Part II: With Open Arms
The rain came down hard and fast that night, splattering against the windows and seeping into the tiny crevices of the cramped London townhome. The dreary evening matched Grace Park’s dazed mood as she dozed in her favorite easy chair. Grace was home with her family for a few days to celebrate Easter amidst a grueling semester at King’s College, and very much on edge. Great Aunt Leela and Grandpa Park were there; they had all come in the night before Easter brunch. In a house filled with family, Grace felt no pressure to stay awake and entertain, so she decided to turn in early. She wanted to spend the remainder of the night by herself, especially with the news she had to deliver tomorrow morning.
“Omma, I’m going to head to bed,” Grace said to Nari, her mother. Everyone else was dozing and wouldn’t have noticed Grace’s absence except for her mother. Grace leaned over to kiss her forehead, taking in a brief smell. Peonies and lavender; she wished that her mother’s calming scent would alleviate her uneasiness.
What Nari Park lacked in intuition she made up for in worrying, and the rest of the family understood this since Nori was the mother of an only child. “Are you feeling cold? I’ll bring you some tea and an extra blanket.” Nari struggled to raise herself out of the loveseat, giving up after a few pained attempts.
“I’m alright, Omma. Please, don’t get up. Your back has been troubling you all day and you will be on our feet for most of tomorrow morning.” Grace inherited her mother’s worrisome nature and it only perpetuated her anxiety.
Once in bed Grace found no more peace, for everything felt uncomfortable. The sound of rain, usually soothing, felt repressive. It was so loud that it seemed like it was trying to drown out her thoughts, but she wished she was that lucky. Tonight, sleep would not come easily, if at all. Instead of counting sheep, she gave in and let her thoughts race.
Perhaps she would take a gentler approach in telling her parents, and say that she met a young man at school and they were getting serious, rather than the entire truth that they had been dating for two years and were now engaged. Grace knew she had to tell them tomorrow, primarily because she was returning to King’s then but also because she had promised Arun that she would come back to him with an invite to her parent’s place. He had made the same promise to her, and she felt even more obligated to her keep promise as his future wife. Grace shouldn’t have agreed because she knew her parents would be outraged and baffled; her parents were still sending her emails with pictures of suitable and suited Korean businessmen in the hopes that one would catch her eye. Grace’s father, Geun, always concluded these emails with:
We want nothing but the best for you. With Love, Your Parents.
Arun was definitely accomplished in his own right, coming in at the top of his Master’s class and with a strong chance to do his PhD at Cambridge. Arun’s specialty was in Anthropology and he loathed balancing his budget so much that he asked Grace to work through it with him after only their sixth date. This memory brought a warm smile to Grace’s face, and she felt some reprieve. She was following her heart and eventually, her family would understand, at least this is what she hoped. With this thought, she drifted in and out, sleeping fitfully.
Spring in New Malden, a suburb southwest of London where the Parks lived, was a town like many others with modest concrete buildings and pops of greenery intermixed. Back in the early 1980s, Grace’s father decided to leave London and relocate to New Malden, where there was a larger Korean community. The majority of businesses in New Malden catered to its Korean residents; not a single store had a sign in English. In such an insular community, Grace’s social circle began and ended with other Koreans. Within a week of beginning college, she realized how different the world was outside of her New Malden bubble.
As she came across new people and their customs, she found her parents’ rigid Christian views alienating, as well as their supporting community. New Malden reminded her now of how much she didn’t fit into a place that was once all she knew, and she would leave each trip home with fading enjoyment.
Smells of freshly baked hazelnut bread and rosemary lamb wafted out of the kitchen, snaked through the living room and rested on Grace’s pillow. Her eyes snapped open wide and she threw the layers of blankets off of her. ‘Shoot, I should have been up early helping,’ Grace thought. ‘Omma is not going to be happy.’Thankfully, she had ironed her outfit the day before and slipped on a form-fitting cerulean cotton dress that went right below her knees. Within five minutes, Grace looked surprisingly presentable, and with a few deep breaths, she walked towards the kitchen like a young warrior making her way stealthily to the battlefield, only to find her father coming her way to find her.
