Bringing Mom across the ocean

Denise Chan
Jan 4, 2016 · 8 min read

Earlier last year, Michelle moved her mom from Korea to San Francisco. The entire plan had been in the works for 15 years and in 2014, at age 25, Michelle finally did it. I spoke with Michelle recently to learn more. Here is her recount of the decision and journey to bring her mom to the US.

What was life like growing up?
“I grew up in Korea. My parents divorced early on and I remember my dad moving to live in the States, in San Diego, while my mom stayed to single-handedly raise me, my sister, and my grandparents in Korea. I remember being one of the only kids in school with a single mom — divorce wasn’t very common in Korea then as the practice was deeply stigmatized.

At that time, I remember thinking that we were really poor. My mom would work a lot and came home late. My sister and I were raised by our grandparents because most days, I would only see my mom before I went to school.

Eventually, my mom made the ultimate sacrifice. Despite having custody of us, she knew that my sister and I would have more opportunities in the States and made the decision to let us live with our dad, even if it meant being away from her. So at age 12, I moved to San Diego — Mom stayed in Korea with my grandparents.

Growing up seeing my mom and dad work so hard to provide for our family, I was determined to protect and support them when I grew up. Having grown up low-income, I saw the society, both in Korea and the States, was unjust to people without money — without money, there was little respect and freedom. That’s how I saw the world play out and I despised the way the world treated my parents.

Michelle and her mom in Korea

What made you decide to bring your mom to the States?
It was always the plan to bring my mom to the States. Above all, my mom wanted to be with me and my little sister. I grew up hearing, “You have to bring her to the States. You’re the only thing she looks forward to.” So from a very young age, it was my mission to reunite our family.

What was that process to bring her over like?
I did a lot of paperwork to get her green card while I was in college. That took longer than I had wanted. The whole thing took about 3 years to complete.

As a student, I was working to pay for college and immigration paperwork wasn’t cheap. I remember being super frugal in college and feeling self-conscious about my behavior in front of friends.

I remember my financial goal back then was to make enough money to not worry about going to the movies or going to dinner with friends. If I could do that, I would know I had achieved my goal (my financial aspiration has changed many-a-times since then). Financial independence and stability have always been core to my future goals.

I couldn’t believe when my mom finally got the status. She wasn’t ready to move right then, so we waited a couple of years until I was settled in San Francisco after working for some time. When we decided it was time for her big move, I was suddenly faced with a mountain of logistical tasks. It was like, okay, I have her green card, now what? What are all the things I need to do to get her over here?

With a full time, demanding job, it was the smallest things that, in aggregate, became challenging to manage, like looking for an apartment, finding the right roommate who is not prejudiced and wouldn’t take advantage of my mom, setting up internet, cell phone, getting a credit card, creating a bank account, signing up for health insurance (did you know you can’t add your parents to your employer’s health plan even if they are your dependents?), teaching her how to use Google Maps, riding BART. Never underestimate the amount of work that goes into having someone start a brand new life, in a brand new country. I don’t know how my dad did all of this by himself as an undocumented immigrant 20 years ago.

Here’s Michelle’s mom moving out of her first Bay Area residence in Dec 2015.

What have been the biggest challenges?

I think the hardest part was that even though I could take care of her financially, I couldn’t provide a community for her.

The sense of belonging and worth that comes from having a purpose and support beyond family members — that’s something I couldn’t give her. She had to find it, and establish her own world from her perspective. My biggest fear through all of this was that I had somehow put my mom in a situation where she would be lonelier than ever, sitting at home alone waiting for me to call, feeling more and more disempowered and purposeless. This is something I had thought about prior to her move, but didn’t really realize how much stress it was going to be until it was closer to reality.

I’ve also been witnessing a lot of discrimination towards my mom, especially in the healthcare system. At times, the quality of care and treatment she’s received when I am not around to defend her has been truly deplorable. She was once told by a doctor that she doesn’t deserve treatment since she’s using “tax payer dollars.” I doubt he would’ve said that if I had been there or he thought she could defend herself. For her, it’s difficult to know and demand what she deserves in a country that makes her feel so foreign — for me, knowing how vulnerable she can be in this unjust society is extremely challenging and infuriating. I feel helpless knowing I won’t always be there to fight for her rights and dignity.

And I’m saying all these things from my perspective. If you turn it around and you’re in her shoes and think about what a fundamental world change and life decision this must have been for her… To be here, in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, starting from square one. More than me, it was a really bold move for her.

We’re still navigating through the life change. I’m trying to figure out my own boundaries, to make sure I’m supporting her without making her feel like she’s being a burden. How do I make sure she feels empowered, dignified, and independent? Because those are things she values, and they are values I learned from her that are fundamental to who I am. And how do I help her imagine all the possibilities, and instill in her the belief that she can do anything, that it’s not too late to recreate herself? How do you teach someone confidence, fearlessness, and imagination? We don’t have all the answers, but I’m confident we will figure it out over time.

Having the responsibility, and privilege, of caring for your family (biological or chosen), I think, is something that everyone can relate to. For me, it probably happened at an earlier stage than most but that’s a part of my life story and fundamental to who I am.

Everyone has different paths in life and I feel really lucky to have a mom, period, and to be in such a privileged place where I can take care of her financially.

How about the most rewarding parts?
My favorite moments are the small things. After work, if I want to go see her, I can do that. We can have dinner and I can take her to my favorite restaurants. I love introducing her to new things; I took her to Pride and introduced her to “mimosas.” It’s the little things that I’ve learned to appreciate. I can call her after work without using a calling card and remembering numbers. I don’t have to think about time zones. When I was really sick, she came over to my house to take care of me, that was really nice. I think the comfort of having her near me is what I appreciate the most — if something were to happen, I know I can be there for her, and she for me. The proximity gives me the sense of peace that I didn’t have before when she was 5,000 miles away.

And I’ve been proud seeing her take this opportunity to challenge herself. She’s learned English fast. She’s a lot more confident in communicating now. She’s been working at a retail store in Daly City and has a great reputation among her much younger coworkers. She can navigate anywhere using Google Maps, take Uber, Lyft, talk to Comcast agents (this is huge)… She’s learned all these things on her own and that reminds me of what she’s capable of. Since moving, my mom has met, and shed, various communities and friends in the Bay. She’s had to deal with a lot of stigma within the Korean community in America, but she’s also developed some great friendships with other working mothers and single immigrant women who can relate to her struggles and life stories. She now has a core group of friends she hangs out with every Thursday on her day off. I couldn’t be happier about the community she’s been able to cultivate and nurture.

Michelle and her mom at her first Giants game

What’s next for you and your mom?
This year has been a tough one for us. She lost both of her parents within 7 months and has been experiencing health issues due to stress. Next year, she will take some time off to travel and when she returns, she’ll enroll in community college to learn English and whatever else she’s always dreamed of pursuing. Her strength and tenacity have been truly inspirational and I am going to do my part to help her develop new dreams and achieve them.

Wanna hear some more badass stories, except live? Come to our TreadBoldly storytelling event in New York City on January 9, 2016. For tickets and more information, visit

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