Rarely did I wake before the rooster’s crow. But on that particular morning my eyes opened at least an hour before sunrise as my mother lay fast asleep next to me on the clay floor of our village home. It wasn’t a bad dream or the bitter South Korean cold that woke me, but rather, the unwelcome dampness between my five-year-old legs.
The thought of what Umma (O ma) would do when she woke had me trembling under my winter thicket of blankets. Quiet, lonely whimpers escaped in puffs of frosty breaths as thoughts of the last incident raced through my mind. A grip of my arm, open hand smacks to my rear, and a storm of Korean obscenities from my middle-aged mother, the village keeper of the black boy.
Winter mornings in our farming village were especially frigid. Situated at the foot of a mountain range that stretched beyond the North and South Korea border, a few dozen huts huddled from the cold. Without modern appliances and basics like electricity, our Third World lives revolved around the earthen centerpiece of all of our homes—the hearth, and as we slept close to its slumbering glow, I stared up at the thatched ceiling of straw, twigs, and mud feeling sorry for myself. It was bad enough that the villagers had cast me a misfit, but to have my umma feel the same was an unbearable thought.
A tear trickled down my face as my disconsolate breath became heavier in the frosty air. My heart skipped beats as I reached under my cotton blankets to feel the extent of my moist accident. With a quivering lip, I drew my hand to my nose for a sniff hoping for a miracle. Maybe, somehow, in the middle of the night, Umma accidentally spilled water between my legs. Or how about if our earthy rooftop sprung a leak, allowing snow to melt through its warmer interior? Or even better, it was all just a nightmare with a joyous day ahead full of fun in the ice and snow. But no, the familiar smell of a troubled boy at my fingertips evaporated all hope.
The piercing call of the rooster signaled the winter skies churn from black to gray. I stared at the lump next to me with guilt, secretly hoping it would never move. But the slumbering mound rustled amidst cheap silk comforters and her usual waking sighs. Then the rustling stopped.
“Milton-aaaaaah!” she screamed. I knew it was coming but it still made me jump. She had recognized the smell of my hour-old mishap as she continued. “You’d better not have wet yourself again!” she rasped from deep in her throat the way Koreans did to signal disgust. She stood, laboring in her movement. Faded blue nightwear hangedloosely from her square sturdy frame. The rice paddy sun left her looking worn and tired, well beyond her late 40s. She pressed her hands on her hips and twisted her shoulders and neck for a stretch with a final crack of her back, and a moan, she gathered herself and glared at me sternly, slowly shaking her head with pressed lips.
“Why do we have to deal with this Milton-ah? What is the matter with you?” she asked with growing intensity, pausing at the end as if daring me to respond. “Why can’t you be a good little boy and have some respect for your umma? Why do you continue to hurt me this way?” she whined as she released her straight black hair past her shoulders.
She looked down on me with angry eyes as the warm glow of stove’s embers illuminated the edge of her wide, flat face, magnifying her look of disappointment, making her look more like a monster than my umma. That’s when she exploded again, hurling obscenities at me as she moved to the oven, hastily stuffing it with morning wood. “Get dressed and fetch some water before you go!” she snapped pointing to the door.
Those were the moments I felt most alone, when my mother’s temper and impatience washed over me like a tsunami, destroying my tiny island of refuge. The children of the village had nothing to do with me while the adults either ignored me with regret or cursed me. But deep down inside I knew I had the eternal safety of my mother’s arms, but when those arms were crossed, I felt like I had nothing, no one, magnifying my isolation of being the only black person our village had ever seen.
Shivering uncontrollably from the cold and my umma’s anger, I stood from my mat with my head hung low. Quiet and defeated, I picked up the navy pants and heavy cotton sweater that lay neatly folded from the night before. I dressed in sorry silence preparing for the ordeal ahead.
Umma began her usual clanging of pots over the oven, where the overnight glow had grown to dancing flames. Even with her back to me, I could see her cheeks moving to the mumbles of disappointment making the cold more inviting.
