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Elephants, or The Man in the Room

By Youjin Jenny Jang

May 5, 2016

It was only two years into dating my first serious boyfriend that I learned about my mom’s first love. It dawned on me then that, in my solipsism, I had been unquestioning of my mom’s road to her marriage, to creating our family. I had assumed it was a straight path.

Mom’s five-year romance had concluded sadly, and I had hoped that my story would be different. Unfortunately, hope had little power against the whims of youthful love: Two years after I heard my mom’s story, my relationship also devolved into a pitiable end, a shock that hit me harder than I or anyone else had expected.

As I was spiraling down the throes of heartbreak, Mom—in an effort to ease my pain—told me another story of lost love. This time, it was her mother’s.

Grandma’s was not a story of caprice or suspended interest, but of family, status, prejudice. Her parents refused to accept the man she loved as her partner, and as the eldest of five children, she was in no position to rebel. Telling this story was Mom’s way of showing me that people have endured and survived pain more severe than my own.

That most of Grandma’s early life remains unknown to me is not surprising—it’s what you can expect if you are born several decades into someone’s life. But this story about her first love was special in that it was not just any episode from her past. It was in some ways a secret, but only in the sense that its reveal was unexpected and selective. My mother knew the story, but not my father, uncle, or aunt. If I had not experienced the heartbreak, would I have ever known?

Once that door cracked open, I wanted desperately to peer in. What happened to that lost love, and for how long did the pain linger?

*       *       *

The first thing people notice when they see me with my grandmother is that we have identical noses. In many ways, I resemble my grandmother more than I do my mom or dad.

“Oh, that’s no good. I’m sorry,” my grandmother says, whenever I point out to her how similar we look. She then remarks, only half in jest, how she wishes she could have left me with a prettier face, a prettier nose. While I know she’s joking, her self-deprecating comment is an honest reflection of her frustration with the parts of family lineage she cannot regulate, the things we inherit that are outside of her control.

Grandma, as the household mediator, is a master of containing and disseminating information. She is careful about sharing stories from her past: When I try to pry into her youth, she gently shuts me down, saying, “Let’s talk about you. How is school?”

But just like looks, stories—and pain—percolate through generations, sometimes in ways that are impossible to contain. Even when that pain is given no contours, and no matter how strong the desire is to leave it undefined, its existence is evident and powerful.

Back when I lived in Seoul, I used to frequent my grandmother’s apartment. Only ten minutes from my house by bus, I would stop by sometimes after school, or on weekends with my family. Grandma would call me her “talk buddy,” the one grandchild with whom she can have an extended conversation. That was probably because I was the elder of the two grandchildren who could speak Korean fluently; regardless, I felt a strong, unspoken connection with her.

The first thing I noticed every time I entered the house, before I was distracted by my grandmother’s greeting, was the door immediately to the right of the entrance that opened to a small but well-lit room. I only knew this because there was always a ray of sunlight leaking out of the small crack in the doorway. Otherwise, I knew little about the room. To this day, I have never entered it; its doors have always remained just slightly ajar, open enough for me to recognize the room’s existence, and sense the life within it, but closed enough so that I’m unable to see inside.

Most of what I knew about the room was through the sounds. I heard the radio playing, or the voices of newscasters coming from the television set. And sometimes, I heard a man talking.

*       *       *

The stories of my mom’s and grandmother’s first loves were unusual partly because, ever since I can remember, anything that bears deep emotional weight was so seldom discussed and so collectively avoided in my home, especially when it involved an uncomfortable confrontation.

In my house, instead of there being a single elephant in the room from time to time, there are always multiple elephants roaming around, that have been lodging for many years.

For twenty years, no one spoke about the room. I was a curious child, never hesitant to blurt out awkward questions. But for some reason, when I stood in front of that corner room at my grandmother’s house, I felt a weight I could not describe. I could have swung the door open and found out—no one had explicitly forbidden me to enter. Why I did not, I cannot say; I can only attest to the fact that my thoughts about the room lingered perpetually in my mind, but never left the tip of my tongue. It didn’t occur to me then that I might be unknowingly mirroring everyone else in the family.

