We are not very religious people. We don’t go to church—not for Easter, not for Christmas, not for anything except for those three times when we got married and had one kid baptized and then another. We certainly had no plans to go to church while vacationing in Seoul. But there we were at a park when a woman offered me a packet of wet wipes.
This happens frequently around Ilsan, a large suburb 12 miles north west of Seoul where we lived for 70 days during spring, 2017. Nice women hand out tissues or wet wipes all around the suburb: small, purse sized packets of 10 sheets with the name of their church and a bible verse printed on the packaging. I didn’t realize until the third packet that these were religious women spreading the word of God through the generous distribution of dry or wet tissues, which came in handy with snotty noses and dirty toddler hands during snack time. God works in obvious ways.
On this particular wipes encounter, one woman was called to save my soul. She was in her early 50’s with a kind face, permed, shoulder length hair worn down, glasses, and wearing a light weight trench coat. After a few opening pleasantries she said, “I’m sure you’ve noticed how fast time has been passing since being here.” I nodded. “Well time is going to go faster and faster. What are you going to do when your life ends?” She was surprised by my answer. “That’s it?”
I was surprised by her surprise. My perspective couldn’t be unfamiliar to a Christian. Her belief in the afterlife, after all, is in direct defiance against the impinging reality of oblivion. “But then what will you have left?” she said. It won’t matter if I’m dead, lady. I didn’t say that to her. I also didn’t say: Why would I assume there should be any cosmic necessity for my continued existence after death? What makes me or you or most people so special that there should be a celestial mandate that preserves my consciousness forever long after my body has gone to the worms? What kind of hubris is required to believe that the whole of reality should contort its measurable physical laws for little ol’ me, just one out of billions of lives that have been and are and will be, to go on and on, to who knows where, but on and on nonetheless? What will I have left? That question is embarrassing. I didn’t say any of this partly because I felt it would be rude and partly because I didn’t know how to say all that in Korean.
I was born in Korea and moved to Canada permanently in February, 1987. I was nine. My mother tongue is Korean and I continue to speak Korean to my folks. Regardless, while in Korea this year, my Korean failed me. I was useless at translating Korean TV shows; I didn’t understand the voice coming over the intercom in our building until I would later try to take a shower and brown water would stream out because they were working on the water heater; I’d get confused by the woman at the checkout counter at the grocery store when she’d say something about points or receipt or points and receipt and I’d say no? or yes? after which she’d give me a tight look and I would wait blankly for my change. Thank God for Google translate app. I looked up Korean words like: 유모차, 유산, 비뇨기과 의사, 항생제, 태산 목, 벚꽃, 사촌, 생강, 공항, 지방, 요로 감염, 난소 절제술, 민주주의의, 전통적인, 길, 주소, 육아, 정유, 의대, 변호사, 박물관, 호기심, 관절염, 정치, 유산, 무신론자, and other words that came up in conversation. Hold on a minute while I stop to look up a word because my Korean sucks.
My husband has complained only a little about this, but I think privately he’s considerably disappointed with my lack of facility with the language. He probably and wisely keeps his disappointment to himself because he’s monolingual even after all those years of Latin. Latin.
My goal for our trip to Korea was for my kids to become fluent in Korean. It did not go well. It was, in truth, an abject failure. It reminded me of that time when I was pregnant with my second kid and I thought having another baby was going to be a cake walk because I’d done it before. Everyone else seemed to manage. Then it turned out to be not a cake walk, but more like barefooting that crazy volcanic mountain in The Lord of the Ring, sans Hobbit feet, with a baby strapped to my chest and a toddler swinging from my thigh. The year 2015 when my kids were two and zero, was the worst of my life. By the end of that year, my marriage was in the shitter about to be flushed, my three-year-old was in full fuck-you-threes mode, and I was drowning. The baby was fine. Except for that one time when he fell off the changing table and we took him to the ER. I stopped speaking Korean to my kids that year because I couldn’t handle two kids and bilingualism. Making sure we didn’t drown became the only priority.
