I hate my mother’s car. I loathe it. It’s an abomination to all things with wheels, including Rollerblades, which are bad enough on their own. Her car is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. Worse than the time I saw a guy whip it out in the subway station. I’m talking about his penis here. There is one feature of her car that angers and irritates me so much that I’ve considered taking the bus. In Los Angeles. In other words, I prefer what is basically a toilet on wheels to my mother’s luxury sedan.
The feature in question is the “communication center.” It’s a system that automatically connects to my mother’s cell phone, displays her address book, and directs calls through the car’s speakers. The problem with the communication center is that it enables communication. Calls from my mother have more than tripled. She’ll call me several times a day, telling me what she bought at the grocery store or how her kimchi turned out. She’ll remind me to bring home clothes to dry-clean even though I haven’t set plans to come home. Sometimes she’ll call me on a Tuesday afternoon, wondering what I’m doing, and I have to explain, once again, that I’m working, which is what I’ve been doing every Tuesday afternoon since 1998. I realize I should ignore her, but I just know that the one time I send her to voice mail, she’ll be in the hospital or her kidnappers will want a ransom. I end up answering e-mails, cleaning my desk, or putting together to-do lists while my mother goes on about the incredible sale on mackerel. So really, the problem isn’t her incessant calls. It’s something even more annoying.
Whenever we’re in the car together, my mother scrolls through her address book and calls every single relative on speakerphone. This would be pleasant if they asked questions, I answered, and they listened. I understand that this is how conversations work, but this is not something my relatives understand. Instead, I’m held captive in the car, tied down by a seat belt, and poked and prodded and dismissed by my aunts and uncles.
“SAY HI TO SAMCHON.” My mother will never understand that when you use speakerphone, you can just use your regular voice. Whenever she calls people in Korea, she yells even louder because Seoul’s really far away.
“Hi, Samchon.” I grip the steering wheel. I’m driving because the safest place in my mother’s car is any spot where she’s not in the driver’s seat. We’re sitting in traffic, which is how we spend 78.3 percent of our time together. The rest of the time we’re looking for parking.
“HI, ANNIE, HOW ARE YOU?” My uncle yells at me in Korean; he has speakerphone in his car too. My samchon has a furniture store downtown. When I was little, I’d sit at the desks and take notes at imaginary meetings, answer calls on a fake phone, and file papers into a real filing cabinet. I even had a date stamp and an in/out box overflowing with scribbled papers. At the tender age of seven, I aspired to be a temp. I’d like to go back in time and talk to myself: Look, kid, one day all your dreams will come true and you’ll work in an office. For the rest of your life. So why don’t you pretend to be a cosmonaut or a deep-sea diver or a dragon rancher? Oh, hey, you got a fax.
“I’m good. And you?” I generally speak to my aunts and uncles in Korean. Their English is worse than my Korean. I have a tendency to slur my words like a drunk getting a tongue piercing. Korean has ten vowels, and the differences are subtle. Proper pronunciation requires a nuanced and delicate tongue. Sometimes my mother has to translate my Korean into Korean.
“YOU FIND A GOOD HUSBAND YET?”
“I’m not looking for one.” I try to squeeze the car into the fast lane, which is hardly going fast, just faster.
“WHY NOT? HOW OLD ARE YOU NOW?”
“WOW.” My uncle gasps, his horror amplified in surround sound. “YOU HAVE TO HAVE A BABY SOON.”
“Thirty-five isn’t old.” Magazines have decreed that 35 is the new 25, but clearly my uncle does not read the same rags as I do.
“YOUR TIME IS RUNNING OUT.”
“No, it’s not.”
My mother nods gravely. “LISTEN TO SAMCHON!”
“Don’t worry, I’m listening.” I turn down the volume and my mother turns it back up. I glare at her dewy, well-moisturized face, but she doesn’t notice because she’s too busy dialing someone else.
“SAY HI TO GOMO.”
It’s my aunt on my father’s side. One Christmas, she gave me a gigantic jar of peanuts and then asked for the jar back. (It was the perfect size for making kimchi, she explained.) The following year she gave me a laundry bag with the name of their family Laundromat on the side. It’s the biggest laundry bag I’ve ever seen; it could double as a sleeping bag during an apocalypse, be it nuclear or zombie.
“What’s wrong, Annie?”
“Then why aren’t you married with kids?”
My mother smiles smugly.
I shift in my seat and turn down the ass warmer. “Because I don’t want marriage and kids.”
My mother scowls. “Anne.”
My gomo laughs. She has a distinct high-pitched, nasal cackle. It’s one part crow and two parts dolphin caught in a fishing net. “We’ll see, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
I cough. “But I do know what’s not going to happen.” I change lanes again, deciding that the fast lane is slow, and the slow lane is actually faster. I would like to get home as soon as possible, away from the speakerphone. What I really want is to teleport. How is it that scientists can grow human ears on the back of mice, but they can’t zap my molecules and reconstitute them a different location?
My mother pushes another button and browses her address book.
