My first month in an American classroom, I was so lost. I tried to understand what the teachers were saying, but I could make out only a few words. One day after class, some of the other sixth graders approached me. I was hoping that they might tell me what the teacher had been saying. Instead, they smirked, “Hey, stupid! Do you speak English?”
I felt so mad that I wanted to punch them in the face, kick them in the stomach and make them SHUT UP. Instead, I swore to myself that one day I would speak English, get straight A’s, laugh in their faces and have them in awe of me! But deep inside I doubted I would ever learn English, let alone get an A, in this bewildering place.
When I left Seoul, South Korea, in summer of 1995 at the age of 11, I didn’t know more than 30 words of English, but I wasn’t worried. Having been a class president, a straight-A student, and an athlete in South Korea, I thought English would come to me easily. Little did I know.
There was no ESL (English as Secondary Language) class and no Korean teacher in my new school. Teachers asked me questions, and I timidly mumbled, “I can’t speak English.” Then, everyone would turn to look at me like I was on display in a museum exhibit.
I still remember my first test on a 10-page story about Jackie Robinson, the first black major league baseball player. I circled every word I didn’t know and painstakingly looked them up in the dictionary. Some words had several meanings—which was the right one? With about 30 words that I didn’t know on each page, it took me hours. I wrote so many definitions, my hands and wrists began to hurt. I began to argue with myself. “You’re not going to get a good grade on this anyway, so why are you doing this?”
Persistence, defiance, and mostly revenge … That’s what kept me going. I spent seven hours on the assignment. After all that, I got a D- on the test. But my classmate who read the story 10 minutes before the test got an A+. That was hard to swallow.
I was so lonely
On top of that, I was a nobody … only because I couldn’t speak English. Ironically, there were certain words my classmates taught me quickly: “Idiot,” “Stupid,” “Dumb a–,” “Moron,” and “Fag.”
My typical day at school began when my mom dropped me off at school at eight in the morning. I would walk to my classroom by myself. After surviving English class, I would be the last guy to go out of the classroom for recess. Guys played basketball in the gym and girls talked among themselves. I sat on the grass, looking at other students who stared at me with a blank face or with a smirk. This torture would resume at lunch, which was even longer than recess. Then, after lunch, I counted every second before the bell. I wanted to go home desperately, away from my classmates and away from loneliness.
One day I asked the guy sitting next to me for some paper. “Can I have some sheets?” He and the other students around him started laughing hysterically. I blushed, not knowing what they were laughing at. When they finally stopped, one guy said, “You don’t know the difference between shits and sheets, huh?” Only then I realized why they were laughing. That was one of most embarrassing moments in my life. I put my head down and wished that I could just evaporate into space.
Some of my classmates were nice
There were some guys who helped me out a lot. I remember three guys who listened me attentively and talked to me slowly so I could understand. For the first three or four weeks of school, they showed me what I had to do or wrote the assignments in my notebook. It wasn’t any easier for them to understand my coarse accent and illogical word order than it was for other classmates. They had no particular reason to be nice to me. But they were. Sometimes, they said, “What’s up, Richard?” or asked me how my class was. I can’t describe how happy I was then, just for a kind word.
Out of desperation, I threw myself into learning English, starting with simple children’s books. My first book was The Lion King. It took me two weeks to read, and I was so frustrated I ripped out one of the pages. To me, that book seemed as hard as Einstein’s Relativity Theory. But I continued.
All my efforts began to pay off six months after I entered the school. I don’t know how to explain it. My English wasn’t perfect. I still had a foreign accent, I stuttered and I didn’t know all the words that others knew. But English wasn’t so foreign anymore. I began to talk to others without having to stop and think of what words I should use. It was so awesome. To speak English without stopping every now and then … it was such an unforgettable joy!
Then came my reward: an A- in English class in the second semester that year. A revelation, epiphany and victory!
Now that I spoke English a bit better, people began to treat me differently. I wasn’t a stupid immigrant who couldn’t speak English anymore. People came and talked to me, played basketball with me during recess and lunch, asked me for the homework, and treated me like a normal teenager.
But my problems were not over. On the outside I looked okay, but my insides were squished. I transformed into a bitter guy full of hatred and anger. It was ME against THEM, and I didn’t even know that I had started thinking that way.
In seventh grade, I was the only Asian on my Little League team. Before a playoff game, I was warming up with my teammates, and other team’s ball came down to where we were practicing. As I bent down to pick it up, I heard, “Why don’t you go back to your country, you damn Asian!” Stunned, I looked up and saw a puny white guy, staring at me as if I killed his brother or something. My teammates didn’t say a word. They just stood there. There was dead silence on the field for about five seconds. Then he strutted back to his team.
