"ALONE" BY IAN PARK
In the shortest months of the year, on February 21st, 2006, in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, I was born. Such an unusual day for me and at the same time, something to celebrate. On average it takes 30 minutes to one hour for a baby to be delivered from a mother’s womb, but my mother started at three PM and lasted 10 hours until I was born at one AM the next day. Looking back and hearing stories from my mother, I can imagine how much the baby wanted to be in his mother’s womb and how strong-willed the baby must have been. As the Korean proverb goes, the heart remembers what the head erased, and my heartbeat tells me it was from that moment on, things ahead in my future will be the long haul since I am already nine hours behind the race of life.
I was an awkward lefty with a cheesy bowl haircut, a strong Korean accent when I spoke English, and a small and skinny body. I definitely felt out of place amongst my peers. In first grade, we had a reading workshop, and depending on the reading levels of the kids, we were put into different groups. I remember being given a book with the lamest cover and because of my curiosity, I poked my head out from my reading place to look at the others. Now the covers and the thickness of their books were incomparable to mine. Stories of King Arthur, Percy Jackson, and other heroic stories that you could possibly imagine would make stars sparkle in a six-year-old boy’s eyes were hiding other kids’ heads among the pages. I asked my teacher “Why can’t I read those books, Ms. Morgan?” as I look around at the classroom.
Ms. Morgan taking my hands and crouching down to face me, smiled and said with the softest voice you could imagine said, “Well you see Saewoong, if you finish reading this one and if you are ready you could check out those books for yourself. But for now, let’s read this first page. Shall we?”
I quickly opened my book, but I stared into the pages, struggling to string the words together. I remember my voice being a mixture of a Korean accent, the awkwardness of Chewbacca’s voice, the robotic sound of a laggy 3PO, and the cracky voice of the Jedi Master Yoda. Everyone was smiling and laughing along with me, and I saw myself do the same but deep down I felt like I was Mike Wazowski, the only monster with a single eye.
Then for the next two days, I went out to investigate how the other kids were able to read so skillfully, to connect the words together when reading, and to read page after page like watching a movie. Similar to Remy, the rat in Ratatouille, I went out for the next few days during reading time to poke my nose into their books, chatting with them expecting to find the key recipe, a method I was unaware, or a secret I have never heard of. Once, I stayed in the corner poking my little eyes out of the top of my book to see the movements of the other kids, and then I saw my friend Dennis taking his book series and going out the backdoor. Aha! Sneaking away from Ms. Morgan's laser eyesight, I followed Dennis. He kept on walking until he arrived at the library. I have always passed the library, giving it a single blink of an eye, just thinking that it was a storage place for teachers. After Dennis left the books and picked up another one to read in the classroom, I went into the library and found piles of all the awesome books I saw everyone reading.
From that moment on, whenever it was reading time, I would put on my acting skills and squirmish as I asked to go to the bathroom. Despite the suspicious eyes of Ms. Morgan, she always let me go. Then I would run to the library and pick up the books with the fanciest covers and even though it took forever to get past the first paragraph or sentence, I stuck with them and enjoyed my time in the worn-out and messy library with books all over the place and the smell of old paper.
Now you might think that I was such a bright kid with an optimistic mind, but in reality, I would cry in the lap of my mother with such an outburst of frustration, telling her that when everyone was finishing up a book, I was still stuck halfway into my lame book.
Then on my first trip to the public library with my mother, she picked up a torn apart but still interesting book, maybe it was the cover or it was how ancient the book looked. The book I was given was none other than Pippi Longstocking. I know, it was definitely not the normal book a six-year-old boy would be reading. My mother, of course, grew up with the stories of Pippi, watching a Korean series adaptation of the same book, and she thought it was perfect for me. Without knowing much, at home, page after page I deciphered the words, the sentences, and slowly but surely I kept going. Then after months of grueling reading and matching the text with the pictures in the book, I finished the book with a surprisingly good understanding of the storyline. I couldn’t believe it. It felt way better than watching “How to Train Your Dragon,” my favorite animation movie. I liked the movie so much I even had a costume of Toothless for Halloween. But, I knew I had much more to learn.
