Writer & performing artist Inky Lee, performing artist Miranda Markgraf and dance artist, scholar and writer Yon Natalie Mik reflect on their experiences of growing up with working migrant mothers.

Text: Inky Lee
Images: Helena Parada Kim

My mother, who now runs a mushroom farm in the countryside of South Korea, works with two illegal immigrants from Thailand. They explained that Vietnamese workers come to Thailand to earn money, and Thai workers come to South Korea. For them, even a seemingly simple task, such as buying something that they need, is challenging, because they cannot speak much Korean. They have no easy access to COVID-19 vaccine, because they live under the threat of being found out and sent back to their country. Even being sick is not a possibility for them, not only because they have no health insurance, but also because they wish to live unnoticed by society. They are a married couple and left their 8-year-old son with his grandmother, back in Thailand.

When my mother was pregnant with me, she had no health insurance in the States and could not afford to have me there. She flew back shortly to South Korea to give birth and left in a month, back to the USA, leaving me with my grandmother in South Korea.

Oftentimes, the first generation immigrants choose to remain quiet, whether their reasons to do so are trying to hide, to “integrate”, or simply to survive. Their bodies move carefully and quietly like shadows of the society. Their physical and emotional memories of internal and external turmoil, as well as their silence, carry through onto the next generations, who live in between multiple cultures and identities.

In September 2021, I spoke with Miranda Markgraf and Yon Natalie Mik, who are both children of Korean nurses who immigrated to Germany. At the time of our online conversation, Miranda was in Berlin, Yon in LA, and I in Seoul. All three of us are children of immigrant workers. We all have a dance background and are living as artists based in Berlin.

After our conversation, I chose parts of their words and arranged them in a way that their voices alternate and interact with one another. It starts with Yon’s words (always left aligned) followed by Miranda’s (always right aligned).

Before I introduce their voices, I would like to give a brief context to the immigration conditions of the Korean nurses in West Germany: Many women from South Korea immigrated to work as nurses between the late 1950s and the late 1970s. Back then, South Korea was experiencing a devastating destitution after the Japanese colonial occupation and the Korean War, and Germany was seeing a post-war economic boom. At this time, many young South Korean women came to Germany as labour migrants to earn money and to seek better opportunities. However, the conditions were difficult. They worked a demanding job with low pay, faced discrimination, and lived under legal insecurity, for the “guest workers” were obliged to return to their home countries after the end of their three-year-contract.

What added to the burden of the Korean nurses was that, unlike in South Korea, there was no differentiation between auxiliary nurses and higher-educated nurses in Germany. The Korean nurses were higher-educated, but were suddenly asked to carry out the tasks of the auxiliary nurses (such as cleaning and washing), which caused them frustration. Their “integration” was often considered successful through their silence, causing them hesitation in openly expressing their personal feelings and perspectives.

Following are the words by Yon and Miranda:

Y: Before moving back to Germany three years ago, I spent almost one third of my life in Germany, mostly as a child and a teenager, because that was when my mom was still working as a nurse in the hospital and that was still the time when I had not left home for college. My brother left home very early (in middle school to a boarding school in Korea), so it was just my mom and I, until I left for college.

M: For myself, I always was a Berliner and my identity was very clearly German. I grew up in an area where more than 60% of the population were immigrants. Mostly from Turkey and Arab, but also from Yugoslavia, Russia, and Poland. There were more immigrants than Germans in my class and in my neighbourhood. But I felt more German than the other immigrants, because I was half German. And I was one of the middle class people, and not of the working class people.
I could also speak fluent German.
My mother didn’t bring so much of the Korean culture into our home,
so I felt much more German actually.

I was the only Asian child in school until I finished high school. So, only moving to another city was the first time I saw that there were students in my close environment who were Asians.

There was one specific moment when I was in elementary school. I was probably seven. When I was standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom, I suddenly saw that I looked foreign, that I didn’t look like the other Germans. Around that time I often got bullied by some of my classmates, who yelled “Ching, chang chong, Chinese im Karton” or things like that to
me. Before, I didn’t seem to be aware of my appearance.

It was quite a surprise, and I was a little bit shocked in that moment in front of the mirror. And, I think, maybe, it made me a bit afraid that people would see me differently than I felt and identified. I think it’s a typical racist problem that people just put labels on you and don’t see you as a human, as an individual, but they rather see a certain label, and then you don’t feel seen anymore. You feel like they see something else in you, but not you,
and maybe this was making me feel a bit afraid.

