You left me so many boxes of stuff.
At first they filled the living room of my tiny apartment. Clothes, purses, food, knick-knacks, kitchen tools, bathroom stuff — it was like a housewarming gift for a house already full of your things. I’m convinced that during all the time I’ve lived here, you never really grasped how little space I actually have. Or maybe you did, but you never let it stop you from insisting I take this or that thing I don’t really need: a half-empty bag of anchovy broth powder because what if you want to make stew one night but you ran out of dried anchovies, or a box of five-year old decrepit eyebrow pencils and lipsticks, just in case, because you never know, or a whole drying rack because everyone needs a drying rack of course even with no possibility of it fitting on my tiny, cluttered kitchen counter.
And I take all those things, sometimes with a smile and sometimes with an eye-roll, because I’ve learned to speak your language, I know what you want to say. I feel it when I’m cramming all the shit into my car and you’re going back to the kitchen to get me a can of rice punch to drink on the way back, even though there’s already 12 in the backseat. I care about you. I love you. I’m going to miss you. And maybe just a little bit of I need to get rid of all this junk last-minute and have nowhere else to put it but we’re moving out of the country in a week so just take it.
If it weren’t for my girlfriend, I’d still be stumbling through my living room, stepping over all the I love you and I care about you boxes stubbornly taking up space. I don’t even look down, because if I don’t see it, then I don’t have to deal with it.
But she’s already there, sorting through each box more lovingly than I would. She carefully finds a place for each thing and she tosses what we don’t need. I watch her from the corner of my eye — sometimes she picks up something, turns it over a couple times, then looks at me. Every time our eyes meet, I can’t help but smile.
Umma, this woman feels like home to me. I know you could understand.
Sometimes, she’ll come to me, her eyes lighting up, holding something from one of your boxes that I had long forgotten about. Whenever she’s excited, I can see it on her whole face and it feels like the sun is shining on me.
“Were these your flashcards when you were little?” I squint at the small box in her hands. Yung-uh geu-rim ka-duh. Oh my god, I hadn’t seen those since I was a toddler. She laughs. “It looks like you scribbled all over it!” I start laughing too.
“I used to scribble on ALL my stuff.” Even the hwatu cards you gave me had pen marks and holes in them. I don’t even know how I managed that: hwatu cards are thick and sturdy. I loved the way you would shuffle them so quickly; the sound of those hard plastic cards is still so satisfying.
“It’s so hard to imagine now that I had to learn English like this,” I say, holding up a card. There’s a picture of an airplane, with the English word in big letters and the Korean underneath. I remember all the English workbooks and cards you’d study with me and the little cartoons you’d watch with me. How fluently I could speak to you back then. How a lot of things changed when I started school on a U.S military base. How things changed even more when we moved to America.
“Now I can barely speak Korean right,” I snort. “It feels…awkward when I try sometimes. Like something unfamiliar in my mouth.”
“You’ll learn again. You have so much time,” she smiles at me. “Would it be weird if I used these to learn Korean?” I hug her and say no.
I know her language, too. We have a whiteboard in the kitchen where I wrote the Korean alphabet for her. She sounds out each letter, slowly, familiarizing herself with them. She listens when I break down a word for her, when I explain what each part means. She remembers — or she tries to. She knows what I like and flips through Maangchi’s cookbook (my saving grace, especially now that you’re halfway across the world) and learns how to make it for me. I know what she means when she takes care of a chore for me just to get it out of your way, when she asks me if I’ve eaten yet, when she brings me something from the gas station on the way home.
You do the same things, umma. I know you can understand.
Soon our kitchen is nearly overfilled: tofu, rice flour, gochugaru, odeng, mandu, imitation crab, Spam, anchovies, kelp broth, galbi marinade, dried red peppers, mung bean powder, seaweed, sweet red beans, soup soy sauce, gosari, bean sprouts, pickled radish, ginseng wine, and a huge doenjang jar that you repurposed to hold fresh kimchi. But most of all, I notice the bag of oval-shaped tteok and a big piece of frozen beef brisket: ingredients for tteok-guk, the main dish for Lunar New Year.
This is the first year I’m making my own tteok-guk for Seollal and god I really, really don’t want to. Yeah, maybe it’s because we both know it won’t be as good as yours. But honestly? It’s just because I’m so damn tired.
I wish I could tell you why. I wish I could tell you about this whole crazy year. New relationships, lost relationships, relationships in peril. Friends I can’t be friends with anymore. Exes I still love. Mistakes made, lessons learned, wounds healing and ripping open and healing again.
I know you could understand.
When we moved to the southern U.S five years ago, I thought what a hilarious joke this must be to somebody. Getting sent off to the middle of nowhere after living such a rich life in a vibrant city I had always called home. Just as I had started realizing who I am and just as I had realized I’m not the only one who feels different.
Now you’re there and I’m here and I think I have a family. I found a community where I never thought I would. I learned to expand my world beyond my assumptions and preconceived notions about who matters and who doesn’t and what makes a place worth living in. Most of all, I thought I wouldn’t have to feel alone anymore.
But Seollal lasts three days and for three days I have felt alone. And I know you can understand that, even though you won’t say it.
You know I’m a journalism major, umma. You heard me on the radio. I almost never write things without sources. I don’t say things that aren’t supported by a fact, an observation, a reality understood by someone other than me.
