My first ant farm consisted of an empty mayonnaise jar filled with soil from the backyard of my house and covered with punctured clear wrap. This was twelve years ago when I was eight years old and still living in Venezuela. I do not remember how many ants formed my first colony or for how long I kept my ant farm, but I do remember sitting next to the table and looking into the jar for hours on end. I was especially fascinated by the elaborate, meandering tunnels that snaked up and down the jar, and though not every tunnel was adjacent to the glass, the few that were offered a spellbinding view of the daily comings and goings of the bachacos, as the large ants were called in Venezuela.
I would often need to go out hunting in the garden for more ants because, in my ignorance, I had neglected to find a queen for the colony. My hunting tools consisted solely of an empty matchbox and my bare fingers. I could easily pick up the black bachacos between my thumb and index finger. Of course, the bachaco did not simply submit without a fight but would wiggle around trying to bite my fingers with its oversized mandibles in a desperate struggle to protect the colony. The trick was to grab it from behind and throw it into the matchbox as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, I was not always quick enough. After a long afternoon's work, I would return home at last with dirty and painfully swollen fingers and a full matchbox safely hidden away inside my pocket.
I took good care of my ants. Every morning, I would drop a few bread crumbs and sugar crystals into the jar, and I would watch over the ants as they diligently carried the foodstuff down to the nether regions of their home. Their irreproachable work ethic reminded me of the industrious ant in Aesop's fable 'The Ant and the Grasshopper.' This fable tells a story about a wise ant who gathers wheat during the summer and a foolish grasshopper who, instead, prefers to idle away the summer in song and merriment. When winter rolls around, the starving grasshopper has no choice but to beg the ant for food. The ant replies, 'If you spent the summer singing, you’ll have to spend the winter dancing for your supper.' In addition to the storybook, I owned a half-size LP of the narration, and as I listened to the ant utter these words, I could visualize her noble, self-righteous countenance as she lectured the contrite grasshopper about the importance of hard work.
Sometimes when I think back to those times, however, the antennaed face of the ant melts away and I see in its place my mother telling me about the importance of studying hard-it was my duty to my parents, since they had sacrificed so much for me. My parents had graduated from Yonsei University, one of Korea's top colleges, but like many of their generation, they decided to give up their careers in favor of giving their children a better opportunity here in the United States. Many of these Korean parents came to America to operate grocery stores, delis, and as in our case, dry cleaners, hoping that their children would someday become doctors and lawyers.
My parents took a rather roundabout route by going to Venezuela first, but they always knew that their final destination was the U.S., where I would attend high school and college. It was only natural that I should strive my best to make it into a top university such as Harvard. After all, my parents bore the turmoil of settling in a foreign land just for my sake. They knew that I had no interest in going into medicine. No matter. In that case, I would go to Harvard Law School and succeed in a career of international corporate law. How could I even dare to think of being ungrateful and thus invalidate all of their struggle and sacrifice?
I should clarify that this is not necessarily a pressure that my parents intentionally force upon me. Rather, it is a sense of guilt that I feel whenever I reflect on all that my parents have done for me. They have never asked me to iron shirts on the steaming ironing board or to even handle the cash register because, according to my mother, they did not want such work to interfere with my studies. But I really wish they had asked me to do some of those things. I wanted to help my parents, but since they did not allow me to do so in the store, I could do it only through my schoolwork. I obey through schoolwork, and express my gratitude through schoolwork. And I cannot turn back from the plan that is already laid out for me.
For one thing, I do not have the sheer will of my cousin, who persevered fifteen years alone in the U.S. against the wishes of her parents and finally fulfilled her dream of earning a Ph.D. in piano. I admire my cousin greatly for her courage and perseverance, but my mother can't help but think with a tinge of pity how her niece had more than enough potential to have become a successful doctor by now, having graduated from Seoul National University, the Harvard of Korean universities. Ultimately, however, my mother can bring herself to understand and support her niece because, after all, she is only my uncle's youngest daughter. His eldest son, on the other hand, is one of Korea's highest-earning lawyers, specializing in corporate law and business between the U.S. and Korea. As my mother often likes to say, he is 'a good, obedient son.'
I am not averse to following the wishes of my parents. It is not as if I am horrified at the prospect of becoming a lawyer. But there was a moment when I wanted to sing like the grasshopper. I play the clarinet and, at one point, I contemplated pursuing a career in music. During high school, I attended the Pre-College program of the Juilliard School of Music, and my clarinet teacher once urged me to seriously consider applying to Juilliard to continue my clarinet studies in college. And for a while, I did think about his suggestion in light of how much I enjoyed playing the instrument. I didn't want to be trapped in an ant farm. I knew that my destiny was to be an ant, but for a moment, the possibility that I could spend the rest of my life singing like the grasshopper excited me. The thought was too ridiculous, however. How, and by what right could I trample so cruelly on my parents' dreams and ambitions?
The clarinet was supposed to serve as a means to an end; it was one additional extracurricular to help pad my college application. I knew that I would be unable to continue studying it in college. I might perhaps continue to play in some orchestra but to continue taking lessons would be a waste of money and time which could be spent better studying. But I could not tell my teacher any of this. I could not tell him that applying to Juilliard was out of the question. My parents had not given up their friends, family, and careers in Korea to start from scratch in the U.S. so that I could become a musician. I could tell him none of this, and, instead, I could only look down and count the number of planks on the wooden floor.
I believe I would have come to the conclusion that I did not really want to pursue a career in music anyway. Nevertheless, the thought that maybe that option had never been open to me in the first place disturbs me. I do not blame my parents, however. On the contrary, I feel nothing but deep gratitude to them for all of their sacrifices, a debt I do not know if I can ever repay. I do resent, however, the pervasive Korean way of thinking that, put simply, doctors are better than artists. Korean parents would not, I believe, encourage their daughters to become future Margaret Cho's. Perhaps we have taken the diligence of the ant too much to heart, with the result that creative pursuits are neglected and discouraged in favor of a life of security and comfort.
Even during my three years in Juilliard, I knew that the life of music I loved so much would be only a passing moment in my life and that I would soon have to move on. This awareness became more acute as I neared the end of senior year. At the end of our final concert, I felt a veil of sadness descend upon me as the applause of the audience slowly faded into silence. The same feeling revisited me as I waited for the train that would take me to Juilliard one last time on graduation day.
It was a hot, muggy morning. The minute hand had already passed the faded numeral 3 on the Marlboro clock. My eyes settled on the oily tracks and followed them to Great Neck as far as I could see, but the train was still nowhere in sight. Suddenly, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a little leaf crawling on the platform. It was an ordinary green leaf, not more than an inch in length. The leaf stopped now and then to catch its breath, but only for a brief moment, after which it would again resume its trek across the scalding concrete. Sometimes it would swerve erratically left and right, as if dazed by the heat, but it continued nevertheless on a path that aimed straight towards me. As I crouched down to take a closer look, however, I saw an ant scurrying away from the now motionless leaf.
Seeing that ant brought back memories of the ant farm and of my childhood in Venezuela. I suspect that even then my parents were planning for me to eventually be where I am now. I, of course, had no idea. How could I have known? I was too busy collecting ants for my ant farm. Like the ant I saw scurrying away, I have no idea where I am headed, but the destination is probably already set for me. And always I wonder, will I have any regrets?