By Sun Lee Chang
Growing up as a first generation immigrant, I used to wonder what my life would have been like if my parents hadn’t brought us to the United States nearly 40 years ago. My father used to speak sadly of the large extended family and friends that they had left behind. There were six brothers on his side and my mother had four siblings of her own. During the past four decades, they have felt the loss of parents, uncles, aunts, and some siblings while struggling to make a foothold in their new home.
With the studies touting the life sustaining benefits of having a decent social circle, it must have been very isolating for them to be here. They were very busy making ends meet and raising my brothers and me, but every so often — usually during holidays and birthdays — you could see that they yearned for what had been left behind.
The great distance of being an ocean apart made it easier for them to lose touch. Without the regular interaction, I’m sure both sides began to fill in the blanks of why one side did not reach out as much to the other. Any disagreements or suspicions would grow into wide gaps, then huge ravines over time. The frequency of contact lessened to the point where we don’t really have a relationship anymore.
I am now a grown woman with two young children of my own. I see firsthand, how it could have been so different if someone had taken it upon themselves to just reach out in some small way to stay in contact. My husband’s parents did this with their relatives overseas. They regularly call, write, and visit one another. Weddings come with visits from family overseas. Births are celebrated on two continents. It is something I am made keenly aware of each time we visit my husband’s side of the family. There is someone to greet us, to show us around, to introduce us to other extended and distant parts of the family. There is a connection that can be visited in the form of burial sites and ancestral homes. Even more than that, there are stories and photos to be shared, while regional foods are tasted and recipes are traded.
I don’t blame my parents at all for not maintaining their relationships the same way as my in-laws. They were busy trying to provide for each other and their kids. All the while, there were illnesses and other circumstances that made it difficult to think too far down the road — that is the immigrant experience for many. It is with this past in mind, that I have decided on a different path for my kids. I want them to know where they came from and to pass on to them a community of support and history. It is a great gift. It isn’t monetary. It isn’t a family heirloom or something really tangible, and yet it is ever so much more valuable.
It is a powerful realization to know that my husband and I have the power to give that sense of community to our children. All it takes is creating opportunities for our kids to get to know their cousins and the family of friends that we have created here. This is as simple as casual play dates or vacations together, meeting up for special (or even not so special) occasions.
It just takes a willingness on our part to “be the bridge” that spans the gap to bring folks together. Sometimes it is very easy, and sometimes it takes a bit more effort, but the end result is worth it for what you can pass on and also give to yourself.
If you are on the fence about sending that birthday card or that once a year holiday card, do it. It might be a small gesture, but it will keep that connection alive. An address, a phone number, and an email address — whatever way that works, keep it working. Let people know you are out there and ready to receive them with an open heart and mind. At the end of the day, isn’t family worth it?