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From Korea to Texas
The same, only different
Anonymous
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I didn’t speak one word of English when my family moved to Flower Mound, Texas from Seoul, Korea when I was in 3rd grade.

On the first day, when it was time for lunch, I was scared because people put on their coats and talked about going to “the cafeteria.” The word sounded scary. I thought: “Where are these people taking me? Are we going on a field trip that I did not know about?”

I eventually figured out it was lunch.

I struggled to understand what was going on, everywhere. For instance, during math class I did the numbers portion of the worksheet and skipped the challenge questions that were in words. During reading time, I stared at someone’s cool hair while the teacher read for the entire period. During writing time, I was given a sheet of looseleaf paper to write an essay. I didn’t understand what the task was, so my name and date were the only things I wrote on the paper. One time, I also tried cheating off of a girl’s paper, because I didn’t know what an essay was. I ended up writing about Hannah Montana’s new album.

During the first few months of school, I thought I was in Mars. Texas was a completely different place than Seoul.

Fortunately, kids in Texas can be very friendly. On the first day, three kids came up to me and asked if I wanted to be their friend. They weren’t even in my class. But they were sincere and nice.

Me Tarzan

Although we didn’t understand each other, by using gestures and facial expressions they communicated to me in a way that made sense. We sat together during lunch. It was like Tarzan speaking to a gorilla but it worked. For example, Brock would take out his Lunchables to signify that it was time to eat and Brandon would make a running sign to signify that it was time for recess. During art class, we were instructed to color in a book in certain colors, and they taught me what each color was.

Still, my new friends couldn’t be with me all the time, and I often felt lost. I paid close attention to the language, struggling to understand what some slang or other words meant.
Examples:

“Eww,” if something was gross.

“Bless you,” whenever someone sneezed.

“Aww,” whenever a girl thought something was sweet.

Inside, my thoughts were: “Are these words even English or are these kids from other countries?”

In the classroom setting, I didn’t understand anything. I remember the ESL program was very boring. I read a childish book with a pen that made sounds when I pointed at that letter. I also studied grammar that I didn’t understand. There was an older student who knew how to speak English, so she translated a lot of things for me. I also played games like Funbrains.

Seeing Red

During recess I stood by myself, so my father suggested I bring jump ropes to be productive. When I brought in the jump ropes, everyone was interested including John, the class “boss.” John was the tallest and the toughest guy around. He just looked like an average African-American boy, but he had the “tough” face on and was very competitive.

Before I arrived at the school, John was the most athletically respected figure in the school. During gym class, we were asked to jump rope and I would do the most challenging tricks. During the football game, I was the first one to score a touchdown. The gym teacher respected me as an athlete and John was probably jealous.

So I was jumping rope and a lot of kids came over (like they had never seen a jump rope before). John tried to steal it. “Give me that! Do you speak English? I said give me that!”

When I held tight he managed to grab my rope away and pushed me down on the concrete. I stood up and took it back. “You wanna fight? Let’s go! Come on let’s go!” he yelled.

image by YC-Art Dept

He tried to steal it again and threw a couple of nasty punches at me. I got hit a few times and then I got really mad. I swung the rope and it left a red mark on his arm.

Fights in Korean schools are common ways guys settle their problems, but in America, I knew fighting meant getting into trouble. My parents told me to walk away from fights, knowing it wouldn’t end well.

But that day, it was different. I was in a rage. I was a helpless sheep getting eaten by a wolf. So I fought back the best way I could. A teacher came and saw what I had done. No kids stood up for me; they stood there silently as John spoke to the teacher. My three friends were at a different part of the playground and weren’t there to help me.

That night, my parents and uncle met at the kitchen table. It was late at night and I couldn’t help eavesdropping on their conversation instead of sleeping. My uncle started translating a letter my parents received from the principal.

“It says that he intentionally started the fight. He punched him and kicked him.”
I listened in rage, knowing it was wrong.

“He also used the jump rope and swung it at John.”

Now after hearing that, I knew I was guilty. I did hurt him.

I got up and told them my side of the story.

My uncle went to my school and spoke with someone and John had a meeting with some office lady. Both of us ended up getting suspended for a few days.

Lost in Translation

The principal called me in after I returned to school. I sat in her air-conditioned and fancy office. She talked to me in a soft voice. She gave me the “nice lady” vibe. I was worried because I knew this was a serious conversation and that I wouldn’t be able to understand her.

I assumed she was asking me about the fight. I understood the topic when she said “punch.” That was one of the few words I knew. She asked a bunch of questions. I just nodded my head, pretending that I understood her. But really, I didn’t and I think she had to have known that because I was a new kid at a small school. But she made no effort to help me understand or get a translator.

As she continued throwing questions at me, I got really frustrated and angry. I felt helpless. I felt like she was forcing me to describe the incident, but how could I? Of course I wanted to describe what happened. In fact, I was eager to, but I couldn’t.

I started showing her how John kicked and punched, but she made me sit down. Then using her hand gestures, she instructed me to speak to her. I got out of my seat and started acting it out again. But she told me to sit down again. As I walked back to the classroom, she waved at me smiling. It felt like an evil smile. I walked away in disappointment. I wanted to cry, but I knew no one would care. So I only cried on the inside.

I didn’t think things would ever get better, but eventually, I started to learn English. My parents bought a new house and we moved near a school that had a similar ESL program. My ESL teacher encouraged me to watch American shows at home, and my parents bought me a lot of books and gave me daily homework assignments. For instance, I had to read a short book and translate all the words I didn’t know and show them when they got home. Finally, English started to “click.”

By learning a new language, I was able to start standing up for myself and enjoy the great aspects of life in Texas. It felt good not to feel so helpless. For instance, I was at a festival near school one day, and I was on a long line to buy popcorn. When it was finally my turn, the cashier seemed to ignore me.

“Next in line please. Miss please come down.” Instead of helping me she was talking to the woman behind me.

“Excuse me ma’am, I think I’m standing before her.”

“Oh sorry, I didn’t see you.” (How could you not?)

Now, I live in New York City and I feel totally comfortable here. When I moved here five years ago, I saw that it was easier for immigrant kids because they get a translator to help them. I didn’t have that because I was one of only a few Korean immigrant kids in my part of Texas, compared to hundreds in New York. But in the end, I figured things out on my own. Life always has two different tastes, sour or sweet. That was a sour part of my life but now, I think I’m getting back to the sweet.

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(NYC-2014-09-08)

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