When my family moved to Canada, in 1975, we lived in a seven-storey government subsidized building in North Toronto. I was seven years old. One day, I stepped out of the elevator and ran into Ian, a boy with red hair who lived in the apartment across the hall, where most days the TV could be heard blaring from behind his front door. When I turned to walk away, Ian stretched out his arms and legs to prevent me from passing. He was smaller than me, so I pushed him aside and headed home.
He was waiting for me the next day. As I was about to push him again, I saw his hand reach into a pocket and pull out a wrench. Its metal tip grazed my ear as he swung it. We wrestled and I managed to get on top of him, suspending the wrench high in the air, beyond his reach. The elevator doors opened and a man and woman exited. They leaped at me, forcing the wrench from my hand. As the woman yelled I stood helpless, unable to offer a defence because of my lack of English. Stunned at the twist of events, I wanted to shrink into myself when the woman grabbed my chin and drew my face into hers. My stomach churned seeing the hostility in her eyes. Why was she forcing me to look at her? Such brazen eye contact between a child and adult was considered an unthinkable expression of disrespect in Korea.
I felt humiliated by what happened and I couldn’t tell anyone. Instead, I avoided the elevator, and for the rest of my years in that building I climbed five flights of stairs to get in and out. I wondered how I could feel smart in one language and stupid in another. I had sat cramped in our living room with my neighbours back in South Korea, watching professional wrestling and The Six Million Dollar Man on our block’s only television—but those shows were dubbed into Korean. I had a warped notion that all Americans had super powers, their vulnerability limited to bionics that failed in sub-zero temperatures, but it never dawned on my young mind that they spoke another language.
I hated English. All the odd sounds I tried to mimic left me exhausted and frustrated. Nothing in my new surroundings made sense. Books suddenly were filled with pictures of blond girls climbing and falling down hills with boys named Jack. I didn’t see any images of the foods I ate or the games I used to play. I discovered that by changing my thoughts, I could change how I felt. In class, rather than allow myself to feel stupid in English, I escaped into daydreams and memories that took me back to my home in Chungju. Music turned out to be a great distraction. One of my happiest “discoveries” was finding a collection of vinyl records in our local library. I spent countless hours listening to the soundtrack of Mary Poppins and dancing to “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” I even learned to say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to convince my parents just how absurd English sounded. I moved on to Billy Joel and started singing along to “Piano Man” and “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” without any real sense of the songs’ meanings. That hardly mattered — the music lifted my spirits and helped me to relax. Although I didn’t know why, I sensed an underlying sadness or angst in Joel’s lyrics and melodies that made me oddly happy. I can still picture the look of disapproval on my teacher’s face when I started using some of my newly learned slang. Her displeasure made me like Billy Joel even more. I quickly went on to memorize all of his songs, determined that if I had to learn English, I would do so on my terms.
Things changed in my third year of school in Canada. My new teacher—an immigrant herself—was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She had long dark hair, a soft voice, and shiny shoes with heels that added inches to her already stunning height. We played games and used music to learn new words. On very cold days she asked me to clean the blackboards during recess. I accepted her invitation happily, though I knew my flimsy jacket had made her concerned about me being out in the cold.
When this teacher told me that English was a beautiful language, my mind opened to that possibility. Seeing the elegance of the cursive alphabet solidified that belief. I practised diligently, enjoying the feel of the sweeping motion of connecting the letters. As my penmanship improved, so did my confidence. I developed a sense of urgency to learn the English language and became an avid reader. I even allowed myself the dream of becoming a writer.
June came, and a deep sadness settled when I realized I’d be losing my beloved teacher. To my surprise, she slipped me a piece of paper with her address and a note: “You can write to me and keep practising your English.” I wrote to her in my best cursive, and to my delight, she wrote back. We continue to write each other after forty years. In one of my happiest letters to her, I shared the news that my debut novel was about to be published.