Umma had me believe that foreigners pay an extra price for faith. In the church we attended as I was growing up, to pray meant to know where we belonged and to whom we held our allegiance, neither of these things clear nor given to those of us who were caught somewhere in between. To receive this faith, umma and I would take the bus from our residential neighborhood to downtown Hong Kong, where we would enter a nondescript building, cram into a slim elevator, and listen to it wheeze and moan all the way to our church on the seventh floor. I would stare at the elevator button and the number seven would stare back, freshly aglow with the flip image of a knee bent in prayer. Or maybe it was the arch of a back thrust forward in remorse, asking for forgiveness, in the way I was taught to do in the small vestibule where confession took place. Pray the Lord’s prayer ten times and you will be forgiven for missing church, our priest would say, invisible to me, each time I asked him to forgive me for attending a friend’s birthday party or a debate tournament in lieu of joining his weekly mass. That was the cardinal sin of my days as the youth pianist for the Korean Catholic Church of Hong Kong, and for committing it I had to bend my knees on the pews and pray the same prayer multiple times as I waited for umma, who, on most occasions, would enter the vestibule right after I’d left it. At times she would leave the vestibule with tears on her cheeks, which she would wipe away before sitting with me, and the unspoken rule was that I never asked what, or rather who, had caused those tears — I was always afraid of the kinds of things that could hurt a mother, my mother, and convinced that their impossible power could easily come and haunt me too.
When we would arrive on the seventh floor, the elevator button light would extinguish itself as the doors opened to our brightly lit church, which, in the dank grayness of the Wing Cheong Commercial Building, resembled a cavern of quartz inside the body of a geode. I would bow my head to the adults of the congregation, all glasses and long pants and shawls and permed hair, waiting for the time of salvation to begin; the deeper you bend your back, umma would tell me, the more respect you would display to your elders. Only after these rituals would we really enter the church, the shining, brightly lit vastness of it, where we would dip our fingers in a small bowl of holy water and draw a cross that, beginning at the center of our foreheads, would touch our chest before trailing across our shoulders and finally end in the clasp of two hands, which would be meeting, for the first time that day, in prayer.
The truth is that I only began praying once my umma did. The year she became a Catholic was the same year she became an expatriate, a lonely daughter brought a thousand miles away from home by the push and pull of job opportunities and financial markets. It was only natural that, as a Korean woman born a decade after the Korean War, these concerns had little to do with umma’s ability to decide the course of her own life. To choose the scope of a future was a husband’s task, and her new husband — a country-born man with a large and earnest face framed by aviator glasses — wrote her a letter saying that, although he didn’t have much, for her he would try his best. They left the sea air of their native Busan for the cosmopolitan high-rise life of Seoul just before she turned thirty. They became parents to two girls, who they carried from Seoul to Hong Kong when umma was thirty-four. It was there she entered a new life without knowing how it would end. She would one day return home, she was sure of it; she just didn’t know when.
In Hong Kong, umma’s wifeliness carried new job descriptions in languages she struggled to speak. Street signs were written in one language, while the pamphlets for the popular international schools — which promised the kind of globalized social mobility she was slowly beginning to know — were written in the script of another. When the two languages appeared together, as they often did in Hong Kong, the union of two texts barely made a difference to umma. All that she could see in the pictorial characters of Chinese, more intricately woven than her native Korean, was a mirror held to her own Asian face, and the presence of English — which she could read and speak, but very slowly — was the first crack in the glass, a reminder that she only half-belonged, could only half-be in a city where she was neither in nor out.
