23 Jan

One day my Dad took me to a store and told me to pick a backpack. My vision focused on a pink one. He also had me pick out pen and paper and a lunch box. We went to the store and bought new clothes. He explained that I was going to school, but I didn’t have any concept of what that meant.

He spent some time trying to explain to me what school would be like.

“You can make friends and you’ll learn new things.”

The thought of having friends excited me. I imagined being able to play games like we did at the day care. I imagined being friends with a group of girls, and having fun together, like we did in the neighborhood.

He explained the types of things I would learn in school, though most of it went over my head.

On the day I was supposed to go, he woke me up early and I chose my first day of school clothes. He made my lunch which had a huge dark pink Thermos, and a sandwich he made himself, plus two Oreo cookies. This was put into the pink lunchbox I’d selected and then put into my backpack along with some pencils and paper.

On the way there he explained to me again what was going to happen.

“Since this is your first day of school, I’ll be here when you get out,” he said smiling under his salt and pepper mustache and beard.

Other kids passed me holding the hands of their parents. My dad wasn’t coming in with me. My parents never really came into the school except in the days of day care programs to do things like take off our shoes and make sure we had our stuff.

This was the first time I was alone and away from home with no one else I knew. I was absolutely determined to bear all my feelings alone with clenched teeth if I had to. It was the only way I knew how to survive.

I entered the school with that determination. The first thing that hit me was no one looked like me. It was a sea of Caucasian or African Americans. No Asians. No one looked remotely like me. I was greeted at the door by my homeroom teacher. I understood her, but looked at her confused.

I wasn’t the type to talk unless I felt there was a need outside of the home. I already felt awkward which made me feel shy. Silence, I later learned is considered evil. I saw it as a form of diligence.

The classroom was chaos. Kids were running around, parents still lingered, and there was noise. I thought this was a waste of time. I could see blonde girls, black students and again no Asians. Kids were already making friends. I was quickly isolated.

The teacher finally called us to order. I was waiting for it. She told us her name, the rules and what was expected of us. The only rule I remember was that any work you didn’t finish in class was homework. If you finished work early that meant you could spend time in playtime. The rest of her instructions fogs away for a more potent memory.

My first crystal clear memory of school was being surrounded by two or three kids. One was African American–frankly I noted it, but it didn’t seem to matter. They started to chant at me and shifted their eyes with their fingers. “Chinese.. Japanese… which are you? You look Chinese.” I didn’t know what to say at first. I said proudly, “Korean” and they asked “Where’s that?” in a half-taunting tone. I looked for the teacher. I was used to looking for adults. It was what I was taught to do. I didn’t know where it was in the world. It was just a place in my pushed back memories. I said nothing. The country I’d grown up in was invisible to them. This was a personal blow to me.

My thought was as it had always been, “I will not cry.” I wanted to save face. It was the only thing I had left. I was not going to give them the satisfaction to show that their teasing worked.

My dad was there as he promised. We walked home together. He asked how my day was. I told him what we did, gave him the list of supplies that I needed–no books, but never mentioned the teasing. I was convinced I could deal with it myself.

One say when I couldn’t handle it anymore, I asked why kids tease. He couldn’t answer. He said, “Say to the kids, Stick and Stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt me.” This made the teasing worse. The kids said because they didn’t know where Korea was, it didn’t exist. The adults made it worse by saying, “Oh yeah, the Korean war.” My little heart was shattered.

The teasing didn’t stop until I changed schools in seventh grade. I didn’t gain confidence in Korea until I was in my twenties.

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