It makes sense that I’m a writer, which allows me to draft, hesitate, then rewrite many times before I say anything that I can live with for good.
In 1976, my mother, father and two sisters and I immigrated to the United States. I was 7. We moved from Seoul to New York, and Dad enrolled my sisters and me at P.S. 102 in Elmhurst, Queens. None of us girls knew how to speak English.
Even back in Seoul, I was a quiet child who fidgeted and had attention issues. I found school and friendships difficult, and it got worse when I moved to a new country.
The first few weeks in America were tough. There was one other Korean girl in the class. Like me, she had small eyes. Unlike me, she knew English and had friends. She wanted me to stay away.
One day in class, I needed to go to the bathroom, and I didn’t know what to do. The Korean girl grimaced when I approached her, but mercifully, she told me to raise my hand and say, “Bassroom.”
I said this foreign word, and the kids laughed. The teacher handed me a well-worn, wooden block, which served as a hall pass. I rarely spoke in school again except for when I needed permission to go to the bathroom.
The years that followed were not very different. I did my work and looked forward to being with my sisters, who protected me. I learned to read English and made my way through shelves of borrowed books from the Elmhurst Public Library.
In our first year in America, my father ran a newspaper stand in the lobby of a dingy office building. Then later, my parents had a tiny wholesale jewelry store in Manhattan that sold costume jewelry to peddlers and gift shops. They worked six days a week.
At Junior High School 73 in Maspeth, N.Y., I had a wonderful teacher named Mr. Sosis, who taught law, and he selected me as a classroom monitor. He allowed his monitors to eat lunch in his classroom, and I don’t know if he knew this, but he rescued me from the terror of the middle school lunchroom and from the reality that I did not know how to act around children my age.
I had other fine teachers there, and I started to talk a little more. I did production work for the school play, and when an actor dropped out, I was given her role because I’d already memorized all the lines. For my law class, I did a mock trial, and I was not awful.
I got into the Bronx High School of Science, where my older sister went, and I made up my mind that I had to learn how to talk well.
As a child immigrant, I had read straight through Lois Lenski, Maud Hart Lovelace, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume then through Dickens, Hemingway, Austen, Sinclair Lewis and Dostoyevsky — books recommended by good-hearted librarians and teachers.
In Western books, heroes spoke well and could handle any social situation, not just through action, but also through argument. In Korea, a girl was virtuous if she sacrificed for her family or nation, but in the West, a girl was worthy if she had pluck and if she could speak up even when afraid. As a kid, I’d watched Koreans criticizing a man for being all talk and no work. In America, a man was considered stupid or weak if he couldn’t stand up for himself.
Both things were true: I didn’t want to talk, and I didn’t want anyone to think I was stupid.
My freshman year, I joined the debate team. I could hardly manage group conversations with my peers, but I reasoned it was necessary to learn how to argue. Debate felt almost impossible. I was a terrible debater, but that was better than nothing. I did it for one year before quitting.
One day, I noticed a poster in the hall for summer classes at the Hotchkiss School, which offered electives that Bronx Science didn’t have. I sent away for a catalog and found a class on public speaking. I asked my parents for the money so I could take this class, and they gave it to me even though it must have been a lot for them. At Hotchkiss, the teacher gave us assignments like tell a long joke, explain a piece of art, and persuade the listener to an unpopular position. I told a long joke and no one laughed. I was not very good, but I was starting to understand rhetoric. For the following summer, I mailed away for another brochure, this time for Phillips Exeter Academy, and I took another public speaking course.
When I went to Yale for college, I felt outclassed by my peers who had attended the private schools I had visited during the summers. They spoke with ease about music, art, and faraway places and wrote beautiful papers about books I had not read. Some knew Latin and Greek. I stumbled through my classes and ill-advised romantic relationships. I majored in history, and without a clear plan, I went to law school at Georgetown.
Not once did I consider being a litigator because that seemed like professional debating. I thought I’d be better suited as a corporate lawyer. I figured I should try to be financially better off than my parents who worked throughout the year without breaks in an underheated store, scrimping to pay their greedy landlord, who refused to kill the enormous rats that roamed in the basement.
After my first year at Georgetown, I went to the career services office because I needed to learn how to do a job interview. The career counselor, an older white woman, said to me in the gentlest way, “You need to boast about how great you are. You’re an Asian girl, and when you boast, you’re playing against the stereotype of the meek Oriental. Your interviewer will never think you’re bragging. I don’t give this advice to pushy white men.”
She was telling me how the world might see me. I had to talk, and I had to build myself up, because others might see less than there was. Though I couldn’t really do what she said, I never forgot her words.
When I sold my first novel I was no longer a lawyer. I was 38 years old. In preparation for a small book tour, my publisher hired a media trainer to coach me for two hours. The trainer had written a book, so I read it. I learned that each event is about the audience. This idea helped because no matter how insecure I felt, I could forget myself and focus on everyone else.
I write novels, and now and then I give lectures. I come from many tribes — immigrant, introvert, working class, Korean, female, public school, Queens, Presbyterian. Growing up, I never knew that people like me could write books or talk in public. To this day, I worry that if I mess up, others like me might not be asked or allowed. This is how outsiders and newcomers feel. It is neither rational nor fair. I know.
I am 50 years old, and after more than four decades of living in the West, I realize that like writing, talking is painful because we expose our ideas for evaluation; however, like writing, talking is powerful because our ideas may, in fact, have value and require expression.
As a girl, I did not know this power, yet this is my power now.
Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.
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