The Koreanization of me began with a bit of longing, a feeling of deja vu, and a minor miracle.
After I became a teacher, I thought the place I was would be the place I’d be forever. Happily, I was wrong. I was about to step onto another path; one that would lead me to worlds I’d neither planned for nor dreamed of.
Eleven year old Kayla Kim sat alongside me while I read aloud to our class. Methodically, she twirled her fingers around a lock of my red hair while scrutinizing my hazel green eyes. My students often crushed on me and usually asked if I was the same faith or ethnicity as they were, but only Kayla was blind to my race. “You’re Korean aren’t you, Ms. Leslie.” It was more plea than question. “Tell me you are.” She entreated. My answer was swift. (I’ll share it with you later), but for now, I’ll admit it wasn’t true that day. I grew into the actuality of it over the years.
I loved teaching middle school English just 4 miles from my home in bucolic Little Neck, New York. Our award winning school surrounded by manicured lawns and filled with mannerly students was both haven and opportunity to me.
While the building and staff remained constant, the neighborhood was re-inventing itself. Soon my classes were populated with more Choi’s and Na’s than Goldstein’s and Poulis’. The faces seemed to change overnight and by the end of my third year, more than three quarters of my students were Korean-born. Hair and eye color aside, these children seemed like relatives. They were growing up exactly as I had; extended families, filial devotion and clear demarcations of who was and wasn’t in charge of it all.
My Grandma Rose was the head of our clan. With dad as her henchman, nothing happened or ceased to happen that wasn’t a direct result of their decisions. My Korean students were raised using the same model. I couldn’t get enough of their stories. I thoroughly enjoyed being with their moms and was delighted by their outpouring of respect for teachers. It was heavenly.
To my surprise, the rest of my school’s staff didn’t feel the same way. NYC teachers are exposed to so many ethnic groups during the course of their careers, most hardly gave the new population a thought. (Except on first days of school, when teachers counted the Kim’s in their roll books; more Korean names meant a quieter class according to one of my colleagues.)
A Korean mom asked me to speak out against an anti-Korea book in the school library. The American in me couldn’t ban a book, but I could insist the school supply a companion selection to give a balanced version of the Korean War’s aftermath. Soon after, I produced an assembly program to introduce Korean culture to our non-Asian students and staff. But although I marinated in Korean culture, I still had little to offer other than educational chit-chat with the families I had grown to love.
One evening, while I waited for my chicken dinner to roast, I surfed TV channels to pass the time. Up popped a K-drama filled with a grandma and uncles exactly like mine. I had been a General Hospital addict in college; I knew a soap when I saw one. I sat mesmerized till the aroma of charred fowl filled the room.
The next night I returned to watch actress Buja Kang act out scenes from my childhood; laden with sobbing, anger and a whole lotta drinking the pain away. Finally, my school families and I could have real conversations: “Did you watch last night? Did you see episode 23 yet? No? You must!”
I took my first forays into speaking Korean with distinguished success since I learned authentic inflection from my dramas. I’m so adept, I’m able to procure ethnic discounts in Korean stores just by Hangul-chatting into my cell phone when I enter.
In 2003, by nothing short of a miracle, I was named educational envoy to Korea by the Korean government. That summer found me on the other side of the world. On a dismal rain-soaked morning, I boarded a bus along with other international educators to visit the DMZ. This terrible monument to slavery of the mind and soul stays with me still. After a day of North Korean soldiers (younger than my son and skinny even by Asian standards) pointing their weapons at me, I promised I’d share the story of this intrepid culture. I left teaching to write Bird and Fish; a love story that introduces Americans to the culture, cuisine and even the foibles of Koreans. Unlike K-drama main characters, I’ve never looked back.
So what was my answer to little Kayla when she asked if I was Korean? “그럼요 Krum yo! ” (Of course!)