You Can Never Go Back
“You thinking I’m the liar?” my mother asked me as she showed me around her childhood home in Pangyo, South Korea on a hot and sticky July afternoon.
“Somehow it shrinking!” she marveled, scanning the site where she grew up with her parents, seven siblings, and the many cousins and friends who would come to stay for weeks and months on end.
When my sisters and I were growing up, she would laugh as she regaled us with stories about summer evenings in her childhood home, how more than twenty of them would gather, eating chami melon and listening with rapt attention as her eldest brother acted out the story of a movie he had watched in Seoul.
Their courtyard was the biggest in her town, she used to boast. Her house had so many rooms! No one ever wanted to leave. My grandmother magically fed them all, just cutting everything smaller and making the food prettier to distract from the portion size.
But a decade of living in suburban Toronto, Canada had changed my mother’s sense of scale. What was once a majestic courtyard in my mother’s memory now revealed itself as a small patch of gravel decorated with broken pottery jars. Instead of a mansion, we found ourselves in a maze of connected rooms that seem to have been added on one at a time, like time capsule box cars, each memorializing a different decade in style and technology. Even the giant tree she remembered in the center of the courtyard was no more than a pruned shrub, she noticed in wonder.
My fourteen-year-old self had a hard time joining my mother in her game of “recollection v. reality” because I was too busy obsessing over my bad hair.
In preparation for our first trip back to Korea since immigrating, my mother had sent me to the mall hair salon for my first professional cut and perm. I was sent on my own because there wasn’t any adult time to spare for this kind of nonessential supervision. But as a shy, mumbly teenager, I could neither figure out nor communicate what I wanted. I didn’t know how to ask for a haircut that would make my mother’s family proud of her sacrifices and how she had raised daughters so well in such a faraway land. “Please make me look like all the pain my mom has been through was worth…