A good Korean daughter learns early that no matter what you do or how hard you try, you can never please your Korean mother. Take, for instance, that time you are eight and you try to surprise your mother by waking up early one Saturday morning to make your family a hot breakfast, foregoing your normal bowl of Fruity Pebbles in front of a glowing TV with aluminum foil Martian antennae. Ten minutes later, your mother emerges from her bedroom, hair disheveled, still clad in her nightgown—it’s a long nylon pink one with short puff-sleeves that you like to slide down her shoulders to make her look like the glamorous American women on TV. “Look, Mommy,” you cry out triumphantly while hotdogs sizzle in the frying pan behind you. You had to improvise since you couldn’t find any sausages. “I’m making breakfast!”
She looks at you, at the frying pan behind you, at the deflated, leaking hotdog wrapper on the counter and says quietly, “Daddy not eat this.” She walks to the freezer and pulls out a flat cardboard box. Sausages. “Don’t mess anymore,” she tells you as she hands you the box of Fruity Pebbles, a carton of milk, a spoon, and a bowl and nudges you toward the TV in the living room.
There’s just no pleasing your mother. This realization will haunt you for the rest of your days, but it is your duty to try anyway—a futile effort that you must resign yourself to as a good Korean daughter.
Remember that a good Korean daughter does not pout and stomp up the stairs screaming, “It’s not fair! You are so unfair!” when your mother refuses to let you attend sleepover birthday parties. Remember that she never did this growing up in Korea. Be patient and weigh your options. Forego trying to appeal to your father with hugs and cuteness—at thirteen, you’re too old for that. And besides, he long ago gave up any domestic control—that, he insists, is your mother’s job. Don’t try the “but everyone else will be there” appeal. She will only reply, “You not everyone else. You different. You have to remember.” How can you forget? Just the other day, your mother sent you off to school with piles of bulgogi stacked between two slices of bread and called it a “sandwich.” The smells of onion, garlic, and soy sauce still linger in your locker, and you waver between wanting to leave it wide open to air out and wanting to slam it shut quickly when Jonathan Meyers (he’s so cute!) approaches, looks around, and asks, “Dude, who brought onions for lunch? It reeks!” What, you wonder, is so difficult about ham and cheese?
Don’t bother asking, “Don’t you remember what it was like to be my age?” When your mother was your age, she was fighting over the same pair of shoes with her four sisters; she was nightly washing by hand the one school uniform she owned because she couldn’t afford a spare; she was crammed in a two-room apartment with her parents and five siblings; she was eating rice and boiled vegetables with soy sauce while her older brother—the only son—swallowed down all the meat.
You won’t get any sympathy with, “But you let obba sleep over at his friends’ houses all the time!” Even though you and your mother have both been oppressed by older brothers, your older brother’s actions can only be used against you (“Obba got straight A’s—why you not get straight A’s?”). “Boys and girls different,” she tells you with a shrug. Resolve that when you grow up, get married, and have kids, you will have no boys. Or, if you do, you won’t let them get away with everything your brother gets away with, like the way he sprawls himself out on the couch and refuses to pick up the phone when it rings even though it is within arm’s length. “Hey, squirt,” he calls, even though he knows you’re all the way upstairs diligently doing your homework as good Korean daughters do. “Phone’s ringing!”
Your options are limited. Relent, as you always do, and determine to renew your efforts to save the petty cash you get from household chores and reading the Bible (you get a quarter for every page) so that you can buy a car when you are sixteen. When you are driving, things will be different.
In high school, learn your own method of getting what you want. Choose your nights out wisely. Spend most evenings at home and use your considerably improved cooking skills to help your mother with dinner. You can now make Korean dishes like spicy tofu stew, but steaming a perfect pot of rice, the way your mother makes it, still remains elusive—measuring the water levels against your finger is an inaccurate method, but it is the Korean way. Don’t you dare reach for that measuring cup—your mother would be mortified. Wash the dishes in the sink after dinner instead of loading them into the dishwasher. When your mother has finished eating and works the point of a toothpick between her teeth, mention Lilly Kim’s birthday next weekend.
