Courtesy of Sulim Kim.

Hi, how may I serve you?

저희 치킨 하나랑 빵 하나랑 샐러드 하나 주세요…

“Finding Home” is a narrative about a girl’s experience from immigrating from Korea to Midwestern America. It is a story of the discomfort of an ambiguous home, about bridging both worlds through the medium of language. 

The chicken sandwich?

빵 하나 주세요.

I’m sorry?

Can I just have a 12-piece chicken nugget please?

Would you like any sauces with that?

Can I have honey mustard?

That might have made you feel a little uncomfortable. But she was just doing something basic: ordering food! In fact, that was me, ordering a chicken sandwich at a drive-through window. It takes a lot of courage to order food in English as an immigrant—not to mention that it’s also pretty rare to hear Korean in the Midwestern United States. According to the Heller School at Brandeis University, only 1.5% of the people in Toledo are Asian by ethnicity.

Recently, America has been going through an extreme makeover to recognize and acknowledge diversification. And Toledo’s diversity has been growing with it, even if our part in the makeover seems to be less talked about. Over 30% of the people in Toledo are from diverse cultures and the hispanic, African American and Asian American populations have been growing. 

I am proud to say that my family and I are a part of the diverse community here in Toledo. 

Born in South Korea, I moved to Detroit, Michigan at 4 years old, moved back to Korea at 9 years old to spend the next 5 years of my life.

Then, I moved to Toledo.

I had a big cultural transition in my teenage years. On the first day of school, I felt like I was standing in a different part of the world. Well, indeed, I was. But you know what I mean.

Unlike Koreans, Americans were very outgoing and very open. Even though I was an extrovert and talked a lot when I was in Korea, I suddenly became an introvert.

I felt like I couldn’t be myself anymore—and by the time I adjusted, it was too late. Kids in school already knew me as the “quiet one” or the “math genius” or the “nice Korean girl.” 

So, when I finally started to open up, people were weirded out, and made fun or said things behind my back. So I shrunk back into my shell. And up to these days, I don’t open up to many people because of the extreme discomfort of my adjusting days. 

But it wasn’t only me..

My mom had lived in Korea for most of her life, almost 40 years, and she too had to come to America where everything was different—maybe most notably, the language shift after 40 years of speaking only Korean. 

“문화라던지 그런 부분들을 완전히 이해하지 못하기 때문에 더 어려운거 같아…”*

I definitely had culture difficulties. Because I didn’t know the system of how the school worked, it was hard to communicate with my children and the teachers. For example, when the school asked me to pay money, I didn’t know why they were asking me to pay so I was confused. And when my kids were registering for classes, I didn’t know what they were and I didn’t have any experiences in the American school system so it was really confusing. So I just made my children do it all by themselves because I’m not used to the culture.

Cultural differences also had an effect on my social relationships. While in Korea, I’d attend classes with the same people all day—what we called “bans”—in America, we chose our classes and saw new faces each period. On the first day of school in America, I simply sat in my chair in the same classroom even after the bell rang, everyone stared at me and I stared back at them—”why are you packing up your stuff??” The “bans” system made sure I connected with new friends quickly because I had to stay with the same kids for a whole year.

However, it was different in America.

Courtesy of Sulim Kim.

In America where everyone meets new people every period and there are not fixed classrooms,  I had a hard time making friends. Where in Korea everyone clicked together automatically and stayed that way, in America you had to reach out to other people and open up about yourself. So it was a really big challenge for me to actually let myself out to the world and reach out to people that I didn’t know. I needed to make new friends all over again. 

And adults need friends, too…

“한국에서는 주로 엄마 학교 때 친구들있고 교회에서 만난 사람들 있고 그리고 학부형들 있고…”

In Korea, I had a lot of friends including school friends, church friends, and parents but in America, I don’t have lots of friends. It was hard for me to make new American friends because when I speak with native English speakers, they speak too quickly for me to understand. And even when I understand them, I still have difficulties when I’m speaking. I’m afraid that they would misunderstand me. Also, I don’t have any opportunities meeting American friends because they’ve known each other for so long it’s hard to fit in conversations.