It was somewhere between the coffee dates and the spinning tops of yum-cha tables that another expatriate wife, married to one of appa’s new colleagues, invited her to church. Joining a church would be the easiest way for umma to feel like she belonged: not only to something greater than herself in the sense of an otherworldly beyond, but to a family of women who spoke to her, in this unfamiliar city of new symbols and intonations, in a language she understood. All they asked of her in return were her Sundays and her faith, and was that too much to ask? On weekends they would gather in the sanctuary for prayer, but otherwise they would speak little of God and His role in their lives — that was, unless their conversations on their children’s schooling and husband’s ambitions were all really an homage to God’s work, which it had to be. In this foreign city, far from all the homes these women had ever known, only God could make things make sense: His son was the one, after all, who had once wandered on emptied roads, praying at the points the roads forked into the equal chances of being turned away, or welcomed in. I wonder if this is what umma was thinking as she stood beneath the church priest one afternoon with her neck slightly bent, his hands sprinkling holy water over her head. Her thumbs crossed in accordance with the rules of prayer, her eyes closed shut. And in the moment she was allowed to choose who she would become in the eyes of God, she chose to be called Stella: from the Latin stella, or star, the thing that shines, precious but never at the center of the sky. One of millions. Harbingers of a consoling certainty. When my blond schoolteachers would ask umma for her name during parent-teacher conferences at school, I often wondered if she would offer her given name, a name written in circles and strokes and dashes and nearly impossible to pronounce on tongues that had only ever spoken one language.
Stella, she would say instead. You can call me Stella.
It was Stella who, one day after a netball tournament in Year 3, ushered me into a taxi headed for the Wing Cheong Commercial Building. I was to be tested on my prayers that afternoon, beside the dozen other ten-year-old Korean children whose ummas had brought them to church for the same reason as mine. If we passed, we would be baptized and become children twice over: first to the ummas that birthed us and brought us here, then to the God that had created all the world’s mothers. All the world’s stars and vast oceans and the airplanes that took us over them both, to the churches where we would eventually stand, our heads bent, reciting the longest prayer of all the prayers because of course the priest would choose the hardest one to test our faith.
We all passed the test. We all got the chance to wear white silk dresses and handmade crowns of flowers on our heads, and to walk the aisle of our crystalline church with our hands clasped in prayer. When I was asked to choose what my name would be as a child of God, I chose Sophia. I thought it was a nice-sounding name, and it began with an S, like Stella.
One of the first things I learned about my best friend Jordan was that her parents had named her after the Jordan river, the sacred waterway that separates Moses from Canaan, the promised land. Once, in elementary school, a line of classmates had walked over Jordan’s prostrate body in an exercise designed to evoke her namesake, which would’ve been a more unusual activity had Jordan not been who she was: the daughter of a Presbyterian pastor of a local church in a small town thirty-minutes south from where we met.
We first met in Princeton, a year before we would officially enroll as freshmen at the university. Jordan arrived at orientation with bangs and black-framed glasses that broke after the first few days. She spoke of her hometown as the best place she knew. In Allentown… her stories would begin, and soon Allentown became a revered joke among friends, a reference to a world that barely existed on a map and yet, to Jordan, meant everything. What everything meant in relation to a place, I did not know. To me, home was the look on umma’s face as she watched me leave Hong Kong for America: slightly resigned, but fortified, as if she had done the deed she had wanted for so long to do, but now loathed to let go of. A sense of not really here nor there, but not nowhere either, like the place one might crawl to in order to find an abstract but holdable thing such as love, love for a child who leaves you, and hope, hope that they will come back.
In America, I may have found this place during my first Thanksgiving weekend, when Jordan invited me and our Irish friend, Conor, to spend a few days with her family for a real American Thanksgiving. I remember how we woke early to greet the family members who trickled in, one unit at a time, on a Thursday: aunts and uncles and cousins from California, then Texas, then closer by, maybe Pennsylvania, with whom I ate sticky buns and talked about school in the communal hub of the kitchen, where at one point I had to explain, to one well-meaning aunt, how I was able to speak English without an accent. There’s a Korean woman at my church, she told me, her head nodding, eyes wide. But she speaks with an accent! Not like you. Your English is perfect.
Later, when all thirty of us were gathered around the tables that had been set up in the dining room, I clasped my hands as Jordan’s father got up to pray. Most of the people in the room, I noticed, simply bowed their heads with their eyes held shut, their hands held on their laps. Thank you, gracious Father, the prayer began, or something like that, and I understood every word of it — all the grammar and semantics, the tricky phrases — in my perfect English, accent-less and familiar as if I’d been praying in English all my life.
