My mother left Korea for the Gambia, West Africa, the year I turned three. She was a religious woman, devoted to prayer and evangelism. Convinced it was her duty to direct wayward souls to heaven, she left behind three sisters, two brothers, a mother, and the soil that held her father’s bones.
“Mom,” I asked her recently, “Why the Gambia?”
Her response was vague and in Korean, a language that still kinks my tongue. God, she said, put it on her heart. The words left an imagistic residue that lingers in my mind today: her spirit sagged under the weight of lost Gambian souls. When they became too heavy for her to carry from afar, she got on a plane out of Kimpo International Airport with me, my sister, and my father and left in a flurry of rehearsed goodbyes, diaper bags, and Korean spices. We planted our toes in the African dirt.
The first place we lived in the Gambia was the village of Somita. My mother started her divine ministry in a spare room in the back. Milky layers of whitewash hid the cracks for a while. She set up a nursery school in that windowless cement structure, teaching the English alphabet, basic numbers, and Bible stories (“Mrs. Han! Mrs. Han!” weedy arms swept the air, “I have the answer! Pick me!”). Even though, like most Korean women, she legally retained her maiden name after marriage, no one ever called her Ms. Kim. Long after my village friends had married and become mothers, it would be my father’s name that would survive on their children’s lips.
My parents shared a religious commitment that joined them in matrimony and eventually in love. My father was a pastor and a missionary, and he biked into villages tucked deep in the bush, lugging the Good News he’d highlighted in his Korean-English Bible. He started a church right away, gathering curious neighbors on our front porch. Strumming his guitar and crooning words in a language twice-removed from his own, he nourished the souls of budding Somita converts. My mother never sang us Korean lullabies, but in Somita she belted out Jesus-tunes translated into Mandinka, the local tongue. My father owned a rusty white truck, a Toyota Hilux, and I remember nights when we returned home with the windows rolled down, harmonizing second-hand hymns from the backseat. My mother sang the loudest.
While my father was constructing sermons in his study, my mother went into the village just to visit the neighbors with the new wife or the new house or the newborn, and she’d bounce that plump baby boy on her lap and kiss his shiny bald head. Gossiping in Mandinka and laughing with the ladies, she helped them peel vegetables or pound cassava late into the afternoon heat. She wandered from house to house for hours, and sometimes I wondered if she would return. She always did, covered in a thin veil of sweat and dust, and I waited for her to call me into her bedroom to massage the iron lumps out of her sore legs. I would kneel by her side, kneading those thin bones loose.
My mother was always walking, and her strides held a conviction that I began to mimic. I quickly made friends, and together we explored trees, dug up ant-lions, and played pretend. We were monkeys and hyenas, shopkeepers and teachers, but most of all we were mothers, cooking our mud stews and cradling our cloth babies. When we grew tired of our games, Yeero, the night guard, knotted a rope on the neem tree beside our house. We took turns, pushing each other higher and higher until all we could see were bare feet and sky. Within a few months, I was more fluent in Mandinka than in Korean, and conversation under our modest corrugate roof became an odd mutation of both languages. I was five, maybe six, and my mother worried when I went into the village. Sometimes I even stayed for meals with my friends’ families. My mother was concerned for my safety but also for my deteriorating Korean and maybe my friends who went to bed a little bit hungrier for having to share.
In Somita, my mother spent the time she was not praying or teaching or walking, on washing our clothes. We had one drying well on the compound then but no electricity and no running water. My mother adapted accordingly, forging her own patterns in the new environment. During the dry season, she sent my father, sister, and me to collect water from the village pump, a task that we saved for the cool evenings. My mother stored this water in large plastic tubs in our outdoor bathroom. Scooping with one arm and securing the dirty clothes in the other, she scrubbed against a denim-blue washboard, up and down and up and down in a xylophone rhythm that stole the youth from her knuckles. Her hands became bony and red; the calluses developed later.
Here is a picture of me smiling: four girls sitting side by side on a table in front of an open window. My shoulders are dappled, slightly peeling, and I am squeezed on either side by Bintou and Mariama, my best friends then. My sister is on the end, and we are wearing matching dresses that my mother made from old curtains.
