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  • American Movies
  • Grace M. Cho (bio)

I knew few things about my mother's past when I was young. Among them, I knew that American movies captivated her imagination when she was coming of age in 1960s South Korea. She credited the movies for teaching her English, as well as for giving her Western-style tips—a fashion sense she described as "high class." Her favorite films were Doctor Zhivago and anything starring Grace Kelly. If I had paid more attention I might have realized the depth of American cinema's impact on my mother's psyche, that through the movies she nurtured her most intimate desires—for glamour and intrigue and romance, and maybe above all, for recognition. When she sat in the dark, in front of that screen, the future was infinite, and her heart told her that she was destined for great things.

Life in America didn't live up to my mother's Technicolor dreams. There was no great love, no epic adventure in which she was the heroine, no resolution to her conflict. Whatever romance there might have once been between my father and her fizzled by the time I was five or six, and although she relished a few fleeting moments in which her movie-star good looks turned heads in our rural town, the mundane reality of her immigrant life was that it gave her more struggle than anything else. The Korean word I heard her say most often when she spoke to relatives was gosaeng. Hardship. Suffering.

Despite her nostalgia for the American movies of her girlhood, I hardly remember my mother going to the movies once we moved to the U.S. She was too busy working: piecing together income from cleaning houses and picking strawberries in Washington state, where we lived.

Although my father made a good income as a merchant marine, he didn't give her access to his money, and instead left her an allowance during [End Page 83] his months-long absences at sea. According to my mother, my father was a "stingy no-good son-of-a-bitch" and a "cheapskate" because it wasn't nearly enough to take care of a family. According to my father, she could make do if only she tried harder and gave up the things that he deemed unnecessary. Regardless, my mother felt compelled to earn her own money.

Eventually she landed a full-time job working the graveyard shift at the juvenile detention center, where her hours were 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Then she would come home for her second shift—get us kids ready for school, clean the house, some days take a nap and other days work at another odd job, cook dinner, sleep for four hours before going to back to work. Always I am working, working.

Now I look back at her American theatergoing days and can count only four movies that she watched between 1981 and 1993, beginning and ending with films starring Harrison Ford.

The first one was Raiders of the Lost Ark, which we saw as part of the only birthday party I ever had as a kid. I had begged her all year for a real American birthday party, the kind where you invite other kids and go out for pizza, not the Korean kind, where you sit at home and eat a bowl of seaweed soup.

My mother sat in the middle of the row, with three girls on either side of her, and for some reason, seemed vaguely uncomfortable. When one of my guests leaned across me to ask her if she was enjoying the film, my mother mumbled, "It's all right." Her lukewarm response triggered a pang of guilt, as I knew that the birthday party was costing her "an arm and legs." I had wanted her to at least enjoy the movie. After that, I never asked for another birthday party, and we resumed our tradition of keeping birthday celebrations in the family.

Three years later, for my thirteenth birthday, I asked her to take me to see Christine, the film adaptation of Stephen King's novel about a demonic car...


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