What I Want to Say
Nancy Jooyoun Kim
I call my mother twice a week. Now that she’s retired—no longer hanging women’s clothes in the small swapmeet shop she owned for over 20 years—I worry that maybe she’s lonely. I live in Seattle, and she’s in Los Angeles. Maybe she’s sitting in her house waiting for my sister and I to come home, as if we were children who had just gone off to school one morning—our backpacks full of notepads and stickers and sandwiches—and never came back.
When I worry about her, the worst of my imagination takes over. I see her dying in the driver’s seat of a half blown-up car, Universal-Studios style, with an animatronic Godzilla hovering overhead, breathing fire mechanically out of its great mouth.
I see her as the child in the red coat in Schindler’s List.
Or, like in those commercials that make you think of the elderly as completely vulnerable, utterly broken (opinionless) birds, I see her fallen—and she can’t get up.
Basically, I call her because I want to know that she is not dead.
It’s a tremendous feeling really. That fear. You don’t actually want to talk to her, but just her being there (alive) is enough for you. Another day gives you one more chance to fix your relationship, or at least come up with one more terrifying, yet deeply satisfying death fantasy.
It’s a chore for sure, calling her, as it is for a lot of people I know. Who wants to hear mom bug you about those things she’s always bugged you about, but in a more adult, high-stakes, and desperate way?
As a child, it might’ve been about your room, your homework, your profoundly immature and self-serving ways. But now as an adult, suddenly your entire life needs cleaning. Your ovaries are old. And she, who may be closer to the end herself, wants to leave this planet feeling as if her children have been completed, made whole by the things that make us human—furniture, babies, careers.
So, as she gets older and gets more and more realistic about the shoes she can actually wear, she looks to you and asks, “When are you going to give me grandchildren?” Or in my case, if you’re a writer: “You need to brush your hair and stop wearing those glasses. Don’t you ever think about the future?”
I’m ashamed to admit that, sometimes, I think more about death than I do life. My subconscious has decided that if I think about it long and hard enough, it’s not that death won’t happen, but at least, I’ll be right about how it happens and what the effect will be. My mind has decided that if I imagine the pain, it’ll hurt less when it actually happens.
What this means is I’m always in pain.
On top of all the generational, political, denim wash, and cultural differences between a daughter and mother and all the anxieties about being alive or dead, I forgot to mention, there’s this one other thing: we speak different languages. Imagine if conversations with the person you love most in the entire world consisted of the subjects of storing potatoes, raindrops, and making sure to wash your pantyhose everyday. Forget feelings, or answers to questions that start with “Why.” And even if we didn’t want to talk about those things, as I guess many parents and children don’t, we are still reduced to what we can say. We are left grappling with not just thoughts and feelings, but with the words and sounds themselves.
As a baby, my parents spoke to me in Korean.
As I got older, maybe two or three, my father—who had lived in America much longer than my mother, and who loved Charles Bronson and bacon—began to use only English with me and my sister.
We were to be Americans who spoke like Americans and made Asians look like literate people…who could drive.
That was a lot to carry on our shoulders.
In the meantime, my mother continued to speak Korean. She didn’t get out of Koreatown much and since my father handled most of the business and logistics of our American lives, she got by just fine. She had Korean friends and could find a post office or doctor who spoke Korean. She had Korean television and radio, Korean supermarkets, bookstores, you name it.
Koreatown allowed her to ride her linguistic tricycle in, God bless, America.
As children, my older sister and I continued to learn from my mother her language, which at that age consisted of a couple of mundane things around the house. (I learned how to say “idiot” and “cold drinking water, please.”) We’d instinctively hop on her Korean-language tricycle and squeak around the house with our helmets on, asking for food or drink, whining, calling after her (Oma!) to get her attention, trying to break her out of absentmindedness.
We all understood each other’s needs because they were so basic, so fundamental to our survival—at least, that’s what we thought.
But when we finally went to school, where we spoke only English, we drifted from her; we were on bicycles while she continued to crank her tiny tricycle wheels around the house. My father, AKA Korean Charles Bronson (in his head), encouraged our separation by continuing to not speak Korean with us. He taught us how to roller skate, eat fast food, and tie our shoes in, what he conceived to be, the greatest language on earth.
I began to think of Korean as just my mother’s primitive language, a throwback (before throwbacks were cool), proof that we were aliens, even though we had proof enough: Never seeing our faces on television, or on the covers of magazines, never seeing ourselves adored in such massive and persistent ways (the only ways that mattered to us, porous little girls). And if we did make it into the movies, we were speechless, bowing creatures, laughable/impotent nerds, or sinister villains hell-bent on ruling the world from a den of opium and embroidered silks and crawling smoke.
