A Daughter's Perspective

Jasmin Cho shares her thoughts on her mother.

I’m looking through my old journal entries. I found one entry, from the Summer of 1993, which still struck a chord with my feelings now…

 

I guess life is like a jigsaw puzzle where we are all one piece of it. Throughout childhood you try to figure out what you are and how you fit in with the other pieces. You then try to find your place in the whole puzzle.

It isn’t until the puzzle is finished that you get an idea of what the picture looks like. Many things you see in life don’t make sense at first, but gradually they become clearer…

The thing is, I never really understood my situation in life. This is partially because you usually never know about what is closest to you.

I didn’t know my mom—I only accepted without questioning.

 

In this sense, my mother was like a jigsaw puzzle. When I was young, I thought I knew her—her strength, goals, what made her happy. I thought she was an endless source of energy and power. She was invincible. I almost believed she had no human weaknesses. That is the portrait I painted of her. But now I see a whole new picture. Mt mother was human after all. She too had fears, doubts, and experiences of loneliness. She didn’t have all the answers to problems. She too made mistakes. But strangely, knowing that she was just as human as any other person, my respect for her only grew. For, it was despite these humanistic qualities, she was able to her goals in life. She disciplined herself, fought selfish urges, and worked the long hard hours to get where she is now. Above all, she always kept that positive attitude—the “cut-is-half-full” attitude—that has become her trademark.

I was never a real “die-hard” student. Until middle school—8th grade—I was never really very interested in studying. Fortunately for me, my mother was not one to force me to study either—she pretty much let me be. I probably didn’t think much of this at the time, but now I am utterly grateful. My mother’s liberal method of raising me may seem strange to many. It very well may not be the best method for everyone but it was ideal for me. When I look back, mom generally took interest in all that I did. She encouraged me to pursue my interests and acted as the motivator/coach. She was happy for my successes and sad for my grievances. Mom’s influence over me was never really direct. By this I mean she tended to help direct my energies towards a certain path, rather than determining what I “should be” working on. She encouraged my interests in language learning and sports. But within those interests she challenged me to do my best. I recall when I was learning Japanese for the first time, an opportunity to take part in a Japanese speech contest arose. I was hesitant in participating as I was just a beginner in the language. I think mom was very excited about the idea, and told me I really had nothing to lose. The more I thought of it, I agreed. With her encouragement and support, I was able to win the “hatsuonsho” (pronunciation award). Ironically, I understood only about 10 per cent of what I said—I had simply memorized the sound.

In this way she would often encourage me to do my best—to make myself the best that I’d be. This was even when things seemed bleak and hopeless and hopeless. I remember trying out for the volleyball team in middle school. I never played volleyball before. Little did I know that I was nearly cut from the team at tryouts. I later found out that the only reason I stayed on the team was that my mom had personally asked the coach to “give me a chance.” Maybe mom knew something I didn’t. She often told me that I am like her in my competitive ways. I won’t deny that. I do like to do well, and hate failing. I practiced volleyball long and hard. I got bruises and aches everywhere—some even overlapped. But over time I did improve. When the coach named me the “most improved player.” I was surprised, but I think mom wasn’t.

I really wonder how she managed to be on top of her career and remain so actively interested in affairs. She was phenomenal listener. She had a way of letting me say all that was on my mind (and then some) which helped her stay in-tune with my feelings, and allowed me to understand myself better. She listened to all my silly gossip (a new crush), as well as all my minor achievements (a compliment from a teacher). But talking to mom was not like talking to an authority figure, I felt like I was talking to my best friend (which she was). I knew she was genuinely happy with my successes. But she did not make it a requirement that I do well. Rather, she took every opportunity to make an event a “learning experience.” If I did well, I should be proud and thankful for my good fortunes. If things didn’t go as well, I should consider it a good learning experience. In other words, everything had its purpose. This was in line with her “thing positive” philosophy.

Mom would often talk about how fortunate we both were. Lucky, not just in what we possessed, but all the opportunities that were available to us. With our education and American citizenship, many possibilities lay waiting for us. Being young, and hearing this often, I didn’t think so much about it. The reality of her statement didn’t “hit” me until I saw how other students lived—especially my brethren in Korea, Japan, and other parts of the country. Simply put their lives of torturous studying and entrance exams seemed intolerable to me. If the students worked with a clear goal in mind and had a sincere desire to do what they were doing, it would not have seemed so bad. But this generally was not the case. Students seem to plunge into studying blindly—with the only objective in life to get in the best university. As for what plans lay beyond college, there did not seem to be one. Perhaps because my mom didn’t work this way in her own life, I was indirectly affected. Mom generally set specific goals for herself—goals she truly wanted—and she worked towards that goal. By shaping her life thus, I followed suit in shaping my life.

