Looking for the House
*To protect the anonymity of the people in this piece, I have changed the names of some locations and some identifying characteristics of the individuals.
My mother walks in front of me under the blazing sun, and I follow her. We are already lost in this neighborhood. The house we are looking for was probably demolished a long time ago. She lived here, in this inexpensive part of Seoul, during the 1960s. Since then, the maze of this area has been straightened by the last twenty years of development. Two large apartment complexes now cut the flow of the sprawl on the north and east. But when Mom and her family moved into this district, the labyrinth of narrow alleys, more than six hundred years old, led the townspeople to their tiny tile-roofed homes, sharing walls. My mother was a college student then. As the passage grows steeper, she remembers that she had to climb a hill to come home after school.
I don’t know what my mother is going through inside, and I don’t understand what I feel either. It was more than ten years ago that I left Korea because I decided to stop waiting for her to give me the mother I wanted. Just a month ago, in June, I flew back to research the lives of Korean women. I am thirty-seven years old and have begun to study my seventy-year-old mother and her life as part of the thesis I am writing for my graduate degree in America. I say that I am doing this because my mother has many memories I wish to share, because her life is part of Korean women’s history, and because I am a Korean woman.
Perhaps I am supposed to feel solemnly grateful to my mother. She was not interested in revealing her past to the public, at least not at this time, but something changed her mind when I called her before my visit. Since I returned to Seoul, she has been telling me all her stories, including the details of her life in this house. I worry whether I am taking advantage of my mother. She told me that she’d wanted to burn the house down, but I asked her if I could see it, if she could guide me to it. She was raped there.
Climbing the hill behind my mother, I chatter about the buildings we pass—the blue roofs, a newly built church—and Mom doesn’t say a word. Still, I am weirdly, secretly excited to walk on the street she hasn’t even mentioned to almost anyone else. The words don’t come to my mind because I won’t let them, but the thought is there: I still want my mother. I still hope to become the daughter I couldn’t be for her.
My mother stops walking. We are at the highest point of the alley, and if we go farther, we’ll go downhill. She says that she thought this was the right way, but she hasn’t recognized any familiar houses. This concerns me though I didn’t think we’d find the house right away. She looks annoyed. I’m afraid that she might become mad at me, the way she did when I was a child. I focus on the road. Did we choose the wrong way at the last fork? Or the one before? My mother looks up at a residential building. It is two stories high and has a tiny flowerbed in front, where some green plants grow, the only garden plot along this alley. Perhaps it needs the plants because the house has an odd shape; one of its sides points out like an arrowhead.
Most of these newer red-brick residential buildings have no yards. They quietly chase each other like rows of train cars, forever looking for a last station that cannot be found. An old lady in faded flowery pants sits on a small cement porch like a bored passenger. There are still a few old, traditional houses with tiny front yards around here, and if the house Mom lived in still stands, it will be just like them.
She was twenty-one when she was raped in the house. That wasn’t the first time the man did it to her, but what happened in the house dragged her to the bottom of her life. “A man can do bad things to a woman. Mom can tell you because it happened to me,” she plainly told us one day, my two older sisters and me. This was part of what she told us for sex ed. I was only six or seven. I didn’t know the word “rape” or understand what it meant, but I accepted what she said, like my sisters did. I never wondered how it happened or how it changed her. My sisters and I remembered what she had said and brought it up a few times when rape was implied on TV, but it was always part of our education, a warning for us. It wasn’t until years later that I started to question her.
Between two buildings, we look down the hill to find our bearings. The summit provides a panoramic view of the neighborhood. From here, the buildings look like small Lego houses, their green, red, and black roofs descending the hill, marching to an obscure rhythm. The afternoon sun slowly beats down on them through the thin smog. At the end of their march, where the widened road begins, we recognize the triangular front of a commercial building with its shadow extending toward us. My father used to own that building, and the last time my mother saw the house, she walked to it from there. We decide to start over. I find a shortcut to the bottom of the hill—there is a rusty, narrow staircase hidden behind the gap between the buildings. I wonder if we are in luck. We walk again, turning into any alley we want.
