Help Me Comfort My Mother
This passage is a personal request... Help me make my mother proud of the life and decisions she was forced to make as a child in South Korea.
For as long as I can recall, my mother told me to be independent- to not need anyone, to be totally self-sufficient. Then, when she got her wish, all she did was complain, “Why don’t you ever listen to me?”
I also remember her stories… Throughout my childhood, we revisited her childhood; sometimes because I asked, others because she was overwhelmed by the memories. At the time, I did not recognize depression. I could make few comparisons beyond my aunts and cousins, and my mother was always different; the only foreigner, the only immigrant. There was no reason to suspect her behavior was unusual.
Knowing as much as she will share now, as well as the history I have read about my heritage, I am again disappointing her with my willful ways. “Why would you want to write about these things? Why can’t you wait until I’m dead?”
Because Umma (mom), since I was a little girl, I said, “Wow, what a story! You should write a book!”
Back then, in the 1980’s, she could not have foreseen how quickly and efficiently I would be able to broadcast her tales online. So she smiled and told me, “Oh, not me. I’m not a writer… But you can. When you grow up, you write it all down.”
So I waited and I listened… and I grew up. And no matter how I tried to distract myself with other means of self-expression, these stories begged me to be told. I tell them now- because she continues to live in shame for circumstances that were out of her control. Perhaps in sharing while she is still alive to see the public response, I can give her relief from any undeserved guilt. For by this story’s end, she will only be on the cusp of her 20th year… and if I were held accountable for every decision I made as a teenager, I would deserve much more shame than I am about to share. Instead, let me tell you why I am PROUD to be my mother’s daughter.
“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” –Oscar Wilde
The first and most stirring detail is the fact that my mother did not have parents. They were causalities of the desperate state of South Korea during the Korean War. I was given no explanation other than, “Well, honey, there just wasn’t medicine enough then. Times were very different.”
Indeed, my mother was born in the winter of 1953, just months before the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, dividing South and North Korea ever since.
The youngest daughter of five children left orphaned; her brothers were sent to school while her sisters were sent to work. Other family members survived, but none could afford to care for a toddler. Therefore, as is common in many cultures, she was given to a church… or in this case, a temple… a Buddhist temple. Unfortunately for her, this was a time before it became trendy to import and adopt an Asian baby in the U.S.
Instead of dresses and jumpers, my mother was clothed in monk’s garments. Rather than having her hair brushed and braided, her head was shaved. There were no games or toys, only chores and prayers. Unlike a church, the temple did not nurture her as a student, it trained her to become a custodian.
Once or twice, my mother said couples came to adopt her. They all promised to clothe and educate her, but upon being taken into their homes, she was abused and made a scapegoat. No one ever followed through with their promises, and again and again, she was returned to the temple.
When she was a little older (maybe seven or eight… she could not be sure because her birthday was never celebrated), her aunt came to take her back.
“I did not know what family was,” she told me. “I didn’t know I had brothers and sisters. I thought that was something other people had, and I wasn’t really a person.”
Nevertheless, when the monks asked her whether she would prefer to stay in training at the temple or return to her family, my mother chose to leave.
Family is a relative term. In fact, she spent very little time staying with her cousins, children who played and were sent to school. The few stories she told, in tears revealed their cruel treatment.
“They would do their homework in front of me, and I wanted to learn so badly,” she said. “They would hide their papers while they studied so I couldn’t see.”
Despite having earned a GED of her own volition since then, she continued to carry this pain.
Although I have travelled to Korea many times and met most of our living family members, I never asked which ones were so vicious to her. I would have likely sought petty revenge of some sort for the story that I found most appalling;
While she stayed with them, there was a temple that would hand out a free cookie to each child in town. Quietly, the cousins would sneak out of their sleeping quarters without her.
“Because they didn’t want me to go along. They didn’t want me to get a treat… even though it wouldn’t have cost them anything. It was free!”
Fortunately or unfortunately, my mother did not live with her family for long. Instead, she was taken to homes in other villages. Sometimes she was told to watch an old person who needed an extra pair of hands. Sometimes she was made to care for the sick or dying. In fact, when she finally made a friend, it was a dog…
Yes, they do eat dogs in Korea, mostly for medicinal purposes. And just when my mom had another heartbeat to turn to for comfort, it was slaughtered to treat the infirm.
This was just one of many homes she recalled. While child labor laws had been introduced in the U.S. decades before; in Korea there were no laws preventing my mother from being forced to cook meals for families who weren’t her own, learn to farm in the rice patties along-side adults, and perform any other cleaning and general labor in order to earn her room and board. If she did not comply, she was beaten. Even when she did comply, she was still often abused. As an orphan, her life had no value to anyone but herself. If she had died, she wasn’t sure whether anyone would even notice.