Fast forward to 2017. My marriage survived. The baby turned two. I felt that I could take on more. We made a plan. Let’s go to Korea. People told me two months was plenty of time for kids to pick up a new language. Korea will teach them Korean. But as my beloved Shakespeare professor once said to me, “Man plans. God laughs.” To be fair, the little one spoke it sometimes. His pronunciation is excellent. Like the other day he said, “Hi,” and “Mommy, this is yummy,” in Korean. But the big one held his Anglophonic territory like North Korean soldiers on the DMZ. Korean was the enemy and he refused to yield.
I blame myself. I should have spoken Korean to them 24/7 and modeled bilingualism, but my Korean sometimes exasperates me. I find it particularly useless when reminding the kids to not fall off the playground equipment, or yelling at them to not run into the street, or hollering at them to stop swinging the plastic shovels at each other in the sand box. Instances like these were frequent and thus Korean was frequently useless. If I said all that in Korean, they would laugh at me. Look at mommy losing her shit in Korean.
Back to the lady of tissues. “What will you have left?” I replied, “I’ll leave my children.” She nodded slowly, but then waved her hand. “But what about you? Does your husband believe in God? Well then you must believe, too!” I giggled. She ignored me and continued: “If the mother doesn’t take charge of her children’s spiritual life then they don’t get one.” “Really?” “Yes!” This was news to me. The idea that children predominantly inherit their culture from their mothers would later be confirmed on a Code Switch podcast. My reaction: “Thank the Lord!”
But besides the relief I felt, I was irritated by what she was saying, namely, that I should subordinate my atheist metaphysics to my husband’s mysticism, and then be the main vehicle for ensuring God’s/husband’s wish to indoctrinate my kids. “But I don’t believe in God,” I said again. Or the patriarchal sexist garbage you’re peddling. She said, “It’s not a matter of you deciding to believe or not. You just show up. You go to church and God will bring belief to you.” God must be a mother, I thought. “How about your parents?” She clapped her hands at my answer. “Well then! They must have prayed for us to meet.”
Up to this point, I was ready to end the conversation. She was starting to annoy me. But I have a soft spot for this benign variety of magical thinking. I find it endearing. My mother does this routinely. She’ll say, “Look at this weather. They (They?) knew we were going to have a barbeque today,” or “The trees are waving to say good morning to me. Good morning!” and she’ll wave back, or “Oh no, please don’t pick the flowers, Harold. They cry when you do that,” or “I knew you were meant to go to Boston. And now look! You met your husband in Boston.” I don’t remind her I went to Boston for grad school, not matrimony or motherhood.
“Hmm, maybe,” I said, “but you know I’m an atheist so probably not.”
My husband has not expressed his concern about my atheism too often. He knew where I stood on the topic of religion before we got married. He’s a believer and wants occasional visits to church. I’m not and I don’t. We haven’t had any arguments about it because: one, my husband can’t seem to overcome the activation energy of finding and getting us to a church on Sundays; and two, I fear that going to church is enough to proselytize my kids so I will not help in any way for him to overcome said activation energy.
Most of the people in my life are religious and I understand the comfort it gives them. I also think, depending on the day you ask, that they are intellectually, spiritually, ethically, and politically stunted and are looking to be guided rather than guide themselves. The idea of a consciousness watching and judging every thought and action is beyond creepy and, frankly, destructive to a person’s sense of freedom and, thus, their sense of responsibility. Besides being highly improbable to the point of impossible, I don’t want that world view for my kids. This is what I think most days. On my less generous days, the vitriol meter has plenty more room to rise.
Then I heard kids inherit their mother’s culture. So, no worries. They won’t be getting religious on my ass. I am their goddamn mother, after all.
So, fine, we went to church one Sunday.
