Today, I will share a story about my favorite aunt. I lived with her for approximately six months when I was trapped in Korea, and she really was one of the best women I knew at the age of 9. Now, I have been asked a few times about this ‘god-awful-year-in-Korea’ I mention sometimes, so as a prologue, I will share that chapter.
When my mother was seriously dating my stepfather, plans were being formulated to move the whole family from New York to California. During the process of getting everything taken care of, my mother thought it would be best if I went to Korea to visit with my family there, to say goodbye and get to spend quality time that was lost from years past. Long story short, a week into my stay in Korea, it was realized that there was a major issue with my green card and it became expired without anyone’s knowledge, therefore making me a non-resident of the USA and an alien to Korea.
In a frantic mode of panic, my mother and stepfather did everything they can to plead with the American Embassy, negotiate with lawyers in Korea, and try to get my green card renewed in an expedited manner, but nearly a year went by before I finally gained permission to move back home.
That was probably one of the most traumatic years of my childhood, and I used to have nightmares about it long after I returned to the United States. When I got to Korea, I stayed with my aunt who lived in the Bundang province, so we all called her “Bundang Auntie.” She was a widow in her 50s, and lived in a posh apartment in a upper-middle-class neighborhood. She had four daughters, but only two lived with her. She was extremely independent, and an inferno of a woman. A mother bear looked like a handicapped puppy next to her. Though frightening, there would be little moments she and I shared that made me fall further in love with her.
Though Auntie was a glimmering silver lining, that was consumed in darkness every single day whenever I stepped onto my school grounds. I went to a school that had a reputation for producing almost robot-like students of academic excellence, but they were also passionate about corporal punishment. The type of children who were picked on the most by students AND faculty were the non-Korean students, and I was considered the worst kind. I was the Korean who betrayed her motherland and its people by not being Korean in any way. I also didn’t speak it, so I was a traitor wearing the visage of the Korean, and that was shameful to all my peers and teachers.
I was beaten and punished by my teacher on a daily basis. She used to have a closet of weapons, ranging from baseball bats to rulers to the “club of death,” which was literally just a thick, heavy cylinder made of wood, and that was her favorite. Details are unnecessary, but there was one day when I was punished and it left me in a crippled state where I wasn’t able to walk. I remember sitting numbly in the school’s front yard, my silent tears dripping onto the gravel and wondering how life became so horrible. Then I felt my Auntie’s arms envelop me, and she wordlessly carried me home.
My mom wouldn’t know the gory details about that year until I was well into college. She was absolutely speechless with rage, and even went into a temporary investigation mode to track down the teacher. But more than anything, she felt mortified that her daughter had gone through such things, and felt incredibly sorry. That was one of the biggest things I felt my mother and I had to reconcile from, and it took me a while to let go of that bitterness and forgive her too, even though it really wasn’t her fault. We were both thankful that my Auntie was there for me, because I don’t know what would have happened if she wasn’t.
There was one time when I saw an old man standing out front with a large wooden box. All the students crowded around, squealing and chattering in delight. I edged my way forward and peered over the edge, immediately gasping with joy. There were about 30 chicks in there, chirping shrilly while hopping and pooping all over each other. They were about 5 cents each, and I proceeded to buy 10. I thought this would be the best gift ever for my Auntie, and I ran home excitedly as my chicks bounced haphazardly inside their cardboard box. Suffice to say, Auntie nearly had a heart attack and screamed at me to get rid of them and not to touch them. What she didn’t know was that I actually kept them in a garden patch behind the apartment building, feeding them bits of sticky rice every chance I got. Slowly throughout the days, the chicks started to disappear and finally, I was left with one. But when I went down to feed her, she wasn’t moving and had died during the night.
I was burying her when it hit me like a wrecking ball… I imagined how lonely she must have been, how frightened of this new environment she was, and how much she must have cried out for any response, perhaps even the response of her mother. But as the sun set over her tiny grave, then came the realization that I was really thinking about myself.
Then I started to mourn for the first time in my life.