As I was writing my review for “The Color of Water”, I was suddenly reminded of a paper I once wrote for my class in Feminism. It was the most unconventional paper I’ve ever had to write, yet the one that I remember the most, and the one most dear to my heart, regardless of the actual quality of the writing.
The reason I understood James McBride in his desire to write the story of his mother is that that’s what I’ve always wanted to do as well. Writing is just a hobby and a fun and often rewarding pastime, but one of my ‘secret’ wishes and dreams ever since I was little was to publish a book. I don’t know on what it will be, or when it will be, or even if it will actually happen some day, but it’s just something I like keeping in the back of my mind. One of my very first book projects was my mother, if not the first.
I’ve had a happy childhood, I won’t complain, but one of the saddest memories I have of those times is when mom would sit or lie with my sister and I in bed as we were about to sleep, in the dark, and tell us about her childhood and her first years of marriage. I don’t think she ever came with the actual purpose of telling us sad stories. I guess at times we were the ones to urge her to tell us about when ‘mommy was a little girl’. Most of them started with a simple reminiscence of how she would have to go in the small hill behind her house to gather wood to make fire, or how she was always the tiniest, ugliest student in class, but also always the best and most studious. But that was the extent of her happy memories of these years long gone by (actually, the wood-gathering story is, technically, not a happy memory either). Then came the ‘real deal’, which is just too much for me to write it all down here. And inevitably the tears would come rolling down, and all my sister and I could do was whisper to her ‘Mommy, don’t cry. We’re here now’. I don’t know how much of an actual comfort that ever brought her.
But worst than those stories were how her in-laws, my dad’s mother, sisters and brothers (and he had plenty) treated her during the 4 years she was in Korea after her marriage. Once again, I would literally have to write a book about those, but suffice it to say, that was enough for me to -still- have profound disdain for my dad’s side of the family.
(Mom now says she’s forgotten all about it, that she’s not the ‘weak, young and naive’ 20 something year old she was back then, and although she doesn’t ‘hang out’ with my aunts, she can at least be civil to them when they meet once a year, and well, say everything she couldn’t have said back then with a smile on her face. Her being the one to actually have those ‘family gatherings’ at least once a year, I’m still baffled and annoyed at her nonchalant policy of ‘putting the past behind’, and in the end, I’m the one left with the spite. Strangely enough, my antipathy won’t go away that easily, although technically, they haven’t done any wrong to me. It’s all very twisted, I know.)
Anyways, as the child who had to listen to her mother’s tears in the dark of the night and cry with her, the best ‘revenge’ I could think of back then was to write a book about my grandmother, my aunts and uncles. I would tell the world of what I considered the atrocities they made her go through (but I guess many women went through such treatment back then, not that it makes it any less abominable). I would devise whole chapters after my mom left, reassuring us, alas too late, that ‘it was all over now’. But then I began worrying about practical things, such as how my real name would be published on the book and how dad’s family would read about it and knowing them, they wouldn’t be filled with regret and remorse, but would probably torment my mom for not raising her daughter right. It also seemed a bit ‘too much’ to ‘expose’ them as such. And so I gave up my first book project.
Nonetheless, I still think Mom had a pretty ‘interesting’ life, although to this day, she will not tell me about what she did in her early 20s before she married dad. Between her high school graduation and October 9th 1983, their wedding day, her life to my sister and I remains a blank slate with just a few scribbles faintly discernible. I don’t even know if she will ever tell us. So there goes my other book project.
However, thanks to the Feminism class, I had the opportunity to have a tiny taste of what that would be like, writing a book about her, and it was also my real first attempt at trying to see my mother as an individual and not just as mother and wife.
So this is a small extract of the essay (the prologue and the conclusion) I would like to share, as a tribute to my mother, my very first feminist and hero, despite all her petty prejudices and faults. You annoy the hell out of me sometimes, but this is for you, Mom. I love you dearly.
(I think this is by far the most personal blog entry, as I’ve tried to avoid issues too personal at heart (this is, after all, the internet…) But well, I think a writer, whether it is something you do as a hobby or as a profession, should know how to open up a bit from time to time.)
(Note: Her full name was an important part of the essay, but I had to remove that, just as a matter of privacy and precaution. Also, ‘ssi‘ in Korean is used as a way to address others in the ‘adult world’, so that you won’t sound rude by just calling out first names.)
The daughter – S.L.:
MS.C. The sound of these three syllables, coming from her own throat, and moreover hearing it from other people’s voices, echoes distantly and unfamiliarly to her ears.
MS.C. Yet she was born as so, she was raised as so, this is what her friends used to call her in her school days. Her mother and father at some distant time in her life must have given a more tender and affectionate meaning when they first whispered these syllables into her ears. Or did they ever? Yet she still seems to yearn for that sprinkle of tenderness these three syllables must awake in her heart and her memory.
Ajumma. Mrs. L. S’s mom. G’s mom. These are the appellations she is used to now. Since a time she cannot venture to remember now, they have replaced her identity as an individual and as a woman. Being a wife and a mother brings unexpected joys, emotions she would never trade in a million years, yet when she finally muster the effort to sit down and rest her mind at ease just for a second, she can still see the faint shadow of a young MS.C., sitting at her desk and nibbling her pen in search for an inspiration to support her fellow labor union members.
Dreams. Hopes. Ambitions. Challenges. Passion.
College degree. Writer. Role-model.
