Part of my year in Korea was in wanting to visit my grandmother. She is now eighty-six years old and still as feisty as ever. The week before I came, she went to get her hair cut and dyed—to impress me! She stands obstinate and proud at four foot nine, and still spends an hour ironing her slacks on Sunday morning before church. She hates it when I take candid pictures because she doesn’t have time to compose herself. She still wears heels and takes care of her dentures so meticulously that she’s had the same pair since the nineties. She likes the idea of the U.S. having an African American president. What a woman.
I promised myself that I would visit her at least once a month, which I’ve kept up so far. My mother hadn’t wanted me to come because for my entire existence, I have been her voice of English in a foreign country she now calls home. Most immigrant children understand this, that once you reach the age where you can speak English fluently, you begin to switch roles with your parents, speaking on their behalf, taking care of their phone calls, insurance, bills. Along with this, my mother has many ailments, and I found myself filling two in the same role: a receptionist and a daughter. I hugged her at the airport and started crying. Hard. She started acting like a mother for the first time in years: stroking my hair, telling me how I will find great success in Korea, how she was proud that her daughter was working at Yonsei University, how I’ll only be gone for a year, which isn’t very long. I nodded. How could she understand my guilt for leaving? Pathos of a Korean daughter.
During my first week in Seoul, I had dreams about my mother every night. Sometimes it was morbid, like flying home for her funeral; other times, it was just a typical interaction between us, like the one where I was poking her and giggling, and she was trying to ignore me until she exploded and screamed at me to grow up. I woke up weepy, nostalgic, smiling. On the first visit to my grandmother’s when I told her that I had been dreaming of my mother, she looked away, silent. Then she said, “I wonder if your mother dreams about me.”
My mother is the complete opposite of her mother. She has already had open-brain surgery, is a pre-diabetic, has hypothyroidism, always feels “weak,” and is obsessive compulsive (that one is my diagnosis). She is the only one of my grandmother’s children, the oldest, that lives in the U.S., and my grandmother hates seeing my mother in this pathetically ill condition. “You’re the answers to my prayers, Chanyang,” she says to me. “You’re going to be the reason your mother comes back to Korea.”
In the sixties, women weren’t encouraged to go to college. They were either pushed to get married or find a job that would help the family. My mother was the oldest of all her siblings, and she was different. My grandmother reminisced, “Your mother never stopped reading. I used to beat her for it! There were endless chores that needed to be done, and your aunt was the one carrying the load because your mother was hiding somewhere. Reading!”
She grew up in Muju, a very small town that is now known for being close to a frequented ski-resort. Since the town was so small, she was sent to Tae-Jon to go to high school, where she graduated as the valedictorian. People started saying that she had the potential to go further with her education, and her parents advised her to become a teacher. But she wanted to be a doctor. She can’t remember why anymore. My mother always wanted to be the best. Being second was shameful. This is why we clashed while I was in high school. Not only was I not even close to being the shameful second in my class, I didn’t care. I was busy playing basketball, singing in the choir, acting in school plays. I was a thorn in her pride, and we used to argue like we were remaking The Joy Luck Club. I never understood why she wanted me to be a lawyer and attend Harvard. Harvard?! I wanted to become a measly-salaried teacher for inner-city students!
My aunt, her younger sister, told me how incredibly smart my mother was, that even though no one encouraged her to excel in school, she had this inner drive, a determination to be the best despite the odds. While my aunt was busy thinking about saving money to buy her first lipstick, or learning her way around a kitchen and preparing banchan, my mother was thinking about Helen Keller and Abraham Lincoln, reading biographies about Winston Churchill and Gandhi. And despite the fact that she was a small town girl, she applied to Seoul National University. Korea’s Harvard.The sad part of the story is that she wasn’t accepted. Back then, a student can apply to one college per year. If she didn’t get accepted, she can try again the next year. After being the best all her life, she could not go the best university, and she felt too disheartened to apply again. Of course no one encouraged her either.
She went to work in a factory.
I actually feel thankful that my mother didn’t go to Seoul National. She would have probably married some engineer who was on the fast track to Samsung, and she would be working at Seoul National University Hospital, successfully overlooking a man like my father. My father, who barely graduated from high school but had a vision of being his own boss in the land of plenty, working with his hands and working hard—too hard.
Korean immigrant parents don’t share their thoughts, their aches, their wistful sighs with their children. Their dreams weigh heavily on their eyelids after a day of running a business in Chicago’s little Puerto Rico, or after a long graveyard shift at a post office on the south side. My brother and I never understood why she wanted us to attend Harvard. We assumed all Korean parents were outdated and neurotic. What child assumes there are reasons?
I visited Seoul National University today, and I was stunned. I knew this was not the campus my mother would have known had she had been accepted: students walking leisurely with trendy glasses and a dignified aura, a modern art museum and multi-leveled buildings, vibrant colors of the fall canvassing the widely paved streets. I imagined my mother forty-five years younger, nose buried in a book, her apparition almost passing me as I pull out my digital camera.
I came to Korea to work as a writing consultant for Yonsei University, one of Korea’s three “Ivy Leagues” as Korean immigrants in the States coin it. It seems doubly odd that after hearing “Harvard” throughout the years of my adolescence, and her own han in the unfulfilled dream of attending Seoul National University, that she wasn’t ecstatic about my appointment at Yonsei. I suppose at this point in her life, she doesn’t want Seoul anymore. She wants closeness. Warmth. She forgets the electricity of the possibility, the hope, the progress that buzzes around this epicenter of Korea.
I cannot believe how easy it was to land a job at Yonsei when I consider the complexity my mother experienced in trying to get into a university. I had learned some time ago how proud native Koreans were of their four seasons, but I can definitely capitulate to their pride when I am walking to work during this fall season, and the trees lining the path before me are magically changing into smatters of crimson and gold. I live in a natural, serene enclave in this overflowing city. This morning: Students hiking uphill to classes, taxis amuck with late students commuting in, a few foreign exchange students speaking to each other in the only language they have in common—not English, but Korean. The campus buzzes with possibility. I spend many a night amazed at how a country could develop such a considerable higher education system in such little time! The transient culture of Seoul is astonishing. My mother, who hangs onto her anachronistic views of the Seoul in her memory, would be dumbfounded; she doesn’t know the city that I’m taking in.
Generations. From my grandmother who lived during the Japanese occupation to my mother who grew up during the Korean war, Seoul has been the city of dreams. And me. Living and working in Seoul and breathing in what has morphed into a place that leaves the older generation incredulous. How fast this city has grown—on me! Taking pictures of Seoul National University, I realized my mother wouldn’t be coming back, no matter how much my grandmother hopes. She’s in limbo: neither at home in America nor in her go-yang, homeland. Instead, I am given the opportunity to see the Seoul my mother will never know.
My friend asked me if I wanted her to take a picture of me standing on Seoul National’s campus so I could show my mother. I shook my head--no, she wouldn't want to see it. It was me who wanted to know her.