These days I’ve begun working.
Oh, the delicious thrill of honestly, independently earned money in one’s hands!
And its thought-provoking weight.
I save all of my earnings for airplane tickets.
Mother once mentioned that if I get accepted into university,
she would love to see it with her own eyes and step on American soil again, at least once.
My heart broke a little when she said that.
After all, she’s been working so hard to pay for my high school tuition these three years;
so humble and so sweet a wish from the best of mothers certainly deserves to be answered.
And then, of course, it would never do to leave my two little sisters behind.
They, too, have pined dearly and desperately to see once more the land of our childhood memories,
and it would feel wrong to leave them both behind while taking only Mother.
So here I am, trying to work up the money for airplane tickets to America and back,
tickets that would amount to at least four thousand dollars.
That’s quite a lot of money.
Well, thankfully, there’s quite a lot of work out there for me to do,
and even more thankfully I actually enjoy most of it.
I teach English mostly – and, thank Heaven, none of it test material.
I had been so afraid I’d have to teach classes on “How to Get an 800 on Critical Reading,”
“How to Get a Perfect Score on SAT/AP English Literature”, or “How to Ace the TOEFL.”
This makes me sound very ungrateful. I’m sure there are harder, more unpleasant things to teach.
But all my life I’ve been convinced that test-prep English doesn’t really help
your fundamental English skills, and teaching these subjects would kind of go against my convictions.
Thankfully, all the students who have come to me cheerfully allowed me to teach whatever I liked,
in whatever style I liked. So I decided to go crazy (at least by Korean standards).
I teach Creative Writing. I turn on obscure OSTs from Japanese short films no one has heard of,
then ask my students to imagine scenes for the songs.
I show them five-minute animations or Old Spice commercials,
then discuss themes of standards of masculine beauty / synonyms for “fragrant.”
A little more traditionally, we read short essays / stories.
I recommend “Paper Menagerie.” I read it two years ago in a World Scholar’s Cup contest,
and it’s stayed with me as a beautiful, striking piece of emotion ever since.
So, I’m doing what I love, and I’m having fun, and I’m more grateful than I can express.
But as a very shy person who finds it stressful to make small talk for five minutes,
let alone teach nonstop for two hours,
it’s not easy. And it’s not easy to work without thinking.
About the people I’m doing it for.
About the people who have worked tirelessly for my selfish needs for the last three years,
for my whole life really,
without a single word of complaint.
dear, elegant, charismatic, musical Mother,
with her large, suffering, wonder-filled eyes,
her lips parted in a shy, self-effacing smile,
her legs trembling with years of driving and working,
legs that once looked so beautiful click-clacking briskly in polished high heels,
legs that can’t even walk up a flight of stairs on their own anymore.
She’s given up so much.
The slender fingers that used to touch grand pianos at the Tchaikovsky Music Conservatory
are now worn with years of scrubbing floors and cooking meals and washing dishes.
Despite her prettiness, her youth has fled in seven years of working for the church,
for a very difficult marriage, for a household that has never been rich.
Well, I’m trying to repay her for all that now,
trying to express all the love and gratitude and guilt I hold in my heart for her.
Although most of my money goes toward the airplane tickets, I always save a little,
to keep a steady fund of resources available to make Mother happy.
It’s not much. Little gifts she’s always liked but never bought for herself:
candles – camellia and peach-scented ones, knots of flowers, boxes of tea, red bean porridge.
It’s not much. It’s not nearly enough.
But it’s a beginning.
“Taste certainly changes with age,” Mother remarked fondly,
stroking the last bunch of daisies in her glass.
“When I was younger I longed for jewelry and pretty clothes.
Now, I look for objects that give me peace, like soft lights and pretty flowers.
I think I’d be satisfied even if I didn’t buy another outfit until I die.”
I listened sadly, thinking, “My dear,
I’m sorry I couldn’t buy you all the pretty dresses you wanted when you needed them.”
Well, until Mother’s taste changes again, I’m going to try to fulfill it.
Yesterday, we went to Cafe Arriatte in Insadong, Seoul!
I had searched all over the Internet for a nature-themed cafe,
since Mother loves flowers and grass and nature so much,
and I was very happy to have come upon so pretty a place.
The whole floor was thick with pieces of wood and soft brown soil,
and it felt as if I had just stepped from the bustling, car-streaked city streets
to a small haven of herb-scented paradise.
As I walked into the cafe, I lifted my arm,
letting my fingers brush gently against the smooth, cool leaves hanging overhead.
I bought Mother a glass of herb tea (organic herb tea from Jeju Island, no less!),
and we also shared some honey-drizzled, bean-paste-sprinkled toast,
with hot, melted tteok (rice cakes) squished between the slices of bread.
It’s much tastier than it sounds.
All around us were clear glass bowls filled with water, on which rosebuds and candles floated.
“When I grow up and have enough money, I’ll build you a little room like this,
just for yourself,” I declared in delight, looking around us.
“That would be very nice,” said Mother, smiling warmly at me.
I love it when she smiles.
When I was younger, her smiles and hugs,
even her expressions of affection were a very rare delight;
Mother was not a person of much laughter.
I feared and suffered for her almost as much as I adored her.
She was full of so much anger, so much hurt and bitterness and deep, incurable sorrow.
Now her smiles come easily and naturally, like flowers blooming in spring.
If there were no other proof of God in this world,
I think Mother’s softened eyes and beautiful smile would almost be proof enough for me.
It’s taken decades for Mother to be able to say, “I’m happy,” and mean it.
If I have nothing else, I should still be eternally grateful for that.
There is nothing that affects me as strongly as the sight of long-suffering, kind souls,
lives that have gone through great sadness and changed for the better at last.
Anyway, I smiled back. “Thank you for existing,” I said sincerely.
“Trying to make you happy, makes me happy.”
Then, ducking my head a little shyly, I sniffed at the flowers.
There wasn’t much else that needed to be said.