A week of extremes leading up to a big trip
Travels with my mom, pt. 1. In which I'm an emotional mess as I prepare to leave my family for a trip.
When mom goes out of town
There’s a scene in a K-drama called Reply 1988 that I watched recently where the mother prepares to go out of town, leaving her husband and two young adult sons to fend for themselves for a few days. The scene opens with the mother squatting on the floor in front of the open refrigerator with the men huddled close together above her, peering into the fridge. She points to all the various containers of food that she’s prepared for them while she’s gone, rattling off detailed instructions on what to eat with what and when. As she leaves for her trip, suitcase in hand, she hesitates and stops repeatedly in the middle of the alley with an anxious expression on her face, looking back as she worries how they’ll survive without her.
Of course as soon as she is out of sight, the men rush back into the house, strip down to their boxers, and lay on the floor to watch TV with a bowl of snacks, crumbs flying everywhere. For dinner, rather than serving each side dish (banchan) in separate bowls to eat with their rice as instructed, they dump all the containers of food into one huge mixing bowl, stir it up with some sesame oil and red pepper paste and eat it straight out of the communal bowl. When she returns a few days later, the mom grows despondent after inspecting the house because it appeared that the family managed just fine without her. One observant son picks up on his mother’s energy and signals to his father and brother to feign incompetence for the sake of her feelings. The balance in the household is restored as the mother resettles into her role as the indispensable matriarch whose family would fall apart without her.
It’s a funny scene that I found endearing because just this weekend I realized that my mom has this habit of always leaving out containers of food that she sets aside for breakfast, pulling various items from the fridge and stacking them neatly on the counter before she leaves early for church on Sundays when we stay over at her place. I’m a middle-aged adult married to a chef, yet my mother can’t stop mothering for fear that we’ll starve on her watch.
But the main reason why that scene pulled at my heart strings (I’ve been an emotional mess lately) is because I’m preparing for a trip without my family for the first time in like a decade. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been away from them for any period of time. It’s been infrequent, mostly for work, and the duration has never been for more than four or five days. This time, I’ll be gone for nearly three weeks. I won’t need to worry about how they’ll eat, obviously, since I’m not the provider of food for my family, but in random moments throughout the day, these panic-induced thoughts of what ifs start to flood my head.
What if the kid oversleeps and is late for school?
Who’s going to wake her up when she falls asleep late at night while doing her homework?
Who’s going to remember to water the plants?
How is the cat going to adjust being home all alone during the day?
What if the cat doesn’t care that I’m gone?
My family will be fine, of course, cat included. I have no delusions that my family won’t get by without me. Hell, they might be better than fine—thriving even—since they’ll get a break from my neurotic behavior which has been on a rollercoaster ride in the past few weeks. And so, this low level anxiety about this time apart is probably all about me and my separation from them.
Its been some kind of week
Something about the past week nearly broke me. I’ve been riding a week of extreme emotions, but not necessarily in a bad way like I’m falling apart or anything. It’s more like anxiousness where I’m finding myself in a very unsettled state about the world that bounces between feeling apathetically jaded to downright ragey. Angry about oppressive systems, about the gatekeepers of power and money, of patriarchal culture, about the inability of this country to enact real change. You know, just your everyday, average emotions of being an American right now.
But it’s not exactly the best mental space to be in when making any sort of life decision and plans. I’m thinking what I really need is to get out of this country and recalibrate everything that I feel about my life right now. I’m going somewhere that I know will be very culturally different from what I’m used to, but (hopefully) intrinsically familiar—but not because I’ve been there many times.
In fact, I haven’t been back to Korea in 40 years.
My dad, and the trip that was never meant to be
This trip, in some sense, is the trip that my dad always wanted to make with our entire family. My dad was the only one among us who traveled back to Korea nearly every year, and he had this life long dream to take both his children and all his grandchildren to his home country one day. At some point when my dad was at stage 6 of his illness, all he would talk about was going back to search for his childhood home and his mother who’s been long gone. What Alzheimer’s does to your memory is fascinating in that your brain retains your earliest childhood memories as you progress through the disease. Maybe it’s because these memories are encoded in the brain the longest, but it also seems like Alzheimer’s patients live perpetually in the shadows of their minds, eternally searching for the comfort of what’s familiar.
