Walking down the hallway as a newcomer in a homogeneous New Jersey suburban school afforded a unique experience of being visible and invisible at the same time: visible for being different, and invisible for no one seemed to notice that anybody was new at school at all.
I realized that this wasn't the first time that I had been a newcomer at school. I was moved from a public school to a private school in my third grade in South Korea, and remembered my first day at this new school. On the stroke of the school bell signaling the first break, screaming children stormed out of the classroom and scattered out into the school yard to play and I feared being left alone in the classroom — only to be rescued by one of the last girls storming out, who invited me, much to my relief, to join her group.
The difference this time being a new comer at a school in America, now as a seventh grader, was that there was nobody who extended such invitation, nor even seemed to notice that I was a newcomer at the school. Everyone seemed to have their own lunch table to go to in the cafeteria with a tight clique of friends — each table an island with an invisible border of indifference.
The only ones who invited me to join their lunch table were a handful of other Koreans at school who had arrived in America a few years before me. As it turned out, Koreans at school sat at the same lunch table, not by choice but by default, in a shared sense of marginalization.
Soon, over the high school years, Koreans at school were divided into two camps: those who stuck with other Koreans speaking Korean among themselves, and those who refused to speak Korean with other Koreans in a shared determination to overcome the language barrier and hold onto the hope that one day they would be able to make friends outside of their ethnic boundary.
I belonged to the latter camp. I found the idea that I should be friends with other Koreans just because they were Korean too limiting. ‘I wouldn't have been friends with other Koreans in Korea just because they were Korean, so why would I have more in common with other Koreans just because they were Korean in America?’, I thought. Besides, the need to overcome my language barrier was pressing, and hanging out exclusively with other Koreans speaking Korean to one another wasn’t going to help.
My brother, two years older, who had started as a ninth grader in high school, also belonged to the latter camp. He made an effort to make friends by joining sports teams, and sat at a lunch table with his teammates, and even was invited to a few birthday parties at their homes. But the summer after my brother went off to college, he came back home totally changed: He started hanging out exclusively with other Koreans, as if to put a decisive end to the chilling sense of loneliness and marginalization he experienced in the New Jersey suburbs. He declared that the friends he had in high school were not his ‘real friends.’
I had arrived in America aspiring to be a concert pianist, and music, in the mean time, became my refuge and an alternative realm of belonging from race-based identities, which seemed to be the only realm of belonging available in the American suburbia.
I would rush back home from school to throw myself into my piano practice. I felt safe to be shutting myself up in my room enraptured by the ecstasy of music making, protected from the alienating environment of the American suburbia.
I felt it a relief to be able to express myself fully in music, when I still couldn't express myself fully in the new language. Whatever came out of my mouth in the new language — after countless times of rehearsing in my head what I was going to say and finally gathering up the courage to say it — wasn't exactly what I was thinking or feeling. Moreover, I couldn't recognize myself in the new language — a timid and dry voice that barely crept out of my throat lacking any sense of humor or personality. I had never considered myself as shy until I moved to America.
I went into New York City every weekend for music school, just 30 minutes away from the New Jersey suburbs, and I found it a relief to disappear into the sea of crowd and become invisible. I found it liberating that you could be whatever you wanted to be and not even be noticed. I admired New Yorkers who didn't even see the race, so used to diversity all around them. I loved listening to all kinds of accents walking down Broadway. It was the epitome of individuality and cosmopolitanism that I so admired and cherished about New York City.
It wasn’t until I started my first year of university that I made my first American friend.
Her name was Laura.
'Are you a musician?,' she approached me in the school dining hall.
She was a cellist and had seen me practice in the basement of our school dormitory. As it turned out, we were one of few serious classical musicians at school, who were scouring out for possible practice spaces around the campus. Most of our classmates didn't understand why we would choose to shut ourselves up in a room, which looked like not more than a prison cell surrounded by thick white walls, for hours on end in the name of 'music practice.'
She had grown up in New York City and had a mixed heritage of having a Jewish mother and a Greek father, even though she said she didn't like being categorized. She was one of those New Yorkers, so used to diversity all around them, who literally didn't even see the race. To her, there was nothing 'foreign' about me. She instantly made me feel comfortable in my own skin. I felt I could totally be myself around her.
We started playing chamber music together and our music partnership quickly blossomed into an intimate friendship. We started doing everything together — including going to practice each evening, checking out concerts, lectures, exhibits and films around the city — in our shared passion for music and shared desire to grow and mature as musicians.
My journey of integration into American society would have been much different if I hadn't made this first American friend. It made me not give up hope that making friends outside of the ethnic boundary was possible, and allowed me to take a conscious positioning — to not settle on the comfort and security of sticking to ethnic kinship, but to seek out human connections across racial and cultural boundaries.
My brother didn't make this first American friend — before it was too late, before giving up, and retreating into the comfort and security of ethnic base. Since his college days, he hangs out exclusively with other Koreans — the choice I fully respect, if he feels more comfortable that way. I wonder, however, if he had the luck of making that first cross-cultural connection early enough, which he was definitely open to and tried hard enough through his first years of moving to America, he would also have not limited himself exclusively to ethnic kinship.
Perhaps without my strong passion for music, I couldn't have made my first American friend either. Music, in that sense, had served as my medium of integration. Years later, when we were making sense of our first years in America, my dad observed: 'At least you had music, imagine how your brother would have felt without it!'