“I don’t want to forget English,” I said, holding up a threadbare copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Since coming to South Korea, I had copied down every word in the first hundred pages, line by line, until the frayed yellow pages began to crumble. And still I was afraid. “I want to go back to California.”
Mother tried to explain to me that as a nine-year-old without American citizenship, I couldn’t go to school. We couldn’t afford to live in America again like I had when I was seven: we were too poor. I would have neither a nice house nor pretty clothes. But did I care?
“Please let’s go to America again,” I begged. “I miss it so, so much.”
So Father agreed to stay in Korea to raise money for us while Mother, my two sisters and I squeezed into a cramped two-room apartment of her friend’s in America. Both of my parents began to spend days and nights working and cooking and cleaning for our brief but precious reunion with California.
California! For the next five months, this is where I learned to write, not copy. This is where I would read for hours amid the haze of filmy golden dust; where I would squat on the cold stone steps of the library after it closed at ten, waiting in silent terror for my mother; a place where I worried more about losing weight than gaining it. This is a place of flaking paint, school shootings and cracked pavements. This is also a place where dreams come true, where Lemony Snickett would hold my hand and wish me good luck with my writing, a place where ice cream is sweet and Christmas decorations an art. This is a place of fortune cookies and Barbie dolls, blue jeans and Disneyland; a place where the only frost is on glazed donuts and beaches toast sunburned bodies like warm croissants. This is a place that smells of hot sunlight and tastes like bracing, briny seawater. This is where “eating out” means going to In N Out Burgers, where a freezing winter means a rainy day, where something as simple as the scent of water sprinklers on fresh lawns makes summer heartbreakingly lovely. This is where I learned that I could be both hungry and overwhelmingly happy. Where I could have nothing, and yet – possess – everything.
California, for me, defined happiness. Happiness would seep through the curtains in the coffee-scented bookstores, snuggle into the corners of the poufy library armchairs. Happiness was redolent in the ancient vanilla-paper books. It filled the room as we baked homemade cookies at two o’ clock in the morning and got up again at five a.m. for school. It dimpled our cheeks as we went eye shopping on Saturday, admiring jewelry and fancy dolls we could never buy. I wore three-dollar jeans and crumpled T-shirts from Goodwill but happiness told me I had never been prettier. My face was thin with hunger but always aglow with joy.
Sometimes, though, happiness faltered at California. Because I didn’t have a citizenship, we secretly attended a public elementary school for free on condition of leaving as soon as our promised five months were over. Our status as the only Asians in school made us universal scapegoats. I would sit in the nurse’s office, pale with horror at the thick blood pulsing down the scraped legs of my seven-year-old sister – a boy had pushed her on the playground in anger, bloodying both knees and nearly breaking her nose. I learned to run fast, zigzagging between jungle gyms and volleyballs, after six black girls in the fifth grade tried to beat up the “little Chinese b****” at recess. I learned the words n***** and s*** from boys who would tell me unnecessary information about their private parts, then try to force kisses on me. I learned to push past crowds of sneering girls who asked me in mock reverence, “We heard you’re going to skip a grade, teacher’s pet. We’ll be so d**n happy for you when you do.” Sometimes my tears fell—hard. And there was nobody to wipe them away. But then my English teacher would tell me, “You’re the best student I’ve ever had,” and give me high school textbooks on the art of styling sentences. The pretty librarian would beam kindly at me and tell me where all the new fantasy books had come in. And I would forget every bitterness, every tear, and remember with delight why I had longed so much to return to California.
After five months, we returned to Korea as promised. I was too young to cry when we left California, but I cried many times after that, as I searched for English books in Korean libraries and found none, as I asked my English teacher to correct my writing and realized she couldn’t read it, and as I learned that this time, neither Mother nor Father were able to work me into America. My only way back was to work my way there alone.
But the tears mean I haven’t given up yet, and when they drop on my lips, they taste of California beaches and sunny days. I still copy books down, still practice my English. I write often, write about the place that has taught me how to stand up for myself, how to understand others, how to love libraries, how to be happy, and how to survive. Because for me, California means happiness. For me, California means home.