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When Your Immigrant Parents Move Back Overseas, Where Is Home?

It’s a story I hear in every immigrant diaspora. The details change, but the emotions rarely do. It’s hard to confront the fact that your country has let down the people who raised you.

For the last several years, I’ve been debating with my parents about where they should move next. They’ve spent the last two decades on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where I grew up, but the pleasures of white sands, balmy tradewinds and a slower pace of life have faded away into a slow-throbbing stress about the spiraling cost of living and overcrowding

So we’ve been pondering — about a place near Palm Springs in California, or perhaps in the Asian-friendly suburban enclaves of Orange County south of L.A., or even a move to Las Vegas or Reno in neighboring Nevada. They know I’m probably going to stay on the West Coast for the rest of my adult life; these plans would keep them within reach via a moderate drive or a short flight. 

Then, about two weeks ago, my dad mentioned a much different plan. In typical fashion, he dropped the revelation with the casualness of describing what he’d eaten for lunch. 

“So your mom and I have figured out the best place to go is Yeosu,” he chirped happily. 

Yeosu? Since when did you plan a vacation to Korea without me?” I replied, confused.

“No, no. To live there. It’s a beautiful little seaside town. We can buy a condo if we sell the house in Hawaii,” he said matter-of-factly. 

This hit like an M. Night Shyamalan-like twist in the plot, at least for me. In hindsight, I should’ve known that their hearts still lie in Korea, the land they emigrated from as a pair of optimistic twentysomethings. They joined a flock of young Koreans who were leaving the peninsula in the 1970s, en route to destinations like Japan, the Middle East and the U.S. At this point, South Korea was in full economic recovery mode after a years-long war that split the country in two. But the military dictatorship that sprung up to stabilize South Korea in the aftermath began to evolve, pushing cultural repression with a fascist streak in the name of progress. My paternal grandfather, a lifer in the military, chose to move to the U.S. to start a business and distance him from a decade of reflecting on conflict. In turn, he served as the visa lifeline for my dad and his new wife, a country girl from the south of Seoul. 

That was four decades ago. For all my life, my parents appeared committed to the American experiment, warts and all. Did they speak perfect English? Hardly. Did they have a lot of “American” friends? Err, not really. But they spoke lovingly of the decision to move and birth me here. They spoke of how America truly is a country of anything-goes attitudes (“Even electing Trump!” my dad cackled). We hadn’t even visited Korea all that much when I was young; taking time off was hard for two restaurant owners on a budget, but I figured their nostalgia for the motherland had also faded. 

I was wrong. I had misread some obvious red flags as green flags of acceptance. They weren’t at peace with living in America. They were at peace with having raised me here. “You’re doing great, and you’ll get to visit us any time. Maybe you can even stay with us for a month or two and work from here,” my dad continued. “But selling the house in Hawaii just to spend all the money for a slightly less expensive house in a boring part of Las Vegas isn’t an upgrade. There’s so much more to do in Yeosu. You’ll love the seafood. I promise!” 

Even now, I wish I could have the same optimism. I believe they’ll be happiest back in Korea. But I also know this complicates the plans I had to spend more time with them — time they lost while hustling long hours to provide for me, and time I lost with them while building my own life and career in my 20s. FaceTime calls and annual visits via 13-hour flight wasn’t what I anticipated to do for their golden years. And a deep-rooted sense of Asian filial piety — the duty of a child to serve their parents — nudged guilt into my consciousness, too. How the hell was I supposed to take care of my parents from 6,000 miles away? 

This is a story that repeats, again and again, amid the diverse diasporas of immigrant families. It hardly seems to matter whether the story takes place in Korea and America, or Taiwan and Brazil, or Mexico and Canada; it touches the lives of Black and Asian and Latino alike. For many families, “parents moving” is a question of distance and convenience. Meanwhile, for so many immigrant kids (especially those who are ethnic minorities in their “new” countries), the issue can spark deeper questions about identity, society and loyalty to both. The details change depending on where people are going to and coming from, but the emotions and uncomfortable feelings rarely do. 

Much of the turmoil comes from the question of assimilation, a goal that many (especially conservatives) assume that immigrants can and should pursue. The reality, meanwhile, is that smoothing the cultural line between an old and new life is one of the hardest tasks for any adult to take on. Shao Tsai, a 27-year-old from Brazil who currently studies and works in Germany, saw in his father how a change in nationality doesn’t always lead to a long-lasting embrace of a new land. Like a number of Asian immigrants who arrived in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, Tsai’s father left Taiwan when he was 30 to open an import/export business. The job helped Tsai, his sister and their Brazilian mother lead “a really privileged life” in the small town of Foz do Iguaçu. But the world his dad operated in, spending long hours with Chinese-speaking employees, served as a “bubble,” Tsai says. 

“I totally see now that my dad actually never felt Brazilian. He never felt all that included or integrated. He speaks Portuguese, but he’s not fluent at all,” he continues. “My dad basically lived for work. The times we actually went out into the city and did stuff, they were always just between our family or with other people who were Chinese-speaking friends. He never really participated in these things that were very ‘Brazilian,’ or what I thought was just regular for me.” 