There’s safety in this. It’s what I love in theory and essays and news and journalistic writing. I can’t be wrong if I have a solid argument. I’m not taking risks if I fact-checked everything twice. I can’t be vulnerable if I only write what is tangible, what has been proven, what I can see.
But all I can offer you now is my truth.
It comes from what hangs in the air between us. It comes from what we feel that’s left unspoken. I have nothing to prove to you, nothing to justify, nothing to make up to you. We built a wall between us and then wiped the dust off our hands and pretended it had always been there.
This has to be enough. I have to try, umma. I have to try because you linger in every part of who I am, from my nicotine addiction to the temper I always hold on a leash to the face that looks back at me in the mirror.
I’m not coming out to you as a lesbian. I know you already know.
You knew before I even knew. When I was twelve, you found the strips of photos I had taken with my best friend at a photobooth in the city.
“Why you take this kind of picture with her?” You held up one of the strips of photos in front of my face. “Why you hang out with her every day…all day, every day. You don’t have any other friends?”
I looked at the photos. My friend and I looked so happy. We were smiling with teeth, making silly faces, our arms around each other. We were absolutely glowing. Nothing about the photos seemed blatantly out of the ordinary. But you were always so fucking observant. It was annoying how much you could pick up on.
We just looked so happy with each other. That’s what it was, wasn’t it? I knew that’s what you saw. I knew it scared you. But a part of me that I could not identify yet felt hurt that you weren’t happy for my happiness.
And then you looked me in the eyes and said If I ever find out you’re gay, you won’t be my daughter anymore.
My girlfriend is marinating the galbi. I’m still so tired and she knows it. She got me an energy drink and a snack and hugs me. I want to cook with her tonight — I’ve been looking forward to it.
I think I want to marry her, umma. Not now, but maybe someday. I wish I could ask you how you know when you’re ready. What to do when you’re scared of messing it up. When you’re scared you already messed it up.
You did find out, eventually. Now you pretend like you didn’t — but you did. We both remember what happened. The tears, the screaming, the threats, the cursing. You’re disgusting. You’re sick. The catatonic state you went into later. Not returning my calls. Having to relay messages to you through Dad. The fear that I’m about to lose everything.
And yet, still, here I am, with the same girlfriend you tried to throw out of my apartment, still receiving massive amounts of kimchi from you, and going through the same boxes of stuff you gave me that I’m probably just gonna have to donate to Goodwill eventually. And when we were all saying bye to each other at the airport, you made me promise that I’ll message you on KakaoTalk. I sent you sae-hae bok-manhi ba-deu sae-yo — happy new year — yesterday and you never responded. I know it’s just because you’re an old person who doesn’t know how to work a phone but I fucking miss you anyway.
I’m not coming out to you as a lesbian, umma. I’m coming out as your daughter.
I know I still am to you, even though things are different now. I’d throw away everything I own and everything you’ve given me if I could just hear you say you still love me anyway. That it’s hard for you to accept, that you feel hurt or confused or scared or angry, but that you still love me. That you actually give a shit about who I am and what the fuck I’m doing with my life. I’m tired of being a stranger to you and I’m tired of tripping over boxes in my living room because you’re incapable of just being vulnerable with me.
And as much as I want to, I can’t really blame you. I don’t even want to be mad at you. I know you had a hard life. I know your grandmother raised you with all the baggage of imperialism and war on her shoulders. I know you wanted to be the kind of mother you never got to have in your life.
It doesn’t have to be any harder. You didn’t lose me. You didn’t mess up — well, not too badly, at least. The point is that I’m still here, I turned out fine, and I’m stubborn as ever. I’m not going anywhere.
I have so many bottles of Aji-Mirin in my pantry, umma, I don’t need any more. I don’t need more Tupperware or kimchi or bags of “healthy” rice with grains — you know I don’t even really like that stuff, but I eat it anyway because of you. I don’t need to know how long to soak beans before I cook them or how to roll gimbap without a bamboo mat or what to put in bulgogi marinade.
Honestly, I could live if we never talk about food and cooking ever again. I think we’ve beaten that horse to the point where you’d need dental records to identify its corpse. And Asian Americans: I don’t wanna hear anything about but food is so important in our cultures!! The reality is that we all talk about food (and nothing but food!) all the damn time because it’s much easier than talking about real shit. How about in 2020 we quit bothering our mothers and grandmothers for their budaejjigae recipes and start asking them where this “army base stew” even came from and why they had to eat it in the first place?
Why don’t we think about how much shit they went through to even be able to pass these recipes and stories down to us before we use it to chase clout or write a thinkpiece?
I just want to try with them as hard as they’ve tried with us. And I haven’t been very good at it. But I’m making a promise to myself that I will say all of this to your face one day. I’m just not ready yet. But I will, even if it takes me ten Seollals without you.
Listen, umma, I need you to make me tteokguk again some time, even though it won’t be Seollal anymore (with mandu please!) — and then I need you to ask me what I’m doing these days. I need you to ask me what my job is like and why I love it and what I want in the future and what I care about most and why I care about it and what I do for fun. I need you to stop treating me like a stranger that you’re forced to feed. I need you to see me.
I need you to let me be your daughter again.
We’re cooking now, umma. I’ll send you photos when we’re done and I’ll lie and say it’s just as good as yours. The Year of the Pig is finally over and I’m…relieved. The zodiac is starting from the beginning again. With the Rat leading me into a new decade, it actually feels like a fresh start this time.
The weight of the entire past year is on my shoulders, so I decide to shrug.