Relationships Every Immigrant Is in a Long-Distance Relationship
Distance, though it may be physically distancing, need not make a couple grow distant.
Whenever I used to tell people I was in a multiyear long-distance relationship, they shared the kind of sympathy that must have been given to army wives during World War II: “Hang in there, you’ll get through this.” Long-distance relationships are generally seen as a degraded form of the “normal” state of things. In describing them, we often employ the same survivalist language lent to describing chronic diseases. Couples needed to “endure” and “survive” their period of separation.
However, the pandemic has shown what a reductio ad absurdum of long-distance relationship looks like: a no-distance relationship where couples are entrapped in the same space. And judging from the recent quarantine literature, it’s no recipe for happy coexistence. Some of the New York Times ’s Modern Love stories in the early days of the pandemic read like survival manuals; advice columns became a catalogue of relationship postmortems.
But distance, though it may be physically distancing, need not make a couple grow distant. Looking back, for a young couple who started dating when we were both twenty, distance helped me and Seul avoid the peril of being defined only by each other. While there is no definition of me in absence of her, my relation to her wasn’t what defined me.
We met in high school, at one of the quasi-international schools in Seoul where the curriculum was built specifically to send students abroad for college. It was a somewhat chimeric institution where syllabi consisted of “Great Books” from Chaucer to Conrad, with morsels of contemporary literature such as Don DeLillo and Dave Eggers. But it still demanded the same brutalist work ethic typical of Korean high schools. For example, we were allowed to leave school only after 10 p.m. But given that the tuition was less than two thousand American dollars a semester—a fraction of the typical New England boarding school tuition—it was not a bad bargain.
Seul and I were friends long before we developed any romantic feelings. She was bookishly smart in the way I’d wanted to be, and I was charmed by the ease with which she toggled between being an aspiring scholar and a genial friend with a puckish sense of humor. I admired Seul for her intellect and plucky spirit, but also for her protective instincts toward strangers, including nonhuman ones. She taught me not to spray bugs that entered a room because she had once read a poem describing those insects as lost wanderers—not intruders—clueless about what they led themselves into. Who said poetry doesn’t save lives?
But before we started living together in New York and I learned to scoop house spiders with ConEd bills, five years of a long-distance relationship came between us. After high school, Seul and I went off to different colleges on the East Coast. And before anything happened between us, I had to go back to Korea after my freshman year to serve in the South Korean army. Two years of mandatory military service isn’t something Korean males can just evade, unless they hold dual citizenship or, for professional athletes, scored a medal in the Olympics. (Even the members of the K-pop group BTS were essentially granted only two years of deferral .)
Back then in the army, if you got caught hiding a cell phone, you were sent straight to a military prison. No video chat was available, and there were only three pay phones in my barrack of more than a hundred people. During roughly two years of our service, we used to get twenty-four days of vacation. Unless you were on vacation, stepping outside of your barrack bought you another ticket to the military prison.
On most days, my army life resembled not so much Band of Brothers as a military-themed spinoff of The Office . But I was glad that the tools I most frequently used weren’t M16 rifles—heavy and annoyingly loud, they tried to simultaneously give me arthritis and tinnitus—but dustpans, cleaning sponges, and snow shovels, which made my inner pacifist happy. (I was also a total klutz with firearms.)
The first thing I wanted to do during vacation was to buy a wig to hide my embarrassingly uneven buzz cut, which made me look as if I had just gone through a hazing ritual or lost a bet. When I was allowed to leave for five days one January, Seul happened to be in Seoul for winter break. I still can’t exactly recall why I decided to text Seul of all people to go wig shopping, except that I thought she’d be game for it.
We met in front of a wig shop with zero expectation that it would be a date. We just wanted to have a good time trying out ridiculous wigs while making ironic comments about beauty standards in Korea. But to the store owner who watched us—putting wigs on each other and having too much fun before buying anything—it must have seemed like an obnoxious couple enacting some cliché scene out of a K-drama. Truth to tell, we did start seeing each other as a romantically viable entity. (Try going to a wig shop on your first date.)
After picking a wig that looked real enough under my beanie, we went to an izakaya and drank a prodigious amount of sake. I felt safe about revealing every psychosocial flaw and fear of mine. But captured in a folie à deux, she shared hers too. Next, happily drunk, we went to a hookah bar and coughed our lungs out while inhaling from a shared mouthpiece. Neither of us remember any conversation from that place, but to be fair, the bar had an equally hypnotic name that may as well explain our amnesia: “The Butterfly Was a Flower. Until It Flew Away.”
We must have seemed like an obnoxious couple enacting some cliché scene out of a K-drama.
After the winter break, Seul went back to school, which meant I would have to wait months, until the summer, to see her again. But soon came an opportunity to change that. Every year in March, there used to be a joint military exercise where both US and South Korean troops participated in a large-scale war game. That year, I was rewarded three vacation days in recognition of my heroic paper-pushing inside a stuffy underground bunker fueled with instant coffee from MREs. Using the airline miles my dad had so preciously saved, I booked a flight to JFK.
