The Axiom of Reciprocity

A 79-year-old Korean American resident of New Jersey writes to his 34-year-old nephew, his younger sister’s son, from California, who has stayed the whole summer of 2017 at his house, attending community college.

Aug 23, 2017

Dear Tom,

Congratulations on your excellent grades for all the intensive summer courses. Determined as you are to make up for the years lost you’ll keep up the momentum to complete BA and post-graduate degrees and pursue a professional career.

You are also to be commended for saving enough money in a few weeks, working part time, to finance a trip home over the Labor Day holiday, proof that you are a capable adult who need not depend on the charity of your relatives or friends. Dependence is despicable, because it violates the fundamental principle of life, reciprocity. That’s why I have told everybody that you were staying with us only for a short visit.

The time has come for us to end that visit as it has become untenable. We have been avoiding each other, a relatively easy proposition because your semi-basement suite is accessible through the garage without intruding on us. For meals, however, you have to come upstairs to the kitchen on the first level, making sure I am not there eating. But occasional brushes are inevitable and I beat a hasty retreat to my study grabbing whatever containers of food at hand to give you free rein. Obviously, we can’t go on like this.

In hindsight we shouldn’t have embarked on our communal experiment. Your Mom sounded upbeat, telling me that she and your father were finally closing on the sale of their Japanese restaurant in San Francisco, and I thought they must have cleared a million bucks at least. In the next breath, however, she said their net was zero after paying off accumulated debts, including the 10-year-old debt of some $50,000 to Brenda, my daughter. Penniless, they were moving in with your brother Frank and his wife Liz, both doctors in Los Angeles, to be their infant son’s full time babysitters. But when asked about you, she said matter-of-factly that you would be left where you were to fend for yourself, Frank’s two-bedroom apartment being overcrowded as it was. All I had heard about you was that you had dropped out of college after falling into bad company and got addicted to drugs but had miraculously kicked the habit and worked as sushi chef at your parents’ and other restaurants.

I don’t know whether it was your Mom misleading me, knowing how I always felt about her (I was 12 and she 1, when our father died in October 1950 during the Korean war) or me overreacting and misreading the signals. It just tore me up to hear her ending up with nothing after working her butt off for 20 years and going off to live in Los Angles leaving you behind, evocative of black family members being sold off to different owners in the olden days. Of course the analogy is all wrong because there was no such tragedy afoot. You had been on your own and not living with your parents for quite some time. Also your parents are parents, not live-in servants, to Frank and Liz, who were buying a multi-bedroom house to accommodate them. But the imagery of slavery stuck and compelled me to step in as the magnanimous uncle to keep the family together. I gave your Mom enough money for all three of you to come over for a visit to my house in New Jersey after the sale closed. In addition, I told her you could stay with us, if you so chose. Obsessed by the urgency to prevent the crisis of family breakup, I had given little or no thought to post-crisis management, except some vague notion that the arrangement might turn out mutually beneficial over the long haul. You could get a good job as a sushi chef and bring home left over sashimi, or help with house cleaning, maintenance, or remodeling. We might even go into business together, buying old houses and remodeling, then selling for profit. In other words, I hoped for some monetary or other return for your room and board, worth at least $3,000 a month, the sum offered by a Korean family wanting us to take in their high school child. Naturally I was miffed, when you came enrolled in community college, so you could go on to be a doctor like Frank this late in your life. Not only was there to be no big payoff from your live-in labor but, unbeknownst to me, I was inextricably committed to making huge scholarship payments, a suspicion confirmed soon enough.

Preoccupied with job hunting and school work you couldn’t spare any of yourself for us but even if you had all the time in the world you wouldn’t have bothered. A born slob you don’t even clean your suite, let alone the rest of the house. I hinted at thinking out of the box and going into construction, rather than following the academic routine, and you dismissed it out of hand. With a visceral aversion to manual labor in general you refused to continue as a chef and opted for salesmanship at a department store though I couldn’t see much difference.

Your careless wastefulness got on my nerves. There was plenty of natural light but you turned on all the lights and wouldn’t turn them off when leaving the house. Despite numerous reminders you flipped the wrong switch and turned on the outdoor lights. It’s a wonder our Samsung washer and dryer are still holding up after such abuse from all your laundry, not only your daily quota of sweat-drenched clothes explained below but what you had brought over from San Francisco, including blankets, mats, tennis shoes. Then there was your gargantuan appetite, about five times mine. We had no choice but to refuse supporting your no carb “royal diet,” a typical meal consisting of a couple of pounds of animal protein mixed in a 12-inch diameter metal bowl, for no ordinary plate would serve the purpose, with spinach, kimchee, dwenjang stew, red pepper sauce, etc. (but no rice or noodle we plebeians eat), and you started buying pork, steak, and chicken, but not the other Korean dishes, doubling, tripling Auntie’s visits to the Korean supermarket and delis with their toll on her colitis. Since you started cooking, the paper towel on the two holders had to be replaced in a matter of days, not weeks, and the dish washing liquid refilled three times quicker, not to mention the torrents of water, always hot, splashed and wasted, not metered to trickles, always cold, as before.

