I am locked in a bathroom. I feel dizzy.
I hold tightly to my teddy bear and ask him, “Beary, have you met Mr. Hon?”
I introduce the two of them — the teddy bear meets the imaginary business man. “Now, let’s have a meeting,” I say.
The ground feels unsteady. I hold onto the sink.
“Mr. Hon,” I say, “please talk to Beary about the business while I get us some water.”
I go to the door. It’s stuck.
It was my first memory. I was three years old.
That is early for a first memory — especially for an Asian kid. Most Asians’ first memory is at a shade before they turn 5. For Caucasians, it’s at 3 ½ years old.
This has to do with how different cultures treat memory, according to psychologist Michelle Leichtman in the Monitor on Psychology in 2005. Some cultures focus more on personal stories; others, like most Asian cultures, focus more on the community.
I tend to think my first memory is early because my family always encouraged storytelling.
“Beary, we will be OK,” I say.
The ground lets out a thick growl. I open my eyes. Dull orange bulbs light the room. I put Beary up to my mouth and say, “This will be over soon. It’s OK.”
I hear crashing outside. My head feels light.
“Mr. Hon, are you OK? Do you have a plan?”
I just keep talking.
I conducted a small experiment this week.
I went to the Reddit.com community and asked, “Your first memory: What is it? How old were you?”
More than 80 people responded.
One person writes, “I was about 1 ½ when my mom got the call that her brother had commit suicide. I remember her breaking down like nothing I've ever seen since. It seems like it happened in another life to me. She always tells me I was the only comfort to her at that moment.”
Another says, “I was about 3 years old. My sister who was about 12 was working on her math homework. I was always a little shit to her as a kid. I ran up to her and started attacking and she stabbed me in the eye with a pencil. Well, not right in the eye, but just to the side of it. I remember running wildly throughout the house with a seemingly gigantic pencil sticking out of my right eye. Still have the blue mark where she stabbed me.”
And another says: “Two years old. I remember opening this on Christmas at my Aunt's house.”
Some of the stories are heartbreaking, others are hilarious. And some are everyday moments.
“Oddly it was when I was first in kindergarten,” another commenter writes. “Was learning ABCs, and they had animals for each of the shapes. They had this green snake for the letter S. For some strange reason, that memory stuck.”
But they all seem to be told with a third-person tone, as if the storyteller is not the same person who experienced that moment. And they are all, in a way, romanticized.
Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder if the memories are, inadvertently, tweaked to our liking.
My head won’t stop swaying back and forth.
I yell at Beary.
“Make it stop!”
I yell at Mr. Hon, too.
I think about how I got here: Mom ran to the back of the store, lifted me up and put me in the bathroom. She said I’d be safer here. Then she left.
Will she come back?
The earliest memory anyone can have comes from about 2 ½ years old. Before that, we suffer from infantile amnesia. (link)
One person responded to my Reddit experiment and said his first memory was at three-months-old. I asked whether it’s possible that, somehow, this story was told to him and he turned it into a memory. He stood by the memory, but wasn’t sure about the timeframe.
Several others claimed to remember things before their first birthday. It’s unlikely. But what are you supposed to say to something so personal? That it never happened? That they’re remembering wrong?
No, you just go along with the lie.
I am not dizzy anymore. I stare at the door.
“Beary, are you OK?” I ask.
I go to the door and try to twist the handle it again. The door is still locked.
We remember what we need to know. We know stories to relate to each other.
"That's the way we bond with each other, by telling stories of our personal past," Leichtman told the Monitor.
I can’t remember the first thing I did this morning. But it’s fascinating how many people seem to have a “first memory.” When you ask someone about it, chances are they’ll tell you something — or think of something.
This bathroom incident is my first concrete memory. But the details are murky. The emotions, though, are clear. In fact, from my childhood, I don’t remember who did what, or where I went. Instead, I remember the smiles and laughs, the frowns and tears.
The door opens. It’s Mom.
“Are you OK, Sungsoo?” she asks, lifting me into her arms.
I look around. We are at my parents’ dry cleaning shop. My mom tells me the ground shook a lot. It made a mess. Everything is on the ground — clothes, threads, papers.
Dad keeps repeating a Korean word: “Geejeen.”
Ah, so that’s what this is. But wait. What happened? All I remember is getting locked in a bathroom and getting dizzy. That’s a “geejeen”?
He tells me the English word for it: earthquake.
Still, I think it has to do with being locked in the bathroom.
For the next few hours, Mom carries me around the store in her arms, assessing the damage. But I barely remember this.
What I do remember is holding onto her neck for dear life, never wanting to be alone again in that bathroom.