by Su Young Lee
The people of New Zealand call themselves Kiwi after the native bird. I used to try to pass as Kiwi, to lose my Koreanness. I dreamed in English, and my mother was scared that I would forget how to speak Korean. She made me write Korean diary entries every day with various bribes, usually money that I saved up to buy novels written in English. Having left Korea before finishing first grade, the first book I read was written in a language not of my homeland. I picked up English quickly, and my surroundings spurred me onto claim English as mine.
In New Zealand, my head was filled with songs about fish and chips make me want to lick my lips and cheeky little fantails that flitter fluttered everywhere. I was in love with the new language that made sounds that didn’t exist in Korean and allowed for communication with my new friends. I hated leaving New Zealand for school break, even if it was only once a year and often the only time I saw my dad. Moving away from Korea at an age when friendship was built mostly on the physical act of running around together, I instantly lost contact with my Korean friends. During vacations in Korea, I went to the playground in our apartment complex alone and sat on the swings with only my swaying shadow for company. In Korea, I missed the rope swing in the grove of plum trees at my best friend’s house across the Pacific Ocean. We took turns, one swinging, the other picking plums and peeling the unwashed skin with grimy fingers. I missed my mother covering the New Zealand sun’s burns with her remedy of mashed raw potatoes. I missed rocking on my blue, striped hammock in our garden under the sky that hung low as if eager to meet the sea.
Despite missing New Zealand during our brief visits to Korea, I decided my future was in an American college. My mother and I packed up soon after high school graduation to wait in Korea for college acceptance letters. This meant my mother was finally returning to her home, ending an exile she only withstood for my sake, hoping to give me a childhood away from the harsh academic competition in Korea. She didn’t want me to be one of those students who crammed late into the night, a cog in a system that often stifled creativity.
The night before we left Auckland, I ran my hands over the furniture-dented carpet, wondering how long it would take for the tracks of our occupancy to fade. Everything had been sold or shipped in advance. All the remaining belongings were contained in a few suitcases. My mother talked about how excited she was to return to Korea, the food she would eat, the reunion with her childhood friends, the Seoul subway system putting an end to her own uncomfortable driving. Pausing from the list of things she looked forward to in her home country, she told me a story from our time in New Zealand that remains with me as an image: her small figure huddled in the car as she waited to pick me up from school. Stones smashing against and then rolling down the windscreen. Laughing teenage boys, yelling Asian! and Go back!
I think she was trying to say we never belonged, and maybe that was supposed to make leaving easy. She cried, and I cried with her because I understood. Whether sticks or stones or words, I knew of things that could be thrown and that hurt when they landed. Once, while walking alone down a peaceful street of my neighborhood in Auckland, a car slowed down and the young couple in the front seats rolled down their windows.
Go back to your own country!
I could have yelled the same thing back, reminding the couple of New Zealand’s white colonial history. I could have said I was in my own country, but something about that rang false. I could have said anything at all simply to prove I spoke the language and deserved to be included. But I didn’t say anything, and my silence seemed to confirm that I was lingering somewhere I didn’t belong.
After we moved back to Korea, I felt trapped. I didn’t know Seoul the way I knew Auckland, and my birthplace didn’t feel like home. Even as my future in New York City became official, the months before I left for college stretched on. I wandered through Seoul, terrified that I was forgetting how to speak English—my parents didn’t speak it well, and I was forced to use my babyish Korean at home. I was terrified of speaking to strangers. In my silence I blended in, but my poor vocabulary and slight mispronunciations betrayed me as gyopo, foreign-born. But I wasn’t foreign born. Seoul was where I was born, so I’m not sure what I was.
I forced my mother to accompany me most of the time, on buses where impatient Seoulites glared at any sign of slowness or clumsiness, to the hair salon that harbored chatty hairstylists, and to stores where shopkeepers offered unwanted life advice along with their merchandise. Once, at a shoe shop, when the shopkeeper asked me what size I wanted and I responded in stuttering Korean, he demanded, Why so timid? No one is going to like you if you don’t speak up. I blinked at him, unable to respond. My mother made an excuse about my growing up overseas. I reminded myself of all the times in New Zealand she had me call the electricity company, go to the bank with her, write letters to the landlord on her behalf, as if she were terrified of using her fragmented English. I silently tried on the shoes I was handed. All those times I had been embarrassed by my mother’s English, exasperated whenever I was called on to translate for her, sat heavily around my neck. As we left the store, I bowed wordlessly to the shopkeeper. Watching my mother bid him goodbye, I was glad she had recovered her voice, even as I found myself mute on the streets of Seoul.