Your mother likes Lilly because she gets straights A’s and plays the piano so beautifully (“Why you not play piano like that? You need practice more.”). You envy Lilly because she gets straight A’s, plays the piano beautifully, and because of these two virtues, she wins the affection and approval of her own mother.
Pull the ice cream carton from the freezer—Butter Pecan, your mother’s favorite—and scoop. Avoid eye contact when you serve her; if you appear too eager, she will grow suspicious. Feign as much boredom as you can muster when you ask if you can borrow the car next weekend (your new car fund amounts to a mere $115.00) to go to Lilly’s birthday party. Your mother knows that Lilly is a good, responsible Korean daughter, and she’s hoping that those qualities will rub off on you. Don’t let on that you and Lilly are planning to go to a party where you’re pretty sure there will be beer. Your brother calls this sucking up. You call it compromise.
Study hard, get a scholarship to a college far enough away to get out from under your mother’s protective reach but close enough to bring your laundry home on weekends if you are so inclined, and register for all pre-med classes because this pleases your mother. She has always wanted a doctor in the family. You are no longer one of a handful of Asian students in your school. In fact, your roommate Cindy is Chinese-Filipina. It is refreshing that you no longer have to remind your friends to take their shoes off when they visit your room, like you had to growing up with your American friends, or that you don’t have to explain the small jar of kimchee in your refrigerator (or its pungency), or that you aren’t forced to endure insipid questions about the difference between Chinese, Korean, and Japanese (“It’s something around the eyes, right?”). Enjoy the large Asian population at your college; join KSA—the Korean Students’ Association (as well as the Chinese Students’ Association and the Philippine Society, in support of your mixed roommate). Your mother hopes KSA might help you pick up more of the language and understand the intricacies of the Korean culture, but you only learn the curse words, and how to smoke 88’s and drink different flavored soju. Melon is your favorite.
During one of your weekly calls home in that space between your last class of the week and the first party of the weekend, when your mother asks you if you’ve met any nice Korean boys from the better school on the other side of town, the school you weren’t smart enough to get into, be thankful that she can’t hear your roommate giggle when you roll your eyes and make a talking puppet out of your hand. Push the guilt aside—there are parties that you need to get to, and guilt is a terrible buzz-kill. Say “No,” partly to spite her and also because it’s partly true: Lilly Kim, who does go to that school, has introduced you to lots of Korean boys there but none whom your mother would consider “nice.” You’ve been spending time with one boy in particular—an upperclassman with the Chinese character for pride tattooed onto his arm. He introduces you to authentic Chinatown restaurants, Korean dramas, and Asian Nites at various downtown nightclubs. He buys you booze and takes you places in his BMW, which is convenient when you need to go to the grocery store.
After an exhausting night out with your—dare you use the word?—boyfriend, cursing in Korean, smoking 88’s, and drinking all kinds of different flavored soju, allow him into your dorm room and let the machine pick up as you kiss him and his hands slip underneath your shirt. Try to ignore the shrillness of your mother’s voice claiming, “It’s no matter how far from me you are, I always can know what you do!” When your boyfriend laughs and tries to unhook your bra, push him away in annoyance, and kick him out, secretly relieved—you’re not sure if you’re ready to “do it” yet anyway. Call your mother back in the morning and swear up and down that you were at the library studying: “It’s midterms, Ma. The library’s open twenty-four hours.” The long silence hanging between you probably means she knows you’re lying. Good Korean daughters can’t be bothered by pesky things like honesty; they know how to lie to their mothers to spare them from painful truths.
Your boyfriend doesn’t last past the beginning of second semester, but that’s okay because he can be replaced; all you have to do is place your hand lightly on a boy’s arm as you look up, giggle, and call the face above you “Obba” just like the girls in the Korean dramas. Korean boys are that easy. By the time your sophomore year begins, you’re exhausted. Stop giggling like an airhead and calling boys “Obba”—especially since there really is nothing older brotherly about the way they try to get you drunk and then accuse you of having no manners when you push their hands away from your body. Stop watching Korean dramas. You can barely understand what they’re saying anyway, and the women speak with so much sing-songy inflection that they could pass for Chinese. There’s just something not quite right about grown women who still sound like children; be disturbed that Korean guys think it’s cute.
