You Were Right to be Wrong

I once slammed my bedroom door with such force that the trinkets accumulated from traveling teetered off the bookshelf and onto the floor. Another time I slammed the front door with a thwack as I stalked out to my friend’s house. My mother prefers to slam her car door and drive away with a ferocious revving of the engine. Either way, we like to slam doors in each others’ faces when we’re angry.

But there’s one door that I regret slamming shut. We were in line at Safeway (a grocery store chain). The cashier was white and we were not. She supposedly rang up the bagels incorrectly. My mom hurriedly whispered to me that the bagels were on sale and there was a sign to prove it. I turned to my mom and told her to calm down because it wasn’t a big deal. However, she brushed me aside and in her broken English, she struggled to piece together a coherent accusation while the cashier looked on with barely concealed amusement. I intervened and sided with the cashier and the manager who appeared after my mother began to make a ruckus. I repeatedly told her to calm down and forget about the stupid sale. Her fury grew.

There were two fights unfolding, one was my mother versus me and the other one was them versus us. The former fight was mine and the latter fight was my mother’s.  If my mother had her way then she would have been given the correct amount of change, a quarter, but I insisted that my mother was overreacting and we would simply leave. So we left. She was enraged and I was embarrassed. Our bitterness followed us to the car. She demanded to know why I did not side with her. I demanded to know why I have to side with her even though I thought she was wrong. A lot of shouting in Korean and English followed. Afterwards my aunt tried to assuage the tension. She said, “Your mom doesn’t care about the quarter. It could’ve been a hundred dollars, but that wasn’t her point. All she wanted was the gray area between right and wrong. The ‘could be’ area.”

‘Could be’ introduces uncertainty to the equation. It’s like Science in which theories are not proven, but supported. There is no definite right or wrong. Life is made up of what could be. ‘Could be’ leaves a door open for the chance, albeit a slight one, for my mother to be right. This door matters because if she can be right then she can also be wrong. She can be either and this distinction matters. My mom lived as if she were wrong about everything because she did not feel as if she possessed the capability to decide what is right. She is a high school graduate, a divorcee, a self-made businesswoman of a failing business, a single-mother, a lacking Christian, and an immigrant who does not speak a lick of English. To her, she was always wrong because she never did right. She who suffered humiliation as if it were sunlight and moonlight, one replacing the other as times and places changed. My mother could have been right. Yet I wronged her. I stood in front of her and them and boldly proclaimed, “She doesn’t know what’s talking about. Let me apologize on her behalf.” I slammed the door of ‘could be’ in her face so I could save myself the humiliation. Looking back, I regret it all. Apologizing. Yelling. Complaining. Misunderstanding.

You would think I learned my lesson from that memorable fight, but I did not. Even today I give in way too easily to the unsaid things by the white and privileged. I speak in an almost apologetic manner when translating for my mother. I smile a little too earnestly when my mother grabs my elbow and snaps about how we’re being ripped off. I do not glare back at the white employee who looks fed up with my mother’s feverish complaints in Korean. I let everything slide. It is as if I have this unconscious desire to please white people. As if I’m begging for their acknowledgement and confirmation. As if I’m defending my American-ness.

Ugh, as if! (If you know the reference then you’re golden.)

I once slammed the door of ‘could be’ in my mother’s face, but till this day, I try every day to pry it open. One day I’ll succeed in taking it off the hinges so it can’t be closed. And thus, ‘could be’ will become ‘is.’ She is right or she is wrong. She could be either, and that is up to her to decide. Not them.


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