Speaking in Tongues

By Ruth Chung


She lay in the dark, hugging her knees underneath the covers of her bed. Her face and pillow were wet with the tears that flowed easily from burning eyes, throat, chest. She had to scream or else implode under the growing pressure of anger and frustration. But instead, she screamed silently into the darkness of her room, painfully aware of her sisterís sleeping presence. She could still feel the sting of her motherís hand upon her cheek, the fists against her head. They had argued again and she had been punished for talking back.

Through the dark, suffocating blanket of silence, from beyond Annaís bedroom door, came the muffled sound of a woman weeping and muttering in a strange foreign language. Anna thought she must be dreaming, but then she realized that it was her mother, talking to God. It was a phenomenon she had witnessed numerous times at her grandmotherís Charismatic church and at various church retreats. But it still sent shivers down her spine to hear the incomprehensible, fervently spewed words that flowed from the mouth of one who had received the Gift of Tongues. She lay in the same position for many minutes, hardly daring to breathe, paralyzed by the thought of her mother possessed by some spirit, albeit a benevolent one. She wondered what it felt like to receive this Gift. They said that unless you had received, you hadnít been baptized by the Holy Spirit, and if you hadnít been baptized, you were never really saved. Anna guessed that she wasnít saved, but she couldnít care less. If her mother was saved, why was she weeping? Was she weeping in repentance for what she had done to Anna, or for the son that died in her womb? Anna threw the blanket over her head so she wouldnít have to listen.

"Bring me the belt!" Annaís mother had snapped in Korean to her eldest daughter.

"Why donít you get a knife and kill me!?!" Anna had retorted. "I know you hate me. I know you want me dead!"

It was a typical scene in their home. Anna knew her words were spiteful and ridiculously untrue, but she couldnítí help letting her temper get the better of her. She let fly the most hurtful words she could think of, knowing full well that her mother would be unable to retaliate against the barrage of her well-formed English vocabulary, seasoned with phrases lifted from her own share of daytime drama. Of course, her mother would have to resort to another sort of communication: the infliction of physical pain. Even though she knew that what her parents did to her was wrong, sometimes Anna feared that her complaints made her sound like the typical rebellious teenager and she despised herself for it. Was she simply another victim of the middle-child syndrome or did her parents actually favor her older sister and younger brother?

She remembered the time she came home from school with all Aís on her grade report for the first time. It was in the second year of junior high and Anna felt a sense of accomplishment after her poor performance the year before. These grades had not come easily and Anna knew she deserved them. She was happy and she couldnít wait to show her parents. The prospect of seeing her father smiling his broad grin and beaming with pride added a quickness to her step. The thought of her motherís warm embrace, usually reserved for her youngest, filled her with hope and expectation. She would cook a special dinner in celebration of the fruits of Annaís hard labor, and the others, with their mediocre grades, would be envious. But this was not to be.

When she arrived home, her mother was waiting for her. Waving the last monthís phone bill in her face, Annaís mother proceeded to bombard her with her monthly invective. No, it wasnít just her excessive use of the phone; Anna was "rebellious, irresponsible, lazy, stupid, selfishÖ" She went on and on, but Anna had stopped listening. Instead, she concentrated on the noises from her brotherís Nintendo game and on the intricate pattern of the wall paper, tracing the same section of lines over and over with an imaginary finger. Without speaking a word, Anna let her mother finish, then turned and went to her room. Her parents never even bothered to ask to see her grades. It remained folded in the back of Annaís desk drawer.

"Why do they have to treat me like this?" Anna had demanded of her grandmother one day. "Itís because they wanted a son," she had answered so simply. "Thatís the way it is." Anna spent a lot of time at her grandmotherís apartment in the city, her refuge from the clashes at home, especially during the long summers. She could see her grandmother aging before her eyes. Every year her hair was grayer, her back more bent, her facial features less distinct. She would tell Anna stories about her life in Korea, but the tired look in her eyes and her calloused, wrinkled hands told a story of their own. Anna knew that her grandmotherís life had not been an easy one, but she never complained about the past. Her grandmother always reminded her to think of the good times and advised her to accept what she could not change.