“Is this house like the one we’re looking for?” I ask my mother, pointing to a dilapidated traditional building we pass by. Its whole roof is wrapped in a giant sheet of black plastic, making it look like an oversized mushroom. “Could this be it? Oh, right, you said it was at the end of an alley.”
“Yes. Everything’s changed. I don’t know if we can find it, even if we start from your father’s old building. Back then, it was still here, just like I’d remembered.”
“That’s what, fifteen years ago? Why did you go back? Weren’t you scared?” I don’t know if I’m even asking the right questions.
“I was. But I was . . . curious.” Her voice tapers off.
“Curious? I guess that’s human nature—even after all that. Wasn’t it terrible?”
“It was . . . . Oh, don’t ask! I don’t want to talk about it.”
I don’t want to annoy her, especially when she is doing me a favor, more than a favor. I know that I don’t know how to act around her and that she doesn’t either. I try to imitate the conversations between happy mothers and their children I’ve seen on TV or read in books. I try to be nice, but when she is mad or raises her voice, I am scared and want to scream at her.
We’ve never been close. It has been like this for as long as I can remember. I am her third daughter, and I was born when she was desperate to produce a son for her patriarchal husband and his family. For hundreds of years, Korean culture has been influenced by Neo- Confucianism, a conservative interpretation of Confucius’s teachings, which has been blamed for the power structure that gives men control and makes women their tools. Until the late twentieth century, boys were considered invaluable, as the successors of their families’ legacies, while daughters were often just burdens, hungry mouths to feed. From my birth, I disappointed my mother. My brother was born three years later, but that didn’t change her feelings about me.
She said I was bad—innately bad, unlike my siblings. Perhaps that’s how she actually felt about me. When I was three or four, I would volunteer to wash the dishes while standing on a stool and clean my room with a small broom. By the time I went to kindergarten, she started to say that whatever nice things I did were meant to hide some insidious plan I would implement in the future. I couldn’t say a word whenever this happened. I stood in front of her with my head down, not understanding why she said this, thinking that she misunderstood me. I just wanted to prove that I was a good daughter. Clearly, doing house chores wasn’t enough.
In other ways, she was more than a caring mother. She never missed paying my tuition and tutoring fees, and she took good care of me when I was physically ill. She also had to substitute often for my busy father because he seldom paid attention to his children; he believed child- rearing was a woman’s job. We, my mother and I, looked fine. She was just awkward with me.
I stopped writing long Mother’s Day letters after she commented on the one I wrote in fifth grade, “Hmph! Such high, flowery words!” I went to high school. Good grades and getting into a good university never seemed to impress her. When I clasped her hands and requested some private time with her, she pulled them away and said, “Why are you doing this to me?” I wasn’t an innocent child; a few times, I cried and told her that she was unfair to me, but she laughed at me in front of my siblings and said I deserved it. Every day, starting from when I was very young, I’d spent time analyzing why she was mad at me so that I wouldn’t repeat any of the same mistakes again.
Slowly, I came to admit that I couldn’t understand all the issues between us. I was seventeen, and I was depressed. I believed that I was being punished because I was a bad person and told no one about how I felt. It wasn’t until I was a senior in college that I finally told my mother about it because I’d become suicidal. She said that I should go out and die, unseen, to bother no one. In her mind, I was only a greedy liar seeking attention. I fought with her countless times; I yelled and screamed at her. I sometimes wanted to hurt her as much as she hurt me, and I did, but even during the fights, I thought about taking her to an opera or a gallery filled with paintings.
“It’s all right even if the house is gone, even if we can’t find it,” I tell her, as if talking to myself. “This isn’t the first time. All your previous places were gone. I just want to see where it might have been.”
“I don’t know.”
“Is there anything you remember about it? Or your neighbors? It’s all right if we don’t find it.”
We pass another row of old houses. The varnished wooden gates reflect the sun.
“Was it like this house? You drew the floor plan, but I don’t know . . . . Or was it like . . . .”