Later in life, as the cracks between his mother and father started to grow, Tsai realized for the first time that his father had never planned on staying in Brazil for his entire life. The elder Tsai had arrived in Latin America almost fully formed as an adult; it was a stark contrast from Tsai’s other Asian friends, whose parents looked like his father but had immigrated at a much younger, formative age. His parents’ separation in 2015 basically served as a green light for Tsai’s father to return to Taiwan, where he lives today. Given that Tsai himself is now in Germany, he faces a complicated family dynamic — and questions about where his own heart wants to be. 

“I do feel a little weird that I live so far from both of them, and that I can’t be there for them whenever they want or whenever they need. It’s so complex because my parents never expected me to stay in our little hometown, either,” he tells me. “I don’t know, long-term, if I want to stay in Brazil. My sister is going to college in Taiwan. My mom is in Brazil. I can’t split myself into 5,000 parts to spend as much time I want with everyone. And I don’t know how to reconcile that, really.” 

Even without the complications of a divorce, the championing of assimilation as the best endgame for immigrants can leave a bitter taste in the mouths of their children. I shudder when I look back at the arguments I had with my parents about speaking English to me in public, and the embarrassment I felt when they didn’t fit in like “normal” parents at a school open house. 

It’s a familiar tale for Natalie, a 27-year-old in Vancouver whose family emigrated from Hong Kong (her last name is omitted for privacy purposes). In her eyes, her parents “never really made the effort” to learn fluency in English, or care about mainstream Canadian traditions like their national Thanksgiving holiday. For a long time, it bothered her that they failed to “try harder.” And though she empathizes with their struggle, it still bothers her from time to time today. 

“They made the effort to move to a different continent, away from their home. I wish they’d taken more out of this opportunity because we were lucky to be able to make that move. There’s a ton of people in Hong Kong who want to come to America, but they don’t have the resources to,” Natalie tells me with a barely audible sigh. “And yeah, I wish they’d tried harder to really get to know this other side of the world and not stay in their Chinese bubble, if that makes sense.” 

The notion that immigrants need to assimilate is often repeated as common-sense advice, but it has a loaded history rife with racism, xenophobia and false equivalencies. The judgment that an immigrant doesn’t want to assimilate has been weaponized, again and again, by gatekeepers hoping to keep the “alien” presence limited within their borders; as Atlantic writer Tom Gjelten observes, a major reason Chinese migrants encountered sharp hostility in the 19th-century American West was that they weren’t viewed as pursuing new lives as Americans — just American wages. “The men often journeyed alone, under labor contracts, and intended eventually to return to their families in China. The idealized immigration story is that people come to America freely, with a willingness to participate fully in the country’s life,” Gjelten notes. 

We’re finally starting to talk about the value of encouraging participation by immigrants in American society, not setting up an arbitrary standard of assimilation. And looking back, my parents didn’t have the help they needed to grow identities on American soil. My dad stopped attending nightly ESL classes after he picked up enough skills to manage a business — earning cash was more important than spending on classroom hours. At least he developed a knack (albeit an uneven one) for talking to American strangers; my mom, smart and sweet but a shy wallflower in most situations, chose to just put her head down and work. English and knowledge of American culture were important for people who wanted to socialize. My parents preferred to provide, first for themselves and then for a bullheaded little kid with gigantic (and expensive) dreams. Assimilation didn’t send me to summer theater camp — work did. So they worked, hoping everything else would fall into place. After 40 years, it’s become obvious it hasn’t. 

Where immigrant parents struggle to take on the culture and nationalism their children rapidly absorb, so too do those children grow to struggle with the culture and nationalism of their departing parents later in life. Natalie moved to Vancouver at just 5 years old, with her parents concluding that the Canadian education system was preferable to the overstressed, pressure-cooker world of Hong Kong academics. They judged English and Western culture as being valuable social currency — a decision that paid off for Natalie, certainly. But when she decided to move to Hong Kong herself in 2014, two years after her parents had moved back, Natalie’s desire to lean into her own heritage backfired. It took just six months for her to see the fault lines. It didn’t really matter, in the end, that she spoke Cantonese. 

“I just realized one day that no, this work culture isn’t for me, it’s way too cutthroat and no one has a social life. Then it was seeing how Asia is so far behind in how they view the world and how people just have more conservative values than I embrace,” she says. “And I felt different. I don’t know if it’s the way I look or dress. They could tell straight away I wasn’t local. I speak the language fluently, no accent. But they can just tell you didn’t grow up there. It’s an instinct.” 

It’s a daunting gap for anyone to attempt to bridge, especially if they’re not fluent in the language or don’t exactly look the part, like Tsai. “I’ve been to Taiwan many times, but I don’t feel at home there. As much as I’m half Taiwanese, nothing will change the half that’s not. Whereas, Brazil is my home. If I have the choice of two places to go, I want to go to Brazil. That’s where my friends are, where the culture I know is,” he notes. “So even in considering travel plans and budget, I have to think about the balance of where I really want to spend time.” 

