A year ago, one evening in July, I received a call from my mother around 9pm PST. She lives on the East Coast, so it was around midnight her time. I picked up the phone, alarmed that something could have happened to her or my father who live alone in a closed-blind suburb of New York.
"Mom, is everything ok?" I asked as soon as I answered.
"Are you writing about our family in a blog?" she asked.
I was too stunned to respond. I had been keeping a blog for the past few years, and I had written liberally about our family. But I had not told any members of my family about it.
"Why are you writing about our family?" she continued. "And why are you doing it in your name? Other people blog anonymously. Why do you have to put your full name on your blog?"
I wondered how she found out about my blog. My mother had recently started to use the computer, mainly to watch Korean dramas on the internet. And as far as I knew, she did not know how to run searches. She navigated between the sites she frequented by going to her favorite links, which had been set up for her by my brother.
"What if someone reads it? Why did you write about your sister-in-law? What if your niece reads it? What are we going to do? How can you do this?"
I had written about my sister-in-law in one of my earlier posts as well as other members of my family. But nothing all too horrible, I thought, nothing to be ashamed about. And in my posts, I thought I had written with some respect for their perspectives and some understanding of their experiences. And then I wondered how she read all these posts - and if she even understood them. Her commands of written English was limited and I've never seen her read anything more than a few words. I had previously shown her my articles published in magazines, and she never even tried to read them.
The phone call ended badly, with me trying to defend my blog and her crying that I was bringing shame onto the family.
The following day, I shut down my blog that had been maintained under my name, moved it to a new site, and started posting anonymously. I didn't know what to do about my Kimchi Mamas posts, since I had been posting under my own name and the site even included a bio along with my photo. I didn't know what to do.
It wasn't that I thought my mother was right. I didn't. I didn't believe that she had done justice to my posts because if she had read them, she would have reacted with a little more understanding than having a knee jerk reaction as she did. And I didn't share her sense of shame, her worries of social stigma. What was shameful to her seemed to be simply a fact of life to me, something worth discussing.
But a part of me wondered if she had a point because I had written about her -- and others in our family without their permission, including conversations they obviously assumed would be private. And I was also a solicitous child, eager to please and to be approved by them. I rarely did anything that merited serious disapproval, and did not know how to handle this rebuke.
So for the following year or so, I stopped writing publicly.
For as long as I remember, as we were growing up, our actions were always controlled by threats of disapproval and shame. What we did could bring shame on our family, and it was our obligation to avoid that at all cost. We lived alone in the US, with no relatives. There were very few people here who knew what we did, or much less even cared enough for us to have felt shame in their eyes. But my parents always reminded us of our relatives back in Korea, those grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, who heard news of our welfare. And it was always they whose eyes reached more than 6500 miles across the sea to our dingy apartment in the US and scrutinized our report cards, our reward certificates at the end of the year, news of our college acceptance, our career choices, and marriage prospects.
Over the years, as our grandparents passed away and our uncles and aunts slowly faded one by one, I have to admit that I felt a slight sense of relief. Those people we hardly knew could no longer have a say in what or how we did. They could no longer look down on my parents and pity them for their children who failed to live up to expectations.
But after my call with my mom, I realized that she did not live in such a world. For her, the world was always full of disapproving eyes, and lurking around her were new candidates, like my niece, who could bear witness to her shame. According to her, our lives had to be kept secret, lest anyone find out the truth about the way we lived, and the information to be released publicly had to be managed, just the way politicians doled out massaged truth for public consumption.
I feel relieved that I do not live in such a socially restricted world. Maybe the system works in Korea, where people understand each others' hardships and can relate to each other, even without having to verbalize them. But that has not been my experience here. Our lives as immigrants in the US has been full of difficulties and heartaches, and I found that many do not understand what we experienced unless I tell them. Once in college, I wrote an essay about our family's immigration experience, and one non-Korean reader came up to me and said that she believed it "had to be true" because it was written so earnestly. I was stunned that she could have believed that it may not have been true. And her reaction made me feel even lonelier than I had ever felt before.
And when I think about that feeling of loneliness, I realize that I should write about my experiences. That we all should. And we should share our stories because without them, we are lost in our own little bubbles, floating aimlessly without perspective and with less understanding. So I post here once again, and look forward to the day when my children are old enough to read what I have written so that they too can understand a little more, care a little more.