My Mother’s Son

As a child, I was always busy, but also always alone.  It’s no secret that Asians just assume their children will be musical prodigies and my mother was no different.  I started playing piano before I can remember eating or shitting or walking.   Sometimes when I sit on a couch with particularly deep seats, and my knees don’t bend over the end, it reminds me of the first time I sat down in front of the keys, my legs perpetually swinging off the ground.

The first and only choice my mother ever offered to me regarding my extra-curricular activities was between the piano and the violin.  Since I knew she’d never be able to say “violin” without embarrassing me, I chose the former.  Even as a young child, I knew what an explosive embarrassment she posed.  It wasn’t just that she wore rabbit fur to Easter church services, or that she couldn’t say – let alone accomplish – a parallel park job.  I am known to say, to this day, that “Asian people think I am white and white people think I am an Eskimo.”   If there ever were a person without a homeland, a malcontent, an unsettled individual, someone who wasn’t accepted, it was me – a point of conversation for the sea of white people, whose world I just happened to live in.

But it wasn’t just the hour-and-a-half of piano a day (two hours on the weekends) – there were voice lessons and practice, seven Bible verses to write to improve my penmanship, clarinet lessons and practice, Tae Kwon Do, church three times a week, homework, and then, extra-Asian homework either working on Kumon books to improve my math, or taking lessons to improve my Korean.  That was my daily routine, by the age of five, which is also when I happened to enter Kindergarten.  Showing an early intellectual aptitude is something I feel like most people would be proud of, but for me it was just one more thing that made me stand out, when I didn’t want to be seen at all.  And, sure, I was busy, but it was all stuff I had to do by myself, even the “hobby” that required athleticism was something that you did alone, not on a team.

It certainly didn’t help that my mother insisted that I attend a private, Baptist school where I was perpetually mocked for not being white, or not being rich, which was only discovered because my mother would drive me to school every morning, with raw garlic soup, on a tray, in my lap, in her 30-year old Lincoln, with umbrellas open on the inside of the car because she was too frugal to buy a new one when that one ran just fine, except for when it rained.

Attending a private school and being the only half-Korean on the block at the end of a cul-de-sac didn’t win me any favors with my potential neighborhood friends either.   Though, it didn’t really matter, as my day was filled, from morning to night, with responsibilities and tasks to keep me out of my mother’s hair.  The irony was that in 1980 my parents bought that house specifically because it was zoned as both residential and commercial and there was a beauty salon in the basement for my mom to start her own business.  So, essentially, all she was doing was getting into other people’s hair from the moment she woke until the moment she went to bed.

She was always there, preening like a rabid, stalking bird of prey, waiting to jump out and yell at me at any time for not concentrating hard enough, or taking a break to read something that wasn’t for school, or trying all of the shampoos that we had in one bath just because I was curious about what I would do to my hair. But, she wasn’t there to talk about the fact that I felt like I had no say in what my life looked like and I don’t think she gave a fuck.  In her mind, she came from nothing and I had everything, and I was resentful, ungrateful, piece of shit for not appreciating every goddamn second of the life that she was vicariously trying to live through me, but also was providing for me.

My mother’s side of the family is notoriously secretive and quiet, a strong contrast to that of my father whose siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles were known to only speak the language of derision.  I said one year, on a family vacation, that our crest should be a middle finger and our motto “We are all sarcastic assholes,” which everyone white person I’m related to still laughs about and agrees upon, to this day.   But, the Asians played their hands much closer to their chests, perhaps fully inside of their chests.

It wasn’t until I was 18 when I discovered that my uncle on my mother’s side was not my full-blood relative and it wasn’t as if I didn’t know him – the man practically raised me.  On some other trip to see my father’s family in Florida, my mother and grandmother sat me down and gave me the closest thing to the lowdown I will ever pry out of them, especially now that my grandmother is three years gone and my mother will change her story when it suits her agenda.  Here’s what I do know:

My mother was born to my grandmother P. and her father, whose name I do not know to this day, just before the start of the Korean War.  By all accounts my grandfather was a harsh man and a communist supporter, still at the war’s end.  In whatever podunk village they lived in he and the other male elders of my family were rounded up and executed as traitors of the South Korean government.  I write this with no emotion, as I did not know the man, and it seemed that if I had, I wouldn’t have liked him very much.

