Every morning, my brother and I had breakfast together. It was nice to just be together alone. He loved the diner and all the many foods it offered. Since his arrival, I have been playing the “what if?” game. He was playing the same game. We did the parallel lives comparison. What had his life been for the last 15 years since we first met. At the end of it all, he said, “it can’t get lower than it has been, it can only go up from here.” Growing up, he hated school and by the time he was a teenager was drinking, smoking and fighting all the time. His hands and face bear the scars of fights and accidents. What was he angry at? Who knows. He couldn’t say; he just regrets wasting so much time and feels he has nothing to show for his life. He thought about my friends he met and realized that perhaps his friends were bad choices. He promised to drink less, smoke less and study when he returns to Korea. He used the word “pride” to answer for all his past indiscretions and how pride has gotten in the way of moving forward. Ironic as I believe my pride has gotten me to trudge forward in life, it has kept me focused and striving to prove others wrong.
My Umma refused to say anything bad about her life, her marriage, even my birthfather. But my brother has no such filter and was brutally honest with me. He talked of domestic violence in his home both toward Umma and him. He talked about fights, fear and at times an unwillingness to live. He resigned himself to not marry or have children. With his father gone, he was free to take care of himself and promised me he would care for Umma. He shared how life was in Korea and how much he thanks the mandatory military service and how it helped to clean up his act. The tough guy was gone he believed himself slightly better for it. He shared of days they barely had anything to eat, how his first home was auctioned off due to foreclosure and the three moves each to smaller and smaller apartments. He worked basically as a day laborer but the work was hard and punitive. He shared how getting a regular job was harder due to his age, businesses only want to hire young people and he at 32 years of age was too old already.
As he was talking, I was thinking about how my life had been for the past 15 years in pursuit of my own happiness. He was appalled to hear how much rental apartments were in NYC and the many years of caring for my sisters and myself. Still, I had books. I had the promise of a good life if I just studied and worked my ass off. And the pay off has been plentiful in the most intangible ways. He observed that from the outside, New York was glamourous – designer bags, fancy cars, flashy people. But now that he was here, he saw that New Yorkers were always busy, climbing up and up. He saw hard work and lots of movement to maintain the lifestyle he imagined all these years. Now, he’s not so sure that my life in America was any better than his.
We compared and contrasted and realized that while neither of our lives have been what we dreamed, I definitely got out ahead. But he admitted that had our lives been switched and I lived in Korea and he adopted, he would probably be no different – he would have still fought and chosen not to study. He was honest in saying that in America, I could get student loans to go to school. That would not have been an option for me in Korea. From his perspectives, having family was overrated some. He was not close to his Dad’s side of the family and was not helped out by his mother’s side of the family. Life is still he and Umma. And that would have been me too. Here though, I have friends who have been my family and support. I have a way to stand on my own and continue to pursue. How luxurious.