“I think I’ve had enough calls.” I reach over and brush her hand away from the communication center. I miss her old SUV with the torn seats, dinged bumpers, and 250,000-plus miles. The doors wouldn’t lock and there was no speakerphone. There weren’t even working speakers.
She waves me off and scans her endless list of relatives, friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends who are now her friends. Every Korean from the 818 to the 213 is on there, which is a lot since L.A. is the third-largest city in Korea. “Anne, you have to talk to everyone.”
“Why can’t we just sit in silence like normal people?”
“SAY HI TO CHAKUN OHMA!”
“Why, it’s our lovely Annie, how are you?” My chakun ohma is my aunt—different from my gomo, who is also my aunt. In the States, someone is either an aunt or an uncle. That’s it. You have an Aunt Sharon or an Uncle Bob, and it’s not obvious to an outsider if they’re on your mom’s or dad’s side. Nor do you care. You just know that Uncle Bob’s been married four times -- and counting -- and maybe he likes beer a little too much. In Korea, each familial relationship has a different label. Chakun ohma is the aunt married to your father’s younger brother; your father’s sister is gomo. Kun eemo is your mother’s older sister, and the aunt married to your mother’s brother is way-seung-mo. There are separate sets of labels for uncles, cousins, and even spouses of cousins. It’d be easier if we just used people’s names, since that’s why we have them in the first place, but in Korean culture you never call elder family members by their first names. Meanwhile, my friend Larry, who grew up in Greenwich Village, calls his parents by their first names. I don’t even know the names of all my aunts and uncles. I have 14 of them. And herein lies the true evil of the communication center. If traffic is bad enough -- and it always is -- my mother will call everyone in my family to badger me and my uterus.
“Hi, Chakun Ohma.”
“You getting married soon?”
“Don’t worry, Annie.”
“I’m not worried.”
“You just have to give it time.”
“Really, I’m not worried.”
“Sometimes it comes when you least expect it. Then you’ll find someone and have lots of beautiful babies together.” She pauses and asks my mother, “Did Annie understand all that?”
“No, no, I got it, thank you for being so interested in my --” I stop and let my sentence die. I don’t know how to say “nether bits” in Korean. My vocabulary has a lot of holes.
“Yoon-chong still isn’t married.” My chakun ohma’s words are tinged with frustration, shame, and regret. My cousin Yoon-chong is over 40 and not married. For 20 years, her single status and desiccating womb were regular topics at family dinners. Eventually everyone gave up on her and placed their attention on the younger, more eligible daughters. Of course, the boys never get this kind of attention; our family is traditional, which is a polite way of saying sexist. My cousin Andy is also over 40 and unmarried, but no one seems to care. He spends his time riding his motorcycle and coaching a women’s club volleyball team; he swears it’s all business and that some of the players are Olympic hopefuls. (Technically, aren’t we all Olympic hopefuls? I hope to be on the curling team.) My brother, who’s just shy of 40, is more interested in gaming and comic cons than in marriage and babies, and everyone accepts that. But Yoon-chong is a spinster with no prospects because her lady parts are a bleak wasteland that can’t support life. Her uterus is like Mercury, which reaches 800 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and –279 degrees Fahrenheit at night. It’s an inhospitable world that has no atmosphere.
My mom shakes her head sadly. “Yoon-chong is so smart and talented. What a waste.”
I roll my eyes. Marriage and kids aren’t Yoon-chong’s priority at the moment. She’s a successful graphic designer for a major fashion company, but my family doesn’t see that. In high school, my physics teacher put a Slinky on a table to demonstrate potential energy. (“It has stored energy. It can do so many things, but it’s not doing them at the moment.”) My family sees Yoon-chong as a slinky at rest, just a coil with unfulfilled, wasted potential. “Mom, she’s happy. Leave her alone.”
On my father’s side of the family there are eight of us cousins living in the States. But only two are married and only one has a kid. It’s a real family tragedy. After Yoon-chong, there are only two maidens left, Tina and me. Tina is older—she can smell 40’s impending, bitter doom. She’s an elementary school teacher and is surrounded by kids all day; she’s in no rush. I can already feel our aunts and uncles giving up on her. As the youngest at 35, I’m the family’s last shot; there’s still time for me to get married and spread our genes even farther. If Yoon-chong’s womb is like Mercury, then mine is something like Gliese 581d, an exoplanet that’s one of the best candidates for habitability outside Earth: It could possibly sustain life, but close observation is necessary. Very close. My family would aim a telescope at my crotch if I’d only let them.
My parents, aunts, and uncles are surrounded by reminders of what they don’t have. Their friends have grandkids all over the place, on their phones or in their wallets or on their key chains. Whenever my mother and I run errands together, we always bump into her friends, along with two generations of progeny. I hate going to the store with my mother because everything takes twice as long with all her endless yammering and baby pinching. The conversation always ends up on me, specifically my unwed, childless, dire state of existence and the shriveling Turkish apricots I call my ovaries. They see me as a uterus in glasses holding a flashing vacancy sign.