She doesn’t respond. Her white blouse moves forward ahead of me, and her dyed-black ponytail shakes slowly between her shoulders.
“If you give me some more information about it, I can help. All I know is that it’s the last house on an alley and . . . Mom? Are you all right?”
“I’m tired,” she says, without looking back.
“I know. I’m tired, too. I’m sorry. I know you’re doing this for me.” “Why did I agree to help you? To give you my story? What a mess. I’m really tired . . . of looking for that dirty house.” She continues to walk. “But you’re the one who offered to help me all of a sudden . . .” I raise my voice. I want to say that I don’t want this either. I regret that I don’t fully understand how her age works against her. I haven’t overcome the space between us from our years apart. I know I’m taking advantage of her. I stop talking. I made another mistake.
When depression prevented me from going outside in the early 2000s, I asked myself why my mother didn’t treat me like my siblings. I thought about my past and her past. At the end of a three-day fight, I listed all the reasons she had to hate me. She was lying on the floor, exhausted. I’d disappointed her by my sex, but this wasn’t a good enough reason to ruin the relationship between a mother and her daughter. I asked whether her feelings about me had any connection to how she had felt when that man hurt her.
Mom cried with her hands over her face, letting out things that I had never known. I was frightened, but I kept asking questions. I couldn’t understand how part of her had been locked up in a dark room since the man molested her the first time. She couldn’t protect herself, she was twelve years old.
“It’s too hard!” she yelled at me. “Don’t ask any more, you’re not my interrogator!”
She told me that she had lived in a world where no one understood a rape victim, where a woman would be accused of tempting men if she reported her perpetrator. The investigators would not stop asking her questions, badgering her until it seemed that she was at fault. That was our country during the 1950s and 1960s, but I knew that my world wasn’t much different.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Two weeks later, I told her that someone should tell people her story, that everyone should know the stories of women like her, and that history shouldn’t repeat stories like hers any more. Mom agreed but told me I should do this for her only after her death. Korean society had always condemned rape victims in some way—even if a rapist was convicted, the victim was still considered broken merchandise, especially when her identity was exposed. I promised. That was more than ten years ago.
The buildings here aren’t that tall. Sunlight reaches almost every corner of the alleys and nurtures the potted plants the residents put out. Chilies grow under their green leaves, and purple eggplants hang from their purple stems. There are yellow lilies and marigolds as well. I think about what I’ll do if we find the house. I imagine myself holding my mother.
My mother seems to walk faster. I can feel it in my feet—we are climbing the hill again, going north. To the left, a row of traditional houses is clumped together. One of them has a window with rusty security bars.
“These old houses look well taken care of, don’t you think, Mom? They’re so clean.”
As I admire the houses, she takes another alley to the right and disappears. I follow, and less than ten feet later, I hit a three-way fork. I don’t know where she went. One way goes down, another seems to meet a dead end of cement walls, so I choose the last one. When I enter the alley, it turns sharply to the left.
“This is it. It’s still here.” My mother’s voice comes from the deep end of the alley. “The house is gone, but the gate is here.”
Turning toward her, my eyes meet a glossy green double gate. “This green gate?” I ask. It must be. The alley ends here.
“It’s the same as before,” she says.
“You mean this green gate?”
“No, it’s not green. This gate. It’s black.”
I notice that my mother is not looking at the green gate. She stands in front of the gate, but she is facing the brick wall that meets it on its right. There is a slim opening in the wall right before the green gate, and the alley slides through it for six more feet. Under the shadow of a neighboring house is a black metal gate. It is a narrow entrance; only one person can pass through at a time. A small lion head with an elongated face protrudes from it. This is the door pull. The lion head is rusted where it meets the door, but its features are still clear. It furrows its brow as its whiskers flow upwards. The solemn eyes watch us. The corners of the doorframe have turned red-brown.
“Are you sure this is it?”
“This is the gate.”
“What about the lion? Was it there too?”
“I think so.”
