My mom runs fast for a 65-year-old. She’s small — 5 ft even — and clocks in at just over 100 lbs. Her compact frame slays in the juniors section of American department stores. I see her sprinting toward me as I stand on the corner of Austin’s busiest intersection, on its busiest fortnight — the two weeks it plays host to South by Southwest, the annual multimedia conference. It’s just after 11pm and traffic is an absolute shitshow. My mom’s always been sporty but since she stopped dyeing her hair she looks her age. As she gets closer, I worry that her brittle avian skeleton is going to crumple atop the hood of a swerving SUV. Being picked up by my parents is an experience I thought I’d grown out of entirely. After all, I am 33 years old, live in New York and am here on business. But they live just an hour outside of town, and I pulled the trigger on hotels late enough that I’m staying with them. They’ve been stuck in traffic for two hours coming to get me.
I was on the phone with my dad, both of us barking over the imperious GPS voice — him in a road rage and me in a full-body eye-roll — when my mom bolted from the car to run ahead, figuring I’d be easier to peg on foot. I’m watching her beam and wave big, while running hard and yelling my full name in English, just like that: first name; last name. My parents both do this as though it’s for my benefit. Like, calling a child by their full government name is super-casual. Like, it’s not a dead giveaway as the weirdest, most ESL affectation in the world. I’m waiting with a 24-year-old colleague that I hired straight from college who idolises me and I’m worried that my mom will hurt herself and that people will see. The whole thing infuriates me. I refuse to eat the snacks that she’s tin-foiled from home.
I love my mother a not-normal amount. It’s all twisty because she tried to kill me when I was young. Just kidding. My mom is an excellent mom. She knows I am irascible, prickly and antisocial. She knows that most human interaction makes me tired and that I either scare people away with precise invectives or trot out the fakest, nicest skinjob of myself because it requires zero effort. She nails me on all of it, asking one billion follow-up questions until I get behind my eyeballs and engage. She forces me to call distant relatives, dialling the phone and pressing it into my cheek while my eyes get hot and watery. She pulls rank all the time and once judo-flipped me onto my back in a grocery store to remind me where things stood. She is my favorite and it makes me crazy. You can tell that she was popular in school, but I am a fundamentally more popular person. I care more and I’m great at rules. I’ve known it since the first grade.
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If I were an actress and had to think of something sad to make me cry in a scene, I would think about this moment
When I was small I thought I was just cooler than my mom because of how foreign she is. She’s really foreign. You’d think it would kill her to get store-bought snacks, she’s that foreign. She grew up in a Korea filled with Koreans, married a Korean and then moved to Hong Kong in her mid-30s. I was 11 months and my brother was two years old. This was back when Hong Kong was a British Crown colony, which meant we were living in Asia with heaps of Australians and bronzed Europeans who dated Filipino women. It was all very James Clavell and linen shirts. In any case, I speak four languages and am a ruthless assimilation ninja. I will renounce all kin in the name of camouflage because everything is a contest and I am a disgusting sell-out. It’s the twin moon to my being popular in any context provided I put my mind to it. I’m sure there’s a field of corn withering somewhere in my soul that fuels this despicable talent, but everyone’s got to die of cancer some time, right?
My mother, on the other hand, speaks English poorly with a screwy, poncy Korean British accent, as if she learned it from watching one 1960s Merchant Ivory movie on repeat. She’s also ridiculously formal, deeply private and not a joiner. She transitions poorly. The move to Hong Kong with two wee kids and an absentee partner was rough. My father had elected to set up a shipping company. He was out of the country for eight months of the year, and sometime around my tenth birthday I discovered that he spoke conversational Russian for reasons that remain murky. All this is to say that he wasn’t around a lot.
When I was five, I compound-fractured my arm, pulverising my elbow. I was on a play date at my mom’s friend’s house and so naturally blamed my mother. I actually remember lying on the floor, howling accusations of neglect at her while she frantically summoned an ambulance that arrived with a squad car and a firetruck in tow. I was already having a tough time adjusting at school, and it looked like I would miss weeks of class. I found speaking in English disorienting because we spoke only Korean at home. I even preferred Cantonese to English since we’d attended a local Chinese school for a week while waiting on test scores to admit us into a British private school. Forced to wear a massive cast during my fifth month of British school, I began referring to myself in the third person — my English name — announcing, daily, that ‘Mary would not be going to school.’
School was awful. I had to leave during the middle of the day for physical therapy that involved swimming and returning to class with inexplicably wet hair. Lunch sucked. My mom would pack the dumbest garbage. She once smeared bits of raw garlic left over from making kimchi onto white sandwich bread, thinking that’s how the garlic bread advertised at Pizza Hut was born. I waited until she got off work that night and yelled at her with rank breath. I’d eaten most of the seemingly innocent square, elated that a sandwich had turned up at all in a lunch box that usually contained punishment food that sometimes had eyes. The stress of navigating school as a teeny-tiny uncomfortable person with an enormous gimp wing was taking a toll.
One lunch, I was dragging myself around the playground when I saw my mom standing by the fence, waving big and calling my name. I wanted so badly to ignore her. She was supposed to be at work and I didn’t have physical therapy that day so I was immediately suspicious. As confusing as her presence was, my curiosity did not outweigh my desire to be left alone. Especially by her. I began to back away so she started shouting loud enough to be heard over the playground din. I shuffled towards her with every intention to roundhouse-bludgeon her with my plastered arm. She held out a paper box. It was a McDonald’s happy meal: a cheeseburger one, which was my favorite. The offering was so out of character that I considered it a bribe. I wondered if my parents were getting a divorce since that was huge at my school at the time. I asked her what was going on. She mentioned something about how she wanted me to have a lunch that I liked.
