Mothers and Daughters | Eating Kimchi and Nodding Politely
When I first came to Korea there were a few things I noticed. Firstly, I’m strange and deserve to be gawked at. Secondly, Korean women dress half naked – at least their bottom half. Anything short of showing pubic hair is socially acceptable. Third, Korean kids are damn cute.
I’m not sure if it’s just an exoticness cast on them by me looking through western eyes, or the fact that Koreans tend to look younger than they are – creating adorable absurdities like seven-year-olds that look like four-year-olds – but with few exceptions, they are tremendously cute. My first class of elementary school students had me resisting the urge to pinch the cheeks of every one of them.
In 2009 it stirred up parental instincts that I had been aware of since 1994. Having a classroom of happy adolescents say, “Hello Alex teacher” every afternoon heightened in me the desire to see a baby that had my eyes, that had my lover's face. I wanted to hold a child who was like me, but who could be so much more than me. I have, however, resigned myself to the idea that that won’t happen. It’s made my life a little sadder, but life becomes despair when you want things, and I’ve accepted things as they are.
A few months ago I was teaching my group of mothers when one of them brought along her child. The temporary lack of a babysitter was the reason for the new class member. She was cute, of course, and her mother Katherine introduced her to me. “Rachel, this is Alex teacher.” Rachel grabbed her mother’s leg as she shied away from me. I didn’t mind, and after straightening my back I asked if everyone was ready to start the class.
Rachel sat in the back of the room as I made the mothers laugh over questions about dating – a topic that came up in our language book. They asked me if I had a girlfriend and I told them, “not anymore.” They acted like mothers act and gave me sympathy as I waved away the non-problem. Rachel was reading an English story book and occasionally looked up.
A few more classes passed when, again, Katherine came in with Rachel. The babysitter issue arose again, and again Rachel sat in the back.
I said to Katherine, “Your daughter is too cute.” She responded by telling me with an awkward smile that Rachel was “unexpected.” Her son, who was my student, was planned for, but Rachel “kind of happened.” She had a slight look of remorse as she bent her head down a little, the awkward smile still on her face. I raised my left eyebrow slightly, but maintained my upbeat expression. “Oh” was all I could say to being told that someone's child was an accident they most likely regretted.
Rachel smiled at me and said “Hello.” I said “Hello” right back and waved.
The little six-year-old girl made a few more appearances in my mothers’ class. She warmed up to me as those classes came and went. Eventually she even began to make a few cute comments, with English skills that were better than any of the mothers in the room. As with most children, I paid her a lot of attention, and smiled warmly while hurting inside. No one noticed and classes continued to be more conversation than curriculum.
One day the mothers talked about child birth. We started comparing speeds and I made a chart on the board of the hours it took for them to deliver. One mother had three children and each was three hours or so quicker than the previous. Her last child was four hours and I joked that her next child could be spit out during a lunch break. I pantomimed what the speedy birth would look like, and after making a few grunting sounds, Rachel joined the rest of us in laughter. I smiled a little more at her as we continued to talk about mothers and daughters.
At the semester’s end the ladies said they wanted to take me out for a goodbye/thank you lunch. They found out that I like sushi and offered to treat. I accepted, and on a hot summer day I wore all black and sat in the front passenger seat of a sedan full of upper middle-aged Korean women. Rachel was a last minute guest who smiled when I got into the car. I smiled back and we drove off campus and towards 강남 (gangnam).
There was a lot of talk on the way to the restaurant. “Rachel is always asking about you. She asks, 'when are we going to see Alex Teacher again?’"
I said, “Hi Rachel.”
She smiled and said, “Hi.”
Throughout the rest of the ride she asked me questions like, “Where are you from?” and “What’s your favorite color?” It was a game of twenty questions that I knew would annoy me if it lasted longer than that day. For the time being, though, I answered her questions while trying to make her laugh.
When we stopped at the restaurant I was the first to step out of the car. I looked above the entrance and saw that the place was named "Muscus." It made me twist my lips at its similarity to mucus, and while imagining an angry chef shooting a nose rocket into my miso soup I felt a little hand under my own. I looked down to see Rachel looking up, extending her hand to mine. I grabbed it, as if that was the plan all along, and walked inside. She sat next to me, and between mouthfuls of elaborate sushi rolls we continued our kiddie conversation.
I swallowed something zig-zagged with mayo and drizzled with fish flakes then said, "My family is very big. I have three brothers and two sisters."
"Really. And my little sister lived in Japan for a long time.”
When diner was over I got up and reached for her hand, but instead she hugged my waist. The other mothers smiled and talked sweetly to Katherine in Korean. I asked, "Do you want me to pick you up?" She nodded and I quickly scooped her off the ground, carrying her in the crux of my left elbow. She wrapped her arms around my neck and gave me a long hug as we walked out into the sun.
Rachel wasn't my daughter, and I had only talked to her for a combined amount of two hours that day, but I felt a closeness that made me want to take care of her as if I had known her all her life. Though I was aware that my feelings were colored by my own issues, I was grateful for the experience nonetheless. I smiled and held her as tight as was socially allowable by the situation.
Hey there… So, this story’s not all here anymore. The full version of this short non-fiction narrative is included in my book, "Eating Kimchi and Nodding Politely."
*Main Image Courtesy Whitney D.B.