My mother and my grandmother left the rice fields and were sporadically on the run from the same people who murdered my grandfather, potentially in front of them, of this I am unsure.  My grandmother became a drinker and, from my mother’s telling, a mean one.  She also quite liked to gamble and my mother recounts tales of P. stepping on my mother’s face as she laid on the ground clutching the papers of ownership to the hut they lived in that my grandmother drunkenly wanted to put up for stakes on the gambling table.  They ran.  She drank.  They would eat nothing but rice water for days.  They had worms from eating rice and rice water from the fields that they fertilized with human shit.  They were frail.  P. left my mother with family in Pusan for years at a time and from what I can tell my mother was always running away trying to find my grandmother, which is funny because all I ever dreamed about was running to get away from both of them, from all of them.

My mom has always had a gift with animals and plants.  She told me that she had domesticated a dog who would walk her to school every day and wait for her to complete her work and walk her home.  One day, out of her six years of schooling, the dog wasn’t there, so she set out of foot looking for him.  She found him, hanging from a tree, sold to a butcher, by my grandmother, for his meat, for consumption.  It’s stories like that that make me wonder why I’m the one that felt it necessary to intravenously inject whatever I could get my hands on into my small, collapsing veins, to fall backwards in to a pleasant nothing –  and not my mother.

At some point in time, during all of this, my grandmother became pregnant with my uncle, C., to a man who she refused to marry and to our knowledge is still alive in Korea, to this very day.  No one has had any contact with him and it brought my family a certain degree of shame that she was carrying a bastard.  Though I remember my grandmother with undying fondness, until recent times – she was the woman that often shipped me from one lesson to another, the one fearless enough to do all of the required hours of practice driving for me to get my license, the one who listened to me, but whose English was too broken to understand, she was also unequivocally a rancid, relentless whore of a bitch to my mother, which I never knew until well after she was dead.

Though my uncle was a bastard, he did have a dick.  And, if you’re from just about anywhere in Asia – that trumps.  If they had one blanket between the three of them on cold nights, my mother would sleep, cold and alone, yet my uncle and grandmother would share and be warm.  If there was only enough rice for one, it would go to him.  Even in her death, my grandmother left everything she owned to her son, though my mother was the one who gave her a grandchild first, who bought two of everything she owned and gave one of each to her mother, who lived close to her mother and took care of her as the dementia set in, never wavering, never faltering, never losing patience.

As a grand, final slight, my grandmother mistakenly made my mother the executor of her will because she wanted her to “feel important” not realizing that it entitled my mother to a certain monetary value of the modest estate.  After all of the crematory dust had settled and everything had been taken care of, my mother took that money and gave it to my uncle as well.  “He needs it more than I do,” she said to me “She wanted him to have it.”  Having just learned about how my grandmother treated my mother, and despite how I had treated her, I was upset.  “Can’t you just keep one thing for yourself!?” I’d ask her, my voice reaching levels that only dogs could hear.  “You don’t owe that bitch anything!” to which my mother would respond by smacking me in the face, at the age of 31, looking me directly in the eye and saying “Never call my mother a bitch again.”

But she was a bitch, and a whore, as I found out that she then found an African American GI, Mr. B., to marry and impregnate her one final time.  That pregnancy would end in a miscarriage, to my mother’s relief because the family name couldn’t stand many more blemishes – not then, not ever.  Then, the Asians set to cooking up a scheme to get their asses to “the America.”  They would not tell the American government about Mr. B’s unexpected death of a heart attack, at the age of 40.  My grandmother would go to the US and buy property, unaware that doing so would not guarantee that she could come back to it with legal rights.  By the time all of this had occurred, and my grandmother travelled back to the Korea to get my mother and uncle, the US government was on to them and they should have lost everything, but they mysteriously did not.

My mother was working as a manicurist at the time and had several wealthy clients.  One such client was the wife of a lawyer and she unexpectedly provided kind and unsolicited advice and help.  Her husband contacted a senator in Pennsylvania, which is where my grandmother decided – at random, from what I can tell, to purchase said property, and that senator agreed to sponsor all of them to come to the US.