“Grace, you’re finally awake! I had to stop your mother several times from coming into your room early this morning. We couldn’t wait any longer so we went to Church without you. How was your sleep?”
“Fine,” Grace mumbled and looked down for a moment. “Has the rest of the family arrived?” Grace had a feeling that she was off to a precarious start with her mother and she felt horribly guilty for completing forgetting about Easter Service. “Is there anything left for me to help with?”
Geun gave her a pleased smile and shook his head. “We have it all taken care of, my dear daughter. Please go see your relatives and pay your respects. Uncle Minjae has been asking for you.” With that said, he walked off to do another errand at a brisk pace.
Grace walked into the kitchen to find her mother aggressively wiping down the counters. She saw through the kitchen doorway three of her aunts and two cousins huddled around the dining table with royal purple teacups in their hands. Those were Nari’s favorite cups, only for guests. “Happy Easter, Omma. What can I help you with?”
Daggers for eyes were what Grace saw and felt from her mother. “Happy Easter,” her mother said with a scrutinizing once-over. “Your dress is wrinkled at the bottom, here.” Grace’s mother hunched over, fingering the slightly rumpled portion of her daughter’s dress. “Go give it a quick iron and then you can help me bring out the food.”
Grace ignored her mother’s command and, not feeling especially welcoming, snuck back through the living room and onto the side porch. Great Aunt Leela was rocking back and forth, eyes dazed, content to be away from the commotion. Grace had no doubt that Great Aunt Leela had been there for hours. She sat down in the rocking chair next to her without saying a word or looking up. The two women, spanning three generations, rocked to the beat of a distant cheery tune. Grace couldn’t decipher the song but Aunt Leela had a knowing smile on her face, eyes closed.
Grace only had a few minutes of calm, and she treasured it before heading back into the house. She went to the kitchen to help her mother bring out the dishes and set the table. She gave firm handshakes to her uncles and tight hugs to her aunties and baby cousins. The warm reception from her extended family enveloped Grace, and for a while, she thought it was all going to go swimmingly.
It was a Park family Easter tradition for the youngest son to say a prayer before eating, but Grace asked if she could have the honor. This was her chance; she knew she had to tell her parents now so they wouldn’t make as much of a scene with the extended family present.
Grace clasped her hands and loudly cleared her throat to hush her cousins. The rest of the family bowed their heads, waiting. “Thank you for the abundance you have given to us and we celebrate your return on this Easter day. Amen.”
Grace took a deep breath in and spoke in a steady voice. “Omma, Papa, family. I have some good news to share with you. I have met someone at King’s and would like to bring him home to meet all of you. He’s Indian and practices Hinduism, if you’re familiar with that faith. It’s been an interesting time learning about his culture and they have so many holidays–.” Grace’s eyes lowered and remained on the Easter ham in front of her as she abruptly stopped. “Well, anyhow, we have been dating for quite some time – for about two years or so – and last week we got engaged.” She was talking in a jumble but engaged came out of her mouth painfully slow and lingered, like the remnants of a thick medicine that she did not want taste.
‘Let them digest for a few more seconds,’ Grace told herself. She needed the sweet kiss of nicotine but didn’t dare to move for her purse. An image of smoke pluming out from the tapered end of her rolled cigarette formed in her mind. Grace looked up and into her mother’s eyes, which were brimming with tears.
“I have nothing to say except that I don’t want to know anymore, Grace. I’m very worried for you.” Nari’s voice cracked at the end, and one tear from each corner of her eyes came rolling down. A couple of uncles and aunties shifted in their seat uncomfortably but said nothing, silently making their presence even more apparent in this private family moment.
Geun finally spoke and his voice echoed his wife’s sadness but he added an element of finality. “One thing we have learned when it comes to you, Grace, is that once your mind is made up about something, debating about it is futile. This may sound severe, but if you decide to continue on, your mother and I cannot and will not accept your choice. This man won’t understand us, and meeting him will not end well.”
Grace was stunned and her voice came out just louder than a soft whisper, “I don’t understand. I have to follow what I feel is true in my heart. Arun loves me more than I ever thought anyone of any faith or color could, and that’s all you should care about.”
