The first thing I always thought about was the adventure I would have in the forest. It was back in the early 2000’s when I used to play on the fields of my father’s farm in Pennsylvania. I can recall it vividly. There was nothing but a vast open space of green. A wide pond rested in front of the farmhouse that reflected the light blue sky and soft rolling clouds. Yellow and purple flowers speckled across the property, releasing a delightful aroma into the air. The farm was my very own castle hidden in an enchanted forest. I had everything in the world I could ask for. My own enchanted forest and a loving family. The fantasy did not last long, however, because my mother dragged me to South Korea when I was just turned five. Not only would I not see the bright green fields of the farm for a few years, but I would soon learn how my nationality and looks would be judged by others.
It did not take long before I dreamed of returning to the farm. My mother would answer with an annoyed frown that we would “some day”. All of a sudden people spoke different languages, the signs looked funny, and there were more buildings than trees. Grey. There was a lot of grey. As time went on, I was given a tutor who taught me Korean. For a few years, the enchanted forest would remain only as a memory. Each night I would imagine myself running back to the farm with my father. Someday. Somehow. Away from the grey city that was known as Seoul. Back then, I never imagined living and belonging in Korea. I was American. Not Korean. My belief broke my mother’s heart, who was Korean herself, yet I did not understand since I was so young and only had fond memories of America.
Things became more complicated when I went to school. On the first day of school, I learned that I was not like the other children. The other students had strange-sounding names. To them, however, I was the one with the strange name. Since I was never given a Korean name, the children would always stare in my direction in confusion when the teacher called out our names. I specifically recall a group of children exchanging looks and commenting how my name was both strange and ugly. After the first day, I immediately begged my parents to give me a Korean name just to fit in. However, my father only laughed and said my American name was good enough. The other children in the Korean private school thought otherwise. I was simply referred to as “the American.” There was something wrong with me.
In the beginning, the children never noticed I was half American. It was only when I spoke in Korean when they noticed there was something “odd”. Whenever they sensed I was not like them, the children gradually walked away from me. I recall a time when I rushed over to students playing the Korean version of “red light green light.” Almost immediately, the children stopped the game and gave me dirty looks. One child even told me I was not allowed to join because my father was American. It was not until they physically shoved me that I realized I would not be playing any games with them. From that day on I became used to standing alone and watching the other children play together. As I stood in the background, I often imagined myself playing with them. I became very lonely while also despising myself for being different. There was something wrong with me.
The students were not the only ones who treated me differently. The teachers were usually the ones who revealed my identity. When I first introduced myself, the teachers always complimented on how “big” my eyes were and how “white” my skin was. I never thought much about my eyes nor the color of my skin. However, I eventually noticed that my skin was a shade lighter than the other Asian children. Since my father was white, I was naturally lighter than full-blooded Koreans. The other children in the room would later ask me if I stayed in the house all day or if I bathed in milk to keep my skin white. When I answered that I did not do anything with my skin, the children scoffed and accused me of being a liar. There was something wrong with me.
Despite learning the basics of Korean, I still struggled with the language throughout my elementary years. The teachers and students quickly noticed this struggle and targeted me. The students would openly call me a retard while the teachers clicked their tongues before muttering, “Typical dumb American.” To prove to them that I was not inferior, my mother put extra pressure on me to do well on the spelling tests. Through my hard work, I would always get a 100 or 90 percent on the exams. Despite working hard, my efforts were always brushed aside. Whenever I got a 100 percent and another student got a lower score, the teacher would turn to the Korean student and say, “How come you can’t get a 100 percent? The hybrid is able to get it! Are you stupid or something?” I was not a “student.” I was a “hybrid.” There was something wrong with me.
Things became unbearable when they insulted my father. I recall one incident where the teacher explained the Korean War during history class. Nine-year-old me hardly paid any attention since I continued to daydream about the farm in Pennsylvania. According to the teacher, the Americans started the Korean War and slaughtered innocent Korean babies. The teacher went as far as to specifically point at me with her index finger and claimed that the Americans were “gun slinging tyrants.” Automatically, the students in the classroom turned to gawk at me. Some even moved their tables away from mine as if I were a parasite. While my father has his flaws, I never saw him as a monster. Instinctively, I told the teacher that my father was not a “gun slinging tyrant.” The teacher snapped at me for “speaking up” in class. There was something wrong with me.
The teachers soon referred to me as the “troubled” child. It was common for the teacher to beat a student in front of the class for either disrespecting (disagreeing) or getting low grades. I used to lie about getting higher grades to avoid such beatings. However, one day, a teacher found out about my lies and struck my back several times with a wooden stick. Instead of sniffling back to my seat like what a good “Korean child” would do, I did the unthinkable. As the students gawked in disbelief, I packed up my bags and left the classroom. Even though my back was sore from the caning, I felt liberated as I walked out into the rain. The teachers and students never rushed after me. Since I did not know how to return home, I sat on the steps and waited for the school bell to ring. During that time, I remembered the warm sunlight that would shine on my skin back in America. I comforted myself by dreaming about the day I would run away and live in Pennsylvania with my father.
I was no longer able to function in school. I would get into fights, cheat on exams, steal from the school’s market, and lie to the teachers. I no longer trusted nor respected anyone. All of that changed when my parents eventually moved me to an international school. At first, I was anxious about my new environment. I expected the same treatment that I received from my previous school as I reluctantly walked into the classroom. My eyes widened in surprise when I saw the first white person besides my father I had seen in Korea. I blinked my eyes to make sure I was not imagining things. His name was Mr. See and he came from Alaska. He would always amuse the students by telling tall tales of seeing wild bears and fishing salmon on his little boat atop the unforgiving waters. He was unlike any other teacher I met. He was very patient and determined to teach. I found it delightful that we could talk about our experiences in America. It was somewhat comforting. He was a friend. I no longer felt like an outsider.
It was difficult to trust him at first. The constant abuse from adults was heavily ingrained in my mind, and I continued to hate myself for being mixed. However, it only took one simple yet significant event to change the way I looked at myself for the better. I was working on a math problem while Mr. See loomed behind me. When he told me the answer to the question was wrong, I automatically covered my head in an attempt to protect myself from being hit. That hit never came. As I slowly pulled down my arms, I noticed a strange look on Mr. See’s face. He looked both confused and concerned. He was the first teacher who never struck me for getting an answer wrong nor insulted me for being mixed. I almost cried when it finally dawned on me that the way I was treated by previous teachers was not only unhealthy but wrong.
For once a teacher believed in me. For once a teacher treated me with respect. For once I respected a teacher back. Mr. See and the other students hardly ever brought up my “interesting” background. I was treated like everyone else. Mr. See saw me as a student and helped further improve my English skills. My background did not matter. With his patience and determination, my fear and hatred towards teachers slowly faded away. In fact, Mr. See was the one who sparked my interest in the sciences and my passion for learning. With his help, I even won first place during the Science Fair. Before that, the Korean teachers openly claimed I would never accomplish anything. With Mr. See’s help, I proved them wrong. I could accomplish anything I set my eyes on. I was not a freak. They were the freaks. There was nothing wrong with me. I was not a “hybrid”. I was simply myself.
Ever since Jamie Karns was a young child she moved around different countries because of her father’s job. Jamie had the privilege to live in Indonesia, America, South Korea, and Singapore. Throughout this time her family would also travel to other countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, and North America. Through these experiences, it is impossible for her to answer where she “belongs.” She is currently an undergraduate student attending NYU hoping to major in English and minor in psychology while also pursuing pre-medicine.