Study Guide

A Step from Heaven Passivity

By An Na

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Halmoni, who is old and has a sleepy blanket face, says that a long time ago Apa was young like me and she could boss him around. But not anymore. Now, Halmoni can only shake her head when Apa comes home late stinking like the insides of the bottles that get left on the street. Her lips pinch tight, then she hides with Uhmma and me. (2.3-4)

It's hard not to be passive if you're old and frail like Halmoni. It's not like she can beat her son, who's physically (and maybe mentally) more powerful than she. Even though Halmoni can't go mano-a-mano against her son, we're thinking she's setting a pretty weak example for Uhmma and Young Ju. There have got to be better ways of dealing with an abusive son other than hiding, right?

Do you like it, Young Ju? Uhmma is smiling. Happy lots of teeth smile. Happy as the letter about Mi Gook. Happy at me. Even though Uhmma tells me I should always tell the truth, and Halmoni says God will be very angry if you lie, I want Uhmma to smile happy lots of teeth at me. Young Ju, do you like your curly hair? I look at the floor. Yes, I lie, quiet as snow. (5.59-61)

People like to think that passivity is genetic or racial or whatever, but this scene kind of shows you how simple the origins of passivity can be. It's about getting someone—in this case, Uhmma—to be happy with you.

Only now when I sit in the back seat I have to cover the parts that say a little mouse has been here because I am the only Mouse in the family. Everyone else has important signs like Tiger or Dragon. (8.2)

This is passage is like a big sign flashing character flaw for Young Ju—all this business about having a mouse as her Chinese astrological sign is really just another way of telling us that Young Ju is a shy, passive character. You should know this too though: there really isn't a mouse in Chinese astrology—the actual sign is a rat, which is worth keeping in mind as Young Ju develops as a character.

Please, Uhmma, I say in my head. Please say it. Please. Please. Please. Uhmma takes away her hand. Blood drips down her chin. Her lips are broken grapes. She says with her eyes closed, It is not forever. (9.28-29)

Here's the scene: Apa wants Uhmma to stop sighing and worrying about moving out of his sister's house too early and into the crappy apartment they've just rented. In his words, the whole situation "is not forever." To get Uhmma to submit, Apa resorts to violently beating her, which is why Young Ju—who witnesses the scene—just wants Uhmma to submit and repeat Apa's words. Young Ju wants the violence to stop.

Apa starts to laugh. Joon Ho, who do you think you are? A fireman? Yes, I am, Joon says. He shakes his go-chu clear of the last drops and pulls up his shorts. Peach Fuzz scratches his head and leans forward to see if the mound of bubbles has disappeared. Joon stands with his hands on his hips like he is challenging the kid to do better. Joon orders Peach Fuzz around in Korean. Peach Fuzz nods as though he understands and the two of them build a mound of bubbles. (12.44-46)

First things first: go-chu is Korean for penis. Which means that here we basically have Joon Ho, Young Ju's little brother, shaking his penis free of pee out in the middle of the street. Why? Because boys can do things like that and nobody—especially proud fathers like Apa—really cares. In fact, this scene is just another way of saying that the boy who's willing to shake his penis out in public (literally) ends up being the more dominant boy. Notice how Peach Fuzz, Joon Ho's American friend, does whatever Joon tells him.

I forgot how to be a man, Joon says. A betraying tear slides down his face and Joon hurries to brush it off. What are you crying for? Joon shrugs. Wrong answer. Apa slams his hand across Joon's face. Joon's head jolts back. A howl escapes from his lips. Uhmma comes to the doorway and stands behind me. She calls out to Apa over my head, Yuhboh, that is enough. Apa turns toward her voice. Shut up, Apa says. Keep out of it. This is my son and he will not grow up weak… Apa continues, In this world, only the strong survive. Only the strong can make their future. If you cry and whine like a girl, who is going to listen to you? Who? If you talk like a man, fight like a man, you will get what you want in this world. Do you understand? Yes, Joon whispers. (16.69-84)

Okay—let's figure out the logic here. In order to get Joon to be strong like a man, Apa beats Joon into passive submission until Joon ends up whispering his replies. Hrm… See a problem here? How is Joon becoming a strong man when he's getting a (literal) first-hand lesson in passivity? How does Apa's logic work exactly?

The crashing is loud and strong. I plug my ears but can still hear Apa's loud yelling. Who do you think you are? Questioning me. Slap. Stop it, I say to myself. Go out there and stop it. But I do nothing. Say nothing. Only listen to the walls like a shameful mouse. (21.9-10)

This is Young Ju at the peak of her passivity. If you've been reading along, you'll know that being "a shameful mouse" is something Young Ju believes is innate in her character—but we're not so sure, because clearly there's a strong voice in Young Ju's head telling her to act differently. Is being "a shameful mouse" really who Young Ju is? Or is she just beating herself up over something that isn't her fault to begin with?

As Uhmma straightens the clutter of makeup on her dresser, she says, Your life can be different, Young Ju. Study and be strong. In America, women have choices. I stand up. Stare straight at Uhmma. You have choices, Uhmma. Uhmma refuses to meet my gaze. (26.65-67)

So where's the mouse now? Young Ju's growing up and along with this comes her newfound boldness. Here she is telling her mother to stand up for herself against Apa and—more or less—leave him. Not so passive now, is she?

A dull thud and Uhmma's scream halts my prayers. I open my eyes, and from somewhere inside my body, an answering scream finds its way out of my throat.

I don't think, just move. I lunge for the phone by the armchair. The three numbers are pressed so quickly I barely have time to hold the phone to my ear before a voice comes on, "Nine one one." (28.41-42)

For Young Ju, moving from passivity to action takes a moment of crisis. In this case, it's the fact that her dad truly might be beating Uhmma to the point of no return.

After the police handcuff Apa and take him away, Uhmma drives down to the police station with her face so badly bruised and misshapen an officer forces her to go to the hospital. 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. (29.1)

Is this loyalty or is it passivity? Or are the two the same thing in this case? Uhmma won't press charges on her abusive husband even though it's clear that he's a grade-A jerk/criminal. What would be the right thing to do? Is pressing charges the only way to be an active, powerful person in this situation?

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