Your Ma is classic Tiger Mom. High expectations, blunt, and stubborn like a rock. When you argue with her, she doesn’t hear “innocent before” just “proven guilty.”
Common phrases of Ma are, “You should do better. Dress better. Eat better. You’re unhealthy. You’re not working hard enough. You should be better than the others.” Her favorite catchphrase was, “You’re only doing 70 percent. You should be at a hundred.”
Your Ma’s a tough woman. She studied old style Korean wedding dresses, came to America, worked as a seamstress, and, now, owns a business with Pa making dresses for Quinceañeras. She’d wake up to a work call, cook breakfast, and haggle with the textile guys before she dropped you off. Later that night, she’d pick you up, make dinner for four, and sew a thousand fake roses to cut costs at the shop.
One night, she read in some blog about how Asian immigrants have a high chance of prostate cancer. She would later click through and find the tomato’s high Vitamin C count could help prevent cancer. Problem solved.
Ma made you drink tomato juice every day all through high school. It wasn’t really a juice. The potion she concocted was neither solid nor liquid. She’d make sure to keep all the skin, the seeds, the pits. This juice existed in this “in between” fluctuating between dimensions. It would be frothy, then chunky, then stringy. You would see the top layer bubble, put the cup to your lips, and close your eyes.
The night before, Pa was working late, so you and Ma were eating dinner. She’d ask you about school and your friends and what you do and your diet and all the little details in your life that you found the least interesting. But, suddenly, this thought occurs:
What if you just told her you smoked weed?
You hesitated with weed in high school, jumped on it in college, and thought it would help with anxiety until graduation. What if you just told this health-crazed Korean immigrant that you smoked pot?
So you ask Ma with mischief on your lips, “Do you know what weed is?”
Weed is taboo in South Korea. It’s like opium. You think that’s silly, but the British hooked China onto opium like a bad pop song, so any moral high horse has been made into crap hoof glue. They’re plants surrounded by a culture of fear.
Ma says, “Oh, the drug. It’s so bad. So bad. You would never do that.”
You would do that. You would smoke it with the first girlfriend. You would use it to hook up with the second. And, now, you would stay away from it like an ex after a bad breakup. But that didn’t matter.
You say, in your family’s particularly blunt dialect, “I’ve smoked it before.”
She tried to look expressionless. She looked concerned. You could see the wheels turning. You sensed a small moment of panic, but she held her body completely still.
Her thoughts must’ve been racing. “How could he do that? Doesn’t he know that’s bad for you? Who is he friends with?” She was at a crossroads and had to decide in a millisecond whether you were an infidel, a rebel, or her son.
And luckily, she just said, “Ah dah suh.”
She understood, and you were transported back to elementary school. You remember a convo you had with your Ma in the backseat of her car. While driving, she would ask you about your day. Your Korean’s sh*t and her English, reticent. Ma would ask you, “How was day?”
You would reply, “Project.” That’s not a sentence. What do you say next? “Presentation.” Fuck, that’s too long. Keep words less than two syllables. Finish it up. “Bad.”
This happened all the time. Spoken stutters with verbose self doubt. But through the cloud of anxiety and miscommunication, she understood. You had a presentation in class today that you had been nervous about. You stuttered through the presentation like you are now. But through the years of arguments based on words lost in translation, there was a layer of subtlety you two had built in your communication. You spoke not only English or Korean or Konglish, but also a language of inference.
Four years later, you would drink tomato juice every day in high school, because your Ma had cancer. She had a tumor in the side of her right breast, chemotherapy, needles, MRIs, surgery. Cancer made her something far beyond a nutritionist. She would quote internet websites and radio shows like medical journals. You drank the juice, because you knew where it came from. It came from a place of fear and concern that what would happen to her could happen to you, and she would set up a red tomato IV drip in your sleep if she could.
The next day at lunch, Ma would explain to Pa, “It’s different in America. Weed is like alcohol here. It’s like a right of passage.” You couldn’t believe she said that. You couldn’t believe she was capable of understanding that. But, it wasn’t a right of passage. You didn’t smoke to be “American.” You smoked to feel accepted. You accepted her fear, and you would drink the rest of your tomato juice.