Words and ideas that once had power over the woman she used to know as MS. Stars she wanted to reach, goals she wanted to become once. These stars faded away and these goals became crushed when she realized that being a 25 year old woman without a father to depend on or a mother to take advice from, with three younger brothers to take care of, placed her in a whole different dimension, closed off from the world she wanted to live in. What was she to do, what good were these aspirations of hers if she could barely pay her rent and buy food for the day? As she walked up the aisle that day, each step she took towards the altar was one step away from her hopes.
The mother – MS.C.:
MS.C. It feels good to have it resonate in my ears, even after so many years of living as Mrs. L and S and G’s mom. It may only be a tiny whisper, a distant sound in my memory, yet the fragments of memory these three syllables bring me still provide me with the sense of power I used to be accustomed to. I can still sense the power surrounding the young MS ‘ssi’ when I announced firmly and proudly I would be called so and not by ‘Miss C.’, as were my few female colleagues. ‘Miss C.’ would have their coffees made and brought to other male colleagues, would make photocopies for them, would smile at their jokes for no reason. ‘MS ssi’ would stand up to them, voice her opinion and speak for herself.
Yet it was not easy being ‘MS ssi’ during those times. Even when the word ‘feminist’ was yet unfamiliar to many people and especially to men, I was already viewed as a ‘feminist’, hence taunt, rebellious for no reason and making things uncomfortable when they should not have to be.
MS ssi. This name was the shield I brandished against the inequality I was facing and a medal I wore proudly as my identity. I was not yet anyone’s wife or anyone’s mother. This name represented my ambitions and my possibilities. It did not take long however to realize this shield and medal came with a difficult price. Using my talent of writing to promote the rights of labor unions was only a speck of sand amid the political mess from which labor unions were not exempted. Fractions and divisions occurred within the organization and confrontations escalated to a point that my involvement became a barrier to pursuing my studies.
My lifelong experience of living in utmost poverty and my frustration, transformed into passion to fight for the rights of the least privileged, were not sufficient to continue what had become a plight. With my three younger brothers to take care of and with no hope to be expected in the near future, disappointment and hopelessness subtly and slowly replaced what there had once been courage and perseverance.
On a beautiful fall day, I left a trail of MS ssi on every step I walked up on the aisle. As the pale leaves on the trees touched the ground, I felt as if small parts of myself were falling with them, only to be left on the ground to disappear one day.
It did not take long for ‘MS ssi’ to become a treasure hidden and cherished only in my memory. The ‘me as individual’ was still there, but surviving besides the strong presence of the new ‘me as daughter-in-law’ and ‘wife’ and soon ‘mother’. Fortunately, I still had my writing to keep ‘MS ssi’. Writing to me was a conversation with myself, with MS as individual. Unattached, defined only by what I intended myself to be and by none other. To the outside world, I may have been the new bride, the unsatisfactory daughter-in-law, the soon-to-be mother, but as the words formed themselves on the white, untamed sheet of paper, I would find myself back and MS would come back to life. However, this thin string of my individuality was taken from me when my mother-in-law and sister-in-law decided to secretly open and read my diary. The feeling of being violated, not to mention betrayed, came with an indescribable shock as the broken lock fell to my feet. I felt as if the layer of wrap I had carefully put around my conversations, around myself, had been brutally ripped and I was not even allowed to complain or mutter a word of protest. Every time I saw my mother-in-law and sister in-law share a secret laugh between themselves, I knew they were unveiling a small piece of myself behind my back, snickering at it, wiping the betraying smile off their faces with that part of me and tossing it after they were done with it, like a useless piece of paper. All I could do was watching these pieces of myself being torn from my memory and pride, yet my hands and feet were chained by my duty as daughter-in-law and I was not even allowed to kneel and pick them up to put them back where they belonged, in my personal space. These pieces they have brutally torn left a hole in my heart and mind, a hole that even today, nearly 30 years later, has not been filled.
Wife. Mother. People may think these are the only two words that have defined me for the last 30 years of my life. With their books, theories and opinions, they try to convince me to find my identity. Do they not see that by assuming I do not have my own identity, they too fail to see me as the ‘individual’ they want me to be? Who are they to glance their sympathetic glances and point out to my ‘lost’ identity when I have, from my own way?
I may have spent much of my time pondering on how to maintain the household, on how to raise my children, on how to support my husband, but my mind still had time to devote some of these thoughts to myself and my eyes were still mine to observe the world around me for my own purpose and my pleasure. I have always been MS, daughter, wife and mother.
Concluding thoughts – no more guilt
This essay began as an attempt to look at my own mother from a different perspective and perhaps as an unconscious effort to ‘save’ her from the usual victimization of mothers so frequently conducted in the Korean context. However, as I tried to give a voice to my own mother, who does not write anymore because of a ‘trauma’ mentioned above, I found myself victimizing her and attributing words and thoughts that I thought were hers. A simple conversation with her made me realize my mistake, which I believe is probably the mistake of many authors and directors, all children of their mothers. There are basically two elements in the Korean culture that project a wrong image of the mother. The first is the feeling of guilt that mothers seem to constantly carry as their burden, guilt that they feel towards their children, which also transforms into a feeling of guilt felt from their children. In other words, the guilt resides in both groups, the mothers and the children. Mothers feel guilty that they could not provide more to their children, while the children feel guilty that they neglected their mothers and their mothers could not achieve the dreams they might have had. The second element is that mothers are rarely portrayed as independent, separate individuals. They are always followed by their devotion to their children, this overarching reality they would do anything for them; which is not untrue, but which is only a part of what makes them a ‘person’.
Only when mothers will be void of this feeling of guilt and will be portrayed as people with their own freedom and dreams, will we finally have a culture that accepts mothers as they really are and not as what we think they are.