Finding an American Voice

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
January/February 2003

By Jeanne Mack, Illustrated by Natalie Chin

Dong-suk followed his uncle, carefully keeping his pace slow enough for his haal-mu-hee, his grandma. His mother was close behind. The group moved along with hurried steps, adding to the bustle of the sidewalks of Seoul. His hand was gripped tightly around his grandmother’s and he shouldered a backpack. Although his feet were quick to stay in line behind his uncle, his thoughts were slow. He was going to America to be with his father, who had left a year before. He could not wait to see his father, but he was afraid his father would not be proud of him. As he thought, his free hand closed around the black stone in his pocket.

Finding an American Voice goodbye at the airport

He hugged her, begging her not to cry, using all his courage to reassure her

The stone had been given to him the night before. There had been a specially cooked meal and his grandmother had told her stories and sang songs. She had driven away all his doubts about America. After dinner, while he was in bed, Grandmother had come in and given him a tiny pebble, her lucky dol, or stone. Dong-suk remembered the way she had smiled, showing her famous dimple on her cheek. Then she had spread out her small, delicate hands, wrapping him in a hug.

*          *          *

Abbie banged the front door open and stepped inside without taking off her rollerblades.

“Abbie May Kessler, what have I told you about roller-blades in the house?” said her mother as she passed by.

Abbie smiled, ducking her head so her mom wouldn’t see. She threw off the rollerblades and then hopped on up to her bedroom as her mom yelled, “And you’d better get started on those book reports of yours. If you haven’t gotten them finished by July, you won’t be going to Gram’s house with us.”

Abbie sighed; why had her mom chosen to give her three extra book reports when the school had already given her one! She liked reading and writing, but not when it was four four-page book reports on four different people.

*          *          *

They were on the subway for a pretty long time; the airport was a good distance away from where they lived. Dong-suk went over his limited vocabulary of the new language in his mind, trying to pronounce the unfamiliar words exactly right. He hoped that his English would be good enough for America. He glanced up and felt his heart skip a beat. There it was. The bee-hang-gi. Dong-suk pressed his nose against the window and let his eyes dance from one of the huge aircrafts to another. He watched one of the huge birds take off right before his eyes. Airplane, he thought, cleverly using an English word instead of Korean. He smiled at the thought of using an English word; it made him feel important; it made him feel American.

Dong-suk’s flight number boomed over the intercom system and he bravely stood up, hoping that his legs would not collapse. He walked with his uncle, grandmother, and mother over to the gate. His grandmother set the little suitcase she had been carrying down and kissed him on the forehead. His mother’s eyes were glossy and red. He hugged her, begging her not to cry, using all his courage to reassure her. Then he faced his uncle. He looked up, staring at his uncle’s face. The soldier, he thought; his uncle had always reminded him of a soldier. He sniffled, but did not cry under his uncle’s stern eye.

*          *          *

When the plane had landed, Dong-suk was greeted by his father and a strange man with brown, wavy hair who was tall and skinny. Dong-suk was surprised, even baffled a little. He was expecting to only be met by his father, but he was curious about this man, so it didn’t bother him much. He was so glad to see his father, glad that that long waiting was over. His father looked happy as they hugged and Dong-suk couldn’t stop smiling. He tried to stay awake for the car ride; he wanted to see every little bit of America he could. The signs fascinated him. They were so colorful and he could make out most of the letters. He was content. Slowly, though, his seat felt more and more comfortable and his eyes more and more heavy.

*          *          *

Abbie rushed downstairs when she heard the car door slam. She opened the door and flung herself outside.

“Hi, Daddy,” she called into the darkness.

“Hey, Abbie, honey. Could you come over here and help me?” he answered back from the driveway.

When Abbie got there, she was surprised to see two other figures next to the car, one she recognized a little, and one around her own size. She grabbed some bags from the trunk of the car and headed in, toward the steps.

She put the luggage down near the door. Her mom was standing there.