This leads to another point. What really helped me sustain a healthy respect for my mother was mom having her own life and career. She didn’t live vicariously off of her child. She was independent, self-sufficient, and motivated. As my friends put it, she was “cool.” I was proud of her achievements and enjoyed bragging about my mom to my friends. I savored the moment of shock/surprise/envy by my friends when I talked of my mother being in the military and getting a higher degree at Harvard. Because mom was also a student when I was in high school, I felt she understood me. We could communicate in that unique “student-lingo” of papers and exams. Mom actively took control of her life. Thus, I believed that there was little difference between men and women. I wanted to be self-sufficient, physically strong, and capable in all respects as my mother. I averse to “weakness” and “dependence” society often associated with women. In this sense, some may call me kind of “feminist.” But rather, I’d like to think that I was simply one for “equality — there should be respect and responsibility for both sexes.

Mom was always an advocate of equality and justice. She couldn’t stand watching the helpless being pushed around by the strong. She was always excited about stories like “Robin Hood” (in Korean “Am-Haeng-Uh-Sa”). This is not in the sense of taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Rather, she liked teaching the bad guys (ex: powerful people abusing their power over the weak and poor) a lesson and saving those who couldn’t help themselves. Sometimes I might make a criticism about a particular group which may (admittedly) be biased. In most instances, I can rely on my mother to be their great defender—I was tempted to call her “Lady Justice” herself. Once I commented on the bizarreness of homosexuality and how it baffled me. Mom was soon on their defense. She didn’t say that it shouldn’t matter how someone liked another as long as it was not hurting anyone. And of course, she was right. Sometimes this unflinching pureness of my mom’s disposition towards all things frustrated me. Whenever I made a less-than-politically-correct comment, I felt like the biggest bigot. I was for my own good though.

Once, both my mother and I were on a U.S. military bus that took us from Osan Base to Yongsan (Korea). Mom and I were sitting in the back. The bus was full, and we were about to depart when an old lady got on board. It seemed the clerk had mistakenly sold more tickets than available seats. Consequently, her seat was already occupied by an American soldier who had the same seat number. The soldier, upon realizing the two-ticket-one-seat situation, feigned ignorance and remained in the seat. In the meantime, the old lady sighed and tried to rest herself on one of the armrests with her large bundles at her side. It wasn’t long before mom politely suggested that the soldier offer the seat to the older lady. When he continued to remain seated, similar comments were echoed by the other passengers. Still no response. I could see mom was about to give up her seat for the old lady. The two hour trip would be impossible for the old lady. I don’t really know what prompted me to do this. Perhaps it was anger at the soldier for ignoring my mother. Perhaps it was feeling sorry for the old lady. It may have been remnants of Korean culture that refused to see my mother standing. Whatever it was, the impetus of this action was the knowledge that my mother would have done so—because she had taught me it was the right thing to do. While standing on the isle, I heard some approving comments made by the other passengers. I glanced over at my mother. She was brimming with satisfaction. I couldn’t help smiling back.

My respect for my mom was also a reflection of how the rest of the family saw her. Ever since I can remember, mom was highly respected by everyone. She was the primary bread winner, as well as the one who made it possible for the whole family to enjoy life in America (mother had sponsored the immigration of my grandparents, uncles, and aunts). She was the one with whom everyone asked questions and consulted plans. As a child, I recall how grandmother prepared special side dishes (“banchan”) for mother as a sign of her position in the family. I loved and respected mother, but I also feared her reprimand. Whenever I misbehaved, grandmother always threatened to “tell mom.” That worked magic on correcting my behavior. Mother never lay a finer on me, yet when I had to show her my less-than-stellar report card (My grades in elementary school were probably the lowest in the class—except for music and physical education), I would get stomach cramps. I dreaded her disappointment from my failure. But despite my horrid grades, mom never said anything. She later told me that she didn’t expect anything better from me as I was still learning the language. She realized that I was a child who liked to play and have fun. She knew I’d be miserable if I was forced to study.

