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From Fishing to Missing: How to Resurrect Family Relationships

What do you do in the face of language barriers and distance? Go re-find the found.

My cousin Ho-Yeon pried the fish off of his father’s hook. It was a whitefish, slim and glassy-eyed. I stood carefully on that Hermosa Pier and observed what felt like rite. Big Appa, as I called my uncle, had given us an enormous task—if we caught something during our vigil, we were to alert him immediately.

“Jung-Yeon. Alert my father,” said Ho-Yeon, “immediately.” He spoke tersely in Korean.

“Yes. They must see this,” I said.

I could speak Korean fluently then, before my tongue had hardened into the natural flow of English. It was in this childhood when my mother stewed seaweed soup for my birthdays and we attended Pasadena’s Korean Church on Sundays.

I ran off to Big Appa, who was sharing a beer with my father. They saw me and smiled, amused, and followed me to inspect what Ho-Yeon and I had caught. The goodness and community we built for ourselves—I remember it even still. The potatoes roasting by the seaside, the children chattering, the towels soaking the saltwater on our skins—all of this moment is seared in my memory. We were family.

Now, as my first year at Columbia University comes to a close, I’m far from this childhood pier. I can’t speak in Korean as I used to with Ho-Yeon. The rhythms are all wrong, the emphases unpronounced and undercooked.

I haven’t spoken to Ho-Yeon or other relatives for nearly two years, let alone gone fishing with them. Until recently when I began seeing my sister more, I spoke rarely even to my immediate family, including my parents. Nothing caused it; we had grown apart gradually: I moved away for boarding school at 14 while my siblings went to college. The loyalty, the solemnity we had dedicated to kinship, became tired over the years.

For my parents specifically, the language barrier between us has only grown denser since I came to college. They wrote in Korean, and I in English. They sent a text, and I copy-pasted it to Google Translate. I couldn’t communicate what I was learning in school, whether my Crime and Punishment essay or a Computer Science algorithm. More importantly, I couldn’t express complex emotions. I couldn’t express my surprise at how similar I was to my best friend, my envy for the leisure of seniors in their last semester, and the trust that I felt with my professors. I only understood my own parents, and them me, over a simplified gloss.

This is why for the last few months, I’ve given a lot of thought to how I can rekindle this intimacy despite the silence—I’ve pondered in the library stacks, in the shower, in my bed. Finally, I think I’ve found an answer:

strengthen the communication pathways that you already have.

I turned to my sister who lives in Brooklyn. We don’t share a language barrier, so I became comfortable confessing my new truths to her. Whenever we grab ramen or pho, we reminisce about our nicknames and Pasadena’s Korean Church. We remember listening to John Mayer’s Battle Studies on our ride to school. We re-envision the board games we played and the youth group we attended and the home that we lived in on Baptiste Way. We remind each other how to own the Korean-American narrative and to return to our roots. This was someone from my past who had yet stuck around.

Even with this single connection to my sister, our family group-chat has re-energized. Rather than the usual staleness of an electronic message room, it now buzzes with vitality. One text from my sister triggers my response, which triggers my brother’s. My brother translates, and the chat builds onto itself. Even with the language barriers, we now share memes and pictures. Even though they’re wordless ones of goofy animals or what we’re eating that day, they reboot the complex feelings and unsaid familial bonds we’ve shared and always will.

Rather than looking to create entirely new channels of communication, I revisited one I already had. I had been looking for a starting point to reach out to my parents and relatives, an obvious call or sign. Somehow, it’s never come, and I suspect I’ll be as bald as my father by the time I stop waiting. I’ve always found a way to postpone that call to Ho-Yeon or that Korean language class to surprise my parents. Instead, I mended my family relationships by re-finding someone already there. Why not grow kinder and fonder for the people who you can communicate with, trusting that these relationship will branch out to other kin? After all, blood is blood. The potatoes, the glassy-eyed fish, the Hermosa Pier, the family of it all—it can all be reclaimed. 

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