by Grace Dempsey
I still don’t know how I remember the first apartment we ever lived in. The faded brick building stands tall on a typical city block. When you enter the door, the first thing in your sightline is the glass door leading out to our small metal balcony. Near it, a white couch sits against the wall facing an old boxy television. Walk down the narrow hall, make sure to take your shoes off first, to reach the two bedrooms.
Exit the lobby, and the concrete elementary school is directly in eyesight. Make a right and walk down a block to the convenience store, owned by an old woman who my parents tell me used to call me cute and give me free candy every time my mom rolled me in in my stroller. Take a left and stroll for a few minutes to find yourself in the heart of Koreatown.
The city stench that anyone who spent time in Boston was used to became completely undetectable — the aroma of Korean barbecue, fried chicken and sweet rice cakes brought my mom back to her home country.
We moved out of that apartment 13 years ago.
It goes without saying that Newton is now where I consider home. In our house now, a clean sidewalk takes the place of the white carpet in our old hall, and three steps with an old fashion metal railing has replaced the brown doormat.
Still, through my early childhood, my parents did what they could to immerse my brother and I in Korean culture outside of the household, an increasingly difficult task in a majority white suburb. I attended Korean language school on Saturdays, which was run out of Oak Hill every week. I took piano lessons from two instructors, both Korean women.
But 11-year-old me rejected it — not the cultural aspects, but the activities themselves. School on a Saturday? Boring. Piano lessons? Stressful. Needless to say I quit both.
Looking back, I spoke Korean much more when I was a young kid than I do now — when I do manage to throw together the sparse vocabulary I can remember, I converse with my mom in a combination, which we call “Korenglish.” Still, every time she brings up my loss of the language, my heart drops a little bit each time. I’m wracked with guilt.
Had we not ever left that apartment, I would have attended that elementary school across the street. I would have grown up down the street from not only the food that connected me to half of my ethnicity, but the street signs on the storefronts of Korean owned businesses and even the office for the newspaper publication “BostonKorea”.
Maybe growing up in a place like Newton, while only 15 minutes away, separated from the cultural hub previously so accessible to me, changed me in a way I hadn’t forced myself to really think about before.
I’m not entirely sure what prompted a piece like this. Maybe the Barbie movie had a bigger impact on me than I thought — of course, leave it to Greta Gerwig to get me emotional about the experiences of womanhood.
I’m grateful that I got to grow up understanding a different language, and talking to family on the other side of the world. I’m grateful that half of my culture, not obvious in the rest of my life, is physically represented by various objects and photographs scattered through our house.
Even if it’s not through speaking the language, it’s in the food I eat, the respect I hold for my elders and the home I come back to — and every time I’m in my mother’s embrace as she softly sings a Korean lullaby from my childhood, the comfort reminds me that I will never truly be disconnected with my cultural roots.