Mother, Who Are You?
The Role of Mothers as Portrayed in Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
“When I was little, my family was so poor that my parents had to send me away to my grandparents’ house,” my Mom told me across the small table. We were at a café that was on the first floor of my college building. It was a Sunday, and my Mom was visiting me because I was going through one of my anxiety-ridden stages. She continued, “I became so used to living with my grandmother, that my own mother felt strange to me.” I looked at her then, because this was the first time I was hearing her share her feelings about this experience. “When my parents came to my grandparents’ house, I would run behind the house to hide up in the hills among the trees. I still remember. My mother would call, ‘Jane! Jane!’ And I would crouch down, blocking my ears with my hands. She felt strange to me.” For some reason, this made me ache for my mom. I looked at my mother, amazed at how she could be such a strong person today despite what she went through. My mother lost her father when she was a teenager, and growing up without a father in South Korea meant you were unintelligent. She is also short, which did not help the way others viewed her. However, as we grew up, she always praised my siblings and me, and always told us that our family – our mother, father, my older sister, myself, and my younger brother – were the only people that mattered among billions of people in the world. She always said to look out for each other because there is no one else who is more important. Living away from her own family in Korea, my mother calls her own mother whenever she can. When my family was still living in Korea, she looked after my dad’s parents as if they were her own. But the point is that, there are so many things I don’t know about my mother, and perhaps, I never will know enough about her as she knows about me. We expect our mothers to know us inside and out, but we don’t expect ourselves to know everything about our own mothers. Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin shows just how invisible the role of a mother can be, despite how crucial and significant her role is for her family.
How well do we know our mothers? In Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel, Chi-hon, So-nyo Park’s daughter, asks, “Did you like being in the kitchen? Did you like to cook?” (pg. 57). To this, So-nyo responds, “I don’t like or dislike the kitchen. I cooked because I had to. I had to stay in the kitchen so you could all eat and go to school. How could you only do what you like?” (pg. 57). This simple yet significant question reminds us of how we all have memories of our mothers being in the kitchen. We expect them to be everything for us – When we catch a cold, we expect our mothers to measure our temperature, cook us chicken noodle soup, tuck us in, and to stay by us until we feel better. We expect them to provide us food at mealtime, and we expect them to fulfill their “duties” as our “mother.” But we never ask them whether they like this role. We can protest about certain chores we are assigned to do, but we do not expect our mothers to protest about their roles. Interestingly, So-nyo Park in Please Look After Mom seems to feel the same. It is not about whether she likes staying in the kitchen. She cooks for her family because somebody has to. Although I tried to be helpful to my mom whenever I could while growing up, it never occurred to me that I could ask my mom about how she felt about staying in the kitchen and cooking for our family. I think I thought of it as a tacit agreement: She is the mother of our family, and so it is one of her responsibilities to cook for us. When someone else in the family tried to cook something in the kitchen for the family, my mom insisted that they go and do whatever they needed to do, she can do the cooking. But I was wrong in thinking there had ever been an agreement about my mom’s role in the family. An agreement means a mutual agreement. What else have I not bothered to ask my mom?
What do we mean to our mothers? In most Asian countries, sons are more valuable than daughters. In Shin’s novel, this is shown by the fact that So-nyo expects her son to study to become a prosecutor, while she expects Chi-hon to stay behind and help her cook, prepare materials, and even help with field work. Despite of the role her mother expects from her, Chi-hon says to So-nyo, “Mom.” (pg. 18). As the narrator points out, “The word ‘Mom’ is familiar and it hides a plea: Please look after me. Please stop yelling at me and stroke my head; please be on my side, whether I’m right or wrong” (pg. 18). We expect our mothers to understand and forgive our faults, and we expect them to tolerate our tantrums. However, as daughters, if we ever find that our mothers are no longer standing by us, then our world simply falls apart. We feel lonely and unprotected. This is the strength that mothers hold over us.
What do our mothers expect of us? When So-nyo is seventeen, her parents arrange her marriage with a young man whom she has never met. When So-nyo breaks down in front of her mother, saying she does not want to leave her family, her mother tells her:
It’s not a bad thing to get married. It’s something you can’t avoid. You were born deep in the mountains. I wasn’t able to send you to school, so if you don’t get married what can you do? When I matched your horoscope with the groom’s, it said that you two will be very lucky. You won’t lose a single child, and you will have many children, and they will grow up and succeed. What else could you want? Since you came into this world as a human, you have to live happily with your mate. You have to have your babies and breastfeed them and raise them. Stop crying, stop crying. I’ll make you special blankets with willowed cotton. (pg. 131-132)
Like all mothers, So-nyo’s mother wants the best for her daughter. What So-nyo’s mother knows is that a good marriage with healthy children is the best a woman can have. Because she raised her daughter in the mountains without any education, she believes there is no better option for her daughter. Through these means – a good marriage and healthy children – she wants her daughter to achieve happiness of a lifetime. In the end, this is what all mothers want, even if their daughters do not understand at the moment the choices their mothers make for them.
In the novel, So-nyo is never found by her family, who never really realized just how ill So-nyo was. Even though she is dead, she still watches over her children. Watching over her eldest daughter, she says, “I’m going to go now. Lie down, put your head on my lap for a little while. Rest a bit. Don’t be sad for me. I was happy so many days of my life because I had you” (186). Whereas So-nyo reflects on her happiness on living as her daughters’ mother, her daughters do not and cannot feel the same way. If no misfortune happens, then our parents pass away before us, as the cycle of life goes. The ones who are left living are left to face their regrets. Chi-hon’s older sister writes to Chi-hon:
Do you remember asking me a while ago to tell you something that only I knew about Mom? I told you I didn’t know Mom. All I knew was that Mom was missing. It’s the same now. I especially don’t know where her strength came from. Think about it. Mom did things that one person couldn’t do by herself. I think that’s why she became emptier and emptier. Finally, she became someone who couldn’t find any of her kids’ houses. I don’t recognize myself, feeding my kids and brushing their hair and sending them to school, unable to go look for Mom even though she’s missing. You said I was different, unlike other young moms these days, that there was a small part of me that’s a little bit like her, but sister, no matter what, I don’t think I can be like Mom. Since she went missing, I often think: Was I a good daughter? Could I do the kind of things for my kids she did for me? (218)
How is it possible that mothers are capable of everything they do? Of course, not all mothers are the same, and I am very lucky to have been born as my mother’s daughter. But having grown up as her daughter, under her infinite love and care, I never imagined her being anyone else than my mother. When I become a mother myself, could I do what my mother did for my siblings and me?
At the end of the novel, So-nyo becomes so ill that she loses her memory, and never being found by her family, passes away without their knowledge. When So-nyo dies, she returns to her own mother. Walking to the house where she grew up in, she sees her own mother waiting for her. She says:
“My baby,” Mom says, and opens her arms. Mom puts her hands under my armpits as if she’s holding a child who has just died. She takes the blue plastic sandals off my feet and pulls my feet into her lap. Mom doesn’t smile. She doesn’t cry. Did Mom know? That I, too, needed her my entire life? (212)
I believe that it would be impossible to understand the scope of strength and love that mothers possess. Yet, there are so many things we do not know about the woman who is our mother, best friend, teacher, counselor, and doctor. Before it’s too late, it may be good for us to ask our mothers, “Mother, who are you?”
Sin, Kyong-suk, and Chi-Young Kim. Please look after mom. New York, Knopf, 2011.