Republish: Speaking Up

*This is a profile about a kid I met, Adian, and his struggles with moving from Korea to America and finding his voice.  I wrote this for a class but never had a chance to publish it.  Originally written 22 February 2010.*

Aidan Lee is angry.  He is angry because a group of black males is picking on a Korean kid that is in his English Language Development class.  Aidan listens attentively but does nothing.  He tries to understand what the students are saying but they are talking too fast. Catching words here and there, one sticks out: “FOB.”  He fixates on the assailants, reading their body language, listening to their tone.  He doesn’t need to understand English to know the words coming out of their mouths are not kind.

If I wouldn’t be punished, I would go over there and fight them right now.

For Aidan, he has no voice because he can’t communicate with just four months of learning English.

****

Four months ago, the Lees arrived on a direct flight from Seoul to LAX.  After the fifteen-hour flight, Aidan rubbed the sleep and boredom from his eyes.  Aidan, his younger brother and his parents stepped on American soil together.

Aidan had no choice.  It was his father’s decision to come to America.  His father, Chris, wants to pursue a degree in theology in order to become a certified minister.  Chris wants to spread the word of God in Korea.  The degree will take five years to complete.

Though Chris had told Aidan his plans five years ago, when the day came to move, Aidan was still in shock.  Their apartment was systematically placed into small cardboard boxes.  Aidan wasn’t allowed to pack anything himself.  His parents would do it.  Their furniture and other items that they couldn’t take were sold.

In his shock, it did not occur to Aidan to ask his elementary and middle school friends for phone numbers or email addresses.  He has tried repeatedly to look for them on the social networking sites, Facebook and MySpace.  No luck.

He misses having close friends and hanging out at his favorite ramen restaurants in Seoul.  He misses the Chinese food in Seoul.  The Chinese food here just isn’t the same.  It has no kick.

“There is no food here that I like more than the food in Korea,” says Aidan.

Their new house in a suburb of Irvine, California is twice as big as their apartment in Seoul but Aidan still shares a room with his brother.  There are only two bedrooms upstairs.  Chris thinks it safer for the boys to stay upstairs.  Chris’ room is five feet from his sons’.

Chris believes that his decision to take his family to America while he completed his doctorate was a good choice.

“I think it is good for my children because the whole world is becoming more global.  I want to learn English and want to learn Chinese too,” says Chris.

He travels fifty miles to CSU Fullerton three days out of the week for his theology classes.  Neither him nor his wife have jobs.  They saved up enough money from Chris’ practice back in Korea.  He was a heart surgeon and his wife, a pediatrician.

“I like America more because it is relaxed.  Back in Korea, I used to see one hundred patients a day on average.  Now I have more time to spend with my family.”

Though Aidan misses his friends in Korea, he is supportive of his father.

“The word of God is very important to my father.  I don’t mind going to church but its more of a tradition. I never think to myself, ‘I don’t want to go.’”

****

Why is being Asian bad?  Why do they not like us?

Aidan walks to his algebra class. His teacher lectures in English.  The words start to melt away in Aidan’s mind.  All he sees are numbers on the board. Aidan deconstructs the equation and puts it back together.  He remains silent for the rest of class.  Although he doesn’t catch every word his teacher is saying, he understands the universal language of mathematics.  He enjoys doing math because he doesn’t have to speak up in class.  It’s just him and the numbers.

By lunch period, Aidan and some of his Korean friends from his English Language Development eat and joke around.  With his friends, he can speak in his native tongue.  He doesn’t need to be silent around them.  He can be himself.  He smiles and speaks quickly in Korean.  His brown eyes are no longer directed toward the ground but are gazing into the eyes of his friends.

Mrs. Thiessen, a Caucasian woman in her fifties with sandy blonde hair and large bluish gray eyes teaches Aidan’s English Language Development class. There are pictures of the students on the wall with a short biography about each of them. There is a poster that lists the “8 Values” of Rancho San Joaquin Middle School: Respect, Responsibility, Compassion, Cooperation, Honesty, Courage, Perseverance, and Civic duty.  Another sign writes, “Positive people don’t put others down.”