Our family tried to return to Korea every five years, and whenever we did, we made the pilgrimage to my grandmother’s house. For me, this ritual marked the passage of time. A five-hour bus ride from Seoul and a twenty-minute taxi ride from the bus station in Namhae placed us in my grandmother’s neighborhood. The road to her house was like loose thread in a quilt of rice paddies. The taxi left us at the bottom of a hill, and we walked the rest of the way. There she would be, wafting an incense of salted meats and pickled radishes from her pores. I never once saw my grandmother stand up straight. She always welcomed us on the front porch, bent over with her two hands resting on the small of her back. She remained in this posture of perfect reverence, surrounded by a carpet of drying hot peppers from her farm, and every year she would look more and more like the waxy skin of those peppers baking in the sunshine. The curve in her back became harsher, pulling her closer to the earth, a question mark crumpling in on itself. Her skin smelled of dried persimmons.
My grandmother has always been old. In my earliest memory, she was well past eighty. Even then she lived alone, tethered to the house that held traces of her dead husband. It was a traditional Korean structure: a roof ribbed in curved tiles, black and crusty with the taste of rain, and grainy paper doors in a frame too small to enter upright. Every time we returned to Korea and to that house, it would require more stooping to enter. I loved that house, perhaps because I had come to depend on its unchanging qualities, and perhaps because I only ever saw it in the summer. My grandmother hoarded cash in her bedroom, and she occasionally slipped crisp 10,000 won bills into our palms for ice cream when my mother wasn’t looking. My sister and I would sit on the wooden porch with our feet flopping over the edge, sweet bean popsicles melting into our fingers. The varnish was worn and warm where we sat the most.
During the few days we had in Namhae, my mother and grandmother would sit side by side quietly peeling cabbage leaves and smudging salt along their veins. Hours passed, and they spoke to each other in the local dialect, a low shudder of accented syllables I never bothered to learn. Buckets of kimchi stood ready by the time the sun set, the sky as red and pungent as the spicy juices the leaves now rested in. My mother scrubbed her hands with soap after the long day’s work, but she still smelled vaguely peppery when she curled in next to me and my sister. My grandmother slept alone one room over, her bones spread thin over blankets. In the middle of the night, when my mother thought we were all asleep, she untangled herself from us. The soft rustle of sheets next door told me my mother was swathed in my grandmother’s arms.
When my mother left Korea, it broke all of us in subtle ways that can only be identified in hindsight. “Pray for your grandmother,” my mother urged us in private, afraid that our next visit would be to a funeral. “She doesn’t know God.” In part, I think she was able to leave her mother in this life because of the hope of an eternity with her in the next. “Please, mother, just once,” she begged on Sundays as we dressed for church. My grandmother consistently refused, perhaps unable to forgive her or the God who stole her.
We shared solemn goodbyes with our grandmother every time we left for the Gambia, and my mother always cried. Even after the tears stopped and she adjusted again to her life half a world away, she carried the memory of my grandmother in her muscles and in the taste of her stained skin.
We moved to a town called Brikama when I was just starting the second grade. My mother became smaller here, or maybe I became bigger. I don’t remember which, and I’m not sure it matters anymore. My parents filled an unexpected vacancy at the Korean missionary headquarters. We left our house and friends in Somita on the promise that this new administrative job was a temporary arrangement. Our new house was three times bigger and tiled. My parents were responsible for the fifty Gambian boys and girls who lived on the compound with us. While my father trained new missionaries, preached new sermons, and built new churches, my mother participated mutely in all the many required religious gatherings, an example for the Gambian girls who lived with us. Busy taking care of the growing needs of her own family and the new community, she rarely left the compound or even the house anymore.
On Friday nights the whole community gathered in all-night prayer vigils. At the end of the service, someone turned off the lights to signal a time for personal prayers. The darkness prompted an ecstasy of chanting and moaning and screaming and singing and howling. When I was young enough that I wasn’t required to offer my own prayers, I’d lay my head in my mother’s lap and try to sleep. In the dark, she cried prayers for Gambian souls, and sometimes her tears would run down her face and land on mine. Her sobs and garbled pleas mixed with the wails and the shrieks, the clapping and the djembe beats, the incoherent murmurs blending together like one long irreducible sigh. It used to scare me when she cried like that, in heaving black sobs.
For me the darkness possessed a trace of horror. In Somita, I slept on a waterbed that gave me nightmares. Jarred awake, I would crawl into bed with my parents, looking for their warmth and weight to reorient me. Sensing my presence even in the black, my mother would turn and put her arms and legs around me, pulling me in close. Even after we moved to Brikama, my nightmares followed me, and they made me cry in my sleep. Hearing me, my mother would come and turn on the lights to remind me of the contours of reality. I would wake to her sleepy face close to mine, and she would sit with me until I fell back asleep.
