“I See You”: Mothers, Daughters, & Theology Part I

27 So God created [hu]man in [God’s] own image,
in the image of God [God] created [them];
male and female [God] created them.

(Genesis 1.27)

I have a daughter. I have a beautiful daughter. I see a lot of myself in her. She is extroverted – always gravitating towards people and wanting to be in the middle of things. She is sweet with a smile that lights up a whole room. She is dramatic and overly emotive – whether sad, angry, or happy, these feelings are expressed with flair. She is adventurous – willing to try new things and adapts to change. She is a hostess – welcoming kids into the church nursery by handing them a toy. I see many wonderful things in her. Again, I see a lot of myself in her. I wonder if this is what God must feel when God creates us in God’s image – seeing elements of holy, love, creativity, goodness, and all other characteristics we associate with God.

I wonder when I was born if my mother saw a lot of herself in me. In many ways, the qualities of myself that I see in my daughter, I also see in my mother. Ironically, growing up, those same qualities that I cherish in my daughter, I did not cherish in myself. I love my mother. I have a good relationship with my mother. But I have to admit that there were many times growing up when loving her was not an easy feat. My mother is one of the strongest women I know. When I hear the stories of how challenging life was when she came to the United States, when I remember how hard she struggled and worked to give my sister and I a good life – I admire her tenacity and perseverance. These are qualities that many immigrants embody as they strive to make a better life for themselves and their family. However, there were many times when I felt a disconnect between my family life and my public life. Korean culture is vastly different than American culture. Individualism, speaking one’s mind, freedom — these qualities that are valued in American culture are counter to what is valued in Korean culture. I was raised to honor and respect my parents, which meant listen, obey, and do exactly what you are told. I was reminded constantly of the sacrifices and burden that my parents made to be in America, which manifested in having high expectations for me to succeed. And the expectation was not to just succeed in anything, but exceed in the ways they thought deemed fit. I was keenly aware that I did not represent only myself, but my whole family. As if this wasn’t a big enough baggage to carry, as a daughter, I had the added responsibility of also sharing the pain and suffering of what my mother had to endure. This pain and suffering is what Koreans call “han.” (I’ll explain this in a later blog.) My duty as a daughter was to embody and carry my mother’s han. However, as an American-born daughter, I didn’t want to touch her han with a ten foot pole. Her stories of sacrifice didn’t result in my appreciation but instead I developed a lot of resentment. Part of the resentment stemmed from my struggle with feeling obligated to understand some of the choices that she made in her life even if they had a direct, negative effect on my life. I grew up not feeling like I had a right to feel my own pain and struggle because by doing so I negated hers.

Growing up in an immigrant family had a deep, profound effect on my faith and theology. One of the things that I struggled with is the notion that we are created in God’s image. While that is a wonderful theological concept to grasp, it was one of the most difficult for me. In “Tell Us Our Names: Story Theology from an Asian Perspective,” C.S. Song points out that a negative view can be taken toward the image reflected in our theological mirror – “Sometimes we lament over what we see in the mirror because there seems to be no resemblance to the beauty, dignity, and loftiness of traditional theological works” (pg. 4). When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see an image of God, unless God looked like my mother because that is what I saw. When I looked in the mirror, I saw my mother. While I don’t mean for that to be a negative statement, my reflection was immersed in images of sadness, pain, invisibility, and a sense of loss. A part of seeing myself created in God’s image is cherishing the gifts and talents that God has given me. However, I never felt that my own mother saw those gifts and talents in me. I so much wanted her to see me for me.

I remember when the movie, The Joy Luck Club, came out. This movie was the first time that I felt understood.  It was as if someone had taken my inner thoughts and portrayed them on the screen.  This movie displayed my frustration, my fears, and my anger. If you aren’t familiar with the movie, it is about the relationship of Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-raised daughters. The movie highlights the tension between the mothers and daughters and the journey of how they come to know each other by understanding each other’s past. There is a scene in the movie where June is in the kitchen with her mother.  They are cleaning up after a dinner party.  June’s mother looks over at her and asks, “Are you angry with me?” and June responds, “I’m sorry I’m such a disappointment to you.  I’m sorry I’m such a terrible daughter.”  Surprised by her response, her mother asks her what she is talking about and says, “You are not a disappointment.  All my hopes and dreams I put on you.”  June continues to say, “Every time you put your hopes and dreams on me, I feel like a failure because I can not live up to them.  I wish you would see me for me.  Why can’t you see me . . .me . . . the real me?”  June’s mother looks into her eyes, takes off her jade necklace and begins to put it around June’s neck.  She gently responds, “I do see you.  I see you.”

My whole life I longed for my mother to see me.  I longed for that moment that June had with her mother where her mother finally saw her.  I took my mother to this movie, hoping that this scene would become a reality in my life.  During the movie, my mother and I laughed, cried, and bonded over the stories of the mothers and daughters.  After the movie, I turned to my mother in anticipation that my mother would turn to me and finally see me for me.  As my mother wiped away her tears, she slowly turns to me and . . . blurts out, “Do you see what those mothers went through for their daughters?  Do you see how ungrateful the daughters were to their mother’s sacrifice and suffering?”  And just like that, my moment had gone.

No matter how anticlimactic that event was, I feel that there was some truth in what my mother said.  As much as I wanted my mother to see me, I did not want to see my mother.  When June’s mother said, “I see you”, what I felt she was saying was “I acknowledge your existence.  I know your frustration.  I hear your anger.”  These were words I longed for my mother to say to me, knowing that these are words my mother wanted me to say to her. I needed to find a way to reconcile acknowledging her han without having to take on the obligation and responsibility to bear it. By reconciling my ability to see my mother (despite whether or not she was able to see me), I was able to see myself and possibly myself created in God’s image. After all, that’s what this is all about. It’s less about my mother’s ability to see me and my ability to see myself. It’s about my ability to unwrap my identity with my mother’s in order to cherish the God-given characteristics in me – some similar to my mothers and some not.

Although I am speaking from purely a Korean-American perspective, I do feel that this translates to any mother-daughter relationship or any relationship that has strong influence or ties to our identity. The ability to see ourselves and see the positive and negative influences in our lives will give us clearer vision to embrace and see God’s image created in us. At least that is my prayer and hope for my daughter. That she will be able to look in the mirror and see all the wonderful and unique ways God has created her. All the characteristics that I love and cherish about her and have come to cherish in myself.

6 thoughts on ““I See You”: Mothers, Daughters, & Theology Part I

  1. Hey Theresa, I didn’t watch the movie, but I read The Joy Luck Club when it came out (much more a book than a movie person, I am), and it was so deep and so profound…as an adoptive mother, the image of the two babies left on the path, and that those women were able to see that as good in their lives, has stayed with me.

    My family is a Mayflower family, so our experience of immigration is remote — only discussed over Thanksgiving dinner. But as my own very strong mother struggles with Alzheimer’s, your reflections and theological imagination touched me. Thanks for this.

  2. Theresa, beautiful! Keep writing, you have a gift. I may borrow from your insights some more with my book but you should be writing one too! I’m wondering if your mom reads your blog and if so, what does she feel about all this. JT

  3. This is such a rich reflection, Theresa. Believe it or not I can totally relate, and am learning to find peace and forgiveness even when apologies haven’t been offered. Thank you for sharing such a personal story and your hopes for your child(ren). BOTH of them are so blessed to have you as their mother.

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