* * *
In Seoul, there is a museum dedicated to Hangul. It’s a three-story building with four exhibition rooms, including an interactive exhibit for small children, a bamboo garden courtyard, a library, a café, and a small, but tastefully curated, gift shop. There you learn about the simplicity of the human-form inspired characters that make up the modern Korean alphabet, the economy and spirituality of their arrangement, which incorporate the Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang. It’s breathtaking. Most people can learn the entire alphabet and the system of putting them together in one day. All this knowledge is contained in a 33-page book created in a single month. Understandably, Koreans hold up Hangul, its creation and creator, as central to their national identity and ethnic pride.
And so do I. My pride made me certain that my ties to the language, culture, and vast network of relatives would result in my kids learning Korean. Hearing Korean spoken everywhere by people who looked like their mother, their 할머니, and their relatives, my kids would soak in the cultural river, Korean would fill up their half Korean DNA encoded cells, flood their consciousness, and within two months they would sound out my mother tongue with their small mouths. They would sound like me.
* * *
After the lady of tissues wished me well with a few more heartfelt urgings to attend church, I caught up to my kids and my husband, who asked me what she wanted. I held up my wet wipes. “Oh, good we were running out,” he said. I said, “And she told me we should go to church once we get back to the US. She said she thinks God answered our parents’ prayers for us to go to church by bringing her to me.” We laughed.
Just then the evangelist jumped out from the bushes and said, “What a surprise it is to run into you again! Is this your family? Would you and your husband like to join the service this coming Sunday? We can provide you with headphones streaming English translation!” I couldn’t wait to tell my mom about this and hear her say, “I did pray for you to find God. And look! Right out of the bushes!”
So, that’s how we ended up going to church on a Sunday in Korea.
This church was a monument to the economic growth of South Korea since the Korean War. Aided by the lifesaving transfusion of tax payer money by the US (after being bled and blown up nearly to the point of death by the US), Korea boasted an average growth of 10% GDP every year for 30 straight years. To put this in perspective, imagine you get a job at Kinkos. You’re 18. They pay you $15,000 that year. Because you love the smell of fresh paper, because you find the sound of a photocopy machine relaxing, because you enjoy the company of your coworkers, you work there for the next 30 years. By the end of those years, you are 48 and your salary is $237,946.39. Your gross income for 30 years of loyalty and service is $2,467,410.34. Miraculous. Miraculous that Koreans went from eating grass and tree bark, literally, to: having the fastest internet in the world; constructing multiple international car companies; creating global electronics brands like Samsung and LG; exporting K-pop around the world; being the largest global consumer of cosmetics and plastic surgery; and popularizing kimchi and seasoned nori till it reached the aisles of Trader Joe’s and Costco. The astronomic rise of South Korea into global economics and culture earned it the nickname, “The Miracle on the Han River.”
We entered this monument to the Miracle through one of multiple glass doors. On the first floor, there was a refreshments table just inside the entrance to refresh the hearty traffic of worshipers. In the middle of the front foyer was a lit glass platform that reminded me of the dance floor of a hip New York nightclub I once cut rug at. A large cafeteria served 된장국, sandwiches, and fruit smoothies made with real fruit. Also in the lobby were two rainbows made of balloons under which we were encouraged to stand and have our picture taken. We did that. A shallow weaving ramp, which included water features and an extensive plastic garden, led congregants up, one easy step after step, to the main sermon hall which was located on the fifth floor. There were sky lights. Sunshine filled the space. Our children were led to a separate room for toddlers where they were fed candy and 떡and allowed to blow up balloons while we worshiped.
