Friday, August 01, 2008

Falling down in Koreatown

Back in 1996, at the age of 43, Heather King found herself married but childless, and living in Koreatown, a suburb of Los Angeles crowded with large immigrant families.

The experience led her to break with the liberal culture she had grown up with. As a young woman, Heather King believed "passionately" in the freedom to have casual sex and to take drugs. She fell pregnant a number of times and ended up having three abortions; she refused to consider motherhood out of fear that it might limit or restrict her lifestyle:

Coming of age in the '60s, I believed passionately in sexual freedom and the concomitant right to choose abortion. Also a staunch supporter of drinking and drugs, I became deeply alcoholic and sobered up in my mid-thirties to discover that I had somehow graduated from law school. I have now been married for six years, and, at forty-three, am childless.

It is difficult to admit that two of the babies I aborted were conceived with married men, one of whom was a one-night stand, and that the third abortion was performed during the course of a long-term relationship. I would like to be able to say that I agonized over the decisions, but the fact is that they were based on expedience and fear.

Motherhood would have disrupted my life in every conceivable way. It would call upon resources I was not at all certain I possessed--patience, selflessness, the ability to go without sleep--and I viewed it, frankly, as a kind of prison sentence. It seemed inconceivable that a woman would actually invite the upheaval that a baby entails. I don't care how much joy they say it brings, I said to myself, no way am I getting sucked into that trap.

She then devoted herself to a career as a lawyer:

When we arrived in Koreatown, I was working as a litigation attorney in a Beverly Hills office. I could scarcely have been more temperamentally ill-suited for the job, but it was the first time in my life I had made decent money and I was desperately afraid to give it up. My eyes, red-rimmed with fatigue, fell upon the bimonthly paycheck with the same grim relish a buzzard displays for carrion; I dragged through each day consumed by anxiety and the hideous fear that I would contract some stress-based disease and keel over dead at my desk.

Finally she began to reconsider the values on which her life had been founded:

During those four years my life felt, oddly enough, like a prison sentence--the sentence I had hoped to avoid by exercising intelligence backed by the unfettered exercise of free will. As a matter of fact, although I had enjoyed virtually every purported freedom that modern life has to offer, I realized that in one way, my life had always felt like a sentence. I had drunk and smoked and slept around to my heart's content, yet the apotheosis of my personal freedom had consisted of servitude to a bottle of booze and getting pregnant by someone whose name I barely knew ...

I had followed my own unguided will, and it had led me straight to hell on earth: an existence characterized by guilt, shame, doubt, insecurity, and the inability to love or be loved.

So the freedom to act in any direction guided by nothing more than individual reason was not liberating for Heather King. She had been misled, first by the belief that it is the absence of limit or restraint which represents human freedom, and second by the idea that individual reason alone is sufficient to guide us successfully through life.

Individual reason is important but it's not enough: not only does it vary in quality from individual to individual, even when it's strong it will still often take too long for individuals to learn important life lessons from scratch. As Burke famously wrote:

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that the stock in each man is small, and that individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.

Which brings us back to Koreatown, Los Angeles. Heather King moved there for the cheap rent, but felt alienated rather than enriched living in the midst of diversity:

It is a neighborhood under physical, mental, and spiritual siege. Here, encircled and infiltrated, we live in the agora. As I write, a man ten feet from my desk puffs a cigarette on his porch; I can see the whites of his eyes ...

Here it is not an exaggeration to say that somebody will steal it if it's not nailed down. Somebody, for instance, stole my brand-new bicycle, then somebody stole my car ...

The majority of our neighbors are Latino and Korean and the place is lousy with children. Mothers and fathers - mostly mothers - throng the sidewalk with their litters of offspring. I used to wonder with irritation why these people give birth so relentlessly ...

Three times a day the produce truck parks out front, blaring "Turkey in the Straw" or "O'er the Bounding Main" for twenty minutes at a stretch. At 8 P.M., a man who sells bread out of the back of his car pulls up and emits a haunting wail, like a mullah calling the devout to prayer ...

We fall asleep to the whirr of circling helicopters and the staccato lullaby of gunfire. Crack addicts propel their shopping carts through the alley; car alarms shriek like wounded animals; the spray cans of the graffiti "taggers" hiss audibly. Girlish screams follow the thud of fist against flesh.

The litter is ferocious. A set of unspoken rules prevails: when holding something you no longer have any use for--a newspaper, a napkin, a styrofoam cup--open your hand and let the thing drop to the ground where you stand. When finished eating, throw what's left - a chicken bone, a corn cob, a banana peel - in the street ...

When I do the dishes, I can see the Korean mother across the way stirring a pot and wiping her table. A kind of blue-net birdcage, housing what appear to be dead sardines, dangles from an eave; kimchee ferments below in an earthenware crock ...

There seem to be two things going on here. First, an understandable reaction to crime, overcrowding, and unfamiliar sights, sounds and social mores. How could Heather King relax and feel a sense of home in these conditions of diversity?

But it seems too that Koreatown challenged her liberal-left hostility to motherhood and family. She was confronted daily with the sight of large families and women surrounded by their children. This too was alien to her own social class and she records her negative response: "lousy with children", "litters of offspring".

But in re-examining her underlying values, she also came to question her negative attitude to motherhood. She has come to believe that the reasons she gave herself for her abortions were false:

The vague notion underlying my abortions, and I suspect of the vast majority of other women's as well, is the idea that there wouldn't be enough to go round--not enough time, not enough energy, not enough space, not enough people to help. But when I examined my motives honestly, I realized that though I said not enough for the kid, I meant not enough for me.

I mouthed platitudes about the global population boom; in fact, I was most worried about overcrowding in my own bedroom. I chafed against the "enforced labor" of motherhood while accepting without question the prevailing consumer ethic that sentences the vast majority of us to a lifetime of economic servitude.

The truth in my case is that there was not only enough to go round, there would probably have been more than most of the rest of the world will ever enjoy: maybe not an expensive home or fancy cars--I don't have those things now--but nourishing food and a roof over our heads and comfortable clothes. There would have been books and music and museums. It would have meant sacrifice, deferred plans, missed vacations, no slipcovered down sofa, no hundred-dollar shoes, but there would have been enough. The truth was that I simply did not want to share.

She now believes that motherhood might have changed her for the better:

If I discovered today I was pregnant, I hope my convictions would be steadfast and unwavering. I hope I would know enough to weigh my fear--of birth defects, of making do with less, of not being a good parent, of noise and anxiety and lack of sleep--against the possibility that a child would change me in ways I cannot imagine, in aspects of my life that probably desperately need changing.

What a pity, though, that this change of heart came so late in life, when the time for motherhood had probably passed by.


  1. A fascinating and horrifying piece. Thank you for introducing it. It shows a link between alienation from traditional (and biological) gender roles and alienation from ethnic identity. Liberal individualism, treating autonomy as the prime value, disrupts the process of finding a mate and having children. Without children one feels like an "individual" rather than part of a group with a past and future. One day you look out the window and you're surrounded by third-world aliens, who were let into your country and had children while you were enjoying your "autonomy."

    I take it this is from a Catholic source, which shows how we need to go outside the mainstream media to find truth these days.

  2. another good, interesting article. Well done Mark.

  3. @stephenhopewell-

    "One day you look out the window and you're surrounded by third-world aliens, who were let into your country and had children while you were enjoying your "autonomy." "

    A first-rate quote!