For my mother. Why I write.
|My mother's biggest fear was that I would never be able to write. She had nightmares during which she saw me taking a test, chewing thoughtlessly on the graphite end of the pencil, drooling. On the paper in front of me were unintelligible strings of letters, hopelessly muddled grammatical constructions, a myriad of punctuation marks, and not a single capital letter in sight. (Forthcoming was the moment when I would receive a failing grade—oh, the shame.) She was convinced that I would never Succeed in America—that dreamlike myth that wriggles itself into the cadences of immigrant family vocabulary—if I did not know how to write, and write well.
And so, the journals. She read about it in the Kansas City Star, in a weekly column on home-schooling that contained a wealth of advice on everything from dealing with dietary restrictions to homespun science experiments. Today, I imagine the columnist to be a chipper, apron-wearing Quiverfull wife who sent her cheery admonitions into the nebulous public arena of printed words from the safety of her domestic kingdom. Try Bible story mad-libs—fun for the whole family! Turn composting into a lesson plan about nature—and save money on fertilizer! Building age-appropriate spelling lists—help your child become a Spelling Bee Star!
Every week, my mother would carefully snip out an activity that she thought would make us either better students or Americans (or both), and attempt to enact a crude version of character-building fun—never mind the fact that neither my sister nor I were home-schooled. During one harrowing experience, my mother had us draw countless numbers of grasshoppers in minute detail, for she had somehow become convinced that a thorough knowledge of insect anatomy was necessary in order to Succeed in America. Fourteen dead insects later, their mangled bodies littered around us, she berated us for failing to identify their various invertebrate sections. When that failed to stimulate us out of apathy, she resorted to the age-old strategy of comparing us to Mrs. Chin’s children, with whom my mother had developed a deep and bitter rivalry. Mrs. Chin’s children knew all the parts of a grasshopper, she was sure. Mrs. Chin’s children never disobeyed their mother—they always paid attention when she tried to teach them something. Mrs. Chin’s children practiced piano for two hours every day. Mrs. Chin’s children always did their homework before dinner. Mrs. Chin’s children put the dishes away without her asking. Mrs. Chin’s children got perfect grades on spelling tests.
I soon came to hate Mrs. Chin’s children, a pair of twins who were in my grade, with a passionate loathing that likely bewildered them. It wasn’t their fault, I suppose, that they had both played concertos before the age of ten, or that they built a wind tunnel that won them first place at the county science fair. But I still blamed them wholeheartedly when one of the twins won a statewide writing prize that sent my mother into a competitive frenzy.
And so, the journals. In the Kansas City Star, my mother read that forcing your children to journal for thirty minutes each night was a quick and easy fix for teaching them to write. The practice of journaling would not only transform your child into a better writer, but it would make them into a better human being. Journaling would encourage your child to become a creative thinker, a reflective citizen, capable of soaring to new academic heights. And so my mother went out to the local dollar store, bought us each a composition notebook, sat us down at the kitchen table, turned the timer to thirty minutes, and instructed us to write.
We stared at her blankly.
"Write, write, write," she urged. "Put pencil on paper. OK, now you look here, look at what Kansas City Star woman says. She says you write about your day, it makes you a better person. OK, so what you do in the morning? What you do in the afternoon? What you do at night?"
I dutifully wrote: I woke up. I ate breakfast. I went to school. I played piano. I ate dinner.
My mother was not satisfied. The timer showed that only eight minutes had passed. "This was supposed to last half an hour, don’t you understand, why don’t you write more? What you ate for breakfast—what you did in school—what you play on piano."
I wrote: I ate cereal. I did Math. I did Social Studies. I played Minuet in G by Mozart.
Fifteen minutes. Not good enough. My mother was becoming desperate. "Write more, why don’t you tell me what kind of cereal, what you learn in math, what you learn in social studies."
I ate Frosted Flakes with milk. I learned multiplication with flashcards. We played a game. It was called Around the World. Jenny Chin won. I hate her. She has ugly pigtails.
Haltingly, step-by-step, with prodding, pleading and screaming, my mother taught me how to write, though her goal had simply been to fill the thirty minutes. And she did it by asking questions—why don’t you tell me more, tell me what you ate, how it tasted, why you ate it. She forced me to describe, to extemporize, and yes, to reflect. Her questions pushed me to dwell in aesthetic, to recreate and reimagine and rewrite myself into the lilting cadences of words that I soon came to adore. The nightly journal-writing became the highlight of my day. Somehow, my mother managed to instill in me a love of writing, of penning down minute details and infusing the mundane with meaning.
Today, it strikes me as a miracle. My mother, who made me to proofread her error-ridden Letter to the Editor when the local newspaper published an article that called Korean food and Chinese food “the same thing.” My mother, who can’t differentiate between “your” and “you’re” if her life depended upon it. My mother, who blames journaling for the fact that I have no interest in medical school. My mother, who sniffs haughtily when I show her the creative material that I occasionally produce.
"Why waste your time on this?" she asks. "Why can’t you write something useful, something that makes money? You know Mrs. Ahn from church, her son wrote a science paper, and it showed up in a big-time magazine. Why don’t you try a science paper next time?"
I simply smile and give her a hug, which makes her mutter perplexedly. Because the truth is that I write because of you, mother. Because you took the time to take apart grasshoppers and compost eggshells. Because you made me write the word “tomorrow” five hundred times for spelling it wrong on a test, until the word fell into disparate parts and lost all meaning. Because you wanted me to Be Something. Because you set the timer in front of me, and told me to write.