Lessons

A life in two or more worlds

Lesson 1 — LemonBasket

It’s my first day of pre-K. I’m eating a block of wood because it looks like chocolate. The corners of the block soften with saliva. An older woman with yellow hair and a loud patchy vest snatches the block from me.

“WEE DOHNT EET TOIS.”

She doesn’t sound like Amma and Appa. Her words melt together. Where are the melodious upswings? and sharp accêntuations at the end of the sentence?

She grabs my hand and brings me to the circle of children who were kneeling before her. She holds up cards of animals. The first is a cartoonish green snake. An upswing? at the end of her indecipherable sentence. A question? Not a command? She pauses while the children scream:

“S-NAY-KUH.”

She smiles and shuffles to the next card. An icy blue polar bear. Another upswing?.

Say one word. One word. But my mouth twists and freezes as I try to replicate the same phonetic jumbles that the group of children screamed in unison so effortlessly. My turn:

“S-NAY-KUH,” I proudly scream.

The teacher stares at me. Card of the polar bear frozen in the air. It’s the wrong word?. She tilts her head over to the other students, the upswing? Students:

“POH-LER BA-YER.”

It’s the end of the day and the children line up to hug to the woman in the patchy vest. I need to learn her name. I will get it right by today. I lean in to catch her name from the child before me:

“MRS. LEMONBASKET,” I say to Amma while she straps me in the car.Her name is Mrs. LemonBasket.”

Her name was Mrs. Vasquez.

Lesson 2 — Homework

I’m nine years old and Amma wants me to study the English language at home. She brings piles of poetry books and a Harry Potter themed journal. Frost, Poe, Silverstein.

“Memorize every line and summarize every poem in this book.”

I obey and open the first page to Poe. I rehearse them while standing in the backyard porch like a stage, letting the sun soak the pages and gently warm my skin. I find the beats hidden in every line by slapping the side of my hand on the page as I read aloud:

Ah broken is the golden bowl! The spirit flown forever!

Let the bell toll! — a saintly soul floats on the Stygian river.

What is a Sty-Gi-Anne?

Avaunt! To-night my heart is light. No dirge will I upraise,

But waft the angel of her flight with a Paean of old days!

I write down dirge, upraise, Paean in my notebook. I keep a dictionary handy for next time.

From Hell unto a high estate far up within the Heaven –

From grief and groan, to a golden throne, beside the King of Heaven.

I’m beginning to like how these words make me feel. I don’t understand, but somehow they make me feel powerful when I say Hell and groan, letting them roll slowly from my tongue and into the breeze.

Lesson 3 — Rice Cake

I’m a sophomore and a new student at an elite private school in Raleigh. A monochromatic pool where every girl has hair with streaks too light to be natural and velvet tracksuits too polished to be anything but obscenely expensive. The girls cling to each other like troops, equipped with nasty stares and biting comments in case anyone dares to intrude upon their social scene.

It is not unexpected that friends start calling me Rice Cake. It’s a term of endearment, they tell me. It is not unexpected but that does not make me cherish it. I smile and pretend it’s adorable, because to them it is. But I suppress the urge to scream, and my fingers roll up into tight fists when I hear it echoing down the hallway, and I’m not allowed to disapprove, because it is not unexpected.

Hey, Rice Cake!

See you tomorrow, Rice Cake!

See you tomorrow, guys!

Lesson 4 — A Pity

It is my first time in South Korea and the absence of Korean in my life feels like a heavy silence. I have assimilated too fast and too easily, maybe too willingly, with my fair-skinned friends at my elite Southern private school. But my ease into assimilation is not the source of my turmoil. When servers, hairdressers, and storekeepers discover out my sister and I are American, their eyes light up like we are suddenly precious and rare American dolls, and that the language that distances us delights them. They ask us to speak American phrases and their giddy laughter always follows after we generate something as mundane “Hello, how are you?” Western culture is a fantasy.

I’m on a stuffy airplane from my first trip to Seoul back to Raleigh. A man closes his newspaper and utters some almost familiar but ultimately indiscernible sounds.