“Who are those for?” she asked.

Abbie shrugged.

A few moments later, her father stood there in the doorway, with two people at his side.

“I would like you to meet Dong-suk,” he said, looking at the younger person. The other one was Mr. Lee; Abby recognized him. He had started working for her dad when he had arrived in America, last fall.

“They will be staying for dinner, since Dong-suk hasn’t eaten anything in a long time and it’s much too late to go out to a restaurant.”

Abbie looked at the boy, studying his tan skin and almond-shaped eyes; the boy stared back at her, his expression unreadable. There was a moment’s silence and then his father explained that Dong-suk had come to America to be with him, and that he did not know very much English. Abbie felt a little squeamish as the boy watched her. It wasn’t that she was prejudiced, she hated people like that, but well, this was a different feeling. An odd sensation that made her feel uncomfortable. Why was he staring at her, why didn’t he say hello. She looked down at the ground, thinking rapidly; did he expect her to be a role model? She didn’t know how to act, or what to do.

*          *          *

Dong-suk was riding in his father’s car, they were going to the Kessler house; they had been invited to dinner again. When they got there, there was a chess set on the table and Dong-suk’s eyes jumped to it immediately. Dong-suk had started playing Western chess when he was eight and had been playing for four years now. His uncle had taught it to him after he had mastered jangki (the Korean chess). He had never really known how his uncle had learned to play the game. But for some reason Dong-suk liked Western better. He loved how you had to think out each move, and plan ahead. It was one of his favorite things to do. His dad would always joke with him how he got so caught up in the game.

As the parents slowly started to drift toward the other room, Abbie’s mom suggested they play a game of chess. Abbie didn’t particularly like chess, but had unusual skill. She knew she was pretty good. But, as she began to notice, so was Dong-suk. They played for a while and didn’t really get anywhere. Then it was time for dinner. Dong-suk didn’t seem to mind being interrupted and began to clean up the game, but Abbie was eager to play more, interested by the challenge this boy held.

*          *          *

The next day, during breakfast, Abbie’s parents introduced their new idea to her. She would be tutoring Dong-suk. They had basically already made up their mind and would not be moved, but they did allow for one minor compromise. If she did this, her mom would take back one of the book reports. So the deal was made.

*          *          *

So the next morning, Dong-suk biked over to Abbie’s house and they began their lesson. Everything went pretty smoothly until Abbie insisted Dong-suk repeat a list of words back to her. They were easy words, Dong-suk knew them, but he felt his mouth shut, it suddenly just froze up. He felt the words coming up his throat, but then they just disappeared. He was scared.

What if he did talk and they came out wrong, or he didn’t know them? She would know he couldn’t do it. She would call him stupid and make fun of him. She would laugh at him. She might even tell his father. Then his father would know he would never be a true American. He really wanted to be an American and Dong-suk couldn’t bear the thought of disgracing his father. No, he decided that it was just better to not say the words and pretend he didn’t hear.

He looked out the window, hearing the sound of the thousands of footsteps that Seoul’s pavement felt all day in his head. He knew if he was in Seoul, he would be able to speak, so why couldn’t he now? Toward the end of the lesson, they started a new chess game while they waited for Dong-suk’s father. Dong-suk soon forgot his anger.

*          *          *

“Dong-suk , how did it go?” asked Dong-suk’s father when he arrived home.

“Good,” answered Dong-suk as he shut the door. He had hoped his father wouldn’t ask him any questions about the day, but soon gave way to his father’s constant questions and told about his lesson, cleverly skirting around the fact that he hadn’t actually said anything.

He had been thinking about it on the bike ride home and he thought that maybe if he knew more of the language, he would talk. He had decided to look through his Korean-English dictionary that night. Then tomorrow he would speak. He had to.

