Shine Chin ‘20,
I am five years old, in the middle of a kindergarten classroom in Rome. I stare blankly at the teacher gesturing towards the different shapes on the board. She draws out exotic symbols and spouts incoherent noises while locals gibber all around me. I give up sorting through this mess. Instead, my mind weaves between the sea of ajummas’ legs in the bustling marketplace on my way to the old mogyoktang with my mom. I accompany the images with a hummed rendition of the theme song to Dooly, the only show they played at my former daycare.
The teacher finally speaks a word I recognize. It forces me back to the present. The kids fix their unforgiving gaze on me. I cower.
Adults may pretend that everything is okay, but kids are honest. Although I can’t understand them, I know what they’re saying.
“넌 여기있을 사람 아니야.”
I am ten years old, in an elementary school in Seoul. Within the buzz of my native language, my articulation outs me as a foreigner.
“외국인,” they accuse me.
“Way-kuk-een,” I am forced to affirm.
My mother tongue is not my own. It belongs to the chorus of laughter that catches every single one of my fumbles. The chorus sings that I’m not Korean, that I am a fake. Their slang-filled phrases feel alien.
I try to pay what I can for assimilation, but am short on English. All I can afford is two defective tongues.
I harken back to a question asked not too long ago: “Where are you from?”
I no longer know.
The stares of my fellow citizens recite my greatest fear.
“You should not be here.”