The last half of the day is where Aidan finds solace within Mrs. Thiessen’s class.  They are comfortable, speaking their native languages with their friends.  They don’t have to worry about being teased for not speaking English because they are all there for a reason: to learn to speak English well.  As teenagers, the students are worried about finding their individual identities.  The girls wear bedazzled white hoodies and the boys wear skateboarding shoes, wondering whose judging eyes are on them.  In ELD class, they have one less thing to worry about: being judged for their broken English.

Sitting quietly and silently in the back of the class, Aidan wears a white long sleeve shirt under a green t-shirt with a picture of a low-rider car with gold graffiti lettering.  He wears dark blue jeans and a digital watch on his left wrist.  His whole outfit is innocuous, until you get to his glasses.  They are fluorescent orange with black accents.

At the front of the class is a white projector screen displaying a monochromatic image of a Microsoft Word document to the class with the assignment for the day.  Today the class is practicing subtraction using fake money from a tattered and yellowing box labeled “Classroom Cash,” which is supposed to help them prepare for their skit tomorrow.  Each student will participate in a skit where they try to purchase something from the grocery store.  The lines are up to them to write.

The class is broken up in to groups of four.  One person from each group is assigned to pass out money from the Classroom Cash box.  It becomes rowdy.  The kids steal the fake money from one another.

Aidan sits in the corner of the classroom with three other boys.  The other boys are laughing and playing with the play money but Aidan is focused.  He studies the assignment on the projector and organizes his money by type.  He glances over at the screen to make sure his answer is right.  After he is finished with the problem, he leafs though the fake bills like a deck of cards.

The rest of the class becomes increasingly rowdier but Aidan is unfazed.  Suddenly, the lights go off.

Some girls scream then giggle.  Some of the boys let out a celebratory, “Wooo!”

Mrs. Thiessen had turned off the lights.

“Class!  The noise level is unacceptable.  I didn’t turn off the lights so you guys could be nosier.  It means you need to lower your voices and get back on task.”

The lights return, temporarily blinding the class with their brightness.

Mrs. Thiessen walks around the class, checking up on her students, making sure they understand the assignment.  She slows down for them, breaks the math down, step by step.  She kneels to be eye level with her students.  This is why Mrs. Thiessen is Aidan’s favorite teacher.  She understands that her students need help finding their English voices.

“Dude, where’s my money?  Show me the money,” says Thiessen jokingly.

Two Korean boys start singing, “Imma Be,” by the Black Eyed Peas and laugh.  Mrs. Thiessen ignores this and continues making her rounds.

Two Korean girls in the back of the class are gossiping about one of their teachers.

‘What are you doing?’ mimics one girl.  They both laugh.

The girls quickly start trying to identify their classmates’ races.

“You’re Russian, right?” asks one of the Korean girls.  The tallest student in the class, a girl, replies, “Yeah.”

The Korean girls then begin inquiring about the race of the students surrounding them. One girl points while the other attempts to guess their identity.  Every student at Rancho San Joaquin Middle School is trying to find his or her own identity.  Their race is a major part of how they see each other and themselves.

Though some of her students including Aidan face discrimination, Mrs. Thiessen does not seem to notice, blinded by the walls of the classroom that protect them.

“I don’t think my students have any trouble fitting in.  Aidan gets along with everyone and is always on task.  Everyone seems to like him.”

At 2:59 the PA beeps three times and the students rush out the door.  Aidan’s mom is waiting for him in the parking lot in a white Lexus SUV.  He doesn’t stay behind to chat with friends.  He must be home in time for the tutor to come over to help him with his homework.

****

At home, Aidan begins his homework in one of the two studies downstairs.  One study is for him and the other for his brother.  Aidan plays basketball by himself since none of his friends from school live near by.  His brother likes to stay inside and watch TV.

After Aidan is finished with his homework, he goes upstairs to his and his brother’s shared room.  He picks up a paperback version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix that is lying on his nightstand.  A clock in the shape of a mouse ticks away loudly.  The compact fluorescent bulbs in his Ikea lamp cast a cold, bluish shadow across the pages.

