Disowning my (Korean) mother’s unhappiness | By Shinyung Oh (Spring 2022)
For most of my life, I have carried my mother’s unhappiness, sloshing in an aged brown vat atop a rolled towel on my head, the way old ladies do in the countryside in Korea. It was always threatening to topple or overflow, contaminating me, no matter how carefully I maneuvered to find the right balance. It cramped my neck, bogged me down, and caused aches and pains in unexpected places.
When I was younger, my mother used to creep down the stairs to my room after my dad had gone to sleep. She would enter without knocking and start talking until I put my book down and scooted over on my bed to make room for her. Under the beam of my gooseneck lamp, she would wedge herself in with her knees tucked under my comforter and enumerate the various ways my father had failed her. She would follow with a litany of complaints of the wrongs she suffered at the hands of his relatives, the visceral anger growing with each recollection. She would pine for a different life, one where she could sip coffee in a café like everyone else, where she could travel, where she would matter.
In my head, I have reels of painful moments of her adulthood, like the time she called weeping that my father refused to take her to the doctor after accidentally slamming the car door on her hand, as I, a 19-year-old girl halfway across the continent in a cinder-blocked dorm room, stood clutching the phone. Or the nights she woke up wailing from the pain of crushing migraines, and I raged at my father and brother to take her to the ER, even as they stood mute and unresponsive. Or the days my mother suffered from shingles while taking care of my brother’s young children, and all my father did was remind her that they were running low on kimchi.
Over the years, I became the holder of her complaints and longings, even as I begged her to free me from the role. I did not want to see my dad through her eyes and despise him as a result. “I am the child of both of you,” I said. But she replied she had no one else to tell, and all our family stories must stay within the family. Besides, who else would listen to her sorrows?
So, when she secretly withdrew $50 bills and $20 bills from our family dry cleaning business on days she felt particularly bad, I helped her deposit the money in a bank account. When I worked as a paralegal with an overtime dinner budget, I skipped my own dinners to pick up some Nathan’s hot dog nuggets for her at the LIRR train station, the bag warm on my lap as I rode home. When I started making some money as an attorney, I gifted her with a cashmere coat from Neiman Marcus, a Louis Vuitton purse, and many pieces of jewelry, even though she told me later that the stones were too small for a woman of her age.
Conjuring happiness for my mom has been my preoccupation du jour. During the right season in San Francisco, I used to cab over to Whole Foods during my lunch hour to buy pounds of fresh Black Mission figs, her favorite fruit. The cashier’s eyes would pop open.
“What are you making? Are you having a party?”
“No, I’m feeding my mother,” I would say.
I would pack them in neat rows in plastic containers purchased beforehand, one layer with the stems facing up, the next layer fitted like puzzle pieces with stems facing down. I would ship them overnight to New York and pray that they would not over-ripen or bruise before she could bite into them.
Like a safety net underneath a trapeze artist, I have actively sought ways to cushion her from any possible mishaps. When she complained of back pains, I arranged for her to see a chiropractor. When she felt trapped by the inequities of her marriage, I encouraged her to divorce. When she ached from loneliness, I begged her to attend church, with offers to drive her myself or set up a car service. I have invited my Korean American friends to dinner along with their parents so that my parents could meet some other Korean immigrants and find a sense of community and reprieve from their isolation. I spent much of my teenage years organizing and reorganizing her underwear drawer, cleaning every inch of the house, doing the laundry, and making dinner to alleviate any additional load she may have to carry.
If I ran a travel agency and mapped out all the trips we organized to satisfy her longing to travel, I could have earned a hefty commission. When I first started working, I sent my parents on a group trip to Europe. Later, after I got married, my husband and I took them along on most family vacations, many designed around her preferences, including several trips to Hawaii, to Sedona, Palm Springs, Catalina Islands, Vancouver, and on a Disney Cruise to Alaska. A few years ago, I organized a trip for my mom to meet up with her sisters and their husbands in Honolulu, and most recently, shortly before the pandemic, my family and my parents traveled throughout South Korea and toured Jeju Island on a private minibus with our generous aunts and uncles.
Over the years, I played the role of her advocate, her defender, her protector, and her cruise director. None of my efforts has made a difference. Her incessant complaining never ceased, and happiness seems as elusive as ever. She walks with her shoulders slumped, her eyes downcast, and sighs are never far from her breath. She is ever ready to lash out at my father, like a caged animal. But when I offer to take her out for an afternoon, she refuses, claiming he would be lonely if she left him alone. She insists she has all that she needs, even though she has filled my head with complaints of all that she lacks.