Sometimes when we’re in the car, my mother calls friends on speakerphone just so she can drop fascinating bits of news for my benefit, like how her friend’s son, who went to Harvard, married a lawyer and now has a baby. Or how a friend’s daughter, who also went to Harvard, married a doctor and now has two kids (“One boy and one girl. How lucky!”). Last year, my mother attended a wedding where the bride (a lawyer) and groom (a doctor) both went to Harvard, and now they are expecting a baby who will no doubt go to Harvard. It’s an impressive cycle. But I know that for every son or daughter who’s a neuro-oncologist at Cedars-Sinai, there’s a kid who fashions pipes out of Xbox controllers or, worse, wants to be an actor.
I am in the car, as usual, with my mother, as usual. We’re driving to the airport. My mother is fussing with the communication center and scrolling through her address book once again.
“SAY HI TO YOU DADDY.”
“Have good flight.” He pauses. “Are you still vegetarian?”
“What does that have to do with anything?” I snort. “Yes. Still vegetarian.”
“Annie,” my father says, sighing, “no one want to live with vegetarian.”
My mother bursts into laughter and claps her hands. Bravo, well played.
I scowl. “You both lived with a vegetarian, remember?”
“No, who want to marry vegetarian?” my father asks.
I want to pound my head into the steering wheel, veering the car off the road. My mother and I would be fine, walking away without a scratch thanks to the highly rated safety features of her new car. The communication center, however, would fly through the windshield and land somewhere in Pacoima, where it would be tormented by fire ants. “Listen to me. No marriage. No kids.”
“You meet someone and you change you mind,” my mother assures me.
“Don’t you think I’d be with someone who wants the same things as I do?”
“Who want same thing as you?” My mother sniffs. “No one.”
I had dated someone for several years, and while we had ups and downs like any relationship, there was one issue that couldn’t be solved. He wanted kids, and I did not; our stories couldn’t end in the same place. For a while we both ignored it, but eventually working through other problems became increasingly difficult. How much work do you put into something you know is going to end? Now I’m dating someone who doesn’t want marriage or kids. Plus, he’s vegetarian. But I’m not ready to introduce him to my parents yet. “Fewer people are having kids now, in the United States and in Korea.”
“Says who?” My father scoffs over the speakerphone.
“Says the newspaper.” I scoff back.
“Which newspaper? Newspaper for people with no kid?” My mother snickers.
“Annie, who take care of you when you old?” my father asks. “Not us. Somebody else.”
“I’ve been taking care of myself just fine.”
“You can’t do by yourself,” he warns me. “Kid take care of parents later in life.”
“Dad, are you saying I should have a kid because I’m going to get old one day?”
He pauses. “Yes.”
Traditionally in Korean culture, the sixtieth birthday is considered a milestone. Then people started living longer, so while 35 is the new 25, 70 is the new 60. My father recently turned 70, and he refused to have a chilsun celebration with family and friends because “there no grandkid. What point?” My father moped around the house, feeling his age and his mortality and devastating despair. Even my mother thought he was being a bit dramatic. I know that my father worries about my distant future, after he’s long gone. Who will change my diaper and recharge my jetpack/scooter? He also sees my less distant future. Who will provide for me? The answer is me. But that’s just not enough for my father.
“I’m not having kids just because later I’ll need someone to feed me my medicine.” I sighed. “Now, would either of you like to discuss how awesome my hair’s been looking? Well, guess what? I cut it myself. In other words, I’m taking care of myself.”
“Anne, baby make you happy. When you young, you make me so happy,” my mother says wistfully.
“Oh, so now that I’m older you’re not happy anymore?”
Unlike my father, she’s less concerned about my distant future filled with bedpans and IV bags that need changing. She’d like a grandchild in order to feel purpose and joy and bask in the pure love that comes from young kids. It’s been a long time since I’ve made a macaroni necklace for her. She’d like to run into friends in the supermarket and whip out pictures of her own grandchild. She’d like to force the kid to practice Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” for one hour and assign 20 pages of math worksheets. She’d like to teach the kid all the hot K-pop dance moves, or at least the Macarena. She’d like hugs several times a day, instead of the two she receives from me -- once when I arrive and another when I leave.
“Please, stop, both of you.”
“We stop when you marry and have kid,” my mother said firmly.
“Think about you future, Annie,” my father urged.
I realize that the poking and prodding will continue until I’m beyond my childbearing years and the vacancy sign in my womb is swapped for one that says closed for business. I once asked my cousin Yoon-chong about everyone’s invasive probes into her womb. She just shrugged and said, “You get used to it.” They’ll never understand, she explained, so why fight it? Just ignore it. I could see the wisdom of her advice, but the problem with rolling with the punches is that I actually get punched (in the uterus). If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my parents, it’s to always fight back -- whether it’s against a mugger or a hexagonal table -- even if I don’t always win.
“SAY HI TO YOU KUN OHMA!”