Friday, September 14, 2007

Wings to Fly — 5

Memoir Index

Who Am I?

I tried to understand who I am, where I came from, why am I so complicated…Why is it so difficult for Tom, my husband to understand me. I am realizing that I am my mother, my father, my grandfather, and all the important characters I heard from my grandfather, and so many people I read about…

My mother was 19 years old when she married my father. The war had just ended. She moved up to Seoul where my father had prepared a small apartment for them. He had arranged for his parents and siblings to live somewhere else, yet all the financial support came from him. I don’t know what went wrong. Eventually the large family moved in with this newly wed young couple. My mother, being the only outsider of the family, was treated as such and before long, my mother realized that she was not much more than a servant. Her husband was gone long hours in his entertainment band he created. She was serving a very demanding in-law family.

I was born 2 years later, a second born daughter. Her first born was frail and sickly baby who died 3 months later. At my birth she felt panic. She had borne 2 girls. She herself was an unwanted girl. She did not have any companions to share her sufferings. I doubt my father knew of all the inner torture she was going through. She would cry when no one is looking, pouring out her heartaches and agony of life to this little baby. She said, “You were the only friend I had…. I told you all my sufferings…” I don’t know when I started to understand her deepest sharing. All I know is that I always remember as far as my memory could go, she would cry and tell me her stories. Her stories of growing up under her step mother who did not love her, stories of her own mother who loved her so deeply yet she was taken from her by death, of the grief and injustice her young brothers and sisters in law were causing for her. She begged her husband to take all of his family and give her a small apartment just for her and the baby. He could stay with his parents and siblings.

Eventually she did get accustomed to this new life. She did not visit her folks. She had married against her father's wish who wanted only the best for her. Her stepmother would only gloat at her sufferings, or so she thought. She never told them... I did not see my maternal grandfather and stepgrandmother until I was 7 years old. Even then, my mother would tell me later, they never knew how poor our family was and how much in agony she lived her life, and I was her only outlet.

I grew up under heavy cloud of “woe is life.” I don’t remember having a joyful childhood. Mother did everything she could to be a good mother, and would let us know how a step mother would treat us in each circumstance. I grew up as a loner always believing that I was not liked, always believing that I was not interesting, and no one would want to be my friend, and no one could love me. I had deep fear within me, if anyone gets to know me, they would find out how boring I was and leave me. I could not bear the thought of abandonment. As a small child, I was a tangle of fear.

My brother came 2 years later to my mother’s great relief. She had borne a healthy and beautiful boy to our family. He was an adorable baby. He had all the characteristic of what a beautiful child should be. Later on I would watch him in amazement, he is loved by all. He knew how to get adults’ attention as well as children. He always had half dozen other kids following him as a leader of the pack. World was child’s play land. I loved him. He was my only friend in my childhood, when he was not with his friends... I was able to be with this little brother without having to worry about how he would accept me...I was able to enter into the land of imagination in our playing. We would collect caterpillars and imagine that was our caterpillar family. We would collect flowers and rocks and create a home for our little creatures. We climbed our rock garden and we were climbing a high castle wall, we would climb our gate for …I don’t even know what… it was fun.

My grandfather loved to read to me. I was his student of Confucius teachings. Sometimes I would sit for hours as he read. Oh I remember so many stories of great scholars and generals of China and Korea. One story that played a great part in my life was; One mother who was very poor had a son. She sacrificed everything to educate this only child. She sold rice cakes. From morning to dusk she worked. Made her cakes, went to market to sell her cakes, and came home late at night. She sent her son to China to be educated. Being separated for the first time, the son came home to visit his mom whom he missed so intensely. Traveling long distance on a mule can be costly and take up much time. Mother was not happy to see the son. That night she gave her son a writing parchment. She said, “When you can write with fluency of how I can cut my cakes, that is when you can come back home.” In the pitch black night, the two began to work. When she lit the candle, his writing was all over the paper, and her cake was as even as could be. Cutting long sticky rice cake required skill even in light. He returned to China and did not come home until his education was finished and eventually became one of the most well known laureate in asia. I determined that I will not stop until I achieve the success, whatever it was…

He would tell me that we are descendents of Kim dynasty of so many years ago. Our direct for-father was the 5th son of Emperor somebody. Therefore I was a princess. He believed that it was my destiny to bring my family to that level of honor…It was rather strange that in a male oriented culture, my grandfather would determine that I was to fulfill the honor of bringing our family fame back. I was determined somehow I would make that happen….how I did not know.

I was slow to move, slow to think, and did not have much personality…I was not cute, I did not have quick sense, I was too fat…these are the comments I heard all through my childhood. It seemed there was nothing that I could do right, be right, or look right…there was always something lacking. My cousin, who was being raised by my mother, had the adorable looks, personality, quick sense…and everything I did not have. When mother would take us both shopping, people noticed my cousin and no one noticed me. They thought my cousin must be my mother’s daughter. After all, my mother was very beautiful. And this adorable little girl must be her daughter. It was not possible this clumsy JaeHi could be her daughter. It was difficult for my mother, to have her own daughter be slighted. Eventually it was easier for my mother to take my cousin (then age 5) with her in daily grocery shopping and leave me (age 3) behind with my uncles. I understood that something was very wrong with me.

In school, I was good in art, even through my child’s eye, I could tell that I was often the best. Yet my teacher would praise other children. They had nice clothes and their moms were always at school bringing little gifts for the teachers, and sometimes money. My mother had no gift or money for my teachers. I knew this much, even to get praise for my work required gift or money for the teachers. I longed for recognition that I should have gotten. I determined that somehow I would succeed in life so I would not be slighted.

I watched my father, studying, always studying…Why wasn’t he playing with us... War was over. He no longer had his entertainment troop. During unemployment time (most of Korea was unemployed), that is all he did….always study. All the money he earned was spent on his large extended family and nothing was left for his own little family. I hoped within me I could do something to alleviate his pain that I could somehow provide for him. I knew I had to succeed to take that pain away from my father.

I was nine years old. My father had been in the U.S. for two years earning money and preparing to bring his family to the U.S. One day, without any announcement, he appeared at our front door. I immediately recognized him. He winked at me. I understood that I was to play along with him. My brother was seven and had not seen our father since he was five. My father called out to him and asked, "Did I get your name right?" My brother said, "Yes." Saying my mother's name, my father asked, "Did I get your mother's name right?" Again, my brother said, "Yes." I could see that my brother was getting uncomfortable. My little two-year-old sister had no idea what was going on. He knelt down, spread out his arms and said, "Come, I am your dad." There was uneasy silence. I ran to him, soon followed by my brother and sister. My father was home.

School academics were getting intense. My peers were getting private tutors who would help them after school. We were all studying for our 6th grade exam, which would determine which Jr. High school you would go to. Sometimes that determined your whole future. The one who went to best Jr. High would then go to the best High then to the best University. Somehow we only saw in terms of best or nothing. Time was ticking. My family did not have the luxury of hiring a tutor. My parents had sacrificed enough to send me to the best public grammar school at that time. I would do my best to keep up….ultimately I was saved by coming to the U.S.

No comments:

Post a Comment