In many respects, our family’s immigration journey has been a failure. After more than four decades in this country, my parents live as outsiders. They have no community. They do not attend church, are not affiliated with any organization, and have not one friend we could invite to their funeral. They spend most of their time in isolation, with no one other than each other. Their days are droll, dictated by my father’s penny-pinching anxiety and my mother’s begrudging passivity. Their time is spent bickering, preparing and cleaning up after three meals a day, and watching shows about other Koreans who never left Korea.
The rest of our family is no model of immigrant success. Among the three children, we have no doctors or astronauts in the family, nor a PhD. None of us are Fulbright scholars or even Ivy League graduates. Not all of us even have good credit scores or own homes. During dinners growing up, we children were held captive to our father’s incessant re-telling of how he escaped a life on the farm by walking miles down the mountain to attend school, eventually graduating from Seoul National University and becoming a regional director of a Korean conglomerate. Against the oppressive backdrop of those stories of resilience, we children now only see failure reflected in my parents’ eyes when we dare to look. And my mother does not hesitate to tell us we are defective children.
“There is something wrong with each of you,” she says.
She looks at my face and sees only the wrinkles. She scrutinizes me for weight gain and then tells me to eat more. She sees my purse and openly wonders why I carry such a cheap accessory. She sees my children and wonders why I don’t dress them better, even though they have been picking out their own clothes for half a decade. There is always room for improvement: more eye cream; less or more food consumption; more conspicuous accessorizing for me and the children.
Apart from these superficial markers of success, however, we have failed in the most basic ways. If I were to draw a string from each member of the family to the other, most of the connections would be broken. My sister estranged me over 15 years ago, with no explanation, and my brother and I keep up a superficial conversation. My sister and brother never talk, and my parents receive perfunctory calls a few times a year from them and the two grandchildren on the East Coast. The last time we all got together as a family was more than 15 years ago, and there is no one to take the helm to steer us. We have failed to find a way to get along, to find the language or the courage to bridge our differences or to build a common framework to give meaning to our experiences.
Like a child dreaming of Santa, I have for most of my life yearned for a better version of our family. I long for a family that vacations together, laughs at each other’s jokes, gathers for holidays. I want us to be one of those families who chats easily when they dine out, who knows how to be tender with each other, who knows how to listen and show care. Somehow, nurturing these skills with my husband and my own children is not enough. I long to reach back into my family’s past and restore us as we could have been, before immigrant became our defining identity, before we fell out of our community, before we ricocheted in uncharted directions.
I have begged my mother to help us be that kind of a family. I have cried and asked her to help me to restore my estranged relationship with my sister. I have lamented our failure to be a cohesive family, and I have cajoled her to take on some of the responsibility of bringing us together, instead of passively responding only when I initiate. But my pleas have gone unheard, and my mother shoos me away as if I were a whiny toddler asking for a piece of candy.
“What do you expect me to do?” she says.
So, when I learned last fall that my breast cancer had metastasized all over my body, eating through my bones and creating innumerable lesions on my lungs and liver, and my oncologist told me that my type of cancer has a median prognosis of three years, I emerged from my weekend with puffy red eyes and a vow to live my best life yet. And I wondered how to bring my 78-year-old mother along.
My father and my siblings seemed beyond reach, but I entertained fantasies of creating a normal life for my mom, particularly in a neighborhood with more Koreans where she can talk and be understood. Taking her to church, helping her make a friend or two, and relocating her to an environment where she could move about the world without debilitating dependence on my father. I had ideas of helping her learn how to use an ATM, setting up a garden for her to grow her perilla leaves and Korean peppers, and creating occasions for joy and levity, like slurping jajangmyun together, watching K-dramas as a family, and celebrating the holidays. And given my life expectancy, this felt like my final chance to inject some happiness into our lives.
The week following my diagnosis, my husband and I decided to move back up to the Bay Area to work with an oncologist renowned in triple-negative breast cancer research. I asked my parents if they would move with us and help us. And more importantly, were they up to the task of being happy? Would they be willing to leave their unhappiness behind?
My mom lowered her gaze and stared at her fingers. She was quiet for so long that I wondered if she heard me.
Finally, she said, “I can try.”
My dad sat with no reaction, no eye contact.
“Mom, we’re asking you to come with us to help us with the kids. We have to have a happy environment for the kids. Do you think you can do that?”
“I’ll try, but it’s not easy,” she said again.
“What is making you so unhappy? Are you unhappy we stayed in America? Do you wish we had gone back?”
She stayed silent.
“I think we’re doing okay here. I’m glad we stayed. So many terrible things could have happened, but none of them did. We’re all alive, we have food, we have homes, what’s so terrible?”
