Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2007

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Peter Som ´93: A Designing Life



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Summer 2007

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Lucky

Lucky

We are sitting here, my mother, my sister, and I. We are eating peaches. We kneel on thin cushions around the plate of fruit, by the sliding rice-paper paneled door, where a hot breeze filters in with the hazy late afternoon sun. It is mid-July, and the sky hangs low over Taegu City, filling the tangled streets with damp heat and the smell of rain.


My mother sits with her back to the door. Behind her, the narrow courtyard is strung across with the reds and the blues and the yellows of our laundry, the drying clothes dancing lazily on their lines with each puff of air. Before her, we have spread out an array of photo albums, and loose snapshots pulled from her wooden keepsake box, and even my high school yearbook, which she now flips through, disinterestedly.

"So many Americans," she says, finally. "Where are all the Korean kids?"

By American, my mother means white — but I do not correct her. Nor do I point out that technically, I am an American, too. "There´s only me," I say.

My mother, her arms thin and pale against the bright flower-pattern of her dress, picks up a miniature silver fork and deliberately spears the last slice of peach. She does not look at me, or at my sister. Instead, she flips more hurriedly through the yearbook, easily dismissing my classmates with their light hair and light eyes.

Watching her, I cannot tell my mother that when I was younger, I wanted to be white. That at night, before going to bed, I used to pray to wake up with long, curly blonde hair and blue eyes, like the angels in my picture Bible. I cannot tell her that I used to dream of looking freckled and pink, like my parents back home in the United States. I cannot tell her that for a long time, I hated her for making me Korean.

My mother continues to search, page after page, until she finds me towards the end. Finds the familiar darkness of my hair, the narrow slanting of my eyes. She smiles. She leans in closer. "Yepuda," she says to my senior portrait. Pretty.

Three weeks ago, I graduated from high school. I am 17 years old, and my mother wants me to marry a Korean man. Not now, she amends, but later. Later, when I have finished college, I can come back to Korea and she will help me find one. She does not like the pictures of the boys I have dated. Their noses are too big, she says. Their eyes are too round — like an owls´. She is embarrassed by the way that their arms drape over my shoulders, and the way that their hands touch my waist.

I just sit here and smile. And I let her talk. She is not my real mother, but the one who placed me for adoption all those years ago. Relinquished me. Surrendered me. She is the mother who gave me away.

I was born, my mother once told me, on a hot, rain-drenched night in late August. It was an average birth — not too difficult — but of course, not too easy. When it was over, the nurses wrapped me in a blanket and placed me on the table beside her bed, and then they left. This was not unusual. In Korea, it is the relatives´ job to care for the new mother: to feed her, to bathe her, to comfort her.

My mother waited for someone to come, she said, for hours. For the whole night. She waited for her mother, for her sister. For my father. My mother was 27 years old. She knew that no one was coming. And yet, as the minutes ticked slowly by, she waited — unable to move, unwilling to sleep — because she had no other choice.

I remember my mother as she told me this — the way she looked down and away from me. The way her fingers played with the hem of her skin. "You wouldn´t stop crying," she said. "But I couldn´t feed you."

Her voice was soft and painful, and I should have asked her why — why she couldn´t feed me — why she couldn´t hold me — but her words froze the very air that I was trying to breathe, seeming to suck it from my lungs so that I could not move. So that I could not talk. So that I could not hide myself from what she was saying.

"You wouldn´t stop crying," she repeated. "That whole night I lay there and listened to you cry."

She was neither apologizing, nor asking for forgiveness.

"This is how it was," my mother said.

My sister, the one she kept, is dating a Korean boy. He is a year away from completing his mandatory service in the army, and when he is on base, he sends her love letters like they do in the movies. My sister is 22, and still flushes red when she talks about kissing. She graduated from high school four years ago, and works now at a stall in the market selling things like rubber sandals, and umbrellas, and hair accessories — big, fuzzy scrunchies and imitation jade claw clips with plastic crystals embedded in the spines.