Begin to think that all Korean men are shallow—take, for instance, your ex who spent all his money on his car, clothes, and skin care products, running up thousands of dollars in credit card debt; by the end of the relationship, you were buying him dinner on campus with your meal card. Korean men also boring—all business majors or science majors, pre-med or pre-law; they have no soul. “That’s because we’re the ones who have to make the money to support a family, Squirt,” your older brother explains one night on the phone. Listen to the TV blaring in the background and picture him sprawled out on the couch, staring at the glowing box, a bag of potato chips and a Coke within arm’s length, same as when you were younger. “You girls have it so easy—you can afford to be impractical.” You have a brilliant rebuttal ready—something about melon-sized humans being squeezed out of a lemon-sized body part—but your brother has just gotten rejected from every med school he applied to. Instead, simply say, “Can I talk to mom now?”
A good Korean daughter learns to consider the concerns of her family first and foremost, so lend a sympathetic ear to your mother, especially when she needs to gripe about your brother who, after graduating college, moved back home into the basement. “He stay there all day!” she says, and you imagine her sitting at the kitchen table, hugging one knee close to her body while the other leg dangles. “He say he look for job, but I never see, and then he go out at night time. And Daddy never say anything to him. He just say to me, ‘Just leave him alone and he do what he need—a man is just that way.’ But what if he never get into medical school?”
“It’s okay, Ma,” you reassure her, grinning though she can’t see you. “You still have me.” Don’t tell her yet that you’ve switched your major from Biology to English. Right now, this conversation is all about consoling her—don’t be selfish. Besides, perhaps you could go to grad school in English and get your PhD and still be the beloved doctor that your mother yearns for. Imagine yourself in pantyhose and sensible shoes before a classroom full of eager college freshmen who hang on your every word during a lecture on logical fallacies; your mother bragging to her friends about her daughter, the college professor; and your older brother sulking in the basement, eating potato chips, and quietly going bald.
You’re thrilled that your mother is finally beginning to realize that your brother isn’t a god, but this isn’t mere sibling rivalry. You may well be on your way to that mother-daughter closeness you’ve always longed for. You still can’t talk to her about sex, but she reveals other mysteries about family that shouldn’t be ignored. For instance, you never knew that your grandfather died of lung cancer and that your uncle in Korea is now dying of liver cancer. Begin to rethink all those 88’s and those soju shots. And, she seems genuinely interested in your life, asking about your classes and your friends and then waiting for your response. She’s finally listening to what you have to say. You’ve always wanted this kind of attention from her—the attention she usually reserves for your brother.
Slowly, begin to open up to her as well. Tell her about your expanding cultural awareness. You’re thinking of running for a leadership position in Asian Caucus instead of KSA. Concede that you finally understand how right she was—you’ve just discussed the concept of hegemony in your Post-Colonial Lit class—you are different. Like your roommate Cindy is different. And your Indian friend, Jyoti, and your Vietnamese friend, Tran. You are all alike in your differences; this is why you are all planning to move into a suite together next year.
Laugh as you tell your mother about that one White boy in your Asian American Lit class who prefaces every remark with, “The other day when I was practicing my Kung Fu…” After you call him Fetish Boy, try to explain to your mother what this means: “You know, American boys who only want to date Asian women because they think we’re submissive, who think they know so much about Asian culture just because they hang out in Chinatown, eat the gross stuff, and watch Bruce Lee movies.” Don’t let it hurt your feelings when she says quietly, “You think you so smart. That’s not nice, what you say. I never teach you to have small mind, like American mind.” There is just no pleasing your mother.
In your third year, you are on a mission to prove to your mother that you are a serious student. You actually finish most of your reading assignments, and researching obscure nineteenth century Eurasian writers and scholars becomes an interesting challenge. Splurge on a cell phone so that when your mother calls you when you are in the library, you can pick up and say in hushed tones, “Hold on, I’m walking outside right now. We’re not supposed to use cell phones in the library.” When she screams at you because your petty older brother has just leaked the news that you dropped pre-med, zip up your jacket, walk across the quad away from the smokers congregating on the steps (you’re trying to quit), find a secluded spot, and settle in, hoping that the books you pulled from the stacks don’t get reshelved. Nod as if she’s right in front of you and tell her, “Yes, Ma, I know you’ve led a hard immigrant’s life, working your arthritic fingers to the bone just so that we might be able to have an easier life and enjoy all the luxuries you didn’t, but can’t you understand that I like English and I don’t like sciences?”
