Notes on Eighteen Years
By Kyung Hee Kim
My family and I are having dinner with a Western family. I sit writhing in embarrassment because my parents don’t know the proper social skills. They handle knives and forks awkwardly and pick their teeth after the meal. Their poor English makes for pathetically banal table talk. A member of the other family asks my mother a question. She laughs a timid, high-pitched laugh. We wait for a response. There is none, for she never understood the question. It is little better with my father. Either the English is misunderstood, or not understood at all. The other family exchanges looks. They slow their speech, mimicking the Asian intonation. The conversation is laboured and the atmosphere artificially bright. My parents sit with nervous smiles plastered on their faces. I feel apologetic towards the other family. Oh, am I ashamed! I think enviously of my friends whose elegant parents know what to say and how to act, and don’t make their children wish the ground would swallow them up at social functions.
On the way home, my mother comments on how nice they were to speak so slowly. I feel humiliated and angry. Angry that my parents don’t know how to act in this Western world in which I want to belong. Angry at the other family for being condescending. Angry at my parents for being subservient: why do they feel they have to fit into the foreigner’s world? Angry at myself for feeling repulsed by my world and longing to fit into a foreigner’s.
"Everyday Use," a story by Alice Walker tells of Dee, a poor but ambitious black woman, who climbs her way out of the poverty-stricken black community of her family into the "better" world. The story is centered around a visit Dee pays to her mother, Mama, and sister, Maggie. Dee renames herself Wangero, explaining that "I couldn’t bear to be named after the people who oppressed me." She shuns the world she is born into, one of cows, butter churns, quilts, houses without proper windows, and benches in place of chairs. The world she desires is one of Polaroids, gold jewelry, high heels, flashy clothes, exotic men, and cars. To escape the world whose inhabitants are "queer" and distinctly inferior, Dee seeks a yellow-organdy dress and black pumps to wear to school – one of her first tickets out. I, too, daughter of two uneducated Koreans, wanted so much to be of the "superior" world. I frequented restaurants and concert halls, striving to adopt the appropriate manners, habits, and dress. Only the best.
Dee’s mother imagines that her daughter wanted to tear down the tin-roofed house in the pasture with cut holes in the side instead of real windows, because it represented the uncultured society that hindered her from a smooth passage into the world she wanted to belong to. I felt resentful that my parents were everything they shouldn’t be and nothing they should. They provided me with the economic support I needed. But oh, that paled in comparison with my need for somebody to lean on. They didn’t know the first thing about the world I was trying to live in, but unfortunately, I wanted them to guide me through it.
Early on, I found that their values were at odds with those of the world I wanted to belong to. Their ideal of beauty was a fat child, and they insisted it was right to eat to the point of bursting. To my horror, I heard through classroom gossip that chubbiness was not the Western ideal of beauty. I refused to eat until I was model slim. My parents were furious, yet I persisted. On one hand, I was convinced that what I was doing was right, but on the other, my parents appealed to my conscience, adamant that I was being wicked.
Once, the morning after a slumber party, my mother told me and my friends to brush our teeth before breakfast, as is Korean habit. My friends refused, saying that they would brush afterwards. My mother, fussy and insistent, said they should brush before. When they continued to refuse, my mother turned and ordered me to tell my fellow ten-year-olds to brush their teeth. I did, hesitantly. They refused. Exasperated, I told my mother "They say that’s the way to do it!" She ordered me to brush my teeth, and I reluctantly obeyed. My friends stared as if to brand me as, God forbid, different. Later, as they packed their bags, I heard them saying we were strange. Ah, what a mortal wound – my best friends. I resented my mother for making me brush my teeth. My friends’ approval meant so much more to me than that of my mother.
I had no respect for my parents – why should I have? I felt they betrayed me. I felt my judgment was better than theirs. They had no right answers, if any at all. How could they have any answers when they couldn’t even understand the questions?
In time, I became the "model" person with my parents’ blind support and trust: "A" student, Miss Personality, Best Dressed. My "friends" held me in awe, and my teachers were respectful of me. How I loved it…didn’t I? Full of pride, my parents were dependent on me, for I was their link to a world they had only the barest inkling of. But it hurt me to associate with my parents’ world, from which I had worked so hard to escape, and their dependence was a burden. As Dee, adorned with her flashy dress and glittering jewelry, finds everything quaint when she returns home to visit Mama and Maggie, so I learned to condescend. The only thing that prevented me from mimicking the accent was that I spoke the language.
