“Come here. You said you weren’t Chinese, correct?” A stout, middle-aged woman said in a commanding voice. At the bold age of five, I was proud of my origins; it was known by everyone in my grade that I was not “another Chinese kid” and that I was the only “Korean.” Just the week before, I had figured out where the peninsula was located in Asia on my older brother’s globe and had admired the land’s vivid fuchsia color on the circular map. A piece of my heart felt like it was home, despite that I had never stepped foot in the country.
I nodded my head vigorously, trying to suppress my excitement. Why would a teacher call me over? Was it for a special treat? Had she somehow bought some Korean candy or snack? I had introduced many of my friends to Korean foods before; they had always raved about it whenever we had play dates at my house. The thought of a treat filled me with joy. She motioned me to stand beside her, where she was holding a food wrapper of some sort. “Can you read this?” I tried to ignore the pang of disappointment, before looking at the shiny blue plastic. It appeared to be from some assortment of cookies.
“This isn’t Korean,” I said defiantly, staring at the loopiness of the characters. “I think it looks Japanese.” The woman looked puzzled at my words as if I had uttered some gibberish to her. She was one of the after school program teachers who looked after children whose parents were too busy to come as soon as classes were over, although I had yet to talk to her. She seemed aloof most of the time, and not interested in whatever games we children had.
“But isn’t it the same?” I frowned at her question, furrowing my brows. I could not bring myself to meet her gaze, and steadied my eyes on the blue wrapper. A flash of light from the fading sun distracted me, and I shook my head slowly, sneaking a peek at the woman’s wristwatch. It was almost time for my mother to pick me up from the after school care. I did not want to stay here anymore. I could hear my friends, their shrill voices behind me somewhere on the playground in a vicious game of tag. A part of me longed to join them, but a larger part of me wanted to vanish under the woman’s scrutinizing gaze.
“We aren’t the same. Japan is an island. Korea isn’t!” The woman shrugged, and I felt a flare of anger at her obvious disinterest. It was worse than the children who always assumed I was Chinese—at least they would acknowledge South Korea as a country after I spoke. “You can just ask my mom when she comes.” It seemed almost like a desperate way for me to prove myself, by dragging my mother into such an issue. The woman nodded, her gaze unfocused on me. She lost whatever scrap of care she had for me the moment I made my uselessness to her evident. At age five I would not have known that there are hopeless cases to walk away from, but I was too stubborn to leave, my feet glued to that spot on the asphalt. I watched children run by, their shrieking laughter begging me to join. I did not.
By the time my mother came to pick me up, I was still standing beside the woman, my determination to prove her wrong overwhelming. She was fiddling with her phone, not sparing me a single look. My mother’s warm eyes were wide in anxiety as she saw me standing there, and I could see the panic on her face. She was worried I had caused trouble, and the teacher was reprimanding me for my behavior. I waved at her brightly, my pigtails flickering from side to side at my enthusiasm, before I pointed at the discarded blue plastic on the ground, picking it up to show off the label.
“Is this Korean? It isn’t Hangul, right?” I pestered as my mother looked over the blue wrapper. The woman put her phone away, diverting her attention back to the wrapper. She stared at my mother, ignoring the glee on my face as my mother shook her head. I resisted the urge to stick my tongue out, while the woman quirked her lips slightly, a hint of a frown revealing itself on her face.
“This is Japanese. I’m sorry I cannot help you.” My mother spoke in her gentle voice. The woman forced out a chuckle, and it was obvious she could not simply state that they were “the same” as she had before. My mother gripped my tiny hand in her own before bidding the woman farewell. I did not wave goodbye.
Brittany is a high school junior from northern New Jersey. Interested in psychology, Brittany explores the concept of character development in her writing. She also enjoys drawing, playing with her dog Angel, and baking goods to share with friends and family.