They don't have outlet shopping in Korea.
Correction, premium outlet shopping. As in Versace, Armani, etc.
This is key. These Korean relatives of mine like pretty, shiny
things. A new Lexus passing us on the highway turns all their heads:
cousin Sun's, his wife Hana's, even their five year old boy Jun's.
Three bobbleheads on a swivel Ė one, two, three.
They don't have the same things in Korea we do here, so they tell
me. Universal Studios. They can't believe I've never been, Hana said
she never wanted to leave! Sea World. No killer whales in Korea. Las
Vegas. Gambling isn't legal in Korea. Sun is some kind of business
executive in Seoul, and it seems he does very well. They planned
this two week visit to the United States months ago, when my mother
was still alive. She was the only one who knew who they were, or
wanted to see them. Escorting them around Los Angeles is my gift to
Here we are at the outlets. Here I am, outside on a bench.
Through the window, I see the boy Jun wandering around alone in the
store. His parents are elsewhere, rapturous amidst stacks of
cashmere sweaters and lush camel hair coats. They finger the gold on
belt buckles. Me, I can't do Polo Ralph Lauren first thing in the
"They've come halfway around the world to buy t-shirts?" my
sister says when she learns the day's agenda. Caroline doesn't do
outlets, she has suits fitted at the office and custom made. She's
sitting behind her desk at the law firm, far too busy to play tour
guide herself. The task has fallen to me, ever the wayward younger
sister, as I am "in between jobs" right now. "What about a museum,
Liv?" Caroline says.
"Somehow I don't think we're going to make the Getty today," I
say, before she hangs up. Through the window, I see the kid pick his
nose and wipe his hand on a floor model's hip. She's wearing a fancy
dress, could be silk. His name is pronounced "June," as in the month
of summer. The kicker is that he looks a little like my mother: ears
anchored nearly perpendicular to his head just like hers. Black hair
parted by a pesky cowlick that resembles both hers and sadly mine.
Before these cousins showed up I had to draw a diagram to understand
who they were. My mother's oldest brother was Sun's father.
Sun and Hana finally emerge from Ralph Lauren, triumphantly
bearing loot. After we load their bags into the car, they stand
before the store directory and study it as if it were the Ten
The premium outlet mall is coming to life now. It's huge, with
Muzak piped in from on high. Its pastels and southwestern style of
architecture are meant to soothe. There are pretzel kiosks and on
the horizon a food court. I'm reminded of an amusement park.
The place is teeming with immigrants. Families stagger by, laden
with shopping bags, giddy with all the money they've saved. It is
truly the American dream. A lot of them are Asian, some of them are
Korean. I recognize the language from hearing my mother speak over
Sun is fortyish, heavyset, with a salesman's enthusiasm for the
American capitalist system. He is head of marketing at his company.
He pronounced In-n-Out Burger "genius." "Limited menu, easy to
operate," he said. "And good fries!" We've been there four times in
My cousin-in-law, or whatever she is, is tiny. Hana is under five
feet tall. Younger than her husband by a few years. Apparently, she
did not think that there would be any Korean food in the United
States. In her suitcase she packed food between layers of clothing:
kimchee in foil packets, seaweed sleeved in plastic, canned fish. I
didnít even know kimchee came in foil packets.
Sun and Hana have given the boy a small rubber ball to amuse
himself with. Bounce, bounce, bounce. He doesn't have any other kids
to play with, so he just bounces that ball. Sometimes it rolls into
the parking lot, and he bounds after it. The first couple of times I
tried to stop him, pointed at oncoming cars, then looked to his
parents for guidance. They smiled and nodded and did nothing. Hana
doesn't speak English and I don't speak Korean, so after a painful
day or two with my cousin Sun translating, we basically gave up. Now
she and Sun mostly talk to each other and I do the driving.
That infernal ball bounces over the curb again. I look, to find
Sun and Hana already headed on to their next destination. Jun picks
up the ball and throws it at me, narrowly missing my head. "Hey!" I
shout, and Sun waves at us as they continue on. They keep doing
this, leaving me behind. I'm the nanny now, too.
