By Dawn Angelicca Barcelona, ETA ’14-’17
we grilled our own meat at restaurant 108
and drank beers and soju,1 sitting Korean-style.
we spent too much time teaching our language
to learn the language of this new country.
we leaned on each other to pick from the few
words sown inside our mouths.
we were just kids wondering how to eat. 어떻게?2.
we planted a new alphabet to help us sprout
through the soil of Sejong, in our new little neighborhood.
with soft-spoken syllables, our courage boils up: 맞아요?3
back at home, we said “fork” and “spoon” or “please” and “thank you”
now we only point and say “여기요, 이거 더 주세요”4
our tongues burn, digging for more words when we see a kitchen.
we set the cake down next to our grill.
here we sing 생일 축하합니다5 instead of happy birthday.
the song tastes like an expiration date
another birthday I wish I could be home for, hoping after a year
it will still be waiting for me in the fridge.
I don’t like rice. It’s the core of what my mom and dad love. They eat it plainly, sometimes with their hands. It’s the food of their homeland. I wish I knew how to use my hands the way they do. When we go out for dinner, we eat with forks and knives. They leave behind traditional ways for dinner time. I’m not who my parents were at 23. They flew away from a familiar life to make a better one for me. I flew away to forget about New Jersey. In this second home I’ve come to know, I am asked why I am a teacher. Why I didn’t become a nurse. Why I’d rather write poems. Why my hometown isn’t Metro Manila or Cebu City, two places that didn’t raise me. I go to church to pray but instead get distracted. I hear people say, “America isn’t your real home.” In the winter, I flew away from Korea to feel less like a question and more like an answer. To be something definite, that ends. Yet a tourist shop cashier says, “you must be one of my people” and a hostel owner speaks in English to everyone else but never to me. In countries so foreign, I’m seen as familiar. Wherever I go, there are always assumptions to erode. It never fails to come: “So really, where are you from?”
The morning I landed
in NYC I just wanted to curl
up and crawl into a huge black bowl
and burn. From one home to another in
14 hours. I am mixed up inside over what I
didn’t say goodbye to enough times. I suggest
Korean food for lunch. I miss being so good-
mannered: tilting my bowl to have the last of
my hot soup, using two hands to pass the com-
munal kimchi dish and keeping my chopsticks
out of the hardened rice I tried not to eat. I
wish I could drink myself out of this bowl
while I’m still scalding hot so I don’t feel
me on the way down. I miss my
tongue. How swollen it got
from a soup burn.
of a poem
I wrote to you
on a plane
a year ago
Last January in Gangnam, at Oz board game cafe,
we built train lines by playing Ticket to Ride until
the owner said you’ve been playing the wrong way
my weekends were perfect
successions of Americanos
You said I had always wanted to travel
I said I never wanted to leave America
You asked me why do you work so hard
I said I don’t know, I’m in love with being tired
I bought fewer groceries
we traded poems over dinner
You wrote of every favor, I ask but one
don’t forget me while you’re gone
I wrote though I’m miles away I’m not really gone
you’ll see me every day, in each rising sun
Twelve months later
I moved across America
I hit send
I wonder what you’re doing now
steady and smooth
I miss you.
Guro Station, Line 1
In another dream, I’m bundled up in the warmth of fish-shaped bread.
A treat in the winter. The smoke from a chestnut stand
beckons me back to my apartment. I choose the subway instead.
The ten-minute walk rings in my eardrum. It always sounds like this:
“Teacher, where are you going? Where is your home?”
출입문 닫겠습니다.[1. Chulipmun datgesseumnida, The doors are closing.]
Track two sends me uptown to Gwanghwamun,
where I walk journal-in-hand past palaces
and stop to eat street food. I’ve had every taste
in every season. I try to hold them all in my too-small palms.
Track three drags me downtown with the sunset. After two years:
two placements, a different alphabet, hundreds of students’ faces
I wonder if it is possible to love another city
or two different countries
이 역은 타는 곳과 전동차 사이가 넓습니다.6
Guro held nine roads, all leading me home. I tried to pick out
the words I knew in the poems painted on the glass doors,
feeling the breath of each train car’s mouth swallowing me
and the rest of the crowd. I would do anything to go back.
내리실 때 조심하시기 바랍니다.7
I still use the same alarm.
I wake up on time, after the subway car halts in my sleep.
I miss the way I became food on the trains entering
Guro Station, leaving crumbs in my splintering.
Dawn Angelicca Barcelona was a 2014-2016 ETA at Yangji Elementary School in Sejong City and Sinmirim Elementary School in Seoul. She currently works on the talent and recruitment team at MuleSoft in San Francisco
- Korean rice liquor ↩
- Otteoke, How? ↩
- Majayo, Is it right? ↩
- Yogiyo, igeo deo juseyo. Over here, more of this, please ↩
- Saengil chukhahamnida, Happy birthday ↩
- Ee yeokeun taneun gotghwa jeondongcha saiga neolbseumnida. In this station, it is wide between the platform and the train (or “At this station, there is a wide gap between the platform and the train”). ↩
- Naerishil ddae joshimhashigi baramnida, Please be careful when exiting. ↩