“Mom, stop it!"
I screamed at her, but she did not look at me. She continued her dance, moving nearly naked in the forest. I felt ashamed of her; I wished she were not my mother. There was nothing to hide the scene before me. There was a deathly silence around us, except for Mother's singing and the sound of the river. Under the hot sun of August, the forest seemed to be taking a nap. There were no villagers moving about, only Mother and I. She looked like a person who did not belong to this world.
I saw real happiness in her face while she was singing and dancing. I could see her breasts, the lines of her body-large, like a whale's—through her wet underwear. I did not want anybody in the world to see that shape, my mother's body that had worked and lived. I finally started to cry out of extreme embarrassment. I wanted to hide from her. She did not look anymore like the noble mother of whom I was always proud. But in spite of my crying, she continued singing and dancing, twirling in the forest as a child might, twirling and dancing in a space of her own.
This happened twenty-four years ago, when I was seven. My mother and I were traveling together to visit her older sister, who lived in a small, remote village in a southern province in Korea. My father was deeply involved with his business and had remained at home in Seoul. I had been raised in a big city, and traveling to a remote village was not easy for me. No bus or train service was available. We had to go over the mountain and cross the river. I was exhausted from walking so long on the dusty road under a hot summer sun.
Mom had been telling me stories from her childhood as we were walking-how she had played in the river and climbed the mountain with her sisters. So when we came to the river, Mother's memories came to life and she took off her clothes and started to bathe in the water. She encouraged me to bathe with her. I was shocked. How could she do this? I looked to see whether there were any other people around. No one was there. I did not approve of my mother's behavior at all. I hoped she would finish her bathing as soon as possible. I sat on the riverbank and waited.
At last she got out of the water, but the situation only grew worse. She began singing a song I had never heard before. She danced while she was singing. I thought my mother had gone crazy; otherwise she would never have acted like that. Humiliation and confusion made me cry.
"Mom, stop it, stop it!" I screamed, but she continued to dance and sing, her body flopping and straining against the dampened clothes. I could not stop the tears from coming, and we stayed like that—me crying and her dancing—for some time. After a while, because of my continuous crying, she stopped her dance and put on her clothes and we took up our journey again.
One Mother's Story Most of the time my mother behaved like a typical Korean housewife. She took care of us very well. She saved all the best parts of food for my father and me, eating the leftovers herself. She appeared to be submissive to my father and made many sacrifices on behalf of both of us. But there was a contradiction in her life.
From time to time, her behavior showed a wild, raw, extreme passion for freedom that was not characteristic of the model Korean woman. The contradiction that she lived she also taught me. The manner in which she raised me was very different from other Korean mothers. Even though she kept telling me to be a "nice" likable girl, she never asked me to cook for family gatherings or feasts, which is the Korean girl's family duty. Rather, she would give me a small amount of money and tell me to go to the library to study whenever the big feasts came.
She always told me that I could learn how to cook any time I wanted, but I could not learn how to study once I became older. Sometimes she scolded me because she thought I was too tomboyish. She frequently told me that if I was not feminine, I would not get married because no man would want me. But at other times, she seriously told me not to get married. She said I could not live a full life in marriage because marriage, for a Korean woman, meant giving up freedom.
I still vividly remember the night I had a serious fight with my college boyfriend over the issue of marriage. I loved him very much, but I could not jump into the marriage, as he was insisting, because I had strong doubts about the limitations it would place on my freedom. I could not live without freedom. He accused me of being a selfish woman. I came home crying after a bitter argument with him and had a long conversation with Mother. After listening to my story, she leaned toward me in utter seriousness and offered her advice.
“Hyun Kyung," she said, "do not get married. I have been married for more than forty years. Marriage works for the man, but not for the woman. Forget about your boyfriend. Korean men don't understand women. Live fully. If you want to do something very much—from your heart, from your gut—then do it. Don't hesitate. If you don't have money, then make money, even if it means selling your used underwear. Discipline yourself to be a good scholar when you are young, since you always have loved to learn." And she added, with ambivalence, “Go abroad to study. And if, while you are studying, you find a good Western man who can understand you, your inner life, then get married. Western men seem more generous to women than Korean men."
I was very surprised by my mother's response. I could not believe what she had said. Her advice to me contradicted my image of her as a model Korean woman, someone who worried that I might not get married, who scolded me for my "unfemininity.” My mother passed away one year after I arrived in the United States to begin my theological studies. I cried in my bed every night for more than six months after she died, missing her-missing her like a little motherless child. I felt as if I were standing by myself in the middle of a wilderness, struggling with a powerful storm. My mother had gone; it was the loneliest time in my life.