At this time, I began to commute to a Gambian school in Serrekunda, a tourist hub a thirty-minute drive away from Brikama. The people here were different from the ones I met in Somita, and I imagine it was because they were accustomed to seeing the pale foreigners who never strayed far into the rural areas. The kids in Brikama chased me for fun, calling me names: Bottabaa! Bottabaa! Toubabndingo!
I came crying into the house one day, when my mother was in her room keeping exhaustion at bay. I let her take me in her arms in the dark.
“What happened, huh?” she murmured, smoothing the hair on the back of my head. I rolled over to face her. Her fingers massaged the wetness into my cheeks.
“They were making fun of me again. Why can’t they just leave me alone? I hate them.”
My mother was quiet for a moment, just stroking the hairs onto either side of my face.
“Next time, just think about how much Jesus suffered on the cross. Think about how much pain and shame he was in. How much more do you think he suffered for you than you could ever suffer for him?” She became quiet again. My pillow was becoming soggy. “Do you believe in Jesus?”
I paused, maybe for a split second too long – she looked worried, cloudy-eyed, like she could see my soul burning in hell – and replied, “Yeah, of course.” I nodded vigorously, although I wasn’t really sure how it all worked. I thought to myself what a mean-spirited old miser Jesus was, if he went through all that just to hold it over my head, and I thought to myself how he could never understand what it was like to be me, because he was never Korean and he was never a girl.
Here is another picture: I’ve just turned nine, and I still wet the bed. What I see within its glossy frame is not as important as the sounds I hear in the background: crying. We are still in Brikama, and my father has just returned from work to the sight of my mother asleep.
“You make work for yourself!” My father’s voice is getting louder in the darkness. “Can’t you see that you don’t need to do all these things? What are you trying to prove? If you’d just listen to me, you wouldn’t get so tired all the time.”
My mother spent the majority of her time in Brikama cooking and sweeping and mopping, sometimes on her hands and knees, sometimes with the brown towel wedged beneath the weight of her two feet. She’d shuffle the room clean, and streaks of shiny clean wet would trail behind her and disappear, first around the edges and then completely, a burnout shooting-star trail. (We failed to see its beauty at the time.) She stood for hours doing dishes, leaning from one leg to the other, lifting herself onto her tip-toes for a moment and then rocking back on her heels. She was chronically exhausted, and she collapsed in the darkness of her bedroom in her spare time. She looked impossibly tiny, huddled beneath her covers in that bedroom. Her naps were becoming longer and darker. My parents and I shared a wall, and sometimes I thought I heard her whimper. I wondered if she dreamt.
My father was now the director of the whole West African region, and he developed a reputation in churches around the world for the fervor with which he pioneered new religious projects. Moksanim, they called him, Sunkyosanim, meaning Pastor, Missionary. My mother became Samonim, the honorific title for a great man’s wife. In Brikama, it seemed her life in the Gambia became increasingly foreign to her. Her domestic duties had become more laborious the older we got. I believe that she did so out of love for us but also out of grief. The world was changing all around her, and even when we returned on our sporadic visits to Korea, the face of her maternal country bore few of the lines that she had loved. She could no longer see herself in its reflection. She must have missed her own mother, the sacred hours they spent communing over food: the feel of the produce as they tested for freshness, the give of its skin as they sliced into it, the mechanical rhythms of seasoning, smelling, checking, and sprinkling, the burn on their tongues as they tasted. Alone in her Gambian kitchen, she must have grappled with her cultural and spiritual identity. As our mother, she must have then felt the burden of ours.
“Can you peel these and then run them through the blender?” she asked us. She balanced a tray of assorted vegetables on her forearms for some Korean dish we would have for supper.
“Yeah, just leave it there,” we replied vaguely, unable to see past the dirt and heat of the domestic work. Tired of repeating the same requests to us, my mother rescued the tray of browning vegetables, rinsing the produce before returning to the kitchen.
