My Korean Mother
Summer awaited — excitement apparent in the raucous hum of student chatter from classrooms up and down the hall. A lightness accompanied every teachers’ gait while even the meanies seemed humane. It was the last day of 3rd grade. Carnival day. A variety of games scattered the blacktop, grassy fields, and splintering playground equipment — along with colorful decorations spanning the spectrum. I don’t recall the name of the first game, but it involved stepping into a blue, plastic kiddie pool filled ankle-high with ice-cold water. After drying my feet, I tossed the towel on top of the pile and it toppled over, but the teacher waved his hand and told me to go to the next station. Before I could get a glimpse of the next activity, an older girl approached, breaking out in song: “Chinese, Japanese, hey now, look at these!” — she had both index fingers on the corners of her eyelids, stretching them as far as she could. Her eyes were slits. That smirk. I stopped reflecting on the encounter until a few weeks later when a yearbook arrived in the mail. I skimmed familiar and unfamiliar faces then paused. Tears swelled up and I began to cry. I had found that girl. Her name was Chrissy. I didn’t notice my mother until she draped her arms over me. “Ignore that garbage, John, she is a mean girl — just avoid her, OK?” I fixated on every word and her calm, neutral expression. “Other students don’t care for you because you seem different — you are a Korean boy — this is because their parents don’t teach them the right way growing up. They don’t know any better,” she said firmly. I cried some more. She slowly rubbed my back with one hand and gently patted my jaw and chin with the other as she pulled me closer. That afternoon I tried swallowing the dry knot in my throat of being different and alone. Decades earlier, my mother had done the same in California.
We moved to Golf Lane in 1990. The brown house behind Sunnyside Elementary School. The backyard pool made Burlington Golf Club’s look pathetic. Weeks prior, my parents were discussing membership in the kitchen. My mother wanted me to play tennis and golf and socialize with other higher-middle-income kids I could befriend. She had to know the other parents to make sure the family was suitable. The conversation quickly changed. “You can’t look like that when we go there for dinners or functions,” said my mom glaring at my father. I detected a higher pitch in her voice with criticality towards my father. “Need to dress better, you dress like junk, some scroungy person.” Her words were pointed. “What kind of lawyer are you? Do you think other lawyers, judges, clients can respect you if you dress as you do now? No, they will put you down.” I can’t remember the rest of the conversation because my foot had fallen asleep from crouching while hiding behind the oversized brown corduroy sofa for too long. I had to walk it off on the way to my bedroom. That weekend, my mother returned home from Hoyer’s in Fort Madison with dark green garment bags and boxes. “Your abeoji doesn’t know how to dress right… ah, I just can’t stand it. I spent 800 some dollars on just a suit. Your dad is going to get mad. He won’t like it one bit.” He didn’t. My mother neatly laid out new combinations of shirts, pants, and ties on the down comforter with precision. After that, I never heard irritation in my father’s voice when coming home from work, or deep exhales when reading receipts left on the bar’s slick, marble countertops.
“Tiger imo.” My three cousins (on my mother’s side), all sisters and a few years older, introduced this phrase when visiting from Hawaii. Curiosity set in. “So, my mom is like a tiger?” They interjected: “Yeah… kinda.” “She is strict, she yells, and disciplines for everything — she is a tiger!” “A protector.” The exchange occurred in the basement guest bedroom. The basement scared me. I believed them. Jennifer and Laurie went upstairs for snacks. Susie, closest to my age, stayed behind. She told stories about my mother when they came to live in Iowa years back. I learned that Jennifer, the eldest, was punished for leaving the house in the middle of the night and wandering the neighborhood until my mother did a bed check hours later. Susie described waking to groans and sobbing as her eyes adjusted to the lamp’s dim light. Jennifer was undergoing a traditional Korean punishment. Standing, with her nose tucked into the corner of the wall, she was holding her arms straight up above her head, and had probably been doing so for hours. Her eyes bloodshot and tears darkening the blanket by her feet. “Then I heard imo’s voice,” Susie said while holding eye contact with me — “Stay away from her, don’t talk to her, or you do the same!” “She had been sitting in the chair across the room,” Susie exclaimed. I hadn’t seen this side of my mother, but soon, we would all share in this common rite of passage.
The sting lingered on the tops of both hands an hour after practice. Ten fingers still a rosy hue. I saw the ruler imprint on my left hand — the hand that gave me the most trouble when playing piano. My mother called it the babo hand. I couldn’t watch TV shows on Saturday morning because I didn’t practice enough that week. My mother heard every note and called out each mistake. She could be on the opposite side of the house and still notice a wrong note. She even did this at Leigh’s house, where I’d go for weekly lessons. She sat on a flower-embroidered couch to my left, about 20 feet away. “Um, no, no… mmm… Leigh stop. John sounds like he needs to repeat that part. He doesn’t know it very good.” Each time a lesson ended early, I knew I did a decent job. The backlight in the car clock lit up and read 5:24 p.m., 6 minutes before my lesson should have ended. She turned towards me and asked where I wanted to get dinner. I blurted, “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” When we got home, I carefully opened the shiny silver wrapper, which had gray honeycomb patterns inside. I grew fond of chicken littles. Each bite was encouragement and approval, making all the practice time worth it. I progressed faster through multiple theory and lesson books than ever before. My mother and I got to know the names of the KFC workers in the drive-thru, and they got to know ours — I never had to request light mayo on those sandwiches for years.
