My mother was born in a country riddled with secrets and hidden history. She learned from the dirt beneath her feet that a Korean woman never gives up her pride, no matter what humiliation she is subjected to. My mother was raised by a father who had grown up in North Korea, by a mother who’s sister had died from Japanese torture. She grew up without religion but she believed in the salvation from something better. She invested herself in American rock and roll and black market records and the English language. I think that she always dreamed of coming here. I don’t think she dreamed that she would end up like this.
At 5:30 I watch the stars until they fade, my plastic stars. The real ones are already dead. They have been there for so long that the glow is beginning to fade, a heartbeat that stirs only faintly. When I finally come downstairs my mother takes me in, the folds of her tiny frame turning into a sea of quilts and it is incredible how she can engulf you like she is everything in the world. She does not touch half-heartedly. My mother smells like La Mer, the company, not the sea. Nothing about my mother is French besides the scent that perfumers desperately try to capture with alcohol and chemical compositions. She is not French, and she is not American, and she is not Korean. She is slowly losing touch with any culture, her fingers are beginning to lose grip on her identity.
My mother has never gotten rid of the habit of hiding her valuables under her bed.
She originally came here as a trophy wife after being promised the life of a princess by a charming American. It didn’t take her long to figure out that immigration is not a permanent state of comfort. Her husband left her after she asked to be more than a mannequin that he would dress in fancy clothes that he would eventually stain with drinks and cigarette ashes. Even now, in a different home and with a different husband and with a different child, she’s still completely alone. She doesn’t call anyone back home.
In the way that humans look for their own face in inanimate objects, I constantly search for the face of my mother when I study history. I am hungry for her story but it never comes up except in the single sentence that ever mentions the name of the Korean War. In her absence, I see her wherever she isn’t. I see her in the revolutions and the wars and I always, always see her in the pictures of the Vietnamese women burning from Napalm. There is a reason I have never been able to look for too long.
I like to do my homework in the kitchen while my mother tinkers away over the mounds of insignificant memorabilia that makes up our home. Scraps of notes, paperweights, and bills create a shadow of a junkyard on top of our counters. She is the protector of anything that could hold sentimentality, a believer in the powers of memories long gone. Last night, the sky was filled with a haze of diffused moonlight, the fault of clouds trying to steal the spotlight that the moon takes nightly. My mother and I have not spoken for a few hours when she turns to me and says, “Take out everything that is inside of you and die empty.” She leaves and does not return to the kitchen until after I have gone to bed.
My father hasn’t had a job since last January. Every week the money stretches farther and we sell a few more things and the food streamlines into the same meal: vegetable, chicken, rice, silence. I work three jobs and give the money from the first to my father, the money from the second to my mother, the money from the third towards the cause of pretending that I am not drowning. Once a week I portion out the savings: tampons, tissues, soap. I can’t buy books anymore. My parents do not buy me books anymore. Everything I read has to be returned eventually. None of the words belong to me.
I have watched my mother disappear over the last twelve months. She hovers in every part of our home. You can feel her like ghosts behind your knees, a shiver that you try and ignore. She is the spirit that keeps vigilance in the stomach of our home for all hours of the night. She sits at the kitchen table with the lights off, staring at her hands, watching them peel. Sometimes I will find her there in the hours of the night where the dark and light are the same thing up in the sky. She never seems to see me. I sometimes try to ask her where she is but I don’t think that she knows.