As I mentioned before, mom rarely, if ever forced me to do things. The only instance where she forced to do something, and vaguely at the, was swimming. Mom always tells me how much I detested swimming. Still she insisted on me taking it, regardless of my version. Now I am thankful and grateful for her wisdom. The same goes for Japanese—though somewhat move indirectly. A lot of people ask me what it was that got me to take Japanese. If I said it had to do with my love for Japanese anime, that would be an incomplete answer, Firm what made me love anime so much? Part of it was my mom allowing me to read (and watch) as much Korean anime as I liked. Why did she do this (I asked her years later)? She wanted to make sure that I didn’t lose my Korean when I returned to the U.S. Reading Korean comics was one way to prevent me from forgetting Korean. Having a good base of Korean proved useful when I began taking Japanese. I began studying Japanese after futilely trying to understand Japanese comics because it was use of ration. You could also say my mom manipulated my weakness for comics to get me to learn the new language. If it was manipulation, I couldn’t have been more willing victim. After starting Japanese, I could hardly suppress my excitement of understanding a new passage in my favorite comic. I was glued to the Japanese-English dictionary, finding out the meaning of new phrases from the Japanese cartoons. It was nothing like what you could call “studying.” I think my mom knew this. I can hardly say how much Japanese changed my life.

Does mom still try this kind of “manipulative” method? Probably. I find it kind of cute, and I’d like to think that I can see through her intentions. But maybe because I still fail for her method, I often end up doing what she would (and I probably would too) like to see me doing. For instance, my mother and I set ourselves up for another four years time we will master Chinese. The bet includes me, my mother, and a few other friends but that whoever speaks worst Chinese will buy everyone dinner. The great “incentive” is that the showdown will take place in either Beijing or Shanghai with all travel expenses for all involved parties covered by my mother. Talk about motivation to learn a language! Such is normal for my mother and me.

Something else I am eternally grateful for is my mother never being of the “smothering” kind. She tended to let me decide things for myself. Not only that, but she allowed me to take on challenges that might be painful for me. I think this is because she understood how valuable hands-on learning can be. The safe classroom learning could only take me so far. I had to get out in the “dirt” and physically experience the world. Ever since elementary school, she taught me the value of money and work when she asked me of shining her Army boots. I was probably horrible in the beginning, but she promised to pay me $2 for every pair I shined. I began to understand the concept of earning my own keep. During the summer I’d brave the sweltering heat with my cousins to wash cars and even baby sit. The money was not spectacular, but that was not the point. Despite the sunburns and meager earnings, my confidence in myself grew. I was taking an active part in determining my life. In college, I took on odd jobs waitressing at restaurants, working for dental clinic, and being a student guard (checking ID cards at dorms). I also interned at various places, meeting new people and learning how to be comfortable with myself under those circumstances that might not be. My mom did not try to stop me or shelter me from hard work. Some may find this strange for a parent—especially those who believe a parent should give children a safe and comfortable life. But living only in comfort can be dangerous in the long run. There is the danger of becoming too dependent on others.

Doing odd jobs also exposed me to a variety of people. Not only did I meet those in the corporate/government world, but also those who did the “grunt work” for society. I met from white collar workers, to blue collar, to no collar. While waitressing at a Japanese restaurant (summer’97), I encountered a variety of people—many who were recent immigrants to the U.S. They spoke very little English and generally had little education. They vaguely made me think of how my mother may have been like when she first came to America. Sadly, the only way for these people to make a living was by working long and hard hour at restaurants taking “crap” from bully managers. And the restaurant job was their major source of income, they couldn’t afford to upset the manager and lose their job. Being an America-born, college-educated person working part-time, the managers were powerless over me. Though I knew I was fortunate to be where I was in life, I don’t think I ever felt this as acutely as I did that summer.

Having a greater say in the choices affecting my life helped me be more responsible and self-reliant. I remember one time in elementary school when we went on a class picnic. It was in Korea, and I was in 3rd grade. My mom had pretty much given me free rein to buy whatever food I wanted for the trip. In my 3rd grade wisdom, this meant all the junk food my little bag could hold. Though my grandmother (sensibly) wanted me to take rice, I flatly refused. But once lunch time rolled around, it became clear that chocolates and chips may not satiate my growling stomach. I slowly began to feel a mixture of regret and humility—regret that I didn’t heed my grandmother’s suggestion; humility as I asked my friends to share their kimbap with me. From that day forth, I complained very little when grandmother packed my lunches.

The importance of letting me decide for myself was that I learned to take responsibility for my actions. In other words, if I suffered from a bad decision I made, I couldn’t blame anyone else for it. I had to live with the consequences of my choices. In a way, I think mom wanted me to make mistakes. No, she didn’t want me to fail or be miserable. Rather, felt I needed to experience what it is like to fail, and hopefully, learn to overcome it. I would learn nothing if others made all the right decisions for me. This lesson helped me in all respects, though I have yet master the art of picking the right meal from a restaurant menu.