My sister wants to live with me someday, she says. Like real sisters. Two nights ago, she took me out with her friends — the same girls that she has known almost her entire life — the same girls I met three years ago, when I was 14, and came to visit during spring break. We went to a bar where we ate chunks of spicy tofu and dried octopus, took shots of soju, and chased everything down with tall pitchers of beer. Afterwards, my sister was so drunk that I had to help her home, finding my own way through the twisting, unfamiliar streets. Her friends told me that this was not uncommon — that once my sister had even walked into traffic, because she could not remember to wait for the light. It scared me, the way that my sister was then. It scared me — how different we could be — even when we looked so similar.

Later, when we had finally made it back to the house, my sister threw up in one of the wash buckets at the edge of the courtyard. No one else was awake, so it was just the two of us, lonely in the dark.

"You are such a good tong-saeng," she said, when she was done. You are such a good little sister.

Sober now in the humid daylight, she reaches behind her, where she has stored the plastic shopping bag full of fruit that we bought this morning from the vendor on the corner. My sister feels around before pulling out a pear, juggling it between her hands, testing its weight. Unlike the ones I eat in America, this pear is large and almost completely round — and she peels it like an apple, its smooth, yellow skin curling away to reveal the white flesh beneath.

"I think Bo-bae will marry an American," my sister says, and looks sideways out of her eyes at our mother, while I pretend to study my fingernails. "That would make sense. After all, she lives in America."

She leans over and begins to slice the fruit over the plate — thick chunks that cut smoothly and fall into a half-circle pattern along the edge. My mother watches for a moment, and then sighs, and flips the yearbook closed. She runs her fingertips over the glossy cover, blindly tracing the embossed monogram of my American name — a name that she refuses to say.

Eight years ago, when I first visited Korea, she took that name in her mouth and pulled it apart — spitting it out in three broken syllables that sounded harsh and somehow false. Ever since then, she has called me Bo-bae — "precious," in Korean — and the sound of it pulls easily from the back of her throat, low and full.

When I am apart from her, this name falls, dead, from my Americanized lips. But when I am with her, I slip on this name like a long lost identity: this name given to me at my birth, this name that still holds me as her daughter.

I arrived in Boston in late November, when I was three months old. I had spent two months in a crowded foster home. This is the child I was when my American parents first held me: my body was covered with rashes, and sores, and bloody scabs that I re-opened — again and again — with my sharp baby fingernails. My hair, where I had not torn it out, grew in odd, irregular tufts. I would not laugh, and I would not cry. This is the child I was when my parents first held me.

But this is not the child that my mother remembers leaving behind.

She kept me for a month. We lived in a one-room apartment that my father was paying for, partially because my mother had no money, but mostly to keep her from knocking on his wife´s door. The one time he came to visit, he refused to hold me. He had other children — a little boy and a little girl — and these were the ones he held.

Instead, he examined me as I lay in my mother´s arms: my hands, my feet, my ears. I was a fat baby with hair that stuck straight up from my head — and for once, my mother said, I was not crying. She said that I opened my eyes, and that I curled my fist around my father´s finger — and that when he was done inspecting me, my father lit a cigarette and breathed smoke into the cramped room. He would not look at us.

"She has a funny mouth," he finally said.

I touch my mouth now. It is my mother´s mouth, my sister´s mouth. I have never minded it — not like my eyes. During elementary school, I was one of three Asian kids in my grade. I used to stand in front of the mirror, and hold my eyes open with my fingers. Stretching them, praying that they would stay that way: wide. Round. Normal. In some of my school pictures, I look scared, I am trying so hard to make my eyes look bigger.

I think about this as I bite into a slice of pear, the fruit crisp and cool, soothing against my tongue. My mother slowly waves a paper fan in front of her face, the air pushing wisps of hair away from her temples. "One time you told me you wanted a Korean boyfriend," she says. She closes her eyes, and I know what she is remembering.

