“When a woman is smarter than a man”: My mother's lessons in beauty and independence

My Korean mom doesn't know "feminist" from "feminine," but she still taught me about strength

Published July 4, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

A photo of the author's mother
A photo of the author's mother

People think my mother won the marriage lottery when she landed my father. A handsome produce stand owner, my father had been the catch of the New York Korean community. At his peak height he stood at 5-foot-10, towering over the other men of his cohort—a generation stunted by an indigenous dairy-free diet, malnutrition, war. Whereas my mother Umma was neither a renowned beauty nor a quick wit.

The first time my parents met, my mother had been cashiering at her father’s fruit-and-vegetable store on the Upper West Side. My father walked in. As he reached through the plastic curtain slats of the refrigerated case and helped himself to a bottle of Coke, he smiled at my mother. My mother scowls as she recounts the story. “He suppose to pay his soda,” she tells me in her flawed English. “But your father just act like he so awesome.”

What she hadn’t known was that her father had gotten my father’s name through a matchmaker and invited him to stop by the store. As my father drank the unpaid-for Coke, Umma was so furious she couldn’t utter a word. Perhaps my father mistook her silence for shyness. Two months later, they were married.

My mother is a woman who doesn’t know the word "feminist" from "feminine." Like most Koreans of her generation, she was taught Confucian values: women had their fixed roles in society; men had theirs. The beliefs she grew up with seemed as confining as those from the Victorian era.

Take, for example, her theory on beauty — one shared by all the women in the tight cluster of our native Queens I thought I’d escaped when I shipped off to a liberal arts college: Men will choose a pretty girl over a smart one, sipjungpalgu, eight or nine times out of 10. As such, women have two choices: to be pretty, or to be smart (which nearly always results in prettiness—if a woman were smart, she’d choose the former). According to Umma, when a woman is smarter than a man, he starts to feel inferior, which causes him to go “dinka-dinka” with younger, prettier women who will spare him a hard time.

This is what she intimated to me one weekend, when I came home with the flu, a bag of dirty laundry and my first broken heart (at 25, I had been a late bloomer). When Umma met me in the doorway, she took the laundry from me. She sized me up. Then she pointed to the full-length mirror hanging in the foyer. She insisted I also hang one up by my front door, so I could give myself a once-over each time I left the house.

At the time, Umma had just started classes in homeopathic therapy. It was a newfound hobby I’d initially derided as backward. Now I realize it was an outlet for her to explore other interests outside the limited roles she’d had to play for decades: daughter, grocer’s wife, mother. That weekend she sat me down with her acupressure toolkit in an attempt to cure me of the flu. I was too ill to protest. As she prodded my fingers with a needle-like instrument, she went on. “Maybe this happen because you choosing only the smartness.”

Smartness. Not prettiness. My ex-boyfriend was quite handsome, and had spent a considerable amount on clothing and grooming products — more than he’d ever spent on his portion of our Dutch dates. When friends commented on his looks, I’d joke how he belonged to a higher aesthetic caste. Once, that boyfriend and I ran into an old classmate of mine on the train. She looked from me to him. Later she confided in me, “Wow, your boyfriend is so cute.” I couldn’t help but read the disbelief between the lines: How did you land him? But in the end, I’d lost him. I had come home to heal; instead Umma’s words pricked the ache in my heart.

“So which did you choose?”

It was a rather insolent thing to ask of one’s own mother.

“Neither,” Umma said. Her tone was matter-of-fact, as though she acknowledged both shortcomings as universal truths.

* * *

I was never a girl who was valued for her looks; in Korean society, my broad, tanned face and athletic build were not considered attractive. Growing up, I envied those girls whose dainty features matched their builds. The world seemed to open up to them in ways it never did for me—the adults would praise their beauty; guys would look past their unfunny jokes and stare up at them like they were rare pieces of art. So maybe my mother was right; I rejected the path of “prettiness” and focused on developing my smarts instead.

Ironically enough, when I arrived at college I skewed “girly” because I sometimes wore black and I shaved my armpits. And yet—it was the women who put no effort in their looks who seemed to be the most sought after. I entered a world where the values I had grown up with—being hyper-feminine, well-groomed and stylish—no longer held weight; if anything, those who ascribed to them were written off as “trying too hard.” These women embodied feminist theories that were still foreign to me; the words did not roll readily off my tongue though I aped them all the same.

