In memory of my mother’s anniversary this past week
“Remind me again, Sora. What do I call these?” she asked in her perfect Korean. Her gentle, fragile hands suddenly tickled the bottoms of my bare feet, giggling as I begged her to stop. I roared in defiance.
“I don’t remember!”
These were the days you sat with me on our patio under the white blossoms, bribing me with hoddeok to speak with you in our native tongue. I remember collapsing in frustration letting my arms fall into your lap, my face embezzled into your neck.
“Umma, we are in America, and I am American. Korean is hard and I don’t need it at school.”
“Sora, listen carefully.” Her voice grew grave.
“This is who I am, and this is who you are. Hard things will come but when you remember this, you will remember me and know that we are with you.”
I sigh heavily and my attention quickly fades in the direction of our trampoline where Petey scampers away with pieces of my hoddeok (호떡). Who is we? Words that fluttered through my nine-year old ears, words of a mother who worried too much, words that meant nothing to me at the time—barely hinting the gravity it would soon carry for me.
Now I am here, standing where you once stood. So many years ago, where your own mother bathed and fed and tickled you. Before you met Appa (아빠) at the barbershop in Brooklyn, before Obba (오빠) and I came into your life, before the tumor stealthily nestled into its hiding place.
Now I am tripping and stumbling through a country you once called your home. A place you left to escape the painful past and burden of a broken family and broken times, but a place you longed for everyday since. I’m here barely standing but held in place by something you said to me once. I am barely aware of what strangers murmur around me in the streets, how the ajumma (아줌마) in the pyeonijeom (편의점) instructs me to find and use the sejeongje (세정제), why the girls in the park are laughing so heartily with their friends, where the men are heading to with soju (소주) bottles in hand.
Now I am just beginning to understand the place we come from. I feel the weight of its history as I pass the towering monuments and reconstructed temples of important men and legendary leaders you told me stories of. I recognize the jeong (정) you disciplined into my consideration for others, through my mannerisms. I observe the fragility of appearance and reputation, why it was so imperative to look and do our best in an advancing country. I whiff the aromas of fermented spicy cabbage (김치), red bean rice cakes (호빵), garlic marinated beef (불고기) you cooked into the walls of our kitchen back in Pennsylvania.
Now I am struggling to speak with the patients I came here to help and understand. I want so badly for you to be here beside me, repeating back the words I desperately grasp for as I try to communicate with the grandparents before me who have just learned that the chemotherapy is no longer working. My lips search for the right words that I can only think of in English—useless to this family who has never stepped foot in America, in Pennsylvania where I once thought my whole world was. I tell myself in secret this is what I deserve, suffering from the ignorance I stubbornly used to remove this part of myself in childhood embarrassment and laziness.
Now I am using the time I have, walking with these shadowfeet toward home, a land that I’d never seen or known. I’m shifting, less and less asleep from the dream I’d fallen into. I’m changing, more and more into the woman I want you to smile down on and confidently say is your daughter. I’m ashamed and proud (of how I lived / who I come from). I’m regretful and grateful (for how I treated your wish to pass on this part of yourself to me / the opportunity to finally start). I feel the pain you chuckled through when I slowly forgot how to pronounce the name halmunee (할머니) gave me. I regret the way I brushed away your words as if your greatest desire was nothing when contesting my own comfort and convenience.
I’m now made of different things than when I began, and I’ve sensed it all along. It is the land here that made me and is making me. We is the people who cooked and struggled and laughed and fought for the land that raised my mother. We is the country that shows me every morning here who she was, why she was, where she was when becoming the most important person in my life.
These feet you gave me, the prayers you whispered over me, the heart you molded so carefully after your own… They all brought me here. You are with me, reminding me this is where you come from. Where I come from.