After dinner, Dong-suk lay on his bed, flipping through the pages of his Korean-English dictionary. He came to a familiar word: jangkoon. His eyes moved over to the English side. Check. He whispered the word into the unbroken darkness, only shattered by his reading lamp. Liking the way it rolled off his tongue, he said it to himself as he closed his eyes, feeling it slip across his brain.

Dong-suk went back to Abbie’s house, but again found the barrier of speech. He could not speak. Dong-suk was upset, but focused on the other activities, perfecting the shape of his alphabet. Then they returned to their unfinished game of chess. He was persistent and patient. She was daring and sly. They were a good match.

Finding an American Voice playing chess

There was no English, no Korean, only chess.The language he would always speak

The lessons became a pattern, a routine, almost. Dong-suk would return to Abbie only to find himself unable to speak again. His anger would fly through him, burning and harsh. He would be hurt easily, so disappointed with himself. He wondered why he could not speak, why he could not be a true American. Abbie would quickly move on, seeing Dong-suk’s expression. She wondered why he would not talk. He is definitely smart enough, she thought. One day.

But Abbie’s troubling thoughts of Dong-suk were forgotten as they reached the end of the lesson. Both minds were imagining the smooth marble figures and the square spaces. Abbie almost loved the anxiety and thrill she felt. She couldn’t help getting excited, she was just competitive, always had been. She played soccer and softball, but those were team sports. This was just her . . . and Dong-suk. She wondered if he felt the same way, as she felt the adrenalin racing and tearing back and forth through her.

*          *          *

One day, Abbie had set up an activity. She would say a word and then he would write it down on a sheet of paper. Dong-suk seemed to like the game. It was going pretty good, too. Then she decided to raise the bar a little.

“Mouth the words,” she told Dong-suk.

He did as she said, not thinking very much of it.

“Say them.” He started on cocoon, feeling his hopes rising. Abbie was holding her breath.

“Co . . . Co. . . ,” he couldn’t do it.

He felt his strength crumble. He hated himself. Abbie looked downcast, too.

That day, Dong-suk’s dad was coming to pick him up. So they started to pack up. Then the phone rang. It was Dong-suk’s dad. He was going to be pretty late.

So Abbie’s mom suggested they play some chess. Dong-suk was relieved to find the familiar marble figures waiting in their spaces. They picked up where they left off and after a short time, the game was in full swing.

Abbie moved her knight. Already, Dong-suk was breathing, living, and knew only chess. There was no English, no Korean, only chess. The language he would always speak. Slowly, Dong-suk began to pull ahead; he accepted this fact and kept playing. Then the moment came. He saw his move. The game would be over.

He moved his queen and cried out, “Check.” Then he waited for Abbie’s reaction. But to his surprise, she blinked at him, only looking astonished for less than half a second. Then her face split into a smile and she broke out laughing. Her eyes were gleaming like the sun on the Han River. Dong-suk waited for an explanation, confused. Why didn’t she try to make a move? Why didn’t she look upset?

“You did it! You spoke! You said check!” Abby interrupted his thoughts. She was still beaming.

Dong-suk laughed. He had done it. He was truly American, now. He felt confident that he could speak English. Abby ran back to get a vocabulary list she had made for him, and he sat, quietly reading them to her. He was bursting with pride and couldn’t believe it. He wanted to dance.

Soon, they heard a car pull up in the driveway. As Dong-suk went to the door, he turned around. He looked down at the ground and lightly whispered “thank you.” Then he looked up quickly and pulled something out of his pocket. He grabbed her hand and opened it. She felt something drop into it, and looked down to see a small stone. Perfectly smooth and black. It reminded her of an eagle’s eye. “For you. You help me. I give to you,” he said softly, stumbling through the words. Abbie smiled and Dong-suk looked down at the ground again. Then he was out the door and running toward his dad’s car.

Finding an American Voice Jeanne Mack

Jeanne Mack, 12
Bristol, Rhode Island

Finding an American Voice Natalie Chin

Natalie Chin, 10
Bellevue, Washington

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