Three years out of college, I was repeating this very rhetoric to my mother as she pricked and prodded my fingers, but I think I was really just repeating them for myself, as if willing the words to come true. I did not want to believe that maybe Umma was right about my failed relationship—that the breakup was the result of my lack of looks, my failure to “play dumb.” I did not want to believe in her black-and-white distillation of the world. My mother’s comments threatened to upset my hard-won, albeit precariously calibrated, views on womanhood.

 * * *

It’s a luxury—a sign of progress, even—to have ambivalent views on the topic. My mother’s whole life had been dictated to her: by her government, her father, and later, her husband. She and her family fled their native Pyongyang during the outbreak of the Korean War. All southbound trains were already brimming with women and children; they had to ride on the roof of the train cars. Umma remembers having to duck each time they passed through a tunnel. Her family arrived in Busan, a city on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. There they lived among other Northern refugees who had escaped a communist regime, in a shantytown along the coast.

My grandfather decided that there were better opportunities abroad and the family should leave Korea. After a two-month boat passage, my mother, her parents and three brothers arrived in Argentina, where they lived in the Bajo Flores ghetto of Buenos Aires. My mother was in her early 20s. Every morning my mother knitted sweaters from a machine her father had rigged up at home. In the afternoons she went door-to-door holding up samples of her handiwork. “¿Te gusta esto? Yo lo puedo echar,” she’d say in her broken Spanish. Sometimes the people who answered the door placed orders; other times she was shooed away. In the evenings my mother and her brothers went to night school to learn Spanish.

It was only after my mother and her family had established citizenship in Argentina that they were permitted passage to the United States. They flew to New York, where the six of them lived in a tiny apartment in the West 90s. Every morning my mother worked at the family store, dressed in layers to stave off the winter drafts. Every evening my mother and her brothers went to night school to learn English.

Trains, barges, planes ... modernization could literally be tracked in my mother’s life journey. During each sojourn her father would brush her hair each morning and pin it back into a tidy bob. It seemed a touching gesture. But apparently Umma found the hairstyle constricting and unfashionable. All she wished to do was to grow her hair out and shake it free, feeling the wind sweep it into loose, rippling waves.

She had never known the freedom of living alone. My grandparents monitored Umma’s every move; whenever she addressed them they made her bow her head and fix her eyes modestly to the floor. This was the same grandmother who once told me taekwondo was only for boys and not girls like me.

“I hated coming home, because home was like dictatorship,” Umma told me as she pressed tiny metal adhesive discs, designed to stimulate circulation, into the most tender part of my fingertips. She decided to run away. She responded to a newspaper ad for a cleaning job in a tenement building. The super led her to the supply closet—a cramped room outfitted with mops and brooms and buckets.

“He ... he not such a nice man,” my mother said. “He put me there, and then the door close and it locked.”

“It just locked?” I asked. “Or did he lock you in?”

“Maybe ... he not have such good intention.” My mother was deadpan — casual, almost, in her delivery, as if the decades since had dulled the sting of the memory. “And closet smell like ammonia, so strong. And I not so strong, and I so scary―”

“Scared,” I corrected.

What an easy target my mother must have looked like when she showed up at the tenement: standing all of 5 feet and half-an-inch, dressed in the full skirts and stockings her mother laid out on her bed that morning, her bob parted and combed by her father hours earlier, bobby pins now drooping from her hair. Umma’s early 1970s Upper West Side was a far cry from the neighborhood today: tree-lined, landmarked streets, dotted with fresh-scrubbed brownstones and upscale boutiques and cafes. Almost all traces of grit and bodegas like my grandfather’s have vanished.

When I asked my mother what happened next, she said, “I — I not remember exactly, because so long ago. But somehow I go out of the room, and the super, he chase me, but I run away.”

“Wait, did he do anything?”

“Nothing happen. I not get the job anyway.” My mother tutted.

I felt sickened by the man’s actions, just as I felt a rush of anger on Umma’s behalf—the anger she wouldn’t let herself express. Her once again matter-of-fact delivery, the distant tone—it was almost as if she thought she hadn’t deserved any better.