“Jobs are not about like or not like. It’s just what you have to do. You always say you want to be doctor. Why you always give up just because it’s getting hard? You can do. I know you can do.”
Rarely does your mother express such direct confidence in your capabilities. Don’t spoil the moment by bringing up the fact that you received all C-’s in your pre-med classes and that you almost failed chem lab because the lines on your data charts always went in the opposite direction of the lines on other peoples’ data charts, and your lab partner asked to be reassigned not once but twice. Do not reveal that the only way you passed was by befriending a shy Chinese graduate student who ran the lab next door to yours and ended up tutoring you, then exasperatingly telling you what was supposed to have happened in the experiment. Instead, say, “Ma, it’s not that I don’t think I’m capable of being a doctor, I just don’t want to be one. My English professor thinks I have real potential—he’s even recommending me for a research assistantship, which is rare for an undergrad.” So what if you’ve had to remind him three times now to write that recommendation letter.
Recognize that it is neither anger nor bitterness that drives your mother—it’s desperation. Since your brother is now halfway around the world digging latrines in Morocco for the Peace Corps because he failed to get into med school for the second year in a row, she can’t lash out at him, so you are the next best thing. Be flattered when you realize that she regards you as her last hope and insulted that even with your older brother halfway around the world digging latrines in Morocco for the Peace Corps, you are still her second choice.
Never tell your mother about any of the boys you date now. You made the mistake of telling her last year about Patrick, whom she would only refer to as “Chinese Boy.” If they are not Korean, she doesn’t want to hear about them. When she asks if you’re still a virgin, lie and say that you are. She will believe you because she wants to, just like she believes you when you tell her that you go to church every weekend without fail. When she asks about your roommates, tell her that they’re virgins who go to church with you, too. This she doesn’t seem to believe because she watches Beverly Hills 90210 and knows what young people do in college. “That,” you tell her, “is what White people do. We’re different.” When you are met only with silence, wonder if she hasn’t yet heard that Lilly Kim has gotten pregnant, dropped out of college, and is about to marry a cell phone salesman.
Have serious, thought-provoking conversations with the Japanese-German transfer student in your Culture, Identity, and Asian American Experience class. He has the most beautiful green eyes you’ve ever seen, and when he asks you a question about Korean-Japanese relations and focuses those beautiful green eyes on you, while he takes a slow drag from his cigarette and waits for you to answer, try your best at a thoughtful, yet mysterious, smile. Flirt, but don’t kid yourself. Do not allow yourself to fall in love with this boy. Your mother would disown you. This is not an exaggeration. She would disown you—not because he isn’t Korean but rather because he is part Japanese—and you’re not ready yet for that kind of independence. You can almost hear her now: “Any part Japanese is too much part Japanese.” Being a good Korean daughter requires that you know the history. The war of 1592. Conquest and occupation. Hegemony.
When you manage to graduate with honors, your mother beams with pride at the ceremony, seated between your father and your brother who has returned home from building latrines in Morocco for the Peace Corps and will be enrolled in a master’s program in Public Health this fall. You are also going to graduate school, in English. Your mother couldn’t be more pleased; both of her children will finally be back in the house, one happy Korean family under one roof. Wait until after graduation to tell her that you want to get your own apartment in the city, closer to school, instead of living at home.
Graduate school is hard. Maybe your snooty undergrad advisor who suggested you take classes like Chaucer and Shakespeare and Victorian Lit before taking Post-Colonial Lit, Asian American Lit, and Major American Women Writers of Color was right. Foundation, he called it. Hegemony, you called it. Do not tell your classmates or professors—whom you are now on a first name basis with—that you managed to graduate as an English major without ever having taken a Shakespeare class. This, you finally realize, is not something to brag about. You’ve never read Rousseau who, according to one of your classmates, is “so refreshing!” You don’t understand what post-modernism is let alone post-post-modernism. How did you ever get into grad school?
