It’s been two years since we reluctantly packed our corner apartment on 59th Street and left you. Our Starbucks here has a drive-thru, there are cows across the road, and on sunny days we hear the rumble of leaf blowers. “Oh, you’ll come back to me,” I imagine you thinking. Believe me, I miss you too.
I thought about you one morning as I packed my three boys lunch for their new school. I started to panic. Did I add too much garlic to the soba noodles? Should I leave out the kimchi? I worry that kids will make fun of the boys because of the lunches and snacks I pack them. I never had to worry about these things with you—it’s what pains me most about leaving you.
Remember that time when Ethan started drawing deeply insulting pictures of me I could never throw away? He was only in kindergarten, and at the age of four, he—without me—climbed a school bus the length of two elephants. The doors would close after him, and the wheels went round and round your wild, erratic streets.
The distance from home to school in the Lower East Side was marred with curb-jumping taxis and death-defying New Yorkers barging towards their offices in Midtown. His tiny body jerked forward whenever the bus driver slammed on the breaks. But he got to see the Empire State Building poke the sky every morning and the bump on the road going east on 34th Street made him roar with laughter as he levitated a foot off his seat and Macy’s splashy window displays zoomed by. It turns out that motherhood is nothing but the distance between pure joy and sheer terror.
"It turns out that motherhood is nothing but the distance between pure joy and sheer terror."
But once he entered the double-doors of the school building, I felt that he’d be protected. A laminated poster that hung on the hallway bulletin board told me so. The poster invited parents to engage with the administration in English, Español, 中文, বাংলা, русский, اُردُو, العربية, Kreyòl, 한국어, and日本. To me, this sign said, “You be you.” This diverse community was his measure of safety—you’d simply let him be, a Korean American kid that hadn’t yet been told that eww gross kimchi stinks, or eww gross doenjang stinks, and eww gross dried anchovies stink.
The poster to me was an open invitation to pack his lunch box with his favorite foods: leftover 카래라이스 (yellow curry over rice) from last night’s dinner with a side of kimchi snipped into tiny pieces and 참치김밥 (tuna salad and perilla leaf rice rolls) with 멸치볶음 (stir-fried dried anchovies). Also, an extra-large handful of 새우깡 (shrimp-flavored crackers) for snack time.
His school cafeteria made space for the Korean foods we ate at home, and it had the invisible power to safeguard his identity. I pictured kids from all cultural backgrounds opening their packed lunches with no regard for judgment. I know this to be true because I attended PTA meetings in the cafeteria and it smelled like cheese pizza, kimchi, fruit punch, samosas, and cleaning solution. The floor was littered with plastic wrappers that didn’t quite make it into the garbage, with characters and writings I didn’t recognize.
Sure, there will always be cruel kids. But it’s harder to hold the power when you’re the only one with a basic sandwich, while the rest of your classmates feast on home comfort food.
Sometimes I’d probe, “Sweetie, what did your friends eat for school lunch today?”
“I don’t know. Whatever their mommy said.” He’d divulge nothing, but his answer confirmed what I already knew. School lunches were being packed every morning across the city with only love and no fear. You have a special way of being home to all types of people from all types of backgrounds and places.
We live in a new town now and I miss you every day. As if it’s a consolation, folks tell me that you are a scary city too full of people, living too close together, and with too much grit and too little softness for my children. I disagree. You made it easy for me to be a mom because you allowed me to be me: a Korean mom that believes food is love. And because of this, my children know love.
Be back soon,
—A grateful mom
P.S. Please remember him—the little fingers that used to pick up discarded pennies under the rows of Tic Tacs and Skittles at the CVS checkout counter, and the quick feet weaving through grown-ups on Columbus Avenue to check parking meters for forgotten quarters. And keep him safe, as you’ve always had, because he has the spirit of a true New Yorker, and he will come back to you.