The first week

A wise woman shared with me that she imagined a jukebox when she listens to me talk about how my time had been with my Umma.  One moment Aretha Franklin, the next moment Josh Groban to Van Morrison… I thought it was an interesting image.  I tend to deconstruct moments in my head – one moment present, the next contemplating my Umma’s perspective, then onto my brother and so on.  It usually is right on too.  It is a weird thing I do, but makes for calm in times of not.

With the jetlag dissipating, my American cooking seems more palatable.  My Umma liked my chicken soup so I made a big pot of it for her and I began to scour my cookbooks for all kinds of soup recipes.  (classic overachiever!)  She can’t eat much in one sitting due to some health issues and soup seems to be the best choice.  She seemed to do ok with just rice, hot pepper paste and seaweed (dried ghim) and have not asked for kimchee yet.  The coffee K-cup machine was a hit and my kitchen sink incinerator was cause for great fascination.  The TV has been constantly on.  My birthfamily does not own a TV so having a chance to watch Korean TV in America was a real hit.  How ironic!  They do however have a computer, like over 90% of Koreans.  My brother figured out a way to stream more current Korean dramas for my Umma.  Actually he hacked into some site and was getting them on the DL.  I didn’t realize the ramifications of this until they went home and realized that he wiped out all of my stuff, presentations, workshops, writings, everything.  But, it’s just stuff right?

Only two days in and it felt like a week.  Getting two toddlers out of the house is a moment no mother ever wants to be held accountable for her actions.  Getting out with two other people who have no clue what’s coming next felt like moving a mountain.  In time, it became a nice ritual for my brother and me.  My kids loved it, they got piggyback rides and someone to carry their bags willingly.  With kids in school, the mornings revolved around chores with my brother watching with fascination.  Who would think laundry was so exciting – he read everything and asked lots of questions practicing his English as much as he could.  Not sure if he was feigning interest or serious.

The prospect that this was going to be my life for three months continued to daunt me.  Asking them about the timing and what they wanted to do generated no response.  Only later did I get that they spent all their extra money on the plane tickets.  Their spontaneity left me incredulous.  I told them I only took one month off of work.  I feared they would be bored.  What more could I have asked?  How does one gracefully tell someone they may wear out their welcome when you just met them?  I was wrestling with my unease of their lengthy stay.

So, what do you do with out of town guests?  Take them shopping.  With a large car for only a shortwhile, we took an excursion up to the Outlets.  My brother was delighted with his new Levis 501 to add to his collection of one other pair of jeans.  I became acutely aware of just how poor my Umma and brother were and their daily challenge to live day to day with little in the way of extra or luxury was humbling.  So, all of this was a huge departure from their world.  When they returned to Korea, they moved into an even smaller apartment with one bedroom to save money.  It is probably half the size of our place and I will probably never get to see it.  The rent breaks down to about $1000 a month which made me ponder the inevitable question…what was my obligation?  Do I have an obligation to help and even if I offered, would they take it?

The one highlight of this week was my husband.  I realized pretty quickly, there would be no other man on earth who would have put up with all of this.  Not a single one of my past boyfriends would have been able to handle this situation with his ease, grace, humor and love.  True to his water sign, calm and tranquil, he totally went with the flow.  I kept asking him what he thought of them.  He is a better judge of character than I am and usually dead on.  He got a good feeling from them, crude trappings aside.  He liked my brother.  I found my time with my brother more enjoyable…we talked with a mixture of Korean and English with little trouble.  We began with less of an emotional connection so I it was fun getting to have a brother.  He speaks plainly, honestly, respectfully, no sarcasm.

The best way I can explain how it felt to be with my Umma?  It felt like my skin was turned inside out.  Every touch or look sent my senses into orbit and I got all mixed up.  I felt like I was on an awkward first date where you don’t know your body in space.  She would take my hand and my whole body went erect.  I am not devoid of affection, I adore being close to my boys and am known to give big bear hugs but this kind of touch?  What was this?  It was not something I had any sense memory of.  Like that first date analogy, I couldn’t relax my arm, it felt so very heavy…and then my hand got sweaty…did she notice, did she sense the tension?  Seriously, how ridiculous.

