I had to hire a bodyguard for a visit with my mother. The accumulation of events that led to these cold facts is something I can only regard with dull wonder, like waking up the morning after a blizzard, marvelling at the snow that you knew would fall all night. I was in Shanghai, called to Seoul on emergency – the locales seem dramatic for this Jersey boy, but there was a certain mundanity to it all, an inevitable logic that requires a journey around the world to settle nothing at all while trying to deal with everything.
Shanghai was a disconcertingly placid adventure. I had been there almost a decade ago, a futile business trip for a company that had virtually no chance of doing business in China. At the time it was just another routine exercise in escaping my world, back in San Francisco with responsibilities falling like a hail of arrows: from my failing marriage, needy children, insurmountable challenges at work. The city was in the midst of rapid construction that burst buildings from the ground through volcanoes shaped like skyscrapers, spewing ash and heat into the turgid air.
All those violent explosions have cooled, the row of buildings now glisten like ice carvings along the Bund, following the sparkling river through the middle of the city. J and I walked intertwined in the temperate night air, exulting in the strangeness of a place not our own while centered in our growing love for each other. Our relationship is as smooth as blown glass, fresh from the furnace, still hot and malleable into forms we’ve only started to imagine. Both of us still have brittle shards of past shattered relationships embedded in our bodies, revealed at times in a sharp if minor phantom pain when we press on the wrong sore spot.
She was in Shanghai for work, I just tagged along. We were only beginning to long for an extended stay as the harmonious week rolled to an end, when I started getting the calls and messages from Seoul. My mother calls all the time; I rarely pick up. Back at home, my inaction seems more practical than neglectful, as she has no concept of time zones, and the majority of her calls are in the middle of the night, with my phone set on “do not disturb.” I’m disturbed anyway when I wake up in the morning and see her fusillade of missed calls. The fact is, even when I see her calls come in, I have no urge to pick up. I have the opposite of urge, I have revulsion and disdain, the sight of her name on my phone opening a gravity well into which my heart falls freely until the phone stops ringing.
In Shanghai, I’m awake for every call, with only an hour’s difference from Seoul. I can’t ignore them all any more than I can walk through raindrops in a thunderstorm without getting wet. When I finally answer, she says the same thing she always says, and none of the things she should say. She needs money, as usual. But now it’s not the five or ten thousand dollars she usually demands, but a cool quarter million. Still, it’s hard to tell how serious this is, as nothing she ever says has a reliable relationship to reality.
The messages from my cousin raise the level of alarm from unreliable ranting to unavoidable problem. I have thirty or so cousins in Seoul, both my parents come from large families. With the distance and language barriers, I only have a servicable connection to two, one on my mother’s side and one on my father’s. My mother’s nephew would prefer to avoid ever seeing her, he’d love to participate in the social banishment that all of my uncles and aunts have imposed upon my parents. Somehow, the signal of impropriety in my mother’s activities has risen to a buzz that he cannot ignore, and though he rarely reaches out to me, he’s sending me messages on the same Friday as my mother’s incessant calling, with the same call to action: Come to Seoul.
Seoul occupies my mental space in the same way as Mordor does for Middle Earth before the ring is cast into the fires. If I could be unbiased, I would say the city is phenomenal, teeming with culture and industry and irrepressible energy. But I’m not unbiased; I’m as biased as it’s possible to be, with every element in my personal history predisposing me to loathe my parents’ hometown. They came to the United States in the late fifties, among the first wave of Koreans to immigrate after the Korean War. My father started out studying in Virginia – he said that when he dreamed of coming to America, he knew that everything would be different but he should at least pick a location where the weather would be the same. So he drew a horizontal line on the map from Seoul, and picked Virginia because that’s where the common latitude hit the States. He didn’t account for climate variables and found himself in too warm a place, so he moved his way north until he ended up in New York, where he met my mother. They settled in New Jersey, had my sister and then me. That’s how I became a Jersey boy.
The town where I grew up was founded by Scots and Irish, but was overrun by Italians and Jews long before my parents bought their first house there. The few Asians in town were as weeds to a suburban lawn. I want to believe that growing up as an outlier didn’t incite a rebellion against my own background, but it couldn’t have helped very much. My parents clung to their homeland identity even as it isolated them; they treated their Koreanness as a rock on which they could survive above windswept seas, I saw it as flotsam that might keep them afloat for a short while, but which would become waterlogged and sink as sure as the ocean is wet. Either way, you can’t navigate without sturdy craft of your own. Still, to me the negative association with Korea didn’t come from their immigrant experience, but rather from just how much my parents hated each other. They hated each other in a very Korean way, a hate that would last until death but could never be severed before then.
My very first memory is born from their discord. I can remember being held in my father’s arms, looking up at the night sky, vast and empty and devoid of all humanity, most certainly devoid of motherhood, just as our temporary housing was. We were on a visit to Korea, I was three years old. I think we had gone as a family, but no one knew where my mother was. She’d disappeared for days, wild and wandering, doing anything to be away from a marriage that was already wrong and already a deathless bond. This is a sympathetic image of my father, stalwart and alone with his children, breathing the night air with his first and only son, realizing with a growing, grim certainty that the wife and mother of his perfect visions would never materialize.
