Monopoly: Against the Deck

Diana Ha

© Copyright 2020 by Diana Ha

Photo of a city scene.

The Korean version of Monopoly, at least for blue collars in New York in the 70s, went something like this. GO: Get an apartment. Move three spaces. Open a dry cleaner’s. Move six. Add $2000 to private chest. And after many, many rolls of the dice and the sweat equity that stacked the deck, you moved east, out of Main Street, and bought a house. Either my parents didn’t know the rules or the dice and cards were rigged because on our board, after hopping two hopeful spaces (a brief stay at two neighboring apartment buildings), my parents walked in place the next four decades.

We settled into The Willows, a euphemism for the prosaic brick six-story that personified Elmhurst. There we filed into the 5H studio before graduating to the one-bedroom on the first floor, eventually replacing my cousin on the third when she secured her house after moving her ten spaces in the game. The bedroom in 3F would give us room to breathe, the window in the kitchen a saving grace for Umma in the broiling summer. We were still new and fresh with hope of a life bigger than the building that stowed a cross section of Queens: Hispanic, Black, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, European, and Korean immigrants. The cologne, curry, and biting kimchee stew just sat, fat in that hallway, our unventilated life. No matter that Umma kept our home spotless. The roaches and rodents scuttered out from behind the walls and crevices of all those smells, all those countries jammed together, and one night a mouse licked my toe where I was sleeping on the wooden floor. I didn’t know if it was the one we found dead, neck pinned and bloody under the metal trap the next day. Mice squirmed other mornings, helpless on the sticky pad. I felt bad for Appa whom it fell on to clear these sated traps, and for all men, knowing they wished they could pass on the job.

It went like soft machine gunfire in the first floor apartment, the soundtrack to our life that greeted me after school. When I walked in, I’d see Umma feeding polyester squares through her sewing machine, the mountain of fabric at her feet growing as the one beside her shrank. She had joined the army of Latino and Asian garment workers who packed the industry in the 80s, but without the skill to navigate curves, she brought home patterns for strings and pockets she could shoot out in a merciful line. Nowhere to go but straight. My little brother David and I would use a chopstick to poke up a corner of the finished rectangles and flip them into shirt collars. At two cents a piece, time was the enemy. The flexible hours that enabled her to raise her kids did not transform easily into dollars. Umma moved fast, which is how the needle flew off the Singer and disappeared like lightning into her finger one day.

Gwen chahn ah. “I’m okay,” she assured Hal Muh Nee, swaddling the finger in a paper towel that soaked quickly with blood. Umma’s voice stayed soothing and artless as she sought to dispel her mother’s alarm. Umma spoke as though it were a bump of an arm even as I felt the burn of her pain. 

Umma had a high tolerance for pain. She skinned hot sweet potato right off the steamer to break it open for me and David, fingers unscathed. I don’t remember her ever having the cold or flu though she must’ve had her share in the sharp New York winter because she never complained, never took a day off. For many years, I ascribed her ready forbearance to personal character - thermoresistant powers aside - but it may have been something bigger, a part of a social contract. Having watched her mother feed and raise her family alone through the war and its aftermath, Umma understood that suffering followed women in a singular way.

Her father, a stern and taciturn man, passed away after giving blood to a cousin, leaving behind a wife and six children who, three years later, fled down the Korean peninsula on foot when the communist North invaded Seoul. My mother became the youngest in the family when her brother at three died en route from the pneumonia they could not treat in the winter flight. They buried him on the road, and Umma watched her mother put one foot in front of the other in silent heartache and grace.