He was first introduced to Harry Potter when he was in elementary school in Korea.  His parents took him and his brother to watch a Harry Potter movie.  He had heard about Harry Potter before and was curious as to why it was so popular among his friends.  After coming to America, Aidan fell in love with the Harry Potter books.  Though it takes him twice as long to read in English, Aidan persists and is on the fifth book out of the seven book series.

Aidan and Harry Potter are similar.  Both have glasses, black hair, and a strong sense of morality.  Both need to see good win and evil lose.  Those picked on should be punished.

Aidan loves to read fantasy books.  He is also reading The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.  At Hogwarts and in Narnia, Aidan doesn’t have to worry about being picked on, about learning English, and even if only for a brief moment, he forgets about how much he misses Korea.

At seven o’clock, Aidan’s father, Chris, knocks on the door and peers into the room.  He is wearing red glasses with black accents, almost identical to Aidan’s.  His black hair is full and wavy towards the tips.  He has no gray hairs or wrinkles to show his forty-three years.

“Hey, it’s dinner time.”

Aidan puts the book down on his bed and heads downstairs to the wooden dining table.  Everything in the house is new.  The stainless steel refrigerator sparkles in the corner.  There is no dust on their thirty-inch flat screen television.  Their house is immaculate.

The Less are having noodles tonight.  They’re Aidan’s favorite.

****

It is Sunday morning.  Time for church.  Aidan goes to church followed by his Sunday school every Sunday without fail.  Church and God are very important to the Lees. Chris wants to eventually become a traveling missionary and help convert people.  He mentions Haiti, with its disastrous earthquake, as being a place where the word of God would save lives.

The Lees arrive at Onnuri Church in Irvine.  Lines and lines of cars are filing in the narrow street to get into the parking lots.  They drive past row after row of Japanese, Korean and luxurious German cars until they find a spot.  The space is tight but the family manages to get out and walk into the church.

Inside the halls are white and pure.  It is clean and the church’s patrons are in suits, dresses and skirts.  There is loud music coming from the stage.  A whole live band with drummer, back up singers, and guitars is on stage, singing in Korean.  Leading the choir is a middle aged Korean man.  He has his eyes close, left hand clutching a mic, and his right hand held up to God.  The crowd sways, eyes closed, to the rhythm of the drums.  They all sing along.  The Lees join in.  The whole family sings.

After the service, Aidan has Sunday school across the street where the church has rented out a small one-story office building.  The offices are now used as makeshift classrooms.  Aidan’s class is the size of a small one-car garage.  It barely fits the four plastic tables and eight chairs.  There are ten students in this class. One squeezes in next to Aidan while the other sits on the side in an office chair.

The class is rowdy, just like the ELD class except the lecture is given in Korean.  Though he has no trouble understanding, he remains quiet in the back of the room, paying attention to his Sunday school teacher at the front.  She gives a recap about what was taught during today’s sermon.

The girls in the class are busy telling jokes and laughing.  Some are chewing gum.  Most of the class is wearing their casual clothing, hoodies, Converse, and t-shirts.  Aidan sits in the corner, wearing a gray cardigan and an ironed, white collared shirt underneath.

The teacher collects the homework.  Aidan is the only one who passes his up.  He has written two pages in immaculate Korean, answering questions about what he learned in the sermon last week.  The class is in the process of reading the entire Bible.  They are now on Deuteronomy.

Aidan remains quiet and respectful for the rest of the class.  He answers questions from time to time and doesn’t goof off or tell jokes like the rest of his class.

Aidan doesn’t need to tell jokes or goof off.  God is important to him.  Learning English is important to him.  Being respectful to the Lord and his classmates is important to him.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” [Luke 10:27]

At night, Aidan prays aloud for his family.  He wishes protection from God for his family.  He thanks God for everything that he has.

In prayer, Aidan speaks up.  Judging eyes and racist comments disappear.  In The Lord, Aidan finds his voice.

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