Basically, we were never anything that anyone wanted to be—and this included my mother.
When I was six, my father left us.
My mother was now on her own to raise me and my sister. With little work or life experience outside of our home, she had to find any job she could. She called her parents for help, and they did, by living in America for a short period of time.
She managed to find a job behind the counter of a Wienerschnitzel, a few blocks from my house. I would sometimes visit her and see her beside the deep fryer watching her own dreams bubbling into oblivion next to a corn dog. She wore a sad, dark uniform. The predominant colors of her life were now yellow, red, and brown—shades of condiments and meat.
My mother was an artist. She studied painting in college and grew up in a family of creative people. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like all day in that narrow kitchen, avoiding her reflection in the greasy stainless steel.
Later, because she didn’t want to leave us alone during the day, my mother started working graveyard shifts at 24-hour Korean restaurants. My sister and I would come home from school, and my mother would be sleeping. Then, at some point in the evening, she would leave for work. We’d see her in the morning, just before we’d head off to school again.
Basically, we went a couple years without really seeing her.
When I was about eight or nine, she finally saved enough money to start her own business—in a shopping plaza where stabbings were mundane. Prior to their divorce, my parents had owned their own women’s clothing store in the commercial area of a working-class, predominantly Latino area southeast of LA. I don’t know how they got into the business. Perhaps the opportunity just presented itself—much like it once had to my father with a gas station and then an Army surplus store.
On her own, my mother returned to that same area outside of LA—the only place and neighborhood where she could afford to rent a space for her store.
She must have felt a little proud. She owned her own business. She no longer had a boss. She could even be a little more creative, choosing inventory and arranging clothing for display. I would watch her do so—carefully selecting colors and hanging clothes up on the metal grids that marked the parameters of her store—during school breaks or weekends when I had to help out.
Certainly, it had more “nuance” than Wienerschnitzel.
The majority of the shopping plaza’s Korean store owners looked timelessly downtrodden, like modern, Asian Dorothea Lange subjects. Except, instead of children facelessly leaning on them, they had broken dreams and cigarettes. Women disguised their longing with terrible perms. Men wore only grey pants and appeared to have knee problems. If you saw one of them smile, you freaked out and wondered what kind of horrible thing had just happened.
The customers, mostly from Mexico or Central America, looked at us in both awe or wonder and disdain. They called us chinos and believed we had access to mysticism and healing herbs. Sometimes, as I walked down the street, they yelled from their cars some kind of Kung Fu sounds, cackled loudly, and drove away.
It must’ve seemed like we had been dropped from a Chinese spaceship to sell them liquor and clothes. They needed us because we were the only business owners desperate enough to take a risk and set up shop, and for the same reason, they hated us. We needed them because we could not survive otherwise. We hated them too.
Many of our families, although working class in America, had come from better means in Korea. For our customers, however, life had often been harder in their home countries. Since the store owners and customers had been coming from opposite directions, it appeared as if we were competing with each other. But in reality, everyone just wanted a better life.
My mother worked so much that she learned to speak Spanish, practically forgetting any English she might’ve known. She used Spanish in ways that would make her customers laugh, but at least they began to understand each other. She made herself vulnerable by putting herself out there, and they respected that.
Like the owners vs. the customers, my sister and I hated each other too, because we were all we had. We couldn’t afford hobbies. We spent hours upon hours together. We knew each other’s vulnerabilities and reasons for sadness probably better than we did our own.
To escape, I’d watch TV all day—cartoons and shows with white people. Their biggest problems had to do with emotional mishaps, disappointments, or, worst of all, love. This was the world on television, so incongruent with our own daily lives that I sometimes thought maybe we were not alive. Maybe we were actually dead, watching the living through an electronic box with a colorful, static-stabbed screen. It was hard to see any value in my self or my family.
When provoked, we hurled the nastiest words we could think of at each other, jabbing every soft spot we had—fatty pants, idiot with no friends, pancake face. Alone so much, trapped, somehow failed, together we lived our un-American life. And we were proof of each other’s inadequacies. We were proof of each other’s pain.
Because my mother doesn’t speak English, I have to run little, English-speaking errands for her, like calling the power or water company if she’s having problems, or setting her up with health insurance online. (She doesn’t know how to use computers either.)
My mother calls me for these reasons, and when I see her name come up on my cellphone, I sort of cringe. I hope nothing’s wrong; I hope I don’t have to make things right for her again. I hope I don’t have to be on the phone with the utilities people for an hour. I hope her car’s not broken, because that means I might have to help her get a new one.