The Other Mother's Story
Three years after my mother's death, I returned to Korea. There I heard about the existence of my other mother from my cousin-sister. She told me that I had a birth mother besides my late mother. I could not believe it. If it were true, how could it be that I had never heard about her? If it were true, it would mean that my late parents had totally deceived me. Even in their last words, my father and mother did not mention her to me. If I really did have another mother, a birth mother, then this woman had been erased from my family history, totally erased for the entire thirty years of my life.
My cousin-sister took me to meet my other mother. With confused emotions, I silently followed her until we came to the door of my other mother's home just outside the city of Seoul. I had brought a dozen red roses with me to give to my other mother. I stood at her doorway, holding the roses, and timidly reached for the doorbell. An old woman opened the door. When she saw me her eyes filled with tears. She took my hands in her own and asked, “Is this Hyun Kyung?" I said, “Yes.” Then she began to sob. She told me, “Finally I have met you! I thought I would die without seeing you. Now I can leave this world without holding my hand."
I did not even know how I felt. I felt numb. Without knowing how to respond, I listened to her story. My mother was a Korean version of a surrogate mother. In Korea, we call these women ci-baji. Ci means seed, baji means receiver. Therefore, the literal meaning of ci-baji is "seed receiver." According to my birth mother, my late mother could not conceive a child even after twenty years of marriage. My father became very anxious. He wanted to have his own child in order to continue his family line. So he asked my late mother to search for a ci-baji woman for him. My late mother found a woman from the countryside who was a yu-mo for a child in our neighborhood. My father, however, did not like her at all; he thought she was not bright and beautiful enough to be a ci-baji for his future child. He sent her away and began to look for a ci-baji himself.
He found a woman he liked, a woman who had lost her husband during the Korean War. She lived with her mother. My father followed her for a few months and finally persuaded her to conceive a baby for him. She and my father had posed for a picture when they knew that she had become pregnant, and she showed that picture to me. She was a good, healthy-looking woman. She gave birth to me and raised me until my first birthday. The day after my first birthday, my parents came to my birth mother's house and took me from her. She did not want to let me go, but she could not challenge my parents. They were economically and politically powerful in her city. So she had to give me up, and I, of course, soon forgot her.
She became mentally disordered for a while because of her intense feelings of helplessness and sadness. Even when she recovered from the mental disorder, she could not regain her physical strength for a long time. She said she spent more than a year crying and missing her child. My parents had commanded her not to see me until I had married and borne my first child.
My father was kind to her, but my mother was not. Once my birth mother visited my parents' home because she missed me so much, but my mother did not even allow her to enter the house. My birth mother kept a record of the days of my life. She showed me an old photo album. Surprisingly enough, there I was, first as an infant, a student, and at other stages of my life. She said my father had sent her photos of me, and she kept them carefully, She had watched me and prayed for me for thirty years.
They were prayers offered from the shadow of history. She had inquired after my well-being in various ways. She knew what happened to me in my primary school, high school, and college years. She asked people who had gone to school with me about my activities, but always without revealing her relationship to me. She deliberately did not make herself known to me in order not to hurt my feelings or jeopardize my future.
In Korean tradition, children who are born by a ci-baji woman are not considered legitimate; they are like second-class children. In the Yi Dynasty, which lasted until the dawn of the twentieth century in Korea, those who were born of a surrogate mother could not take exams to hold governmental offices. This tradition still thrives in Korean society today, although in a subtle way. That is why she did not want to reveal herself to me. She remained hidden for my sake. I stayed with her for two days before returning to the United States. When she fell asleep, I looked into her face. White hair and many wrinkles told me of her hard life's journey. In her face, I met all Korean women who had been erased into the underside of "he-story." I held her hand and cried.
Marriage and Motherhood These are the stories of two women. One had the privilege of being a "legitimate" wife and mother but continuously wondered about the meaning of marriage. She had the safety of assured food, clothing, and shelter because she was a legitimate wife, but she also had to accept her husband's affair--also “legitimate"-because she was barren. She wanted freedom badly, but she could not go beyond the rules of Korean society.
The other woman was denied the privilege of being a legitimate wife and mother because she was not officially married to my father. This “illegitimacy" put her on the underside of history. She became a "no-name" woman, who was nearly erased from my family history. Even though she was productive, she was unable to claim her right and space as mother of the child to whom she had given life. She was threatened continuously by poverty because she did not have a legitimate husband, whose duty, according to Korean tradition, would have been to take care of his wife.
