My American Dream: 1. Being Born Again

by Harijan

[Picture of us standing in JFK]

My South Korean family, sans mother, arrived at JFK International Airport on December 28th, 1993. Though it’s been fifteen years, I still remember certain details – such as wheeling everything we own in three large “immigration bags” on a cart or smelling wet carpet odor for the first time.

My father left me in charge of the luggage and my younger brother, Aujin and Maim, and disappeared into an elevator to find our uncle, who was supposed to pick us up.

Aujin and I anxiously awaited for his return with Maim – a baby not even a year old, then – between us. Every time the elevator rang, we jumped up in anticipation of our father only to be disappointed by the sight of foreigners appearances different from our own.

I remember, particularly, this one giant dark-skinned man. English, as he spoke it, had strange noises which formed into something completely incoherent to my ears. Sometimes I try to remember what it was he must have said to me, but to adopt Osler’s words,

“What the mind does not know, the ear cannot hear.”

However, I gathered from the man’s gestures he was concerned given there was no adult around. I told the man, “No.”

I pointed to the ground, “Father” to signal that I was waiting for father to come back to the spot where I stood. (I often tell my friends that back then I only knew three expressions in English – yes, no, and thank you – but this is not completely true. There were occasions when I blurted out words I thought I didn’t know. “Father” being the first of such kind.)

He seemed a bit concerned but shrugged his shoulder and continued on with his day and the rest of his life.

I watched him walk away. Then my father reappeared through the elevators much to our relief, and we continued on with our own American life. Soon I forgot about the scary encounter with the big “black” man.

I did not appreciate the significance of this little encounter until many, many years later.

That moment was my truly being outside of the Korean mono-culture for the first time in life, when I stood face to face with another human being and could not say what I wanted to say.

At the age of 13 years old and of sound mind, I had to learn to speak all over again.