I have no idea what to do with a child. I pocket the ball and Jun
looks pissed, so that makes two of us. "Come on," I say, and start
off in the direction of his parents. I don't really care if he
comes. But he does, trailing me reluctantly. I don't even know why
When my mother got sick, she got nostalgic. She would tell the
good stories, like the one about when I was born. It's really a
story about Caroline, who when my parents first brought me home from
the hospital, was so jealous she drowned all her stuffed animals in
the toilet. "She would pee," my mother would say with a giggle.
"She'd be standing in the grocery, four years old, and I would look
over and there would be this puddle. To get attention." This is the
part of the story where Caroline always changes the subject, because
she doesn't like to be reminded of a time when she was the bad child
and I was the good one.
Jun isn't following me. He has stopped resolutely in front of a
restaurant and I know why. He smells french fries. He loves french
fries. His parents let him eat all he wants. Of all the fatty
American food groups: Burgers. Pizza. Hot dogs. Every day this kid
gets fatter. His cheeks have gotten chubbier and his stomach rounds
out his shirt. This morning Hana showed me a throwaway pile of
clothing Jun has outgrown just on this trip. She laughed, holding
one hand over her small teeth.
It's a source of great pride to Sun and Hana that they have a boy
child. First try and they got a boy, which makes Jun a little king
in Korea. They let him do whatever he pleases. He goes to bed at
midnight, and french fries are his favorite. From what I've seen,
I'm pretty sure I don't want any children. On the way to the outlets
this morning, the little king sat in the back and jammed his feet
between the front seats. For some reason, I didn't think a five year
old's feet could smell that bad.
"Ok, let's eat," I say to him now, as if I had a choice. We go
into the restaurant, which is designed to look like an old-fashioned
American diner. There are silver jukeboxes on the tables, red
leather stools and booths, and waitstaff wearing paper hats. We sit
down in a booth and I buy us both a burger and french fries, the
whole works. The waitress smiles at him when she brings our food and
I realize she thinks I'm his mother. I'm horrified. I'm thirty years
old. Then I take perverse pleasure in knowing that people think I'm
the sort of mother who stuffs her kid with junk food.
I try to act motherly. I take out a quarter and show the boy how
to pick a song in the jukebox. I like jukeboxes. Then the quarter
gets stuck and in fixing it I end up picking a totally random song,
not the one I wanted at all. "It takes a while, but it will play
later for sure, hon," the waitress tells me. I don't really care
Jun doesn't care either. He does not appreciate 1950s Americana. He
pulls too hard on the nifty straw holder and peppermint striped
straws fall out all over the linoleum table top. Then he woofs down
his burger and all his fries, and reaches for mine, too.
I block his reach. "No," I say sternly. His mother lets him eat
all her food off her plate, that's why she's so tiny. A strong wind
could blow her over. I'm having none of it. This is America. Get
your own, kid.
Jun persists, trying to grab at my plate. "No!" I say. I actually
smack his hand.
"No!" he says. This much English he knows. He practically climbs
across the table in a frenzy. My phone rings. "I have another job
for you," Caroline says. She means at her law firm. We both know
it's a bad idea, but I'm broke so I listen. After I dropped out of
architecture school last summer I worked at her law firm for a
month. I sat in a storage room piled high with boxes of documents
and entered information from them into a computer database. Her firm
was defending an auto manufacturer in a case involving a line of
their jeeps, which flipped over and killed people. The database was
supposed to help the lawyers at her firm in trial. It seemed to me
they were on the wrong side of things, so sometimes I entered the
wrong data on purpose. I thought it might make them lose the case,
but nothing happened.
This is the same sort of job. Has to do with asbestos this time.
"I'll think about it," I tell her.
Caroline took my quitting school the hardest. My mother was
acquainted with failure. She told me that her brother, Jun's
grandfather, didn't approve of her marrying my father, an American,
and moving to Los Angeles from Seoul. The same family didn't approve
when she got divorced, after which my father moved across the
country, remarried and hasn't been seen much since. "Those Koreans,
they get you coming and going," I said to my mother and she laughed.
The doctors had told us the bad news by then, so it was good to hear
"It will give us more time together," she said of my leaving
school. It was kind of her. I didn't even have to explain, "I'm not
sure what I'm doing with my life, Mom." Sitting there making models
day after day felt like being underwater.
Caroline didn't understand why I would give up a scholarship at
UCLA. "It will be ok," I told her when I broke the news, trying to
make her feel better. She lives in Santa Monica in a condo with her
husband Charlie. I live in a studio in Venice, alone and by the
boardwalk, with homeless people out front.
