Korean Moms

05/05/2015 04:16 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016
Julia Lee

When I was home visiting one day, my mother made dinner for the whole family. She had made some kind of fish stew, and I remember thinking the fish was kind of chewy and didn't taste so great. I can't remember how much of it I ate, but after we cleared the plates, my dad started laughing at me. "You know where that fish came from?" he asked me. Uh, no I don't, I said. "From the garbage!" he cackled. "You ate garbage fish!"

It turns out my mom had bought a slab of frozen fish from the Korean supermarket a few days before. For some reason, she temporarily placed the fish on our recycling bin, which was in a corner of the kitchen, where it soon became covered with newspapers and was forgotten -- that is, until it started to smell. My dad uncovered the soggy, defrosted fish and tried to throw it away, but my mom retrieved it. She yelled at him for wasting food and cooked the fish for dinner that night, making sure to boil it extra long to "kill the germs." My dad refused to touch the stew, but he did watch my sister and me eat it. I guess he figured he would rather his daughters get food poisoning than risk another scolding from his wife.

Miraculously, we didn't get sick, but the incident reveals a lot about what it was like being raised by my mother. A Korean immigrant who came to this country in the 1960s, she survived by wasting nothing and exerting a tyrannical will. She raised my sister and me to excel, to act as if resources -- time, money, food -- were limited, and we needed to hustle to make sure we didn't miss the deadline, go bankrupt or starve. I tell most of my friends the fish story and they groan in horror. I tell my Korean friends the same story and they groan in recognition. My mother didn't worry about poisoning us. She knew we could take it.

Recently, I saw two of my Korean-American friends, and we began swapping stories about our mothers. All three of us are in our late thirties, overeducated and gainfully employed (a lawyer, a real estate professional, a professor). All three of us have mothers who are blunt, willful and terrifying. My friend Laura talked about how her father was so terrified of her mother that he led a double life. He didn't have a secret lover or a secret drinking problem or a secret gambling addiction. He had a secret car. Every morning, he left the house in his old beater and drove a block or so away, where his other car, an American brand sedan, was parked. He switched cars and drove to work, reversing the routine when he came home in the evening. "How did your mom finally find out about the other car?" I asked Laura. "My dad told us when he was on his deathbed," she said. We laughed so hard we started to cry. "My poor dad," Laura said. "All he wanted was a car with air-conditioning."

My other friend, Susan, had a mother who did the unthinkable: She got divorced. And not just once, but twice. Her first marriage was arranged, to a man significantly older than she was. They had three children together, and when the marriage fell apart, her husband took two of them, leaving Susan to be raised as an only child. Susan did not see her siblings for more than 10 years. Later, Susan's mother married a second time, this time to a man she had met in the States. That marriage later dissolved as a result of abuse. Some members of the Korean community thought Susan's mother was selfish and crazy for leaving two husbands and depriving her daughter of a father. But Susan's mom taught her daughter well. "Never depend on a man," she told Susan. "And always have your own money."

When it comes to gender equality, South Korea ranks at the bottom of international lists. The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed several Korean citizens, including a 75-year-old woman who looks a lot like my mother. "Nowadays women have too much power," she told the reporter. "Women should control their temper and let men make decisions." When I read her interview, I thought, And this is why I'm glad I don't live in South Korea. But really, the decision wasn't mine. My mother chose to immigrate here and raise her daughters here. As infuriating and irrational as my mother is, she left Korea partly because she did lose her temper and she refused to let men make decisions. My mother didn't make a good Korean wife. And she made a terrifying Korean mother. But she managed to raise tough Korean daughters.

My mother would kill me if she read this essay. So would Laura and Susan's mothers, which is why I've changed their names. Luckily, my mom doesn't know how to use the Internet, so the chances are low that she'll read this essay and then yell at me for embarrassing her and bringing shame to the family. But the thing is, she shouldn't be embarrassed or ashamed. She should be proud. From this Korean daughter, Happy Mother's Day.