That day, I played horribly. I struck out all three times and made some bad throws. Coincidentally, my whole team played horribly. It was our biggest loss of the season. My coaches, who didn’t see what happened before the game, were confused. “Come on guys, what’s wrong with you today?” they shouted.
I was so disappointed with my teammates. I thought I was one of them. They were the first white guys with whom I went to parties. We hung out together, and we were friends—or so I thought. But I realized that they would never accept me.
After that incident, I felt like everybody was looking to make fun of me all the time. If people made fun of my English, I just blew up. For me, America was not a melting pot—it was a boiling pot.
Once during lunch, I was drinking a Mountain Dew. A class clown came over and said, “You know that Mountain Dew makes you sterile, right?” I didn’t know what “sterile” meant. But I said, “Uh, yeah,” and kept drinking it. Then, intentionally mispronouncing my name, he said, “Hey, Rikad, you don’t know what “sterile” means, do you?” Everybody around me laughed. I went up to him and said, “Hey, shut the he– up.”
He said, “Your mama.” I grabbed his shirt and pushed him on the ground. He backed away and everyone around us fell silent. For a while, everyone avoided me.
Then I started getting into fights. I was angry and bitter, and I thought that if I kicked someone’s butt, others would stop making fun of me. They would fear me and leave me alone. Although I knew that I would get into big trouble for fighting, sometimes I couldn’t control myself.
One day, I was playing basketball with my friends and some girls during lunch. I was shooting very well, and one of my friends teased me, “Ohhhhh, Richard. Are these girls making you hot?” It was a friendly tease, but when everyone laughed, I thought he was seriously making fun of me. I shoved him hard and he fell down to the floor. He got mad, and he said, “Calm down. In America, there is this thing called a joke, you know.”
Thinking he was ridiculing immigrants, I became even angrier and smacked him in the face. I knew that there was a teacher right behind me, but I couldn’t keep myself from punching him.
But after I hit him, I felt so sad. I knew I should have thought about the consequences, but I had to let my anger out … I just couldn’t keep it in me. I got into serious trouble for that, and two more such incidents almost finished off my school life in America.
I was out of control
My friend told me I was obnoxious, but I didn’t believe her. I often unnecessarily said mean things to others, even friends, because I wanted them to feel what it felt like to be ridiculed and rejected.
“Hey, man, you always whine like a girl! Are you a pimp or something?” “Why don’t you shave your mustache? You’re the only girl in our school with a mustache!” “Come on, man. That was the worst shot I’ve ever seen in my life!”
My classmates thought that I was an a–hole, while I thought I was triumphantly getting revenge on them and making them feel what it’s like to be an immigrant. Now I realize that, with my obnoxious attitude, I alienated people who could have been my friends.
As I entered high school, I decided to make a fresh start. No one knew me as an immigrant, and I got along with many people. I was able to gradually change my attitude and become nicer to others. I made some close friends who know that I’m an immigrant but they don’t care.
But it still hurts me when I hear some of the ridiculous racial stereotypes that many people seem to believe. One day, I was walking to the class with my friends who had watched South Park the night before, and they mimicked a line that the Japanese have smaller private parts than other races. They just thought it was hilarious and not racial at all, and although I just laughed it off, I worried that they took that myth as a fact.
Even my teacher once made a racist joke. He made fun of Asian and Latino immigrants as people who can’t drive. Many students, including my friends, laughed. Even though it was a joke, it saddened me that my friends should believe those stupid stereotypes.
Most of the time, I feel like a Korean-American who is making his way in American society. It’s not easy, but if I try I will succeed somehow. But when my friends nonchalantly make a racist joke, when a cashier at the supermarket says hi to a white person but looks away from me, when some people think that I’m good at Tae Kwon Do “just because” I’m an Asian, I feel like an outsider. In the past, I have accepted these racist stereotypes as something that can’t be changed. Not anymore.
Recently, I tried to talk to some German exchange students in my school in English, and I saw surprise and anxiety in their eyes. Uneasily, they asked me to repeat what I said. I apologized immediately and started talking slowly so that they could understand. Then they began talking. Their accent wasn’t perfect; they uttered some words that I couldn’t understand; but I listened attentively. A minute later, we were laughing and having fun.
In these German students, I saw myself several years ago and other immigrant students in school. I remembered how much I was affected by the way others treated me. Even passive ridicule ruined my day; on the other hand, one kind word lightened my day.
Carefully examine yourself. You don’t think you’re a bigot? Even if you don’t make racial remarks openly, you might have some stereotypes about immigrants deep inside your heart. Immigrant students may seem strange and different, but they are as human as people who are born here. That they are DIFFERENT from you doesn’t make them WRONG.
You can make their days much better—or worse. Open up your heart to them. You will be surprised how you can change their lives and get along with them.