I'm getting tired of wrestling with Jun. The kid has given up on
the fries but has turned sullen, sinking low in his seat and kicking
me under the table. He keeps shouting "No!" randomly. His eyes are
black and beady. I know how to fix this. I flag down the waitress
and order him more fries.
Suddenly Jun's face lights up and he scrambles out of the booth
and runs from the diner. "Whoa!" I say, but then I see his parents
through the window. They flatten their faces against the glass. They
flash V for Victory signs with their first two fingers. Who knows
why, but I'm saved. I've never been so glad to see people I don't
know in my whole life. A big plate of fries arrives, and suddenly
the kid is back. He slides in right next to me and digs in. Just for
good measure, he turns and kicks me in the knee.
"Ow!" I say. I stifle the urge to tackle him.
"No!" Jun shouts. I give him the evil eye. His eyes are merry.
"He likes you," his father tells me.
"I don't think so," I say.
Sun and Hana scoot into the other side of the booth. They fashion
their shopping bags into an elaborate tower next to them.
"He just told us he does," Sun says. He and Hana are tearing into
the fries, too. They are eating whatever Jun lets them have.
Hana says something in Korean, waving her hands as she speaks.
"She says America is a great country," Sun translates.
I realize the song I didnít mean to pick is finally playing.
"It's a Family Affair."
"Perfect," I say.
Jun is standing up on the seat next to me, bouncing and
windmilling his arms. I've seen him do this before, while walking.
"What is he doing?" I ask Sun, who says not a word to his son
about sitting down and being quiet.
"He's swimming," Sun says. "At home I take him to the men's baths
with me on Sundays, and we swim. He loves water."
Jun shouts some more, and continues to mimic doing the crawl. Sun
finishes off the fries. Hana opens a shopping bag and peeks in on
her wares. She holds up Lilliputian dresses and looks elated.
"He wants to swim in the ocean. He's never seen the ocean," Sun
"The beach is really far from here," I say.
Sun nods at Jun. "We will go tomorrow," he says.
The thought of them strolling down my section of the Venice
boardwalk, taking in the tattoo artists, bodybuilders and
skateboarders bearing boomboxes, makes me smile.
I am puzzled, though. "You don't go to the beach at home?" I ask.
Sun shakes his head. Jun shakes his head, too. I swear sometimes
he understands what I'm saying.
"Isn't Korea pretty much an island?" I'm sheepish that I've said
this aloud. My mother showed me Korea on a world atlas, and pictures
of her there, but never mentioned the sea. She always wanted to take
me to visit Seoul, but we never had the money. Then we ran out of
"We are a small country," Sun says. He fixes me with a look that
makes me feel like a failed geography student. "It is not like
this," he says, indicating the outlet mall with a sweep of his arm.
"Shopping is very crowded, not pretty and clean." I would never
describe the premium outlets as pretty. Clean would be generous.
They don't have outlet shopping there, he's
already told me that. "True genius!"
Now Hana speaks and Sun translates. "On our honeymoon we went to
this island to the south, where there were beautiful waterfalls and
beaches. Of course we did not have Jun then."
"We could never live in the United States." Sun says, to my
relief. "Not enough family here. Koreans need family." When he was
still alive, Sun's father lived in the apartment next door to them.
Jun is trying to give me something. I can't tell what it is at
first, then I see it's the maraschino cherry from atop his
"He wants you to have it," his father says. I shake my head. I've
always thought those things were cancerous.
"It's his favorite!" he urges me. "A gift." Hana reaches over and
taps my hand. She smiles encouragingly. "Try," she says, in English.
Reluctantly, I open my palm and Jun deposits the slightly dented
cherry. He watches carefully while I eat it and feign delight. He
beams. Actually, I have to admit, it tastes better than I expected.
"Thank you," I say, begrudgingly.
My mother could not ride a bicycle or swim. She always regretted
it. She started Caroline and me swimming when we were young, and
many a summer I remember her ferrying us back and forth to the pool.
When I was first learning to ride a bicycle, I fell down in front
of our house and didn't want to try anymore.
"I give up. I don't care if I never ride a bike," I said.
"Well, I never learned and I was sorry for the rest of my life,"
she said. "So you stay out here until you do." She shut the front
door on my tears.