Filling the patriarchal role, my mom’s eldest brother raised Umma in a psychological straight-jacket, giving her little room to see girlfriends, let alone date men. And so when Appa came along, she could not see beyond the gifts and the charm, could not begin to wrap her head around the suffering that awaited her. The drinking and beating, even as she was carrying me, her honeymoon baby, were bad enough. One time when I was three, the knife he hurled barely missed her. But she didn’t learn who his lover was until five years into the marriage when Appa’s sister pointed at the woman who’d joined our family and friends at the airport to bid us farewell as we set out for the States. How could Umma know that the woman who’d befriended her, who'd come to her house with seaweed soup, had a history with her husband that predated her? Unable to make a scene, Umma, swollen in the last trimester with my brother, stuffed the shock and rage and got on the plane.

My parents didn’t know Elmhurst was the armpit of Queens, only that Umma’s second older brother had settled there with his wife and kids, and that it was among the more affordable places in the area. It had to be. No one knew you weren’t supposed to lay deep roots in Elmhurst, which meant you hadn’t done as well as Flushing, and that Koreans who found themselves getting an apartment in this city-town turned it into a stepping stone for the eventual leg up out to the suburbs of Bayside or Long Island. Most, anyway.

We touched down at John F. Kennedy Airport. We had made it. Mee Gook. America, where she’d been led to believe her husband would finally give himself to his marriage and family. This, more than anything, carried her, along with the unwritten promise of good things this country held for her children. Bracing herself for a whole new kind of suffering, for the go seng, trying to shake the incubus of her life in Korea, my mother did not have the wherewithal to dream or nurse the luxurious Western notion of emotional healing. She had mouths to feed. But like every newcomer to this land, she imagined reaching higher ground someday. Suffering, after all, is supposed to bring reward, especially if you’re good at it.

Would Umma have wanted to know that all her striving, all the dawn risings, the tens of thousands of dollars she’d save would, in her closing years, only deliver her to a blind alley, the very street where she’d first unpacked her bag and resolve?

I don't know why people seek out fortune tellers. Why would you want to know the heartaches that lie ahead, the betrayals, your failures, pull the curtain on the hardship that awaits? And the joys. We’re told to track down our dreams like they’re already ours. But then we’d have to expunge words like faith, hope, trust from our language, and God’s foreknowledge up our sleeve would no longer require living the questions. What would Umma have done, what could she have done, with that knowing, with her superhuman will, and the four walls that were her destiny? Of course life is more than a hefty mortgage and a garage, but what if the seven-by-four kitchen meant your life was small, very small? It ought to mean that one day you’ll have more room. What if - with never an inclination for books or study - she memorized historical facts about this new country and picked up enough English to recognize the test questions and passed the American citizenship test over against her husband’s naysaying?

When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?”

JuLY Poh, sebenteen sebendee seexeuh,” Umma would answer, her voice celadon glaze, smooth through the accent.

What if she even got her driver’s license and zoomed the highways of Queens to grab merchandise at the warehouse for the deli? What if those who saw the movie of her life said no one worked harder? No one had forgiven her husband so much or shoveled dirt in so big a hole he didn’t know how to fill to lay the ground for their life. She will spend herself for her family and the promise she’d made to herself that money would come and it would stay, that doggedness would win the day, that her husband would go to bed and wake up truthful, and the vicious fights would somehow cease. What would Umma have done knowing her best intentions, her hunger, her hopes were insufficient before she had even lifted that ambitious hand? How do you do life - why do life - if you know the end from the beginning, with no discovery and becoming in the journey?

What do you do with futility?

My heart hurt for Umma as she bustled about, collecting her things to get to the doctor. How is she going to get the needle out? I wondered. Apparently, that was a good question because the doctor left it in.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Diana Ha publishes in various genres. Her articles, narratives, and poetry feature in magazines and anthologies, among them New York's Emerging WritersCalifornia's Best Emerging Poets, and as an honoree in the Steve Kowit International Poetry Contest, The San Diego Poetry Annual. With a master's in education, she has headed the elementary Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program in the public schools, taught composition at California Baptist University, and teaches writing at education conferences. Diana discusses culture, writing, and achievement with over 16,000 followers on her blog at You can read more of her professional development services at

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