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The Ones Beside Me: Reasons Why I Write

By: Christina Lee

I don’t remember how I had recalled this particular moment—or if I had been able to correctly remember it at all—but upon hearing my dad relay a remnant of it, true or not, I couldn’t help feeling guilty, struck by unwarranted emotion as I heard him say to my aunt one day in Korean: “My daughter says that she doesn’t really know who her mom is.”

This was not a case of mistaken identity, possible infidelity, or a period of separation between mother and child. In fact, I’m not really sure what it was. To this day, I just hope that it was a translation error, that I might have said something along those lines in English nonchalantly one day and that my dad picked up on it of all things for whatever reason. I’d like to tell myself that I’m not really sure what it was, but actually, it might have been the numerous times my mother stood in stony silence at the stove, by the stairwell, atop her bed, never saying a word but her furrowed brow saying it all. The day would pass, and she would wake me up for breakfast like nothing happened.

I even asked her to take a Myers-Briggs test. “These questions are awful,” she said, staring at the long list of descriptions in that sans-serif font while I tried to translate the words aloud in Korean to the best of my ability. Claiming that she couldn’t understand half the questions—thus leading to her marking the “neutral” answers for too many questions—my mom looked at the results as confusedly as I did. I was unsatisfied. She shrugged and left.

The next year, I asked her to take it again. This time, in Korean.

Why I had so persistently pursued my mother for her to take this arbitrary test of ambiguous answers, I have no idea. Or maybe it was that moment, that instant plunging feeling of dissatisfaction when I realized that I really didn’t know who my mother was, hence my insistence on her to take a popular personality test so that I could finally discover the smallest piece of who she might be.

My mom, years of her residing in an unfamiliar country because of her husband’s family. Because of this, because of that. A phrase my mom always told me not to use because it implied blame, contempt toward another. And yet, that was her whole life—a life of heteronomy, of wills imposed by another, experiences she could justifiably attribute to the words: “It was because of that.” But she couldn’t say those words out loud. She kept them nestled inside her. At times it would poke and stab at her insides, but she wouldn’t let me know of her pain.

“My kids say that they don’t really know who their mom is.”

How am I supposed to know her when even a simple Myers-Briggs test can’t tell me? I only know her in shades of pain—of lost youth, of external demands, of expectations from people she cannot win against. When I told her that I wanted to study English, I couldn’t have made her pain any worse. I didn’t know how to explain to her that I felt no satisfaction scrolling through the list of majors for each college until I reached “English.” I didn’t know how to explain to her that I like to write.

At the dinner table, the biochemistry major, computer science major, and mathematics major stare at me. The biology major and agricultural science major, too. “So, what are you going to do with an English degree?”

Ever since establishing my future major with my family, my father never ceased to drop hints every once in a while: “You never know—you might end up liking computer science,” or “Did you know a statistics major is easily employable?” or “What would be your second choice in major?”

After I answered something along the lines of “music,” he gave up and finally changed the subject.

Yet, the disappointment didn’t stop; he continuously held onto the hope that maybe his youngest daughter would change her mind, suddenly realize that no one has use for her English degree in this world, that surely if she was actually concerned about her future, she would throw her books to the floor and pick up a calculator. He then began to ask me, “What do you think of law school?”

And so, I throw a question back to him: How can I be expected to pursue something as monolithic as law when I still need ways to get over the littlest things that have happened in my life? My mom’s Myers-Briggs test results, the day I cried by myself after my dad suggested I consider changing majors, the idea that my parents may not perceive the justification of their marriage mutually. 

I don’t know how I can be expected to pursue anything other than English when I see my mom on her worst days, knowing that no one would ever suspect that she is actually experiencing one of her bad days, when I know that she keeps much to herself, when I finally see what’s “going on” now that I’m older and more perceptive and more aware of the battles she faces. I don’t know how I can be silent when someone closest to me desperately needs a word or two to let her know that she is not alone in feeling the way she does, that what she experiences is not in solitude.

The next time my dad asks, “How about you consider law school?” I will probably not cry alone at night like I did the first time after struggling to remain impartial in front of my dad as if I were really considering enduring additional years of schooling to study something that does not even spark an inkling of interest within me. Rather, I would maintain that same semblance of thoughtful silence, but inside, I would be fully understanding that if I devote my English studies to something that actually inspires me, I will be able to constantly and consistently find the courage to write essays like this, to tell stories about my culture, its expectations, and those closest to me directly affected by such wills ingrained in tradition, knowing that in that moment I have not left anything unsaid or inadequately expressed until the next time I pick up a pen.

There is no future lawyer within me as far as this pen or Word document in front of me can tell. Instead, there are unresolved bits and pieces of inner conflicts, burning questions, fermenting sentiments that call to me for an attempt at expression. In short, I am only ready to cater to the things that strike me as urgent, things that poke at me for attention. I can’t dive into the demands of others, of others’ problems, secrets, and desires that I cannot even begin to imagine. I cannot trust myself to take that on at this moment. I’m being honest. I must take care of the ones beside me first.