But Anna could not accept it; she could not accept the emotional and physical pain that had been seared into her memory. She wished she could forget everything like a Buddha, crawl into a cave and attain that perfect peace. But the turbulence of her home life was a constant reminder, bringing her back to the reality of it all. "Why did I have to be born into this family?!?" Anna wondered. "What did I do wrong, God, to deserve this punishment?" She fell asleep wishing the pain would go away and desperately hoping for the day when she could be free from this prison and her parents. She couldnít wait to go away to college, even though she knew it would be a temporary and artificial independence.

She woke in the morning with puffy eyes and an aching head to the sound of her sisterís hairdryer blasting. It was Sunday again. She wished she could stay in bed so she wouldnít have to face the questions and explain her puffy, red eyes. She didn't feel up to the task of putting on her mask of piety and contentedness today. But the foreboding sound of her fatherís voice yelling at her to get up for church compelled her to drag herself out of the warm solace of her bed. In the car on the drive to the church, Anna slouched down into her corner of the back seat and stared silently out the window, shutting out her motherís gossip about the ministerís delinquent daughter who had tried to commit suicide. "She was such a rebellious girl," she said, "But I'm sure her parents drove her to it."

The air in the hall was stiflingly hot and stagnant except for the high-pitched chatter of mothers and grandmothers settling down into their usual seats. The peeling, dingy yellow walls and the dim lighting had a soporific effect on Annaís tired eyes. The sermon seemed particularly drawn-out and dry today, but as usual, the congregation did not neglect to participate with an "Amen!" here and there. Anna half-listened to what the minister was saying, but only enough so that she could tell the youth pastor what she was supposed to have learned. Pulling down an imaginary shade over her eyes, she drifted in and out, and at other times she let her mind go blank. It was a tactic she had learned to cope with the untruths and the contradictions, not to mention the boredom. She laughed to herself at the thought of what these people would think if they knew of her impious thoughts.

Looking a few rows ahead, Anna spotted her mother's body rocking back and forth, back and forth like the rest of them, the identically curly hairdos all moving to a mad inner rhythm. What was it that moved these people, Anna wondered. Did they know something that she didn't? Were they in on some secret that she was excluded from? She had tried so hard to shut them out of her mind and life. She hated these people, who pretended to know who they were, why they were alive, where they were going. How could they deceive themselves like that? At the same time, she wished they would let her in on it. She yearned to know the answers, to know the truth. She wanted to experience all that joy, love, and peace crap and to truly believe.

Of course, they had tried to explain all of it to her and the answers had been hammered into her head for so long. But the answers she sought couldnít be expressed or proven with words. She wanted to feel the truth in her bones, from the split-ends of her hair, through her groin, to the tips of her toenails. But she knew she could never attain this absolute assurance. Thatís what faith was for, they said. Yeah, thatís the catch, she thought.

Suddenly, a wave of exhaustion swept over her; she hadn't realized how tired she was. It took all her energy just to sit up straight in the pew and yet she felt too restless to sit still. She was struck with an overwhelming desire to climb into bed, curl up under the covers, and disappear forever. She had never felt so out of place, so lost in this sea of true believers. She could almost feel their eyes boring through into her mind, intruding , condemning.

But their eyes were averted, lifted up to an imaginary world. All around her, people were rising for the free praise and prayer portion of the service. Soon, the room was noisy with the sound of men and women singing, clapping, crying, praising, stamping with their feet. Usually, Ana got up to sing, but now she didnít have the energy. Strangely, someone or something lifted her out of her seat, leaving her completely disoriented. The apparition of rhythmically swaying bodies and the loud crying and yelling all around began to penetrate and fill her senses with its chaotic mess. She could feel the strange rhythm invade her body and mind, manipulating, entrapping her with its wily pervasiveness. "Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarm. Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms!" Soon, she was swaying too. "Please God, just take the pain away! Iíll do anything. Iíll give my life to you Ė I promise! Just give me peace!" And with a sigh of resignation, she surrendered. In a few minutes, it was all over. The pain was gone and she felt free at last. Anna was talking to God.

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