The main sermon hall was an enormous amphitheater. The seats were movie theatre quality—upholstered in velour, well cushioned, arm rests installed. None of that hard, wooden bench numbers for these Christians. On stage left was an approximately 70-person choir and an orchestra. On center stage stood six men and women singing hymns along with the choir, encouraging congregants to raise their voices in song to the Lord. Behind them were two gigantic flats screen TVs. A large slender cross was backlit and sandwiched between the TVs. Instead of hymnals, the lyrics appeared on the screens before a background of majestic clouds, like those I’ve seen in karaoke videos while belting out my rendition of “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” by Aerosmith made popular by the 1998 summer blockbuster film Armageddon. Fitting, I thought. I also thought Koreans love karaoke and I am no exception.
It’s been over six months since I was there so I can’t recall what the sermon was about. Something to do with James and Peter. Things I do remember: the pastor, who turned out to be a substitute, welcomed all the new members invited to the church during their evangelizing week; the sermon delivered to inaugurate the new members was academic and boring; the radioed English translation was incomplete and sometimes incorrect (by this point my Korean had improved markedly so I could tell.) I wondered about my kids and tried to remember how to get to their room in case there was a fire or a mass shooting or some other act of God. At the end of the sermon, velvet covered buckets were handed along the rows and brought down to the stage where they were stacked three pots high and many columns across, the gold embroidered crosses—the symbol of God—facing the congregation as if to say God is full. God is satisfied. You did good. I, predictably, found these visuals—the aubergine velvet (the color of Western European royalty and monarchic rule) and the golden crosses of Christianity (the ultimate symbol of white religion and white supremacy)—depressing. I donated ₩10,000 for their efforts.
The lady of tissues who recruited us, she was a little depressing, too. She was proud of her catch for evangelizing week—a white American, his non-believing Korean wife, and their two half-white boys. She was scoring some unknown number of points with the man upstairs and I’m not talking about the one that matters. Well, maybe both. She and her friend wanted to take us out for lunch, but I told her my kid had art class in 15 minutes. It was true. “Does he have to go? When do you leave? Two weeks! Oh, then you can come next week, too.”
It was my husband who later said no. He didn’t like being paraded around like a trophy, objectified for being white. Also, he doesn’t care for megachurches. Grand displays of wealth by religious institutions turn him off. He believes Godliness goes hand in hand with middle class comforts. I don’t disagree. Wealth should be regarded with caution as it tends to corrupt without exception. Still, I rather enjoyed the grand display. The trite symbolism of the ramps leading up to God’s word and salvation and eventually, one assumes, to heaven was well executed. The lofty ceilings made you look up at the sky lights that streamed sunlight and God’s love. The church didn’t try to hide their hopes or their bank balance. The metaphors were pedestrian and hypocritical, but earnest.
Besides, I am the last person to cast a stone against the hypocrisy of seeking grace by way of my wallet. Didn’t I feel merciful punching in my credit card number to book our flights to Korea? Didn’t I feel virtuous booking our apartment in Ilsan? Didn’t I think I had fulfilled my duties toward my children’s bilingualism? Didn’t I, too, think spending was the answer to my prayers? I thought I could charge it, sit back, and enjoy the grace of hearing my children speak my mother tongue. They would keep alive the part of me I felt defined me, my Korean heritage, when I was gone. I could secure the legacy of my history, namely, my ethnicity—the part of me that is always under threat of extermination in the US, the part of me that is so often invisible in the US, the part of me that I find defending and sustaining alone in the US—through my kids.
Problem is I am not me. The idea of me—a Korean immigrant, first and foremost, fluent in Korean—isn’t true. Although Korean is my mother tongue, English is my queen. I daily pledge my conscious and creative allegiance to her. My identity is overwhelmingly configured in my second language and my second culture. I thought Korean-ness could be acquired by my kids without my total investment and commitment to it. Children inherit their culture from the mother. Instead, I bought plane tickets and booked an Airbnb and handed over the duty of teaching my kids Korean to Korea. Belief will come to you. You just have to show up. My eldest saw right through my bullshit: you don’t think in Korean, you don’t create in Korean, you don’t dream in Korean; you don’t even love in Korean. You live, like us, somewhere between here and home.