She seemed to be listening as she kept her gaze low and repeated, “I’ll try my best.”
A few weeks later, while I lay in a hospital in Pasadena after having titanium rods nailed into my femurs, Jeff drove the kids and my parents up to our new rental in Los Altos. After a few days of unpacking, Jeff drove back down to Pasadena to take me to our new house, leaving our children in the care of my parents.
As we passed the Grapevine, my cell phone rang with our 10-year old daughter in tears.
“Halmoni said I can’t call you. She said I have to leave you alone, and I have to be strong! Why can’t I call you?”
Shortly after, our son called us to tell us Halmoni was threatening to go back to San Diego. When I talked to my mother, I was shocked to learn that she was seriously considering returning to San Diego as I lay in the car with my legs propped by pillows to prevent a clot, still hours away from home.
“Children not easy,” she said in English.
When we stopped for our next 30-minute interval to exercise my legs, I burst into tears. Our reliance on them seemed misplaced, foolish.
This incident marked the beginning of a series of events that made me realize that perhaps I was too late, that my hopes for a restored family had been misplaced all along.
For the next six weeks, as we attempted to live with each other in a 2,000 square feet house, I could feel the framework of my values grate against my mom’s by the way my teeth started grinding every time she jumped off the couch to prepare my dad’s meals. As she cooked, heated up his soup, laid out his utensils, scooped his rice, and called him over to eat, all the while muttering under her breath, I wondered about this self-imposed prison of hers.
One evening, I watched her screaming at him when he asked to eat something from the pot on the stove.
“Why don’t you eat what I set out for you! Isn’t what you have enough?”
As she ranted and snarled at him, she stomped over to the stove, grabbed a trivet and the pot, and stomped back to the table. She set the trivet, then the pot in front of him, turned the handle away from him, opened the lid, and put the spoon in the pot as she continued to seethe, her promise of happiness in front of our children long forgotten.
While my dad spent most of his time napping on the couch under a blanket or sitting on a chair by the sunniest window in the house, my mother cleaned our house endlessly, even as I asked her to stop and relax. She reported to me regularly about the food stock in the fridge, giving me updates like when she moved the kimchi into a smaller jar, even when I told her she could do what she wanted, and reminding me of all the food yet to be eaten as I lay in bed nauseous after a chemo treatment. When we offered to set up the television with Korean programming, she declined, explaining that she did not need it, even though we often found her hunched over Netflix on her iPad.
The pandemic seemed to conspire against us as the Korean churches in the area were still closed for services. When I encouraged my mom to call them to see when they may open for in-person services, she said, “Why do you want us to go to church so much?”
And yet, in her next breath, my mother complained that there were not enough Koreans in the area.
“I thought you said there were more Koreans here,” she said.
When we took short day trips on the weekends to see the beautiful coastline or the redwoods, my parents often fell asleep in the car. When I found a jajangmyun place in Sunnyvale, my mother complained that we were driving too far just for jajangmyun. When I invited them to go see the local holiday parade, they refused because it was too cold out. When the children’s school held an outdoor carnival, they came by for a few minutes and returned home as soon as the sun set.
During a week when I was feeling better, we drove around Los Altos Hills, where we hoped to buy a house with a large enough lot to build an in-law unit for my parents. When I pointed out the lack of shopping centers within walking distance, I asked her if she could enjoy living there. She nodded compliantly and said she could live anywhere. Yet, weeks later, when I goaded her to share what she hoped for her future, she told us that she and my Dad would probably move back to Flushing where she could walk to stores and shop as they wished. I cried, realizing that once they moved back to New York, I may never see them again given my condition. I wondered if they even considered the possibility and if it mattered. And I felt this age-old sense of rejection that what I had offered was just not good enough.
When I asked her why she did not want to live in Los Altos Hills with us, she said that my husband is a foreigner and she could not be comfortable around him. I was baffled to hear her explanation as she and my father had been the ones who moved us to a foreign country 43 years ago and later decided to stay. I have been married to Jeff for almost 15 years. If Jeff is a foreigner, are my children also foreigners to her? Were we ever a family? Were they always uncomfortable with us, even when we took them to Hawaii or on the Disney Cruise? I reflected back on those trips and the countless meals we have had with them when they made little effort to make conversation with my husband and the children.
I thought of all the times Jeff drove over to their house to help set up their TV, fix their iPads or laptops, and move their furniture around. He had driven them to the DMV when they needed to take their driving tests because I could not. He had patiently bitten his tongue when I asked my parents to join us on vacation after vacation, and he had driven us all from one touristy spot to another, helping them get in and out of the car, tending to their needs. I have felt pangs of guilt whenever he did the bulk of the driving or paid for dinner with my parents while my parents rarely offered. He had treated my parents better than my own siblings had, and yet he was relegated to the status of a “foreigner.”
