I grew up everywhere. From temporary stays in Benin to extended periods in Bremen, I really cannot give an explicit answer when asked where my hometown is. However, my family’s first home in the United States was on the International Operations Center of Mercy Ships in Garden Valley, TX. And even in that confined area, our home was ever-changing.
We arrived in mid-March, only a couple weeks before my seventh birthday. Since the school semesters in the United States had different school years from Korea, I enrolled in the third to last month of first grade although I had just finished the first month of the grade in Korea. I remember the first month of school being hell. I would cry, utter the only phrase I knew through my tears: “Want home. Go home. I want go home.” My teacher was a wingless, roux, patient angel from heaven. She would assign a lengthy project and sit with me in the hall as I cried and cried and cried. I went home a couple times from crying and heaving so much that my teacher couldn’t do anything with me. However, when the tears ceased and I felt I could smile again, my kindhearted teacher would sit with me at the low, plastic table in the back of the room and go through phonics with me. She flashed an “O” card.
“What does this sound like?”
I cocked my head. I scrunched up my nose.
She shook her head. “Au, o, oo.”
When I graduated from first grade, I was an unstoppable prattler. The tree had a different name from “namu”! The table had a different name from “shik-tak”! Oh, the summer was filled with discoveries and excitements alike.
I must add here as a side note that my family was the first Asian family ever to inhabit Van, TX aside from Mr. Burke, whom I believe was adopted from Japan in his infancy. And so, while enrolled in elementary school, I often took part in conversations not unlike the following:
“Are you Chinese?”
“Are you Japanese?”
“Then what are you?”
The IOC base was ridden with incandescent balls of energy in the form of children. Whoever said that energy is not created never met us. One minute, we would be inert, rolling about the grass making chains of wildflowers. In the blink of an eye, we would be in the offices of our parents, nagging them to play with us, to take us to the chicken coops. And so, after several parental meetings, they decided to create a sort of daycare for us wild tater-tots.
Some teenagers were chosen to assemble us into a single file line and march us to the small room behind the gym. The room was a cross between a storage room for dusty boxes of toy donations and a Wallyball court. We pushed the boxes to the corner of the room and set out a pink plastic table with matching chairs. We congregated daily to paint pictures of each other, to play Ring Around the Rosie, cook plastic ham and green beans, and coddle porcelain dolls to our breasts. Most days, we would be satisfied with such activities, calm in our productivity, lost in our imaginations. On other days, we would nearly explode with the want to climb evergreens, play pine cone baseball, to go hiking the Pipe Trail — a walk around the base on which we would teeter on the thick water pipes, or to go pester our parents to take us to the chicken coops. On those restless days, we would yowl and badger, tease and holler, shriek and harry. Those poor teenagers! They would take the rowdiest of the children and make their noses kiss the wall for ten minutes at a time. What was this bizarre ritual of the West? My little Asian mind would swim and try to respect this sacrament of the Land of the Free.
On one day in which we were feeling particularly boisterous and truculent, I decided to go all-in and join in with the romp and roar. I made animal noises, I scribbled inscrutable messages on the table, I threw the plastic fried egg across the room. The bags under the teenagers’ eyes were unmistakable, and my infantile sixth sense felt an imminent upbraiding.
Then they yelled. They slammed their hand down on the table. Their arms were flailing left and right. Their high school bangs flew about their faces. The pandemonium ceased as swiftly as it had begun. We sat unflustered at the table, our hands neatly folded in our laps, our face cherub-like. I giggled. A pair of flashing teenager eyes flared and glared.
“Grace, would you like a time-out?”
What was a time-out? What in the world was it? Time? Out? Did this mean time out in the playground? The end of today’s class? What could she mean? I recalled the phrase “time-out” from the other times she would ask the question and always wondered what it could be. My curiosity overwhelmed me. What do I do? My head felt electrified.
I shook my mane, flattened my skirt, and held my button nose high in the air.
“Yes. I would like a time-out.”
The girl’s eyes burst into flame as they shot daggers. She grabbed my arm with an astounding force. As she guided me to the fusty, maroon wall, she whispered sinisterly in my ear.
“You will stay here ten minutes. More if you’re smart like that. You will not say one word; you will not move from this spot.”
I was once again befuddled. Smart? Did that not mean intelligent? Nevertheless, I obeyed her orders and kept my face planted on the wall. I thought back to what had caused this doleful scenario. Time-out. This was a time-out? The enticing mystery of the phrase crumpled in my head. It was not a set of sixty-four Crayola colors. It was not a dessert rivaling the beignets from Café Du Monde. It was not even a pat on the back. It was ten sweet minutes of my life, spent with my nose on a puce wall, my mind flashing with all the wondrous activities that could fill those 600,000 milliseconds.
Why in sweet Susan’s name would anyone ask this farcical question? Would I like a time-out? Would not the response obviously be in the negative? The absurd notion filled my wee nut as I grew more and more sullen. I thought of ideas to escape the building, taking my comrades as I went. Then who would they punish?! Who indeed!
A doe-eyed girl completely indistinguishable from the fiery woman who nearly yanked my limb off laid a calm hand on my shoulder.
“Would you like to come back to the table again with the rest of your friends?”
Pah! Another superfluous inquiry! What was this madness?!
Though ambitions of a mutinous getaway raced across my cranium, my terrified little self nodded with docility. I was led back to my chair as my peers looked at me, many sympathetic but most awed. As they colored bunny rabbits, rainbows, ballet shoes, and leprechauns, I did what most seven-year-old ankle biters would do after being chided publicly.