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There are two qualities that I admire the most about my mother: the strength of her willpower and her sense of self-value. It’s hard to describe these characteristics, they are so deeply ingrained within her core, I haven’t been able to discover their origins. In this way, my mother remains mysterious to me.


Her willpower, my mother inherited from her mother. My grandmother grew up during the brutal Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula. I don’t know what she went through during this period of violent oppression, although I know that she survived it through willpower and determination. But as a result of these experiences, my vibrant, charming, and fiercely independent grandmother turned out not to be such a great mom. Selfish and manipulative, she often left my 5-year old mother to fend for herself and to take care of her younger brothers.


Recently, my mom has begun to share these stories of her childhood. Her sense of injustice that when her parents had a financial boon, my grandmother spent it on lavish late-night parties for her friends, while her children tried to find an out-of-the way corner to sleep, until the money would dry up. Then my mother’s anger and outrage when her three hungry brothers would look longingly at the fried eggs on the tops of other people’s plates, when she could only scrounge up a small bowl of rice for them to eat. On top of this wild upbringing, my mother did not fall within the standards of beauty, and was often teased for her appearance.


Her childhood was one of instability, emotionally, financially, and psychologically. Yet, somehow my mother became one of the strongest people I know. As an immigrant woman of color, my mother has had to navigate language barriers and the casual racism and sexism of her era. Yet she refuses to sit quietly in these moments – when others would bow their heads in shame, she demands in all the glory of her accented English, that neighbors, co-workers, and store clerks alike treat her with the dignity and respect afforded to anyone else. Despite falling outside both Korean and American standards of beauty, my mother’s sense of self-value meant that she rejected two marriage proposals before agreeing to marry my father, whom she believed would treat his wife with love and respect. And once she did, she quickly schooled him that despite his pre-conceptions of stay-at-home wives, she intended to go to work and be an equal partner in all decision-making. When others bemoan the traumas of their youth, my mother decided that since she didn’t like the way that she had been raised, so she would chose to parent the way that she felt was right.


I’ve often said that I am spoiled by my parents. When I say, this I don’t always mean that I’m spoiled materialistically. I mean that I have been spoiled by the depth and quality of my mother’s love for her children. She is fiercely protective of my brother and I and makes sure that we always know that we come first in her heart. Through sheer willpower and determination, she created a stable, loving, safe, warm environment for us. She has given us everything that she longed for as a child and from this, she has taught me how to harness my own willpower and determination to fight for a more just and equal world and to hold on to my dignity and self-value as a woman of color despite the messages from society.


You will not find my mother on a magazine cover. She is not winning awards or leading a cause. But she is quite simply the best mother that anyone could ever have and I deeply admire the strength of her character and the way that she moves through this world with such dignity.


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