What I had not told Jordan’s aunt in the kitchen was that I once had been that Korean woman at her Texan church, except as a Korean girl in a Korean church in a city where no one doubted I was any less than perfect at speaking whatever I was supposed to speak. At my church in Hong Kong, I would sing the songs and bend my knees for prayer and take the eucharist in my mouth, and yet never leave church knowing what exactly my priest had said on the podium just before communion began. My inability to understand was rarely a question of esoteric Bible language or metaphor. Rather, my expatriate Korean was insufficient for the basic semantics of God’s words; I could talk to my parents about school and friends and dinner, but not about politics or the color of a sunset or what a sermon meant. What it was supposed to tell me about myself, except for the fact that I could not understand the fundamentals of what I needed to call myself a faithful person.
And yet I followed the rules by memorizing all the prayers by heart. Years after umma had tested me on that taxi ride to church, I could still recite every word of the several prayers involved in a Korean Catholic mass. The Confiteor came first in every worship, that I knew: 전능하신 하느님과 형제들에게 고백하오니, we would say, our heads bent, I confess to God Almighty, before the whole company of Heaven, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed. We would close our right hands into tight fists and prepare for the part I remembered best, which was when we would hit ourselves on the left breast three times: 제 탓이요 — by my fault, thump — 제 탓이요 — by my fault, thump — 저의 큰 — by a most grievous, thump — 탓이옵니다 — fault of my own making. I liked to imagine that the gesture was enough to heal the fissures I could not speak, pushing them to the point of breaking so they could be built again. I liked the feeling of my fist-hit thudding deep in the fibers of my chest, forming, like tectonic plates, a mountain where I was convinced I would find that thing called faith. I wanted to stand on that mountain and allow it to transform me; leap off, even, trusting my language would save me. Instead, I would beat my chest three times and that would be the end of it. I would listen to my heart beating on the bus ride home.
It was the same passive listening as what I felt at the Korean school umma enrolled me and my sister in on Saturdays, and the samulnori classes that took place in the school gym after the language school ended. For years, Saturday afternoons meant beating two-faced drums with leather-bound sticks and, in the bathroom during breaks, bitching about the teacher with a penchant for shouting and whose eyebrows reminded me of a Shiba Inu. I don’t want to go to Korean school anymore, I told umma one day, on our walk home from class. But you have to, she replied. That is who you are. You are Korean. And you can never forget that.
I did not mention these stories that Thanksgiving at Jordan’s house. I did not mention the fact that I used to be Christian, that I possibly still was. I was content to simply follow along, full and sleepy in the warm lull of the pastor’s manse, surrounded by a family communing in a language that they were certain would not betray them when the moment came to speak their truth. I would return to Jordan’s house for Thanksgiving on two other occasions, and each time her father would greet me, as I entered their kitchen, with a welcome home. I had not thought it possible to be a part of one so far from my own. When, that first Thanksgiving, we finally opened our eyes after the prayer and began passing around the mashed potatoes, I looked at Jordan and thought about the thing umma used to say, about how the people you know are the people who ultimately make you. Sometimes it is other people who will be the ones to bring you where you need to go.
In America, umma became a specter of a woman, at best a two-dimensional image on a screen. With distance, there were things I could now do that she would never have to know, but I lacked the guidance to know what it is I wanted. In the cramped cabin of a plane or the loneliness of a darkly lit dorm room, I would let my fingers trail a sacred path across my body, familiar like the way my fingers used to know the numbers I needed to press to hear the voice that emanated only from my mother’s lips.
When I was in high school, umma would occasionally ask me to kiss her on the lips. Promise me you’ll never stop doing this, she would say. Or she would ask, looking at my lips, whose lips are those? And I would have to respond: umma’s lips.
One night, in a dingy wooden-floored college dorm room gathering dust, I gave those lips to a boy from northern New Jersey whose last name — a Korean one — rhymed with mine. After our evening at the cinema, he had slipped his arm through the little hole I’d left at my elbow as my hands dug into the pockets of a winter jacket covered lightly in snow. We walked that way, arms linked, all the way back to my room. I’ve never really done this before, I said to him, as we began to kiss. I can’t remember what he said back, but I let him kiss me nevertheless. I knew I loved him when, a month later, I sat down to write a poem about him one afternoon, as I used to do in those days, and instead of writing a poem began to write a letter to umma. Umma, the letter-poem begins. Last night I slept in the arms of a boy / whose eyes were green like the early morning promenade sea / near the house where we used to live.
