Today, my mom called me to tell me she missed me.
As college students, we’ve all flown the nest and some, like me, are thousands of miles away from home. We should be used to the vast distance that separates us from our families. It shouldn’t have been heartbreaking to hear her voice. It shouldn’t have hurt me.
But it did.
It did because I’ve been away for so long. I left California on my own when I was 15 to attend boarding school on the East Coast—a side of the country that none of my family had ever seen before. Like my immigrant parents, I left in search of opportunity. My mom used to tell me, “Nothing good can come from staying at home.” She told me to leave even though it pained her to see me go so early. Bettering my circumstances meant leaving the life I knew.
For people like me, this is what “making it” means. It means constantly leaving because your home can’t provide for you. It means explaining to your mom you won’t be able to see her this summer because you’re going abroad. It means hopping on six hour plane flights, missing funerals and birthdays, and explaining that plane tickets are just too expensive to come home for the holidays this time. It means distance.
Like many other first generation college students, I lead a double life—though not in the CIA, secret agent kind of way. My double life stems from the two irreconcilable facets of my identity that seem to be growing farther apart as I get older.
There’s school life, where I pass by grand, brick buildings on my way to class and eat my meals under chandeliers. I’m surrounded by students stressing over midterms, internship resumes, and research essays. Hard work at Harvard is marked by numbers and papers: grades, awards, and titles.
Then there’s home life, where oil extractors bob up and down in the washed out landscape throughout the day and night. We worry about paying the bills. Hard work here is the hardened callouses on my dad’s hands and the deep tan of his leathery, cut up skin.
The vast difference between home and school life meant that the transition to boarding school and later to Harvard was a culture shock. It took years to adjust. While I knew my family would support me if they knew how to do so, there were still many times I nearly quit, thinking I wasn’t cut out for this life.
After many years, I’ve now learned (for the most part) how to assimilate into these elite environments. When I’m not around my Korean friends, I can slip into the American accent I’ve mastered, rejecting the thick Korean one that narrated my childhood. I can dress the part and understand the unspoken language that dominates the way this campus operates. I’ve learned to take on the airs of an identity that is so far from the one my parents have gifted me. My parents used to think that the life I live now was reserved for baegin (white), buja (wealthier) Americans. But now it’s my life. I’ve “made it.”
That’s when I noticed that the distance between me and my home has become so much more than physical. Assimilation has meant losing who I used to be. Ironically, as I find myself constantly entering these foreign, elite territories, I’ve become the foreigner at home. One alum described Harvard as a “catapult that shoots people from lower classes into the upper one, leaving them in an unfamiliar (and perhaps unwanted) new territory and robbing their communities of value.” At Harvard, we’re supposed to celebrate diversity, but these institutions mold and prime us for a very particular type of lifestyle and career—one that does not involve the classes of people I know back home.
To some extent, we all change and move on with our lives. But assimilation and leaving home is a survival mechanism for students like me. Students who don’t have this double life don’t have to choose between their conflicting identities because they don’t ever have to code-switch or put on a different persona when they’re at school. Entering Harvard meant jumping into a foreign world for me. For others, it was merely a continuation. I might still go abroad during my summers even though I miss home, but I do so because I don’t know when an opportunity like this will ever come again. I’m worried that if I say no, I’ve missed my chance for good. This is more than just an irrational anxiety; students like me have never travelled in their lives without the aid of places like Harvard.
I used to describe the relationship I had with my home as a stretching rubber band. I’m on one end, my home on the other. As I move farther and farther away from home, I can feel the tension more and more, as it gets harder and harder to keep moving away. I had thought that experiencing this tension meant the connection between us was only getting stronger. I thought that at a certain point, I’d release this tension and send myself hurdling back to where I came from. I never thought it was possible that there’d be a point where the rubber would snap, sending me flying farther from home than I’d ever imagined.
In Harvard’s circles, we frequently talk about “advancing” ourselves, “getting ahead,” and “climbing the ladder,” all terms that imply our distance from where we came from. As I learn to better adapt and thrive in the world that I now live in, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to return and reclaim my old self. I wonder if I will still be able to take the time to look back. I wonder if I’ll be home again soon.
Julie S. Chung ’20 is a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor in Adams House.