I started taking summers in Korea after my first suicide attempt at the age of seventeen.
My mother, the only one who knew about my attempt, who’d discovered and dragged me out of bed and given me a cold bath and then made me walk the Santa Anita Fashion Mall for hours—was terrified I might try to kill myself again. Afterward, she pretended as if it did not happen. To this day, if I bring up “that time,” her eyes focus at infinity and she changes the subject to the weather or, if I’m very lucky, neighborhood gossip.
But I know she remembers because of the way she skirts my recurring sadness, and the way she sets my expectations for life in very concrete terms. In other words, she sets the bar very low, so I will not be disappointed. “People will let you down, Christine. If you know that, then you will not be disappointed.”
We both know what this means, and continue on in our heads: “If you are not disappointed, then you will not be sad. And if you are not sad, then you will not be angry. If you are not angry, you will not go numb. If you are not numb, then you will not be depressed. If you are not depressed, then you will not kill yourself.”
My mother, in contrast to my loquacious father, is expert at communicating in silence. She had not taken me to the hospital, after all, because she said she didn’t want what I’d done—the fact of my suicide attempt—to go on my permanent record.
I was a cutter. I sliced my own flesh, wanting to feel psychic pain that I’d swallowed for years in physical form. I used a scalpel, a discard from my mom’s nurse jacket. I had an exact place in which I’d stand, in front of the mirror, with the sink to my left. It was a ritual. I cut as close to veins as I dared. First the line, white and tender. Then the blood. The pain was sharp and high in pitch, like a soprano.
It never did hurt enough.
I didn’t bandage my cuts. I wanted people to see them. I played flute in the marching band. It was hard for me to believe that the director couldn’t see the scars on my wrists. It was hard enough for me to believe none of my teachers saw. That my parents did not see, either.
I, too, have stayed silent through the years.
I’ve watched men cheat on their wives and said nothing. I watched a woman cry in a bathroom and walked out without saying anything. My acquaintances bullied another girl at school, and instead of sticking up for her, I walked away, because I didn’t want to be bullied next. I have myriad reasons for my behavior—my own life was too complicated, I was late to an appointment, I couldn’t be bothered, I did not want the social responsibility. They are reasons, but they are not excuses.
Everyone chose to stay silent for reasons I did not understand, but for reasons I do now. I know that sometimes people can see you, but still not do anything. That it is scary to say something. That it is easier to think it is none of your business, or hope that someone else will bring it up. That you are not always up to the task. That you hope it will all disappear and go away.
If you do not think about it, if you do not welcome it into your life—perhaps it will not affect you, and it will effectively not have happened at all.
I remember the night in Seoul that my aunt and I found the baby chicks. More than the details of the box (a shallow box that once held yogurt drinks) or the location (by the parking lot, atop soil, under a hedge), I remember the panic of finding the birds and relief of finding them a home. Of helping the helpless. I remember my satisfaction, my hope. We found the chickens. We saw them.
I had been trying to be seen for many years.
My mom and dad were not wealthy by any definition, but they were able to afford a round-trip coach plane ticket to Seoul. I spent summers with my aunt and maternal grandmother in Seoul, from the age of seventeen to twenty-one, under the pretense of learning Korean. What everyone hoped was that my aunt could make me happy again. My mother knew her older sister might be able to save me in a way her pragmatism could not.
My aunt and I explored neighborhoods throughout Seoul—first north of the river, stepping into family hanoks, and then as urban development continued and the city expanded over the years, south of the river into apartments and condos.
We navigated Dongdaemun market. The fabric market was housed in several stories of a warehouse building in which bolts of linen, cotton, rayon, silk, wool and all other manner of material and notions lined the walls and floors—the arrangement was often so haphazard that I could not tell where one vendor began and another ended. I remember the intimacy of sound from all the cloth insulation. I also remember the smell of cigarettes, which the vendors chain-smoked. We would go home and unfold the yards of purchased fabric and imagine skirts and blouses and patchwork quilts. Then we would turn our imagination into reality.
We ate spicy noodles and street snacks in the heat of monsoon season. One time, the bibim naengmyon was so spicy, I almost rolled off my seat laughing. Worse, I slapped my knee with a guffaw in a nation where women were expected to follow strict gendered behavior guidelines. “She’s from America,” said my aunt in explanation.