To seal the leak in your shower door I needed the stall to be dry and told you to shower upstairs or, better still, at the 24-hour fitness center where you went every day without fail, which would incidentally shrink our water and gas bill big time because you showered prodigiously. I was astounded by your flat refusal, though it made absolutely no sense not to wash off all the sweat worked up and let it soil the clothes. I saw it only as some kind of malice to go on wasting my gas and water but the reason given was inconvenience of carrying in all your stuff. What stuff other than a towel and soap, unless you were a woman? You were to shower at the gym but your shower was wet when checked a few days later. Your excuse this time was that one’s shower was private and not to be shared with others. But, then, what about dorms, military bases, YMCA’s, public baths, club houses? You countered that the gym showers were dirty. On the contrary, they were cleaned daily, unlike yours you never had cleaned, I pointed out. You then said you hated seeing naked men, their dongs swinging. But why should that bother you when you had one, too? Telling you how I had showered at a gym every day and enjoyed it enormously because I didn’t have to clean or maintain when I lived a whole year in an office as my family had moved to New York ahead of me, I repeated the decree to stop showering at home, only to be ignored.

The tensions mounting between us came to a head on June 19, 2017, my birthday as it happens, a couple of weeks after your parents’ return to California. No sooner had we all sat down to eat than I had to leave the table to service a business call in the study. When I returned about five minutes later, you were polishing off your royal diet in the metal bowl. Then I noticed the empty dish that had about 2 pounds of stir-fried beef with onion, mushroom, and Chinese cabbage, Auntie’s specialty, apparently all tossed into the gigantic bowl and dispatched. Auntie was back in the kitchen cleaning up and putting away. I said you could have saved some of the stir-fried out of common decency and you flew off the handle. Jumping up from the table, you swore you wouldn’t eat my food. We shouted at each other, calling names, and I was ordering you to get out instantly. Auntie intervened, pushed me upstairs, and, pointing out you didn’t have enough money to rent as you had just started working, told me to give you at least until the end of the summer session.

That was the deadline announced upon my smelling cigarette odor as you entered the house on the first day: either you had to quit smoking by the end of the summer session or had to find alternative housing, because I couldn’t abide smokers, period. You laughed and said you would try. I reiterated the seriousness of the deadline now and then but each time you waved it off as if it were a big joke. You were opening and closing your garage door several times at night, the grinding of the motor audible upstairs, so you could go out and smoke. You would have left it open all night, had I not objected lest rodents should stampede in from the surrounding woods. Instead I urged you to take the simple solution of quitting altogether. You laughed it off. Once I put on your hood a mug found outside the garage door with a cigarette butt stubbed out in dried coffee. No response. Next I resorted to a similar display of cigarette butts collected from the front yard. This time you reacted with denial: they were not even your brand, a lie because nobody came around to our gated community to litter like that. Later you told Auntie that you were smoking away from the house, as if that were a big concession.

Suppressing my chagrin, because I had not yelled so loud at another human being, I have waited until now when your summer classes ended. Look for a new place to move out to when you return from California. Search online. I told you about my year-long stay in an office for around $200, utilities included, where I could keep a refrigerator and cook, though I had to shower at a 24-hour fitness gym, a point of honor for which you see fit to defy me, but when push comes to shove I am sure you are flexible and resilient enough to adjust. Likewise with smoking. If necessary, when you find a good place to stay, except for the iron rule excluding smokers from the community, I am sure you’ll adjust and quit. Moreover, you may soon find all this talk about cheap rent irrelevant. I hear Frank has a business partner in Fort Lee who is going to hire you at a much better salary than at your present job.

Even living away from us, you will always be invited to our family gatherings, as you have been, but don’t think you are doing us a favor by coming and spreading your charm. They cost but we want to include you. Likewise your cousins go out of their way to help you, as Brenda did with your school work, though she is a full time executive. I am glad to see this affection among you but, bearing in mind that axiom, reciprocity, remember to do to those as you have been done to by them. Ingratitude is a vile thing and takers or users are beyond the pale.

Your Uncle

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