On losing myself, losing home, and the journey back

To the 11-year-old girl who doesn’t yet know she’s an immigrant

It’s July 1st, 2007.

It’s Canada Day, and the streets are unusually busy, but you don’t know that yet. You’ve just stepped into a new house — the one you’ll call home for four more years, although you don’t know that yet, either.

There are six people in the doorway, and it’s crowded and crazy and confusing. Your mother and your aunt are dragging four kids with them, and you don’t know this yet, but someday you’ll look back and marvel at how daring and dedicated and determined they were.

(Your mother picked up her life and contacted strangers and changed her year’s plan just to give you a chance to learn someplace new for a while. Your aunt left her luggage behind the sliding glass doors at the airport — after a grueling and nerve-wracking session at the immigration office — and learned to plead and argue and bargain with a security officer in words that don’t fit quite right in her mouth.)

You’re pretending that you know what you’re doing, that you can take care of yourself — but honey, you are still only eleven, and there is so much yet that you do not know.

If I were to tell you now that you would spend more than a decade on this continent, you would laugh. If I were to tell you now that these streets — these frightening streets where you got lost two blocks from home in the settling dusk and nearly cried of panic in the backseat — would become more familiar and comfortable than the city you’ve lived in for as long as you can remember, you’d think me absurd. If I were to tell you that, in two years’ time, you’ll voluntarily choose to exile yourself from home, to tear yourself away from your parents for the promise of something better, you’d probably smack and tell me to shut up.

I know you think this is just a temporary tangent in your life, a brief pause in normalcy, and you will go home in a year.

You cannot yet imagine that you will learn to be independent at 12, that you will become more intimate with the sound of your parents’ voices coming staticky and tinny through Skype than the touch of their hand, that you will not see your father for more than a year total in the upcoming decade.

Oh, but sweet naïve child, you will.

You see, there will come a day when you stand in the schoolyard and realize you can be one of two groups: the (predominantly white) Canadians dominating the hallways, or the international students banding together in little groups like drops of oil on water. There will come a day when your mother is speaking to your teacher, and your tongue itches with the urge to correct her, to speak for her, to silence her with your louder voice, and a something too close to embarrassment slithers through your veins. There will come a day when you find yourself fighting tooth and nail to assimilate, long before anyone thinks to teach you what that word means. There will come a day when you are proud not to be one of those Asian kids.

There will come a day when, even though the desire has not yet crystallized even in your own mind, you want to shed your language and your skin and your heritage like old clothes and put on the shiny new cloak of this new country.

But I am begging you — do not let them squeeze you and pull you and cram you into their mould. Cling to your skin with the tips of your fingers, dig your nails into it, and wrap it tighter around you the more the world tries to make you ashamed of it. Savour the way your language curls on your tongue, sits in your throat, flows from your lips.

Because there will also come a day when you realize the language you grew up with — the one the five-year-old you used to excitedly jabber in, the one your whole family knows like the city they’ve lived in for decades — sits more foreign on your tongue than English. There will also come a day when you go to the place you called home, and find yourself lost in what should be familiar streets. There will also come a day when you don’t know where home is anymore.

There will also come a day when your American and Canadian friends know k-pop and k-dramas and Korean celebrities better than you do.

There will also come a day when you sit in a room full of Korean students, and realize you feel more out of place than in the American-dominated hallways. There will also come a day when you stand among Korean friends, or relatives, or family friends, or strangers, and shrink back because the rules of interaction have been eroded from your brain and you no longer know how to speak to them.

There will also come a day when you want to retrace your footsteps back to where you were, back to the language and the culture and the people who used to be home, and find nothing but a flimsy thread that might break if you pull too hard. There will also come a day when you finally admit that nothing you wear or do or say can scrub the Asianness off your skin — and more importantly, you never should want to — but you find the culture you tried so hard to shed at fifteen no longer fits you like it used to.

I will not pretend that I regret everything about that choice you will make two years from now. I will not pretend that I have hated every moment since I decided to stay and finish my education here because yes, it promised something better — but also because, if I am honest with myself, I was afraid of what going back home entailed after two years away.

I will not pretend that nothing good came of staying.

You will make wonderful friends, have opportunities you would not have had in Korea, and learn invaluable lessons. You will make more music than you ever have. You will fall in love with theatre. You will pick up a new language, and then another, and come to learn it not because you must but because you love it.

But what you do not know yet is that it comes at a cost. What you cannot comprehend yet is the price that you will pay. The alienation and the assimilation, the language barrier you build with your own hands. The unfamiliarity of the city you call home now. The friends you will lose and will never see again, because you do not know yet that they will slip away if you do not cling on until your fingertips tremble.

You do not know yet that the faster you run towards somewhere new, the farther you are straying from home.

I don’t know that I would make a different choice if I were to go back and stand where you are now. A part of me wishes I had gone home, and perhaps left again if it proved too much to handle.(The rest of me knows that if I had gone home, I probably would not have left again.) Despite the what-ifs and the wishes that litter my mind on cloudier days, I know that there is no guarantee that going home would have left me happier.

So what I wish, more fervently than anything, is that I had known to hold on harder to the culture that would fade away. I wish that I had been wise enough not to fight so hard — and I never even realized I was fighting — to run away from what I miss so much now. But I guess I am not the only one who can claim that mistake.

The best I can do now is to hold on tight to that trembling thread, and fight twice as hard to learn the way back home again.

(So I think back to that doorway, nine long and unimaginable years ago, and try to understand how my life pivots around that day. So I write you a letter and hope that, maybe, in some other world where you are given another chance, you make wiser choices than I did.)