I then did what any normal kid would do and yelled and yelled about how embarrassing it was to have her at school with me during lunch of all times. She presented me with a sack of cheeseburgers that I could give out to my friends. I refused the damp bag and screeched about how it was so cheap that she didn’t spring for bright red boxes with toys for them as well. I made her take the burgers back with her. If I were an actress and had to think of something sad to make me cry in a scene, I would think about this moment. This and the time I was 13 when I kicked my mom across a room and ran away for two days because she tried to ground me — for breaking curfew after my friend Jacinta stole money from her dying grandmother so we could rent out a nightclub and write the names of those blackballed on the sign outside. For the record: I don’t know why people have kids.
The summer before I turned 14, my mom, brother and I moved to Texas. We’d always known that some day before Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule, we’d join my mom’s side of the family in the US. While our Green Cards were being approved, my father bought a house in suburban San Antonio despite our extended family living 1,400 miles away in LA. After 13 years of sardine life at high-rise altitudes, he liked the idea of spreading out. The prospect of opening all our dresser drawers without hitting bed frames or doors sold him on Texas-sized everything. My father split his time between running a business in Asia and visiting us. When I arrived in Texas, it was mid-June and 104 degrees in the shade. I was fresh off a forced breakup with my Hong Kong boyfriend, a dishy 17-year-old rugby player. Between the heat and the heartbreak, the move was not my favorite. Trapped in the suburbs, I began to notice that the mother I’d largely ignored in Hong Kong was interesting — so long as she was talking about me.
My mom was the only one of us with a driver’s licence. Some time in mid-July, I started speaking to her again on car rides and we became friends. She told me stories about how when I was two I would dangle out of my parent’s window on the 18th floor to play in the tiled flower box. She told me about the time I wandered off with another family in a park, which I totally remember because they had empirically superior toys. She said that when I was four, I stole hundreds of dollars from her and bribed my bus driver to drop me off last and to make a pitstop at the deli so I could buy candy on my way home. I’d stuffed the change in my shallow pinafore pockets and when my mother frantically berated me for stealing the money and trying to get myself kidnapped, I told her I loved money more than I loved her. I found all of this fascinating.
These days I don’t love money how I used to. My mom though, I’m crazy about
This is going to sound absurd but my first year in Texas was the year that I first cared about being smart. I’d always prided myself on being popular. My older brother was the one with good grades and I was the one who dated burnouts from the year above him. There was something in the complete reboot of Texas, the comparative stillness of heavy skies and quiet nights that made me read a lot. I read a new book every other day and aced exams. Even as a sophomore, I easily slid in with the popular seniors. But by the time they graduated, I couldn’t be bothered to imprint on the next guard. I kept to myself and took a slew of Advanced Placement to college classes.
School was easy for me but those years were tough on my mom. In Hong Kong she’d had tons of friends. She was active at church and there was a sizable Korean community. In Texas she didn’t have anyone but me and my brother. Every morning when the bus would come to pick us up while it was still dark out, I could see her slight backlit frame outlined in our blinds as she watched us drive away. A senior on the bus once asked if my mom knew that we could all totally see her. I told that kid to go fuck himself and to quit looking at my mom. To this day, I still can’t watch her watch us leave.
It’s a blessing that life is riddled with diversions. I work a lot. I’ve never had the weeks between Christmas and New Year’s off, but these days I don’t love money how I used to. My mom though, I’m crazy about. I think about her all the time and can’t stand it. When she rings during a meal I get indigestion if I don’t call her back immediately. There’s a roiling shame spiral wherein I become resentful that she called at all and punish us both by prolonging the wait. I have no idea when my perception of my mother became the calculated crush of my life but it has. I don’t go home for birthdays or holidays, and on the occasions I do visit, I express my affection in strange ways. I wait for her to fall asleep and peer over her body and imagine what it’d be like if she died. I just stand there, hot silent tears coursing down my face. We’re not a demonstrative family, and such maudlin, psycho behavior is fair grounds for riotous derision. I love my mom and it’s a secret. I love her so much it kills me, and you bet I’d sooner die than tell her. I kinda want her to know though. Maybe someone could tell her for me. Someone who isn’t my dad. Because that would be weird.
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Mary H K Choi
is editor-at-large for MTV Style and contributes to Wired, The New York Times and The Awl. She lives in New York.
‘From Paris, your mom’: the aching yearning of those exiled from family back in East Asia
In his intimate and personal film Promise, the French-based South Korean director Jéro Yun takes us on visits to a Paris hostel where he has formed a friendship with the owner, a woman who reminds him of his mother whom he hasn’t seen in a decade. In a poignant echo, the woman has been unable to see her own son for nine years, fearing that a trip back to China would mean losing her visa. Spare but filled with feeling, Yun’s short documentary evokes the aching yearning of people far from home and family – people for whom surrogates and substitutes offer a touch of solace that never is quite enough. Snowy exteriors and shadowy interiors provide a beautifully moody backdrop for this bittersweet story of two people whose meaning to each other in the present moment is inescapably tethered to their pasts.
Director: Jéro Yun
Producers: Guillaume de la Boulaye, Olivier Mardi