Thursday, August 7, 2014

Making Space, Redux

I let my son play on the sidewalk by the gate for a little longer than usual and I stood there, the sun warm on my forehead, listening to the chatter of the six or seven Korean women who had gathered in the parking lot. Someone’s mother, a grandmother, walked back and forth along the sidewalk carrying a baby on her back, uh-buh-bah style—the way my mother and grandmother carried us as babies, the way I still sometimes carry Bennett as I put him to bed at night. With all the innocence of a presumably inattentive bystander, I listened (only somewhat guiltily) to their conversation the same way I’d eavesdropped on the conversations of my mother and her friends when I was young.

How many secrets had I squirreled away like that? Those tiny morsels of information and juicy bits of gossip had been laid out casually, help-yourself-family-style, because they assumed that we didn’t understand what they were saying. Back then, in those half-Korean/half-American circles, most of our mothers raised us in the languages of our fathers. Perhaps it was easier. Perhaps English was still a coveted enough tongue to compel them to subjugate their own. Perhaps they felt their immigrant status too acutely in the way others strained to understand them through their accents. Perhaps speaking English at home provided them the practice that they needed in a low-stakes environment. Whatever the case, we spoke predominantly English in our homes.

But as I’ve mentioned in other posts, I spent my early years with my grandmother who only spoke Korean. Since she was one of our primary caregivers for many years, I was forced to internalize the language. I remember driving my mom insane with my incessant questions: “mommy, how do you say ‘towel’ in Korean? How do you say ‘thermometer?’ How do you say ‘spend the night at my friend’s house?’ How do you say ‘go to the park?’” That last one was prompted by a situation that had landed me in hot water. I’d gone to the park down the street one afternoon after informing my grandmother (in English) of my plans. I was four or five at the time and my mother was away for a day or two with church duties. Some time later, as I was hanging upside down from the monkey bars, my uncle arrived. He was red-faced and roaring. “You are NEVER,” he bellowed, “allowed to leave the house without telling an adult where you are going.” My grandmother had called to tell him I was missing, though she’d probably called him more out of irritation than concern (this was before people were actually arrested for letting their children walk down the street alone). “But I did tell her,” I whined, feeling the injustice of the situation. “Well,” he yelled, “she didn’t understand! Next time, draw her a picture!” After that, I learned from necessity as much as curiosity.

Standing there beside those women, I felt all the summers of my childhood swelling up around me like deep pools of memory and longing. I’ve written about nostalgia in other posts (here, for instance), but the feeling that washed over me, that particular brand of homesickness, was less about a place/time and more about “fit.” In my childhood, I’d passed easily between languages and between cultures. My mother always served as a kind of entry point to those small clubs of belonging, those small communities of women who gathered in parking lots and coffee shops, who frequented the same businesses together with a kind of devotion and loyalty that rivaled their religious fervor. They will make or break a business with their praise and derision. “This one, not that one,” someone will say and they will all change course together.  “Just wait,” I told a friend months ago when my son’s daycare only had a couple of Korean families, “once the word gets out, you’ll be inundated with Korean kids.” And there they were.

One of those families has a daughter in my son’s class. At our last class gathering, they stood quietly to the side. I made my way over to them to ask them how their daughter was acclimating. “She loves it here,” the mom told me, “every morning she wakes up and says that we need to hurry up and go see her seong-saeng-nim.” She translated, “ah…that means teacher in Korean.” “Yes,” I replied, “my mom….” I’d started to say the phrase, “my mom is Korean” (in Korean) as I had so many times before. But I stopped. I realized that I didn’t know how to say, “my mom was Korean.” Past tense. I should have said, instead, “I’m half Korean,” but in the moment, I floundered. I finished in English, “my mom was Korean, but she passed away last year.” I rushed through the moment and quickly went on to tell her about the morning before, when I’d spoken Korean to her daughter. Her daughter had been walking away when she realized, mid-stride, that someone had spoken her first language to her and she returned wide-eyed to give me a closer look. We laughed and her mother said, “she must have been surprised to find someone speaking her language who doesn’t look Korean.” I know. Pull your jaws off the floor. But yes, this happens quite often. Korean people don’t always read me as “Korean.” They see whiteness. And “white” people see me as “Asian” (or American Indian, Latina, etc.). It all depends on who’s doing the seeing.Without my mother, we—my siblings and I—are three “other-ish” looking kids with a white guy in tow. My mother made sense of us; she provided our papers and credentials for entry into that other world, into those other parts of ourselves.  Now, I often feel like a “foreigner” in all the spaces of my life. I find myself moving uncomfortably through situations that once felt easy. After all, she’s no longer around to bear the burden of our difference.

When life pulls the rug out from under us, we have a tendency to focus on what we’ve lost, to dwell on the bruises from the fall. Sometimes, however, if we take a minute to look beyond those things, we unearth long-forgotten hardwood floors, or kitschy tile made chic again by time, or maybe we find the hideous linoleum that reminds us why we bought the rug in the first place. Whatever we find, that rediscovery has the potential to make novelties of old things. My mother’s death has, in so many strange ways, made the world new for me. But it’s not only the world that has been made new; I’ve unearthed uncharted territory in myself as well. I’ve come to understand how much of my self-narrative has depended on that between-ness.

Lately, I feel myself grasping for the vestiges of that feeling, that comfort of being nestled effortlessly between those parts of myself and between cultures with my mother at the center. That longing has manifested itself in intense cravings for all the foods of my youth. For the cold rice drink (shikhye) that my mother would give us on special occasions when people came over for lunch. For rice mixed with water, the gruel of my early childhood, served with an array of banchan. For green onion pancakes (pajeon) with cilantro and fish/lemon dipping sauce. For Omelet rice (omurice).  For, oh god, delicious noodles in black bean sauce (jjajang myeon). For those chewy pink candies wrapped in rice paper. For weird shrimp crackers (Saewookkang). For Korean moonpies, (Chocopie). And, of course, for Pepero.* Sure, I can make a lot of this at home and I can find the rest at one of the three Korean markets in town, but most of these things never taste quite the same as they did back then. The tastebuds of my childhood—that hadn’t yet learned to love truffle oil and brie, that considered Red #40 and Blue #1 essential to making food more compelling and tasty—have left me perpetually wanting. Moreover, my mother’s death has left me endlessly in search of her distinct and refined notes in those dishes that I haven’t been able to discover elsewhere or replicate exactly on my own. Some things live only in the past.

*This little treat even has its own day. Supposedly, at its inception, people gave boxes of Pepero to those they loved with wishes for growing “taller and thinner, like Pepero.” Insert your own wide-eyed emoticon. Only in Korea, ya’ll. Weirdest marketing scheme ever, right? At some point Pepero day became a kind of Valentines-esque observance on November 11. Any Korean friends out there want to comment about whether or not this is still observed?

Tomorrow, my mother would have turned 59. By way of grieving or celebrating (I’m not sure which), I’ve decided to remake the room that I made for my mother to die in. I’ll give it a fresh coat of paint. I’ll buy new bedding. Maybe I’ll buy a new rug. Maybe I’ll learn the past tense. Maybe I’ll go buy all the things that I’m craving just in case there’s some latent magic to be found in the bounty. Maybe I’ll say hello to those women one morning as I walk by. Who knows? In any case, I’m making space again. This time, however, it’s for all of the things that we will be after and because of my mother, rather than all of the things that we won’t be without her.