Growing up as a PoC child in Germany, which, in my case, was about 30 years ago, I often fell out of place. The environment was dominantly white and I often didn't feel home. One of the reasons why Berlin became my new chosen home, now as an adult, is because certain neighbourhoods and communities act as a bubble. And I sometimes need a bubble that can protect me. I don't always have the energy to yell back when someone throws racial slurs or cat calls me on the street. In this regard, LA is another bubble.

My mother really didn’t talk much about her time in Korea and she really didn’t bring much of the culture to our home.
She didn’t speak Korean to us and didn’t celebrate Chuseok with us. She didn’t cook Korean food. I don’t understand why.  
I just explained to myself that maybe she was struggling so much by herself with arriving in Germany, learning German, and becoming German that she had no space to keep the Korean things with her in her life. Maybe she was just so focussed on arriving here and adjusting to
German culture.

I think our moms lived a very turbulent and complex life.
I’m slowly starting to grasp just little things here and there.

We were in a community of Korean women and half-Korean families.  This community organised Korean afternoon-school every Friday, and there were all these 아줌마 (ah-jum-ma, middle-aged and usually married women) there, who were very active.  For example, they invented role-plays that they would perform in street festivals or cultural centres. They would perform the moments of arriving in Germany and starting to work in hospitals as nurses. And from witnessing these activities, I learned a bit about their experience, not that my mother told me directly. They were telling the stories about how they didn’t understand a word at first, how they were missing Korean food and were shocked by German food, how people were treating them as if they were not educated in what they were supposed to do, which was being nurses. They were instead told to clean in the hospitals, and they were thinking to themselves, ‘OK, why are we cleaning now? We are not here as cleaning staff.’

I heard from my mom that there are beliefs and knowledge that one culture or a country holds on to so strongly. Her survival strategy as a foreigner in Germany was not to try to convince, explain, or impose too much on the others, or to try explaining yourself by saying, “But I feel like this” or “But I come from this background.” I think that many of her generation immigrants in Germany didn't explain themselves and just stayed quietly in the back, did their work, and tried to not catch too much attention and trouble, so that they could focus on their little joys in life….

My mother had a free mind, I think.
She was not a typical Korean woman who bowed and was quiet. She was loud.  Once in her hospital, she was really fed up and angry that she was always cleaning and doing this kind of work that she just started to throw dishes against the walls. She was throwing one plate after another, bam bam bam, and was getting really pissed.

If she would have, and she is 70 now, really fully lived her life in her interest and in her nature in Germany… she would have lived a very different life, because so much of what she was taught by her family and her culture that was regarded as knowledge and belief did not even have a language in Germany. So she remained a nurse and supported her children. And being a mother therefore became a big part of her identity. And within that world of motherhood, she planted a seed in me and my brother of what she really believed in and who she really was. The seeds represented the part of her life that could not have a viable life in Germany.

I remember many moments when she felt that people treated her badly because of her race. But I was never sure, because, to me, it didn’t seem like it, and I was not sure if she was overly sensitive, was projecting something, or was perceiving something that I wasn’t aware of. She told me once that a car stopped next to her when she was walking on the streets, and asked her to step in and come with this man. She was sure that he thought she was a prostitute, only because she was Asian. I could never really believe this when she told me these things.
But, maybe it was true. I’m not sure.
To be honest, I just recently started to become aware of lots of micro-racist things, 
and maybe she was much more aware of it than I was.

Her family comes from a generation of 한의사 (han-ui-sa, Korean doctor) and 한약사 (han-yak-sa, Korean pharmacist). I do remember that she had so much dried roots, flowers and leaves in the kitchen that she would make tea with and feed us. That was one of her passions, and she was very proud of that. Did we know and acknowledge that? No, of course not! We were just children who had no idea what it was all about. We just thought she was making something, but later we realised step by step where she was coming from.

When I grew up, we had some misunderstandings because we had cultural gaps. It also created a twist in my head because how can we, a mother and a daughter, have a cultural gap between us? Once, when I was a teenager, she was cleaning my closet and was seeing everything I had inside! Of course, I had secrets inside there, because, as a teenager, there are lots of things you don’t want your parents to know about you. She was cleaning the whole thing and I was so angry that I screamed and shouted at her. I only knew from my father later that she cried in bed when we all went to sleep that night. She just wanted to do me a favour.
Somehow, in Korea, I think this privacy doesn’t exist. There’s not so much distance between the people, and you just share your rooms and everything.
In Germany, all close their doors. Even kids close their door, and parents knock on the door
when they want to talk to their five-year-old kid.