The final straw, however, came unexpectedly. I talked to my mother about my prognosis, partly to help her better understand my situation in order to prepare her and partly to counter her incessant urges to eat more.
“Mom, this cancer won’t be cured by eating more. Most people die from this cancer. In maybe three years. I may die before you,” I said.
With her eyes downcast, my mom said, “Well, at least you have the hope of a miracle.”
She said it almost in a whisper as if she were making a confession to a priest who could absorb her lament.
Whenever I had previously tried to explain the seriousness of my condition, my mother had brushed it aside. “Miracles happen,” she said.
But she had never before spoken about it in relative terms, comparing my situation to hers, even though she had no situation that I knew of, other than old age I would now pay a sizable fortune to reach.
At that moment, I felt cursed by this role I was playing as my mother’s keeper. Even as I am dying from cancer, must I be consoling my mother for her old age? For the life she has already lived? Must I be the one to reassure her of the choices she made or could not make, even as I seek solace for my own fate?
It felt like a cage I helped build. Over the years, I had done her bidding. Intervened during her arguments with my dad, taking her side as she watched me say the words she could not speak. Stepped in when she claimed helplessness. Endlessly cajoled my sister when my mom claimed inability to persuade her. Harshly criticized my brother on her behalf. Over the years, I had perpetuated this role, me as the doer and she, the helpless. Me, an extension of her, ever ready to fulfill her needs or wants.
And now at a time when I needed a mother, she was nowhere to be found. In a time when I wanted to be comforted, to be on the receiving end of sympathy, she was incapable. I sought inspiration, a defense against the looming despair, but she had none to give.
In truth, I wished for a better life for her so that she could be a better mother for me. A mother who cannot take care of herself, steeped in her own despair, has little reserve for her child. She could never show up for me as I needed her to. Just as she could not speak English or drive me to band practices when I was in middle school, she is absent from my current life with my friends, my husband, and my children. When she comes to my children’s birthday parties, she hides in the shadows, smiling in performance, mute. I remember the loneliness of crying in a cavernous dressing room, as I tried on wedding dresses alone in a fancy shop in the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco.
I, who grew up in a different culture, part of a different generation, cannot understand her constraints. I do not know how it feels to be raised in a servant class, trained to elevate and serve the men in her family. I do not know how it feels to live on the outskirts of a society with no hope of belonging. I do not know how it feels to hang all hope of survival on a man probably beset with autism, devoid of empathy or care.
It is painful to watch someone you love live a suboptimal life when the solutions seem obvious, the potential within reach. When she cried, my heart felt like someone was plunging into my chest with an oversized hand and squeezing it until I could no longer breathe. When she told me the regrets of her life, I felt like pulling my hair out in clumps and shaking them loose until they fell like dead leaves from a rotting tree. When she complained yet again about the same social slight from 40 years ago, I clenched my teeth and held myself still to let the words pass through me without violence.
Over the years, I watched my mother become buried deeper in her isolation, as she refused to grab my extended hand over and over again. I watched the effects of this isolation creep over her: The dependence on television; the awkward off-comments during conversations; the lack of synchronicity with others. I watched her become more and more like my Asperger’s father, the only person regularly in her life, as their world shrank to the size of their bank account and the contents of their fridge. I wondered about learned helplessness and how we forget how to help ourselves when the world does not respond, and I wondered if blaming others rather than making changes is one of its symptoms. I can see the slow mental decline as she ages. I tried to save my mother, but she did not want to be saved, at least not by me. I was always but a pained perpetual bystander.
Unexpectedly, cancer entered my life and permitted me to do something I could not do alone. It allowed me to center myself. Perhaps because I no longer have the strength or the energy to take care of others as I was able to before. Or perhaps because I am now dependent on others to survive, given my recent surgery, cancer-eaten bones, and crippling fatigue from the chemo. Without voicing my needs, I may become lost, forgotten.
But most notably, my mother is suddenly no longer worse off than I am. I am no longer the one living a better life, with my happy marriage, many friendships, meaningful work, and a future. While I still have my relationships, my career has been halted and my life possibly curtailed, my children to be left behind to fend against life without me. My time now feels more limited than hers as she may well live into her nineties. We are finally on equal footing. I have been relieved of my guilt, and for once, I do not have to apologize for my life.
Cancer forced me to take stock of my life. I need not be my mother’s keeper. I can give myself this time to enjoy the few remaining years of my life outside the shadow of her unhappiness. I can no longer afford to carry the vat of my mother’s unhappiness on my head.
