Thursday, October 28, 2010

Leaving Pusan

DSCN3788I think I am always destined to leave this city with a sense of loss.  This is the third time I have left the city of my birth, but the first time I have left with a proper good-bye to my mother, and a promise to return.

Tuesday Omma came from Ulsan to Pusan, with another Imohalmoni and cousin in tow.  This Imohalmoni lives in Pusan and is the younger sister of Bucheon Imohalmoni and Halmoni.  She looks just like Bucheon Imohalmoni.  Her son is a university student in his last year, studying Management.  He graciously came along as well to translate for us.

We met Omma in the lobby of our hotel; Omma rushed up to me and embraced me in a big hug, whispering “Sa rang hae, sa rang hae.” Between Omma and Imohalmoni, they decided that I resembled my aunt, Im Sook, the Imo who lives in Suwon.  I introduced Omma to Amul, and she grinned broadly as she hugged him.  “I love you because you make Kyung Joo happy.”  The day was bittersweet, seeing Omma again. We were  reaffirming our new relationship.  It thrilled me to be able to bring two disparate sections of my family together as I watched Omma laugh at Amul’s long legs and clumsiness with stainless steel chopsticks. Yet, both of us know it is impossible to fit everything we want to share, everything we want to say, in an afternoon before I return to the US.

At one point in the afternoon, when Amul had excused himself to use the restroom, Omma turned to me and DSCN3814said, “I want you two to have a wonderful life together.  Be a good wife for Amul.” And Imohalmoni started crying, as Omma’s eyes filled with tears.  Through my cousin, they told me that Omma and Imohalmoni lived together in Pusan twenty-seven years ago when Omma was pregnant with me.  And it made me realize that there are more family members who know about me than I do about them.  There are far more family members who have always known about me, and waited with Omma for me to return, than there are ones to whom I am a secret.

What does being a good wife, having a good life, mean to Omma?  She married a man she did not love instead of committing suicide. But she is happy now, has a family that she adores.  She tells me her husband is a good, kind man, and I believe her.  I believe that though she did not marry him in love, she has always taken her wedding vows very seriously and has grown to love the father of her daughters. She keeps me a secret from him not for my sake, but to protect him.  She doesn’t want to cause him pain, for him to lose face.  I wonder what Omma sees when she looks at Amul and me.  Not merely the steady safe love she has with her husband.  Not the passionate but tenuous love she had with my father.  Something more, I hope.  Something deep and lasting.  I hope that Omma and Imohalmoni’s tears are those of relief, that even separated from them,  I have become a strong woman, have not had to experience the mistakes and uncertainties that have shaped Omma’s life.

I’ve found another old journal entry from the last time I was in Pusan:
July 15, 2001
I had a dream about her last night. I can recall vividness in rich greens and pinks. We sailed down a pebble-bottomed stream, she in a white cotton skirt, me resting between her knees, sitting cross-legged in the bottom of the boat. The air smelled of frangipani. Her cool hands on my forehead felt like home—neither Michigan nor Korea, but a place I didn’t even know existed— and she laughed high and tinkling, like scattering diamonds.
I remember the feel of the smooth sun-warmed keel beneath my hands and the low creak of contented wood as we let the current carry us. The eddies reached their fingers out to caress our boat. The boat picked up speed as we navigated large boulders, and water sloshed over the sides into my lap. I held my breath through the rapids, pitching to and fro with the little rowboat. Skating onto smoother waters, I turned around, reaching for her hand. But she had disappeared. 

It always happens this way, when I dream her. She vanishes, and only then do I realize that I never see her face. 

I am leaving my city, returning to the plainness of overcast Midwestern skies. I’ll remember the horizon, how it looked at daybreak with the gentle fog rolling in. And the beach, the rolling waves. Yet, it’s not enough. I’m still grasping for something of this place that will make it mine. A sign, to show me that I’ve come home. Something to tell me where to go from here.
At last, I know I dreamed true—the sound of Omma’s laughter is like jewels, each precious and sparkling. But leaving now is just as hard as it was nine years ago. We sit across from each other in the hotel lobby, and Omma clasps my hand tightly across the Formica table.  My ears sparkle with heart-shaped earrings, a gift from Omma, which coincidentally match the heart-shaped pendant my parents sent to me from Michigan to commemorate this trip.  I point out to her that I have her tiny elfin ears, and she tells me that Halmoni too, shares this trait.

I try to tell her, “You are a good mother.  I love you.” She nods, blinks back tears, and reaches for Amul who sits beside me.  Six hands tangle and weave like roots of a family tree, with knots and scars and chipped nails.  Squeezing our hands, Omma gives us last minute advice, “Love each other. Have a beautiful life together.”
Omma loosens her grip to reach for her handkerchief, and Amul uses the opportunity to slide away, giving us a moment alone while he gives instructions to the cab driver who will take us to the airport.  We stand, and I press my forehead to Omma’s as we hold each other in these last moments. I breathe deeply, inhale the scent of the perfume I had given her two weeks ago. I kiss her cheek which is soft and tracked with tears.

The cab is ready, and Amul waits patiently for us to say our good-byes.  How do I leave Omma behind when I’ve just found her? How can we part with so much unsaid? In the end, the decisions is not up to me.  Omma ushers us into the cab, “Go, go.” The good-bye is too painful for her, so she severs the connection abruptly, like tearing a bandage off in one fell swoop. She closes the cab door and sends us on our way, a watery smile on her face as she waves, a small lone figure on the side of the road in Pusan, standing strong against the buffeting wind and searing loss.


  1. found home, you found Omma, the journey has just begun...

  2. ah i didn't know this was the 3rd trip, i was confused when i was looking at the picture. the time you met your mother and sister were the 2nd trip, and this time the 3rd you went with your finance and Olivia.
    i hate goodbyes too, they're hard T_T.

  3. Even though you are leaving Omma physically, she will always be there emotionally and mentally to support you. Your journey is very inspiring and makes me really appreciate everything that I have and reminds me not to take it for granted. -Lucas Chang

  4. I'm so glad that you have found her. But saying good-bye is too painful. I felt the same way when I left not my mother but my grandmother and auntie whom I've treated as a mother for the last eight years of my life to come to the US to finally be with my real mother and father. I'm sure that the months or years that you go back to Pusan to see her again would be another wonderful and great trip.