Although I spent a good chunk of my seventy-two hours of vacation time above the Pacific Ocean, no hour was wasted once I was in New York City, where we had our first date. I still had more than a year left in the army, but since then, Seul had become my private channel to the outside world. She’d talk about her seminar on colonial Latin America; when she was on a school-funded summer program in Madrid, she told me about her life as an art-museum assistant. I fancied myself a Raskolnikov receiving postcards from Sonya who had made an alternative choice of traveling to Europe instead of following him to Siberia.
As our phone conversations continued, traversing two continents and fourteen time zones, I came to realize that the word distance in long-distance relationship misleads: The challenge lies less in the spatial factors than the temporal ones. For one thing, the logistics of scheduling a call is a hassle for couples on different schedules. In the army, as soon as I had finished my part of the daily cleaning duty—scrubbing the common shower area—I ran to stand in line for pay phones, with no guarantee that the line would end before the evening roll call.
The time difference caused by time zones is more than a logistical issue. It puts moods out of sync: The strange nocturnal spell that makes you want to text your love interest works only when both parties are enchanted by it, not when one of you has just downed a double espresso and needs to sprint to catch a train at rush hour. (It’s the same 3 a.m. energy that enables friendship-building conversations at a sleepover.) For me, calling immediately after the cleaning duty couldn’t be more anaphrodisiac, since I had just spent forty minutes unclogging shower drains congested with hairs of various lengths and curvatures.
But there’s an even more important time factor. Many relationships end because couples see no end to the long-distance part. Back in college, fellow international students who were separated but planned to eventually return to their country mostly stayed together. But if each envisions a future in a different location, the mismatch nearly always breaks the relationship, not to mention marriages. (One redeeming quality of the army: a clear end date after two years of toil.)
Three summers ago, Seul and I got married and moved to New York City. But for a couple still in our twenties, I know that this piece won’t be a kind of good-bye-to-all-that essay about the long-distance part of our relationship. When we were separated by inevitable circumstances, we could treat our separation as something foisted upon us. But like other young professionals constantly relocating to follow new opportunities, Seul, as an academic, will need to be mobile. And so will I.
For the last three years, our best options were, miraculously, in the same city. But our luck may run out. This means that any distance between us in the future will be self-imposed—an easily fixable problem, really, if either of us gives up one thing: ambition. This rather grandiose-sounding choice—love or ambition—had troubled me for some time. It’s a losing game for both. One has to choose self-sacrifice and another self-interested careerism.
For the last three years, our best options were, miraculously, in the same city.
But I have come to realize that it presents a false dichotomy. For better or worse, while it’s possible to kill love, you can’t kill ambition. Even when you think it’s dead, hastily buried ambition lurks underneath, morphing into regret and even resentment toward your spouse, slowly poisoning the terroir on which your marriage is built.
This deprivation of choice was strangely—but predictably—liberating. It allowed me to make practical preparations, such as making my line of work as remote-friendly as possible so that I can follow her. But still, we are aware that we may still need to follow our aspiration lest it transmute into frustration. There might be months or even a year or two when we’re geographically separated again.
I’m concerned about those futures as much as I think about how to prevent them, which is to say, not at all. On reflection, our relationship, like any sculpture, has been shaped as much by absence as presence—the volley between departure and arrival, togetherness and separation, each of which chiseled a lacuna that, in turn, gave prominence to the chunks of our time spent together. After years of steadily carving away at an amorphous block that we created at twenty, what emerged was something that would be much less interesting to look at without holes and gaps, a boring lump without its characteristic airiness.
In this sense, accepting another period of long-distance relationship isn’t a resignation. It’s also a nod to the long lineage of countless immigrants who have gone through the same phase. Perhaps to state an obvious point—a truth painfully obvious to many immigrants—dating has no monopoly on the term long-distance relationship . For immigrants, the primacy of the term lies not in a romantic context but a familial one. In an episode of Immigration Nation , a documentary series about ICE, Bernardo, a Guatemalan immigrant who had been in detention for months, calls his wife and children back in Guatemala.
Their calls brought my mind back to the pay phone in the army, and how Seul, calling from the other end of the Pacific Ocean, remained, for many months, only an aural presence. Though I dare not claim to have experienced the punishing separation that Bernardo has faced, even in less extreme forms, long-distance relationships have always been—and will be—the default mode of personal relationships from the moment we immigrants leave our home countries.
Small wonder, then, why I felt unease when long-distance relationships were framed as a lesser variant of relationships. To treat them as between acts is to liken a life of an immigrant to an unending intermission. For every immigrant, some kind of distance is inevitable, since separation is a precondition to begin a life elsewhere. Every immigration story, we may say, is a long-distance relationship story.