When Mom told me about Grandma’s heartbreak, we were traveling on a ferry from Macao to Hong Kong. The boat was rocking on the waves, up and down, against the quiet hum of the engine—and in the wake of this revelation about my grandmother’s past, I suddenly felt the need to ask Mom about the room. Is someone living in it, and who can it be? Why has he been hidden from us all these years?

She was taken aback, but only for a moment.

“I have an older brother,” she said, and I was confused. I already knew I had an uncle. He lived in New Jersey with my aunt and two cousins. I visited him for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Before your grandmother gave birth to your uncle in the States, she had another child, a boy. He is the one who is living in that room.”

She was the youngest of three, not of two.

For a brief moment, an indescribable wave of relief calmed me. I had secretly wondered whether my grandparents had committed some dark crime during the war and had to hide the victim in their home all these years.

But that moment was quickly over, and I immediately felt a pang of panic, a sense of piercing thrust and disbelief. It was like the gut-churning waves that would jerk our ferry down every now and then. Questions swarmed inside my head, rapid, startled, even angry: How could she be so indifferent? Did it not matter to her whether my uncle knew life outside of that room? How could she go on for twenty years without telling me about him?

The question about the timing of the unexpected reveal again loomed over me, but this time with greater stake and urgency. Would I have ever known, had I not asked?

So an elephant had existed for a long time, one I perceived but could not make out. When that known but amorphous secret suddenly gained definition, familiar places and people struck me as foreign—at least until the details fell back into place, ready to be digested, and maybe even understood.

*       *       *

Grandma was born during the Japanese occupation as the eldest of five, and the family struggled to keep afloat. Taking care of her four younger siblings, and seeing that her parents clearly could not afford to give all five children what they each wanted, she thought to herself: I will never give birth to more than two children.

She resented the myth of the large happy family, as she understood it as applying only to those who are wealthy. While she didn’t complain about her duty as the first child, she increasingly began to consider young children a burden—each head to her meant additional need for investment. When her youngest sibling was born, she was puzzled and upset. What were her parents thinking? How could they be so irresponsible?

She can’t remember ever liking children. She has never walked by babies on the street and lingered. She doesn’t think they are cute, and when she hears that someone is expecting a child, she thinks about whether that’s appropriate given their financial standing. The decision to have a baby, she says, must not be on a whim or without practical considerations.

Being a good filial daughter, she was patient with her siblings. But she swore to herself, again and again: I will have no more than two children.

As not only the eldest but also a girl, the only means through which she knew she could escape her destitution was to study and earn a scholarship to college. She excelled in middle school and was selected to attend a prestigious foreign language high school for women. There, her grades at school ranked nationally and she was able to get into the top private college in Korea even before she took the national exam. She studied business and economics, because she wanted to be able to earn a decent wage as soon as possible; she wanted to leave home.

She eventually did leave home, and in several years, married a man with a stable and respectable job. He was one of the most honest and incorruptible people she had ever met. Being a government-employed professor at a national university, he was quiet, respectful, and compliant. She again took up the duties of a good wife: She was a smart and diligent provider and companion.

And then she had her first child.

She realized almost immediately after giving birth that there was something wrong with the child, and soon, he was diagnosed with polio. She decided to go to a fortune-teller and see what should be done with the baby. The fortune-teller told her that the baby would die young. She began raising the child, but thinking he would soon die, she also gave birth to two more.

Fifty years later, the first child is still alive. The third child, her only daughter, who would never have been born had her first not been ill—is the one who now takes on the burden of caring for her dad, who has dementia, her brother, who cannot move, and her mother, who is exhausted.

Grandma finds herself speaking every day to my mom about everything that passes her mind. Her daughter is her only real confidant, her only respite.

Some might say her plans simply changed mid-way. But she tells her daughter: Plan and children just don’t go hand in hand.

Her husband and son are ill, but she is not struggling financially. She has been the sole breadwinner of the family for two decades, and divides her time between managing her stocks and serving as the manager of a residential building.

She does not consult fortune-tellers anymore.

*       *       *

When Grandma talks about her childhood, she keeps on repeating the phrase, “Those were unhappy times. We were poor.” She describes even her wartime experiences with flat affect: “Things dropping from the sky, corpses lying around on the ground, it was all an unhappy sight. Unhappy memories. Those were difficult times, we were poor.”