She eventually started to do all the work by herself, and we saw less and less of her. She began consecrating the evenings to the flavors of the homeland she left behind. She created adaptations of Korean delicacies from the sparse resources we had in the Gambia, inventions that we took for granted: tangy bush pig, savory pancakes, watermelon-skin kimchi, and sometimes even sweet steamed rice cakes. We rarely helped her prepare these foods, which appeared steaming and fresh on our pitted dining room table every evening, but we ate them with relish. I never saw my mother as happy as when we were eating. She tricked us into absorbing the cultural heritage we treated with such indifference, watched as it churned and crumbled and diffused into our blood, became part of our flesh.
“This is a psychological problem,” my father said. He still stood over her shaded form beneath the mosquito net – she on the inside, he on the outside. “You realize the more you sleep, the more you’re going to want to sleep?”
“Just twenty minutes,” my mother murmured. “Ah-ga,” she turned to me, Baby, spotting me behind the half-open door. “Wake me up in twenty minutes.” She was barely audible. My father breathed out, shaking his head. “See?” she continued softly, “I’ll just get up in twenty minutes. I’ll be fine.” Her outline was motionless, and it frightened me.
“I think you’re becoming lazy.” My father left. The door closed behind him with a soft click, and for some reason this detail becomes unbearably loud in hindsight.
Atson’s Supermarket was in Serrekunda, and it was a humble periscope into the developed world beyond the Gambian borders: air conditioning, soft-serve ice cream, and a TV playing BBC World. Three years later, I would watch the World Trade Center collapse through its greasy screen two weeks after it actually happened. My mother dropped another three cans of Lyle’s Golden Syrup into the cart. My father, who had been pushing the cart, raised his eyebrows.
“For the girls,” she defended herself. “It’s a really good deal.”
“Yeo-bo.” His voice was strained, even though the word itself was a term of endearment between spouses. “It’s too expensive.”
“I wanted to make tang-soo-yuk,” she said. She rarely had time to make sweet and sour pork anymore but when she did, we loved it. Abandoning our chopsticks to grab the fried morsels with our hands, we swirled them in the sauce before popping them in our mouths. We sucked the stickiness from our fingers afterwards so all that remained was a greasy sheen.
“Aren’t you even a little bit embarrassed?” My father’s voice was getting quieter and louder at the same time. “It doesn’t look good. We can’t keep doing this.” My mother rarely responded to my father’s criticisms, and I resented her then for her silence. It wasn’t until later that I understood the dignity in this stillness.
Again, my mother shook her head, wordless. She walked back holding the stack of cans and returned them to the shelf. She rarely bought things for herself. Eggs were a luxury that the Gambians who lived with us seldom experienced, but she bought them anyway, wrapping the cartons in old Korean newspapers so they wouldn’t see. The egg sandwiches my mother snuck into my packed lunches at school were slathered with ketchup and still smelled oddly of newspapers.
“You don’t have to do things for other people all the time,” he said as we approached the cash register. He had made my mother shed the cornflakes she had found for the homesick American short-termer who had arrived a week ago, the socks she had acquired for my father’s cracking feet, and the radishes she had grabbed with the intention of making mu-guk, a soup made of radishes and beef broth. The shopping cart was nearly bare. My mother stood, her purse hooked on arms that were now knotted across her chest. She remained quiet in the car on the way home.
My mother gradually began sneaking cash from my father when he wasn’t looking. My mother had no bank account, and had she entered the bank where my father kept a meticulous eye on our family’s finances, she would not have known how to retrieve it. Home – whatever that had come to mean – could not have felt further away than at those moments when she rifled through my father’s wallet.
I cried and cried in the back seat of our car when my parents told me that they were sending me to boarding school.
“I don’t think I’m ready,” I said. Over the years there had been talk of transferring me to this school, but it was in Senegal, a neighboring francophone country and a twelve-hour drive away if you were lucky. It would mean being away from my parents eight months of the year. Even though I knew my parents worried about my future in the Gambian educational system, I couldn’t help wondering if I’d peeled enough vegetables, if I’d folded enough laundry, if I’d done enough dishes, they would have reconsidered. In the car, my mother cried too but not as hard as I did, and I don’t know if I ever forgave her for that.
My first memory from boarding school is a nightmare. I dreamt of Somita and kangkurangos, men dressed fiercely to scare off evil spirits. In my dream, they were nine feet tall and robed in leaves, crashing their machetes together and flying sparks in my face. They were here to take me away, and my feet were water and I was in air. My mother was walking erect, proud, on the earth below, oblivious to my cries. She was surrounded in light. She couldn’t hear me. I cried until I woke up, alone and in the dark.
