A*, beneath her mask, is soft-spoken for a talk show/reality TV host. She’s got hair like mine- only neat and stylish with light brown highlights. When she speaks English, she sometimes falters and her long lashes bat. Within a few minutes or our introduction, my gamine friend Erin explains that A lights up on camera and because I trust my friend, I believe it. (Watching show clips after our run, Erin was not just being polite. A has a sun-lit presence on screen.) The three of us meet at the entrance to Heckscher playground in Central Park. Our “run,” it turns out, is the type of walk I adore–the kind without any destination or rigid time constraints.
Before COVID, A starred on a popular reality television show that aired in Korea. The show followed a famous basketball player, pianist and A, a former actress, as they moved from Korea to America. The episodes that involved A’s exploits with UES private school mothers including Erin doing mundane things like exercising and drinking Korean beer were the highest rated ones.
Rounding the path that leads away from the Playground, we made small talk about Korean dramas and our mutual appreciation for Lee Min-Ho, a Korean actor, known for among other things his beauty–his stark Adam’s apple and a high Roman-like nose that is unusual among Koreans. The three of us bond (me clapping my hands gleefully) over the fact that he is starring in the film adaptation of the deservingly beloved Korean novel Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Two birds with one stone, indeed.
As we admired the park’s glorious, late-in-the-season rain of foliage that those who have fled the city must miss, we were stopped by two Chinese tourists who asked A and I in their eager, hardscrabble version of English where they could find a Japanese elm tree in the park. To my surprise, Erin, not missing a beat, pointed across the path at a sizable though non distinct tree; I assumed she was being helpful. (I’m not sure she really knew it was the Japanese elm. I have to ask her.) As we extricated ourselves from the grateful ladies, Erin and A spoke of what can only be called the bullying that A experienced on social media and on seemingly benign forums like her New York City Korean church’s chat board during the height of the show’s popularity. A spoke quietly and reluctantly of the anonymous snipes on her church’s chat board-mocking her life choices, her outfits and making up things she’d said such as referring to herself as a celebrity. The bullying carried over to Instagram even after she’d withdrawn all photos of herself to just post photos of her cooking. Even her food caused rancor. “Look, she’s so gourmet now!” a Korean mother sniped. Understanding that every culture has their judgmental, status-hungry set, we discussed the unique subcultures of Korean-American church mothers and private school parents that cannot be denied. Apparently, the ultimate insult in the Korean-American church crowd seems to be to accuse someone of being conceited or vain; for someone modest and eager to accommodate like A, I can imagine the horror she felt by comments that might seem almost innocuous to non-Korean-Americans. To these ladies, for Chrissakes, get a hobby like the rest of us!
Later, as the three of us walked side by side around the Reservoir, no doubt an annoyance to runners, A and Erin got us talking about the intractable gloom of middle school for kids that has not vanished during COVID times. Our discussion of social cliques, of kids sitting alone at lunch tables, of the corrosive quest for conformity, lead us to the inevitable–the fact that all the anti-bullying messaging in the world can’t stop middle school girls from being insidious she-wolves. How can we help our kids survive these years? Admittedly, my approach of annoyingly chirping on about how college is the Promised Land and how the six years leading up to it are the necessary desert of eating lame, flavorless bread, is not helpful. (I don’t really use this overworked analogy, but the ideas are there.) Particularly hard to sell that pep talk when social bullying/stigmatization can last into adulthood. See A’s example.
As a former scholarship kid who surfed through six private schools in NYC, our grim conversation made me shudder re my own youth in which I was often the newbie; how to forget the shame of sitting alone at a lunch table while revelers surrounded me on all sides! Who could forget that shy me, going by my middle name Soomee, forced to sit alone with Japanese student Natsumi Yamada during lunch time at the Riverdale Country Day cafeteria. Natsumi and Soomee, what a comic pairing. She spoke little English, liked drawing manga and ate sushi from a Bento box long before those things were stamped with approval. How I longed for a chattier friend who didn’t have a bowl haircut and knee socks that couldn’t make it past her big calves. (I was a quiet bitch Natsumi; Let’s meet again. We’ll be fast friends!)
I wondered as the three of us slowed our walking to a shuffle, why no one ever told us that it’s not bedtime, feeding issues, not having time for one’s own interests or teenage defiance that truly makes parenthood sometimes feel like a solemn march, it’s watching our offspring trying to grasp social hierarchies and find a place within. And then some kids. seem so fragile to be let loose into the world.They remind me of Thousand Words, that beautiful horse at this year’s Kentucky Derby who, clearly anxious and/or less equipped, fell backwards on his own head in the paddock and was disqualified. Imagine the jockeys, owners and trainers watching from the sidelines-impotent. Surely we can’t let kids who are not fully equipped just flail around alone. Something must be done.We three moms circling the Reservoir grew quiet contemplating this. An app/site for lonely middle schoolers to make new friends that goes beyond connecting on Instagram and TikTok? A renewed anti bullying campaign with incentives for kids who sit next to lonely kids at lunch? ( Hey Melania, you’ve got a few weeks or so- get to work!). In the end, we , parted ways with Covid style awkward waves bye. There were no great solutions; just a memorable walk in circles.
*I had to scrap her name or mention her show because she’s been bullied on social media and I didn’t want anyone to read this. It seemed the only way I could write about her.