I never gave that poem to umma. Beyond the document hidden somewhere on my computer, umma would have no proof that I’d slept in his arms at all. I did not tell her that, months after that first kiss, I’d held his body against mine on many nights, believing that proximity would do what apology wouldn’t. Our language was a naïve language of want, in which fluency meant welcoming him into my mind and body in ways that felt to me, sometimes, like a betrayal — mostly to myself, but at times the trusting earnestness of my umma, who would tell me that no boy at this age, no matter how loving, was deserving of that, that being the union capable of creating life, the beginning of all things. I did not tell her about what I did.
It was Jordan who showed up at my door holding a paper bag of chocolate almond croissants when I realized that this boy no longer loved me. Three years had passed since that first Thanksgiving, that first kiss in the quiet dormitory, and I was trying to reconfigure what love meant. Thank you, I said, as Jordan walked in. I unfolded a towel on the thinly carpeted floor where we both sat, a vase of pink-tipped tulips and a paperback Bible serving as ballasts to our grief. It was a Sunday. Somewhere, in the hazy nether of the virtual world, Jordan’s father was delivering a sermon that we would learn, a few days later, was on the subject of forgiveness. I had yet to learn how to forgive. But what I needed most in that moment was to know how. With pastry dust on my fingers and across my lips, I looked to Jordan, one of the most faithful people I knew, and asked, Jordan, how do you pray?
When umma was forty-four, my sister, who was at boarding school at the time, began to struggle with her distance from home. One night, I watched as umma swayed her body while sitting cross-legged in a dark room, alone, with a homemade rosary of fifty-nine beads shifting, like a hot scroll of ink from a printer, between her hands. Her hands were covered in blue veins and knobs and looked translucent, as if her sorrow was trying to escape the skin that kept it all in. I can hear her whispers even now, calling to God — 하늘에 계신 우리 아버지 — over and over, her hands moving faster and faster, a tear, then two, on her cheek; I can see her crying now and pleading to Mary, asking another woman — another mother — how she could bear the injustice of living while watching her child struggle from afar. I can see myself asking umma if she is okay, and she stops to tell me she is okay, she is always okay, and I believe her, even when I know my sister faces an abyss and I do not know what to do before it.
That night, I chose not to pray by umma’s side. Her prayer had the texture of barbed wire and razored skin, and I was only concerned with saving my own flesh.
When, years later, my sister eventually left school and found home in other communities, I asked umma one afternoon if she believed her prayers had worked. I distrusted God then, she told me. He didn’t do anything for me. But she’s better now, I said, happy even. And isn’t that what umma wanted? Umma shook her head. It doesn’t matter. Get your things ready. We have somewhere to go. There was always somewhere we had to be going.
Later, when we were on the metro, I was reading a book when I felt umma rummage in her handbag, her elbow gently pushing against my left arm. I felt her elbow loosen, go slack, rest against her side. Our arms were touching. I looked up at the window on the opposite side of our vestibule, where I could see our reflection in the pitch-black rush of subterranean Hong Kong; the two of us, half-transparent in the glow of the glass, like apparitions. Behind the heads of a businessman and a schoolgirl tapping on their phones, I saw umma with her eyes shut, her hands held calmly on her lap, her mouth moving with a constancy I recognized. I could see, in the reflection of us, that she had taken a rosary from her bag. That she was praying. And in the way we were used to doing in church when she would exit the confessional, I didn’t ask her why.
And maybe that is why, years later, I am sitting bolt upright in my bed at one in the morning, doing the same. I am alone in a dark room and my body is swaying to a rhythm whose origin is unknown to my waking mind, but it is there, moving and speaking and crying with me as my face wets and my hands shiver. I pray for all the loves I was unable to keep, the loves I hope not to betray. I pray for my parents, seven thousand miles away. And on one of these mornings, I will wake up to a text message from Jordan, who, upon reading the Bible one day, will send me a passage that reminds her of me: as you enter the house, greet it, it reads. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. I will know she is thinking of the boy I left. I will be thinking of him too. But I will also be thinking of all the dust I’ve shaken from my feet that I will never get back, as with all the towns and the houses I have left behind, and what will I do if I can never go back to them? There is so much traveling that remains to be done. And so much returning.