Ya, I totally agree with my mom. Here in the Midwest region, many families have lived in the same little neighborhood and had the same friends for their entire lives. It’s such a broad and vast landscape, but it seems like the social circles are small.  

I had trouble getting used to specific styles of phrases and words that other people knew automatically like idioms or slang words. When I first started to text my friends, they kept on saying the “lol” after every sentence, so I just thought it was a cultural thing—that whenever you say something you have to say lol behind. So one time, in response to the news of a friend’s illness, I said “aw I hope you feel better…lol.” 

This is my mom talking about how she had difficulties understanding idioms.

Ya, idiom is also a big issue. But usually in my daily conversation, I don’t have that close friend who talks in English with idiom, so idiom isn’t a big issue. But when I try to understand TV shows, it was hard for me to understand idioms.

Even though I have many embarrassing stories (and spent forever just trying to pronounce my “r”s correctly), they say that kids adapt better and faster to language barriers. How about someone who spent 40 years speaking only Korean?

“일단은 미국 음식은 설명을 봐도 이게 내가 그 미국음식 이름 자체를 잘 몰라서…”

Ordering food is difficult for me. When I look at American foods in the menu, I don’t know what the food is and I don’t know what the description is saying like there are so many choices and so many different sauces that I never tried before, so it is confusing for me. Also, in restaurants, the waiters are so friendly and they ask a lot of unexpected things and if they ask it very fast, I can’t understand them clearly. Even phrases like “everything ok?” if they say it differently, I get surprised. One time, when the waiter said would you like to order something more? And I thought she was saying how was my service? So I just gave her a thumbs up and she was so surprised so I got really embarrassed.

My mom—who had never spoken English before—had lots of problems with vocabulary but she had more problems with pronunciation. 

Maybe my pronunciation is hard for them to understand. For example, “caramel macchiato” is a hard one for me. And they keep asking me, “What do you want? Sorry, one more time.” And I felt sorry because I knew they felt also very sorry because they couldn’t understand. So recently I just order regular coffee—Americano.

Not being able to communicate—or being made fun of when you try to—is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable experiences a human can have.  And trying to find a home in the midst of all that discomfort—well, I guess that kind of defeats the very definition of “home”—a place that’s familiar, relaxing, and comfortable. But there were other influences that made Toledo home. 

Like most high school students, I was involved in many organizations and activities—from orchestra to tennis to lacrosse. And through these, I met all sorts of people and gained confidence in myself. Toledo actually has a surprisingly diverse population for being right in the heart of Middle America: According to Wallethub’s diversity study series, the occupational Ethnic diversity in Toledo ranked 66 out of 501 major cities. It was a blessing for our family to live in Toledo because of the many opportunities that this city has given us. Ultimately, it would be the people who began to make us feel more a part of the community.

As a foreigner, I feel more comfortable among people from all around the world, so it gave me comfort.

I met Kristen from the library. I met her through a reading program of Toledo. It is kind of like a tutor program. Ya, I am really satisfied with the tutoring program and Kristen, my tutor, she really commits her time for me.

Let’s hear from my mom’s tutor Kristen

My name is Kristina. Right now I am volunteering to teach people who are new to this country and would like to learn more, like better pronunciation and more about the English language.

Your mom went very quickly through the final book of the series of learning about English. And she is still interested in becoming more familiar with English. You know I have to keep telling her, “speak bravely” like open your mouth a little more, you know, so people can hear you better. She’s afraid of making mistakes. And I tell them that it’s like riding a bicycle. First you ride a bicycle and you fall and you wobble and you hurt yourself, but then after you practice more, then you get very efficient at speaking. You get better.

Like this at first, me as a child and a teenager and my mom who didn’t know English, had a hard time fitting in the new culture and new language. We both felt very uncomfortable in a foreign country and I’m sure every person who goes to a foreign country feels this way. However, through many opportunities that were given to our family in Toledo, we eventually settled in comfortably. It was like a path of finding home. We can’t say we all still feel very comfortable living in America, but we certainly are in the midst of finding home.

The author with her family (Courtesy of Sulim Kim).

*Passages in Korean and the translations in italics underneath are transcribed and translated by the author from personal interviews with her mother.


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