Independence of mind and faculty was a great assent in my post high school days. Prior to college, I was already “trained” to take care of myself. I was no lonely, fearful, or depressed at being “on my own” as were many of my freshman friends. Growing up as an “Army Brat”, moving and readjusting to new places were almost a way of life. I didn’t know it back then, but mom not only had given me life, but the tools to enjoy and get the most out of life. That meant more to me than all the materials goods money can buy.

Due to the nature of my mom’s job, I was often entrusted in the care of my relatives (mother’s side). I often relish the memories while growing up under my grandparents’ care. They loved (and subsequently spoiled) me dearly. Uncle Myungkyu, my mother’s youngest brother, was also a big part in my early childhood. He was mentally handicapped since birth (most likely Down syndrome) and has the mental capacity of a 4-year-old. He and I were like my grandparents “children.” This made for a unique uncle-niece relationship between us. When I was a toddler, my uncle often cared for me. Once in a while, I come across a picture of him carrying me on his back. I even recall him looking after me when I became extremely sick during my grandparents’ absence.

(He wiped up the food I had thrown up-even cleaning my face with a wet towel. Meanwhile, my cowardly older cousins were running away in disgust). He was my play friend. We’d play games like paper-scissor-rock, play house, and any other arbitrary game I made up- where I made sure I would end up winning, though I doubt he could ever tell the difference). Even to this day, I cannot help goofing off and being outright childish with him. Partly because he is still a “child”, and because he still sees me as the 9-year-old play friend from long ago. As I was special to him, he was special to me.

It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that Uncle Myungkyu did not fit under the category of “normal.” He was different—not just in the way he looked, but in how he acted. He was a child in an adult—a kind of “half-breed.” Though he took care of me when I was young, as time went on, I started looking after him. As he was not able to articulate his thoughts, I would often accompany him to the nearest supermarket or stationary store (Other than watching Korean soap opera, collecting new notebooks and pencils was his greatest passion). He would point out what he wanted, and I’d take out the right amount of change from his little purse. On our way home, he would hum his favorite Korean pop tune, swinging his new purchase happily. It was funny how I learned to understand his slurred speak and body language over the years. I became accustomed to his roller-coaster emotions that would switch from ecstatic happiness to rage over a few minutes. While in elementary school, I remember trying to teach him some new words and phrases (This was motivated by watching a black and white film on Helen Keller, where I naively thought my uncle also suffered from mere “hearing difficulties”). I quickly got frustrated at my uncle’s slow (or no) progress. Yet, when I saw how happy he was when I praised him, and how proudly he would “show off” what he learned to the other members of the family, my frustration soon disappeared.

I remember doing some reading on those suffering from Down syndrome. I was amazed at how similar those with Down syndrome appeared. But, when I read about the short life expectancy of those with this disease, dread began to creep up inside my heart. I began to cringe at the severe coughs that shook my uncle’s tiny 5feet 1inch frame. I had to fight the urge to plug my ears and look away. I am powerless to stop hat may be God’s will. I am left with the question of how to fill the great void his absence would leave in my heart.

Friends and relatives often say how Uncle Myungkyu may be the most filial son my grandparents could ever have had. Though he does have a handicap that would make him dependent on others for the rest of his life, he has remained steadfastly by my grandmother’s side (especially after my grandfather passed away 10 years ago). It would be no exaggeration to say she has practically “lived for my uncle” since my grandfather’s absence. Uncle Myungkyu, perhaps more than anyone has made my grandmother feel needed and loved by always wanting to be by her side. While most humans suffer from fickleness and selfishness, his loyalty to her has remained unflinching. I guess in that sense, God really is fair in his gifts to each person.

 

Mama,

I’d be lying if I said I understood how much you loved and cared for me. I guess children will forever be ignorant of the depths of a parent’s affections. But one thing will always stay the same-you will always be my “heroine.” I only hope that one day I can be the mother/best friend/mentor you were to me.

And no matter how independent and grown up I pretend to be, I will always be your “kosumdochi” and want you to be a part of every special moment in my life, big and small.

I think fondly of all that we’ve done together, and I eagerly wait for all the great adventures we’ll have in the future. You’re the best Mama- demo moo wakaru desho? ^.^

Loves, Sung Ah

Jin and Jasmin, US Military Ceremony

Jasmin & Jin, US Military Ceremony

희망은또다른희망을낳는다 (Hope Generates More Hope) – Jin's Korean book on how she raised Jasmin.

Mother & Daughter

Jasmin and Jin discuss Jin’s life story on radio show, ‘The Sky Is The Limit’