Central Pennsylvania is also where Mr. B’s family lived, though none of us have ever met them because the slant-eyed witch that converted him to Buddhism before he died would never be their family.  Sadness and grief met sadness and grief again when my mother attended a party and met a man who said “Chong, you’re Korean, do you happen to know…” and he unknowingly proceeded to tell her the story about my grandmother purchasing his house, which he had put up for sale because his only daughter was playing next to a heater that exploded, covering her in hot water, killing her, and ultimately causing his divorce

Of course that would be my grandmother, of course my mother would know who he was talking about, because how many fucking Koreans were there in Mechanicsburg in 1970?  I can tell you.  The answer was three and I’m related to all of them.  But, this man was driven to kindness by being broken, and though he could have taken the down payment my grandmother made without giving her the house in exchange, he didn’t.  Then suddenly, before anyone knew it, my mother, my uncle, and my grandmother had a house and were as American as they would ever be.

My mother tells me stories about how she went into labor and my father was too tired from doing nothing to drive her to the hospital, so she drove herself and pushed for over 24 hours before they decided to do the C-section to fish me out of her, which is apparently the only fishing trip my father decided was worth missing.  While they were digging around, they found cysts in my mother’s womb, so they just yanked out everything, along with me and any realistic probablitily of a sibiling.  Having a serious problem with finishing even a cycle of antibiotics, my mother never took the hormones that she was supposed to take, so I was basically born to a woman in the heat of menopause – and let me tell you she was fucking volatile, from day one.

I always used, thin, black headbands to tie off when I was myself went fishing, but I was fishing around for veins, never thinking about how having a hair product tied around my arm while it had a needle sticking out of it was a constant reminder of my mother when I was getting high.  Though I was running from her, I still held her close.  I did think of her, between otherwise unaware nods, and often. I thought of how I was finally getting what I wanted.  How I was finally calling the shots.  How, penis or not, I was my mother’s child and as much as she wanted me to be that same obliviously happy son to the mother that would never loved her like she wanted, I would and could never be that person.  I would be the one to sit in the cold.  I would be the one to starve.  I would be the one to serve.  I would be the one to care for myself, without needing anyone else.  I thought, so often, as I pulled the plunger up to see my, bright, beautiful blood filling the grey inside of the needle, like rust-colored atomic bomb plumes, that I was so very fucking free. But, I was wrong.

Author’s Preface

“I don’t know what you’re doing, but you look amazing and should keep it up” is what my mother meant to say — and how it would have sounded if her stubbornness to hold on to the last bastion of her Korean identity wasn’t confusing the ever-living hell out of everyone she encountered, each day, for the last 40 years of the life she has spent here in the United States. I wonder now, if she knew, if she’d feel the same way. There’s some part of me that believes that it would bring her greater peace, or at the very least, less discomfort for me to be thin and a heroin addict over just being fat and normal.

I had heard it since I was a child, but it never really stopped stinging. I am, at this day, 5’7” and I looked my “best” according to my mother, at around 113 pounds. My father would often joke that if I had to “haul ass, I’d have to make two trips” and my mother would sigh loudly and say things like “you know, stomach crunches would help you get rid of that tummy” or “you’re so beautiful, but you could stand lose some weight in your thighs,” which she would pronounce “thigh-its” and I would think “I’ll lose some fucking weight there when you learn how to speak goddamn fucking English.”  I remain, a healthy 150 pounds, at this time.

I imagine the conversations I would have with my father, if I were ever honest with him about my addiction, “Mom basically just told me to keep on shoving needles in my arm, so long as you can continue to see the bones in my chest plate – I’m clearly paraphrasing.” He’d look up at me from a book, over his drug-store glasses, on his big Greek nose, with his classic German sense of sentimentality and say “She’s a banana,” as always. I never knew if he decided on that particular piece of fruit because they were both yellow and I didn’t care to hear the manifesto on it, so I’m just going to give his (and our family’s) world-acclaimed wit the benefit of the doubt.

The reality of the situation is that they were both bananas. Being born in the early 80’s to a couple in their late 30’s was relatively unheard of and perhaps for good reason. They were also both unequipped to handle just one child as curious and, eventually, sullen as I was. There were days where I dreamed of a sibling to share their laser-focused neurosis that hung in the air like old cigarette smoke in the only home I’ve ever known. Other days would go by and I couldn’t imagine wishing that kind of punishment on anyone.

