Maj. Gene Noh and Christina Zahara Noh share their story for WAMU 88.5 and StoryCorps.
Maj. Gene Noh and Christina Noh met when he was stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Korea and she was in the country for an English teaching Fulbright grant. They got married and had a baby, whom they named Gabrielle.
When their daughter was just 8 months old, Gene was deployed to Afghanistan. While he was away, Gabrielle began crawling, talking and later, walking.
During Gene's deployment, Christina tried to include him in Gabrielle's life by showing her pictures of her father. Christina focused on teaching their daughter the Korean word for daddy, which is pronounced "appah."
"I really was like fixated on this whole having 'appah' be her first word thing. So I didn't teach her any other words this whole time. I just taught her appah," recalls Christina. And her efforts seemed to have paid off. Christina was thrilled when she saw Gabrielle pointing to photographs of Gene and saying appah. But when they were preparing for Gene's return, Christina noticed that Gabrielle might not have understood the significance of the word. "She would just point to pictures of other people and say, 'Appah! Appah!' And I realized what I had done was teach her that pictures were 'appah.'"
Three weeks ago, Gene returned from Afghanistan. The first days after his return were hard. Even though Christina had shown Gabrielle pictures of her father, he wasn't familiar to his daughter.
"She's so dependent on you, and you're her comfort zone, and I wasn't," says Gene to Christina. "I was a stranger that was re-introduced into her life. I mean, that first week where she would just run to you, and if I would try to hold her she would cry. It was really challenging, you know?"
Now that the family has had more time to reunite, Christina sees Gabrielle comfortable with and enamored of her father. "Now that it's been about three weeks, it definitely seems like she's taken to you," says Christina to Gene. "I catch her napping on you every day basically at this point. So that's fun for me to see."
Christina missed Gene while he was away in Afghanistan, but at the same time, she was aware of the ways she was lucky. Christina moved in with her in-laws and stayed home to raise Gabrielle while Gene was in Afghanistan.
"It was a choice for me to be able to stay home with her and have this great adventure with her while you were gone," says Christina. "And it was challenging of course at times, but that is like small potatoes, you know, when I think about the struggles that other people have."
Christina was raised by a single mom, and knows that her mother didn't have the same level of support. "I get so emotional about it because I just can't imagine doing what she did," she says. "You know, like having to deal with providing a home and shelter and food for three kids."
Although Christina was always aware how incredible her mom's perseverance was, raising her own daughter makes Christina even more conscious of her mother's strength and the sacrifices she made.
This interview was recorded in Arlington, Va. at StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives. To find out more information and to reserve a timeslot to tell your own story at the StoryCorps MobileBooth, visit StoryCorps.org.
[Music: "Twin Peaks Theme" by Angelo Badalamenti from Twin Peaks Soundtrack]