People keep asking me how I am, how my mom’s doing, how things are going, etc. Typically, I don’t know how to answer so I mumble something like, “she’s doing pretty well right now” or “things are going okay, and I’m fine.” The truth is that most of the time, I don’t know. I’m discovering that death and dying are difficult, but not always (or at least not immediately) in the ways that we imagine or expect. My parents aren’t interested in dwelling on or discussing death, so we don’t. And for the time being, my mom is stable and well enough that while the C-word is still the elephant in the room, we’ve learned how to walk around it without stubbing our toes. In the meantime, it’s easy to get bogged down in the everyday task of living. It’s easy to forget why we’re here together and what we’re doing.
As it turns out, my almost two year old and I are having similar issues. Namely, sharing is HARD. These days it feels like nothing is my own anymore. Everything is up for grabs: my spot on the couch, my television, my car, my time, even my food! The other day I went to Bloomingfoods (the local co-op, for you non-Bloomington folks) to grab a few things for dinner and decided, while I was there, to make myself a salad for lunch. Before I came home I asked everyone if they needed/wanted anything, but they all said that they were set. So I returned with the groceries and my delicious salad in tow. I purposely waited until my son was done eating his lunch because sometimes the up-and-down of mealtime is exhausting and because sometimes I just don’t want to share (parents, you know what I mean, right?). So you can imagine my irritation when I prepared to take the first bite of my salad and a pair of chopsticks swooped down in swift Mr. Miyagi fashion: “Oh! Let me have some!” my mother exclaimed, while quickly relocating half of my lunch to her already-emptied plate. “Was this just for you? Or was it for all of us?” she asked. “You can have as much as you want,” I replied. On the inside, though, I was annoyed. It’s always like this. Someone goes on an ice cream run and she says over and over that she doesn’t want any. But we’ve learned to bring her some anyway or get a larger size than we’d intended for ourselves, because her spoon will inevitably make it into the cup—and probably more times than the ice cream’s original owner.
It’s not that I begrudge her the food. I’m happy that she’s eating, and that she has an appetite. (It’s kind of a running joke in our house that my mom is the resident compost center. She eats all the time these days, and she’ll take care of any leftovers on someone else’s plate. She’s always been a little bit like this, but I think the steroids have given her appetite a serious boost.) I recognize that when I have that impulse to throw myself on the floor screaming, “MINE!” it’s not about the food or the car or the television, however much it feels like it in the moment. It’s about desperately trying to reclaim a little corner of space for myself.
The Korean sense of community and loyalty is sometimes stifling and oppressive in its expectation and demand, but it’s also one of the most astounding aspects of the culture. In Korea, as in many other countries, it’s not uncommon for several generations to live together. There, you’ll also find communal bath houses that families (usually separated by gender) frequent together; employees mill around willing to offer a hand, literally, in case the patrons would like a good scrub down.* In 1997 during the Asian financial crisis, tens of thousands of people participated in a gold collection campaign to help their nation repay their IMF debt. And in 2007, entire towns banded together to clean up a coastline after the oil spill. They lavish newlyweds with exorbitant sums of money, everyone bringing their own money-stuffed envelope to contribute to the pot. They bring food by the truckload on a daily basis during times of crisis, and they pray with a kind of fervor and devotion that I’ve rarely witnessed elsewhere. Closer to home, when my parents left Korea, they did so thousands of dollars richer from all of the gifts that both friends and strangers bestowed on them. I’ve been indoctrinated with all of these reasons why “Korea is best” and, like a good student, have since filed all of this away in that folder of my experience labeled “the Korean way.”
*I get a little weirded out by all the bodies in the locker room at the Y, so those communal baths (jimjilbangs) consist of a little too much closeness and sharing of bodily space, fluids, etc. for me.
I feel, strongly, my sense of duty and obligation as the eldest and as the child of a Korean mother. But I am also compelled, as a daughter, by my love for my mother and by the impulse to draw her near during this time and make sure she has whatever she needs. Still, sometimes I throw twelve internal tantrums a day, crying out for space. It feels like nearly every inch of my house has been invaded and snatched up by alien creatures. These people gave me life. I grew up with them. But I haven’t lived at home since I was 18 years old, so at times they feel foreign. Their habits, their practices, their beliefs—they aren’t mine. If you move in with your parents later in life, I think you expect to sacrifice a little (or a whole lot) of your personal space, habits, etc. You revert to the dynamics of those early years when you were the child and they were the adults. But what happens when your parents move in with you? When you become the caretaker and they become the ones being cared for? Well let me tell you, they bring their baggage with them, and those bags are bulging with parental-ness, with past practices, with questions and assumptions. At least mine did. The thing is, they’re no different. They’re the same people they’ve always been. I’m the one who has changed. I don’t think we ever stop being parents. As we grow into new ways of being in the world, however, we do stop being children in certain ways. I’m working to find the balance between the life I’ve carved out for myself and the life that they carved out for me. I’m struggling to discover a way for both of those narratives to exist in the shared space between us. But it’s not an easy task. Some days there’s less of me than I’d like. On those days, I remind myself again why we’re here, and the big picture comes back into focus.
These days, however, we’re just muddling through the day-to-day, and some struggles, apparently, are universal. Last night my partner stopped to pick up ice cream for everyone on her way home. This time I wasn’t really feeling into it, so I asked my mom if she wanted to get a medium cyclone and share a little bit with me. “No!” she exclaimed, “I don’t want to share tonight. I want my own!” My eyes bulged, “SERIOUSLY?!” Ugh. Well okay, then. I get that. But geez.