I noticed things at my grandparent’s house (my father’s side) on South Plane Street. After my grandfather passed, larger family gatherings slowly ceased. We visited my grandmother when she was alone. I imagine others did too. Holidays were more isolated, only including those within our own immediate families. It was always just us three since I’m an only child, so it felt strange not seeing cousins Craig, Susan, or Sarah on Thanksgiving or at the 9 p.m. Christmas eve program at Grace United Methodist Church. One occasion remains more significant than others. Everyone met for a birthday. Whose? I don’t remember or care. Each held a tan bowl with cake and ice cream filled to the rim. I focused on finishing so I could beat everyone for seconds instead of listening to conversations. Conversations that didn’t apply to me anyway — I was never asked the same questions my cousins were or shown the same amount of interest. I jolted in my seat (similar to what happens sometimes when I fall asleep) when everyone broke out in laughter — except for my mother. Her eyes shifted downward. She was silent. My father nervously grinned to mask amusement. Two-faced. An aunt asked in merriment, “Hye Sang, can you repeat that, do you know what it means?” “No, I do not,” she said tersely. This sparked guffaws around the room. Not even 30 minutes later, a similar interaction happened where my mother didn’t understand a joke and asked for an explanation. “Oh, there goes Hye Sang asking again.” “Goodnight! how do you get by, Peter?” More grins and snickering. I smiled. I thought I was supposed to. I didn’t know better until I reflected on this, two weeks before freshman year of high school, when every ounce of naivety about my Korean ethnicity had finally departed. I wanted to defend her and help carry the weight together.
Kids loved back to school shopping for new clothes, shoes, and supplies. I didn’t just dread it. I hated it. Younkers and JCPenney were the main stops, along with a few stores inside Westland Mall. My mother drove us 80 miles to Sycamore Mall in Iowa City if she wasn’t happy with local selections. Each time I went inside JCPenney, even on college breaks, I’d gaze at the exact spot I tried on clothes with my mother during grade school. “Hold this one, John, maybe this looks good on you too, yeah, try it on now.” “Ma, where should I put these shirts?” She quickly grabbed them from my hand and threw them on a mannequin nearby. “Where are the dressing rooms?” “No, you don’t need to go, you can do it here. John, nobody is going to see you naked or your gochu, you got underwear on… all the clothing around can block people.” “Um, I don’t want to, mom, can I go to the dressing room?” I sighed. “Don’t make me raise my voice and tell you again. Aigoo, so stubborn. Put it on… now!” This was her high voice — on the verge of yelling. Her eyes got bigger. The way she bit her lower lip was scary. Other parents and children passed by and mothers looked with furrowed eyebrows, sympathetic looks, or smiles in my direction. “This doesn’t fit, no, no good, not the right color for your face.” She just flung the button-down shirt back onto the nearest rack without the hanger. I tried putting it back in the right place, but my mother was already on to another area in search of the next best clothing ensemble. In fear of public embarrassment, I quickly left the clothes in disarray and hurriedly tried to catch up, all while clutching the shirt she told me to carry minutes before.
Running low on yellowtail fish meant a Saturday grocery trip to Shin’s Market on Gilbert Street in Iowa City. The only Korean grocer in town. There are three in the area now. It wasn’t the name of the store, but this is what she called it. I never bothered glancing at the sign above the doors. Mr. Shin was the owner and owned Aoeshe restaurant next door. My mother and I loaded up on beef bulgogi, galbi, and endless side dishes before filling multiple carts with radish, cabbage, gochujang, fish, seaweed, gochugaru, kimchee, and anchovies. We leisurely went down each aisle. “Ma, what is this?” holding up a cartoon box of candy. “Oh, you might like it, you want to try? We can get it,” she answered. Sometimes she placed items in the cart even if I said “no.” I was happy to see these things when searching through the bags on the car ride home. My mother inspected everything on each shelf — picking up a package and using her thumbs to feel the contents inside was common. When this happened, there was a 70 percent chance of making it into our cart. Almost two hours later, we made a final turn from the freezer section back towards the register. There were two Korean women, older than my mother, always near the checkout watching Korean dramas with the volume on max. Once they noticed all the carts of food and me, they muted and elation shown on their faces. “What did they say mom?” “Jalhana is slang for good-looking,” she said smirking. Laughter ensued. On occasion, Mrs. Shin would help us check out. She always let me choose a free soda. While sipping on 7 Up, my mother and Mrs. Shin kept talking and still had two carts of food to scan. The line of customers grew to four, but they never paid any attention. When my mother spoke with the Shins, staff, or customers in passing, an ease and confidence overtook her. Gradually, I came to a realization. She smiled more. She laughed more. She came alive. Her speech was flawless: no confusion, no hesitation, no accent. When she spoke here, there was no, “Could you repeat that?” or “What do you mean?” There was no judgment or mockery, confusion or condescension.
Just my Korean mother.
John Hansen received a BA in English from the University of Iowa and an MA in English Literature from Oklahoma State University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Summerset Review, Spillwords Press, Trouvaille Review, 50-Word Stories, One Sentence Poems, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Eunoia Review, Amethyst Review, Drunk Monkeys, and elsewhere. He is English Faculty at Mohave Community College in Arizona. Read more at johnphansen.com.