I had said that, once, back when I rode the school bus with Davy O´Neil. He had bright orange hair and green eyes, and he used to lean over the seat and chant the Chinaman song — every day — until the principal had a meeting with his parents. After that, he resorted to pulling at the corners of his eyes, making them into narrow, mocking slashes over his freckled nose — but only when I could see him.

"Omma," I say. "That was such a long time ago." I make my voice light, and sweep up the pear peelings into my hands, holding them uncertainly until my sister takes them from me and drops them in the bag.

"Bo-bae should marry Brad Pitt," she says, sitting back on her heels and licking pear juice from her fingertips. She is wearing a pink tee-shirt with cursive letters that read, "we are good friend," in English.

"No," I say. "Josh Hartnett. Or Ben Affleck."

"See, Omma," my sister teases. "Tong-saeng is lucky. She could marry a movie star."
At first our mother looks annoyed, but finally she sighs, exasperated. My sister and I bite smiles from our lips. "What, not even Tom Cruise," we say. "Matt Damon?"

My mother rolls her eyes, and then turns to look back over her shoulder. "It´s going to rain soon," she says. "We should bring the clothes in."

"Omma," we say. "Don´t change the subject." But our mother is right — behind her, the afternoon is shadowed in gray, the air moist and heavy.

My mother puts her fan down. It is made out of pale blue paper mounted on a thin, bamboo stick — the kind that stores put their logo on and give out for free. She studies it, running her finger up and down its yellow-glazed handle. "Just be happy," she says, looking first at me, and then at my sister. "Just be happy."

My sister nudges our mother then, playfully, and they laugh at each other with a familiarity that aches. They know each other´s lives. They know each other´s hurt. It is an understanding that I will always long for.

Now, though, my sister grins at me from my mother´s side, as if to say we´ve won. And I look back at her, at her eyes that are so much like mine. It is strange and sad to see myself so clearly in a person that lives half a world away. Looking at her is like looking at what I might have been.

When my sister was still a baby, she was sent to live with our grandmother in the Taegu countryside. She grew up playing barefoot alongside the dirt roads. She grew up eating pickled cabbage and silkworm cocoons and steamed rice. She grew up sleeping beside my grandmother, and knowing the comfort of the old woman´s arms wrapped securely around her.

It was lucky for her that several years later, our mother married a man who would accept her as his own child. And it was lucky for our mother to have found such a man. But when our mother and her new husband finally returned for her, my sister was already eight years old, and did not recognize her face.

Because of this, people say that it is really I who am the lucky one. The one who got away. The one who grew up with a stable family and private schools and trips to Disney World. The one who got to live in America. People say that I am the lucky one, but when I think about it — when I think about all of it — I am not sure if luck has anything to do with it.

And yet, this is what I do know: I know that I, too, was supposed to grow up in the dust of those country roads. That I was supposed to grow up surrounded by mouths and eyes and faces that looked like my own. That I was supposed to grow up holding my sister´s hand as we waited for our mother to return, together. I know that this is how it was supposed to be. But by the time my grandmother came for me, I was already gone.

Sitting here now, I do not think that my mother will ever tell me why she did it. Why she made plans to send me to her mother´s, and then left me at the adoption agency instead. Why she kept my sister, but did not keep me. How she could walk away. Perhaps there is no answer. Perhaps I do not want to hear it if there is.

So instead of asking, I eat too many pears, relishing their sweet juice as it runs down the back of my throat. Tomorrow I will board a plane that will take me back to America, back to my family, back to my home, back to my life. But for now, I let my mother take my hand in hers. I let her squeeze it, let her bend and unbend each finger as though I were an infant. Her face is calm and sad as she holds my hand to her own, matching them — palm to fingertip.

She takes my sister´s hand, too. "My two daughters," she says.

Outside, a wind, hot and damp, whips our clothes into a colorful frenzy on their lines. We should bring them in, but no one moves. And when it starts to rain, we are still sitting here, the three of us: my mother, my sister, and I.


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