Absent in their own ways, my father was, for lack of a better term, a professional grifter that went on fishing trips three months out of every year just to get the fuck away from both of us – and for that matter everyone who wasn’t a fish. He managed to somehow be both a world-class gemologist who could take one look at a piece of antique jewelry and tell you everything about it, but couldn’t figure out not to wear the Ed Hardy shirt that my mother had misguidedly given him as a Christmas present because she found it on sale at a Marshall’s.

“What the hell are you wearing?” I’d ask him the first time I saw him in it, after coming to stay with them, for as long as I could handle, between Philadelphia and a doctoral program, Pittsburgh and establishing a home plan for my boyfriend who was in state prison for two years, and a vehement promise to myself that their home would never be my home again, after I left Central Pennsylvania, at the age of 17. “What? This?” He said, pointing to the skull with a snake coming of its eyes, with two sequins for eyes of its own, and just loads of douchey attitude. “Yes, that, Dad. I’m used to the stone washed jeans, orthopedic shoes, and silver-studded, Navajo belt.  Are you having a mid-life crisis or something?” “No, I just like the pocket,” he replied and continued wearing the shirt likely to this day because who was he kidding, nothing in his life was a crisis.

My parents met in the 70’s while my father was living in a van, driving from Albuquerque to the great expanses of the United States, selling Indian jewelry from a vendor he knew in New Mexico named Phyllis.

Phyllis was terrific. From when I knew her, in her late 60’s, to her dying day she was kind, calm, and funny – everything that my parents were not. To top it off, she looked exactly like the giant turtle from my favorite movie The Neverending Story and I would sit and talk with her for hours – another luxury that was never afforded to me at home. She’d do the driving and selling and living out of a van herself, but she opted for a motorhome and she actually took her son along with her, something my father would only do on special occasions, perhaps when he’d sense that my mother’s overbearing nature was starting to spread fissures across my personality. I was an accomplished pianist by the time I was 5, yet my mother continues to remind me to brush my teeth to this day, and I am in my mid-thirties.  There are stretches where I will avoid detnal hygeine, strictly out of spite, and my will teeth feel like they have sweaters on when I glide the tip of my tongue across them.

My mother was working at a beauty salon at the time called Head Hunters. You can’t even make that kind of stuff up. They probably only hired her because she looked like she was fresh off the boat from Jakarta looking for round-eye melons to lop off and shrink in her hut. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t Indonesian, in a place like Mechanicsburg, everyone in a 60-mile radius was either white, or not. Head Hunters was one of the many stops on my father’s route and though he claims to have disliked her immensely upon their first meeting, she was only 5” tall, 86 pounds, with C-cup tits, which was apparently enough for him to swing back around in a few months and take her on a date.   I’m not fully certain how she ran until she was 8 months pregnant, or, for that matter, managed to stay erect and upright long enough to do someone’s hair.

I have the first three pieces of jewelry that he sold her, a giant ring, cuff, and squash blossom necklace with huge turquoise stones, hand-signed by a jewelry-maker that no one will remember, but me. I recall being 18, searching in a forgotten kitchen drawer for a cheese knife.  Finding jewelry instead, I asked my mom about them. She was constantly squirreling things of value away in strange places. It pains me to think about going through their house after she dies – not because she would no longer be on this earth, but because I will literally have to tear down walls and go through every sweater and Ed Hardy pocket in search of gold kurgans, diamonds, and car titles.

“Would you like to have them?” she asked, not because she was being sentimental, or because she was the kind of person who would give anyone anything if they ever so much as looked at it in a positive way for more than 30 seconds, which she is and was, but because she didn’t wear them anymore. I was in a bit of a nuevo-hippie phase at the time, with dreads and patch pants, reeking of patchouli, and turquoise fit the bill, so I happily took them. I didn’t know then that I would look at those pieces later and think “This is where it all started.” This is where the pain and the anguish and the anger that became my life started, with porous rock that osmosed the oil of the skin of its wearer to the extent that it would change its very color, and expertly wrought silver, made by someone who cared enough to write their name on it, but will never be remembered. It started there.  I started there.

I still have all three pieces, but I broke the singular stone in the ring. I keep that piece the closest and I don’t hide the rest in strange places, as if I had a pet raccoon. In my practical jewelry box, filled with my father and mother’s discarded silver, is my beginning, but it won’t be my end. Though my story starts with turquoise, it ends, as so many stories do, with the beautiful, unconcerned pale of dope.