We are arriving fresh off the plane. We are coming to America.
It’s Christmas night, 1989. My mother, two sisters and I are on a Koreana Airlines 747 plane headed towards JFK airport.
I’m supposed to be strapped down for the landing, but at the behest of my anxious mother, I get out of my seat, scurry down the aisle and nudge the flight attendant…again.
“Excuse me but are we there yet?”
She tells me soon and “Would you please return to your seat and fasten your seat belt now?”
My ears feel clogged and uncomfortable like I’m under water. It’s my first time flying.
When I look out the window, the cityscape looks like a lit up Christmas tree.
Soon I’ll be a kid in America. The America I imagined as a seven-year old kid in South Korea is a cross between Mardi Gras and a Disney parade. I’m basically anticipating a big, opulent, Hollywood-style party in the streets and everywhere. I’ve watched a lot of movies. It is Christmas, after all. I’ve heard that Christmas is really big in America.
But when we land in JFK, there is no party, just my father waiting for us at the gate, looking more haggard than the last time we saw him, a year ago in Korea.
The streets are empty. A few snow flurries fall, but alas I encounter no Hollywood magic.
It’s winter of 1990 and I’m a kid in New York City.
The first few months in America, my family of five live in my father’s tiny studio on West 38th Street. It’s always dim and dusty in here. Outside is pre-Giuliani West Side, more known for violence, drugs and peep shows than trendy restaurants of West Side 20 years later.
The walk from my father’s tiny studio to my father’s even tinier store in Times Square is a hazardous one. We avoid it as much as possible. Naturally, I spend most of my time at home, absorbing American culture through TV.
The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show!
Followed by the Jetsons!
And who can forget: Pee Wee’s Playhouse!
I don’t speak English but I am transfixed. It’s exciting and addicting. There’s more action, danger and outrageous characters in these shows than the state-controlled children’s programming in Korea.
So I’m a kid in New York City and I’m hooked on TV.
Eventually — my parents turn their attention to New Jersey in search of safer neighborhoods and better schools.
In New Jersey, I learn new things about America that blow my mind. I learn about lawns, tree-lined streets and squirrels. The idea of coexisting with fluffy-tailed animals and the idea of rolling in the grass makes me feel this immense glee. So much so that I beg my parents that we move as soon as possible. So much so that I cry.
It’s spring, 1990 and I’m a kid in New Jersey. And it’s my first day at Slocum Skewes Elementary School. I join the second grade. Everything is new and different.
In America, you don’t call teacher “teacher” with a respectful tone as you do in Korea, but you call them by their last names. I have a hard time figuring out how to say my teacher’s name, Mrs. Rose, and she has a hard time with my given Korean name, Ji Eun.
In America, you don’t eat school lunch in the classroom like in Korea. In America, you line up in a single file then you are corralled to the gymnasium where there are these long, tall things called bleachers.
It’s here that I unpack the lunch my mother packed for me on my first day of American school.
I open the brown bag and find a carton of chocolate Yoohoo milk. There also is a small tupperware with fried dumplings inside. I’m eight so I don’t know quite how to describe this unique combination, but the girl next to me does, she says, “Ewww!”
I never liked Yoohoos.
Soon I learn that in America it’s okay to open your brown bag and chuck whatever you don’t want straight into the garbage. This feels weird to me. But I learn. And I adapt.
Over time, I learn English well enough to read and write and speak. I adapt to eating Korean food — fish stews, pickled cabbage and rice — and eating spaghetti and PB&J sandwiches at school. I learn there is so much more to America than Hollywood glamour. And as a grown kid in America, I learn to throw my own Christmas parties.
Over time, as a grown kid, I learn that my experiences of being a new kid in America is very American.