ homes and becoming financially independent, but for me, it really meant I had to move as far away as possible. There was never a doubt in my mind that I would leave Korea.
So when it was time to consider colleges, I chose the West, and I moved halfway across the world. Moving wasn’t just about getting distance from my parents physically; it was also to show them that I could exist without them. But moving halfway across the world meant that I had to live with my sister, and while I wanted to be independent, I didn’t know what I could do when I had two worried parents who were convinced that I was still that poor, sepsis-ridden baby they brought home from the hospital.
Boundaries, as far as my parents are concerned, are not a thing when it comes to any life decisions, regardless of whether you are an adult or a child. How do I create boundaries if my parents are convinced I can’t help myself and that I will always make the wrong decision if I don’t follow their advice?
I lead a secret life 6,552 miles away from them so that they can’t possibly know what I’m doing or tell me what to do. I share with them what I’ve achieved to show I am independent, but I don’t tell them what I’m about to do. I only tell them things once I’ve done them. I never want to disappoint my well-intentioned parents. I love them and know they love me, so while I realize that our relationship isn’t exactly ideal, this is my family, and this is how things work.
“I only tell my parents things once I've done them. I never want to disappoint my well-intentioned parents.”
Growing up, I spent most of my childhood in China (where I attended an international school). I was always surrounded by a lot of non-Asian friends, and it seemed like their conversations with their parents were so much easier for them. Even now, when I compare my experiences with those of my peers, I feel that this is probably hard to understand for a lot of people. I was always jealous of how easy it was for them to be open with and accepted by their families.
In our family, we rarely talk about our feelings or dreams. My parents had a hard life, and their biggest concern was making sure my sister and I survived and succeeded. This meant that they didn’t believe in risk-taking, and a part of minimizing risk is consulting the people who would only want the best for you. In other words, anything not Umma- or Appa-approved was dangerous.
When I chose to study liberal arts, they questioned why I would want to study something they believed wasn’t going to lead to a stable job. While they were concerned for me, it made me feel guilty that I hadn’t chosen something they approved of. I also realized that even though I had moved away from them, I wanted to appease them, and their disapproval made me unhappy. This influenced me to take on economics as a second major during my undergraduate studies. But my grades dropped and I ended up having to be readmitted to the program, so I realized that I couldn’t let my parents influence me so much.
After that, I vowed to myself that I would do what it took to preserve my happiness as well. Shortly after, the secrecy began overtaking most parts of my life. I wanted piercings and tattoos, but my parents didn’t approve of them. So I got piercings and tattoos that I could hide. I wanted dogs, and they believed they were a waste of money. Now, I have two dogs, and I even compete in dog sports with them (which takes up most weekends). I wanted to be a writer, and my parents always believed this should only be a “hobby,” so they know nothing of my secret career as a freelancer.
When my parents visited me for my undergraduate convocation ceremony, my partner moved out and found his own place, and I moved my dog out (I only had one at the time) with him, along with any other evidence of my secret life. I stopped wearing all my usual clothes, and even wore some color ― a big change from my usual all-black ensembles. I took out my piercings, and I made sure my hair was dyed an acceptable color (red, because blue is just too crazy).
“When my parents visited me for my undergraduate convocation ceremony, my partner moved out and found his own place, taking my dog with him.”
With all these aspects of my life that my parents wouldn’t approve of, I realized that they don’t understand a lot of things that make me happy. After my previous experience dealing with their disappointment and disapproval, I just didn’t want to go through that again. To them, I’m always going to be a child and will never be considered an adult who understands the world just as well as they do. I haven’t figured out how to tell my ultra-conservative parents about my life, including the secret boyfriend, the secret pets and all the other secrets that make me who I am. I haven’t told them that all of these things are good decisions for me, even if they’re so far from what they believe to be part of an “ideal path” for their daughter.
I know that I will have to share more of my life with them eventually. It’s something I’m working toward, and I know that being honest and being able to have this conversation with them will be a relief when it happens. It wasn’t ever the plan to be dishonest, but my life goals are so very different from what they equate with success, and I haven’t built the courage yet to come clean.
I wish I could tell them, “Umma, Appa, don’t worry. I’m doing great, and I’m really happy with who I am.” But until I get there, I am a 25-year-old woman living a secret life with two dogs and a partner my parents don’t know anything about.
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