My dad’s constant pining to go back to Korea resulted in my mother buying an airline ticket out of desperation to appease him, just to put a stop to his dementia-driven tantrums. This ticket was printed with a departure date of September 2020 which drove me into a tailspin of panic since it was peak pandemic times and he was advancing fairly quickly within a span of that year. I remember researching if I could legally stop him from getting on that plane.
As it turns out, and much to our relief, airlines don’t allow late-stage Alzheimer’s patients to fly, even if escorted like he would have been. At that point later in the summer, my dad was so far gone anyway that he didn’t ask to “go home” anymore and didn’t put up any resistance when I told him he couldn’t go. He had stopped remembering anything. None of us would have predicted that he would be gone a few months after that.
Before Korea, after Korea
I’ve come to realize that while my return to writing is a way to finally process the deaths in our family, it’s really becoming more about my relationship with my mother. I have only travelled with my mom on rare occasions and have never travelled with her alone, just the two of us. We didn’t travel that much as a family in general growing up, our family vacations being limited to occasional trips to the Poconos or maybe Montauk, but my mom did take my brother and me to Disney World one summer when I was 14. That is about the closest thing that I can remember taking a trip with her.
My mom and I are different people but with equally strong personalities and I’m sure I’ll come back with a handful of stories to tell. I fully expect to have more than a few arguments along the way judging by how some of our pre-trip quibbles have gone. In some ways I’ve looked at this trip as just tagging along on what will probably be her last to Korea and I’ve resigned to her handling pretty much all of the trip planning which is typically the role I inhabit. Our itinerary is ridiculously packed, like laughably so, but we do share a similar traveling style of cramming in as much as possible, so I’m not really worried about that at least. Travel compatibility is real.
I haven’t spoken about my trip much with anyone because I haven’t allowed myself to let it sink in until now as I think about my packing list. But the truth is, I planned the entirety of this year around this trip and I’ve come to think of 2023 in two parts: before Korea and after Korea.
My fear is that I’ll end up in disappointment because the trip doesn’t change me in the way that I’m seeking, although even I don’t know what I mean by that. I know that’s a lot to put on a trip when maybe all I should focus on is eating my way around the country, which I fully intend to do. But for once, I want to know what it feels like to walk down a street or enter a room and not scan my surroundings to see if I’m in the minority. I want to know if I’ll feel as much like a foreigner there like I do sometimes here in my own country (I’m guessing, yes). I want to know if it’s going to feel anything like home. Even at this age, I’ve come to realize that I’m still searching for somewhere I belong.
My commitment over the past year of relearning the language and my reflections on my very turbulent one-way journey to America with my dad is a lead-up to this moment as I travel on a plane, back to Korea, with my mom.
Friends, I’ll be sending out one more newsletter next week, but will take a pause for 2-3 weeks as I will be traveling and not bringing a computer or thinking about anything other than my trip—and food (mostly the food). If you’d like to follow along in the meantime, I’ll meet you over on Instagram where I’m sure I’ll be posting some updates and travel hilarity along the way.
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Wow Jenna, this is huge. I've only been to Korea once and that was as an adult about 8 years ago, before the kids were born, and with my parents for their first time back since immigrating to the US. It was wild how I could almost feel those gears in my Korean language brain space slowly waking up and starting to run more and more smoothly the longer we were there. I think the best part for me was seeing my parents remembering things from their childhoods on the trip. Safe travels to you and your mom. xo
While your trip has a
different dimension to it, it still reminds me of coming on visits „home“ to Europe (which wasn’t home anymore) when I was living in the States...
I do hope you have a great experience, all the „feelings“ included, of course 💕