The Children Who Can’t Say Can’t

  • onApril 5, 2017
  • Vol.35 Spring 2017
  • bySeo Hajin

"There isn’t a finger that doesn’t hurt when bit,” goes the Korean saying, meaning every one of your children is precious. But in my case, one finger does hurt more than the others, and that’s my first child, my son. As a boy, he was very gentle and never gave me any trouble. He’s thirty this year, but even now I sometimes open his bedroom door at night to look upon his sleeping face, simply grateful he’s still here. When a child runs away, most Korean mothers would think their child must’ve fallen in with some bad kids or was bullied; it couldn’t possibly be the child’s fault. And when my son ran away in his senior year of high school, I became one of these mothers. He returned four days later and refused to go to college. I thought it was just stress, as his grades weren’t bad and his teachers praised him.

So I sat down with him to help him practice essay writing and debate, which got him accepted to an engineering program at a good school. I thought he enjoyed it there. He joined clubs, went on trips, and took a part-time job. I had no idea he was secretly on leave from university.

When I confronted him, he confessed that his courses were too hard for him, and that he couldn’t bear telling me so. Thinking it over, we decided to allow him to do what he wanted, which was to study psychology in the US. After touring and applying to about twenty schools on the East Coast, he was accepted to a well-known school. That was in 2007, so ten years ago now. He never finished He kept delaying his graduation; at first I assumed it was because he had started late to begin with. Then one day, a friend called saying she had seen my son working at a supermarket. My son, who should’ve been in America! I can’t even begin to describe my feelings as I searched for him and tried to convince him to return home. When he did, he told me it had been impossible to finish his psychology degree at that American university. And once again, he had found it unbearable to tell me the truth . . . I was, after all this time, still a mother who had refused to hear the word “can’t”!

I don’t think of my son as particularly pliant, or that I’m overbearing. Korean mothers typically sacrifice so much, which makes their children feel indebted. And teachers are always saying, “You can do it. You have what it takes.”

And our children, who never get to learn the meaning of failure, realize at some point that sometimes you just “can’t.” But the realization comes too late. And in their inability to process failure, they grasp at straws by throwing themselves into civil servant exams or corporate jobs, haunting the test-prep goshichon neighborhoods as they stumble into adulthood. Perhaps an education that doesn’t include the word “can’t” is an important reason why so many Koreans are unable to find happiness today. 


by Seo Hajin

Author's Profile

Seo Hajin is an assistant professor at Kyung Hee University’s Department of Korean Language and Literature. She has published two novels and six short story collections. The English edition of A Good Family came out from Dalkey Archive Press in 2015. She has received the Hahn Moo-Sook Literary Prize, Baek Shin-ae Literary Award, and Kim Jun Sung Literary Award.