The Dance Class
I’m peeking into a homely dance studio through a keyhole. The young ballerinas in “The Dance Class” painted by Edgar Degas are flushed with tension as they wait to be assessed by their ballet master. Behind the ballerinas in their gay tutus, each with a big, vibrant-colored sash, is a group of older women in rather muted dresses, sitting silently in the back corner: their mothers.
You’re one of them, mom.
When everyone else was stifled by the humid weather, you would wear a goose-down jacket and say, “It’s freezing outside!”
Yet the Canadian cold never bothered you when you took my sister and me to a place to which you had never been and where you knew no one. Piercing through the Albertan cold, you always left the house early to start heating up the car, ready to drive us to school while we were savoring our breakfast.
Dragging a 90-pound body, you attended every parent-teacher conference, asking questions with your self-taught English that was perfect in grammar, but with such an awkward use of advanced diction that would only appear on the English proficiency tests for which you studied. When you stood among other parents, you seemed so small, even with your giant parka that probably made you look twice your size. I always wondered why you chose to take us to a place that made you look even smaller.
“I don’t want anything from you, but to be able to speak English fluently,” you would say.
There were certain things you always fantasized about. Speaking English fluently was one of them, and the other big one was living in the city.
When people around the world were laughing at the amusing “Gangnam Style” music video a few years ago, I knew that to you, Gangnam was not merely about a male singer performing comical dance moves.
Gangnam: the most affluent city in South Korea where the city lights make the night shine brighter than the day. This was the lavish city life that you had been hankering after since you were young. Indeed, the luxury was enough to attract you as a little girl who was born and raised in Gongju, a remote village where you meandered through an alley carpeted with bristle grass to go to school every morning. After school, you would help out your parents in the 100-square-foot drugstore, while giving piggyback rides to each of your younger siblings.
One day you told me that you had wanted to be a hairdresser as a child. I asked why.
“I like pretty things,” you said.
Instead, you became the very first female doctor in Gongju. You said you were “forced” to be a doctor by your father, of whom you were so afraid that you never got to tell him what you really wanted to be.
You could have done the same to me, but you never forced me to become anything — nothing but a spoiled child. Having transferred kindergartens three times within two months, I wasn’t half the sociable kid you had hoped I would be. On the first day of kindergarten, I told you that I had the worst stomachache in the first five years of my entire life, and that I knew it was going to last as long as I was in that place. I used the same reason for not liking the other two kindergartens, except that I cunningly replaced the symptom with a headache and a sore throat. In the end, you had no choice but to drop me off at my grandparents’ house every morning while you and dad were working from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
I whined as a high school sophomore too. That time over the phone from Baltimore, not expecting you to fly there the next morning saying, “I’m taking you back.”
Eventually, you ended up staying in Baltimore with me till the end of the year. Not having any relatives in the region, you decided we’d stay at a Korean couple’s house that you came across while searching for a guest house online. And over the two months of our stay at the couple’s house, I saw you cook breakfast, clean up, trying so hard to get along with the host. Only in June did I realize you didn’t belong here, cooking for strangers while the patients back home were waiting for you.
I used to think you’d always stay as a strong person until the fall of 2013 — the fall that my uncle committed suicide. My cousin told me you let out a big wail as soon as you saw his picture at the funeral.
But only after a few days, you started taking each of your siblings, including your widowed sister, to the psychiatrist every week. You did that for over a year while you were taking medication yourself, treating your own patients and, at the same time, keeping track of my college decisions.
Watching you at the “Esprit Dior” exhibition last summer tore me up inside, because you looked so happy. You loved the pink, the opulent skirts and the dresses rippling with elegant laces and flattering flounce hems. All of a sudden, you were back to that girl who secretly wanted to be a hairdresser. You’ve always liked the pretty things. Those were all you wanted to see in the world.
The ballerinas are fluffing their tutus. Shh — it’s now my turn.
I whip around my body and brush my leg straight into the air, as I strive to make my steps look better to the ballet master. Oops, I stumbled again. When will I ever be able to show you the perfect, pretty dance moves?
Then, Degas whispers into my ear to pause, turn around and see who’s been waiting.
And there you still stand; so small, yet so strong.