My mothers hated each other. The one who raised me resented the one who gave birth to me because she thought this woman took her husband's love away. She might better have hated her husband, but she could not; he was the one who gave her security within the structure of society. All her anger and frustration were projected onto my birth mother, the safest target to attack. For her part, my birth mother hated the mother who raised me, because she took her baby and thus became the “legitimate" mother of her child. And of course my birth mother missed me even more because the mother who raised me did not allow her to see me.
Both mothers loved their child. I really believe the mother who raised me loved me as a birth mother would have. In many ways, she totally devoted herself to me, always being there when I needed her. I still remember vividly the way she treated me, taking me everywhere she went, decorating my hair with many colorful ribbons. She often told me I was the most beautiful girl in the world, even though I was not a pretty girl at all in the ordinary sense.
When I prepared for the junior high school and senior high school entrance exams, she brought warm lunches, freshly cooked, to my school every day in order to encourage my studies. My success in school was very important to her. Once I was almost forced to drop out of college because I could not afford the tuition. At that time my father was bankrupt. We had moved to a very poor neighborhood and hardly had enough money to cover everyday expenses. I decided to give up my studies, but she would not let me.
She promised to borrow some money from her close friends. On the day she was to bring the money, I sat in the registrar's office, waiting for her. Hours passed, but she did not come. I almost gave up. Then, near closing time, I saw her: my elderly mother running to the registrar's office in my college. She was sweating. I could see she was exhausted, but also relieved.
Very gently, she placed the money in my hand. I broke into tears. Sobbing, I asked her, "Mother, where did you get this money? I know you have been worried about buying even the basic things." Her eyes filled with tears too. “Don't worry about that. God provided the money. You just study hard." I loved her from the deepest part of my heart.
Even though I was confused by her ambivalent remarks concerning marriage and femininity, she provided me with the space I needed to explore my own daring ideas. In the ways that matter, I was her "own" child.
My birth mother loved me too. She wanted me to be the legitimate child of a good family. She did not want to ruin my social image, to make me subject to the scornful strictures that Confucian culture in the Korean tradition sets for those born outside of marriage. That was why she spent thirty years following my life from the shadows. She showed her love for me by waiting and erasing herself totally from my personal history. She told me how much she wanted to come for my college graduation and marriage ceremony. I was her "own" child too.
When I met my birth mother in Korea last summer, she talked about my late mother with both anger and gratitude. She was angry because my late mother despised her, yet she was thankful that I had been raised to be a healthy and strong woman. Both my mothers were victims of a male-defined family system. My father benefited from both women. He received everyday nurturing from my late mother and a child from my birth mother. Since a child is necessary to continue a man's family lineage in Korean culture, he did not feel any social pressure against having a relation ship with another woman outside of wedlock. It seemed little more than the natural order of things. But both of my mothers suffered from this social system. For them, it was not a small thing.
The only person who could bring about reconciliation between these two women was their child. Their child was the only connecting factor that could ease the bitterness between them. The love they felt for me enabled them to accept each other in spite of the chasm between them, a chasm caused by the action of a man who held so much power over them.
These are the stories, then, of two mothers who shared a child, the lives of three women bound together by love and embittered by a tradition that honors only men.
My Mothers' Spirituality Sometimes I wonder how my mothers could sustain their sanity. My late mother struggled with the burden of being a noble woman within a strenuous marriage that did not acknowledge her humanity, and my birth mother struggled to retain her dignity in the context of continuous poverty and social ostracism. As I now reflect on both mothers' histories, I realize that they used all the life-giving resources they could find around them in order to keep their lives going.
My late mother was officially a Christian. She was a member of a big church in Seoul, where she participated in a strong women's mission group. She played the role of a nice Christian lady in that church. The mission group program gave her an opportunity to express herself in a public area, providing a legitimate excuse to go out of the house. Through that program she found her self-worth as a “public" person.
However, her Christian faith was not dogmatic. She changed Christian doctrine to suit her own convenience.
For example, she had a very interesting view of our ancestor spirit and developed her own religious system. Since my father was a Confucianist, my mother's duty as his wife was to prepare big feast meals for ancestor worship two or three times a month, despite the fact that many Christian churches in Korea still taught that ancestor worship contradicted the Christian faith. One day when I was six years old, one of my friends told me something she had learned in Sunday school: “You will go to hell if you continue to worship your ancestors!” This was a real shock to me, because I wanted to go to heaven.
