“You know what I miss most about Korea right about now?” my mom asks me in Korean on one of our daily walks during quarantine. I look up from where I am walking next to her, surprised by the sudden turn in conversation.
“The gae na ri,” she continues, lost in thought 20 years in the past, which is when my mom was last in Korea. “It’s so stupid, those aren’t even my favorite flowers. But they would be so common during the springtime, and you don’t really see them in America.”
According to my mom, gae na ri, or Korean forsythias, would envelop the mountains by the countryside where she grew up at the start of every spring. She and her classmates would pick the flowers to bring to their elementary class, where they would be put into a vase for the whole class to enjoy. This was the first story I had ever heard my mother tell about herself from a time that preceded the day she became “Mom,” and it became one of the many ways my mother and I deepened our relationship during quarantine.
At first, it was hard for my mom and I to find common ground, even when we were sharing a physical space together. I began to isolate myself as much as I could from my family because a part of me felt cramped back home — I even blamed my family for the sudden loss of freedom I used to have here in Berkeley.
But then one day, I went for a walk with my mom and our dog. I put my phone away, stepped out for fresh air for the first time in nearly a month and became my mom’s daughter again. We chatted as we walked, talking about nothing and everything at the same time.
I listened to my mom as she spoke about how she missed her family whom she had not seen in nearly two decades, how she would play pranks on her elementary school peers and how she felt that life was passing her by too quickly.
I began to understand what growing up was like for my mom. Even though she grew up in Korea and I was born and raised in the United States, I saw myself in her when she described how, as a younger sister, she took immense joy in bugging her many older siblings, or how she would bring to school many of the same traditional Korean dishes she often packed for my school lunches.
My newfound ability to see my mother as someone beyond just my “Mom” led me down my own path of self-reflection, as I thought about how my time at home during quarantine had changed my understanding of who my mother is, as well as who I am. Being away from college allowed me to strip away the many performative social masks I had worn and spend time trying to become Jenny again.
I tried new habits, such as journaling and meditation, as well as old, familiar activities, such as playing the piano and watching anime (turns out, it wasn’t just a “middle school phase”). With all the newfound time I had in quarantine for genuine self-reflection, I realized that a big part of my identity was not something that I had “grown out” of, but rather been pushed out of. I had always been my mother’s daughter at heart, I just lost sight of that in college. I had an opportunity to reinvent myself as a freshman, and I used it to become someone I thought others wanted me to be without allowing myself room to explore who I wanted to be for myself.
My mom listened, too. She listened as I ranted about current political affairs, analyzed Taylor Swift’s entire career (we’re both Swifties now, no question about it) and shared my innermost thoughts that, oftentimes, I didn’t even know I had. We got to know each other not only as a mother and daughter but as individuals, friends. Through these conversations, we learned about ourselves and each other and became more honest in how we were feeling about everything that is going on in the world right now. We became each other’s gae na ri, a little piece of home that we are each able to hold close, especially now that I am in Berkeley and she is in Los Angeles.
Gae na ri symbolize the coming of a long-anticipated spring and the end of a long winter. My mom and her stories are my gae na ri, helping my sense of self begin to bloom again after a long, tumultuous period in which my emotional garden was not tended to.
The pandemic has been, and continues to be, a time of hardship and struggle. But in a funny, bittersweet way, it has helped me overcome struggle, too. I am grateful for the moments I’ve been able to share with my mom and the realization that pretending to be far too many things for far too long has been exhausting — just like the cold of a winter that refuses to let anything bloom. Now, I just want to be as I am, whoever that turns out to be.