A day into our visit with Omma, Lee pulled me aside and we realized we had individually come to the same conclusion: Omma was not well. Though Lee cannot understand a word of her Korean, it’s amazing how much body language and tone can convey. “She goes from so happy to so sad and then yelling!” I was all too aware. (More on that here.)
After the few day visit to our Nashville home, NYC was up next as the final destination before Omma headed home to Seoul. Lee was not able to get the time off work, so *deep breath* I was facing this leg on my own.
We started out normal enough. Times Square, Central Park, and all of the other tourist things you do in New York. After each attraction, I asked Omma if she liked it, but her answer was always, “It’s just OK.” She told me New York was too crowded (Hello, have you ever tried to walk around or get on a subway in Seoul?!) and dirty (OK, I’ll give you that one).
The New York visit was a bit of a “return home” for Hyunbae, who had lived there for about a year, 5 years previously. He made a lot of friends while he was there studying at an ESL school. Some who were still living there, of course, wanted to reunite with him, so one night, we sent him off to drink with them in Chinatown. And then there were two.
Omma and I walked around for a bit then we were both ready to get back to the hotel to shower and rest. We had some dinner leftovers so we heated them up and I switched on the TV to the least conversation-dependent show I could find – a cooking competition. We nibbled and watched and small talked for a little, then I said I was going to shower. She grabbed my hand and sat me back down and told me to wait. Then proceeded to shut all the curtains and turn all of the lights off in the room. I had no idea what was happening but I was 98% positive she was finally just going to murder me. We sat there in the dark room, only the light from the TV reflecting off our faces.
But I noticed it reflecting a bit more off of hers. Were those – certainly not…it couldn’t be – tears coming down her face? I was speechless. “Hyun-ah-ya,” she began. I had no idea what she was about to say.
She launched into what became a 3 hour diatribe on all of the things I had done wrong to her on the visit, and since we met 7 years prior. How I hurt her feelings when I told her she stressed me out. How I shouldn’t tell her to talk quieter in the restaurant when she is literally shouting in a silent place. How these and my other 19474082 transgressions so embarrassed her in front of Lee and she felt so sorry for him.
I am still conflicted on my reaction to her speech. I was so taken aback, so shell-shocked, I didn’t know what to do. (I was also exhausted, sick, speaking in a second language, and totally over this visit.) I broke down and cried with her. I told her I know how it feels to be in a strange country and not know the norms or language and always feel like you are doing everything wrong. I was sorry if I had made that harder on her than it already was. I encouraged her that Lee saw her no differently than he did before her visit, so she shouldn’t be embarrassed. I apologized over and over, a scene straight out of a Korean drama, “Mianhae, joesonghamnida, chal mot haeso.”
I could just have easily have gone the complete opposite direction and flown off the handle. I was stunned that she dare call these things out, as she has never attempted to make my transition to “Korean life” anything but more challenging. It was 50/50 as to which way my response would go. To this day, I am still 50/50 as to whether or not I made the right choice. But something about the way she opened up to me for the first time ever. How incredibly sad and broken she was. I didn’t want to shut her down. Even if she was crying for reasons completely other than those she named, I felt she needed the emotional release so badly, I would abide it and let her get that reprieve, even temporarily, from the burden she carried. I would take the lashings to grant my Omma that catharsis – my stubborn, terrible, critical, assuming Omma who I mostly can’t stand but also love very much.
I wish I could say that was a turning point in our relationship. In the trip, yes, we enjoyed each other’s company much more with that out of the way. But in our relationship, nothing is different. In a way, I wonder if it’s worse because she is so embarrassed she “showed her tears” to me like that (though I really couldn’t see much in the dark room).
The final part of our conversation, I asked her about the trip I had been planning to Korea that fall, just a few months after her visit. She immediately and resolutely said, “Don’t come. It’s too soon.” There are many layers of meaning to her statement, I think, but at the time, I agreed. We had more time with each other than we knew what to do with and it would be better to let things cool.
But when we parted ways at the airport later that week, her to Seoul, me to Nashville, she reiterated it. She said she would tell me when I could come. “Ever?,” I asked. She shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly, as if I was asking for a meaningless meal preference. I was devastated. Was she considering the possibility of not letting me ever come back to visit?
That is the very last memory I have of our time together and it has crippled me for many months now. I waited at home for days, weeks, months for her to grant me permission to schedule my trip back to Korea. Fall passed. Then winter, then spring, and another summer.
15 months later, she still has not contacted me.
It came to the point that I had to make a decision. It is not up to Omma to decide if I am permitted in my birth country. She does not stand at immigration and get to determine whether or not I may enter. She can make it difficult, but she cannot keep me from my Appa, who I’ve not seen in 3 years. She cannot stop me from meeting my nephew for the first time. I had to come to the point where I decided her permission and approval are not the end-all, be-all for me any longer.
Not that I would expect her to try to do any of those things. No, she is ill enough that she will pretend like none of this ever happened and act like I am a maniac if I bring it up. I expect our upcoming trip to be business as usual. I don’t think she’d ever admit this encounter happened, not even on her death bed.
I have a ticket to Korea this fall.
I have no clue what awaits me there, but I can finally affirm that it doesn’t matter. Because I know that I will still be a whole person regardless.
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