To Be a Daughter

My Korean is poor, your English almost non-existent.

Yet you let me into your home for a year;

A stranger became your daughter.

 

This is what it is to be a daughter:

Struggling to look up words on a dictionary app

Just to talk to you.

Hovering near you in the kitchen as you scurry around

Mixing together ingredients I’ve never seen,

Concocting dishes I’ve never imagined.

Is that a whole squid? Really, omma 1? A squid for dinner?

You appreciate my help; our best way of communicating.

You were lonely; dad only comes home on weekends, onni2, is in Seoul,

Brother lives at the PC room, so I keep you company.

We grow close over Korean dramas and brief conversations.

Our friendship blooms in the shared struggle to communicate.

I call your house home for a year; a stranger becomes my mother.

You are at home, hoping I’ll fly back soon.

The girl you raised became a woman

who moved to the other side of the world.

 

This is what it is to be a daughter:

I am constantly reminded of the burdens

Carried by a mother and her displaced daughter.

It is layered in your voice and present in my loneliness.

You call me almost every night, across oceans and time zones;

Facebook messenger and KakaoTalk are our lifelines.

“When are you coming home?”

“You really want to stay another year?”

“I miss you.”

I feel guilty.

I miss you too.

I try my best to never miss a call.

Your advice and wisdom bring understanding

or contention depending on my mood;

But you are almost always right.

My time at home is short but wonderful;

summers and Christmas bring us together again.

Love wells up to replace the arguments

fueled by distance and miscommunication.

I leave you again,

But your calls tether me to the family I left behind.

I love you mom; I’ll be home soon.

You are the mother of my future husband,

With a language and culture vastly different from mine,

But I am grateful to be your new daughter.

 

This is what it is to be a daughter:

Standing anxious to meet you,

Having prepared my insa3,  a thousand times in my head,

I worry: ‘Will you accept me?’

Upon our first meeting you pull me into a sweeping, back-thumping,

Ajumma4, embrace.

Instantly, I am your daughter.

The pressure to impress you is built up only in my head,

But I desperately want to prove that I can be a good wife,

And a good daughter.

You show me how to correctly peel fruit,

You cook alongside me as I try my hand at jjimdalk5,

You teach me how to talk with appa6, ,

whose brusque, thick dialect confuses even your son.

I look at my vibrating phone: “Shi Omma7, ;

I have a brief panic.

Will we understand each other over the phone?

But your reassuring, measured voice guides me;

You are patient with my stilted, awkward Korean.

You accept me as I am.

We go to the beauty shop together; people stare.

“Who is this foreigner?” they ask you.

“She is my daughter,” you reply.

Emily Lembo is a 2014-2016 ETA at Samgaksan Elementary in Seoul. She previously worked at Chipyong Middle school in Gwangju.

Footnotes

  1. mom
  2. older sister
  3. formal greeting
  4. middle-aged or older woman
  5.  Chicken-based Korean dish
  6. dad
  7. Mother-in-law, formal