That’s a single snapshot, one of only a few bright frames in a long movie that tells a darker story. He was stubborn, proud, egocentric, insecure – qualities that are stereotypical in Korean masculinity and ten times magnified in this immigrant who escaped the rebuilding after civil war, only to find himself in a strange land in his own private and interminable war. It’s hard to say whether circumstances would have made him a better man, but I doubt it. His reaction to my mother’s bursts outside the bounds of Korean strictures consisted of increasingly relentless cruelty, a man who decides that his woman is a dog that hasn’t been beaten enough.
And it’s hard to say whether a loving man would have had any different result with my mother. Though all of her compensating mechanisms were understandable – the disappearances, the gambling, the lying and the greed, the utter absence of any true presentation of herself – at base there was a truly disturbed personality. The absence of any positive nurture neither explains nor justifies the fundamentally broken nature of her mind. You can say that in a perfect world, they could have ended up with different people who wouldn’t have reinforced each of their worst qualities, but then that world would have been far less than perfect for the alternate victims. These are two victimizers who deserved to be each others victims.
My sister and I, however, were innocent, at least at the beginning as all children are. So as I got the parade of messages from Seoul, I called her to ask what to do. Sitting in Shanghai, with her on the other end of the phone in her little town outside of Prague, I could barely summon the energy to marvel at the explosion of locales for this one forlorn family from New Jersey. She’d ended up in Czechia as a final escape in her own long journey away from our parents. (Nobody calls it Czechia, though that’s the official name, but I like the sound better than the insistent ring of “Czech Republic,” which somehow conjures images of unfulfilled ambition for a country that’s still recovering from its eras of German and Soviet dominance.) She told me to go to Seoul, but she said she’d understand if I wouldn’t.
I didn’t want to, but I had to go. Not for any of the reasons that people who actually like their parents might state – reasons of filial obligation, duty, the sacrifice for family in return for all they have given you. No – I owed these people nothing. My reaction was simply as one who passes a wreck by the side of the road, seeing the incapacitated driver helpless though far from blameless, having been behind the wheel in a sorry state, ending the only way possible: in a crumpled heap of twisted metal. All logic would excuse the passing observer to continue on the way, as this driver put herself into this position, and when helped out of it will only get behind another wheel and end in another wreck. But if you’re the only observer that can possibly help, you’d have to be a pretty hardened soul to continue on with barely a backwards glance.
Shanghai is two and a half hours from Seoul. If I’d been in San Francisco at the time, I probably would have declined the twelve hour journey. But at two and a half hours, as the only possible good Samaritan, I would have had to do it for anybody, for a stranger, for you and certainly for your mother. So I guess I had to do it for my mother. I booked my ticket and regretted it instantly.
I’d already been gone from home for a week, ignoring fires at work and begrudgingly chalking one up in the debit column of rare favors from my ex-wife. The most I could spare was another four days. Four days to untangle my mother’s biggest web of lies yet seemed beyond hopeless, but it was all I had to spare. I called her on Sunday asking to meet the next day, soon after I landed. She said yes of course, of course she could explain everything, of course I could meet the players in this shadowy game for which she was playing with at least two hundred fifty thousand dollars. Her reaction wasn’t one of welcome delight, but of a crafty rat reacting to the arrival of a feral cat.
When I landed Monday, suddenly everyone was unavailable. My mother was busy, her colleagues or partners or associates or whatever they were, they were all nowhere to be found. Some of them had apparently never existed, I must have misunderstood her or misheard her, she said. Also, even though they didn’t exist, she now owed these phantoms only a hundred thousand dollars, having drained all available assets, deceived gullible relations, and borrowed from friends with poor judgment to pay the first one hundred fifty thousand to the spirit world. The frustrating thing about my mother’s lies is that they have no consistency from moment to moment; in a course of a single sentence she twists herself up in so many falsehoods that nothing needs to make sense. I hung up knowing I needed to find a lawyer and a bodyguard to make any progress.
The lawyer I’d already met once before, the previous summer when I’d made a different emergency trip to Seoul, in the hopes that my father’s failing health was finally reaching a merciful end. He’s had dementia for years, a broken hip, a bout or two of pneumonia, and has long since forgotten my name. In July he was back in the hospital with his lungs full of fluid again, and my sister and I flew there with optimistic black formalwear in our bags. Terribly, he survived to return home with my mother, in a luxury retirement building with round the clock nursing. His nurse was sadly indefatigable, caring to his every need even as she was clawing through her own chemotherapy at the same time. She kept him alive and my sister and I flew back with our funeral attire regretfully unused. But on the last day, we walked by a lawyer’s office and decided to stop in, to ask him to review some suspicious papers my sister had found in my parents’ apartment.