My parents didn’t understand anything. In time I came to think that they couldn’t understand. And I didn’t have the patience to explain, forgetting how long it had taken me to learn. In one of my never-ending attempts to "improve" my parents, I asked them to spend more money on themselves. "Relax," I said, "pamper yourselves. We’re financially secure." They ridiculed my comments and ignored my hints saying that they were too provincial to appreciate luxuries. I insisted that they were not. Ummah turned to me and said quietly, "Kyung Hee, everybody wants luxury. But luxury costs money. I don’t want to spend my child’s education money on designer clothes like some women do." And I see in her eyes that she, like Dee’s Mama, dreams. Mama dreams of being on the Johnny Carson talk-show, "the way my daughter would like me to be," then resignedly admits, "but that is a mistake I know even before I wake up."
Will I ever admit to myself how many times I yelled angrily at them for not being how I thought they should be? Why did they endure it? Did they feel like shaking me, like Mama felt like shaking Dee? Did they hate me? Why not? And, even so, they took it humbly as I imperiously tried to make them fit into my mold, when I needed them; when I didn’t, I conveniently left them outcast, in the cold. Dee’s Mama writes, "[Dee] pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed to understand." They took it, with the loss of respect as parents, a respect which is paramount in Asian culture. And buried it under a blanket of love.
Among Korean people there is a different kind of discrimination. It is not who you are, but what you are. People are judged and accorded social status in proportion to the nobility of the family lineage and the prestige of the college degree. My parents have neither.
There is a practiced routine when I meet the parents of my Korean friends. Korean parents always check the background of the child that is to associate with theirs. Background is of principal importance: what are your parents’ names…which years were they born in…which provinces are they from? Then, on cue, the question: "Where did they graduate from?"
"They couldn’t afford it," I explain, as always.
A blank stare of incomprehension and barely asked disapproval. One mark down for me. A lifetime for my parents.
I remember my parents’ embarrassment as they individually bequeathed their stories to me, piecemeal, over the years. Never together.
"I had to sell the wedding ring," Ummah told me. "Your father was away and you and I had run out of money." She quickly added, "Don’t tell your father…he still thinks I lost it." When she went to the market she would only buy three apples: one for my father, one for my sister and one for me. While we always had our fill, my mother was "never hungry." We believed her with unquestioning, childish credulity.
While telling their stories, never once did they look at me.
The elites are silent behind their conveniently deaf wall. I would fill with anger, wanting to yell, "My father feld across the North-South border penniless. His parents died when he was sixteen, and he was shunted around from reluctant relative to reluctant relative. My mother worked, selling bags on the street to provide all her brothers with an education and to support her parents and grandparents. My parents have more courage and integrity than you will ever have." If I hurled the words far and fast enough, I thought, the stone-eared would hear. They do not. After all, everyone has a sob story.
After some years, I tired of listening to myself rage and quietly receded into the silence – the silence of embarrassment about my family. I accepted that two yellow-skinned, poor, high school graduates just can’t cut it.
I am accepted into Harvard. A nobody’s kid from nowhere achieves what status, lineage, and money could not. Overnight, I have achieved superhuman status and my parents are accredited with my success by the Korean population who suddenly needs to know us. My personal elation does not last long after the few sincere congratulations. Those people ruin it, the same ones who long snubbed us, and who were now, as fellow Koreans, claiming my success as their personal badge of prestige and status. As I rage against the hypocrisy, my parents sigh as if handling a temperamental child, saying it is their duty and these people are being so nice and concerned about you, we don’t understand you, Kyung Hee, you can’t act like that.
What more is there to be said?
My parents called me last week. I am attending one of the foremost bastions of the world to which I so wanted to belong. There is much respect for me in their voices. Our conversation is based around something or other about Harvard. It’s as if they are trying to impress me. My father tells me he attended a Harvard Club dinner. Instantly, I wonder whether again he embarrassed himself. Or rather, if he embarrassed me. My father asks me for a third time, uneasily as if anticipating my impatience, which courses I am taking. He especially ahs difficulty pronouncing, "Expository Writing." My mother doesn’t even ask. I wonder if she’s afraid to. Is she afraid of blundering in front of me, afraid of my impatience? She starts her familiar tirade: eat meals on time, make sure you’re getting enough exercise and sleep. Abruptly she stops herself and says wistfully, "you probably don’t’ want to hear this, do you?" An aching silence.
In the empty half-beat, I wonder: Are my parents losing a child they never had? The parents have suffered to provide the child with every opportunity that was unavailable to them, but the child has succeeded to the extent that she hates what the parents are.
At the end of Alice Walker’s story, Dee drives away, perhaps forever, leaving Mama and Maggie in the dust. Is this what I am doing? My parents too remain steadfastly where they are. They are strong enough to stay, when I, with all my knowledge, could only run. I dream of returning, to take what I have always scorned and offer what I never thought to give, bowed in the humility of knowing that my parents were always there for me.