Study Guide

A Step from Heaven Duty

By An Na

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Gomo gives me a cup with dirty black water inside. I can see bubbles floating. Maybe this is a drink from the sea. I sniff the cup like Mi Shi.

Just drink it, Young Ju, Apa growls.

I put the cup to my mouth and take a small taste. Ahya! It hurts. This drink bites the inside of my mouth and throat like swallowing tiny fish bones. This is what Mi Gook people love? I want to push the drink away, but I cannot show bad manners.

Good girl, Young Ju. Drink that up and you can have more, Apa says. He pats my head. (7.31-34)

How do you get a kid to show good table manners? If you ask Apa, all you have to do is "growl" at them. After all, there's nothing more valuable to a little kid than that pat on the head—the classic sign of parental approval.

Shhh, Young Ju, Apa says, in school you are only Young. Mi Gook people will have too much trouble saying all the syllables. It is better to keep it simple for them. Now, bow to your teacher.

Ahn-young-ha-say-yo, I say and bow so I can show her good manners and she will not eat me up. (8.8-9)

This book is definitely not without some humor. Young Ju shows us the thoughts of the dutiful kid, and—no surprise here—her thoughts have nothing to do with being truly dutiful. In fact, they have more to do with avoiding the wrath of a teacher who just may "eat [her] up."

The teacher holds her chin. I play with my color sticks and pretend I do not see her thinking about eating me. After a very long time, the teacher gets up and goes to her desk. She comes back with a bag filled with big yellow crumbs. They are just like the car seat crumbs I am not supposed to pick at. I am worried. The teacher knows I disobeyed Uhmma. (8.25)

There probably isn't a better example of how obsessed Young Ju is with appearing obedient than this scene. It shows how much power Young Ju's parents have over her and how much the ethic of a hierarchy plays into Young Ju's life. All the teacher has to do is to show her some crumbs (which turn out to be Goldfish crackers the teacher shares with her for lunch), and Young Ju becomes fearful.

I wander over to the couch and start to tuck in the corners of the yellow blanket. Gomo says, What a good housekeeper you are. Here, sit down and watch what we are doing. You will have to learn how to be a good older Uhn-nee. It is your responsibility to help your Uhmma take care of him. (10.42)

What does being dutiful mean if you're a girl in the Park household? According to Young Ju's aunt, it means learning how to take care of the younger brother. Seems a little unfair to us though, especially if you compare Young Ju's responsibilities with Joon Ho's responsibilities once he gets older (all of which amount to a lot of playing and cutting school, from what we can tell).

Young Ju, have I not taught you never to take from others? Do not make yourself obligated to another person.

Uhmma, she is my friend. I stand up and wave my arms in the air. This is America. In America it is fine to borrow money from friends.

Stop that, Uhmma says. We are Korean. Do not forget.

I sit back down. Korean. Then why did we move to America?

You can go to the party, Uhmma says.

I'm so stunned I'm not sure I heard correctly. Did she say I could go? What? I ask.

You must fulfill your obligation for inconveniencing her. Also, you will pay her back the money you borrowed. Uhmma shakes her head. Have I not taught you anything? After this, do not take anything from her. Understand? (23.21-28)

What's Uhmma so bothered about? All Young Ju did was borrow some money from her best friend Amanda. No big deal right? Well not if you're Korean, according to Uhmma. If you're Korean, being indebted means becoming enmeshed in a relationship that's all about giving back; in other words, it turns a friendship into a relationship between a debtor and debt-ee. Kind of ironic, if you think about it. Isn't America supposed to be the country that's all about realizing independence?

Young Ju, Uhmma says and gazes steadily into my eyes. I am very sorry I could not be there for your important night. She shakes her head and laments, To think of all those people there to honor you, and your own parents could not take a night off from their jobs. Aigoo, Young Ju. What kind of parents do you have? (25.50)

Here's a refreshing scene: a mother apologizes to her daughter for not being there for her. Maybe that doesn't seem all that unusual, but in this book Young Ju's elders have so much authority and power over her that it's easy to think of being dutiful as a trait kids have to develop in order to appease adults. This scene shows us that being dutiful works both ways: a parent has the duty to honor the kid too. Uhmma gets this and isn't afraid to own up to it, which is pretty cool for a mom, if you ask us.

Even after ten stitches on the cut above her eyebrow, two stitches on the corner of her lip, and taped ribs, Uhmma will not press charges. "My huh-su-bun," she tells them. I stand by her side translating, my voice breaking only once, when they ask if he beats me also. (29.1)

So… what exactly is a wife's duty to her husband, even when he's beaten her to a pulp? Think of it from Uhmma's position: her husband is poor, an immigrant with bad English, and a drunk on top of all of that. So while he may be an abusive husband and father, if she charges him, he'll just end up in jail or worse and without many tools for remedying that situation.

The next morning Uhmma and I wait in the car in front of the police station. Uhmma honks the horn when she sees Apa step outside. Apa barely glances in our direction. His eyes pass over us and stop at a point behind the car. A blue sedan that was parked not more than ten feet behind us starts its engine and drives by quickly, but not so fast that we cannot make out the figure of an Asian woman int he driver's seat. She stops the car at the curb. Apa walks quickly to the passenger's side. He steps in. They drive away. (29.2)

Yep—you got it: Apa's not just an abusive husband and father, he's also a cheater. Clearly all those lessons on being dutiful to his family got lost on him. One good thing does come out of this scene though: it does seem to (eventually) get Uhmma to snap out of her dutiful-wife routine. There's no way she can be dutiful and loyal to a husband who blatantly chooses to step into another woman's car, right?

Please try to understand, Young Ju. These last few months have been difficult. I did not have the right words for you until today. I said things that are not true. I blamed you for my mistake. Uhmma shakes her head. I blamed you for trying to save me.

I want to reach out to Uhmma. Rest my head on her shoulder. But I stand in my place, arms crossed over my chest.

Uhmma says, Now it is my turn to do the right thing for you. For us. I told Gomo that we could take care of ourselves. My strong children and I will be fine without Apa. (30.27-29)

Time to break out that box of tissues because you can't get more heartwarming than Uhmma's major mea culpa to Young Ju. And she's right—in all her efforts to be a good wife, she loses sight on being a good mom and protecting her children from danger, even if that source of danger is their dad. This is a huge turnaround moment for Uhmma, one that definitely isn't lost on Young Ju, who—after all of this—does hug and lean on Uhmma.

I study these lines of history and wish to erase them. Remove the scars, the cuts, fill in the cracks in the skin. I envelop Uhmma's hands in my own tender palms. Close them together. Like a book. A Siamese prayer. I tell her, I wish I could erase these scars for you. Uhmma gently slips her hands from mine. She stares for a moment at her callused skin and then says firmly, These are my hands, Young Ju. (31.19)

What is our duty to history, especially our own? If we go by Uhmma's philosophy, then it's about keeping all those lines, scars, and cuts—keeping the evidence of history intact. After all, that's what makes Uhmma (and Young Ju and us) who she is.

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