Mom and I both had it marked on our calendars: a film called Grandmother’s Flower, a 2008 Korean documentary about a large, extended Korean family that still feels repercussions from the Korean War. The film was showing as part of the 26th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, which runs through March 23rd at selected Bay Area venues.
In Grandmother’s Flower, filmmaker Mun Jeong-hyun focuses on his own journey of discovering the truth about his family’s strife-torn history: it is a painful documentary of village tensions, political torture and killings, and inter-familial rifts.
Mom and I both watched the film with rapt attention, never looking at or whispering to each other during the presentation. There were a few animated sequences in the film that I found difficult to watch: they were crude, black and white cartoon images showing, for instance, a man cutting off his own testicles and tongue and putting them into a cauldron. These scenes would always end with a fade to bright, blood red, making me squirm.
After the credits rolled, I looked at Mom and asked her how she liked it. My mother – who lived through the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Korean War, and WWII, paused for a moment. “I hated it,” she said. “It was too close to home for me; too many painful memories.”
“I’m sorry for suggesting that we see it,” I said, feeling slightly guilty and remorseful. “But, I thought you’d find it interesting.”
“Oh, it was interesting for you, I am sure,” she said. “But for me, I have already lived through it, and I don’t need to be reminded of such painful and terrible times again.”
Mom then went on, as she often does when she meets another Korean, about the “country” way the people in the movie spoke – which is very different (i.e., inferior) from the elegant Seoul dialect that my mother and her family speak. “Those people sounded like country hicks,” she said, with disdain in her voice. “It’s the equivalent of cockney English.”
Mom had almost the exact same reaction after I took her to see a presentation given by a Korean "comfort woman" at my university a few months ago. As part of the Asian Studies program, this poor, yet brave, old woman had come to address a large, mostly-Korean audience to give a grueling account of her capture, then torture, during her time as a sex slave to Japanese soldiers during WWII. The purpose of the program was to build awareness around this shameful episode in Korean history. Again, I had invited Mom to attend the lecture because I thought she’d find it "interesting,” and because she is of the same generation as the comfort women (though younger). After sitting through that event, Mom said, “Ugh! That was depressing! Why did you take me to see that? I don’t need to see that!”
Again, I felt bad for having opened raw wounds that clearly had not healed.
After Sunday’s film, Mom said: “I must remember to never go to another Korean movie or event again! I’ve had enough!” Then she said, “Let’s go get some ice cream.”
My mother’s reluctance to see or hear about anything Korean is troubling for me. As you may know, one of the biggest draws to Kimchi Mamas for me was the opportunity to learn more about Korean culture and share my experience, as a hapa-Korean woman and mother, with other like-backgrounded women. Especially since becoming a mother myself, I have become very interested in learning everything I can about my Korean heritage and my mother's past so that I can pass it on to my daughter, who’s ¼ Korean.
My mother, though, wants very little to do with this. She left Korea
Given my mom’s reluctance to deal with her painful past, I struggle with how I will retain my Koreanness and pass some of the culture on to my daughter. I don’t speak the language. (Mom never bothered to teach me, other than a handful of words.) I have very limited contact with my many Korean relatives (because my mom has chosen to distance herself from them). I fear that any tenuous connection I have to the old country will die upon my mother’s death.
The funny thing is that so much of who my mom is smacks of Korean culture: her
intense sense of pride; her sacrifice and fierce devotion to me
and my daughter; her red-hot temper; her inability to forgive those who
have wronged her. (I’m sorry if I am stereotyping here, but it’s all true!)
How can I gently draw out my mother's rich Korean family history without upsetting her? Shall I keep trying, or just be resigned to learning about this side of my family through books and movies? Maybe I should make my own documentary.