Much later I realized she didn't know how to do these things
because they didn't teach girls in Korea how back then.
After we leave the diner, I do my best to ditch the boy. Hana and
Sun want to continue their quest on the other side of the mall. I'll
meet you at the car, I say, and we agree on a meeting time. They
start to walk away, but in a flash the boy is back at my side. "He
says he wants to stay with you," Sun tells me. They try again, but
he's as stubborn as his cowlick.
"Go!" I swat at him, but he ignores me. It's an impossible
choice, should I accompany them or stay with the boy? Hana wants to
go to Calvin Klein and then Tommy Hilfiger. Torture.
"I give up," I say, defeated. I have no idea what choice I've
made, but his parents have already left us behind, holding hands and
smiling and making those V for Victory signs. Jun runs right up to
me, sticks his hand in my pocket and pulls out his rubber ball I hid
there this morning.
"Why, you little stinker!" I say. He throws that dratted ball
again but I refuse to catch it. So he chases after it himself,
sprinting down the long boulevards between the stores.
My phone rings. "I'd like to invite them over for dinner,"
Caroline says. I hope she's feeling guilty. She's only seen them
once since they've been here, and that was at the airport eight days
ago. I canít wait to watch Jun run amok through her place, with its
white upholstery and marble counters.
"I will convey the invitation," I reply.
"Aren't they with you?" she asks.
I am hustling down the walk, looking for the boy. I've lost sight
of the back of his head, and am suddenly aware there are a million
little kids at this mall. What will Sun and Hana say when I tell
them Iíve misplaced the little king?
"Not exactly," I say.
I finally spot Jun. He's frolicking in a large flower bed. I
mimic catching the ball so his eyes light up and he throws it to me.
I throw it back, and quick as lightning he throws it back to me.
It's fun watching him scramble, but then I realize I can't do this
the rest of the day. So I throw the ball in the first trashcan I
"No!" he shouts, predictably.
"Whatís going on?" Caroline asks. "It sounds like someone is
"Someone may die before the day is over," I say.
Jun is trying to climb into the trash can, but he's too short.
He jumps up as high as he can. He kicks the can but it's big and
immovable. He's howling mad, which gives me considerable
satisfaction. If I have to be the babysitter, who says I can't enjoy
"I worry about you, you know," Caroline says.
"Nonsense. I've got it all under control," I say. I hang up and
regard the boy, who has gone from enraged to hostile. He turns his
back to me. I'm afraid he'll run away again.
"I have a plan!" I tell him. Out of the corner of one dour eye,
he regards me warily.
For her birthday, before we knew she was sick, I bought my mother
a swimming lesson at the YMCA. Caroline was against it, of course.
"She's seventy years old!" she said.
"It's a remedial class for adults!" I said. "It's not like
training for the Olympics."
"I want to try, Liv," my mother said. So Caroline gave in and
paid for more lessons. My mother was so nervous, she asked me to
come with her. So on Wednesday nights, when I used to sit in front
of a computer doing homework, I sat by a pool and pretended to read
a magazine. I watched a group of adults dip their faces in the
water, blow bubbles, cling to float belts. Like my mother, some were
immigrants who had never learned to swim in their native countries.
A number of others had phobias - for instance, people who had fallen
in lakes as children at camp.
Surprisingly, my mother was not the only one in her age range.
Her classmates included a dentist, a postman and two sisters in
their fifties who squabbled as sisters will. Some showed up in
outdated bathing suits, looking exactly like they had the last time
they had ever tried to swim, albeit now stretched over drooping
bellies and thighs. Some arrived outfitted with swim caps, goggles
and sleek new swimsuits, as if high tech equipment could help them.
There is no time to waste. Luckily I saw the mall directory this
morning. I lead the boy through the shopping center according to the
architectural plan in my head. It's a big mall and a circuitous
route. He follows me, but occasionally pauses, suspicious. Then I
just pat my pocket and smile, indicating that I have retrieved his
ball and have it with me. Of course I do not.
At one point, we come to a street. "Look both ways!" I say, even
though I always do and he never does. But this time, he reaches up
and takes my hand. He walks across the street with me that way. "Uh,
good!" I say, surprised. It feels weird, his hand is so small and
soft. I kinda slouch across the street trying not to be so tall so
he can walk more comfortably, but then he slouches along too,
giggling. After we've crossed I drop his hand like a hot potato, and
he skips on as usual.
