When I was in second grade, some fresh-off-the-boat Korean girl was transferred into my class in the middle of the school year. My teacher, Mrs. Yablon, sat this new girl at my table next to me. I assume that Mrs. Yablon was thinking that I, as a fellow yellow, could help this girl transition into the class as well as provide some basic translation services.
This girl (I can’t remember her name! More on that below.) didn’t speak any English at all so her sitting in our class, I’d imagine, felt sort of like a waste of time. I don’t know why she wasn’t placed in some sort of ESL class instead. At any rate, this girl and I did get to chatting a little bit.
Though my grasp of the Korean language is embarrassingly, gut-wrenchingly poor, it was somewhat better back when I was in the second grade because (1) I spent more time around Korean speakers – family members and churchgoers and so forth – as a child than I do now, and (2) the little formal Korean language training that I had gotten as a young’un was somewhat fresher in my mind. So what I’m saying is that, though I might not have fully understood everything this new classmate said to me, I’m freaking seriously, positively sure of what sticks out in my mind.
This girl told me about her life back home; about how people dressed better and the kids got richer educations and just led completely superior lives to us in the States. I had only been to Korea very briefly as an infant and I certainly didn’t follow its culture and politics, so this was all news to me. I hung onto every word.
At some point my new classmate got to talking some serious smack about the other side – South Korea. She railed against how poor stupid and senselessly mean these South Koreans were. She assured me that it was a common occurence for a South Korean grown-up to just kill a child on the street for no reason other than, I suppose, bloodlust. It was somewhat far into this conversation that she asked me where my family was from. I had no idea that the peninsula was even divided at that point, so of course I answered, “North Korea, like you.”
At this point I want to explain the two-tiered reasoning behind this answer. First, I sure as hell never saw any of this crazy erratic typical South Korean behavior she spoke of in my family. Secondly, and I admit this part is thin, I knew enough geography at that point to know that I lived in North America, and in the North part of the United States (I felt pretty superior about that, too; we’re on top of the top!), so it naturally followed that my folks would be from North Korea, too. North and North stick together, right?
The new girl didn’t stay in my class for long. I’m not sure if it was because she was finally – mercifully – placed into an ESL program elsewhere in the school; or if her parents simply moved to another US city; or if (more sensational conclusion), while this little girl was a perfect model of Communist brainwashing, her parents were defectors who just made it to Queens, New York before Kim Il Sung’s minions tracked the family down and snatched them up; or if (most sensational conclusion) the whole family was a bunch of freedom-hatin’ spies infiltrating the States on behalf of the North Korean government and they got what they needed and moved. the fuck. on. Or were assassinated.
Longshot: If you or anyone you know worked at PS 22 in Queens in the early nineties, I would love to hear what the administration knew of this girl and her family. Or if you or someone you know IS this girl, get at me! I want to hear the rest of your life story, and find out if you still feel the same way about South Koreans and democracy.
Or if you or someone you know is Mrs. Yablon, did you know this girl was North Korean when you put her next to me? Were you trying to fuck with my second grade mind?