The first time I walked into my mom’s new dentist office in the morning, an older colleague of hers greeted me. He told me, chuckling, you’re so fair-skinned — you must get your features from your dad. It is common to compliment one’s appearance when greeting a stranger in Korea. Still, I felt awkward and responded with a crooked smile, wishing to quickly retreat to my mom’s office before anyone else saw me. During lunch, however, I was again exposed to my mom’s colleagues as she took me to the cafeteria to eat. There were four female nurses and two male doctors in their late 50s who stared at me.
“Dr. Kang, is this your daughter who studies in America? She’s pretty — looks nothing like you,” one of the doctors commented as we approached their table.
“Oh, yes, thank god she doesn’t look like you!” the other agreed jokingly.
I waited until my mom was done, and we walked outside for a bit since it wasn’t that cold. She loves taking walks and ever since we moved to the northern part of Seoul, near her office, she sometimes walks for two hours, all the way back home. The sky was turning from sunset orange to musky blue. Street vendors were opening their food carts, and smells of spicy rice cakes, fish balls, and sweet, oily pancakes warmed the air. The N Seoul tower in the far background was wrapped with neon green, purple, and red lights. My mom doesn’t like the dark, but the yellow headlights of cars jammed in traffic and orange flickers from street lamps brightened the streets enough that she felt safe. Once we got to the trail near Han-river, we stopped to soak up the glistening colors reflected on the water from the bridge above. There, she asked me a question.
“Do you think I’m ugly?”
I was horrified. I looked at my mom, and she was smiling shyly because she knew it sounded silly, but she looked at me intently, waiting for my honest answer. Of course not. All my life, I have never told her she was beautiful, but I also never doubted her beauty. Sure, my mom doesn’t always wear the nicest clothes. She buys clothes from cheap stores in underground subway stations so that she can spend more money on buying books for me instead. And sure, my mom rarely wears makeup. She had never put on eyeliner, or mascara. My mom told me it’s because she’s not good with her hands. But my grandma told me a long time ago that my mom received a scholarship to one of the best art universities in the country, which she gave up because her family needed money. She has a brother above her, but he is disabled so the entire family of six depended on her.
“You know, earlier, at the office. The doctors were saying how different you look from me. I agree, but do you think that I’m that ugly? So ugly that I don’t even look like your mom?”
As a kid, my mother clipped my hair before bed so that I would lie with my face against the pillow rather than on my back. When I was an infant, she used to wake herself up every two hours to check if I was sleeping with my cheeks against the pillow. She was scared that I might have a protruding, square jaw like hers, and believed that the position would help my face be slimmer. Every morning, she slathered sunscreen over my face so that I wouldn’t have dark, wide sunspots like hers. So I knew my mom cared about my looks, but I didn’t know she was self-conscious about her own looks, behind the cheap clothes and her bare face. I thought she was too old, too wise to care about looks anymore. Besides, to me, she has always looked beautiful. When she smiles, her entire face becomes bright, her mouth opens wide all the way to her cheekbones, creating large, generous curvy lines on her face, her eyes sparkle, and she giggles unstoppably. It didn’t occur to me that my mom was also just a girl who wanted to feel pretty sometimes, and that no one in her family or at work reminded her that she was.
“I’m happy to have a beautiful daughter, and that’s what matters. I’m too old anyways.”
Shouting in my head you are so beautiful mom!!, I remained silent, and she apologized for being silly.