Finally we arrive. Nirvana. The boy and I stand by the lip of a
fountain. It's huge, octagonal and deeper than I expected, with a
tall and intricate statue in the center and multicolored tiles on
the bottom. Jun is transfixed, watching the water run patterns over
the pennies and other coins resting on the tiles. The sound the
water makes is soothing and the spray when we stand close is cool
and refreshing. Music plays over the loudspeakers. "Now don't fall
in," I instruct him, using my best motherly voice. People smile. We
are like any family enjoying the premium outlet experience.
Despite their ages, the students in my mother's class were just
like children learning to swim. Every week there was a new lesson. I
watched them progress from paddling to kicking and beyond. It wasn't
always easy for them. It took bravery and resolve. Over the weeks,
some dropped out. Some showed up but then had failures of courage
and couldn't go in the water, lingering wistfully poolside. One
night a woman broke down and refused to continue, clinging to the
edge of the pool in tears. As each student struggled, practiced and
completed a lesson, one by one they came out of the pool beaming.
They high-fived each other, compatriots.
My mother would wave at me from the water, just as
I had once waved at her when I was a little girl. Once she surprised
me by up and jumping into the deep end of the pool. I laughed until
my sides hurt. I thought, you haven't lived until you've seen your
own mother do a cannonball.
I give the boy a penny, which he throws in
the water. This is my first mistake. Eleven pennies and six dimes
later, I call a halt to the whole routine.
Needless to say, he is not pleased. "No!" etc.
"Forget it, you're not getting my quarters, kid," I say. "I need
those!" He is undeterred.
The next thing I know he has climbed into the fountain, sneakers
and all. He scoops up a coin from the bottom and throws it high in
the air and then watches as it makes a splash.
"Not a good idea!" I say helplessly, from the edge. He kicks
water at me. He wades away, eluding my reach.
"I don't think your son is allowed in there," a man next to me
says. Hearing this from him just makes me mad, at him.
"Listen, he's from Korea, and he's never seen water before!" I
The man pauses, confused, and I realize he
actually believes me. Poor sap, that's how mysterious Korea is to
Americans. He backs away, which is wise. I am thirty years old,
jobless and all alone in the world, and I so don't have time for
Out of choices, I climb into the fountain myself. Tennis shoes
and all, but I leave my bag behind. "Jun, come here!" I call, wading
after him. When I get near, I make a grab for him. But he is
completely soaked now, which makes him bold and slippery. He is
utterly delighted, gamboling in the water like a seal.
"That water isn't clean!" I hear a woman say. What does she know?
I had no idea that being a mother means that everyone feels free to
tell you what you are doing wrong.
It's hot and the water feels good in the afternoon sun. I feel
liberated, sans cell phone, sans job, sans money, sans any place to
be. When was the last time I could say that? I stand there, kicking
water at a five year old boy I hardly know and after this week will
likely never see again. I show him how to scoop up change from the
bottom and hide it in his pockets. He is laughing and his cowlick is
standing straight up. It does that when his hair is wet, trust me, I
know. Say what you want about Sun and Hana, one thing they've done
is raise a boy who knows what makes him happy. Maybe all five year
olds know this. Sadly, maybe I no longer do.
Jun is climbing up on the statue in the middle of the fountain. I
join him, gingerly clambering up the other side.
In the distance, my phone rings. Then, thankfully, it stops.
This is how I remember my mother: I picture her on her graduation
day from swim lessons at the Y. They had a real ceremony, and family
members were invited. Even Caroline came. Students who had finished
the course stood proudly while the instructor hung a medal on a
ribbon around each of their necks. I caught Caroline dabbing at her
eyes, and for a minute she looked like my sister, just my sister,
not the Older Sister she feels she has to be.
I watched my mother stand up there and I clapped when they called
her name. She cried.
I think it was the proudest day of her life. She was a seventy
year old Korean woman, small and brave and dying, and she was my
Tomorrow I will witness a boy encounter the ocean for the first
time. Does the ocean look the same in Korea, I wonder? Who knows,
one day I might even see for myself.
Today is another matter. "Now!" I say to the boy. He flashes me
the V for Victory sign. Then we jump.