Words by Sasha Soyon
Or Mom, as you want me to call you. It feels weird to call you Mom when I’ve met you only once. I don’t even call my mom, Mom. I call her Umma, which is Korean for mom but doesn’t sound as chummy. But a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and a mother by any other name would be just as meddling.
For three years, I’ve known you tangentially by phone, as you call your son every week, sometimes twice or thrice to regale him with your latest Texan drama. It’s truly amazing that at 60-something, you still live by the rule that girls just wanna have fun. Thumbs up to you for knowing how to take a five-finger discount at Target on laundry detergent and sparkly eyeshadow. Life’s necessities should be free! We are also very relieved that your head wasn’t throbbing because of a giant brain tumor caused by the evil 5G network, but rather the three margaritas you drank at the Velvet Taco.
You sound like such a fun lady, but when you came to town recently, I was afraid to meet you. Let’s face it, you’re a bit racist. I hate to drop that loaded R word, and maybe I should use something more innocent, like “naive” or “misinformed.” But you did call us frantically at midnight, thinking we’d joined a terrorist cult after seeing a Facebook photo of us standing next to a Black Lives Matter sign.
When your son told you that I cooked most of our meals, was it racism or naiveté that made you question if he now ate Asian food all the time? “I don’t think you’re built to eat just Asian food,” you told your 6-foot, 180-pound man-baby. “You need more nutrients.”
Are you kidding? Don’t you know that South Koreans are some of the longest living people on the planet?
That Gwyneth Paltrow practically inhales kimchi through her vagina because kimchi kills coronavirus? OK, so the NHS scolded her for spreading misinformation, but still, you should try some of this cabbage. There’s magic amongst the stink.
To be fair, we are all racist—er, naive. I took that Harvard implicit associations test, and I admit that when I see a person who looks like you, a part of me wonders if they mocked people like me as kids, calling names and pulling their eyes into little slants. Only you know the truth, as there was no Twitter back then.
I was so grateful when your son diplomatically responded, “Asian food is a lot like other foods. It doesn’t use cream like French food or tomato sauce like Italian, but it’s the same in that it’s a combination of meat and vegetables. And it’s delicious.” See? You can love both Big Macs and bibimbap.
Sometimes, when we’re on the phone, you sound downright childish, like when you told me that you once canceled a trip to Seoul and stopped your teenage daughter from pursuing a modeling career, because you’d heard that Koreans didn’t have “real toilets.” I felt thrust back into grade school. Suddenly, we were no longer mother-in-law, daughter-in-law—we were 8-year-olds in a girl fight, scuffling on the playground, yanking each other’s hair.
“Of course Korea has toilets,” I sputtered. “But yes, there are some old-fashioned toilets that are low to the ground… Even those have running water, though, and some of them are fancy, with gold-plated flushers. I’ve seen them at the Plaza Hotel in downtown Seoul.”
My face was red and puffy as I said this, as if we’d been scratching each other’s cheeks. I was hell bent on defending my culture. It was crucial for me to prove that Koreans aren’t uncivilized, even when we squat over a hole.
I felt drained and sad after we got off the phone. It’s tragic that you prevented yourselves from experiencing international travel. Sure, you might have been uncomfortable outside of America, but according to at least one Instagram influencer, life happens at the edge of your comfort zone. Your daughter might have had an interesting career by now instead of relying on SSI, and you might have discovered that Asians are as diverse as everyone else—some of us are short, some of us are tall, some of us are quiet, some of us are loud, some of us are good at math, some are not, and very few, if any of us, eat bats.
Your precious white privilege, dear Mother-in-Law, prevented true privilege—the knowledge that even Texas is tiny, and that the rest of the world is filled with endless wonders.
Yet, for all of your abrasive naiveté, meeting you in person surprised me. Dare I say, it even delighted me. Unlike my umma, who always tells me that I gained weight, or that I’m too skinny, or that I need a haircut, you told me that I was beautiful, that my dress was adorable, and that I looked 10 years younger than I really am. Thank you, yoga sculpt and Hanacure face masks.
But what touched me the most was that in the middle of cutting your $55 steak—a steak that your son paid for, even though it was his birthday—you told me that I was perfect for your son.
Perfect! Instead of thanking you, I questioned you. “Why?”
If Umma had been there, she would have interjected. “Perfect? Are you kidding? She dropped out of medical school.”
You see, while you partied, my umma climbed. She’s not only a doctor, she’s an immigrant. Back in Korea, she had a busy private practice, a three-bedroom townhouse, a live-in housekeeper. But she crossed the ocean and started over because she thought America could offer her even more. Blonde ambition has nothing on black-haired ambition. My umma is a Buddhist with bling.
She is so ambitious that she often sounds elitist. When your son and I were dating, the first thing she asked was what college he went to; when she heard the answer, she told me to be careful.
Of course, this is just another form of bias. It took years for your son to gain my umma’s respect. She softened when he shoveled the snow from her sidewalk, but it wasn’t until he fixed her karaoke machine that she really melted. Suddenly, she could sing her favorite Kim Wan-sun tunes again. Nothing makes my umma glow like the soaring lyrics of the Korean Madonna. Now when Umma sees your son, she hugs him. Hugs him! And it’s not just an A-frame hug, it’s a full-on chest-to-breast embrace, and she smiles as she makes contact.
While I respect my umma, I can’t really say that I love hanging out with her. I mean, I have a nice time when we aren’t arguing, but I never think, “Hell yeah, I wanna see my mom!” If she were not my mother, we would probably not eat so many dinners with her—though her cooking is so good it’s worth the occasional personal critique.
If you weren’t my husband’s mother, would we socialize? Likely not, but I’m glad we’ve been forced to. Because this is a learning experience for all of us.
You taught me something valuable when I asked you why.
Without missing a beat, or a bite of steak, you said, “You’re perfect, because I can tell that he really loves you and you understand him.”
I paused and let those words sink in. I struggled to maintain eye contact. You see, perfection doesn’t exist in my big, wide world. Traveling to 20 countries and having a decent career hasn’t changed the awkward teen inside me who thinks everything is wrong. (Thanks, Umma!)
During that dinner, I realized that just as I’m not a yellow-faced caricature, neither are you a rabid racist.
You are actually easy to hang with—for a couple of hours. Maybe you were on your best behavior, or maybe it was the martinis, but you know how to say things that make people feel good.
I discovered recently that my top love language is words of affirmation. My umma, however, is all about action. Even though she’s retired now, she gets up at 5:30 a.m. to cook, clean, and garden. When she goes to Costco, she buys extra stuff and brings over five-pound bags of apples.
But I can buy my own apples. I can’t tell myself I’m beautiful or perfect without thinking it is contrived and corny. It’s just like I can’t kiss my own cheek. Mom, in spite of your questionable past, you’ve done magnificently on at least one thing. Your son speaks a lot like you do—with love and tenderness. I know he loves me, even when I’m hunched over the couch picking the calluses on my bare feet. He’s your best quality without your worst ones. And for birthing him and raising him, I can’t thank you enough, Mom.
Maybe next time, we can visit you in Texas. We’ll even take you to the Velvet Taco—but we’re cutting you off after two margaritas.
Published on September 6, 2022
Words by Sasha Soyon
Sasha Soyon is a writer and digital strategist. Her stories have been featured on The Moth, NPR and other outlets. She is currently writing a book based on the essay published here. She's on Instagram @sashasoyon.
Art by Ryan Quan
Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.