With the help of one of my Mother’s friends, who was an English teacher, I spent hours taking simple texts and putting tens of post-its with the meaning in my own words. After much suffering, I felt I was looking through the soul of any book, just like the stare of Puss in Boots that could convince anyone.
Then, on the day when I had another level test for reading, I walked to school as if I was on a runway and all the spotlights were on me. On my way back home, I came with the biggest grin ever with a copy of a massive book. I couldn’t believe it. No, I knew I could do it.
It took me longer and more patience to start reading books compared to others, but eventually, I was able to read. I even started to like the dusty and rotten book smell of the library, and I began to think of it as my second home. As Pippi Longstocking would say “ I have never tried that before so I think I should definitely be able to do that.” I didn’t feel so bad being the Mike Wazowski, Chewbacca, 3PO, Yuda, Pippi with the most abnormally long stockings, or being a beginner at something. It was a first for me when I started to walk by myself, to ride my bike without wheels, to go to school, and to read. I realized that everything has a beginning and that no matter how I feel behind, it is not late to find my path and to progress.
But in the same year, with a happy announcement of my dad getting a job in Korea, my life went through another rollercoaster. It has been so long since my parents went back to their home country and it was the first time for me to go there as well. After spending my whole entire life in America, in Colorado, in Fort Collins, in the company of my post-its and my books in the corner of the dusty library, my family planned to move to Korea.
We got right away to packing our belongings and that was when I realized that we were definitely leaving America. I started to have mixed emotions. I was happy to see my whole family in Korea and to live in a city like Seoul but at the same time, I was not ready to leave my friends, my school, my teacher who opened the world to books, or the house I have lived in for so long. I can still remember the night when I had to leave for the airport. Tears fell as I threw a fit, wailing that I didn’t want to leave, crying as I saw the last of my home passing by the window of my car.
When I arrived in Korea, it felt so strange to hear Korean flooding out of all the places. I have never seen so many Koreans in my life. In the taxi, from the window, the panels of stores and buildings were no longer in English. They were filled instead with Korean, which I luckily learned from my parents in America. The lights of the city were so bright, the buildings were all so high, and the noisy streets made me excited for a new chapter to unfold in my life.
In Korea, as my family visited school after school, one day unexpectedly, we visited a French Catholic school. As I walked through the hallways “Bonjour!” “Qu’est ce que tu fais lá!” “Comment ça va?” and all the French phrases were thrown in all directions. It was something I was not used to, but I liked that.
I am not sure what I was thinking, but with a cheerful smile, I told my parents with the most serious tone an eight-year-old could have that I wanted to go to this school. Starting on the first day of school, it felt like I was among Jar Jar Binks that were talking in their own language. I remember that my eyes would light up every time I heard words that sounded similar to English.
On the first day, I believed the transition would be smooth. I expected someone to translate and teach me the baby steps into learning French. But, no that was not the case. All the classes even the students spoke French the whole time. Even though during the summer I went to the school’s French summer camp, it was mostly playing and I barely picked up any words let alone any phrases that I could use.
I again felt the same burst of emotions as I stared soullessly at my textbooks in French. I felt dizzy and out of place again. I felt the cycle repeating itself.
Unlike my English school, reciting poems is a big thing in French schools. Without any knowledge of what the text was saying and with only a picture of the Lascaux cave, which I presumed to be the story of the poem, I forcefully memorized lines after lines. When it was my turn to present, I felt like drowning in a pool but I kept myself together and I recited the first stanza with my broken French. Then it just burst. Right there and at that moment. Tears flew down my face, and the teacher’s voice sounded an echo from the depths of a cave. With my tears covering my eyes, I stumbled back to my seat.
To learn a language, a strong vocabulary is the main foundation. It was hard to accept since I have never learned and straight memorized vocabulary in my life, but whenever I see my classmates speaking in French, I felt like I was listening to a sacred spell of Harry Potter. I think it was because of this that when the teacher asked us to write down vocabulary we did not know for a chapter, I would write down twice, triple, or even quadruple the amount of vocabulary and search up their definitions than other students. Step by step, I stepped out of my shadow of fear and approached the French teachers for any help and I took on the French phrases floating in classes and captured them with my American cowboy lasso one by one to learn them. It was exhausting but I knew that it had to be done.