This is not the ending I planned for our story. I envisioned us reaching a stasis, a plateau where we could look back on our lives together with some hard-bitten appreciation. A coming together, instead of this failure. I thought I had the power to infuse her with our happiness, but I am retreating in fear of contamination.
This outcome is a repudiation of all that I have been raised to value. I was raised to be a good daughter, a hyo-nyo. I spent most of my life bending toward my parents’ way of living, speaking Korean with them, following the Confucian hierarchy, and adopting their norms. I was the heir apparent of our traditional Korean family, assuming the role of taking care of my parents as they aged, even though I am not a first-born son. It happened not by any group intent or design, but by implicit understanding that I have always played the part of the responsible child.
In our family, we follow an unspoken rule of who is supposed to take care of whom. I have always played the role of the caregiver. It was delegated to me as the eldest daughter. I recognize a shadow of the sidekick in myself, one raised to be a member of the servant class, in my mother’s image. This unspoken rule was an injustice that I recognized even as a child. I remember screaming as an eight-year-old to my siblings that I was not their servant. When I was accepted to Georgetown Law, I asked my mother why I had to be the one to be sacrificed to become a lawyer when my brother and sister were free to live as they wished. At the same time, I found meaning in helping, particularly in times of crisis, just as I did in receiving good grades and earning my parents’ approval.
I have failed my mother, but she also failed me. She was unable to see the world through the eyes of her child, so eager to help, so yearning to please. As a child raised as an outsider in this country, I desperately wanted to belong somewhere. If I could not fit in as an American, I needed a family where I belonged. I wanted to be right in some context. But no matter where I went, I walked in dissonance, even in my own family. No one aligned with the other in our family of five. I have spent most of my life working to find a way out of this dissonance.
There is no satisfaction in this reprieve. Every deed feels like a betrayal: This new stance; my writing; dining out without them. I am that climbing partner in Touching the Void, who cuts the rope attached to his injured partner to save himself in a storm. All I can do is walk on, thwarted, relieved, disappointed. Yet, I refuse to be shrouded in secrecy and shame. These values have never served our family.
In Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir Wave, she describes how she rushed past her adjacent parents’ hotel room to save her husband and children as the tsunami loomed. She could not afford to save her parents in that moment because she had to save her own family. While my cancer is not a tsunami, I feel the crushing urgency of the situation. I am trapped in an hourglass, and each grain of sand feels precious, like a lump of my own flesh. Like Joy in Inside Out, I now find myself putting all my effort to fill each bubble of experience with meaning, happiness, togetherness. I want to saturate my children with happiness to overwhelm the sadness that will eventually befall us. They need enough of a quota to last them when I am gone.
For me as well, I have to center my own happiness. I cannot afford to continue to play the role of the sidekick. I, who always bought souvenirs for others but never for myself, am now surrounding myself with flowers and plants, trinkets, and new colorful outfits to fill my senses. I call on friends who make the effort, but do not bother with those who seemingly do not. When I shop, I look for snacks not only for my children, but also for me. For the first time in years, I agreed to a birthday party for me.
This outcome means giving up my story of redemption. No happy ending for our immigration story, where all that we lost through our displacement was meant to be replaced by something even better. But I recognize that this has been my story, and perhaps never my parents’. I am finally giving myself permission to disconnect my trajectory from my parents’ decisions: Their decision to relocate to a new country; to give up their middle-class life to flip burgers and remove stains from other people’s party dresses; to withdraw into isolation and depression rather than celebrating all that we still have.
As in cell division, we need a balance of push and pull to manage our growth, to resist abnormal development. Like my cancer that has metastasized uncontrollably, we as a family sprouted in irregular directions, overgrown weeds with no pruning or support. Year after year, we lived without extended family or community, largely forgotten by our relatives in Korea and unseen by those around us. Alone in this country, we lived as an orphan family, feral, and under-socialized.
Our journey as immigrants is a metastasis, an uncontrollable growth. We have exceeded the boundaries of our origins. The ways of the past no longer apply, even as we lack guidance for our future. We longed not for this outcome, but I lack the power to control it. In this space, we roam freely, without guidance but with latitude to create.
This writing is my call for community. For our generation to find a continuum in each other. Maybe some of you will find yourselves and your families in this telling, and you can relate. Maybe some of you will find it in your hearts to tell me I did the best I could, that I have not forsaken my mother. Maybe others of you will have stories to share, and in some of those stories, I will find forgiveness for myself as well as deeper understanding. And maybe in each others’ stories, we can decipher some meaning, discover new values, and forge paths for our futures, however long or short they may be.