“Go! ” she barked jolting my pace. After fastening the buttons of my wool jacket over my plaid sweater, I tied the laces of my rubber- bottomed shoes and I lifted the heavy iron pot that Umma uncovered for me. Bigger than my chest and belly combined, I carried it with both hands and stumbled outdoors. As the unforgiving skies stirred I wished for magical relief of my pitiful existence as my heart yearned for the father I’d never known in the wonderful land call America.
As a child, and like any other boy or girl, I simply wanted to belong and be loved. My mother had half of that equation covered but the belonging part was nonexistent. And it was times like these that reminded me just how alone I truly was making me long incessantly for my unknown father. But that day, that longing was interrupted by the present.
“Close the damn door!” Umma roared from behind throwing my forgotten hat at my back. With a slam of the door I pulled the wool cap over the hair that I deeply resented, tugging on its edges to cover the bouncy curls.
The homes of our village were connected by a ribbon of a dirt road; in one direction led to the port city of Incheon and in the other, straight to Seoul. With frosty breath and an empty pot, I clumsily walked to the stone well in the center of our village. Step by step, misery quickly gave way to giddiness as I savored the sounds and feel of fresh snow packing beneath my feet. A smile blossomed as I hummed my favorite song Umma taught me about the mountain bunny.
Forgetting my troubles in the safety of my imagination, my mind wandered to happier moments: frolicking through the countryside, chasing stray dogs and sliding on the ice of the nearby ponds. I imagined honing my skills at the games of little boys, practicing for my eventual opportunity to play and win with others, proving my value.
As it was though, the village boys ran and played among themselves, relegating me to the margins, forbidding me to play along because I was different, worst of all, because I was black. So I followed them like a puppy, waiting in vain on the periphery for an invite to engage. I lost my first language of Hangul after my adoption, but I’ll never forget the taunts the little boys used to sing to me about the black monkey’s butt being red.
“Won-sung-i, ee-yung dung-ee, neun pal-gae!”
I might have been a monkey to them, but I was superior. Bigger, stronger and better than any of them. They couldn’t touch my imagination that could manufacture adventures by the second, and that day’s adventure was at the well.
The sound of the dropped pot was muffled by the fresh snow. I freed the rope and on my tiptoes, slipped the hook under its handle and lowered the wooden bucket into the well, exhilarated by the anticipation of its breaking through ice. Ahhh…the wonderful sounds of triumph! I imagined as the bucket took on water. King Milton-ah! He was heroic again.
Our village had been attacked by the North Koreans and left to burn. The cowardly men [of women?] abandoned everyone but a lone girl. But not me, my courage, strength and cunning ways saved her ensuring again my status as the village hero! The Village rejoiced and lloved me.
I grabbed the icy knots of rope with my superior strength and pulled the precious water all the way back to the surface to extinguish the fires set in the attack against us. After filling my pot, I triumphantly lifted it to my waist in giddy anticipation of my popularity and power as the village recognizes their savior.
I smiled all the way home with thoughts of how I would abuse my long-awaited power. Images of little boys and girls fulfilling my every whim of desire filled my heart. They would bring me everything I want from pork bellies to fetching any and every natural resource to build our home-made toys. My bliss turned to anxiety as my hut came into view. The clay walls, thatched roof, and wooden shutters normally providing shelter and protection betrayed me that day, instead causing nd fear. My pot turned heavy.
The door’s rusty hinges announced my return reigniting Umma’s annoyance as the dicing of vegetables ended with a final knock of the blade to wooden board. Placing her knife on the makeshift counter, she stood and took heavy steps toward me. I cowered as she snatched the big pot, her country strength allowing her to place it on top of the oven’s rack with ease.
“What are you waiting for? She growled, “go!” she snapped, brushing me away with her callused hands. And with a thud of the door behind me, I was again outside reluctant to face my task ahead.
