A Tree-Bush grows unfettered in my in-laws’ front yard. It has garnered suburban fame, what with a pine tree spontaneously shooting out of a well-groomed shrub. It is a fascinating little totem over which the subdivision marvels.
Tree-Bush is emblematic of my experience in raising a family rooted in two distinct cultures.
During the first year of my daughter Madigan’s life, I travel to Michigan, just the babe and I. It is the first time I’ve ever visited his parents without my husband. My grandmother-in-law, whose hair is an electric purple color, is also staying with my in-laws. Punk Rock Grandma (PRG) likes to spank you on the rump when she’s speaking to you.
The week is intended to be a gift to my in-laws since they have not had much facetime with their only grandchild. This will be PRG’s first encounter with a great-grandchild.
When they pick me up at the airport, I am sweaty and feeling stale from the air travel. My in-laws greet me and seem to study me, not quite sure how to engage me. Every conversation is translated from Korean to English for me, or from English to Korean for PRG. Every meal is cooked by my in-laws. Any and everything I request they honor. I am treated as royalty, her highness the Caucasian princess daughter-in-law of Boston, who has traveled by air and fought bravely the last six months of motherhood.
Early one morning, at an hour when only raccoons and parents of infants–who share matching black bags around their eyes–are awake, Madigan is inconsolable. I feed her, swaddle her, sing to her, rock her. I stand in the middle of the room in my unmentionables, looking stricken. Suddenly, PRG is barging into my room, yelling loudly in Korean while wagging a wild finger at me and pointing at my chest. I know what she was saying without knowing what she was saying. Later I tell Umma, my mother-in-law, about the incident and ask if next time her mom could just knock before she entered my room.
“I not know if Grandma know how to knock,” Umma says, half-laughing.
My in-laws are survivors of stories for which sentiments are often lost in translation. I will never understand what it is to grow up in post-war Korea with rocks as your only toys or what it feels like to be hungry day after day. I catch glimmers of their desire to never allow history to repeat itself, especially in their servant-heartedness to their grandchildren.
Just like the Tree-Bush, we are always deciding in our intercultural unit what we are going to be on any particular day. Is today where we tend toward American style? Or Gangnam style? Or should we strive, like the Tree-Bush, to allow two forces to coexist within our unit, allowing both to prosper and shine?
I take so many delicious naps during my week in Michigan. My in-laws do absolutely everything in their power to lighten my duties. This is the virtue that is largely missing from my culture of Lean-in Americana. There is very little caretaking of caretakers. There is little honor for those who sacrifice in order to help others’ thrive, like those who care for infants or the elderly. My Korean elders place a high premium on caretaking, especially of new mothers. It is their belief that if the mother is fine, the baby will be fine. Whereas if the mother is neglected, she will be driven to neglect her baby.
I soak up this extra TLC even if it comes at the expense of being rebuked by a purple-haired early morning bedroom intruder.
PRG loves just observing Madigan; all of her little baby expressions are infinitely entertaining to her. PRG also enjoys walking around the subdivision, pushing my daughter in the stroller. One day on the stroller outing, Madigan is not having it. She is displeased that the sun is in her eyes and that I am nowhere to be found. When PRG returns, she reports that both she and the baby have wet their pants and need to be changed.
I walk and drive past the tree-bush multiple times a day, so much so that it sort of normalizes itself. I realize that with a lot of patient cultivation, one can almost manage to see the beauty in it. Each plant grows, drawing its nutrition from the same sources, but not squelching the other’s ability to thrive. Each entity becomes more beautiful because of the presence and contribution of the other.
One night I am cutting watermelon in my in-laws’ kitchen. Something possesses me to cut the soobak into the shape of a shark head, its jaw gaping open with large white sharp teeth jutting out and scraps of watermelon appearing to be the bygone shreds of flesh. It is horrid. And kind of amazing.
My mother-in-law tells me to put the watermelon guts into a dish. She explains that she needs to wash the dish again as it had been rinsed after church potluck, but, you know, it was washed “American church potluck-style.” Meaning it was washed hastily by white people who didn’t care about cleanliness and presentation like Korean people.
We both laugh loudly, our mouths open wide, baring our teeth like watermelon sharks.
My parents taught me that laughter is the best medicine. My in-laws taught me that laughter is actually life support.
My husband John meets Madigan and me at the airport; he has tied a mylar balloon to her carseat. I am so thrilled to see him and return to our digs where bedroom invasion is not commonplace.
My husband is grateful, he says, that I made the journey to see his parents and to bring his grandmother joy in meeting her only great-grandchild, since he was working multiple jobs and vacation time was scarce.
The gratitude is all mine, though. In a week’s time I had experienced a restoration of sorts. I had hit the mother-of-an-infant jackpot: continuous rest for five consecutive days. I had also restored my commitment to tending our hybrid tree-bush, from which we were fortunate to be growing a little transplant. She also required food, water, sunlight and for us to strap her into a carseat while she stared at her mylar balloon.
Kendra Stanton Lee is a freelance writer and calligrapher living outside of Boston. She cultivates an ink-covered chaos alongside her therapist husband and their two young children. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Skirt Magazine, and The Boston Globe, among others.