I can’t get any closer to the entryway. The alley in front of it is filled with construction materials someone threw out. Behind the gate, we see the back of a new building several stories high. There is no yard around it, unlike the sketch that my mother drew in my notebook a few weeks ago.
“I thought it would be in much worse shape. How come the gate looks this good after fifty years?”
“This is it. They kept it intact even after they demolished the house. They must’ve put in a new entrance from the hill. Look over there.” She points at a corner of the house. “Look at that wall sticking out. That’s where our kitchen was.”
The brick building is not shaped like a rectangle; one of its walls protrudes and tapers to a point.
“If you’re sure, then this must be it.” I pull out my camera and take two shots of the gate. “This lion head makes me feel . . . .”
I turn to look at my mother. Her face—I cannot read it. Her eyes seem uncertain. Her age-sunken cheeks look darker. Is she about to cry? Is she mad? She might be scared.
“Mom . . . .”
I hold her as tight as I can. I say, “It’s all right, Mom.” She is like a stiff child in my arms.
Tears form in my eyes. She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t cry.
My mother thought that she could make it. She just came back from the best vacation she’d ever had. When the summer break started, she visited her brother’s family, who was living in a southern province. They took her to a national park for a few nights, and she felt a joy that she had never recognized before. All her worries fell back behind her, and she could enjoy this moment. She grew up without her father. As a child, she was often left alone at home while her mother was out peddling for the family. It had never been easy for her.
She could even forget or ignore the darkest part of her memories. She had kept this secret since she was twelve. At that time, she didn’t even understand what he had done to her. Then, right before she went to high school, he came back to hurt her much worse. She knew what it was, but she still couldn’t stop it. She couldn’t kill herself because that would condemn her family. Women were always to blame when their bodies were trampled by men. For her family, she continued to be what she had always been.
She went to high school and then university, which was a luxury for a poor girl like her in the 1960s. Nothing had happened to her after the last incident. She could fake a smile when the man, her brother-in-law, came to visit with her sister and their children. In two more years, she thought, she would become a teacher and leave home. Then none of her past would matter anymore.
That evening, when she came home, the man was at her house. Her mother was with her, but she was still scared. The man decided to spend the night there because the sun had gone down, and he couldn’t meet the security curfew, and because he was, after all, part of the family. She went to bed with her mother in the larger room after the man turned off the light in the other room. She hoped her mother would protect her because the shoji door between the rooms couldn’t be locked. In the dark, she took off her clothes and lay under the sheet in her white sleepwear. Her mother, who had also just returned from a short trip to a faraway temple, soon began to snore loudly next to her. Lying on her back, she kept her eyes shut but did not sleep. “Stay awake, Mom,” she pleaded, silently. “Please don’t fall asleep.” Her heart beat quickly. And she heard a soft noise from the door.
Everything stopped. She was barely breathing and she didn’t move, as if by pretending not to be in the room, like no one at all, then the worst thing wouldn’t happen. Footsteps coming closer and closer, slow, suppressed, and slavering. “Mom! Wake up! Wake up! Please, Mom!” she screamed without opening her mouth, without voice.
A hand came down under her neck, and the other grabbed her from above. She opened her eyes—blinding darkness. She closed them. The man lifted her in his arms and easily scooped her up from her bedding. She didn’t do anything. She couldn’t do anything. She was like a log— she couldn’t hear, see, or feel anything. It had always been the same since she was twelve.
The man walked back into his room, clutching her. The sheet slipped off her body and dragged on the floor. When the man went over the door frame, the sheet finally left her and gently fell to the ground. He put her down onto his bedding and closed the door as quietly as he could, and her mother snored loudly as she always did.
She had no memory after that. She might have just wanted this most evil time to pass as soon as possible. She vaguely remembered that the man laid her next to her mother after he had taken everything he wanted from her. He left early the next morning.
She wondered if she could still make it this time. She kept pretending to live a normal life for a month. Then she missed her period, and she had to call the man. She decided to be in the dark one last time until it was finished. It took her a month to make the man take her to the clinic, and when she was alone again, she told her family. They shunned the man, but they couldn’t stop her sister from living with him. Korean law provided little protection for divorced women.