On the side of our house, next to the broom and other tools, leaned a ki, a round basket-woven tool that resembled a large plate. It stood almost as wide as I was tall and every family had one to de-husk the dry harvested rice from the paddies. Holding it wide and close to my chest, it caught the wind like a sail as I walked out towards my closest neighbor.
Just then Umma stuck her head out of the doorway and yelled, “don’t come back until the whole village knows!” Her eyes looking like those who hated me. With fingers and cheeks reddening from the cold, I walked to the closest neighbor’s door and knocked softly hoping not to wake them. But of course they were up. This was the early 70s and they were farmers in rural South Korea and ready to do the winter work of adults. As I heard the muffled clicks of the unlatching door, I raised my ki to my chest until the door opened.
“It’s you again!” A woman yelled standing in the doorway.
Around my mother’s age and still in cotton underclothing, she glared at me as an infant cried in the warm background. Embarrassed and angry I began my litany. “I am your neighbor, Park, Milton-ah, son of Park, Young-Ja and I’ve been a bad son. I wet myself again and my mother is very upset. Please do not be angry with her for it is not her fault. She begs for your forgiveness,” I said as I stiffened for what was to come. She shook her head in disgust ending with a suck of her teeth. She nearly slammed the door leaving me shaking in the darkness.
Moments later she returned with anger in her face as she leaned in close. I could have sworn I heard her hiss as she lifted a tight fist, palm-side up, to shake in my face. “You should be ashamed of yourself” she began. “This is not the first time you’ve been at my door this winter. What a horrible child you are!” she yelled. “Your umma’s got enough problems because of you!” At the end of her tirade she lifted her fist and slung it’s contents at my face.
Pebble-sized pieces of rock salt bounced off my face and chest and fell into my ki. “And tell her to clean you up!” she yelled. Oh how it burned my skin.
I tried my best to be unshaken by her disdain for me but my hatred for her, her family and every one of my neighbors wouldn’t allow me to hold back tears of a boy who didn’t choose to be born black in Korea.
“Now go and think about your mistakes,” she said as she slammed the door with a solid thud. I remember letting out a yelp as if the entire country slammed the door in my face.
For the next hour I walked with heavy steps in the cold with tears to each door, repeating the same words, to the same reactions as my ki grew heavy with salt and my heart heavy from ridicule. When I returned to our single-room home, the floor was clear of bedding and swept clean. The comforting warm aroma of Umma’s soup reflected her new mood. She was calm as she grabbed the ki from my hands. She glided to a burlap sack half my size that sat open and ready to receive more of its contents. With skill my mother made sure that every lick of salt fell into the sack. Now we’d have more salt to purchase goods from the market miles away; more salt to cure the meats that rarely made it through our doors; or simply, we’d have more salt to do more laundry at the river. It was the currency of the Korean countryside. With a careful handful, she hummed the songs of prayers and sprinkled the precious mineral around the floor, praying for me, praying for us.
Traditional Korean customs portended that a child who wets the bed has issues not with emotions but with the spiritual world; in this case—the Spirit of Incontinence. These spirits dwell inside the person and the only way to cast them off was with a spiritual cleanser—the all-precious salt. The child must be subject to public “encouragement” while collecting the mineral from neighbors who also need protection.Their collective responsibility is to help banish the spirits by casting salt at the child while the falling excess creates a protective barrier in the doorway. It then becomes the mother’s job to cleanse the home of those spirits by distributing what the village bestowed her onto the floor of our home and the nearby grounds keeping the excess as consolation.
She danced as she was in another world, in a trance, and then stopped to yell. “Wash up and brush!”
I stripped to my cotton underwear and wiped myself down with a small rag from a pot of warm water that Umma prepared. I grabbed some of the finely crushed salt from the bag, sprinkled it on my index finger, stuck it in my mouth, and rubbed away. Afterwards, Umma sat me between her legs, dipping a large black plastic comb into warm water which she raked through my hair, pulling on the strands. I was always fond of that comb because she told me that it came from my father and the mystical land called America. But a child knows how his mother feels by the way she combs his hair, and that day, I could tell by her roughness that she was more than disappointed.