* * *
In the book written by King Sejong so many centuries ago, he wrote, “It should be said about the initial, medial, and final sounds constituting a letter that they signify the basic changes that Yin and Yang produce in their combination of motion and stillness. The initial consonant represents the moving sky, the final consonant, the motionless earth, and the medial vowel, the human being that is both moving and still.”
Korea will always be my motherland, Korean my mother tongue. But since our trip, I realized I’ve been moving from Korea all my life. I thought I was returning to it with this visit. But you don’t visit home. In hindsight, my main motivation to make this trip to Korea was not homecoming, but fear.
I was afraid for my kids. I wanted to give my kids a chance to start from a place of pride in what they look like, what they eat, where they come from, who their ancestors were and what they accomplished, rather than hiding their non-white parts, becoming ashamed of it, pretending their Korean heritage isn’t important or worth keeping. I did that. I wanted to spare my kids the self-hatred inculcated by the culture of white supremacy. I wanted them to avoid the painful and angry transition from trying to be white for decades only to realize in midlife what a fucking con it all is. I was afraid for them. Even nearer to the truth, I didn’t want them to reject the parts I gave them. I didn’t want them to reject me. This was my greatest fear.
Toni Morrison once said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
Racism is not my problem. I don’t look down on me. I don’t try to oppress me. I don’t try to erase me or twist me into forms that I am not. I don’t exoticise me. I don’t think my English isn’t good enough. I don’t think I should be living elsewhere. I don’t think my boys are effeminate and weak because they are half Asian. I realized only after my visit to Korea that I needed to find a way to stop obsessing about racism as if it were my problem. I’ve been so busy fighting the forces of white supremacy that is constantly telling me who I am and what I’m worth, that I haven’t defined myself on my own terms. I don’t even know what those terms are. I need to figure out who I am. If I don’t, this preoccupation with who I’m not will be my children’s inheritance.
Evangelizing my kids by flying them to Korea and hoping the spirit of the place would change them for the better . . . . I’m sure the nice church lady handing out wet wipes felt she was guiding me, too, towards a better place. To paradise, even. Turns out, I am as guilty of narcissism as the lady of tissues. Like her, I was driven by fear. So afraid of being defined by whiteness, I didn’t see me. Instead I nearly reduced myself to my ethnicity, leading me to attempt to define my children that way, too.
My kids are East Asian, White, Korean, Swedish, Canadian, American, and God only knows what else. They look neither like me nor my husband. They have educated parents who stay woke. They were born in Boston and live in New York City. They have family in Toronto, Montreal, San Francisco, Seoul, Busan, and unknown parts of North Korea and Japan. They love to paint and swim and climb and scoot and dig and roar and read. They talk in their own made up language. Gibberish, but whatever. They are intensely curious. They are fast, fast becoming individuals with ideas and questions that sometimes startle me by their depth of imagination.
Whatever identity these two human beings cobble together for themselves, whatever ethnicity they decide to identify themselves as, whatever part of me they decide to make their own, they will always be moving away from me towards an identity uniquely theirs. Being fluent in Korean won’t define them one way or the other. I need to be okay with not seeing me or hearing me when I look at my kids.
They are not me. Not even I am me.
* * *
Every parent is afraid to die. Every parent gazes into the face of their child and looks for their reflection. Every parent is a narcissistic asshole. When kids refuse to be mirrors, every parent either turns to religion or buys plane tickets to Korea.
Every parent is an evangelist with a packet of wet wipes.
I wish I could thank the evangelist with the wet wipes. I wish I could tell her that God did bring belief to me. I learned to have faith in my children. I wish I could tell her God truly does work in mysterious ways. I’ll tell my mom, anyway.
Hairee Lee was born in Korea, raised in Canada, and is a US immigrant. Before earning her MFA in creative writing at Emerson College, she was a high school chemistry teacher. She lives with her husband and two sons in New York City.