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Photo by Pearl

I’m writing this with no prior planning, outlines, or drafts. I want to give you a window with which to peer into my mind at a very important time in my life, presented candidly. There’s no call to action, there’s no inspirational movement, it’s just a person being conscious (very intentional pun).

WELCOME TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

I read these words on a brochure outlining my rights and duties as a permanent resident of the United States, which came with my green card (a rectangular ID issued by the government that confirms a person’s status as a permanent resident). I thought about a lot of things when I read those words, including how they felt strangely overdue, considering my eleven years living in this country. The brochure didn’t tell me anything new. Register for the selective service, check X site, fill Y form, etc. Then, I picked up my green card - it really is green, I thought. It seemed oddly underwhelming that a decade of sorting through visa paperwork, asking whether or not I have to serve the standard period of mandatory military service in Korea, picking up a new language, moving from city to city, acquainting myself with a culture very different from the one with which I was born, ad infinitum, had culminated in this small, green, photo ID. My reaction was comparable to someone climbing Mount Everest only to say, “Eh.”

What now? I didn’t feel different. I was still Daniel, student at the University of Richmond, an 18-year-old who wants to be a professor of political theory, a Supreme Court Justice, entrepreneur, and writer, all at the same time (my friend David urges me to make up my mind). My father, on the other hand, would check our application status over ten times a day, looking for any updates. Obsessed, I sighed. My mother buzzed with silent joy. When it finally came in the mail, I nodded my head and tried to spin up some obligatory sentiments, including happiness, relief, maybe pride, even. But I couldn’t. This made me feel a potent, abyssal kind of guilt. A cerebral kind, the kind of guilt that looms over you when you know you should feel guilty.

Why should I feel guilty? I made straight A’s. My teachers liked me (for the most part). I navigated a foreign country.  I went through elementary school, constantly getting in trouble, friendless at lunch because my English was so bad, crying rivers weekly, and I didn’t even grow up to be a psychopathic maniac. I made it. I’m entitled to that green card. That’s what I thought. Then I thought again.

I asked myself why I felt so little. I drew a blank when I held my green card, the culmination of my parents’ sacrifice. They reset their lives and gave up their jobs for me. Can you imagine, moving to a country with an elementary grasp of its language, trying to hold your head high when you’re not even sure how to say what you want? And what about people along the way like that girl Jessica in second grade, to whom I asked question after question by pointing to our worksheets and uttering a single word, “What?” They made sacrifices of their own kind, too. I had committed a terrible crime. I forgot.

I forgot that my father had to take organic chemistry in a foreign language because the company he worked for in Korea didn’t have any opportunities in the States (he’s now a clinical laboratory scientist). I forgot that my mother would spend long hours past 3 AM at the dinner table trying to make sense of immigration law and what to do next. I forgot that both of them left all of their close and extended family behind and moved a total of three times within five years to find the best place to work and live. I forgot that Mrs. Appel, my first teacher in America, forced me to write misspelled words five times over. The long list can go on for much longer, including Senator Mark Warner, my friends, and fellow churchgoers.

Maybe I did do things that merited my I-deserve-this attitude, but nothing compared to the people around me. What really tore my conscience asunder, though, was when I realized that I had forgot about the only time I saw my father weep. That day, on the balcony, I saw not a breadwinner, but a son who lost his father and couldn’t even attend his funeral because it was an ocean away. I didn’t deserve it. What made me think I did? What have I contributed, relative to my parents? What little I did contribute, how much of it was possible because of those around me?

The point is, becoming a permanent resident wasn’t a solo undertaking, and I don’t recognize that enough. I still feel guilt, but not the kind that I mentioned during the beginning of this piece. I’m not guilty anymore because I don’t feel anything. I’m happy that I finally have a green card. I’m relieved. I’m proud. Instead, I’m guilty because I don’t think I deserve to feel any of these things. That guilt waxes when I realize how dumb it was to even think that I deserved it.

Now, you probably want a resolution to this guilt, and I think I could use one, too, but I don’t think it’s wise to seek one. I would rather just accept it, because one, it’s not killing me, and two, it’s keeping me from forgetting how I got to where I am today.

Mom, Dad, thanks a lot. To my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, you have my eternal gratitude as well. To my teachers, professors, mentors, and friends, you were all of great help, whether you know it or not. To the reader, I’d just like to say that I think we’re all lucky in one way or another, and that someone, somewhere, a few paces away from you or miles away, deserves your gratitude.

My name is Daniel Yoo, I was born in Incheon, South Korea, and I am now a permanent resident of the United States of America.

FROM THE EDITOR
At Conscious, we are inspired by remarkable people and organizations, and so we set out to tell stories that highlight human interests, global initiatives, innovation, community development, and social impact. You can read more stories like this when you subscribe.

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