She asked me if I was happy because if I am then she is too.  Of course I brushed off the question with “yes, I am happy, don’t worry about me.”  How could I explain all the degrees of happy that have alluded me?  There are too many Korean words I didn’t know and even if I did, what should I say?  She must have known that I was not completely honest, the question was posed several times in different ways – what do you want for your birthday, why do you not celebrate this birthday (I have two birthdays, the legal made up one and the real day I was born), why can you not tell me what you want?  She was not pushing, just seemed to be at a bit of a loss as to how to proceed with me too.  She asked me if I had dreams about my children when I was pregnant.  Koreans really put a lot of stake in the pregnancy dreams.  She talked about bright silver and gold images she had when she was pregnant with me.  I had no dreams like that.  I jokingly said most of my dreams have not been good ones to which she seriously responded, “even bad dreams are not bad, it’s all in the way you look at them.”  Every time she tried to sit next to me, I struggled to keep seated.  She tried to touch me, examining my scar on my arm while I was on the phone…but I couldn’t stand it and walked away.  She stood and watched me iron!  She wanted to offer to do it and while the iron was too heavy and she couldn’t it figure, the truth was, I didn’t want her to do it.  I didn’t want her to do anything for me.  At every chance, I saw my hand go up.  It was instinctual to resist and put my hand out.  It felt like a flashback too as I didn’t see my hand, but the hand of a child.  For the first time, I can see how daunting it must have been for my adoptive mother to come close to me.  I didn’t make it easy and I was not being any easier now.  I didn’t want to keep her away, but I didn’t want to be the one coming to her either.  I wanted to look at her.  Instead, I just kept moving about the apartment with my head askance waiting for her to sit so I could see her on my terms.  She fell asleep on the couch a few times and I noticed in her sleep, we do look a lot alike.  I will look like her tired face someday.

Sunday, a day of rest…

There was a whole lot of God during this visit.  I apologize if you think I sound disingenuous, but not being an overly religious person, I crack myself up thinking about how much church I experienced.  I attend a Reformed Church.  I like it for its simplicity and diversity.  Sunday afternoons however were spent going back and forth with my Umma and brother to their Korean Catholic service too.  As a former Catholic, I still find the service rituals beautiful and while I complained about the shlepping, in retrospect, it was not bad.  The church was pretty inside with two glass bowls for holy water and a beautiful marble font between them.  Koreans are known for their singing…there is not a one who wouldn’t – with very little prodding – stand up and break out a song or two.  I lost that propensity long ago.  So, it stands to reason, the mass was beautiful, the singing was lovely and my Umma always nearly danced her way down the aisle humming.  And yes, she hums while she is in the kitchen too.

Lest, this all begins to sound like “wonderland”, it was only a matter of a week into this that we had our first disagreement and it boiled down to two women in the kitchen – always a really bad idea.  Spinach in an Asian market has the long green leaves and stems and root.  I usually break off the leaves and discard the rest.  Because I had bought the vegetable earlier in the week, much of the outer parts were getting mushy and like wilting lettuce, I picked off the mushy bits to discard.  Well, my Umma was appalled at how much I threw away and insisted that I keep the rest of it for her to cook.  Up to now, I observed that there was little waste on the apple that got sliced for the kids and a consistent demand to not throw away food that could be eaten the next day instead.  I had been quietly taking all of this in, feeling rather guilty for the amount of food I allowed to waste which is something I have grown lax about since I have kids.  In the past, I could eat everything and prided on how long I could stretch my food.  But kids make you paranoid and everything has to be fresh!  Thus, a lot went to waste.

I would love to excuse my annoyance to being tired, tired of translating, tired of working overtime for what already felt like a month but mostly I just wanted to get dinner on the table at our usual time which was seeming like a bigger challenge each day.  I seemed to be a pace behind all the time.  I was aggravated that my Umma was getting upset at what I wanted to throw away and insisted that I keep the bag of mush for her to peruse later.  I simply told her next time she can do it.  So egregious was my sin, she brought my brother into it to which he just shrugged and walked away.  And the two women were left to disagree and be really mad about it at the same time.  And then after making the damn spinach, she went on and said I overcooked it and didn’t eat it at all.  After a lesson on how to cook spinach properly, I simply could not look at her and I said nothing.  She knew I was pissed and finally said quite plainly, “don’t get upset at me, I am just saying, you don’t have to listen to what I say”  It was neither manipulative nor demeaning the way she said it, thus I got even more gloomy.  She meant what she said, nothing more, nothing less – delivered just as I would.  At this point, George was translating for me, I could not understand her.  It felt like I had cotton in my ears and my mind went numb.  She then quietly said to George, “don’t tell her everything I say.”  My brother thought that was hilarious.

The thing about speaking Korean is that I can turn it on and turn it off.  I seemed to have a tougher time understanding my Umma than my brother.  Perhaps it was because I was less inclined to look at her face and you can tell a whole lot about what someone is saying when you actually look at them speaking.  I needed to stop doing that with her, I was missing out on whatever she truly meant.  I was losing her intent.  But it was very hard to do that.

So, before I end this, just a few funny cultural nuances we encountered by this point:
The act of passing gas?  No big deal…thus it happened often!
Koreans put mothballs in everything, so my home no longer smelled like home
The shower at first was a perplexing item later to be enjoyed thoroughly for long periods of time!
The idea of using our bathtowels was nixed immediately…and the bathsheets we have were literally laughed at.  I now have a collection of bright orange hand towels!