My parents argued as I ran from room to room, entertaining myself. I was 6, my brother was 3 and we were living in South Korea. After each lap around the small apartment, I paused and took a look at the woman giving me a tight smile. The smile seemed genuine to me, and it gave me the reassurance I needed to go run another lap. But then, after several more, she walked out and slammed the door.
I never saw her again, although I called her on the phone from time to time, asking her when she would be back. Soon the divorce papers were signed and furniture movers came. We were told that my dad was staying somewhere not suitable for children. I didn’t know where my mom was and my relatives wouldn’t tell me.
We stayed with my maternal grandparents at first. For the next few months we attended day care in the mornings and watched cartoons in the afternoons. Our meals consisted mostly of instant ramen and other pre-packaged foods. My grandfather was kind to us, however. He spoiled me with candy and took me to a local bouncy house every week. Occasionally my grandma would bring pre-made food from the grocery store where she worked. She even remembered to bring fried anchovies, my favorite side dish. At night, my grandpa slept on the living room floor with us instead of in his bed.
Sometimes out of boredom and loneliness I would call the fried chicken restaurant that I saw advertised on TV. I had heard the song in the commercial so many times that I memorized the phone number. I liked hearing someone answer me on the other side of the line, but I never responded when they picked up. I would then call my mom to ask when she was coming back. Sometimes she didn’t pick up. When she did, she always said, “soon.”
I Feel Unwanted
After around five months, we were sent to live with my father’s second eldest sister, who we called Second Aunt. We stayed there for a couple of months, waiting for our dad to come visit us with new toys, which he did every few weeks. I was excited to receive the gifts and wondered what he would bring next time. We played together with the new toys for a few hours until it was time for him to leave. I would ask him when he was coming again and where my mom was, and he would lie and say that she would be back soon. I hid my disappointment whenever it was time for him to leave because I did not want to make him sad. However, knowing that he would come visit again reassured me a little bit.
By the time my dad told us that we were moving again to stay with his third eldest sister in Seoul, I was finally getting a sense of my situation: my mother did not want us.
I was 7 and my brother was 4 when we stayed at Third Aunt’s house. Our relatives told us the same stories, over and over again: That our mother was an evil cheater. That she spent her time at clubs and karaoke bars with other men. And that while my dad was hospitalized one time, she was cooking food for another man. They said that she was selfish. She wanted a life of her own and we were holding her back.
My Relatives Act Out a Hurtful Script
At Third Aunt’s house, my paternal grandparents sometimes came to visit, and they would regularly reenact my mother’s departure. I’m not sure why they did this so often, other than for them to vent about their own anger and sadness about her leaving.
“She abandoned you,” my grandmother said to me. “Your grandfather begged her to stay with you and your brother until you were older, but she refused.”
My grandmother took my hands and started to reenact my grandfather’s pleading to my birth mom.
“Just stay until they’re teenagers,” said my grandma, acting as my grandpa, as she held onto my hands tightly. In this scene, I was the stand-in for my mother.
I stood there staring at her, as my mind started to visualize the scene in my grandparents’ tiny home.
Then, my grandma switched roles and took on my mom’s lines, “What about my life? What am I going to do with my life then?” As she said this, my grandma yanked her hands out of mine, surprising me with the sudden movement.
“This is how she pulled her hands away from your grandpa,” she repeated the action again, holding my hands and then letting them go with force.
“She abandoned you,” my grandmother said again, this time with tears. “She abandoned your dad, brother, and you.”
As I grew into my teens, I wondered again and again why all my relatives simply accepted that my father couldn’t possibly care for his own children while working. But at 7, I just stood there, listening to my grandmother, feeling awkward. I could not figure out who needed the most comforting, as we all seemed to have been affected by my mom’s actions. I could not interpret my emotions. What was I supposed to feel?
Like our previous stays, I knew our stay at Third Aunt’s house wasn’t permanent. By this time I had learned to be obedient. After all, this was not my home. I talked politely, acted politely, and pretended to listen because it was not my place to participate in grown up conversations.
After six months of caring for my brother and me, Third Aunt said she could no longer be responsible for us. And it was apparently out of the question that we live with my dad. He was running a bar/restaurant that was open at night. The family were all in agreement that there was no way my father could let childrearing get in the way of his business. Plus, he didn’t know the first thing about cooking and cleaning or nurturing kids.
