What Can’t Be Explained Through Pictograms

or How the Voices of Korean Birth Mothers Become the Voices in my Head

Finalist of the 2022 Fourth Genre Multimedia Essay Prize

by | Jun 1, 2023 | Multimedia


I was raised in the church, taught
a woman’s worth was how she guarded
her heart, her purity. Fear

kept me from having sex as a teenager,
even when I met my husband. I never 

wanted to disappoint anyone, especially
my parents. They had become pregnant young, 

derailing my dad’s plans to go to medical school
and my mom’s to become a social worker. 

My brother and I grew up without them—
parents lost to Redcap sewing factory, IGA, 

and Rockwell Die Casting. A baby was a
thwarter of plans, a taker of dreams. 

When we told them our pregnancy news, I
couldn’t release the words, looked 

to my husband. Their first question
was if the doctor thought I’d be healthy 

enough to carry. Could I also carry my shame? 


We carry sons for husbands, wear
empire waists that balloon over
our bellies; or we don’t want to carry
the son or daughter of lovers, choosing
tunics, anything that moves away
from the body. Some of us have nothing
to show or hide, but wish we did. We stuff
our pants to look larger. 

Our bodies forever changing,
some stretching, feeding a life
in addition to our own, some
feeding lies. 


I was dead for ten years in my 20’s,
laid up in coffin-beds of crinkling paper
in examination rooms, feeling the fluorescent
lights through Maui Jim shades, imagining
myself growing larger then shrinking as if becoming one
with the light. 

I remember it like I remember dreams:
disjointed moments that never say
what they mean—
dark rooms, closed eyes, wishes for pain
to go away or sleep to find me first
under a cream-colored JCPenney comforter
with a small opening for my mouth, 

a husband who serves me plates
of leftovers I didn’t make,
the pulsating vein in my head that can
be pulled like a string from a bean to make me
right again 

scales that read 104,
dry heaves over a wishing well that flushes

Before we could lift our arms,
flex fingersto say give us our baby,
the social worker emerged
from the curtain, a curve
whocame too soon. 

She took them with stiff arms, bowed
to the doctor, never looking
at us, burying our babies
into her chest so they couldn’t
see her carry them out, gone.

We strained to hear their cries
over the clangs of cold metal
instruments in pans.We sucked
in tears, too embarrassed
to cry.

What we had done was beautiful
like the Pojagi patchwork quilts
our mother smade, our raw edges
trapped inside their seams, beautiful
just likewhat othersmust do behind
their boundlives, that we, too,
were connected,


I once slept with a baseball bat: black, wooden
heavy. I cradled it between my legs like a pillow,
my weapon of choice against what I thought
would break through my window to harm me,
take me away. I must have known the bat
couldn’t possibly do anything—how could I, a
child of seven, overpower a man? 

But it made me feel better. The illusion. Safety
could exist. I could touch it. It was as real as the
man who lingered outside. It wasn’t enough to
lull me to sleep, but it did quiet the voices.


Where did they go? Thousands, year after
year, vanished. Boarded onto planes, sent
places, rich, mostly white. We wanted a better life
for them
, we said. A life where they wouldn’t carry
this shame.
We pictured them in houses,
dandelion lands, places they could lie down,
watch clouds, dream where they wanted to be. 

How were we to know that they’d dream to
be with us again? How were we to know they
couldn’t make pictures in their minds because
they didn’t know the concrete of our city, the
smells of sesame and fish, faces that look like

Our phantom children.

We can’t see them, but we feel them pressed
to our chests, their absence from our bellies.
They are mostly fresh, not grown. We imagine
them like our lovers, our other children, never


Our yard has a cherry tree, planted to
remember those two springs when we
travelled to Seoul, walked palace 
walkways lined by those flowering trees, 
and first became parents. A few feet 
away in our yard, a Buddha, left by the
previous owner. The statue had been a
sign—when we’d travelled to adopt our
daughter, her first birthday fell on 
Buddha’s, a national holiday. Pink, yellow,
orange, and blue paper lanterns hung in the
busy streets, his chubby face outlined in
black and printed on each one. 

Our walkway is lined with lavender, and
jasmine snakes the trellis. The air carries
our children’s giggles as they kick their 
feet to push themselves higher on the
swing. A dog barks at the blue jay that
squawks high in the tree. 

And somewhere below, 
water rushes. 


Draw a map of subway stops—places
where life turned, where you walked in
circles, trying to find a way out and above
never-ending circuits. 

Draw a family tree, roomy enough for
people you’ve never met. Show how their
roots entangle with yours, messy and
knotted, yet produce fruit.

You can transplant them, but we never
forget. You can take our seeds, but they
will never be only yours. The seeds
remember, too.

Jamey Temple

Jamey Temple

Jamey Temple is a writer and professor who teaches English at University of the Cumberlands in Eastern Kentucky. Her poetry and prose have been included or forthcoming in several publications such as Riverteeth, Rattle, and Appalachian Review. You can read more of her work through her website.