It’s tough because you can’t explain these things.

I realised how wise she was interacting with her own memories. And that she was using some memories of her past to recreate new memories that would accompany her towards the future. And then also, there are other memories that she would decidedly not replay again and again, because it’s just not doing anything for her. She was using memories to reshape her life as if those memories would have the shape of bubble wrap - it’s almost like taking lots of bubble wrap and putting it around your body so that it protects you.

While working as a nurse, she got infected with some kind of hepatitis. It’s very typical that after several years of infection, you get liver cancer. So, she got liver cancer and had to stop working. I was just a few years old back then. She recovered fully, which was a miracle because she had tumours spread throughout her entire body. It was her strong mind. She just didn’t believe to die. She believed to keep on living, so she did. She then only died 10 years ago. She had cancer again after 25 years since her recovery, and this time
she died.

Maybe the seeds that she planted in us are growing now. Maybe it’s not just me, but it’s our generation. With the whole post-colonial movement, the second and third generation Asians are carrying forward. I think it’s really us getting to the age when we realise the seed that our parents have planted in us is growing, and it is so big that we can just water it ourselves and make it bigger. It’s definitely intergenerational, I think, whether our parents planted the seed consciously or unconsciously.

Thinking about Miranda’s and Yon’s words brings me back to the stories of my mother as an illegal immigrant worker, which she only recently shared with me for the first time. How she desired to learn English in the States, and knew that she had the capacity to learn it, but did not have the time, because she had to earn money to support her family. How she wanted to learn French when she moved to Montreal, but could go to the free classes only three times, because she soon had to go work all day in a Korean supermarket. How she just went out looking for work to survive. How she brushed off the racism she encountered at work and on the streets. How she felt that the only time in a day she could afford to tend to her personal needs was going to the toilet. How she could never spend much time with my sister and I, although her dream when she was a child herself was to be a “good mother”. The deep loneliness, meaninglessness, and exhaustion that she had felt on a daily basis.

Some of my mother’s experience has fused with my own of being an immigrant child and living as an immigrant for my entire adulthood. I have a vivid memory of standing in the school courtyard on the first day of school as a seven-year-old in Montreal, not speaking any English or French, observing the foreign scene around me, and feeling confused, alone, and afraid. How, every day, even a small task, such as writing my name down in English, felt like an overwhelming riddle. I also remember the isolation I felt at home from the stress and coldness expressed from my mother towards me, produced by her physical and mental exhaustion.

As I write this, I realise how much discomfort I need to overcome to break the “happy scenario” of a mother’s sacrifice resulting in a moving relationship between the mother and the child. The story of immigration, however, is oftentimes not just a story of a single generation’s struggle leading to “happiness”, but is rather a collective struggle that continues on to the following generations. How do we identify, process, and utilise these experiences in ourselves? How do we connect with one another and inspire change through our experiences? Is this what Yon pointed to when she spoke about “the seeds that our parents planted in us?”

Only by living as an immigrant myself, floating around different cities and countries, struggling with new languages, legal complications, discrimination, and working varieties of jobs for survival, made me recognise the strength that my mother had as a working class immigrant. Loving other womxn people taught me to approach my mother and her stories with tenderness, as that of another woman’s story, separated from the personal pain that I have associated with them.

When I ask Yon what she thinks are the seeds that our parents planted in us and how those seeds have been growing in us, she replies: “I personally like the idea of my mom who planted seeds in my body. But it's less about what kind of seeds, why, and when she planted them. It's more about how it's been growing in me, and this growth process is something I am responsible for. I'm responsible for the fostering place where the seed can rest, for the kind of water and food it is being fed, as well as the care my body receives, and the people and things I touch with my body.... All of these things contribute and impact the growing of the seeds. And maybe my mom planted several seeds. Some died during the growing process, while others grew to become strong branches that move my blood and muscles, and make my body move in return.”

Paintings: Helena Parada Kim, www.helenaparada.de, courtesy of the artist and Choi&Lager Gallery

1 “Nurses-and-cranes”, 180x250cm, oil-on-linen, 2017
2 "Schwester vor Fenster", 30 x 24 cm, Öl auf Leinwand, 2006
3 "Schwestern im Park", 24 x 30 cm, Öl auf Leinwand, 2006

Performance photos:
Yon Natalie Mik „Vanishing Point“, 2018. © Christian Alvarez.
Miranda Markgraf „Das Neue steht und schweigt“, 2019. © Franziska Strauss

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