I’m sitting in my room, one ear pressed against the wall adjacent to your room, listening to you and dad hurl insults at each other — again. I shouldn’t be awake. It’s easily past midnight, and I’m only 13. I shouldn’t be eavesdropping on these conversations, the ones in which you threaten Dad that you’ll leave his sorry ass, the ones in which you scream your regrets about immigrating to this unfair and twisted shithole of a country, the ones in which you cry and wish you never had us ungrateful kids.
I shouldn’t be listening to these conversations, the ones in which you lament your unstable marriage in detail — the “We’ll stay together for the kids (and for God)” compromise that never addresses the root of the problem. I shouldn’t be listening to these conversations, because they make me realize too harshly that you’re human, an individual who aspires to be more than just a housewife.
You have dreams apart from raising my siblings and me and caring for the family, but you are fiercely restricted here in the land of the free. Isn’t that ironic? I shouldn’t be listening to these conversations, because they force me to realize that your life in this country is a sacrifice that enables me to do and be more while you lose time and those dewy eyes that once hoped for what the future held for you and your dreams.
On this particular night, you two are fighting about money — again. It’s expected. You held exhibitions in Seoul, were raised by maids, attended college when it was taboo for women. It’s expected because you led schoolwide events single-handedly at our private primary school in Seoul: If the faculty were the backbone of the school, you were the skin, blood, muscle and fat that kept everything together. (You still are to our family.) It’s expected that you have high expectations for yourself and us, because you thrived back home. Your friends adored you, teachers and co-workers envied you, Grandma and Grandpa and your siblings supported your decisions, and Dad actually loved you.
So it’s expected that you have these standards that exceed the ones most residents of our quaint upper-middle class suburb have. Dad, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about what you want or what you dream of. He’s content with our cozy neighborhood by the beach. He doesn’t care for hobbies or new experiences. He’s fine with sitting in front of the television for hours, being stagnant in the social and economic hierarchy of the United States. He doesn’t care that he works the nine to five or the nine to seven or the nine to 11. As long as it puts food on the table, it doesn’t matter what he has to do. He just wants to stay alive even if that means living an excruciatingly boring, ordinary life. He settles in routine and his apathy rubs off on you every time you two interact.
But tonight you call him out on this. You tell him that he has given up on his dream to be a politician and criticize him for being lazy, someone who’s become too smug with what he has and oblivious to his own potential.
He dismisses you, because you’re just a housewife now. He hits you where you’re most vulnerable and says that you don’t understand how stressful it is to survive in this country, especially because you don’t speak the language. Sadly, he’s right. Your conversations with strangers are limited to hollow hellos, how are you’s and goodbyes. Your once enriching friendships have been replaced with church gossip and petty fights with Korean ladies at the market.
I remember once or twice when your fights with dad escalated to a point where you packed your bags and left. You returned a week later, and there was an expression on your face that I’ve never seen before. I think it was happiness.
I wrote this at Caffe Strada, at a table by myself, and a few friends dropped by periodically to say hello. I’m always startled by their enthusiastic hellos, and the man at the table in front of me laughed every time one of them surprised me. The last friend that crept behind and scared the life out of me triggered a booming laughter from the man, prompting him to poke fun at me. He joked about how I’m too tense and suggested that I relax. I was curious as to why he assumed this. I wore flowy pants with a knit sweater that had comfort written all over it. He said my eyebrows were furrowed and I looked concerned.
Maybe I hadn’t noticed the stress that follows when I write about you, Mom. Even I’m unaware that there’s unintentional emotional turbulence affixed to your existence, the indirect influence you’ve had in my life. In a sense, the old man was right.
Maybe I am too worried about you, Mom. But I was too stubborn to admit this to a stranger and I told him that I was fine, that I’m happy, that I wasn’t wearing concealer that day so perhaps I did look older, the abrasive toll life has had more visible in the brightly lit cafe. Before I left, he chuckled and looked right through my lies and said, “But don’t think I’m not rooting for you, kid.”
Mom, don’t think I’m not rooting for you, either. You’re not just a personal driver, cook, human vacuum, walking bank, unofficial peacekeeper or unlicensed doctor. You are the panacea to life’s burdens and I aspire to be a person as strong, genuine and kind as you. I hope you realize one day that you deserve everything this world has to offer and more. I love you.
Lauren Ahn writes the Friday blog on inedible nourishment. Contact her at [email protected].