Oct 23, 2009  •  In Korean, Personal, Relationships

Sacrificing for Family

Last week, I was helping my mother go through some business documents at her store when her friend dropped by to visit.

“And what is your daughter doing here?”

“She’s helping me sort through these documents, make phone calls, write letters, and fill out forms.”

“What a great daughter!”

“Oh it’s nothing. She’s been doing this for us ever since she was in 2nd grade!”

What my mother said is true. When we first immigrated to the U.S., my parents painstakingly studied books, listened to cassette tapes, and even took night classes to learn English. But how could they properly learn while working 80 hours a week in an attempt to set up a new life in a new country (to which they had arrived with literally no money in their possession)…all while raising two young children?

My sister and I picked up our second language without much difficulty, and I, as the older daughter, quickly assumed the role of the translator.

I resented this while growing up, and I am ashamed to say that I still resent it at times. Not only was I required to decipher every letter that arrived at our address, I had to make phone calls, write letters, and intercede on my parents’ behalf. I have done this since elementary school.

Can you imagine being the only kid whose parents never attended parent-teacher conferences, and having to explain to your teachers that your parents can not visit because they do not speak English? (And no, I was not allowed to attend and translate on behalf of my parents.)

How about getting in heated debates with government agencies at the age of 8?

Even something as trivial as going out for dinner had the potential to become an embarrassing experience, because you just knew that your father (who always insisted on placing the order) will screw it up somehow…

The story is typical of many immigrant families. I know that I am not alone, and I am sure I had it a lot better than others.

However, I can’t deny that these circumstances force a child grow up a lot faster.

There were so many times during the course of my childhood where I could not let go and just have fun. Be a CHILD. How could I, when I had to write that letter to the New York State Department of Labor, call the phone company to ask why we had been charged an extra $30 this month, and translate for my parents a permission slip that the school had sent home with me earlier that day?

Even now, I hate the fact that my parents continue to call on me when I have my own “adult” problems to deal with.

Listening to my mother have the above conversation with her friend, my mind flashed back to bitter memories. To being forced to solve problems that should’ve rested on my parents’ shoulders. To losing time, to becoming so careworn at such a young age.

To being called in to do even more work just days after the most painful loss of my life.

“Oh it’s nothing. She’s been doing this for us ever since she was in 2nd grade!” my mother proudly exclaimed.

Nothing? NOTHING? How can you say that it’s NOTHING when —

It was then that I heard the underlying tone of my mother’s voice.

This hurts her more than it has hurt, or will ever hurt me.


Are you the children of immigrants? If so, did you have similar experiences?

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12 Responses to “Sacrificing for Family”

  1. dphngng says:

    I never had to do this for my parents – they’ve alway spoken English; in fact I have the opposite problem, I barely speak my "mother tongue" as my grandparents also speak English (I’m Chinese).

    I did, however, grow up watching one of my closest high school friend go through exactly what you had to. She was the oldest of 3 and her parents didn’t speak much English. She would often use our advisor’s phone to call government agencies to ask about something, or call a supplier up to dispute a price. And I knew deep down, she only did it out of obligation and respect for her parents. Her parents were very reliant on her to help them do a lot to help them and she would sometime just be so frustrated that she would vent to me, and there wasn’t much I could do but be her venting board. I imagine her parents must have felt quite helpless to have to rely on a grade school or high school child to help them, instead of them helping their child.

  2. Anna says:

    I occasionally had to write a formal letter for my Mom, but fortunately, she learned spoken French and did most things of her own. However, Mom often needed someone to talk to about her adult problems and I resent being the one in my teens. Your Mom is thoughtful about it, mine was not.

    But hey, I’m all grown up now and it doesn’t matter anymore.

  3. nellie says:

    This totally hit close to home, Jenny. I am the oldest of three and I went through exactly the same thing. Except, I had to sit through parent-teacher conferences and translate for my parents. I would call health insurance companies, banks, utility companies… you name it and argue on behalf of my parents and other relatives. I was also the oldest cousin in the United States so not only did my parents rely on me, most of my aunts and uncles did too. It’s very taxing at times and I have gotten very angry, especially when I know my brothers don’t have to go through the same. But I’ve learned to be more vocal about saying no to things that I know they can do on their own.

    Additionally, it’s not that my parents aren’t capable, but not sure if you experienced this often, but most people assume if you speak English with an accent, you are not as competent and they don’t take you seriously, which would frustrate my family even more. It’s a shame, but most times things went smoother when I got involved because my English was unaccented.

    It’s definitely very tough to be the first generation American, but I find when I get frustrated I recall all the awful and terrifying things my parents had to go through to get here and I’m grateful. I’m more understanding and that one phone call is just a drop in the bucket compared to all that their hardship.