A few years after I started boarding school, I came back to a house I wasn’t sure I knew anymore and realized my mother seemed older, her movements slower. I just remember the familiar outlines of her back, her calves, her hair piled high into a bun before she got a perm that made her hair frizzy and soft all over, just like my grandmother’s. Learning under English-speaking teachers had completely colonized my speech, robbing the intimacy of Korean and Mandinka from my tongue. I could no longer articulate myself to my mother, and even if I could, I’m not sure what I would have said. Our house in Brikama became a box of unspoken words and routine gestures, and the only change was the deepening hues of our stained tiles.
That was the year we returned to Namhae to find my grandmother’s eggplant garden overgrown with weeds. My grandmother was ancient, but she had ceased being timeless. When I think of my grandmother that summer, I think of finger-length spirals of black hair floating in my soup. We found identical strands of corkscrew curls in the drain and in little pieces all across the linoleum floors. We woke in the morning next to those hairs and to the smell of fresh soup.
“Jalmugusseumnidah,” we told my grandmother after every meal, even though the concoction was bland and runny. My mother translated for her, and we smiled. Thank you, it was delicious. My grandmother smiled back in response, showing sheer, eroded teeth. I listened to them talk some more, envying the ease of their chatter, the noise of home. My sister and I would offer these same words of courtesy to my mother over the years, a litany at the end of each meal, and I wished then that someone had been there to translate for us.
They made kimchi again that summer but languorously now, as time had drained the fluidity from their movements. The piles of kimchi were smaller, and I remember it tasting a little too salty. My grandmother didn’t come down to the driveway to wish us farewell. Instead, she stood with one hand on her porch, as we bowed deeply. When we returned to my father in the Gambia, my mother buried herself in the kitchen, working her arms vigorously by scrubbing cabinets that didn’t need cleaning, reorganizing an already immaculate pantry, teaching the younger girls in the dorm how to sew.
It wasn’t long before my mother received a call from her oldest sister in Seoul. My grandmother had fallen from the wooden steps that she had walked all her life and broken her elbow. For three days, she couldn’t move, until the young gentleman who brought her groceries found her, mostly by accident. She had developed Alzheimer’s behind our back while enjoying her quiet life alone on the farm in Namhae. Her aging children could not support her so they put her in a nursing home in Seoul, a city full of faces that she didn’t recognize and traditions that were long losing their soul and flavor.
We flew out to see my grandmother again a year and a half later, and my mother held a Tupperware of broiled duck on her lap all the way there. The first time my mother saw her after the accident, she didn’t cry. She just walked right up to her and hugged her, leaning over to help adjust her bib. We only approached when my mother beckoned us over.
“Janghada. Janghada,” my grandmother repeated, stroking my palm. She remembered very little, but that day when we saw her in the cool tiled walls of the nursing home, she remembered me and my sister. “How big you’ve grown,” she said, “How precious. How grown-up.” They had shaved her head, and placed her in a wheelchair. She looked beautiful, and she looked small. “Check on the house for me, please?” she asked with murky eyes, her thin hands still gripping mine. No one had told her that her house had been condemned and razed after her relocation. I just smiled and nodded. Visitation hours ended, and my mother packed the food, which my grandmother had barely touched. She followed us back to the car, her quiet becoming deeper the farther we drove, her eyes becoming redder from the effort of keeping them still. I wanted then to lay my head in her lap, but I didn’t. Instead, I thought about my grandmother’s house, the warm porch against the back of my knees, the blood pooling in my ankles, and I dreamt of going back.
Any true memory of my mother always comes in the shape of a lone woman squatting on the floor of a dirty kitchen in the Gambia. I revisit that image frequently, and every time she seems less alone. Her skirt is gathered up in bunches at her crotch, knees jutting in grasshopper legs and thin arms bent deep in vegetable clippings. We forget my mother’s birthday most years, so we’ve lost track of how old she is. Maybe she’s passed fifty now. Like so many Korean girls, she started caking on the lotions and anti-ageing serums when she was just a teenager, so her face is still soft and flawless when I think to press my lips against her cheek before bedtime. Occasionally, I catch her sitting in front of her dark bedroom mirror, nervously poking the corners of her mouth and eyes, ironing out the tiny crumples that have appeared over the years. Most of the time I leave her to it, my own reflection a tentative silhouette over her shoulder, but sometimes I wish I could take her coarse hands and smooth out those ridges with her.