It’s equally hard to confront the fact that a country — the one you feel bonded to most — has let down the people who raised you. In the last two weeks, through more elaboration, my parents admitted that their retirement funds will simply go further in Korea than it will in the U.S., thanks to lower housing costs in the kinds of places they want to live. (I half-jokingly suggested a move to a rural town in a flyover state, only for my dad to snort and retort, “Why, so we can get stared at by white people all the time?”) The coronavirus outbreak has proven to them, once and for all, that South Korea’s formidable universal health-care system is a clear improvement over the politicized mess they see in America. And the rise of Trump and far-right nationalism has impacted their faith in American democracy, too. I’ve long screamed insecurities about the future of the U.S. Now my parents are taking them to heart. 

It’s the story that Iuna, a 27-year-old in Switzerland, saw her parents grapple with amid the late-aughts recession and the slow recovery of the last decade. She was already 12 when her parents decided to move from Switzerland to America in 2004, with high hopes that the journey was worth the investment. And, in so many ways, it was the right move; Iuna didn’t speak English well, and had a naturally shy disposition, but being forced to socialize in school led to a love affair with America’s clichéd but undeniable melting-pot culture.

“I wouldn’t change it for the world. Had I grown up in Switzerland, I would’ve still had a great education. I would have had a great life. But I definitely wouldn’t be the person that I am today,” she tells me. “Because there’s so much diversity in the U.S. — diversity in terms of culture, in terms of views and in terms of types of people. You know, I’m doing a PhD now at the University of Geneva and sometimes I look around and everyone is white. Being in the Bay Area, going to college in Southern California, it changed everything.” 

As she thrived, however, her parents began slowly acknowledging that their life as freelance journalists in the U.S. was fast becoming unsustainable. Finances were getting tight. The cost of living seemed to be rising with no end. “When we first got there, it felt like there was more social support from the government. As the years went on, we kind of realized that you can easily end up in the street in America even if you’ve had a great career as a journalist and you’ve worked your entire life,” Iuna says. “After 11 years, they decided that it was too stressful for them. They didn’t see a future there anymore. They even felt unsafe. They saw America changing in a lot of ways.” 

Iuna understood the decision, but had no answer for the next big question: When was she going to see them? Being tightly bonded with her parents made the thought of relying on phone calls, with a nine-hour time difference to boot, more and more unattractive. And as she grinded through the days with a corporate marketing job, she realized how miserable adult life in the U.S. could be. The same things that called her parents back to Switzerland — a stronger work-life balance, more work benefits, financial protections — also called to her. She saw, like my own parents, that things were only getting tricker in America. 

The hardship of children separating from their parents is nothing new, but the feeling that lingers most for me is guilt: guilt that my parents spent the productive years of their life grinding away in a country that never felt like theirs, all for me. Disappointment, too, that the American Dream really did fail them, leaving them holding a Social Security check not nearly big enough to thrive on. They’ll never admit to it, of course; raising me in America so that I can crack pot jokes on Twitter and write about YouTube subcultures for a paycheck was the point. But that’s not the illusion I held for my entire childhood, while wishing and hoping that my parents could find their place here. 

In search for some more solidarity, I posted about my confused feelings on Subtle Asian Traits, a massively popular Facebook page where a young Asian diaspora gathers to shitpost memes, argue about boba and, on occasion, reflect. Over the course of hours, my questions about the feeling of loss when parents move back to the motherland garnered over 1,100 reactions and more than 400 comments. Some roasted me for being too emotionally dependent, while others offered pragmatic solutions. More common than anything, though, were the observations in agreement. 

One poster noted that his mother “was just tired of people looking at her in the U.S. like she was stupid.” Another pointed out that America today is extremely different from the America immigrants were sold decades ago. A chorus of voices consoled me by noting that my parents deserved nothing more than to relax in their home country after a life of work. 

But one sensitive reply — from a woman named Amelia Chang — hit me hardest: “Almost 10 years ago, a friend whose parents live in China said to me, ‘If I go home once a year for [Chinese New Year] until my parents pass away, I will get to see them around 30 more times.’ If you put it that way, it sounds really sad, doesn’t it? At that time I was finishing up a program in Japan, so I figured I’d move to the motherland and be closer to my parents. My parents are happy about us living in the same country again.” 

Then, a twist: “I’m moving back to the States in a few months, because I’m unhappy here. However, my experience living here also made me feel like I can completely understand why they returned. I think where we grow up really shapes who we are…. However, I think I will forever feel guilty about not living up to the expectations of filial piety because I’m not sticking around to take care of them.”

I found all these replies to be a salve, if a temporary one, for the anxiety I feel. The advice contained therein was also totally solid — I have to let my parents go, and try to feel good about it. They deserve to build the life they imagine today, not live out their decision from 1978. 

I just wish it didn’t have to happen with an ocean lying between us.