My mom’s one truth is that a woman’s job is to suffer. I will never forget it, not because I believe it, but because I’ve heard some variation of it hundreds of times in my short life. Sometimes, my mom recites it like a mantra. Other times, she seems to want to warn me. But every time, it is said without emotion. It is a truth that grabs me by the throat and will never let go.
My aunt walks far ahead of me. She is a small woman; the top of her head reaches only the tip of my nose when she is standing tall. That makes her 4’11”. Barely. But from where I stand, she looks sturdier than an ox. Her wrists and ankles are thick from years of labor, the back of her neck undetectable, hidden by her hunched back. She pauses, drops her grocery bags, massages her right wrist, and turns around to call out my name. I can see the strawberry milk tint on her lips. It tells me, Gina-yah, if you are a woman, you want to be told you are pretty. It doesn’t matter how old you are, doesn’t matter how you’ve lived. I want to laugh and cry all at once. But I stand there, as still as a flower in a windless summer. I am too scared to unravel what has been wound tightly and pushed aside for generations past.
It was my third week in Gyeonggi-do, South Korea. I was 16 years old, going into my junior year, and nearing the end of summer break. My mom, my aunt, and I walked home the long way despite the August heat. The humid air hung over our heads like a piece of waterlogged cloth. It smelled of cow shit and pollution. With grocery bags digging into our palms and our feet hot, we walked through a flower field. Gyeonggi-do is not Seoul by any means, but it’s not the countryside either. There are pockets of city here and there and, not unlike the field we were walking through then, pockets of fields and farmland.
We did not speak. Usually, our dynamic looked like this: my mom poked fun at the homeland she had abandoned for the promise of wealth in America, my aunt countered with “then why are your clothes like that,” and I chuckled quietly from the side. It was all a front. But there in that field, we fell silent. It was not especially big or beautiful. The weather was not perfect. But we were there, two women and one girl, breathing the same air for the first time. With sweat falling into our eyes, the racket of cicadas, and the crinkling of our plastic bags, we understood all too well that we were women to the bone.
My mom’s childhood is a blur. She’ll tell me stories every now and then, but not enough for me to paint a complete picture. I know her only as she is now. Umma. Mom. This is true for too many Korean women. But from what she has told me, I can see a flickering outline of a carefree little girl and an even fainter outline of a pink-cheeked teenager. At the age of 8, she jumped off the roof of a one-story building with goggles over her eyes and a tattered umbrella in her hands. She thought she would fly. At the age of 12, she set a mountain on fire. At 16, she fell in love with a motorcycle-riding boy with thick, black hair. I don’t know if these stories are lies—lies that exist to paint her as anything other than a byproduct of an inevitable future. Lies that exist to tell me, Gina-yah, I strayed off the path we are all destined to walk. Lies that exist to ask me, Gina-yah, are you proud of me?
I walk slower still, and my mom catches up to me. The sun tints everything yellow, and the heat blurs my vision. I glance to the left and see a mirror. It is my mom, young again; I can see myself in her. I stare and smile, enjoying the trick of the light. Then the clouds, pregnant with summer rain (or is it three sleeping fetuses?) create shadows on her face. I see wrinkles, gray hairs, sun spots, and sagging skin in places I saw none just a second before. I hear her blame me. She looks at my pink cheeks and full hair and asks me, Where has my life gone? If you were not here, would your sister or your brother be here? I stop, and she walks ahead of me. I can hear her heavy breathing and can smell the powdery scent of her skin when she passes. I wonder when it’ll be my turn to be the mirror image. I wonder when I will see my mom in me.
In Korea, I am considered a gyopo. In America, a Korean-American. To native Koreans, I will forever be ‘not Korean enough.’ An alien. I had thought that this ambiguity would keep me safe. Safe from living the life the moms, aunts, grandmas, and great-grandmas of Korea live and have lived. Generational expectations and pain, the Korean diaspora, patriarchy and traditions; these words weren’t supposed to mean anything to me. I thought I could escape. I was supposed to be the exception, the prized fruit of a new generation from the glorified America. A girl, yes. But a gyopo. I carried this label with pride, even if it meant I would never belong to one country or the other. But blood doesn’t lie. If you asked me for my one truth, I wouldn’t know what to tell you. I pray that I will not live the life I am destined to, a life lived for those around me. A life of endless sacrifice and bitterness. You can call me lukewarm, selfish. You can call me a coward. It doesn’t matter as long as I can grab my mom’s truth by its throat and bury it alive.
I watch as my mom’s every step draws up puffs of dirt. I watch as my aunt pauses once more to look back. Both have the builds of women that lived the way they were expected to. Their necks are bent from years of looking down into the faces of their children. Their hands are red and bloated from years of washing clothes and rice. Their hair is cut short as if to sever any last pieces of girlhood that may have survived. My body shrinks and compresses into their stunted frames, sunspots appear on my hands, and my legs grow thick and heavy. The pain of the two women swallows me at once.
I cannot stop walking. The field seems to stretch out forever. I stare emptily into the flowers, the clouds, the women in front of me. I fall deeper into the cicadas’ cries and let the August heat blind me with orange and yellow.