Credit to Joss Taylor Olson for brilliant editing and creative writing expertise.
When I was five or six, I remember sitting by my grandmother in the small shanty that we called home, looking up at the towering hundred-floor-plus apartment buildings of Gangnam, South Korea.
She told me about her past and mine. “We were so excited at first when your mother found out she was pregnant. And then we found out you were a girl.”
Her face fell then, deep lines of a hard life and a permanent frown pulling the corners of her mouth downward.
“We all cried. A girl.” I recall the sound of my father snoring, empty alcohol bottles and trash littering the floor. Roaches crawled around, emboldened by the shelter and food available to them.
I didn’t fully understand then when she said “We were devastated. There’s no place for a girl in this world.” I did not understand that a daughter was equivalent to perpetual destitution. That it was harder for women to be successful. That the only hope for a poor family with only a daughter was her marrying a rich man.
I remember my grandmother continuing, “There was still hope, though. We thought we could abort you, go to one of those clinics or force the abortion. But your mother… she was so stubborn, so naïve.”
“She wanted to have you.”
In her own way, my grandmother was trying to save me — save me from a life of systemic oppression. From a system that she survived, when women were forced to be “comfort women,” slaves, second-class citizens under the Japanese occupation, victims of abuse. Where women had no future. I was too young to understand that she was right. The cards were stacked against me before I was born.
“When you were born,” she said, “it was a tragedy. Our family was doomed to poverty. Even then, I held out hope that we could still do something. We could leave you on the doorstep of an adoption agency and give you and ourselves a better life.”
“But your mother, she was so stubborn.”
A boy, even at a young age, could have gotten a job in construction or delivery. There was no future for me, though, no way to prove them wrong at that age.
Not long after, my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. I watched, day by day, as she died and withered, a decline too fast for us and too slow for her. I watched as she died, as the roaches scurried around and thrived, still just a girl that could not do anything. I had no money, no means, nothing but a fate that had been written for me. My grandmother was right.
My mother died. We could not afford treatment, and it was a slow, painful death.
My grandmother fell ill a few years later, but by then I had concocted a plan. Because I was stubborn too.
I found I could file for independence and skip school — study hard and go straight to college. I moved to the US in an act of desperation, started college at 13, and graduated early. I started my first corporate job in technology at 16 and continued to learn just how right my grandmother was.
Even though I had found a way out of poverty, most of my peers never did. Even in the corporate world, especially in the early days of technology, I was still treated like a second-class citizen. The same system that perpetuated the inequalities of my parents’, my grandparents’, and ancestors’ generations also pressed against me, from conception to my first steps in corporate to today.
Having a daughter here in America isn’t the death sentence my grandmother knew it would be in Korea. That daughter will not bring misfortune to her family. Her misfortunes are her own: the compensation she doesn’t ask for, the accomplishments she doesn’t take credit for, the harassment she doesn’t report; injustice after injustice in the name of a better life within the paradigm that perpetuates them.
In my apartment, I have a painting. It is one of the few things I have of my past: a Buddhist painting of the Chinese character for “conviction”.
I want to believe that there is a future where we as a society have broken the chain of historical inequality built up over centuries, where I can tell my grandmother’s grave with conviction that there is an equal future for all women. Where stubbornness buys excellence alone, and not mere survival.
But for now, the roaches yet thrive.