The Cost of a Mother
by Hannah Bae
“Your mother called,” the office secretary says in Korean. She intercepts me as I head to my desk in the JoongAng Daily newsroom at the start of my shift. “She seemed worried, and she was asking where you were.”
I feel a prickle of embarrassment. I’m twenty-two, a junior copy editor, and the youngest person on staff at my Seoul newspaper. I yearn to be taken seriously. I take care to dress neatly in conservative shift dresses. I trace my eyes in tasteful makeup with exacting precision. I wear my competence for all to see.
“Joesong hapnida,” I apologize by reflex as I lower my eyes to my ballet flats. I know that if Umma is calling, it can’t be good. I imagine her blubbering over the phone in manic, incoherent Korean to the mystified secretary, and I cringe.
I am only a few months into my prestigious Princeton journalism fellowship in South Korea, so I continue in broken, toddler-level Korean, attempting to smooth things over: “I’m so sorry. She has my cell phone number. I don’t know why she would call here to talk to me…”
“She was very worried,” the secretary repeats before she shuffles back to her desk.
I am learning that strict Confucianism governs Korean society. Here, family means everything—one bad actor can heap disgrace on an entire bloodline.
By this point in life, I am afraid of my mother. For years, her mind has felt broken. I know something is wrong with Umma, but my family says that whenever they bring up treatment, she refuses. “Crazy? Who you call crazy?” I picture her shouting at them defensively. Mental illness carries deep stigma among Koreans, and I doubt my family can afford treatment anyway.
I’ve moved to Seoul, as far away from Umma as I can get. The physical distance between Korea and the state of Virginia keeps me from getting sucked into her damaging spiral that drags the rest of my family down.
Her phone call to the newsroom feels like a performance for anyone who will give her attention. She acts out her concern for her young daughter living alone a continent away, but I know the truth: She didn’t care enough to move me into my college dorm. She left me abandoned in parking lots more than once when she forgot to pick me up. She let our father beat my sisters and me. She opened the apartment door and stepped aside when Child Protective Services took us into foster care.
I stew during my copy-editing shift that night. I don’t want to call her back, but Korean duty continually pulls, deep inside my chest. When I get back to my apartment at 10:30 p.m., I dial my parents’ number. It’s 9:30 a.m. on the East Coast, but no one picks up.
I’m a sophomore pacing around a fountain on my college campus in Miami, hiccuping with sobs as I call home. I’ve just left the registrar’s office, where I’ve been turned away from signing up for next semester’s classes because I owe back tuition.
As I wait for my parents to pick up, the sunlight beams down onto perfectly manicured beds of palms and hibiscus that match my soft pink sundress, but I feel black and hurt inside.
“Hel-loh.” The accented staccato of Appa’s voice finally comes through.
I tell him about the bounced check. “You told me to focus on school,” I say accusingly. “You told me I didn’t have to worry about money.” I’m the only one of my sisters to go to college.
“Mi-an, mi-an,” he apologizes. He’ll put a new check in the mail soon. He says it’ll never happen again. But it does.
In 2008, frightening headlines about the plummeting global markets streak across the JoongAng Daily, The International Herald Tribune, and screens tuned to CNN International. Umma’s calls come at a frenetic rate. I wake up in Seoul to missed calls on my cell phone, logged at 4:00 a.m. my time. She doesn’t understand the time difference. I go to work some days to find she’s called the JoongAng’s Washington bureau, whose staff complain to my supervisor.
I feel exposed. Umma is a problem that I need to cover up. I call home to try to reason with whichever family member picks up.
“Can you tell her to stop calling?” I plead with my dad. What I really mean is Can you help protect me? It doesn’t register that I’m asking the man who used to beat me for protection. Appa is my favored parent, deep flaws and all. Through a cold calculus, he is the safer parent.
Our calls always seem to go the same way. Appa picks up. He doesn’t say much. It’s never a good time for Umma to talk.
“This is embarrassing me,” I say.
Across the line, across the Pacific, Appa sighs. He sounds tired. Business is going badly for him. I wonder if he regrets listening to Umma, who urged him to give up his Presbyterian ministry so they could cash in on construction work during the early-2000s real estate boom.
“Mommy crazy,” he replies, pronouncing it like “cray-jee.” His thick Korean accent holds on stubbornly, despite his decades of living in the United States.
When Umma calls, I know it’s not just because she wants to hear my voice. I picture her mind twisting reality like thick, black wires, compelling her to dial whatever numbers might link her to me on the nights she gives in to her anxiety. Appa and my sisters can’t—or won’t—stop her.
I’m home from college on my freshman year winter break. Umma is driving with the car radio tuned to the Korean station. A familiar commercial plays, one of the only ones in English. A lady’s voice says that real estate is the path to the “American dream.” Umma pulls into a strip mall dripping with chintzy chinoiserie against cheap, plastic signs for businesses. She brings me into an office where she and another middle-aged Korean woman prattle on in a language that has never felt like mine.
At the end of the meeting, Umma tells me to sign a thick stack of documents.
“What is this?” I ask.
