Hot dumpling soup, mandu gook—glossy broth, white ovals of chewy rice cakes, a single feathered egg, green onion sliced on an angle, and homemade meat dumplings floating on broth—might be when my mother got the tapeworm.
She was a little girl in South Korea and dumpling soup was a Lunar New Year tradition. Once a year, my grandmother stoked the outdoor fire, boiled the water that my mother gathered from the mountain stream, and added miraculous luxuries like scraps of meat and an egg.
I imagine my mother never told her about the worm. This too, was tradition. To keep suffering in. To never shame a mother. To know that she was doing her best, and the rest to accept.
Tapeworms came and went. Curled their way through my mother’s intestines. Slipped out of her in segments.
My grandmother’s life was harder. She walked from North to South Korea by foot. The journey included my grandfather and her young son. She was pregnant with my mother. My grandmother gave birth to her that Year of the Dragon, at the end of the Korean War, on the side of the road, in a small shed a woman said she could enter. Not a manger, but close. In the winter—empty. How precious to have a daughter. At the time, many were thrown away. My mother was lucky. Still, how I wish to see an image of my grandmother holding her, rather than carrying her like a sack as she tried to find shelter.
As my mother grew, my grandmother fed her what she had access to. Even spoiled meat was rare, post-war.
Tapeworms can consist of up to 4,000 segments. I wonder how many memories we store.
As my mother served our family in America—pasta, stew, and steak—she passed along these stories, over dinner. She’d hold out her half-open fist, curled as if ready to snatch it back, an invisible gesture of rice to show me how little she had to eat each day. She’d tell me how on her brother’s back, they’d forage for crickets and berries. How the richest girl in school—the daughter of a government official—befriended her. She’d leave behind a single egg on her plate and my mother turned away, head held high.
How this friend got my mother to eat eggs at her house, I don’t know. My mother must have trusted that she loved her by then. Fifty years later, she in Korea and my mother in America, they’re still best friends.
My mother prided herself on never needing anyone. As her daughter, I learned to anticipate and do. Show up for her in actions—not words.
As I’d chew the food she made, I’d show my respect by tracking the micromovements of her dilated brown eyes. Dinner was secondary to her depictions of starvation. How to show simultaneous appreciation for both her food and her story was to learn when to lift my chopsticks, when to swallow, and when with full attention—to pause, listening, as our plates cooled off.
I learned to chew every grain in my bowl that the farmer grew. To be like a blade of rice, humble enough to bend when the wind blew.
I absorbed my mother, her dinner, and her stories. She wanted to feed me, like her mother. Could my cells hear her? Can there ever be one answer? Can cycles ever be linear?
Sometimes it felt hard to sort out which stories were hers and which were mine. I felt every single one in my body. Carried them with me. Like umbilical cords to her. Or invisible worms passed on.
Did they give me life or take it?
She shared how the head teacher—a true parasite—hit her. Her father had no bribe money. She was hit for other children’s wrongdoings—because she was poor. I never understood.
“That’s just how it was,” she said.
I didn’t understand how you could be hit for doing nothing wrong. When she did it to me, I always felt like I had done something—more than the A- or the inability to sit for three hours doing math—to deserve it.
She was the top student, in every subject. While starving. My mother’s life was harder. She told me stories of waking up early and carrying her shoes to school because she only had one pair and didn’t want to wear them out.
Sometimes one can house a tapeworm but show no symptoms.
It’s as if a little girl, who is on her way home, notices that no one is around. She begins to skip, to feel light, like she doesn’t have to carry it all with her. Who knows how long she’s held it inside. She glides—skipping across smooth dirt, as if it is not there, as if the clouds above her will dissolve it for her, and she’s a girl, high as the trees that surround her, swaying, saying back to her: You are innocent and just a girl.
Tapeworms can consist of a long chain of segments that can break off on their way out. Sometimes in the middle of a segment of a story, my mother would break off—rising up from the dinner table. She would head over to the stove to stir a pot that did not need to be stirred.
At that, the story turned.
Caught in what I thought was a safe moment to slurp up slippery lines of spaghetti I would lower my chopsticks in shame. I’d hear how I was lucky to have a dinner. How I was lucky to have shelter. Feeding off of all nourishment, a tapeworm is of no benefit to a human. How I was spoiled. To be in a house. With food in front of me.
Symptoms of a tapeworm infection include general weakness, altered appetite, and weight loss.
I felt guilty. I grew to repeat that story, and when I was twelve starved myself. Lost half of my body weight, in front of my family. My mother said nothing. Did I become anorexic out of empathy? Or in reaction to her critiques on my body?
Tapeworms can grow up to thirty feet, and live up to thirty years. Did she know that they could pass, cycling inside me, these segments repeating?
Years later, in my first San Francisco apartment, my mother would come to visit me. Sit at my kitchen table. I was new to therapy. When she began her stories about the pain of starving, I had to stop her.
Tears welled in her eyes. I wanted her to have that empathy for the girl in her. Yet, I had to speak for the one in me. Any segment left behind has the potential to grow into another worm.
“I have more memories of your childhood than my own,” I told her. She looked me in the eyes. “Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry.” If I could expel all our suffering and feed her, I would. Sometimes, in these lines there’s release. Other times, I have no control over whether they repeat, or where they go.
Maria T. Allocco is a South Korean and Italian mixed-genre writer. Her mixed race-focused work has been featured at Mixed Remixed, Hapa-palooza, SF LitQuake and The Venice Art House in Italy. Maria never left her heart in San Francisco; she flies it back-and-forth between the Bay Area and New York as an MFA candidate at Columbia University. Maria is social media free; you may reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.