Eventually Umma came home—she had nowhere else to go. It was hardly a homecoming; when she returned, she found an outraged father, mother and three brothers waiting for her.

“Your second uncle especially, he so upset,” she said. “He threw the chair, and it hit me―”

“Second Uncle hit you with a chair?”

“But only because he not know how to control his anger,” she said. “And then I go back to my father’s store, and then eventually I meet your father, and we marry, and I work at his store.”

Umma’s post-virginal life bore a striking resemblance to the one she had led under her father’s roof. My father made all the decisions for the household, while his mother and sisters poked and prodded at his wife’s under-seasoned dishes.

My mother ran away again, not long after she was married. One night she prepared an elaborate meal and served it to my father and his sister, who lived with them. “Eat well and live well,” she said to them in Korean. It was the idiomatic equivalent of Have a nice life. Then she swaddled my infant sister, her firstborn, in her arms and walked out the door.

My father drove and drove until he found his wife and daughter huddled under the bus shelter.

Come home, he said.

What choice did she have? She had nowhere else to go.

* * *

At the end of that weekend, as Umma peeled the bandages from my acupressured fingers, I asked if she ever told my father about what happened the day she tried to find a cleaning job. For some reason, I was taken with the idea that he would be outraged and would want to avenge my mother’s honor, albeit decades after the fact.

But all my mother said was, “Why? He just gonna think I’m some kind of stupid.”

“Of course he won’t think—” I said, then stopped myself. I thought about the time the boy who lived across the street backed me into the corner of the laundry room and started touching himself. I didn’t know I could say no, so I stood there, fixing my eyes shyly to the ground, the one thought running through my teenage mind the whole time was, You should feel special he chose you. I thought of every guy who put his hands on me—every guy I let put his hands on me—because I felt grateful for whatever male attention that came my way. I thought of the handsome boyfriend who had just broken my heart.

My mother went on. Other mothers were smarter, she said, but she was “a low-education mother.” Then she stared down at her own bandaged fingers. “I thank God every day that you come out so smart, much smarter than your Umma.”

The privileges denied to my mother—a homeland, a college education, the knowledge of the existence of the feminist movement—were all afforded to me. What excuse did I have? Yet all my college-learned smarts could not change the fact that I was still some kind of stupid. 

 * * *

Later, I’d come to learn my mother's theories were not all that off. I was pursued by a man who heaped attention on me at each date, and I lapped up his compliments. But as quickly as he drew close, he started pulling away. I called him out on it, enumerating the reasons why what he was doing was wrong. Shortly thereafter he began pursuing a younger, pretty friend. Sipjungpalgu. Eight or nine times out of ten.

In retrospect, I might have salvaged things by keeping my mouth shut and not giving him a hard time. But just because you acknowledge the existence of a theory does not mean you have to espouse it.

But I’m still learning. Almost a decade after that weekend home in my mid-twenties, I am still sorting out my views on femininity. My feminist counterparts might admonish me for “pandering to the gaze,” just as my family does for not trying hard enough. I have chosen the (according to Umma) less-favored path of “smarts”: I left a full-time, stable job to become a novelist, at the expense of pursuing more conventional roles for women. But looking back on my life choices to date, my past relationships—a series of corrections and overcorrections—I realize I don’t want my value to be summed up as either/or.

 * * *

I don’t want a life like my mother’s. And I get the sense she doesn’t want that life anymore either. Lately Umma speaks of upgrading her ways. Learning how to use her iPhone, for one. Streaming videos online. Logging into her emails. Advancing in her homeopathic studies. I’d like to think these gestures, though small, are self-empowering all the same. Umma may not have developed the self-assurance of a pretty woman or a well-spoken one, but maybe it’s not too late to learn.

Even my father has taken note: “When I marry your mother, I thought she’s gonna be nice, gentle. But now…” He shakes his head, half in jest; perhaps picturing that quiet young woman behind the counter, eyes fixed modestly to the floor. It’s the same but different picture I carry with me, too: a young woman too shy at first to speak out, but determined to find her voice.

By Patricia Park

Patricia Park is the author of the recently published novel RE JANE, a Korean-American retelling of “Jane Eyre” set in New York and Seoul. Follow her on Twitter: @patriciapark718 or www.patriciapark.com

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Beauty Feminism Korea Korean Life Stories Moms Motherhood Real Families