Written by Sonia Kim ETA’11-13
This isn’t 20 questions, but 20 characters, 20 moments of connection. Some were declarations destined for print. Some were folded-up sentences picked up word by word. And some were like a low exhale — sweet and familiar in their realization. Entrusted to me, these are the stories I want to remember — and retell.
1. You are a 13-year-old boy who has just woken up in the hospital. You blink. You’re awake. You blink, furiously, choking back your growing panic, because you can’t see anything.
2. You’re a teacher and a single father. Every student you meet, every spoonful of soup you slide into a waiting mouth, every hairband you slide into place reminds you of the child you have raised for 24 years. In a society of authoritarian fathers, you are an anomaly. And yet, you are peaceful in your solitude.
3. You are a mother whose daughter was born blind. When another child pushed your baby girl down the stairs, she lost what little sight she had. And as your heart screamed in grief, you split your family apart to enroll your daughter in a school for the blind. For the next six years, you will stretch your heart across the peninsula — from the small town where your husband and son still live to the city of 10 million you now call home.
4. You are a Korean-American woman to whom a Japanese man has just apologized for “the terrible things my country did to yours.”
5. You don’t want to be here. It’s a school full of freaks. And maybe you’re one of them.
6. You’ve grown up in the same village your entire life, and your hands are now cracked and your back bent from years spent in the wind and sun. Today, you meet a foreigner for the first time at church.
7. You want to say things, but talking is hard. Sometimes, it’s much easier to flap or twirl or drum. But flap, flap, flap, flapping is when you are the happiest. Teacher wants quiet hands. Teacher says, “Minjeh, time to learn English.” There’s a new teacher who comes and she talks funny. Sometimes she lets you play with a dog. It is soft. One time you held hands and counted one, two, three, four, five with her. Then she was so happy, and you were so happy you crowed and jumped up on her lap and touched her glasses and her long, curly hair. You are seven years old and, next year, you will be in the first grade.
8. You go in, and there are only squat toilets.
9. You have a beautiful wife and a young son. You made his name yourself; it means, “the source of happiness.” Your cataracts make it impossible to see more than a blur, but your son is perfect the way he is. Thank God he can see his father. You take your family to church every Sunday, your wife guiding you and the child you hold in your arms.
10. You can’t wrap your mind around it. So you ask her, “Why did your parents leave Korea and move to the States?” “You know English, so why do you want to learn Korean?”
11. You don’t know what you want to be when you grow up. You’re like any other kid. Except you’re blind, so you’ve only got a handful of options. It used to be fortune teller, street musician and massage therapist. Things have gotten better lately. Now, you can be a social worker, massage therapist, acupuncturist or, maybe if you study really hard, a teacher or a professor. Now which to choose?
12. You’re 75 years old, and it’s never too late to learn English. You get tired more easily and your body creaks in protest, but you’ve ordered textbooks from a local 학원 (private academy). “These are two kettles. That is a flower,” you whisper to yourself, the foreign words catching in your throat.
13. You smile. It’s the English teacher standing next to you. She gives you her hand, but no, that’s not what you’re looking for. There it is, just under her sweater. She has a belly button, just like you.
14. You’re Korean-American, and — in your moment of panic — you just told that man you’re not Korean. Now why did you do that? Wait. Why does that make you upset?
15. You’re in the fourth grade, and you can’t see. You can’t speak either; there’s a tube in your throat. But you can listen.
16. You were just talking about how you had never tried dog stew before and maybe you’d try it if someone paid you, when your host mother gleefully informs you that the soup you just finished for dinner had dog meat in it. Did your stomach just gurgle in protest or contentment?
17. You borrowed your host grandmother’s pants and shoes (thank God your feet are tiny), and you went fishing with your host family in the river. The sun was shining, the water lapped lazily at your feet, and ajusshis fed you grilled duck on the riverbanks.
Today isn’t a day of doubting or feeling like you don’t belong. You’re full, happy and slightly sleepy. You wonder, more like a daydream than a yearning this time, what would have happened if you were born in this country.
18. You’re at the British Museum, and you spend a day discovering the arch of Zeus’s back, the timeworn features of Venus’s face, and the intricate details of an Egyptian sarcophagus — all using the sense of touch. You are overwhelmed with emotion, not at the beauty of the artwork surrounding you, but at the fact that in your country, such an experience would be impossible for people like you.
19. You thought you would see your father tomorrow. That’s what mother told you the night you escaped. But if you could live nine years without him, what’s another month, another five? You wanted to go to school, but mother wouldn’t let you.
She said children were cruel. So most days, you’d go up in the mountains and cut wood with your sister. She’d teach you songs about numbers and words, and when the work was done, she’d carry you home, because walking was hard.
When you escaped, you crossed rivers on your mother’s back. You limped through deserts eating dust-black bread and beating back blinding winds. Years later, on the cusp of adolescence, you realize the depth of their struggles. You are North Korean, and you will never hide where you came from.
20. You never grew up here, but you keep turning around, at bus stations, at coffee shops, just walking in the street. Everyone has the lovely, lilting speech of your mother, your father and all your aunts and uncles.
In America, you prided yourself on standing out from the crowd. But it is in Korea that you have discovered the beauty of weaving through streets and melting into a sea of black hair and glasses. In 10 months, countless lives have intersected with yours. And as their stories spill over and breathe life into your words, you feel that this place is truly becoming home.
Sonia Kim is a 2011 ETA at Hanbit School for the Blind in Seoul.