What I Am Leaving Behind

2:27 AM in Seoul | 9:27 PM in Dubai

Last night, I dined with my mother’s mother’s sister’s daughter’s nine year old son. (Dining might be too strong of a word – we went to an “All American Buffet” restaurant in a northern district of Seoul. The food was trying hard to be American, but the various peppers thrown into nearly every dish did not agree with my Boston-raised taste buds.) I didn’t even catch his name. I didn’t know I was related to him until the day before yesterday, because my mother’s mother died nearly 30 years ago and my mother didn’t have the contact information of any of her relatives and she had not been back to Seoul in over 40 years. Thus, when we finally met up with my mother’s mother’s sisters, it was pure and beautiful and lovely and nostalgic and a reminder that time passes and sometimes life just works out.

He was wearing a bright yellow shirt and red pants. In his two pockets, he carried toy cars, which he gleefully waved in front of my face. He also delighted in mock-punching my brother as we rode up an elevator with buttons that were impossible to press (we went up to the 12th floor, and then promptly came back down). He didn’t speak much English, but when he did, he did so with unbridled enthusiasm and with no fear of mispronunciation. He pointed to different fruits: “grape!” “lemon!” “watermelon!” and smiled at me, his rightmost front tooth missing. I had forgotten that nine-year-olds exist. Children, in my mind, seemed to go from toddlers to middle-schoolers with nothing in between. (Side note: I listened to a podcast on the plane to Dubai, titled “This American Life.” The focus of the latter half of the episode was a grief center for children in Salt Lake City. One nine-year-old girl whose father had committed suicide was interviewed, and the way she spoke was so impressive! She cleanly articulated her feelings and she sounded so sure of herself, so solid. I wonder what I was like as a nine-year-old. (Is this ego? Why must everything come back to me?) I want to spend time with more nine-year-olds.) I am leaving behind this bouncing, laughing, smirking Korean boy who repeated my name 3 times the first time he heard it and stood back in awe as I scooped him green tea ice cream.

Yet, in a bigger sense, the real thing I am leaving behind is intangible, and I don’t even know if I could name it. Culture, perhaps? A sense of belonging? All I know is that my mother, in Seoul, had become whole again and I was privileged to witness it. That, I think, is what I am leaving behind. Coming to America had repressed a crucial part of her, and I hadn’t even realized that until now. One day, we wandered through the shopping district, ignoring the commercial department stores and thoroughly examining the various food vendors lining the street. We ran into an older woman making circular caramelized sugar. She used a tiny pot to heat the sugar, and once it had caramelized, she threw in some sort of baking powder. A few seconds later, the ball of sugar effortlessly fell out of the pot, and she pressed it down with a wooden paddle and stamped it with a heart only to have it rapidly rise (maybe ¼ of an inch?) and harden. The result was a pancake-type, cookie-esque sheet of sugar. My mother said that these treats used to be ten cents, and if you managed to eat around the edge of the heart without breaking it, you would receive another one for free. As soon as she bit into it, she stopped walking. I don’t think she heard any of the people surrounding us; all she felt was her childhood rushing back to her in the form of browned sugar and a misshapen heart. Later, we found a nyengmyun restaurant, and as we sat on the floor, shoeless, my mother drew a diagram of her old house. She even remembered where the water spigot was. I am leaving behind the mother I wish I had been able to know earlier.