Skin

By Jennifer Park

(This piece is the first prize winner in the Writing category for "Who Am I/Who Are They" Multimedia Essay Contest")

You tell me I speak English well, and I smile and don’t tell you that it feels more comfortable in my mouth than my mother tongue, that I speak it better and write it neater and read it faster than my own language. You tell me I’m socially conscious and I laugh and don’t tell you that I follow your elections more closely than I follow my own, that I understand your politics better than I understand my own, that I can speak about your social dynamics better than I can speak about my own. You tell me it must have been difficult to be an immigrant child and I lie and don’t tell you that I am still fighting a fight that started the day I stepped foot on this continent.

You see, the truth is when I was eleven I wanted to rip out my own tongue and swallow a new one, one shaped for the round vowel and smoothed words of English. The truth is I wanted to claw out of my skin when I was thirteen and learning a history that wasn’t mine in classrooms that were never built for me. The truth is by fourteen I was wishing upon myself a history that didn’t transplant me here like a new organ, not quite similar enough to be accepted into the body of this country. The truth is I was sixteen when they finally gave me a word for it: “assimilation,” thrown around in history classes as if something so insidious could not possibly still be present, as if my body were not already a battlefield home to the silent and invisible violence I perpetuate blindly against myself. The truth is no one thought to tell me it cuts the other way as well until I was eighteen and sitting uncomfortable in a room full of Korean students, thunderstruck by the realization that chasing something always means leaving something else behind, and I had gained fragile acceptance outside in exchange for belonging in the one space that should have always been home. The truth is I have twisted my tongue into something that no longer knows how to wrap around the language that gave it birth and gave it voice. The truth is I was clawing my way out of my skin long before I even knew it was myself I was fighting. The truth is I have been clawing my way out of my skin for nine years and I don’t know if I remember how to stop anymore.

You see, the truth is I still want to claw my way out of this skin. The truth is I want to crawl back through time and find the tattered pieces of myself—my eleven-year-old Korean self that did not yet know to apologize for or be ashamed of it—and sew it all back together and climb into it like I am three years old again and finding home in my favourite blanket. The truth is I don’t know if I can claw out of this skin anymore—this skin I put on myself, this skin I patched together from the pretty pieces of America without knowing how garish it would become and how tight it would trap me as I grew, and it didn’t. The truth is I want to claw out of this language that cages me, this history that cages me, this society that cages me, this self-imposed path of assimilation and avoidance that has built a barbed-wire isolation fence I don’t know how to climb over anymore.

You see, the truth is I can taste the assimilation on my tongue every time my mind jumps to an English word before Korean. I can read the assimilation in every new poem about assimilation I recite in English but could never write in Korea. I can feel the assimilation in the thudding of my heart every time I avoid Korean students because at least here, I know I am supposed to be other. I can hear the assimilation in my voice every time I laugh and say I don’t know K-pop, and turn around to sing a hundred English songs from perfect memory,

You see, the truth is I say all this with tears in my eyes but I don’t know what I’d really do if I finally did claw my way out—if I’d run back to the place that should be home or keep clawing myself apart to see if my bones are white enough to grant me acceptance.

I wonder if this is what colonization felt like.