Now it’s three weeks before Thanksgiving, my favorite family holiday as an adult, probably because it’s the one we celebrated least as a kid. Back in Seoul again, against my will again, talking again with this lawyer who I would now graduate into a relationship as “my” lawyer, since this situation had every sign of continuing long enough and expensively enough to demand a relationship. I asked if he could arrange a bodyguard to meet me in the morning, and when he said yes I called my mother and told her I’d be coming to visit with a hundred thousand dollars in a duffel bag, but I would only hand it over to the people she owed, not to her. As if by magic, these phantoms returned to corporal form and were available to meet in the morning at my convenience. I had until the morning to figure out how to make it through the meeting without bringing money and without getting hurt.
I had one friend in Seoul, a Korean whose disaffection for Korean society nearly matched my own but was all the more impressive for him having endured the bulk of his adult life in the country. Rick actually used to work for me, but at some point we crossed a line where we had no choice to regard each other as people rather than colleagues. He agreed to serve as translator and driver, picking me up in the morning along with the muscle for hire who met us in my hotel lobby. We made our game plan on the way to my parents’ building near the center of the city – I would first appear unaccompanied, while they loitered in the background, so I could play nice with the phantom gentlemen and try to find out as much as I could before turning over the next card.
The building strives to rise above the block like an entry-level luxury hotel. My mother’s footsteps echo in the three-story atrium as she hustles towards me when I enter. No greeting, no warm recognition in her eyes, the look on her face is exactly the one she’d have as she walks up to a cash dispensing machine on the street. She pulls me over into a side lobby, where a grouping of chairs is occupied by two shifty middle-aged men, one a little older than me and the other probably five years younger. They’re both named Mr. Kim, as is a third of the population in Korea. They both look like they had too much to drink the night before, probably in common with half the population. My mother translates in broken English and frantic Korean, and I come to understand that she plans to move out of the building and into one owned by these men. She’s already moved my father to a nursing home an hour away, and this new place is close enough for her to visit daily as the devoted wife she somehow believes she can deceive me to perceive.
A few minutes is all it takes to understand that this is a scam. It’s no great detective work, it’s no Holmesian powers of perception – just that nothing makes sense and these two bozos are as uncomfortable as worms under a shaker of salt. I nod at Rick and the bodyguard and they amble over to our seating area, to the visible consternation of the Kims. Rick translates the stream of invective I direct towards the older Kim, and when he expresses outraged indignation, I have to make a choice. I could mollify the expectations he has as an elder in a society that demands such formality, or I can double down on my contempt like a true American. Going the latter route aligns with my boiling blood and my Jersey roots, but there’s some risk if we’re dealing with true gangsters.
I’m incapable of making a cool calculation. I can only invite Mr. Kim outside to settle his bruised feelings with our hands like men, like men of Jersey, men of Korea, men everywhere that anger substitutes for courage. He wants none of it, retreating immediately to a passive if aggrieved posture. Though not a thoughtful stratagem, my aggression was probably the fastest way to determine that these were nonviolent scamsters rather than dangerous mobsters. I’m satisfied enough to end the meeting. Over the next couple of days, I follow the money from building to building, bank to bank, pulling papers and statements from my confused and devious mother, ultimately to conclude that she’s been the constant subject of a team of scamsters for years. She was just as much an accomplice as a victim, perhaps even more so. As my father’s mental state declined, my mother’s delusional audacity increased, and the window of opportunity widened for the criminals to step through and make off with all of her savings and more.
Fortunately, my father never trusted my mother. Perhaps I can ponder the possibilities if he only had treated her as an equal from the beginning, so that they could grow and trust each other, develop as human beings rather than animals forever scarred by the wars of their youth. But we live in the world we live in, not the unreachable world of our unsatisfied dreams. He treated her like a dog and he never trusted her; she acted like a dog with rabies and deserved far less trust than she received. Unfortunately, my father’s solution as he foresaw the end was to make my sister and me responsible for managing their financial affairs. My mother had given away all of the money she could get her hands on, and now there was nothing left except the great majority of it, behind pursestrings loosely grasped in my unwilling fingers. Now it’s time to tighten my grip.
I had two days left to traverse Seoul digging for clues and spinning my own protective webbing. I made arrangements for the building she’s in to send their bills directly to me, including for the meal plan specializing in soft senior foods. I visited the nursing home on the other side of town, spent a few minutes watching my father slowly die, then arranged for their billing to come to me as well. She’ll never get another dime from my father’s accounts unless it’s for her bare survival. I set my lawyer off on a long task list to get the scammers arrested, which may or may not have any effect. I’ve become a pale shadow of my father, continuing to lock the cage he set her in on the day they married. Barely clinging to life, he’s still winning the torturous game of control in this family, a game that no one wants to play anymore but no one seems to be able to quit.
On my last night in Seoul, I found a bar with a friendly bartender and ruined his night and mine. And then I went home, having nowhere else to go.