Age: 15, Grade: 10
School Name: Stuyvesant High School, New York, NY
Educator: Eric Grossman
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
Lollipops for New Immigrants
The past is sedimentary–look for the fossils.
Sepia photos of a Korean family, all square-faced and unsmiling. Expired copies of “The Pyongyang Times.” A pair of wong-ang seteu, wooden wedding ducks, making a nest for themselves above the fireplace. Photo albums and dusty-spined scrapbooks.
I’m not a fossil just yet. Evidence of my life is everywhere — on the mantle, my grandparents have propped up one of my old, handmade holiday cards, riddled with well-intentioned misspellings (“Happee Hollidays, Grandpa!”).
None of this stuff, the wads of postcards or the thick medical books filled with microscopic Hangul text, will ever be thrown out.
“Just in case,” goes the refrain. “Aygu, you do not know what it means to waste!” I sit at the counter, sipping hot yuja-cha. Grandma is at the stove. The steam of the boiling soup clouds her glasses, and sweat slides down her temples. Grandma is remembering.
“We had hard time. We were poor. The whole country was poor. During Japanese occupation and even after, many do not have jobs. Beggars are starving under bridges, and they freeze during the winter.
“My family escaped to China from the Japanese, and so it was there I was born, Jaenam City, Sandong Province, in 1939. In China, people are very kind. Very loyal people. But even there, we have problem. Always, we were hungry. Meat only twice a year, and every day, we made cheap barley porridge instead of rice. Having one egg was lucky.” She tosses a fistful of salt into the soup.
“Maybe it is because of this that my little sister, Chung Ja, died. Dysentery, and she only was three years! My mother, every day crying for pretty Chung Ja. But Abeoji, my father, wanted only a son, and often, he hit Eomeoni for giving him eight daughters.
“When I am six, Korea is liberated, and we return to Taegu City. At that time, there was a cholera outbreak, rampant all over the country. If one person got cholera, everyone in the village got cholera. The whole country was getting diarrhea and dying.
“Then on came the Korean War. During Korean War, it’s not any better. Still, we were poor. Our whole country was poor. Many people died of starvation. Always, I am so hungry, dreaming about eating bulgogi and expensive white rice. I hear stories about America. There, even beggars can have white rice. I am determined to go.
“I am young lady when I board cargo ship to go to Tacoma, Washington, to work as nurse. I leave behind my husband, Shi Gwan, your grandpa. I leave behind my family. I leave behind Korea and my old name, Moon-Ja. For twenty-five days, I suffer in the ship.
All the time, I am nauseous.
“We first arrived in Tacoma, Washington. That was the first place. Mrs. Brewer, the missionary woman met us. She took us to her house in Tacoma and I felt so great and so thankful. Next morning, she gives me a basket. It was filled with ham sandwiches, a banana, an apple, some nuts. As Bong Ja and I get on train to Chicago, I promise I will keep this basket forever. It is my first American item. On train, I eat Mrs. Brewer’s lunch and think, ‘In America, everyone generous. It is just like my dreams.’
“When we arrive in Chicago, the director of nursing shows us to small apartment in YMCA building. But it is in bad neighborhood with bad people–everywhere, there are prostitutes, robbers, bad men. This is when I am confused. Nobody told me about this America.” The rice cooker sputters, permeating the house with a sweet humidity. Grandma fans her sweating forehead. “When I saw what America was, I lost some of my excitement. My English was not very good, and often the chief doctor and nurse would scold me because I could not understand. And I am always homesick. Always, I am so lonely and I worry that my husband will not be able to pass the medical exam and come to the United States. Everything is uncertain and I was so lonely. If he cannot come, then what will happen? When I walk along street, I see fancy chocolate store and all the fancy clothes and I remember the display of See’s Candy. I was just thinking in my mind, what kind of people can afford to eat that kind of chocolate? I was always looking in. There is glass between me and America, and I cannot cross over, you know?”
I nod, even though I cannot possibly know, growing up enjoying See’s butterscotch lollipops and the privilege of mealtime pickiness.
Beside me, Grandma is spooning steaming brown broth into seven bowls, strands of seaweed slipping off the ladle. She adds a scoop of white rice to each. Grandma wipes her hand on her apron, surveying her culinary collage on the table—jars of kimchi, pale, flagellated beansprouts, tupperware filled with galbi and fried tofu.
“Jah! Everyone, dinner is ready!” she calls out.
And the family comes trickling in from every crevice of the house. Grandpa shuffles in from the study, trailed by the adults lounging in the living room. The cousins tear into the kitchen brandishing toy Sandtrooper guns, darting through chair legs and adult legs alike as they shoot at each other with shrill “pew pew”s.
“Will, Alex, not in the kitchen!” says Aunt Tammy. The cousins let their weapons fall to the side, gasping for breath.
“Do we have to eat the bulgogi if we don’t want to?”
“No, of course you don’t.”
Grandma says nothing, and stares ahead.