She never saw him again. She finished her degree, and she stayed home for years. Her mother never asked her how she was. It was very difficult to get a teaching position in Seoul, but her family forbade her to get a job far from home. They worried that the man would track her down. Her mother never said anything about what had happened to her, never encouraged her to get married. She was damaged goods; she was unsellable. She hated her mother. When she turned twenty-eight, a neighbor lady arranged her marriage with my father. She told me she felt hurt every time she gave birth to a girl.
She knew that girls couldn’t protect themselves from the violence of men, and she must have wanted to protect every one of her daughters. But when I was born, it had become clear that she wouldn’t be able to. Too many girls. It might be this impossibility that overwhelmed her motherly feelings.
My mother wants me to let her go. I’ve held her for perhaps three seconds in front of that black gate.
“Let’s go,” she says. “I’m hot and tired.”
I feel like her eyes are angry. I give the black gate one more look and leave. When we get out of the alley, the afternoon seems brighter. We don’t know where we are. I ask her to stay at the start of the alley while I walk up one of the connecting paths. I find the rusty metal staircase, the shortcut we used to get down from the hill, just around the corner from the gate. I run back to my mother.
“Mom, the staircase we used is right there. It looks like you were going the right way from the start,” I say. “Wait a minute! If the staircase is just back there, then . . . I want to see the facade of the new building. Please wait here, I’ll be quick.”
Climbing the staircase to go back up the hill, I keep my eyes on the new building. At the summit, when I go around to its front, I find the red brick building with its tiny flowerbed. The odd wall that points out like an arrowhead is the protrusion my mother noticed as the shape of her old kitchen. She was absolutely correct about the location of the house from the beginning. She just didn’t know how much it had changed.
I go back to the staircase and find my mother at the top. She says I made her wait too long. I think I made a mistake again. As we head down the hill, I tell her what I found.
“Is that right?” she says.
I tell her we should rest at one of the coffee shops at the end of the street, and she agrees. We pass by the old houses again, and I ask if she knew where the gate was when we got closer to it.
“Suddenly, you walked really fast when we reached that alley,” I say. “Did I?” she says.
At the coffee shop, I choose a quiet table away from most people. A college girl in pink occupies the table next to us, but she is surfing the web on her Mac.
“Mom, could you wait here?” I ask after bringing her an iced coffee and shaved ice. “I think I need to take a few more pictures. Is that OK?”
“It’s really hot today, and you walked a lot. I’m sorry.”
“That’s all right.”
I run up the hill and down the stairs again. I shoot a video as I walk from the alley to the black gate. African violets and red begonias are blooming at the beginning of the alley, but the gate seems completely forgotten in the shade of the adjacent building. I stare at it, trying not to look too closely at the lion head, and notice the metal bars on top of its frame, sharp and pointing straight up. No one must have ever tried to bend or break them all these years, but the black paint is worn, muted by stains of rainwater. Both the bars and the solemn lion head were meant to ward off intruders and bad spirits and to protect what was inside, but they never kept it safe. I go back up the hill and spend some time staring at the whole structure of the brick building. I take a picture of the house’s street number as if I might come back someday.
I worry that I have made my mother wait too long. She shared the most intimate stories of her life with me, but I have been acting like an investigator. The streets around the coffee shop are crammed with cars, and I want to sit inside with her until the traffic clears. I enter the coffee shop, but my mother is not at our table. She sits with the girl with the Mac, whose back faces me. She laughs with her. She is always overly friendly with strangers.
I walk to her and say, “Are you all right? Did you get some rest?” I don’t even look at the girl. The coffee cup and the shaved ice bowl are empty on our table. My mother hastily returns to her seat.
“Let’s go home,” I say, picking up the plastic cup and bowl.
I walk to the trash can before my mother even answers.
“Are you done?” she asks, getting up from her chair.
She checks her purse and quickly says something to the girl. I wait for her, and when she comes, I take her hand and go out the door. The street is still jammed.