So on the next ancestor worship day, I asked my mother about the relationship between the Christian God and my ancestors. My mother answered that my ancestors were secretaries of Jesus Christ, who was a god to my mother. “Because Jesus Christ is so busy in heaven," she said, "he can't take care of every detail of our lives. That's why Jesus Christ uses our ancestors as his secretaries to get things done.” My mother's answer relieved me of the fear of going to hell.
Mother seemed to have created a peace for herself between Christian faith and Confucian practice. Both figured prominently in her religious life. She also drew spiritual strength from other strains of traditional Korean religiosity. For example, she often went to female fortune-tellers when she really had a life crisis. She did not go to see Christian ministers-males—to solve her personal problems, even though she was officially a Christian.
My mother also went to a Buddhist temple from time to time, whenever she wanted to meet her women friends and play or dance with them. Korean Buddhism did not prohibit women from drinking, smoking, or dancing during Buddhist festivals--very different from the teaching of Christian missionaries. When Buddha's birthday came, she went to the temple and celebrated with her women friends, drinking and dancing. Some orthodox Christians would say my mother was a heretic because she mixed religions and did not know the real essence of Christianity. Maybe she did not know what was orthodoxy and what was heresy, but she did know which things offered life-giving power. And she grasped them with both hands.
My birth mother went through a spiritual journey similar to my late mother's, even though she was extremely underprivileged by comparison. She said she was a Buddhist when she was young, and she had two dreams about my arrival into the world while she was pregnant.
In her first dream, she was inside the temple, holding me piggyback while bowing down to the Buddha. When she finished her bow, the big bell suspended at the temple ceiling began to ring. She immediately knew that my arrival was Buddha's blessing. In a second dream, she saw my father sitting on a small pagoda on Mudeng Mountain in Kwang-Ju. He was wearing a rainbow outfit.
Then an amazing thing happened. When she approached my father, Mudeng Mountain suddenly changed to salt. It became Salt Mountain. Salt is a positive symbol in the Korean shamanistic tradition. Korean people believe that salt has the power to exorcise evil spirits. My birth mother received an affirmation of her pregnancy from the Buddha and indigenous Korean spirits. We Koreans call dreams that are connected with a pregnancy tae-mong-dreams that show the future of the baby.
My birth mother believed in her dreams. Even though Korean society did not approve of her pregnancy, she knew that the baby came through Buddha's com passion and protection from evil spirits. I was so grateful to her for remembering the details of her tae-mong. I felt connected to the ocean of Asian traditions and to the revolutionary spirit of Kwang-Ju, a small city that has been the city of freedom fighters in Korean tradition. She said I was born there; I did not know that. My parents had changed my birthplace on the official governmental records in order to hide my real origin.
My birth mother also visited fortune-tellers in order to check on my well-being. They told her that I would be a great scholar, and she believed them. She said to me she knew that I would be very good at school and finally would actually become a scholar. There were no doubts in her mind. Now she is a deacon in a Pentecostal church in Korea. I know the church very well. I hated that church so much as a theological student; I used to think it was dispensing otherworldly, ahistorical religious opium to the people. But after hearing my birth mother's painful life story, I came to understand why she chose that church. Maybe that church was the only place where she felt comfortable, where her spirit was lifted out of this painful world and given a place to dream. This kind of religion can easily become an opiate for people who have no options, no routes out of their personal impasses. Opium is like a magician, for those who have no access to change; it enables them to endure intolerable pain.
My two mothers mixed and matched all the spiritual resources they found around them and established their own comfortable religious cosmos in their hearts. Their center of spirituality was not Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, or any of the various fortune-tellers. All these religious personalities and spirits helped my mothers in various stages of their life journeys, but none dominated their inner life. The real center for their spirituality was life itself. They consciously and unconsciously mostly the latter--selected the life-giving aspects of each religion and rejected the death-giving ones.
As Alice Walker said of her great-grandmother's spirituality, my mothers "knew, even without knowing' it.” It was a matter of the epistemology of the body. Maybe their conscious selves could not catch up with what their body said because their conscious selves were not ready for the "new paradigm." Orthodoxy and heresy debates were meaningless to them, since the words themselves were unfamiliar. Most Korean women of my mothers' age could not go beyond a primary-school education. Their fathers did not send them to school. Higher education was for boys. Boys, therefore, learned how to fight against heresies, how to safeguard their narrow, privileged circles for orthodoxy. Girls did not learn the fancy words in their primary schools.
