There was something in the shoulder of a clean-pressed uniform that never seemed to fit me in the same way that it did for others. Plaid skirt, clean flats, and an oversized blazer to grow into, that first week of my life in Seoul was cold.
On Monday, Ashley Kang, the kind of girl who always looked like she was either disgusted or had eaten a grapefruit or both, pulled me down and told me to sit. I didn’t really want to. When Matthew set his books down on a nearby desk, her face soured even more.
“You can’t sit there!” Cruel, like the first graders on the school bus who liked to kick the back of your seat just because you wouldn’t talk to them.
“Because I don’t want you to. No one likes you.”
All around were faces that said not this again, but I pushed her back, annoyed. Stop.
These cannot be my people.
It was one month into school, and Sammy Kim – new kid on the block – had already proven herself capable of laughing with all the kids in class with a familiarity I could never muster on my first day.
“I’m from Hong Kong,” she said. A poised, LA kind of girl piped, “I’m from California!”
“I don’t like Californians, they’re all such valley girls.” Without a moment to spare, the girl from LA nodded, laughed with her hand over her mouth, eyes scrunched in a fake smile that was so ready to throw away everything else that California was and ever could be, and said, “I know, that’s basically everyone from California.” Laughed again. The crowd dispersed.
“What do you think?” said no one to the only girl in an oversized blazer and an actually knee-length dress code-adhering skirt.
I keep my mouth shut like the model minority I am.
Student council took us on a picnic to celebrate and told us to wear our house colors: color-blocked, PE uniforms of blue, green, red, and purple. Freedom, whispered the breeze. I spotted my purple-clothed friend sitting on a large foil mat with a group of other giggling girls, and walked over to search for a corner to call mine. Then a red-clothed girl said, in a voice I will never forget-
“There’s no room for you here.”
Red and purple, red and purple – that strangers could dictate my life. I’ll sit on the grass, I could have told her. And Sammy, I could have said. We will never. Ever. Be friends. Instead I, in my fraying blue shirt, watched the purple girl hesitate and say nothing, and went off to find my other blue friends and throw around an ugly yellow frisbee, cheeks burning. Once blue, always blue.
That summer, my arm got stuck in the metro door, and fear hit me like a train. Mom tugged endlessly at the door from the inside of the train, while everyone else just watched, silent, unmoving. The train didn’t have to move and snap my arm off for me to all at once start gasping for air, submerged, stabbed. The doors finally opened and as Mom stared at the people standing beside her, I got on, tried to laugh, and listened to the shame I hoped the people around me felt.
On Thursday night, I took the subway and watched someone’s foot get stuck between the platform and train as no one stopped to help her. Someone kept muttering behind me, shoving coins into a vending machine, and I stood there, in that space between vending machine and train, hesitating. When she finally clambered on, all I can remember is following her numbly onto the train and feeling all of the shame as I slowly became one of them. Later I wrote a poem about the incident, printed it out, performed it for class.
This doesn’t sound very realistic, the teacher wrote in the margins.
The animal shelter that we volunteered at was in a different part of the city and required us to take the metro. Even though the others had lived in this city for eight, nine years, and had histories from a time before me, somehow, I ended up in the lead. As we clambered down the stairs, my Taiwanese-Korean friend asked me about my Taiwanese-Korean ethnicity. Clumsy, fumbling, I replied, “Yes.” But we are not the same.
I’m flashing back to this morning during study hall, when someone didn’t know me, and the first thing he said to me was that my name was so white. Like he couldn’t figure out why I didn’t have a Korean name and wanted a full explanation – all just because he had never known someone like me.
He stuck out his hand for a handshake like he wanted to take my name away from me. I smiled and turned away. It was awkward, it was rude, and it was mine.
Check out my analysis of this piece and its use of form in a future post.