Written by Helen Li
A few months ago, he asked you if you were happy. With that smile on his face, there was no space for you to say No. “I’m in a race against the backspace button. I’m afraid one day I’ll win and compose that shameless message to your name.”
They say acceptance of your problem is the first step to recovery.
But that’s for waiting room trifold brochures and posters in clean, bright doctors’ offices. The first step is actually wanting a recovery because sometimes the dark, shifting hole you’ve dug for yourself is the only place you can see the whole of your history. Stretched out from the moment you met to the last time you sat side by side. Fragile to the point that saying the word “Recovery” means opening your eyes and watching that timeline vanish. So you lingered in your dark, shifting hole, replaying old tapes and projecting them onto the backs of your eyelids.
Then something changed for you. You moved to a place where surviving meant pretending that you could survive, and somewhere in the middle of pretending you realized that you could survive. Slowly, you opened your eyes and found a world where his silhouette didn’t need to be in your periphery. You stopped turning to chase brown and blue in the corners of your eyes. You found students who followed the direction of your gaze so you looked only forward.
You were so thankful. For Geon Yeong’s shy smiles and Do Kyeong’s boisterous grins. For the diversity of insa[1. Greetings, traditionally in the form of a bow], Su Bin’s “알러뷰,”[2. Literally sounded out, “Ar- reo-byu” (“I love you”).] Hyo Seon’s “Hello Teacher,” Tae Oh’s “BROTHER.” For Shin Hong’s shoe kleptomania and Seung Chan’s outrageous lies. For Jeong Hyeon the Mouth Fighter and Ji Won the General. For Yeon Seob’s infinite face contortions and the creases on the edges of Yoon Ui’s eyes. For Jong Woo’s quiet humor and Jeong Woo’s confused expressions. For break time so your boys could yell and pretend fight in the hallways and your girls could buy snacks and share them with you throughout the day.
Somewhere in between First and Finals Week, between teaching your impossible 2-4[3. The moniker for a homeroom class. The first number represents the grade (with high school being composed of grades 1-3); the second is the class number. 2-4 is a class of second grade high school students (equivalent of U.S. high school juniors).] boys and your wild 2-2 girls, you found happiness. You found it in the little balls of awkwardness and enthusiasm that soon became your prescription for keeping the walks-ups from turning into mountains and the fall-downs from turning into cliffs. Repeated in the cinema on the backs of your eyelids were images of wonderful chaos in 2-9 and sweet cooperation in 2-1. Every laugh, every giggle, every stumbling conversation became a soundtrack that echoed in your head from first to last period, bouncing off the walls in a mind that had been cleared of self-doubt and filled with a renewed sense of self-assurance. You can be kind for them. You can be brave for them. You can be happy for them.
Yesterday, Hwa Jeong asked if you were happy in Korea. You couldn’t give her a convincing answer, so you decided to write a reflection defining happiness. Happiness is not wondering, “Am I happy?” Happiness is not being able to fathom an answer to the question, “Are you happy?” You never thought it was up for debate. Happiness is every second you spend trying to put more stars in their eyes, windows that show you an achingly beautiful horizon with every remembered name and promises of a Game. Happiness is Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Happiness is walking home and hearing farewells shouted from the third floor. Happiness is ending class early for an impromptu snowball war. Happiness is losing 가위바위보 and buying the winner a 700 won drink from the vending machine. Happiness is notebook doodles and chalkboard art. Happiness is 867 brilliantly frustrating, sweet, and courageous individuals that make every day worth the start.
You’re not afraid anymore of writing to him. If he asks you if you’re happy, you’ll say,
Where do I begin?
Helen Li is a 2013-2014 ETA at Changpyeong High School in Changpyeong, Jeollanam-do.