Podcasts are my new obsession. I don’t watch TV so radio is my lifeline to the world. Conscious that the habits we do subliminally impact our children, I wonder if my kids will grow up listening to the radio too. I tried to stay away from “Serial” and all that it became, but got sucked in after one long trip to and from Boston. Podcasts allow me to drive, cook, do laundry, keep my hands busy while my mind is unfolding images in my head.
Death, Sex and Money
(I list to shameless plug these shows in hopes you will join me in this obsession!)
And now…The Longest Shortest Time
. “When Mommy Means Everything” made me gasp. At one and a half years of age, a new country, language and day-care situation rendered a little girl mute except one word “maman.” Listening to this story I was fascinated as this little one is not adopted but immigrated with her parents to the US. The sheer newness of everything resulted in this most interesting consequence.
I find myself thinking about what happens in the brain of a child when such huge transitions occur. For this child it was wittled down to using one word. For some it is being mute all together. For some the transition is so huge that they even grow up speaking with a slight accent making the listener wonder where are they from?
Coming to America at nearly 6 years old, I have no concept of how the transition happened. How did communicating in Korean one day get to only speaking English in 3 months? But there are moments when I know the synapses did not form gracefully. When I am tired I get gender pronouns confused..he…she…whatever. I would often say “4 and 3” instead of “3 and 4.” I still confuse “this Sunday” and “next Sunday”…in my head, they are the same Sunday. Something happened. With the rejection of my Korean identity, went the complete transformation of a NY accent and total English. My friend S remarked that there are times when she speaks and uses her “White person’s voice”. Totally get that. A phone interview in college confounded the office when I went in for the in-person interview as they thought the White Jewish woman they were expecting was late, who was that Asian woman sitting there on time?
The reason this podcast made me gasp was the moment I heard the little one’s voice declare, “Maman!” after she has now come out of the fog of transition and is once again a happy, talkative, bilingual child. That little voice pierced my chest and for a second, I relived a moment. I have no idea what that moment was, I have no memory around it, I have no image in my head, but I know that one time in the inner workings of my brain, I did that. I declared my Umma so exactly knowing she would be there. I just can’t figure out when I stopped. When did it happen that I no longer called out for her? And what did happened in the synapses of my mind?
I dream in Korean now. The words flow in my subconscious and I often wake up with a jumble of Korean and English words swirling in my head. I don’t watch TV because I watch Korean dramas. Korean is the last thing I hear before I go to sleep. It is funny to think that this superficial connection to Korea is what has opened the connections in my sleeping brain too – the Korean speaking child to the English speaking adult. But, the only word that does not come from my lips with any amount of ease is “Umma” (Mommy). It sort of comes out with an Americanized accent, there is no flow.
It has been a couple of months since my last call to Korea. I excuse myself with very grown up reasons – work, kids, family, obligations, immediacy of life, health. So “Umma” got even rustier and as the phone was ringing last night, I was practicing and hoping she will pick up the phone. Umma sounds so happy these days as she cares for her newest grandson full time. Jealousy toward my brother hits me, he gets to have her his whole life and now he gets to have her care for his son too. It’s ok, I have her now. The flow begins to happen and as I hear her chattering away about the baby and the oft remarks of how happy she is to hear from me and how sorry she is that she has to wait for me to call her all the time, I pause to turn off my ability to understand her. (It is a bit of a superpower trick I can do, turn on and off my ability to understand Korean as it suits me!) Her voice sings and I can hear her smiling. And when she realizes I have stopped talking, worry sets in that perhaps she has talked too much. And then gratitude and regret sets in as she apologizes for making me do all the work. “It’s ok, Umma, I just wanted to hear your voice. I will call again.” I am no longer mute, I can call her whenever I want. I can ignore her whenever I want.
As I think about Umma this Mother’s day weekend, I am wistful. That exacting moment of hearing an echo declaring her is not spontaneous. That has been lost forever. I cannot will her to be in my conscious every day nor can I take for granted that I can call upon her and bemuse the troubles of my daily life. Every moment I turn my mind’s eye to her is thought out, planned, organized. Some indiscriminate time and place turned my neurons and rewired me. An unforeseen consequence I have learned to adapt. In its stead, I get to hear “Mom” with childlike splendor…in my boys.
To mother….나의 어머니