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The joys of being old and loved

My American-born daughter took me to my homeland of Korea as my belated 70th birthday present, and we spent one week there earlier this month.

Once upon a time, she was my infant, perfectly content in my arms (except you-know-when). She was born in the year when Neil Armstrong left the first human footprints on the moon, the reason she is adventurous. Back then, mothering was simple and easy, without emails or phone messages to worry about. I was the only world my daughter knew. But four decades later, among other things she does, she is a working mom balancing her professional career as a violinist in a prestigious American symphony orchestra and as a mother of my 8-year-old grandson, Oliver.

When I met her at the international terminal in Chicago airport, I realized that our roles have changed. She seemed to think that I was one who needed her care, not the other way around. She insisted on carrying my shoulder bag, although she had her own, and when I lagged behind her in the crowded corridor, she waited for me, like I used to for her when she was a child. And when I caught up with her she’d ask, “Are you all right, Mom?”

Before approaching the security area, she took my passport and boarding pass so that I won’t lose them. She assisted me, too, making sure that I took off my shoes and jacket and placed them in the provided plastic tub to be scanned.

The walkway seemed longer than I remembered. When I slowed my pace, she again asked, “Are you all right? We can rest a while if you want to.”

It was kind of her to make sure that her elderly mother wouldn’t follow a wrong crowd and board a plane heading for Africa or Afghanistan. At the same time, I was well aware that she was concerned about my age and declining stamina. Thank God she didn’t ask, “Do you need a wheelchair, Mom?” If she had, I’d have exploded like a firecracker on July 4th. The day I’ll need a wheelchair will surely come, sooner than I want, but I’d rather not worry about it yet.

But when we landed in Seoul after 14 hours, I regained my authority as her mom because she can’t speak Korean. She can understand a few words here and there, but not a long dialogue.

I liked being her mom again. I loved her dependency on me. I translated every sign on the street to English and decided where we’d eat, what to eat and where to visit. Yet, I recognized my Korean inferiority complex against my American daughter. When she seemed to be impressed by the skyscrapers towering over us or the statues of the famous emperor and admiral of the earlier Yi Dynasty along the boulevard, I was proud of my country’s past and present. But when I saw trash in the alley, I steered her away from it. After all, Korea is my homeland and she was a guest.

When we got together with my siblings, she was my proud child I kept bragging about. Was she an angel in her teenage years? Let me put it this way: In my 45 years in the United States, I got only one call from the police at night, and it happened to be the night she had gone to a concert in Bonner Spring without telling me about it. It was long after midnight when an officer called and reported that the junk car her friend was driving had broken down on Interstate 70 near The Paseo, and that she would get home soon.

I still thank God for the Kansas City Police Department for saving my daughter and her friend from all possible danger that night. I’m sure I gave her some pain and anguish of being my daughter, but I can’t remember them now. Memory loss is a blessing sometimes.

Our trip together was a time of healing and renewal. Sadly, though, my childhood hometown of Busan was so developed that I couldn’t find my home with its red brick fence and curvy ancient tile roof, but only endless apartment complexes. Gone, too, is the peaceful beach with golden sand speckled with jewel-like seashells where we turned brown like well-roasted Peking ducks every summer. The modernization of your country isn’t necessarily a positive thing for you.

On the return flight, while watching my daughter sleep in the next seat, I had an urge to lean over and kiss her on the cheek like I used to. But I was afraid I’d wake her up. More than that, she’d surely scold me for it. So, I only whispered, “Thanks for the memorable trip!”