“I don’t speak Korean anymore.” I shrink in shame. I see his eyes pop and then close to a squint.

“Hmm…terrible.” He reopens his newspaper and doesn’t look at me again for the remainder of our sixteen-hour flight.

Lesson 5 — God Bless You

We have been driving for far too long and have been ignoring the soft stomach groans of hunger in the effort to delay a stop. But we have hours left and with no state lines in sight, we stop in the trenches of West Virginia. Mountains and empty gas stations, no alternatives.

We find a Panera. A “sign of civilization,” according to Appa.

A sweet, if slightly inexperienced, woman is scrambling to take our You-Pick-Two orders at the register. A red-faced man enters in the company of comparably nondescript older friends. His voice carries easily and his deeply Southern accent weighs on the West Virginia air, where it is welcomed and belongs. Boisterous, maybe, but harmless, until he raises a hand, finger extended unapologetically in our direction:

“…Like these Chinese girls.”

He walks to me. I tense.

“Teach me how to say ‘God Bless You’ in your language.”

“My language is Eng-”

“I know you speak English, but your actual language.”

He doesn’t allow me to open my mouth. I’m not sure what I would have said.

“What are you? Chinese? Filipino? Japanese?”

“You’re being very inappropriate.”

I see genuine shock ripple across the folds of his face. I see the top of a silver cross glisten as it peeks out from the hem of his shirt.

“I didn’t mean to be.” His once heavy voice has lowered. He cowers and walks away while I feel a power that I accidentally stumbled upon and swallowed, letting it burn through my throat and chest.

Lesson 6 — You People

It’s my first year out of college and my first year living by myself. I’m walking back to my apartment in Harlem. The air is heavy and wet and I am dripping straight into the concrete of the sidewalk. An older black man is suddenly screaming at another man sitting outside a Turkish restaurant.

“I WILL MAKE SURE EVERYONE KNOWS WHO YOU ARE,” the black man screams and points at him.

The other man shrugs.

The black man turns to me.

“Did you know that man denied a woman baby food when she couldn’t afford it at his store? BABY FOOD. And he’s an Arab.”

I try to walk around him.

“I would rather have you people here.” He points at me. He leaves, and I am unable to.

Who is You People?

I’m still trying to figure that out.

Lesson 7 — Church

I’m eleven years old and every Sunday we go to the First Korean Baptist Church, which Amma and Appa found within the first week of moving to Raleigh.

Service is divided into Korean and English speaking segments. I sit with my family, desperately trying to understand our Korean pastor, clinging to his words and hoping to understand through sheer will and rote memorization.

After service, the adults and children gather together after a joyous ceremony while the ajummas dutifully prepare numerous traditional Korean dishes in the kitchen. Rows of doenjang chigae, kimchi, and danmuji decorously line the white linoleum tables. Dozens of people swoop up spoonfuls of the endless side dishes with their too-easy-to-break chopsticks. The fermented and spiced scents clash and overpower my nostrils. Too pungent for my Americanized palette.

Every Sunday, I confine myself to a bowl of plain white rice and a pack of keem that I bring from home because I cannot stomach anything else and even the keem that’s provided at the church is too strong, too authentic, for me. The older women laugh at me as I sit quietly and watch the other kids too loudly slurp their spicy bowls of sundubu and shove whole slabs of kimchi down their throats, as if they haven’t eaten in ages.

I miss the high pitched melodies of the herds of women who huddled together as they joyously giggled and talked about their children in the specific way that Korean mothers do. I miss the baritone voices of the men who stand together proudly as they discuss life in the South.

I miss looking up to the Cool Kids, a part of me still wishing I was one of them — the slender and sleek noonas and oppas who glide seamlessly between Korean and English, running around with their dong sengs and teaching them new words with a joy that I wish I had experienced. I hear them swimming between two languages, two worlds.

Bap is rice — say rice.”

“RYYY-SUH.”

“Say thank you to Ajumma for the rice — Gomseubnida.

Gomseubnida.

***

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