Breakfast was a bowl of clear broth with cabbage, carrots, and roots from the previous night’s dinner— typical for country folks. Umma sat with legs crossed as I sat on my knees at the low-slung table she’d set up in the middle of the room. But for the clinking of our metal spoons on our clay bowls, we ate in silence. It was near the end of our quiet breakfast when we were startled by a strong knock at the door. We never had visitors. My mother was just as much of an outcast as I was.
“Doo goo seyo?” she asked with an ear to the door, squinting suspicious eyes on me for my likely guilt for whatever had happened.
“Your neighbors!” a woman voice angrily speared through the door. Gently placing her bowl on the table, Umma grunted as she stood. I’d never seen her so indecisive about anything…she didn’t know whether to answer the door first or question me. Then came more urgent knocks. “I’m coming!” she yelled as she stiffly wobbled to the door. “May I help you?” she asked poking her head out as a hand remained on the latch. Over the next several moments I heard the exchange of muffled voices, two women outside with short and abrupt responses from my mother:
“Who said?” Umma questioned.
“The Village Elder,” one voice yelled with a clarity and sternness that reminded me how grown-ups hated my mother. “You have that disgusting black boy that every village in every direction is talking about!”
Umma’s knuckles tightened on the latch as she began. “Why should that make a difference? He’s a boy just like the rest of the damn kids!” she blurted as I wished her strength to fight the nasty women. “What about that boy with the limp, or that girl with the crazy eyes who speaks to herself?” she yelled standing her ground.
The neighbor women might have met their match. They lowered their tone, becoming difficult for me to hear from my seat on the floor. I saw my mother’s shoulders drop. I felt the air and I realized just how cold it had gotten inside with our door open. “How much time do I have?” Umma asked with a sigh. “You have until the end of the week,” the second voice said, mockingly, like a child in a victorious tone. “And how am I supposed to do that under these conditions?” Umma asked in a tone mixed with resignation and anger.
The icy bad news left me shaking on the floor. Umma softly pushed the door to and rested her head on the back of it in silence. I embraced my bowl for warmth but sensed her pain. “Umma, what’s happened?” I asked. She stood still and silent for a few moments, then she let out a tired whisper, “mogo-da Milton-ah.” Just eat Milton.
I lifted my spoon and without taking my eyes off of her, I slowly chewed, looking for signs of relief, I just wanted to get back to our normal ways. With a deep breath she turned and sat at the table sniffing and wiping away tears, pretending nothing had happened.
“Umma, what’s wrong?” I asked again, my voice cracking and lips trembling and ready to cry along.
“Mogo-da!” she yelled, startling me. Almost as if she were looking through me, she returned to eating as silence commandeered the rest of our meal, her small but full, lips moved slowly as she blankly stared at the table.
When we finished she laid her chopsticks down across the rim of her bowl as a few strands of hair hung down in front of her weary face. She looked up at me and composed herself. “I’m sorry for yelling at you Milton-ah,” she began as she pulled loose strands of hair to the back of her head, tying them into a bun. “I have some news,” she continued as she wiped her eyes and face dry with her large hands. “The village elders have asked us to leave our home. We will move out in a few days. We will travel to Dongduchon.”
“Where is that Umma?” I anticipated that her mood might have returned to normal. “It’s in the mountains near the big city of Seoul and there’s a big river where you can swim in the summer and ice skate in the winter.” she said cracking her first smile of the day. She was calm again and I was excited about leaving the rotten village.
Born is South Korea, Milton was adopted and brought to the states in1979 when and where he learned English and the American culture. He’s lived in Oklahoma, Virginia, Indiana, California, Illinois and New York. He began Northwestern University on a football scholarship and graduated from Indiana University with a business degree. Today he works in sales for a corporate training company called MHI Global.
Living in Harlem and raising his son Miles, he’s nearly completed his manuscript for his first writing project, a memoir entitled Slickyboy which is expected to launch in 2016.