My mothers made "chemical changes" in traditional religions by infusing them with the liberative thrusts of already existing religions. Since women were excluded from the public process of determining the meaning of religion, they were free to carve out a religion on their own, without the constraints of orthodoxy. Their "imposed freedom" allowed them to develop in private a religious organic whole that enabled them to survive and liberated them in the midst of their struggle for full humanity. I want to name my mothers' distinctive spirituality as “survival-liberation centered syncretism." The heart of their spirituality was the life power that sustained and liberated them. “Life-giving power" is the final criterion by which the validity of any religion is judged.
Inheriting My Mothers' Gardens
Through Naked Dancing and Dreaming Inheriting my mothers' gardens is a dangerous business because I inherited not only their flowers and fruits but also their insects. If I am not a good gardener, the insects will destroy my mothers' gardens. I have to look very closely at the flowers and fruits in order to pick out the insects.
I found some insects in my late mother's garden. They may be called classism, the caste system, and cultural imperialism. Since her husband had money and she was his first and only legitimate wife, my mother used her privilege against another woman, my birth mother. Still, my late mother wanted to get out of her suffocating Korean housewife's role. The problem was that she could not find many channels for her liberation.
Under the patriarchal system, which is defined by the interests of men only, women are separated among themselves according to men's needs. Because women are not the subject of their destiny and relationships but are the object of men's desire and pleasure, women are not raised to make active life-affirming relationships with other women. They are trained only to develop intimate relationships with men, and then only at the men's convenience. Under this patriarchal system, women cannot love each other. They have to be competitive and become enemies to each other because their human worth can only be affirmed by men. In my mothers' hatred for each other, I can see the most dangerous insect: patriarchy.
My late mother thought about the Western world as a model for the liberated world; she judged it by what she saw in the movies and magazines. She knew Western men opened doors for women and gave flowers to them and said "Ladies first.” Therefore, my late mother assumed that Western men respected women. That was why she told me to marry one. Oh, dear Mom, I'll tell you: Even in the Western world, women are not respected and understood as you thought.
I am glad my father went bankrupt when I was eleven years old. We became very poor after that, and I learned how the majority of Korean people lived. Through the experience of poverty after my father's bankruptcy, I could see the class privilege of our family and the role we played in Korean society. This experience prepared me for the student movement and Minjung theology and finally enabled me to welcome my birth mother without feeling ashamed of her.
In my birth mother's garden, I can find some insects too. Her internalized defeat took away all her power for fighting even before she started her battle against my late parents. She could not fight in this world; her consciousness told her so. She retreated to her own interior mental world, had bitter fighting there, and became men tally disordered. Mom, I am not going to run away into my inner world. I'll fight in this world, in this history, to claim my land and my power!
However, in spite of all these insects, I love my mothers' gardens. In view of the legacies of these gardens, the fruits and insects, what does it mean for me to be a theologian? It means that I must use the fruits they bequeathed to me to help create a perspective on religion that is liberating for women, a perspective that will enable us to claim our life-giving power. No longer will I accept a male-dominated religion or society but will fight until freedom comes for all women. My under standing of God is not primarily defined by the doctrines and ritualistic practices of Christian churches, Buddhist temples, or any other religion. God is found in the life experiences of poor people, the majority of them women and children, and She is giving them power not only to survive amid wretched conditions but also to overcome those conditions. The beauty of the flowers in my mothers' gardens makes me cry with joy; the bittersweetness of their fruits makes me refreshed and nourished.
Today is a beautiful day. I invite both of you to my garden. My garden is not fancy, but I am growing some strong, healthy flowers, vegetables, and fruit trees. I named them Eve, Mother of All; Mary, Mother of Jesus; Kwan-In, goddess of compassion; Parvati, goddess of cosmic dance; Sarah; Hagar; Du-Ran; Kwang-Myung; and many other women I like.
Here you can dance the naked dance again. I'll join you this time, not crying but laughing. Mary will sing the Magnificat for your dance. Sarah and Hagar will teach you the circle dance. They're a great team. You'll like them.
You would be surprised if you knew how similar your life experiences are to theirs. Parvati is a great dancer too. We'll have a spirit lifting dance festival. If we become tired after joyful dancing, we can take a rest under Eve's apple tree. We can share her apples when we become hungry. Then we can take a nice nap under Kwan-In's Boddi tree. She'll lead us to a fantastic dream world. You'll meet many wise people in your dream.
How does it sound? Exciting, isn't it? Next year, I want to invite many other sisters from various parts of the world to my garden. We'll have a great time together.
Then, maybe next-next-next year, when my plants and trees become stronger, I will invite my fathers and brothers too, if they promise not to play war games in my garden. Then we'll have a family reunion.
Moms, thank you! I am so glad you taught me how to be a gardener. I am so proud of both of you.
Your daughter, Hyun Kyung