The night we found the chickens, my aunt and I were walking back from the subway station. The residual evening heat from the sidewalks and buildings mingled with the humid air. I remember being covered with sweat. We were nearing her apartment when I heard the sound of frantic chirping. It sounded like baby birds fallen from a tree. Despite interspecies communication barriers, the sound of panic remained the same. I was familiar with this language of fear, with cries for help. The sound came not from a tree, but somewhere on the ground near the corner market. It was dark, and I stopped to look for the birds. I had to find them.
With my aunt in tow, I searched for the birds. I found a bunch of baby chickens in a box next to the trash in the back of the corner market. Someone had thrown them away. Why that same someone, who lived in an apartment complex with little greenery and zero yard space, had gotten chickens in the first place escaped my imagination. Maybe they were pets that someone threw away after one week.
They were lively; they hadn’t been abandoned long. The chicks had just started to lose their down—they were probably about two weeks old. And had the summer nights not been so warm, they would have likely died after a few hours.
I told my aunt I would be right back. In a pathetic attempt at prolonging their lives, I brought back perilla seeds for them to eat.
I wasn’t sure they would eat perilla seeds, but I wanted to do something. I was sick of being helpless. They would probably die by morning, but I needed to know that I had done something for them, even if it was just one night’s full stomach. I wanted to save them. Here was country inside a city. Here were chicks that had no place.
As I brought back seeds and water with my aunt, chattering in English, I drew the attention of a halmoni getting into a car. Those were the days in Seoul when foreigners were few, and the sound of English in the balmy night likely surprised her. She asked us what was going on, and I explained the predicament of the baby chicks to her in my kindergarten Korean. My aunt translated the rest. It turned out that the granny was heading back to the countryside in the morning with her son. She couldn’t believe that someone had abandoned the chicks, either. She decided to take them with her; she loved the idea of free chickens. She gathered the box up to take with her in the morning.
The chickens would live and grow to adulthood. They might lay eggs or they might be dinner someday. Whatever their destiny, at least they would live out their life course and have a purpose and function. I felt better. Someone had treated them like garbage. And now they were not.
Unbeknownst to me, my aunt had left an abusive husband when I was eight years old. Divorce in Korea at that time was rare, save for unusual and extreme circumstances. In those days, women were often returned to their angry, fist-clenching husbands and asked to cope. One did not see a bruise on a woman’s face and ask, “What happened?” One saw such a bruise, and would give that woman a little more pity and respect and tenderness instead of addressing abuse head-on.
But my aunt did get a divorce. She never told me what had happened—so it became legend learned in overheard stories, as family secrets often are. As I understand it, one night someone ran screaming to my grandmother’s home in Seoul and told her, “He is killing her this time!” In hindsight, this neighbor saved her life. This neighbor witnessed something awful, set aside propriety, and then told someone.
My aunt had retreated up the hill into the woods behind their home. She was hiding and weeping in the trees, afraid to go home. But, as the story goes, it was clear from the wounds and cuts and bruises on her body and face what had happened, was happening, would happen again and again. My grandmother summoned her eldest son. My uncle found his sister. He then brought her back to their mother’s home to live permanently.
When she arrived at our Southern California home on what I thought was an extended vacation, I took her hand and showed her around the house, even giving her instructions on how to open doors. I wasn’t sure they had doors in Korea. She was touched, she told me years later, by my childish consideration. Over the next several months, we made crafts together. We spent hours picking flowers and then pressing them dry. Everyday, small acts. I had fun with my aunt, my new articulate, sophisticated, and intelligent companion.
She said I’d saved her life. And later, she saved mine. Because she saw me.
Last year, I watched a young woman meander toward the rail of the Golden Gate Bridge every five steps. I asked her if she was enjoying her Christmas Eve—and did she see the seals below in the water?
She smiled. I was not sure it was a real smile. But she did not venture toward the edge again. I know this, because I followed her at a distance to the other side.
In years past, I would have looked the other way. I would have thought it was not my business. In years past, I was that young girl. But my aunt kept me in her line of sight. She didn’t tell me to keep walking, I just did. And I knew she was behind me the entire time.