Visa approved, I arrived in America, the land where dreams were made, only to realize I had already left my dreamland. I was overwhelmed by New York City, which has almost double the population of the entirety of New Zealand. Everyone seemed smart and assertive, but I was lost with cars on the wrong side of the road, dates written backward, the abandonment of the metric system. During icebreakers in class, I was anxious to establish that I had grown up in New Zealand so that my lack of knowledge about American culture or strange pronunciation of words wouldn’t be misinterpreted as stupidity.
The first time I went to Times Square, I was lit up with as much energy as the towering screens around me, my senses buzzing. Then I remembered tramping through the Hunua Ranges of New Zealand—tramping is yet another word I learned not to use—pitching our tents along a deserted beach. My friends and I would lie under what looked like a sprinkle of glitter across black canvas, gasping together when a shooting star crossed the sky. I remembered the Waitomo Caves where we hushed one another into silence as we climbed onto the boat that carried us through the darkness, under the glowworms that dotted the invisible ceiling like stars. The natural lights of New Zealand were more vivid to me as I stood under these brighter, false ones.
The screens mounted on the treadmills at the university gym had virtual walking tours of far-flung places. I picked the New Zealand one every time. It was almost like I was in my childhood home again. I had no official documents or family members to visit in New Zealand, and so had no real reason to go back. Any money I had was invested into flights to see my parents back in Korea. I still go “home” with my Korean passport, but I don’t know the words to the Korean national anthem.
The way my high school friends speak sounds foreign to me the longer I live in America, their New Zealand accents unfamiliar. They no longer ask me when I’ll visit. I know after they end the call, they step out of their homes and walk past the cliffs from which we used to jump into rising waves, adding to our collections of bruises. We used to wear the marks proudly like badges, but my badge is lost.
When I lived in New Zealand, I sang along at school to Kiwi kids are rocking it, rocking it. It felt like I was singing lies. Haere mai, haere mai, welcome, welcome, I sang along to the faint beat of stones thrown at windows and trills of mimicking laughter. Sometimes I try to remember all the words to the Maori part of the New Zealand national anthem, and I panic when I get confused. E ihowā atua, o ngā iwi matou rā. I try out random sounds that become a meaningless stammering of vowels, until I get to Aotearoa, Aotearoa, the land of the long, white cloud. What if when I go back to visit one day, I find the sky isn’t as blue and the grass isn’t as green as they are in my memory?
When a college friend asked me what was wrong, I explained the homesickness that was more like a fear of losing hold of something, of forgetting the street I considered my home even as people told me to move away, of forgetting the accent I fought so hard to mimic. I wanted someone to understand how it feels to not be able to go home. My friend took me to Koreatown to cheer me up. I thanked her without pointing out she had it all wrong.
Published December 23rd, 2018
Su Young Lee was born in Korea, grew up in New Zealand, and obtained a B.A. in English literature with minors in creative writing and psychology from New York University. Despite her childhood dreams of becoming a fantasy novelist, she is now a graduate student at Penn State and writes about books instead of her writing own. Her various thoughts on books and graduate school can be found at sucoolfor.school.blog.
Rika Noguchi has photographed varied locations, from New York, Miami, and Amsterdam to Mount Fuji and elsewhere in her native Japan, primarily creating a series of seascapes, verdant or industrial landscapes, as well as views of construction and urban sites. With their straightforward formal structure and seemingly ordinary subject matter, her pictures are deceptively simple. When considered as a whole, Noguchi’s oeuvre is a sustained consideration of the intersection of the man-made and the natural. Her series Dreaming of Babylon (1998–2000) is part of that meditation and also of her larger narrative concerning human existence in the physical world.