The lady is a mortgage loan officer. She speaks English like Umma and Appa, as if her tongue is too thick for her mouth. “Your parents are buying another home, an investment property,” she explains. Their credit is too bad to qualify for the mortgage on their own, so by co-signing, I, a college student with a limited credit history, make their home loan application stronger.
Despite the bounced tuition checks and the missed payments, I want to trust them. I don’t want to be the haughty, ungrateful daughter that I fear I am. I feel obligated to help. Umma thinks this investment home is her ticket to a better life. It’s 2004 and in our McMansion-dotted suburbs, the housing bubble is swelling, fat and tempting to Umma. It looks like living outside our means to me.
I work through the stack of documents, not understanding what I am signing away with the ballpoint pen placed before me.
My parents decide to use my checking account to pay the mortgage. By this point, their financial instability prevents them from opening another account in their own names only. My sisters’ finances are in no better shape. I am their only option. My parents plan to find a tenant who will pay rent on the investment house, and that rent will cover the mortgage payments. Simple.
By 2009, the global financial crisis is raging. My parents’ tenant often can’t make rent. The mortgage payment overdraws our checking account. They have already ruined their credit. Now they are ruining mine.
Three years into my life in Seoul, I am doing well for myself. The savings I earn, stashed in Korean banks, tick higher every month.
I don’t think about my United States finances while I’m here—those dollars are on ice, because I pay for everything in Korean won.
One day, as I rifle through the desk drawer where I keep my unused United States debit and credit cards, I notice that one is expired. Better request a replacement, I think as I log into my account.
When the screen loads, I blink in disbelief. There are too many zeroes. My card’s balance is thousands of dollars higher than it should be.
Have I been hacked? I think, frantically scrolling through the recent transactions.
I squint at the screen. I don’t recognize any of these charges.
I fire up Skype and call my parents.
“Hel-loh.” It’s Appa.
I grill him, my stomach knotted, my body barely squeezing out enough air to form words.
“My business…” he says. I detect a falter in his voice. “There no work. I can’t pay my workers. I need equipment, there no money.”
He used my credit card. A replacement already came to my parents’ home in the mail, and he opened it and bought himself construction equipment worth thousands of dollars. Then my mom used the card to get groceries. Then my sisters bought McDonald’s. And so on.
Does this count as a crime? Is my family a bunch of criminals? The truth seems murky. It is only years later, in therapy, that I can put a name to how I feel in the moment: betrayed.
Appa promises to pay off the credit card, and we hang up.
I confide in my roommate, who gets her parents on the phone. Her father calmly helps me plan how to pull my finances away from my parents’ grabbing hands. Gently, he adds: “You need to pay off those credit card charges that they made under your name. They’re never going to do it themselves.” It’s hard to hear the truth. But this is what he’s really saying: I have permission to cut my parents off.
I pay off the credit card debt—about ten thousand dollars, equaling more than ten million Korean won—in one, painful go. It wipes out my savings account. This is the cost of financial freedom.
A few days later, I dial my parents’ number one more time.
“Hel-loh,” Appa answers.
“Dad…” My voice wobbles as I hunch over my desk in my Seoul apartment. I try to make my voice hard, like quick-dry nail polish. Hard As Nails, like the label says. I have to make my heart hard, too. “I decided,” I pause, weighing the gravity of my words, “I don’t want to talk to you or Mom until you pay me back.”
Appa chuckles as he says, “Okeh. Okeh.”
I haven’t heard his voice since.
The word “caretaking” conjures up feelings of benevolence toward a weak, defenseless being. When I try to remember ways that Umma took care of me when I was young, most of the memories feel like vapor, forgotten.
I do remember being a thumb-sucker. “You are too old for that,” Appa says, although I can’t remember how old I am. He tries coloring my thumb with my marker, but I’m smart enough to wash it off. Umma takes out a mini bottle of magenta Estee Lauder nail polish, from a free-gift-with-purchase package. The cap of the delicate brush gleams gold under the light as she paints my tiny fingernails. I spread my fingers wide, and she shows me how to blow on them to make them dry. Once the polish sets, hard like plastic, it won’t wash off. It’s so pretty, I don’t want it to wash off—and I don’t want to suck my thumb anymore, either.
In my last years in Seoul, I work for the State Department, in the press office of the United States Embassy. One morning, an email lands in my inbox.
Subject line: Missing American Overseas
It says that a “Hannah Bae” has been reported missing by her mother. The blood rushes to my face as I recognize Umma’s name on-screen.
I reply immediately, apologizing to my colleague tasked with this “missing American” report. That’s my mother. She’s mentally ill, and this is a false report. Please disregard.
I feel cold, almost robotic, as I read over my words on-screen. What kind of person says “please disregard” about her mother?
It feels absurd, like something out of a Kafka short story, to have my mother report me missing to the State Department when I am working for the State Department. This will not be her last false report.
A few months later, I pick up my desk phone at the Embassy.
Umma’s voice pierces my ear drums as she launches into her high-pitched rambling.