After a year or two, I was fluent in French and when I went to France as an exchange student, I felt like I was living among humans again and no longer among Jaw Jaw Binks with a language incomprehensible.
“Le bonheur n’est pas quelque chose de prêt à l’emploi. Il vient de vos propres actions,” translating to “Happiness is not something that comes out of a box ready to use. It comes from your own actions,” is something I heard so much from my French teachers and I felt to the core of my heart during my time there.
C’est grâce à ça que j’ai commencé à travailler dur et à mettre plus d’effort dans mes travaux. Thanks to that, I started to work harder and to put more effort into my works. That was how I was able to add another layer to my lesson in America.
Then, I went back to America, this time to a public school in Illinois for my dad’s sabbatical year after completing the required years as a professor. Back in America, I have never seen that many students in my life, and like at most schools I went to, I struggled to even speak. I continued learning English through my classes, but I now no longer felt I had a clear identity. I was neither Korean, American, or French.
I once asked my friends in my current school what my accent sounded like, and they told me that they weren’t sure, that it was a mixture of all types of accents, undistinguishable.
Kids frowned whenever I spoke. It was something that I knew I had to get used to by now. As always, a new kid has to climb the obstacles by himself through action and self-acceptance and I felt lonely for a long time.
I knew that life was going through its new cycle of troubles, but the pain and tears were streaming down my face as usual and my life was no longer as easy as I thought it would be. But I think, the more I was in situations where people ignored and frowned upon an Asian kid like me, the more I stood bolder, breaking through my shell of shyness.
I approached kids with a friendliness I never had before. I spoke more and more to get used to using English again, and I wasn’t afraid to express what I had to say. The positive attitude sometimes hurt like the bright light of a smiling sun, but I knew that it was the only way for me to survive and for me to be proud of myself for not waiting for happiness to find me. Strangers are always hard to approach especially a new student and by being exposed to a bigger sea with a bigger school of students, I knew that my actions mattered in changing my life and that my effort counted the most in protecting my identity.
After my dad finished his sabbatical in America, I went back to Korea and I again moved schools to an American International school ready to put to use my social life skills.
It was the most competitive school I have ever been to. While competition is something positive as it makes people do their best, it also makes students cheat, lie, and manipulate others to gain the grade, the reputation, and the goal they want. With such a bleak and sour reality that I came face to face with, I didn’t want to fall into those holes of darkness.
Because of the mixed cultures and languages, I have experienced, in this new school, my social awkwardness stood out in bold letters as I realize my embarrassing Korean writing skills, my struggle in catching up in Spanish class as my French accent stood in the way, and my stuttering in my debate club as students continuously gave me the look. The more I found differences between me and the others, the more I felt comfortable by the sides of the misfits in classes, those that did not fit in with others.
That is why when I see and hear people go to an extent of throwing away their morality, the stronger my mind became to keep my roots wrapped around the morality I have always been loyal to and to be on the sides of my misfit friends because I knew from experience the struggles of being yourself against the tides of society.
But with that, comes a sense of loneliness. I felt alone combating the tides of the world. It felt unfair, but the more I felt the inequality and the differences, the more I stayed rooted in the pathway I have chosen, just like how I accepted my situations every time I moved to different schools.
“Go on your own path, no matter how lonely you feel. If you feel you are doing the right thing and trying your best, you are on the right path. No matter how unfair it is or how far away you feel from everyone else, it is your reality, accept it. Accept who you are but don’t let it limit you,” is what my mom used to say.
At first, I tried to deny it. It just didn’t feel right. It was unfair. The situations I was put in and the different schools I went to, all just happened. Differences with each new change, new environment, and new school, made me afraid but now that I am thinking back to those moments, being alone on a path that no one took isn’t that bad at all.
I learned valuable life lessons, I developed an identity for myself, and I made my own window of perspective to see the world from being alone.
Being alone created me.