Monday, May 09, 2011

Happy Mother's Day

To mothers and sons and daughters everywhere.

My relationship with my own mother was frequently rocky. She was, in many ways, the typical Korean mom who demanded scholastic excellence, but after the 6th grade, I was never a straight-A student. Luckily, she wasn't the insane sort of mother who demanded that her children all attend Ivy League schools and become doctors, lawyers, or prominent businessmen working in Fortune 500 companies. Education was important to her, but not robotic conformity to perceived social norms. Still, she had the Korean habit of trying to do my thinking for me, and I often rebelled against this instead of making the effort to see her behavior as a form of care.

I don't think I truly began to understand who my mother was until I went to live in Korea in 1994. By that point, I had already taught at a private Catholic high school for two years, and had discovered I was a better teacher for older, more motivated students. Once in Seoul, I taught paying adults, many of whom had a thirst for learning English, and this proved to be a much more pleasant experience than teaching French and English literature to recalcitrant high schoolers. My time in Korea, from 1994 to 1996, taught me a lot about the brighter and darker aspects of Korean culture; it was knowledge that unlocked and decoded many of the previously indecipherable patterns in my mother's way of thinking. Despite the unpleasantness of having to sue my first Korean boss in 1995, those two years in Seoul were invaluable to me, because of what they revealed about Korean cultural assumptions. What had previously seemed like leaps of logic in Mom's thought now made sense when viewed in the larger context of how Koreans see the world.

All the same, I felt somewhat defeated after two years in Korea, and came back home in 1996. From that point until late 1998, I drifted. I lived with my parents and worked in DC at a low-paying job that had nothing to do with my skill set. I'd been trained as a teacher-- a language teacher-- and I wasn't doing anything with what I'd learned, and wasn't earning enough to live independently. This drove my mother crazy: from her perspective, I had no ambition. Once again, she found herself trying to help out by arranging job interviews I hadn't asked for. Her frustration built; my rebellion against her annoying form of charity intensified. A week before Thanksgiving in 1998, everything blew up.

I don't even remember what started the argument, but it ended with me stomping out of the house in a rage, walking aimlessly around the neighborhood, knowing only that I was sick of my mother's meddling, sick of her nagging, sick of everything. I walked a few miles; Dad found me and drove me back home. Mom had retreated to her bedroom, as she always did when a family crisis had become too much for her. I walked up to her prone, bedded form and reached out a hand; she took it, and we agreed to talk things out. I ended up walking around the neighborhood again, this time with Mom at my side and shivering from the cold, as we aired all the grievances we held against each other. I don't know how long we talked, and at the end of it all, emotions were still raw. But that night was something of a breakthrough: I resolved to move out-- not because I was trying to get away from Mom, but because she had been right: I'd been sitting around for two years, doing nothing with my life.

With the move came the notion that I should return to academia. The following year, in 1999, I enrolled in an MA program at Catholic U. and began my coursework in religious studies. Direction and purpose had returned; life was moving forward again. Mom took a long time to return to her old self; despite her own tendency to wound her children, to dish it out, as they say, she was always the type to be easily wounded by what her children had to say, and after college, I was never one to hold back my opinion. That night in 1998 had been as harsh for her as it had been for me; she may not have realized the depths of my own resentment and frustration.

And I don't regret any of it. What we were doing was, I suppose, arriving at a Korean-American compromise. On the Korean side, Mom was right to be concerned about the drifting direction my life had taken. One of my old Korean-language profs used to say that "Koreans are bad psychologists," and I think this is generally true. They don't express concern very well or tactfully; they often come off as pushy and overly demanding when what they're really trying to do is show compassion. Mom was always a bad psychologist when it came to a tender introvert like me; like many group-oriented Koreans, she had trouble relating to the cultivation of an inner life-- all of my reading and thinking appeared, outwardly, as a sort of doing-nothing to her. I, meanwhile, had to learn to develop a thicker skin. Living in Korea helped with that, and it helped me understand that Mom's intentions, however poorly expressed, were pure and had nothing to do with oppression or self-aggrandizement. She wasn't acting the way she acted because she was selfish. Quite the opposite.

The American side of the Korean-American compromise was about setting boundaries. Group-first thinking doesn't respect privacy or individualism as much as it should: it's more friendly toward values like obedience, loyalty, and discipline. Love is a function of the chain of command, if you will; everyone in the hierarchy is keenly aware of his or her place. What I did, during that screaming match in 1998, was establish American-style boundaries: I let Mom know that there was a line she could never cross. We began to come to terms with these limits that night; I feel, now, that this event radically improved my relationship with Mom. She started to respect me more as an individual-- to let me go my own way, make my own mistakes, and seek out my own path.

1998 toughened us both up. Mom's actions before I went to Korea in 1994 prepared me for my time there, in such a way that the culture wasn't as shocking to me as it was to non-Korean expats; Korea, in its turn, helped me understand Mom, and gave me a better, clearer sense of who I was. This sense guided me in 1998 when things came to a head, and after 1998, we never had a titanic battle like that one again.

Perhaps this isn't the sort of sepia-toned, idealized remembrance that would be normal on Mother's Day. But I don't want to mis-remember Mom, either. She was difficult, sometimes hard to live with, sometimes very unfair. But life is unfair, and Mom's life contained its own share of unfairness, dating back to long before I was born. Some of that bitterness and loss was bound to boil over onto her children, and firstborns usually get it the worst. I want to remember all of that, because that's how it really was. Comforting self-delusion isn't my style, even though I may be guilty of it, anyway.

We love people both despite and because of their imperfections. Take those qualities away, and we'd never recognize our loved ones. Our flaws are, at least partly, constitutive of who we are; love is a "warts and all" proposition. Learning this sort of acceptance isn't easy; it takes time and patience and effort-- constant care and commitment and recommitment-- as is true with all the loving relationships we cultivate.

Whatever my assessment of my mother's imperfections, let there be no doubt about what I felt, and still feel, for her. She and I walked a hard road together, and if there's one thing I don't regret, one thing I did right as a son, it's that I was with her during her final nine months, holding her hand, kissing her cheek, giving her hugs, and telling her-- from the bottom of my heart-- how so very much I loved her.



Charles said...

Great post. Thank you for writing it.

Nathan B. said...

Kevin, I think this is one of the best posts by any author on any topic that I have read in some time. As Charles says, thank you for writing it.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I read this and liked it so much that I emailed the link to Sun-Ae, who saw herself reflected in your mother.

Jeffery Hodges

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Kevin Kim said...

Thank you all for reading, and a now-belated Happy Mother's Day to all the moms in your lives.