Has she ever been happy?

She doesn’t answer me, but she later tells Mom that her hope for happiness left her the moment she gave birth to her first child.

Both Mom and my uncle—the one who lives in New Jersey—describe Grandma’s most characteristic trait as “responsible.” She always remains accountable, no matter how burdensome, even for events outside of her control. Worries of the entire family weigh down on her, as she goes about trying to fix everything. I remember one time, when I casually mentioned that the zipper on my bag had fallen out, she left the house and did not return home until she found a new zipper. If something goes wrong, she takes it upon herself to remedy it. Uncle recalls the first time he got into a car accident; to his dismay, she came to the police station to cover for him, to say it was her fault.

The stories my parents each tell about my eldest uncle differ. Mom speaks to how upon giving birth, Grandma had the option of giving her son a blood transfusion, which, if done quickly in the moments after birth, could have prevented the polio. Apparently, she chose not to go through with the procedure because of her father-in-law’s opposition. Dad tells a different story: Namely, that Grandma had taken some pills during her pregnancy without yet knowing that she was pregnant.

One truth that binds these accounts is that they have both originated from Grandma. Even if neither account is accurate, what is striking is the extent to which both of Grandma’s stories—or at least the versions my parents remember—are shaped by a marked sense of wrongdoing and guilt. As if the child’s contracting a viral disease was the result of her own mishap.

What Grandma could not do for my uncle in birth, she wants to provide for him materially. This, according to Mom, is part of her continued obsession with earning money into her late seventies.

The stories she told herself, and to her children, are perhaps testament to Grandma’s struggle to understand, to survive: In order to live with the inalterable, she created a means by which she could bind herself to the duty to compensate.

*       *       *

Forgetting for Grandma, or for my uncle or mom, would be impossible. They talk about and with my eldest uncle daily; they for decades have fed him, bathed him, and kept him company.

But forgetting trauma, an extraordinarily difficult task, becomes somewhat more feasible when applied to posterity—to the family as a larger unit. Forgetting in a larger community is akin to erasure, or selective omission: To make sure that a certain memory is not inherited, one could simply stop the chain of information by secrecy.

Except children are born, and they rattle things out of order. I was one of those unexpected surprises. My entire family calls me an outlier: My parents joke that my sister, quiet and reserved, is verifiably “their child,” but that they are not sure about me. To them, my obsession with record-keeping and memories, my candid expressions of emotion, and my love of inquiring into other people’s lives are all incomprehensible, nosy, even juvenile.

Even this naïve impulse and curiosity, though, would not have been enough to push the story out into the open.

The fact is, someone had always left the door just slightly ajar. Maybe to give my uncle some air, or to allow him some tenuous connection with the world outside. Whether intentionally, subconsciously, or by mistake, the secrets were imperfectly contained.

*       *       *

When I ask Grandma about her first love, the first thing she says is that he is now dead.

“He was not, strictly, my first love,” she says, though she does not deny that it was an important one. She was not young, the love was not youthful; they were five years apart, and she had met him at work. She dated him for about three years until he left to study in the States. “He was poor and built his life up himself in the States. Trying to get a Ph.D., studying hard. He only married when he was 38.”

She had heard about him, or inquired about him after the break up; either way, he had been on her mind.

The primary flaw of her boyfriend was his origin. Regional-based divisions, rivalries, and stereotypes govern domestic and political attitudes in Korea, and the most heavily targeted area happens to be the Jeolla province in the south. The boyfriend was from Jeolla.

The historical, abstract, and superstitious animosity against the Jeolla people, while still persisting, was heightened around the time of the Korean War, and especially in its aftermath, when Grandma was in her teens and early 20s.

The popular notion was that the Jeolla people were stubborn, macho, and most of all, deceptive. This made them terrible matches for marriage: There are newspaper quotes from the time that read, “If someone were to marry a Jeolla man, I would follow that person around to prevent them from making the wrong decision.” The stereotype was so strong that in TV series, thieves, mob gangsters, or fraudulent tricksters were often portrayed as coming from Jeolla—the most characteristic marker being their dialect.

