Umma’s Gageh — The work of bearing witness as a child of immigrants
Work is a toy store in Compton Fashion Center, a thriving indoor swapmeet in the 90’s. We call it umma’s gageh, or “mom’s store” in Korean. The busiest time of the year is Christmas Eve. I was born on Christmas Day. I take pride in this, like I did something special. Like I am something special. I learn only later that I was actually born early, and this was because umma was up on her feet, working those 12-hour holiday shifts in a packed indoor swapmeet, 9 months pregnant.
The neighboring workers would say “You are your mother’s tail”. I follow umma to work on the weekends and nearly every day during school breaks. I take my role seriously as I watch the store when she needs to use the restroom, or when I help customers pick out toys for their children. One customer asks me for “girls’ toys under $10”, so I point at a pink iron that plays music and has little colorful balls that bounce around inside. It is $4.99 and quite popular. The customer pulls out a roll of dollars and peels each bill one by one for a total of five. I notice the dirt and the grease under his fingernails and in the wrinkles of his palms as he hands the carefully counted payment to me. When the store is quiet, umma says to me: “You’re bored”. She always says this as a teasing statement, not as a question. She gives me four quarters so I can go to the arcade. I feel the weight of each coin, feel the weight of a whole dollar.
On days when I’m not at work, I lie in front of our glass sliding door that leads to the garage, cheeks streaked with hot tears, until umma comes home. I call her at 7:59pm, and then again at 8:01pm. 7:59 — she should still be there, and pick up my call. At 8:01, if she doesn’t pick up, I know she’s on her way. Then, I start counting the minutes it takes for her to drive home.
Work is “Jinyoungah, I want you to have a job where you won’t end up with hands like mine”. My hands look just like hers. But I know she’s talking about the rough and the scabs and the bike grease. Still, I hang onto her hands, the only parts of us that look the same. “You look like your dad’s side, you look nothing like me”. She laughs.
Work is crying into my pillow, recognizing an utter absence of power for the first time as I realize the futility of wishes. I wish I could be old enough to drive so I could go to the store every day while umma rests at home. Aside from driving, I know I can do everything else to run the gageh, because I do it every weekend and Christmas time. I know how to run the cash register, help pick toys, give discounts (“okay, no tax for you”), and close the store. People wouldn’t make fun of my accent, because I don’t have one. It’s okay if I get yelled at once in a while, as long as it’s not umma.
Work is anger and resentment.
Work is over twenty years of trying and commitment, and one day coming home to a broken piggy bank. They had trouble paying for gas. Still, somehow, I receive two gifts on December 25th; one for Christmas, and one for my birthday. My answer is always “Yes, I receive two gifts on my birthday”. When umma drives the 300 miles to visit me in college, she brings a trunk-load of food and groceries. I cry, I am so angry. I don’t want her to spend even a minute more than she needs to on something I can do myself.
Work is pride and shame. Work is love, debt, and payment.
Work is now a water/video rental/convenience store in Van Nuys, California in 2021. High blood pressure medication and dusty filters, masks and turning blind eyes to petty theft (they need the clothes). Work is an oasis in the dry heat of Los Angeles. Work is umma staying behind a little later so the customer who gets out of work late can return their DVDs while renting out the next one. The person who has been taking shelter at the bus station right by the storefront coming inside to say thank you and goodbye. Work is worrying about taking a day off, because where else will the customers get their water? They come with empty jugs in old strollers, in dollies, or in their arms. Umma must go to gageh.
Work is justice and responsibility.
My work is inseparable from the work of umma — I obsess over my work and career in relation to hers. Do I dedicate my life to dismantling the system that perpetuates the inequities that my mother experiences and witnesses in her customers? How about the competing global existential crises of our time? Can I help umma end her days of having to work at gageh?
I recall working my dream job at an environmental justice nonprofit, one that I had found after a year of searching while working 3 part-time jobs. I take pride in having paid off my student loans through work-study and skipping meals (something umma still scolds me about). I also remember realizing that the hourly wage of the high school fellows I worked with was more than my mother’s. I remember the painful realization that I am in no place to be uplifting communities when I have not even achieved that for my family. Nobody, including umma, asked me to do it, but I did. I left my dream job and entered the cold and unknown territory of the for-profit world. I tell myself I will earn to be a financial safety net for my sisters and parents. Still, I have never felt more uncertain or dejected. I heard the office rumor was that I “left for corporate to make more money”. I was unsure how to clarify the difference between making more money and trying to lift the burden umma’s been carrying, because there was none I could see.
I am still working through the dissonance as I type this reflection with fingers that are callused, not from labor, but from climbing synthetic rocks in indoor gyms and riding my commuter bike in freshly painted bike lanes. Umma is still working at the store. I don’t follow her to work like I used to. I know how to drive, I’m making money, and my hands are otherwise unmarred. But I still feel powerless. Umma laughs and tells me my problem is that I think too much. I feel safe, for a moment, before I slip back into reflecting on umma’s gageh.