At some point, she found the courage to begin running away. As she was never paid, she had no money. Sometimes she would sneak onto a bus, hoping to go unnoticed- to return to her family. However, the result was the same. Again and again, she was placed in another home to live in service of another family, other than her own.
My mother considered herself to be lucky to look older than her age. As soon as she could pass for a young adult, she stopped sneaking home and began seeking jobs. She waitressed, she cooked, she did whatever she had to in order to survive and feed herself. It quickly became apparent why she emphasized the need to be self-sufficient. She never wanted my fate to be determined by anyone who would manipulate me.
As a child, this was where the story ended. She was a waitress when my father met her. “The woman in white,” he called her, for the white dress she always wore.
…and so was the fairy tale of my origin. My father was so in love with her that he insisted he would send for her. Following his discharge from draft duty, he returned home to Pennsylvania to work and save. For nearly a year, a suitcase’s worth of correspondence passed between my parents, as well as my father’s mother and sister. Their letters said, Welcome to the family. Finally, my mother had parents!
The story might have ended here. My mother went on to become a very successful mother of three. When I, her youngest child entered school, she began taking part-time retail jobs. And by the time I was in high school, she owned her own beauty supply store. We all went to college, and we were all as independent as she had intended.
BUT… Overwhelmed by a cascade of my own depression, I checked myself in to a mental hospital in 2013. I was suddenly obsessed that my mother had not told me the whole truth… My mind was wild with possibilities! She could have had another husband! She could have had other children! What was her secret?!
As I screamed accusations into the phone, I heard her panic. She told me to wait, and nearly three hours later, she was standing at my front door. Hearing my distress, my mother had immediately made the long drive from her home to mine. Then over the following hours, she unraveled the same story I have just repeated before adding the following ending…
“I was so hungry. You don’t know what hunger is… and I had nowhere to go… Every time I went home, they sent me away!” She fought through tears as I held her, “I heard there was a place where women were wrapped in silk. I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded good… and so I went there to ask for a job.
They told me to go out into the street and get men to come into the restaurant, and I did. They told me to pour their drinks, and I did. Then…” her words trailed off into sobs, “they told me to go to bed with them.”
I held her tight, but she exploded out of my arms.
“And I said, NO! I would never! …after being beat and abused and molested all my life- I wasn’t afraid of dying anymore. If those were the only two choices, they could kill me!”
I tried to express to her my relief; how foolish my erroneous ideas had been… How proud I was of her strength and determination! But she continues to carry her shame like a badge of courage, “I was stupid- so naïve to go there myself. No one forced me. I just didn’t know…”
“But you stood up for yourself, just like you’ve always taught me to do!”
“Yes, but they thought they owned me, and I couldn’t get away,” she explained. “They sold me to another place like that. They said I wasn’t worth much because I wasn’t obedient, but the second place let me be a waitress… and that is why I was given the white dress. Your daddy liked it, but I hated it! I was so poor; it was the only thing I had to wear.”
The white dress signified my mother’s status as a pure woman who could not be purchased. However, it also meant she was paid a fraction of what her prostitute colleagues were given. She fell into the endless cycle of taking credit and repaying her debt with each month’s salary... only to end up sick with hunger and desperate enough to take credit again by month’s end.
While my father’s proposal offered her a way out, she accepted it with the same skepticism she’d learned from all the broken promises made to her before. It was not until she arrived and was embraced by my father’s entire family that she truly made the decision to marry him. Within a year, they had two sons, my brothers… and eight years later, I would fulfill her desire to give all the love she didn’t receive to a daughter of her own.
Having argued with her for three years now, it is with the utmost respect I commit these memories to printed word. I know I cannot convince her. She does not believe her actions were brave.
I looked up the history... Prostitution is known as "the world's oldest profession". However, the reason South Korea's economy came to rely upon the sex trade for nearly 25% of its GDP by the 1960's began decades before. During Japanese occupation in World War II, so-called "comfort stations" (aka brothels) were set up to help prevent rape and resulting hostility of the occupied Korean people. Because the money earned contributed to the economy, even married women were encouraged to show their patriotism by selling their bodies. Even though prostitution was made illegal, the Korean government continued to protect comfort stations, where American soldiers were eager to spend their dollars. To prevent the spread of venereal diseases, the women were forced to carry special medical certification cards. Only now that we can speak for ourselves are Korean women rising up and placing the blame upon the responsible parties.
My mother would like to die with this knowledge hidden... But it is no longer hidden. Women are talking! FOR MY MOTHER, please respond and melt away her embarrassment into pride- so that we can enjoy one another's company while she is still alive!