Mentee: Karla Kim
Mentor: Sherry Amatenstein
Sherry and I wanted to explore what happens when old worlds from the past collide with new worlds. My memoir is about how my mom’s old and new worlds met and how this led me to see my own world in a new light.
Our Missing Half
Half is never satisfying. You don’t ever want to look at a glass half empty or half full; you want it to be bubbling over. Full is meaningful. Half leaves you wanting.
So when I met my half brother for the first time three years ago in the airport at Seoul, all I could focus on was his half buttoned shirt, half twisted necklace, and the way he half hugged my mom as she tentatively placed her arms around his neck.
“Well, this is weird,” I thought to myself. Mom’s hand remained gently encircling his porcelain neck as if she could never let go. “This is your sister!” she said, her eyes remaining locked on him. I tried to speak but the upper corners of my lips wouldn’t budge. Instead I extended my hand. He responded with one of his half-hugs. Automatically I stiffened, thinking, “Well this is weirder.” I didn’t even know this person.
But that wasn’t true. Because I did know about him. All my life I’d heard about the son from mom’s first marriage, the son she was forced to leave after divorcing his dad. But when you hear so much about a person you’ve never met or plan on meeting, you begin to see him as a character in a story that you’re never going to be a part of. This character becomes less real and relevant.
Mom had lost contact with her son for sixteen years. Sometimes, as we sipped sweet rice water on the bed, our bare toes wriggling under the cover, she would blurt out of the blue, “When you grow up, you’re going to have to become famous, go on national television, stand next to the President, and say, I’m looking for my brother, you understand?”
We’d laugh together, because we knew it was still, at that moment, just us two, and the thought of change anytime soon seemed a hazy vision molded too many times to our imagination.
I’d always felt sympathy for the five-year-old boy whose mother left him for a better life. But my sympathy was limited, for his mother was my mom, and I was part of her better life, the one she created with my father. So, even sympathy seemed cruel. Even my mother, as we skimmed the tattered photo albums from her past life, would say to me that it was all God’s plan, because without leaving her son, she would never have had me. My five-year-old self would vigorously nod, cling to her mom a little tighter, and smile in contentment.
When I was older, I couldn’t help but feel something was strange. Time began to untangle the barbed wires around my mom’s heart and she let her guard down. I would see her, crouching down under the dim fluorescent light at 2 in the morning, eyes glued to the same chipped pages of the old photo album. I’d been happy to be with my mom but I had begun to see we were blatantly ignoring the lonely character on the other side of the globe.
But that didn’t mean that I wanted to be jammed into the backseat of a rundown Hyundai with that lonely character once we were on the same side of the globe. On our way from the airport to a remote island called Jindo, I began registering the fact that I would now be for four more hours stuck with my half-brother and mom. The car doors pressed us together so that the thin, short fibers of our hair barely grazed each other, my half brother and I on either side of mom.
“Do you like to sing as well?” Startled by his voice, I winced as my elbow slipped off the leather lining and banged the metal handle. My mom and my half brother had been sharing old memories for what seemed an hour, and I was unprepared to be hurled into this two-way exchange. I did like singing. In fact, I loved it. But the question just seemed misplaced, a feeble attempt to include me into the untouched realm of their past.
I quickly nodded and slumped deeper against the cushions, hoping that the narrow cracks between the car seats would just swallow me. Every time mom patted my half brother’s back or reassuringly squeezed his hand, I shifted uncomfortably. I was spared only a few glances that signaled, “You should understand, Karla.” But I didn’t want to understand. At that instant, all I longed for was the laughter my mom and I shared over burnt noodles or our hour long conversations where I’d be enveloped in her smell, not a scented perfume, but the distinct aroma that emanated from her skin.
Soon, both my half-brother and mother were lulled to sleep by the smooth highway roads, his head positioned against the window while my mother’s head lolled against his shoulder. Unable to sleep, I sat folded against the corner, and locked out of even their dreamlands.
After a while, I heard mom shift and reposition herself. “My little sleep monster,” she whispered. Anxiety charged through my body as I heard that phrase, one she’d sung into my ears ever since I was the size of her arm. I quickly turned to her in fear she had stolen my title and offered it to that boy, that stranger beside her. But I was relieved to discover her gaze enveloping me with familiar affection and comfort. As she reached for my hand, I was overwhelmed by a reality I had temporarily forgotten. The realization that love, even my mother’s, is not finite.
There is no quota for affection, a fixed supply, no means of measurement. Her love could not be quantified by the number of times she squeezed my hands or called my name. It was rooted in the life she lived, and this tiny moment, the rebuilding of her past, could not erase our fortressed bond, for maybe she could love me immensely just as she could love my half-brother without limits.
And in that moment, I found the tacit approval from all of us that even though this situation was nowhere near normal, though we still had yet to expose to each other the small crevices of our hearts, we were still somehow bonded together. I saw that we all met, and were now squished into the backseat of a Hyundai, in the hope that our connection could run deeper. It was amazing how even a few hours of silence with someone you’ve never met before could offer a small recognition of familiarity. And maybe, my world, instead of halved, could become a bit bigger.