I grew up in an apartment filled with English books, English audiotapes, English TV shows, English movies, and English dreams. Our living room had a radio set instead of a television and English songs played from it. Surrounding the radio, rows of bookcases with English books filled all three walls of our living room from ground to ceiling. I could not run away from English.
Over the dinner table, my mother insisted that I hold onto Ella Enchanted, a novel that I was reading, and continue it instead of participating in my parents’ Korean conversations. When my mother noticed that I took more than a few minutes in the bathroom, she would pick a random book, knock on the door, and slide it through the small gap. Going to bed, my mother insisted that I listen to Harry Potter audiotapes instead of her Korean bedtime stories because she thought it was the best way to learn a language unconsciously. At first, Jim Dale’s foreign voice irritated me because I spent most of my bedtime, wide awake, imitating his smoothly rolling Rs and deciphering his English stories on magic spells and castles. But over time, it slowly sounded natural to me, my own lullaby. When my mother came in and told me stay warm, her Korean voice disrupted my English world and I told her to shhhh I’m learning English. She quickly exited my room and closed the doors, locking me in my English dreams.
But everyone in my neighborhood and school lived and breathed in Korean. They read Korean books, watched Korean comedy shows and foreign movies dubbed into Korean, and joked in Korean. I lived in a world that my mother crafted so carefully, so different from my reality in a small Korean city. My friends teased me after seeing that I wrote my name Jennifer Kwon, a name that my kindergarten English teacher gave me, on my textbooks instead of Kwon Yae Rim in Korean, a name which everyone knows me as. I was resentful about my English education when I didn’t understand Korean pop culture references and was constantly left out in conversations among my friends. I didn’t belong where I should belong.
But when I was shipped to New Zealand in second grade for a summer English program, I realized my fabricated English world was different from the real English world. I spent nights crying and clinging onto the telephone and starving myself because I was scared to make conversation with my New Zealand family over a dinner of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. They spoke English, just like the people in my books and movies, but they looked and behaved strange to me. They did not make me read a book over dinner; they wanted conversation. My homestay mother had short, copper red hair, piercing light blue eyes, rarely blinked, and always had her eyes wide open, registering my every grammar mistake, spelling mistake. My homestay dad was bald and had a beard. I read and heard but have never seen anyone bald or with a beard before.
In New Zealand, I did things without knowing what I was doing and went to places without wanting to go. Coming back, I immersed myself more in English so that I would be prepared when I enter the real English world again. My mom helped me by ordering three to four books each week from Amazon, all the way from the US.
As I got older and rebellious, I swore in English and yelled at my parents in English because I knew they wouldn’t understand me. When I needed to express my anger, excitement, and loneliness, I wrote in my English diary instead of talking to my parents. Several times, I caught my mother secretly looking into my diary, and I would fight her like my life depended on it and pushed her to the walls with all my force when I knew that she barely understood what she had read. My mother cried at night. She didn’t know that the books, movies, and audiotapes that she bought for my better future would make me grow more distant from the place I started from. She didn’t know that my education, her gift to me, meant more time apart, fewer Skype calls, longer silences, and less understandings.
The world she created for me, only exists for me.