Alicia Romero talks to fiction writer Ji Hyun Joo about mothers and daughters, the risks of assimilation, and the Korean bathhouse.
Alicia Romero: Ji Hyun, as I reflected on your story, I wondered how you came to your story title, “Queen’s Luxury Spa” (NER 41.4). How does it become symbolic in how Mother and Daughter communicate? How does the scrubbing and washing at the spa reflect the emotional condition of both of your main characters?
Ji Hyun Joo: I’ve always found the Korean public bathhouses, called mokyoktang, to be really interesting spaces, mainly because my relationship with them throughout the years has changed. When my mom used to take me to them during visits to Korea, I was terrified of them. I was terrified of being naked around so many other women, whose bodies had progressed and experienced so much farther than I ever imagined for my own. There was a violence in scrubbing so hard that rolls of skin fell off. Now, I understand it as a form of bonding, one of the best kinds, and I yearn for access to them in ways that I didn’t before. As I was writing this piece, I continued to return to my altered view of this space. For Mother, the scrubbing and washing is a form of solace, the mokyoktang a space where she can bond with women who have experienced similar pains. While for the daughter, there is still a level of detachment from finding comfort in these actions.
AR: Assimilation for those of us who come from immigrant families can be complicated and sometimes painful. Can you discuss how the tension between the mother and daughter characters gets amplified as they adjust to a different culture? How, in your opinion, does assimilation manifest itself differently in parents and in their children?
JHJ: For Mother, she’s had a specific way of envisioning life for herself and her daughter, which Daughter finds suffocating. When daughter is unable to follow these dreams that Mother has set for her, her view of Mother shifts; in a way, Mother has become fragile. Daughter hides important details of her life from her, which, of course, creates distance, even though the intention is to protect Mother from the drastically different person she’s become. I can’t speak for everyone because the experiences of immigrant families are different. I feel they shouldn’t be grouped simply into one collective bundle. But from what I’ve experienced with my own family, assimilation has created significant emotional distance on both parties. My parents live in Korea now, and the few times that I get to see them, I am someone different. I’m constantly taking on an altered shape, but they can’t articulate what the shape is, just the complexities that contribute to the changes I exhibit.
AR: As part of the plot in your story, the reader gets a glimpse of your character’s life on the East Coast in New York and even in her marriage to her white husband. Can you explain why her life there unravels?
JHJ: I’m always so interested to see different interpretations about the ex-husband, as information about his background is very sparse. The ex-husband is not white. Her life unravels because she can’t handle the heaviness of the secret she’s keeping from Mother, that she married a man outside of her own culture. Within the secret of the marriage hides the truth that she’s become someone unrecognizable to her only family.
AR: What were some of the decisions you had to make while editing your final text, and what did you learn from them? How does having two languages and two cultures play into your editing choices? Does it affect it at all?
JHJ: I wanted my readers to understand my characters deeply. Both Mother and Daughter may not be likable. In a way, they are both selfish in their wants for their own lives, and their expectations for one another. I wanted them to be understood. Even for those who’ve never had to hide parts of themselves to their family, I wanted them to see why Mother and Daughter chose to. For this piece, having two languages and two cultures didn’t sway my editing choices. I think both aspects made space in the story quite naturally in the writing process.
AR: The ending of your story presents some questions for the reader. For example, what will life be like for these two women in the future? Your story suggests that Mother and Daughter are more similar than they are aware. If you were to look into the daughter’s future, what do you think it might look like? Are you hopeful for her?
JHJ: This is such an exciting question, one that I hadn’t thought about! My hope is that Mother and Daughter will better understand one another. I’m not sure what that might look like because I think it’ll take lots of time and dialogue, but I’d like to think it’s a possibility in their far future.
AR: Tensions between mothers and daughters run deep and complex in all cultures. How do you think mothers and daughters can learn to support each other and improve their relationship in difficult times?
JHJ: This may be the most obvious response, but my heart is very honestly grabbing on to this one answer: Talking to one another.
AR: How do you, personally, feel about immigrants assimilating into a second culture? How much is too much or too little and do you think there are consequences for both?
JHJ: Again, I can’t speak for anyone but myself. It’s very complicated. I remember when I was growing up in San Diego, within a very small, tight-knit Korean community, assimilation was both applauded and frowned upon. Assimilation was both survival and the catalyst for abandoning one’s roots. Personally, I don’t like the idea that one must assimilate, primarily because assimilation indicates change on a deep level. It instills the belief that people must alter themselves completely to belong, and I don’t believe that’s productive.
AR: How is decoding more than just words, in your opinion?
JHJ: Decoding is love. Understanding what someone is saying without them having to say it, or saying something completely different, that’s a level of intimacy that’s deep, born from lots of observation.
AR: Thank you, Ji Hyun. Your story reminds this reader of the indelible value of reading between the lines.
Ji Hyun Joo is a writer from San Diego based in Astoria, New York. She is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction at Columbia University, where she is a recipient of the 2020 Felipe P. De Alba Fellowship. Her works have been published in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s online magazine the Margins, the online publication Winter Tangerine, and the journal Bomb Cyclone.
Alicia Romero is a fiction reader for NER.