I was a very picky eater as a child. I stuck to starches and fruits as much as possible, neglecting meats, many vegetables, and much dairy. My mother, having already raised two sons, eight and nine years my senior, had no fear that I would die of malnutrition. She simply pierced with a look that instilled guilt and said, “You do not know what it is to be hungry.”
She was right. I do recall my aunt driving us to the depot so that my mother could pick up our government cheese, when I was small. Many times, my brothers have told me the stories of how she would make each of them check out multiple times at the grocery store to optimize taking advantage of one-per-customer coupons. We grew up eating Halloween candy during Christmas and Christmas candy during Valentine’s Day. However, I never remember missing meal. I never went to bed with an empty stomach. My mother always made our nourishment a first priority.
Born in Korea, in 1953, my mother grew up around food. In the fields, planting rice; in the kitchen, preparing meals; in restaurants, waiting tables. She was always working with food. Without parents to provide for her, she was not offered the education for which she yearned. She was put to work as soon as she could take orders. Her childhood was nonexistent compared to mine. There were no bedtime stories, teaching her to read. No Barbies, showing her female role models that could be teachers and doctors or even rock stars. She had no toys, no hobbies… Only work.
In Korea, it is shameful to not have a parent, at any age, for any reason. And as Oscar Wilde put it, “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune... to lose both seems like carelessness”. This is how she came to view herself; she did not have parents, therefore she did not deserve parents. She did not have parents to provide her with rearing and love, therefore how could she deserve these things.
My mother recounted her childhood stories to me many times. Sad tales in which the other children obscured their workbooks from her view, so that she might not be tempted to try to learn. Another in which the dog she befriended was turned into a meal for the family for whom she worked. (Yes, people do eat dogs in Korea. It is a regarded a medicinal practice more than a culinary delicacy.) She never told me childhood stories of playing with other kids, going on vacations, or receiving gifts.
The family that she did have could not afford to keep her and would send her away to work again and again. Hence, she declared her independence early in life. The times when she chose to live under another family’s roof, she did what they said and ate their food. The times that she lived on her own, she did what she wanted and carefully budgeted her food. This was when my mother learned to carefully balance how hungry she was versus asking the shopkeepers for credit. This was when she learned to make friends with the hungry girls who did not know how to budget wisely; women who, to this day, continue to call my mother for counsel.
She was 18 when my American father patronized the restaurant where she was working. She was 19 when he was discharged from his military service and sent for her to join him in the U.S. They married one month after her twentieth birthday. One year later, she gave birth to my eldest brother, Sam. Without hesitation, my mother announced she would have a daughter within another year… But my second brother, Lee was born instead.
Despite barely knowing the language upon arriving in the U.S., my mother insisted upon raising my brothers primarily in English. While this prevented my brothers from learning the Korean language, it accelerated her English acquisition. She read to them every night. By the time they entered kindergarten, they were already reading and considered gifted.
For seven years, the family of four lived within very modest means. My father provided by apprenticing in several skilled trades, before eventually deciding upon his career as a heating-ventilating and air conditioning mechanic. My mother ran the household budget, holding the purse strings to insure the family would be well fed. By the time she was 28, she had convinced my father that the addition of a daughter would finally be affordable. I always appreciated being a planned pregnancy, as my mother would complain that she had intended to have me in the spring of 1982. However, apparently I was stubborn even before my conception, as I was not born until Jaunary 1983.
As many women do, when struggling to conceive, my mother took up a hobby- getting her GED. With no extrinsic pressure or reward available, my mother decided she wanted a high school general equivalency diploma. Sure enough, her studies paid off, in more ways than one. By the time she was taking the exam, I was tagging along, in utero. She recounts being extremely nauseous throughout the test but nevertheless passed with flying colors.
As a child, I took great pride in hearing how my academic successes started before I was born, but I found school to be far more challenging than my brothers made it seem. I was always told I was smart, not working up to my full potential, but I could never quite bring myself to believe it. My mother would tell me how fortunate I was to be born in a country that provided a free education, a country that valued girls as much as boys, a country that handed me all the of opportunities she wished she’d had…
But I did not know what it was to be hungry. I never knew, I will never know- what it is to not have an education. Despite my procrastination and self-doubt, I completed a Master of Arts in Speech-language pathology. I have my Bachelor of Arts in dual majors, communication sciences and psychology. This is not because I was very motivated. On the contrary, I told my parents I wanted to drop out of school, get a GED, and study fashion. They were not supportive, and so I graduated. When high school was over, I hadn’t even taken the SAT or looked at applications. I was started wasting time, moping over the plans I had not been able to execute.
I did not know what it was to be hungry. I always found a job. I was good at anything I wanted to do, but that was never good enough. I grew up with all the opportunities my mother never had, but I also grew up believing I had to meet all the expectations that are placed upon children by Korean parents- to be the best, to try the hardest, to earn the highest degree. And my eldest brother was the model example of what I was supposed to become. He was the first person in both my father’s and mother’s families to go to college. He graduated with honors. He joined the Peace Corps. He has two Master degrees and is currently enrolled in a PhD program. Catching up was an insurmountable proposition.
I fought walking down the path that was laid out in front of me many times, but each time, something or someone came along to sweep me back in the right direction. Initially I became a licensed nail technician. A year later, I enrolled in community college. During my last semester of my Associate degree program, I was working at a spa, giving a woman a pedicure, when she told me I should become speech pathologist. I Googled it, and within a month, the next four years of my life had been planned for me; two more years of undergraduate, two years of graduate school.
Those four years added up to five years in reality. The extra time involved friends, relationships, moving from Harrisburg to New York to Philadelphia, family members passing away… bouts of depression, anxiety, therapy, and many, many stories… When the dust had settled, when I was finishing my first year as a professional speech pathologist, in a high pressure hospital job, and I was with a man that I thought I would marry- I went home to my mother and told her, “I’m done. I am finished with expectations. There’s nothing left on the list- except to have a wedding, buy a house, and have a baby…”
That was more than two years ago now. In the following months, I took a sabbatical. I became a truly single woman, for the first time in my adulthood. I resigned from pursuing a hospital speech pathologist position, which I realized I wanted largely in order to give my mother something to brag about to my aunts and uncles in Korea… I took some time off. I became a musician. I started training to become a Reiki Master. I made many friends, many mistakes, and I met myself… many times. I realized how to be hungry- how to feel motivated for things in life that I really want. Not degrees or titles or material objects… not in my case. No, I am still in the process of learning how to nourish myself, my soul… to give myself purpose.
Now I am working as an Early Intervention speech therapist. I treat economically challenged toddlers in North Philadelphia. I see people who are hungry, but who often do not know how to feed themselves. People who want to do more than stock shelves, or pack boxes, or run cash registers… But their mothers may not have read to them every night. Their mothers may not have been able to convince them how lucky they are to have an education- to have just the chance to be educated… Every day I hear complaints about American public education (and most of are valid)- My model example brother was a teacher and can tell me in great detail exactly how it is lacking… But I thank my lucky stars that I was born when and where I was, that I am me- that part of my mother’s purpose has been to teach me these lessons.
And so, before this year ends and another one begins, I decided to fast for five days. I decided to learn what it is to be hungry, literally. It has been surprisingly- not easy, but also not that difficult… But then, nothing seems to be, if I want to do it.