One day, I learned that my eldest aunt in New York had agreed to take us in, as her son was already an adult. Both my parents signed away their custody rights to her. My mom “signed without hesitation,” my grandma said.
My grandmother promised me: “America is the best country to live in. People will smile at you on the street for no reason and say hi to you as well. You’re going to live in a big house and have your own room.”
My brother and I were just floating children.
My House Forever
As soon as we arrived in New York in 2011, my aunt said, “You do not need to worry about moving around anymore. This is going to be your house forever.” I looked around and felt sudden excitement to see my very own room. However, I did not say anything, to continue my “obedient” act.
My aunt cooked us Korean meals that connected us back to our country. She cleaned the house weekly to prevent us from developing allergies to dust. She had our rooms decorated with wall stickers: Spider-Man ones for my brother and Disney princess ones for me.
She let my brother sleep with her often because he was scared of being alone, and she woke up any time she heard him scratching himself, to prevent his eczema from getting worse. Then she would check on me. On the nights I pretended to be asleep, I noticed her presence by my door. She watched over me for a while, hearing my fake, slow breaths. I felt protected in the dark, and cared for. I felt safe because I knew she was right by my door and that, even if she left, she would be right down the hall. This feeling, of being safe, was new to me.
We also lived with my aunt’s elderly uncle, who we called “Grandpa” out of respect. He eventually told us to start calling my aunt “umma,” which means “mom” in Korean, because that is who she had become, legally and emotionally. At first, my tongue refused to produce the word because it had been a while since I had called anyone my “umma.” This change felt unsettling.
“Eema” is what I started calling my aunt instead. It sounded similar to “umma,” but it was a made-up word and did not hold the same meaning.
“Eema, can you open this for me?”
“Eema, I am hungry.”
However, I began to accept her as my mom and the label “umma” started to come out naturally. I no longer saw her as my aunt. She became my mother.
Genuine Love Includes Fights—and Apologies
Unlike my previous stays at other relatives’ homes, where I was only ever agreeable and quiet, there are times when my aunt tells me to do or not do something and I push back. When she doesn’t allow me to go outside to see my friends, even at supervised birthday parties, I demand to know why and we argue.
Our arguments sometimes escalated to the point where my aunt would say “Go back to Korea to live with your father,” or “I’m done raising you,” or “You do not see me as your real mother.”
Sometimes, in the middle of fights, I stopped speaking altogether. I would get scared that she would stay mad at me forever. I worried that she would really send me back to my father.
As years went by, I started to realize that neither of these things would ever happen. After an argument, my aunt always accepts my apologies. Then she gives me a long lecture about what I did wrong. My favorite part during these lectures, however, is when she talks about her mistakes. She lets me know that the fights were not solely my fault: “I know that I lack warmth sometimes. And that the way I talk can be too harsh. But this was how I was brought up. I realize that my cold attitude probably has some impact on yours but try not to be like me. I really can’t control this. But now you know how not to act.”
At the end of each fight, I am reminded again that my aunt worries she is not raising my brother and me well enough. By staying true to who she is and how she was brought up, she is showing me her true self, which includes her anger and stress. She wants me to understand that she is only human. By being real with me, she lets me know that I am being treated with pure love.
Sometimes, my aunt lets me in on secrets by starting conversations with, “I am only telling you this because you’re my daughter.” We gossip about my other aunts or my friends. When I complain about annoying teachers and peers, she lets me know that she is on my side, saying “They clearly have some problems.” I feel so comfortable knowing that I can talk to her about anyone without being judged.
When we’re alone in the kitchen, I act like an immature child. I make silly faces at her until she gives me a weird look. Then, we keep staring at each other until one of us breaks into laughter.
- Due to her parents’ abandonment, what feelings does Seohee internalize about herself before moving to her aunt’s house?
- How did the “hurtful script” reenacting her mother’s abandonment impact Seohee? What did Seohee and her brother need from the adults around them?
- How did Seohee’s experience living with her Aunt differ from living with her parents and family in South Korea? How did this difference impact her thoughts around healthy relationships?