a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
The paper was filled with foreign squares and lines. I recognized it as Korean, my mother tongue. As I stared, the words squiggled into snakes, slithered out onto the floor and bit me on my heel. I jolted awake, smothered in sweat. It had been a few days since I had started taking classes in Korea, and I was in a jam.
Thoughts and worries concerning “What if I fail my test?” had been at the back of my mind since I had first looked into what we were learning. All my life in the US, I had thought I was excellent at Korean. I had finished years of Korean school in the US, and the comic books we had brought with us from Korea had been read until they were worn and tattered, with favorite pages missing.
But the illusion was shattered the moment I read or tried reading the material I was to learn. Poems and literature, pages full of Korean words I had never seen before lay in front of me. I had no idea how I was going to get an A in Korean. I had never been the type to care about grades. I had never studied hard because I could get away without it. But now more than ever in my life I had to excel. Without this A, I wouldn’t be able to apply to the high school I was hoping for and would blow the only chance I had of ever going back to America.
The next few weeks consisted of hours and hours of sitting down with a pencil and paper, trying to understand the questions. Practicing was like taking apart and putting together parts of a puzzle over and over. Sometimes I would wake with my head on the table. It was like my body couldn’t get used to sitting down—I was slowly losing my tan and muscle mass. Back home, I would walk, run through the grass and breathe in the nature to shake off any stress. Now, everything outside my small window was gray. The asphalt roads were buzzing with cars and people rushing to get to wherever. Tall angular buildings all around towered over the scene. Even though so many people were moving outside day and night, I felt lonelier than ever. Somehow the fireflies and crickets back home seemed more human than the people of the city.
I stared down at a page covered with red Xs. Behind that page were ten more of the same, covered in Xs and red marks that called out my incompetence. I hadn’t expected much, but just looking at the marks that screamed failure exhausted me. I felt so infinitely ignorant while I was solving problems in Korean. Not just felt, I realized. I was completely useless in what was supposed to be my mother tongue.
What was I doing? I suddenly felt alien, so apart from all my peers, trying to fit myself into a mold that didn’t match. These questions weren’t for me. They were for people like my classmates, people who had lived their whole lives in Korea and knew what the questions meant and what they were asking—the people I envied so much at this moment. I stumbled away from the desk and onto my bed, staring up at the blank ceiling. It felt like I was back in my drywall house in the US. For a split second, it seemed as if I could get up and it would be my old room again, full of memories and dreams I had had to abandon during the move. But it wasn’t, and I knew I would never be back in my room again. I stood and went to the windowsill. I knew the only chance I had of getting closer to that room full of dreams would be to somehow get into that school.
It wasn’t just the upcoming test that was the problem. No one here really knew me. I felt more like a specimen in the classroom than a classmate. The new girl from America, the one who looked like them but wasn’t one of them. When I got home, my parents would be out to work, and I would be alone and confined in the box of an apartment. I missed the twinkles of fireflies that had filled our backyard in the summer. Even in the darkest nights, they had always seemed to tell me that I wasn’t alone. I looked outside. The lights of the city glowed in the dark. Through the tears, I couldn’t tell them apart from the fireflies. The glass square on my wall that had felt so confining became a portal to home. The faces of friends left behind and my new classmates overlapped in my mind. The light shining in told me that it wasn’t a portal to home—it was home. I had to try to make this new place feel like it. Reaching out a hand, studying, and talking to classmates and my parents was my task. No matter how hard that was, no one could do it for me.
The gloominess was still there, but I had enough energy to sit down again. I opened the book and started navigating the sea of words in front of me. 문장의… “of the sentence…” 주어를… “subject…” 찾으시오…“find.” Find the subject of the sentence. I blinked. I read it again. I could understand the question. I read over the sentence again, afraid the meanings would shy away from me. I pieced together an answer and checked. It was correct. It was the first check of success amidst a sea of Xs. A sense of freedom I couldn’t quite define swept over me. I basked in the success—it was quiet and private but more exhilarating than any other. I was one small step closer to my dreams. I moved on to the next question, excited for the first time.
Jiyoon is an 11th grader at the Hankuk Academy of Foreign Studies in South Korea, and has been practicing writing short fiction and poetry for several years. She is eager to express her ideas on the page, especially about culture, family, and personal experiences.
* = Editors' Choice work
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