Grandma’s parents were no exception in harboring these thoughts, or they were at least wary of the level of truth rumors can sometimes carry. The boyfriend had to go to the United States to study, and had told Grandma that he would be back to bring her with him to the States once he earned his degree. Her family members told her that she was sure to be disappointed—that he would not come back—that he would change there. At a time when letters were the only viable means of communication, her parents worried that a lot would go unknown and unsaid. Once the man left Korea, the relationship ended.

Grandma only passively verifies the fact that her parents opposed her match with him because of his being from Jeolla. “Don’t even talk about it,” she says. “It’s embarrassing. That’s what the people back then were like.”

She doesn’t deny the fact that she remembers him, though. “As long as you live and can remember, you think about people from your past from time to time,” she says.

“But we were incompatible,” she continues. “It was not a practical match.”

I once asked Mom why she felt compelled to tell me about her own heartbreak. “You make me remember,” she said. “And I wanted to let you know that you’re not alone—in your pain or in your experiences.” After all, it was during her own breakup that she had first learned about Grandma’s first love.

To be able to recall memory is an indication that the remembrance is at least intermittent, not constant. In a way, it’s evidence that the memory has somewhat faded, maybe even lost its power on you—that it needs an external stimulus to be brought back to your consciousness.

But certain painful memories, like that of my uncle’s birth, do not need recall. The lingering presence of guilt and sorrow need not be reminded: Time, which normally adds distance, only extends the lived experience and the heartache that accompanies it.

One night, my mom called me to express her frustration with my need to know more about my eldest uncle. “It’s much better not to see the things that are sad, tiring, and difficult, because almost none of these things are solvable,” she said. “Not much good comes from digging out painful memories of the past. The past is not a friend.”

She had spent the entire day tending to her ailing parents and her brother. She was exhausted. I listened in silence; I could tell that she, too, was swallowing her tears.

*       *       *

Grandma remains silent about my uncle. I have yet to speak of him in her presence, and perhaps never will. All that I know about him, and her feelings towards him, have come from my mom and uncle.

Her silence, though, is loud.

Both my dad and aunt—my uncle’s wife—are surprised to learn that I have only now heard about my eldest uncle. They both expected that someone would have told me, given how close I am to Grandma, and given how often I visit her home. While both of them were told about my eldest uncle before marriage, neither of them has spoken about it since—to anyone, even their spouses. Dad chose not to tell his own parents, and Aunt made the same decision, for fear of misunderstanding.

I do not doubt that Grandma loves her first child as much as she does the second and third. After all, she has been closest to him all these years. And I cannot judge her decision to keep him from the rest of the world; I will not pretend to understand what she has had to undergo.

But I have the advantage of generational distance, of not having been part of the trauma—and to me, my uncle’s presence is not pain, but a blessing like any other. A life to be acknowledged.

*       *       *

Containment of information, small or big, still operates daily. Both of my parents had to undergo invasive surgeries this year, and neither told me about it until the week before. They made a point to be completely nonchalant in tone, likely knowing how much it would stir my world but wanting to minimize detailed discussion. My mom said, indifferently: “These checkups are the root of all problems. Everything was fine when concealed; these checkups force issues to be revealed.”

But no matter how much these issues seem concealed, they are barer than we expect. For Mom, it was incessant pain and a recognizable lump in her abdomen. For me, it was the unspoken but palpable heaviness of the room, and the apparent caution and sorrow in my grandma’s eyes whenever I caught her walking out of the corner room.

A few weeks ago, Mom was talking to me about faith in God and her reasoning behind why I don’t seem to have it yet.

“That’s because you’re not desperate. I don’t think one can persuade another person to have faith. You need to feel the desperation yourself.”

I wondered if she was speaking from experience.

“Desperate? Were you ever desperate in life?”

Silence. I could tell I caught her off-guard.

“What was the most desperate moment in your life?” I repeated.

She laughed and stalled, and I instantly felt the force of the unsaid.

“You aren’t going to tell me, are you?”

“… No, there wasn’t a moment like that.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I’ll tell you later.”


Youjin Jenny Jang is a junior at Columbia College studying English and comparative literature. On campus, she edits The Eye, the weekly magazine of the Columbia Daily Spectator. Raised in Seoul, South Korea, she is deeply interested in narratives of loss and illness, especially the ways in which different cultures or age groups process grief.

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