I want to write you a letter, I tell umma a few weeks before the end of my senior year of college. I have just asked her if I can get a nose piercing, which she has, on several occasions, refuted with fury; her anger tells me that my body is not entirely my own, because it originated from hers. When I tell her about the letter, she looks at me, her expression, no longer sour, asking for more. She then adjusts her position in bed — she is in hers, while I am in mine, and we are on two different continents — and the rectangle of her presence shudders as her image blurs. When the pixels settle, I can see her smile, only slightly.
무슨 말이야? she says. What do you mean?
I want to write you a long letter, I tell her, in Korean, with all the things I’ve always wanted to say, and in perfect grammar, with the right spaces between the words, and the right words. Maybe then you’ll know what I am trying to say. Because I’ve never been able to win an argument with you in Korean and I never will.
Umma shakes her head, exasperated. Or is she bemused? Tired? Distance makes doubt a holdable, probable thing. For a moment I am back in that vestibule in our church in Hong Kong, waiting as the priest absorbs my confession. I wait to hear what umma will require of me for that gentle forgiveness, the letting go.
She smiles again before delivering her benediction.
It’s never been about language, she says. Her voice is softer now. You’ve always let me win because you love me too much to let me lose.
Jordan tells me that prayer can manifest itself in multiple ways. It can resemble a conversation in your head, a back-and-forth humming between you and someone else, like God. It can be a daily list of things for which you are grateful. It can mean thanking the trees for their verdant luster on a spring day or listening to the sound of the wind as it pools and gathers in the spaces where you do not usually go. It means knowing the sound of your own footsteps as they echo in the world and arriving at peace when the echoes no longer are.
It was close to ten in the evening when Jordan and I drove to Wegmans, a few weeks after the Sunday morning we’d spent on my floor, relearning what prayer meant. Apparently we were there for flowers and ice-cream. The store, mostly emptied, felt cavernous that evening, or maybe it was the immense smallness I felt between the aisles, running my fingers along all the wanted things that could be mine, all the coulds that became, in our giddy meanderings, didn’ts. We picked two small cacti dotted with buds. They’ll be so beautiful, one of us must have said, in time.
Umma, what were you thinking the day you watched me walking down the aisle of our church in a silk dress, my hands clasped to my chest? What were you thinking as I cast my eyes downwards and began to pray then, below the hovering omniscience of our priest’s ruddy hands? What did you make of me then and what do you make of me now: in a country you have never lived in nor ever imagined as your own, where sometimes I am so weak from all the things I can’t tell you that my spirit buckles and I lose the will to speak? Umma, I want to know what you said in that vestibule after me. Why you left it crying. And if it was because of me.
Umma, after all these years, I am still learning what prayer is. I am still reciting the words you taught me from a booklet of holy words, words that I practiced on the taxi to our church, the church where I was always your daughter, your kin, part of your culture. I am still thinking of your bent back in my childhood room, a rosary in your hand; a rosary then, and a rosary again reflected in those dark underground lights, flashing, like pebbles, in the ebb and flow of your faith.
What would you say if I told you that prayer meant letting go of someone I loved? Of betraying your version of faith and tentatively, so tenderly, setting off on my own. What that version is I am still uncertain. Maybe it was falling in love. Maybe it means writing the letter I have meant to write to you all along. Maybe it was the sensation I felt beside Jordan in her brother’s orange Subaru that night we went to Wegmans, half a melted mochi ice-cream ball held between my index and thumb as she took the first swerve in the roundabout. Maybe it was the way my gut danced and sank as she swerved a second time, then a third, then possibly a fourth, or the way I must have lost count in the dark, sweat rising on my forehead, as the memory of the people who had hurt us dissolved as blissfully as sugar melted on our tongues. Maybe it was the way I wanted her to spin just one more time on the nighttime roads of suburban Princeton, where it was just us, the dark, and the comfort of company, the knowledge that we’d lost whatever we had to lose, but at least we would always have each other. That there will always be someone beside me to listen, even if it isn’t you.
Umma, was that a prayer? Is this?
Jimin Kang is a Seoul-born, Hong Kong-raised and England-based writer. ‘What Prayer Is’ received an Honorable Mention in the 2021 Ploughshares Emerging Writers Contest. Her other works in non-fiction and fiction have been published, or are forthcoming, in publications including The New York Times, Asymptote Journal, Joyland, Wasafiri, and the Oxonian Review, where she is an editor.