Korean parents can be a kind of mystery—at least mine are. My dad’s thoughts are hidden behind a stoicism that I assume is a mixture of cultural inheritance and personal inclination. He doesn’t speak or express much. Even in his anger, he doesn’t reveal much.
My mom is on the opposite end of the spectrum. She presents me with a challenge of a completely different sort because she’s nothing like my dad. She’s talkative and personable. Everyone who knows her loves her.
Until recent years, my mom was very uncomplicated to me. She was my mom before all else, and I didn’t give much thought to who she was in her own mind, or who she had been before me, who she was when she was my age. And because she’s so given to conversation, I thought I already knew everything there was to know. I believed everything she said just the way she said it. I paid little attention to the difference between her words and her ways. And in that sense, I had allowed my mom to remain a mystery to me, just like my dad. The only difference was that I couldn’t even perceive just how little I knew her.
My mom was not a very cute child to be frank haha
I knew that my mom grew up without a father. I also knew that she always spoke about it as something insignificant and even natural. I remember asking her when I was much younger, did you ever miss your dad growing up? Actually, I asked her multiple times, and each time she said no. She said she was so deeply loved by her grandmother, her mother, her aunts and uncles that she grew up without ever feeling the ache of fatherlessness. She also pointed out the fact that because she was born in the generation immediately following the war, hers was not an extraordinary or unusual case. Many fathers were killed, taken, or missing. And you know what I said? Nothing. I only believed her.
My mom and her mother. It’s always strange seeing our parents, who’ve seemed so big all our lives, look small, isn’t it?
For years I believed her when she claimed that she did not, in fact, think about her father. That she did not miss him, wonder why he was not present in her life, or mourn his departure. In fact, she says she doesn’t even remember how old she was when he left. That she did not ever grow curious about whether he missed her, her mother, or their family. I believed her when she said she was not curious about the new family she’d heard he created, or about the people out there who shared half her blood. Consequently, I spent many years under the impression that growing up without a father wasn’t so bad. I mean, my mom did it and she never seemed to complain.
But one day, I told my mom about a new friend. She asked, “What does her dad do?” I said, “I don’t know. She doesn’t know her dad.” My mom cried then told me to be especially kind to this friend. “Everyone has a story,” she said.
A few years ago, when I was just a couple weeks shy of graduating with my degree in literature, my mom said something that sounded so foreign to me:
“I think you get your knack for literature from your grandfather.”
My who? I never knew either of my grandfathers. I knew that my paternal grandfather was born in the north and that he had been a pastor. I’ve only ever seen one picture. On the other hand, I don’t even know my maternal grandfather’s name. His face is equally mysterious.
“I think he had a degree in literature from… Waseda University, was it? I can’t remember. Some university in Tokyo.”
After years of hearing that he wasn’t a part of her life (and therefore my life) I’m suddenly told that perhaps I owe my career trajectory, my predilection for reading and writing, to this man..?
And then it clicked.
As a literature major–just like my mother’s father, apparently–I primarily study people. I scrutinize their histories and the manifestations of their pasts in their present. I forecast their futures, and I weigh their interiority against their words and actions, or more importantly their silence and inertia. I look for their lies. I’m trained to analyze what it means when a character says “Yes” as they put a finger on a scar, or what it means when they smile right at the end of a paragraph. I contrast this particular smile to all their smiles throughout the novel looking at its contexts, motivations, and revelations. This kind of active, aggressive reading is particularly important as “unreliable narrators” abound in texts from the modern era. And all this time, I didn’t give my mom the same level of attention and complexity I had given the characters I was reading.
I could have taken her words at face value. Instead, I gave it more thought, and I came to the conclusion that my mom held onto bits and pieces of her father, what little she could. I came to the conclusion that she did in fact feel the very real aches of losing her father.
Once when I was 16 I somewhat absent-mindedly said, “Maybe someday I’ll have children without a husband.” We were at a restaurant when she said, louder than she typically would, “How dare you plan to deprive a child of a father, and how dare you say that in front your mother.”
For years I thought she was addressing my brazen reference to premarital sex (even though I meant fostering and adopting), but upon deeper thought, I see that she was also pointing to secret place of pain. She had not chosen fatherlessness, but there she was, a little girl of maybe five or six or seven whose father was there one day and gone the next. And that made me wonder: I myself had asked my mom about her father many times… Had my mom asked her mom about him too? What were those conversations like? Was she nervous? Was she satisfied with the responses? Or are my mom’s deflections or matter-of-factness something she inherited from her own mother? If I can’t even begin to understand her relationship with her parents, how much more am I missing about her?
Suddenly the person before me seemed unfamiliar. She outgrew the silhouette of mom, of 엄마, and became a somebody before motherhood, before marriage, even before Jesus. A girl with a mother and a memory-father. A person with questions and fears and longing. She the womb that enclosed me, the voice that shaped consciousness in me, the first thing–and once the only thing–I ever knew had always been so much more than that.
For many Korean parents, emotions are often lodged in murky places. Deflections and matter-of-factness are standard. And when we manage to get past this first line of defense, when emotions do emerge, we often find that they’ve been tampered with. What we actually see is a close relative. We are given guarded aggravation instead of open conversation.
Our parents have many faces they don’t allow us to see–or perhaps there are many faces that they themselves are unable to see. I imagine that what we see is most likely what they grew up seeing as well. But as we grow older, we have a responsibility to read our parents in their individual contexts, including their upbringings which may or may not have allowed them the time to process and space to express all the emotions that come with being alive, like grief and trauma. They’ve spent so many years being themselves without us, and loving them fully is acknowledging that singularity. We have a responsibility to pay close attention to them as characters with their own network of past, present, and future, while respecting the boundaries they wish to keep erect. The goal is to recognize complexity without compromising privacy.
And then I arrived at a very uncomfortable question: how could I have been so dull, especially regarding the person I claim to love most? Did I in fact love her? If I did, my love was elementary at best. And at worst, oblivious and self-interested.
She’s told me that all her life she just wanted to be a mother and a wife. Sometimes she says she’s fine, but can’t seem to get out of bed. Or she cries when I tell her about something I saw or learned that day. Suddenly I’m seeing blanks ______ all around her words. I start to see that maybe she hoped to fill the void left from a broken family with a family of her own, or that she struggles to get through some days, or that she’s carrying all sorts of emotions and experiences that predispose her to tearful compassion. Filling in these blanks allows me to learn something new about the world that lives inside her. For all the jokes she makes and the stories she tells, there’s still so much she leaves unexpressed.
After seeing the gaps in my understanding of her, especially in regards to her broken family, I started to see similar blanks elsewhere. So many, too many, of my friends were using the same deflections and the same matter-of-fact language. And I learned that with the right attention and care, my friends honored me by sharing their stories and allowing me to be a part of their lives. And I really do think that that’s all it takes–attention and care.
Everyone does, in fact, have a story–including my mom. I first appeared around chapter 34 where I began my regular role. And though essential, I am just one character in it.
I no longer see my mom as a superhero. Her strength, her days, even her words are limited. But I think it’s in seeing her humanness and limitedness that I learn how to love her more. She doesn’t need to tell me about every instance of pain, but because I love her, I’m attentive. I mind the pauses between her words. I read the way she folds her hands or changes her posture. And because I love her, I take my time to fill in the blanks and step closer and closer to her.