After a particularly grueling class in which you are chastised for asking a stupid question about Yeats (you thought the criticism indicated three distinct periods of his poetry, while clearly—if you had read his work more closely—you would’ve seen that it’s obviously closer to five), go home, curl up on your bed, and cry—noisily, messily, mascara staining your cheeks and pillowcase.
When your mother bursts into your room (you’re still in the process of looking for an apartment) and demands, “What’s happen?” take a deep breath, and let it all out. She is, after all, your mother, the woman who spent twelve hours in labor with you, and although she’s a firm believer in tough love, you suspect that somewhere beneath that tough exterior is the woman who used to sing you to sleep when you were afraid of the dark. When she sits next to you on the bed, rest your head in her lap and let her gently comb her fingers through your hair while you confide that maybe you’re not cut out for this graduate school thing after all. “I—feel—so—stupid!” Your words are punctuated by quick sobs. “Everyone else is so much smarter. They’ve got more solid backgrounds in theory and in literature. It’s not what I expected. It’s so hard, and it’s just not fun anymore.”
You feel liberated, lighter—you’ve never before been so refreshingly honest with your mother. Wait for the comfort that will inevitably come because you’re vulnerable and your mother would never deny you in such a state. She is, after all, still your mother. But instead of comfort, she pushes your head from her lap before getting up and walking towards the door, saying over her shoulder, “You scare me. I thought something bad is happen. Life is not just fun, fun, fun. You have to work harder.”
You’ve already suffered humiliation once this day; do not let your mother’s betrayal go unpunished. “This is all your fault, you know!” Throw a pillow in her general direction, knowing better than to aim straight at her.
“My fault?” She turns back to face you, eyes wide, incredulous. “How this is my fault? I not telling you to do English. I tell you go to medical school—you be good doctor—but you not listen to me. You never listen to me.” She throws her arms up in dramatic resignation.
“Nothing I do is ever good enough for you. I can’t even be pathetic well enough to get sympathy from you.” Sniffle and squeeze out a few more tears. “Maybe I should just find a nice Korean boy to settle down with, become a housewife, and let him take care of me. Would that make you happy? Would you finally be satisfied then?”
“Now you stupid,” your mother says. “I never tell you do that. I never say, ‘Marry fast.’ I know you can take care yourself. You not need a man to do that. Not like Lilly do.” She turns again and reaches for the door. With her hand on the knob, her back toward you, she pauses and says quietly, “Not like I do.” And then she is gone.
Translation is not an innate gift, but generations of good Korean daughters have learned to develop this skill. Set the words aside and learn to pay more attention to the tones in which your mother speaks. Discern the imperceptible gestures that she makes. In Korean, this is called noon-chi. You don’t know exactly what it is that keeps her from smiling—let alone looking—at you when she says such things, but suspect that it’s not much different from the thing that keeps you planted on the bed, unable to run out to her and throw your arms about her shoulders and whisper, “Thank you.” The physical distance has grown too comfortable, and anything else would be an embarrassment—to both of you.
Splash cold water on your face, until the puffiness and redness around your eyes diminishes, before retracing your mother’s steps down the stairs and into the kitchen. She stands before the stove, stirring soybean paste into a pot of boiling water. Without a word, empty two cups of rice into the rice pot and begin swirling in cold water. After you’ve rinse it twice, use the notches on the side of the pot to measure the water levels, but leave one finger immersed in the center just in case your mother peeks over. After you place the pot into the rice cooker to steam, your mother approaches with a spoonful of tan liquid from the pot on the stove. “Taste,” she commands.
Smack your lips and look her in the eye thoughtfully before saying, “Needs more salt.”
“More salt?” She takes a taste herself. “You have American taste—everything is need more salt,” she complains. “It’s fine.”
Say nothing when she shakes a couple more dashes of salt into the pot without a word. Instead, pull the scallions from the refrigerator, rinse, and begin slicing. Attack those scallions with concentration—keeping your head bent carefully so that your mother will not have to acknowledge your smile.
Katherine Hyon received her MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University and her PhD in Creative Writing from Georgia State University. Her recent work has also appeared in Barely South Review. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado, and teaches Composition, Creative Writing, and Literature courses at Colorado Christian University.