  4. Sherry says:

    I can relate to bits and pieces of your experience. We moved to the States from Taiwan when I was 3 yrs old. My English language skills developed much faster than my parents’. But they were eager to learn and I remember sitting down with them to share my class lessons on vocabulary and grammar. Looking back, I now realize how humbling it must have been for them. I’m impressed by how receptive they were to my constant corrections. Hopefully, I wasn’t too patronizing or annoying. 😛

    Over the years, their English has improved so much. By the time I was in grade/ middle school, they were able to write up decent drafts of what they wanted to say, and all I’d have to do was make a few edits here and there. I still help out to this day with cover letter editing and mock interviews.

    I do think that it’s important to have some mastery of the official language of whatever country you’re living in. I try to help by volunteering for conversational English sessions at immigrant community centers in Chinatown. It’s a win-win really. They help me with my Mandarin and I help them with their English. 🙂

  5. Nadine says:

    This hits close to home. Both of my parents are from Japan, my dad came when he was in high school, and my mom came about 35 years ago. They speak English, with an accent, most of my friends to this day don’t understand them (thank god some of them speak Japanese!) and others don’t take them seriously. Lucky for them we live in Hawaii and most people around here speak Japanese, but when it comes to having to call banks, loan companies and what not I get tapped. Even when I lived in California, they would call me and tell me what needed to be done. I can’t tell you how many times I would have to call them and do a 3 way call from California to get things straightened out. They almost were involved in some fraud with people calling saying they were from B of A, and right now it’s my sister’s student loan company that I’ve had to deal with. And getting them to give me the info is like pulling teeth! As much as it irritates me, I have to sit back and think…. my parents did their best, and they managed to raise 2 daughters who both have graduated from college, one with a masters the other working on her masters. They did everything they could to make sure we had a roof over our heads and food on our table. We didn’t have much and I got teased to no end about the clothes I wore (so I made sure my sister had the "in" clothes), but we all turned out okay.

  6. Wendy says:

    I have similar experiences but even worst. I am turning 26 but I have my own family to raise. I still have to read papers and help them out with whatever needs they need. It is like I have two families. I have three other siblings over the age of 18 but no them barely knows how to do anything or for themselves. I have to fill out all of their financial aid papers for college because if I don’t my parents will make me feel guilt and that I am the oldest child and that is my responsibilities. I just tell them I was never asked to be born in this world and take on to be parents of my siblings. Sometimes I just really hate that I still have to do these things. I really understand where you come from. Hope you are doing well.

  7. Susan says:

    When I was younger I thought my parents were training me to be able to speak to others and not be shy since I am an only child. But there were issues of language that made me do a lot more than my friends did. I used to be very frustrated about the responsibilities I had as a result of being born to immigrant parents but in a way it’s a blessing in disguise because I’ve experienced so much at such a young age. From my parents having surgery, negotiating deals, buying a house and even having a personal attorney these are things that many 22 year olds wouldn’t know how to deal with. Though the responsibilities weighs me down I know how 답답해 it can be for my parents because they can’t express themselves freely. And when they do they are understood correctly because of their accent. My dad is actually pretty decent at English but chooses not to speak it because it’s much easier for him to just tell me, plus all the side comments he doesn’t want others to know… But it was nice to know that others feel the same way… just my 2 cents. Hope your doing better… I know you were having a rough time. Your in my prayers… =]

  8. OH YES.

    My parents speak English, but only passable

    They can’t form proper sentences to really express how they feel, so I am always stuck doing formal papers, letters, etc..

    I’ve been doing it since I was 7. I even do it for my aunts and uncles, because they just don’t have a strong command of English, and I did.

    This post totally related to me.

  9. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for sharing. It was nice to hear about different ways that we work together as a family to make life a little bit better for the unit as a whole.

  10. eemusings says:

    My parents speak English, and we always spoke it at home, so I’m lucky in that regard. (I was simply embarrassed by their accents and their cultural expectations, that’s all…when you’re young, you just want to fit in and and you want your family to be like everyone else’s; I never invited friends over) You must have been such a smart little kid, with a good head on your shoulders!

  11. Kit says:

    My husband lives through this all the time. Even though he doesn’t live with his parents- he still has to navigate the world for his parents, and I see his frustration. But I also see how his parents must feel infantised (sp?) since they seek their son’s assistance all the time. All in all it is heart wrenching. I wish there was a way to make it easier.

  12. SQ says:

    I can relate to that. It’s strange being the first line of defense for your family at such a young age. My parents were always paranoid (as they probably should be) that people would try to take advantage of us just because we were immigrants. Like you, I used to resent being forced to confront adult problems. But now I think it’s better that I grew up early than to never having grown up at all. Great blog btw!

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