A week ago the world was horrified to learn that a 21-year-old American opened fire in three massage parlors in Atlanta and killed eight people, four of whom were Korean women. Many Koreans and Korean Americans were appalled at this apparent hate crime stemming from a xenophobic reaction to COVID-19, despite the shooter’s claim that a sex addiction motivated the shootings. Yet, according to a witness, the suspect shouted, “I am going to kill all Asians!” It was especially absurd because Korea had nothing to do with the origin of the pandemic.
According to newspaper reports, it was the suspect’s parents who helped the police arrest their son by informing them that their son’s Hyundai Tucson had a tracking device. This fact could appear surprising to many Korean parents who might wonder, “How could parents hand over their own son to police?” Surely, Korean parents would never do such a thing because they think parents’ love means they would protect their children under any circumstance.
We should know that all parents love their children. Due to cultural differences, however, foreign parents may exhibit different kinds of love toward their children. The Atlanta murder suspect’s parents are a good example. Although they may have loved their son, they must have thought, “If you truly love your son, you should bring him to justice and thus stop him from committing further crimes so that he will be responsible for what he has done.” It must be a heartbreaking decision for them, and yet they did what they thought was best for their son.
Indeed, parental love varies from one culture to another. For example, Korean mothers think that feeding their babies shows motherly love. On the contrary, American mothers train their baby to use a spoon, even though the baby might spill the food a lot. Korean mothers want to build a bond with their baby, whereas American mothers want the baby to be independent.
Parental overprotection may spoil children. In the critically acclaimed movie “Mother” (2009), Korean director Bong Joon-ho portrays an archetypal Korean mother who tries to protect her son, even though he has raped and killed a girl. Initially, the police arrest her son, but they release him when they find another suspect. The mother finds out that a junk collector witnessed the murder committed by her son. In order to cover up her son’s crime, the mother murders the junk collector. Koreans may find this mother’s love for her son deeply touching. In the eyes of foreigners, however, the mother’s distorted, blind love is wrong.
Some Koreans may think that Korean mothers are exceptionally admirable, but this is a cultural bias. The world is full of admirable, great mothers who love their children in their own way according to their customs and cultures. In the past when Korea was a more chauvinistic society than today, frustrated and disappointed Korean mothers devoted themselves to, and even sacrificed everything for, their children as compensation and comfort for their own social deprivation. However, that was a long time ago. Today’s younger Korean mothers are quite different.
Fathers, too, love their children. Some fathers are irresponsible and unreliable, and desert their children. However, there are many admirable fathers, like Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” who love and take care of their children admirably and wholeheartedly. Children may not notice, but fathers are often behind what they have achieved. Fathers may not be as meticulous as mothers are. Nevertheless, they, too, love their children in their own way.
The American nursery rhyme “Hush, Little Baby” seems to reflect a father’s love for his baby quite well. Presumably derived from folklore as many nursery songs are, this lullaby makes us a little sad with its melancholic melody and a farming father’s plans for his baby. It begins: “Hush, little baby, don‘t say a word/ Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird/ And if that mockingbird don‘t sing/ Papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring/And if that diamond ring turns brass/ Papa‘s gonna buy you a looking glass.” The nursery song begins with romantic stuff that babies find fascinating, such as a mockingbird, a diamond ring and a looking glass.
However, romantic stuff will no longer enchant the child as he or she gets older and faces harsh realities. Thus, the song eventually brings up realistic stuff the baby will need as he or she grows up on a farm. Thus, the father sings: “And if that looking glass gets broke/Papa’s gonna buy you a billy goat/And if that billy goat doesn‘t pull/ Papa’s gonna buy you a cart and bull.” Finally, the song ends, like this: “You‘ll still be the sweetest little babe in town.”
Parental love differs depending on countries and cultures. Nevertheless, all parents love their children. We should know that all mothers are great, and so are all fathers.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.