This isn’t the first time she’s reached me at work. Through some bureaucratic miscommunication, she’s learned that if she calls the Embassy, the switchboard operators will route her to my direct line. It’s a crack in the protective shell I’ve built.
Umma’s wailing bores through the seven thousand miles separating us between Korea and Virginia.
The shock always rattles some deep part of me. There’s never any warning that it’s Umma—the operators’ connection appears as an internal number on my end.
I can’t make out a word of what she is saying. After six years in Seoul, I speak Korean with conversational fluency, but her disorganized speech, I will learn, is a symptom of schizophrenia.
My veneer of controlled calm shatters. I forget I’m in my cubicle at work, exposed to my coworkers, as I explode.
“STOP CALLING THIS NUMBER,” I splutter into my phone. Everyone can hear. “DON’T EVER CALL ME AGAIN. I DON’T WANT TO TALK TO YOU.” It is obvious to the quiet, young Korean women working nearby that I am sobbing.
I slam the phone down, as if banging plastic against plastic can release the rage I feel for my mother on the other end of the line.
That is the last time I’ve spoken to her.
It took thirty-two years for me to learn that Umma and I share a history as unmothered daughters.
Five years after I cut ties with her, I flew from New York, my recently adopted hometown, back to Korea to research my parents’ roots. I wondered if I could find a link between the traumas of my generation and those who came before us.
I spent most of my time in Gwangju, my father’s ancestral hometown, the site of a brutal 1980 massacre of pro-democracy civilians. On my last day in Korea, back in Seoul, my news assistant and I met at a local government office a stone’s throw from the JoongAng Daily newsroom. Some of the storefronts had changed, and new skyscrapers streaked across the cerulean sky, but downtown Seoul still felt like home.
I requested a copy of my mother’s family registry, then sat on a bench with my assistant, flipping through the pages.
“Who’s this?” my assistant asked. On the page where Umma’s mother would be, two women’s names were listed. Judging by the dates, the first one was Umma’s mother.
Umma’s father separated from her mother in July of 1963, a few days shy of Umma’s eighth birthday. Four months later, on Christmas Eve of 1963, at 11 p.m., her mother was declared dead.
Her name was Jang Jeong-hee. That was the first time I ever learned of her existence.
The other woman listed is the one I’ve called Grandma my whole life. She married Umma’s father three years after his first divorce. When my sisters and I were growing up, we almost never visited these grandparents. In the last concrete memory I have with them, we’re watching the 1996 Atlanta Olympics on TV.
When I returned home to New York, I brought the family registry to my therapist’s office. Together, we studied the pages like tea leaves, trying to find meaning.
“This is a total guess,” she ventured, “but I think there is a chance that your maternal grandmother committed suicide. She was abandoned by her husband, who kept her kids. She wouldn’t have had many options.”
We wondered aloud whether she, too, had struggled with mental illness. I wondered what it was like for Umma to lose her mother.
I told my husband everything when I got home. I told my in-laws, then my close friends. I didn’t say a word to any of my relatives. I’m afraid to ask how much they know.
Estrangement doesn’t erase the fact that I am my parents’ daughter. I recognize my father’s athleticism in my rhythmic stride as I run, his love of learning in my pile of library books. I see my mother’s jawline when I blend creamy foundation into my skin, her fashion sense in my wardrobe’s floral prints, the warm magentas and coral reds.
When I picture Umma, she’s the most beautiful version of herself, a ’90s queen in shoulder pads and shiny Talbots pumps, standing at the front of the church. Her skin, the pride of a Korean woman, gleams pearl-like with the sheen of artfully applied Estee Lauder foundation. Her lips stretch into a perfect, pastor’s-wife smile. The clarity of her diamond voice cuts through the thick air of the sanctuary. Remember me this way, she sings, and I want to listen.
Published May 12th, 2019
Hannah Bae is an Open City fellow in narrative nonfiction at the Asian American Writers' Workshop and the president of Asian American Journalists Association's New York chapter. Her writing has been published in the anthology “(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation on Mental Health” and “The Monocle Travel Guide to Seoul," and her bylines include CNN, Monocle, Eater, The Associated Press and more. She is focused on stories about Korean American culture and identity, and she is at work on a memoir. You can find her on Twitter at @hanbae and on Instagram at @hannahbae.
Anne Truitt (1921–2004) was a major figure of the Minimalist movement. A sculptor of large-scale, hand-painted wooden columns, she differentiated herself from the movement with her use of color and dedication to the relationship between meaning and form. Each of her pieces she meticulously primed and coated with up to 40 coats of acrylic paint, and carefully sanded to remove any trace of the brush or the artist’s hand. Her work was championed by critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried.
Born in Baltimore, MD and raised on the shore, Truitt cited nature and the architectural environment of her childhood as inspirations. She originally pursued clinical psychology and writing, but began sculpting in her 20s. Truitt has been the focus of several solo exhibitions, including at the Corcoran Gallery, Whitney Museum of American Art, Hirshhorn Museum, and the Delaware Art Museum. She was also the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and five honorary doctorates. Her work is collected in many major American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, and the MoMA, among others.