I hope it’s not something terrible, some terrible news, some terrible thing that happened.
I hope she’s not ill. I hope she’s not dying.
I hope that this worrying will help prevent that terrible thing from happening.
But what if I’m wrong.
In middle school, I bleached my hair and dyed it blue.
I wanted people to look at me. I wanted my mother to look at me. She didn’t even notice the new color until about a week later, when the blue had already begun to fade into a swampy green.
I was convinced there wasn’t a thing that could earn her attention, short of dying.
In middle school, I began to bury myself in books. I went to school every day and got better and better at English, so good that I began writing poems that my teachers seemed to approve of: awful, rage-filled free verse but with a “surprising amount of maturity.”
I began to write more seriously in high school, filling up composition books, sketching and doodling everywhere. I wrote with a feverish desperation, as if I was gasping for air, as if this was the only way I could feel alive.
That is what saved my life: a piece of paper and a pen. They were practically free, I never had to share them with anyone, and they were always there, waiting for me. Writing became the greatest source of stability in my life.
Suddenly my characters became profoundly important to me. I would want to return to them day after day and take care of them and love them because I couldn’t seem to love people in real life. I wanted to give them problems, white people problems, and I wanted to see them grow.
If you wonder how a mother and a daughter speak two different languages, this is how.
When I pick up the phone, I say, “Hi, mom” in Korean.
She responds in Korean and asks me how I am. I say, “I’m okay,” in English, which she understands.
And then she tells me about her day and what she’s been up to. It usually consists of talking to one of her friends or going to church or volunteering at an assisted living home. I mostly understand everything she says, but I never know how to respond because I know she can’t reciprocate; she just can’t hear me. I want to tell her about my day, so I try using my mongrel Ko-nglish. I grow frustrated and angry, and I no longer want to talk anymore. Or she doesn’t understand me at all, which brings back to the surface all those feelings of being unseen, unheard by her, of being nothing.
I tried learning Korean as a child. Actually, my mother tried to force me to learn because, despite how broke we were, she sent me to a low-cost school on Saturdays in Koreatown where I practiced for a couple hours.
But I didn’t want to go to school on Saturday, and I wanted to speak English.
I hated being Korean. I hated the language. I hated having “small” eyes. For me, all I really knew about Korea was Koreatown, being poor, people getting stabbed or shot, and my lonely mother. That was it. Who would want more of that in their life? I didn’t think of Korea, as I do now, as having its own rich history, ancient culture, with inventions, like the “turtle ship,” the Jindo dog, and Drama.
I wanted to be American. I wanted a normal life like the white people on television. They had romance and friendship. They had dishwashers and savings accounts. Their problems revolved around their feelings.
I live in Seattle now and I have a good job, a dog, a great relationship and white people problems.
I go on a silent tirade when I see something recyclable in our trashcan.
My dog’s food has absolutely no corn in it.
I believe that minor touches of feng shui, like a well-placed mirror, clean windows, and plants in certain corners, can improve my life.
By my childhood standards, I have succeeded. I don’t worry about people breaking into my house, getting stabbed in the bathroom, or what my next meal will be.
I worry about people’s feelings. I worry about hurting others. I worry about my future. I worry about wrinkles. I worry about the hair that’s in the drain. I worry about dying.
I also worry about my mother a lot. I worry that somehow I’ll leave her behind (squeaking around the house in her tricycle) or have already left her behind—she, older woman; she, non-English speaking; she, working class; she, without American table etiquette (she doesn’t understand all the forks and the spoons).
There’s this great distance between us, and although we try to stay connected via telephone or visiting each other a few times a year, I feel as though I’ve betrayed her.
That after all her hard work, it is me who is benefitting from the clean, clear, relatively safe city I live in where I take yoga classes (when I’m good), while my mother continues to live her tiny Koreatown life.
So right before I hang up the phone, I always tell her I love her. In Korean.
But that is only the surface of what I want to say.
To tell her exactly what I feel—this tangled mess of love, adoration, resentment, and rage—might destroy us. Maybe I love you is enough.
Maybe not speaking the same language protects us in different ways—from each other and from ourselves.
Maybe this—this essay, this dog, this tricycle, this feng shui.
Maybe this is all we can handle really.
Maybe this is it.
Born and raised in LA, Nancy Jooyoun Kim is a graduate of UCLA and the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Butter, Prairie Schooner blog, The James Franco Review, The Kenyon Review blog and Amerasia Journal. She is currently working on a novel and personal essays.