“Enough!” Geun’s voice raised loudly. After regaining his composure he continued, “Grace let us eat this meal in peace and then it will be time to take you to the train station.”
Ever since they had left South Korea, Geun and Nari Park feared that their daughter would become “too English” and worked hard to keep their cultural heritage intact. They moved to New Malden largely for the tight-knit Korean community; otherwise other parts of England were much more appealing. The vision of Grace marrying anyone outside of Korean faith hadn’t even entered their minds; their daughter never mentioned much about her student life, let alone the men she dated.
Grace excused herself from the table and walked out of the kitchen. She wanted to start packing but instead she went to the side porch and sat down, this time in Great Aunt Leela’s rocking chair. Her entire body felt tense. How many times did Great Aunt Leela experience rejection from her own family in her 86 years of living? At King’s, Grace was used to being surrounded by intellectuals classmates, and many of them mere acquaintances who didn’t give her bi-racial relationship a second thought. She felt incensed and puzzled by her parents’ reaction; it seemed wildly impetuous even for her hardheaded parents.
There were wind chimes coming from within the house, and Grace recognized that it was her cell phone ringing and, more notably, it was Arun’s ringtone. She bolted up out of her seat and then paused, hands clutching the arms of the chair as she held back tears. Was she ready to speak to him? It didn’t matter; Grace felt alone and needed to hear his voice. She raced to her room to get to her phone.
“Arun, hello, are you there?”
“Grace, my flower princess, why does your voice sound like that? Have you been crying?”
“Only a little. Telling my family did not go very well. Actually, it went horribly, Arun. They didn’t even ask for your name.”
“Hey there, let’s take a couple breaths here. We anticipated that they were going to be less than thrilled and we may need to give them a little time to –”
Grace’s anger rose along with her voice. “No, you don’t get it. There was almost no conversation about it. My mother cried at the table and my father flat out said meeting you was not an option. How can they act like this when they say they love me? This is my life now and I shouldn’t have to justify it, they should just accept it. You have done nothing but be completely supportive and I have known you for only a moment compared to my parents.”
“May I say something?” Arun didn’t sound the least bit phased.
“I want you to listen very closely as to what I’m about to say. Even if you don’t listen closely, I will tell you this again and again for the rest of our lives together so it’s alright if you forget. I know you are sometimes forgetful, especially when you’re upset.”
“Arun, quit it.”
“Well, so, maybe this is obvious to you but we have very different views on life than our parents. We are charting our own path but we will be OK as long as we do it together, Grace. I’m not saying that what your parents did was right or even sensible, and I’m just as upset as you are Grace, but please don’t expect them to change such a deep belief simply because you told them they should.” Arun’s voice wavered and Grace knew he was holding tight to keep himself composed.
Grace closed her eyes as she kept listening. “And just one more thing, my flower princess.” He paused, and then said in a softer and serious tone, “I don’t just accept you for who you are. I fully embrace and love everything that makes you So-Jin Grace Park, at least so far.” Arun chuckled after hearing Grace softly laugh, pleased that he was able to bring a smile to both of their faces even when they both felt heartbroken.
“Arun maybe they will come around. Maybe you’re right, my love. I have to go pack but I’ll see you at the railway station at quarter past 2?”
“I’ll be waiting with open arms.” Arun knew he had to be strong enough for Grace until she arrived. He would wait another day before telling her that his parents had also refused to meet Grace. The shame of having their only son marry out of faith was too great for his parents to bear.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: MINI MUKHERJEE
I’m a late 20-something life explorer with a slight always-on-the-go itch. I live in Irvine, CA (just moved from LA!) and write full-time. When I’m not writing, I am working with early-stage startups to help craft their voice and company message. Before coming to Southern California, I had an EdTech software company in Boston that I co-founded after working at companies such as Goldman Sachs, Nielsen, and Fiksu. I have seen first-hand how the written word and technology transforms, connects and elevates. My latest endeavor, Our Smile Project is a collection of short stories about moments of perseverance, love and embracing who you are. From my heart to yours, enjoy!