My younger brother and I grinned at each other from the back seat of my grandpa’s Jeep: We were making a rare trip to Burger King. I was 11. We had been living in the United States for four years after emigrating from South Korea, and most of the time, my mom preferred that we eat her home-cooked Korean meals. I looked forward to a break from rice and my mother’s kimchi jjigae, a spicy stew. Hamburgers were my favorite food, especially if they came with fries on the side.
My mother handed us the plastic bag containing our Burger King coupons. My brother and I scavenged through the bag, hoping to be the one to find our favorite deal: a double cheeseburger with a self-serve drink. My brother beat me to it and smirked. I accepted defeat and, as my stomach growled, I thought of the crispy fries, sparkling soda, and Whopper Jr. I’d be ordering soon (still good, even if inferior to the double cheeseburger).
A Family Outing Turns Into a Confrontation
When we arrived, my brother and I excitedly raced up the parking lot to the Burger King entrance, my mom following behind. My grandpa, a perfectionist, was still double-checking his parking.
“Man, just move your car,” a man’s voice echoed through the parking lot. He sounded irritated. “I need to get my wallet.”
We headed back to the car with our mom.
“Nothing is wrong with my parking,” my grandpa said.
“I just need you to move the car so I can get my wallet, man.”
“Man,” he kept repeating. He pointed at his car, parked next to ours, and kept shaking his head. He ran his fingers into his blond hair, half graying. “I really don’t know how this isn’t going through your head, but just move the car,” he said as he stepped closer to my grandpa.
My grandpa stood still, trying to understand what the problem was. He had lived in the U.S. for a long time, longer than the rest of us, and he spoke English fairly fluently. However, in stressful situations, he sometimes misunderstood nuances. In his mind, the Jeep was parked fine: aligned parallel to the two white guide lines. Mirroring the White man, my grandpa started to point his hands at the two cars: “There is no problem.”
I understood the man’s simple request: our car needed to move so he could grab his wallet. The cars were parked too close for him to open his door. But I was confused about his tone, which sounded hostile to me. Maybe it was because my grandpa appeared to speak English, so how could the man know he didn’t fully understand?
As the man stepped closer, my grandpa seemed vulnerable. I started to feel scared.
Frozen Between Two Languages
I froze. My two languages, English and Korean, moved in and out of my head at the same time. I knew how to speak both languages well, but my thoughts were in disarray, and I could not move my body. Unlike my grandfather, I understood what was happening, but I felt anxious and unable to speak. Only my eyes moved back and forth to my grandpa and the man.
Just move the car, I wanted to tell my grandpa in Korean, but I couldn’t. Yet I couldn’t muster the courage to say anything to the man in English, either. Four years learning English in America had amounted to nothing in this moment. My thoughts took turns in Korean and English:
차안에 있는 지갑 필요하대요. [He just wants to get his wallet out of the car.]
What gives you the right to give my grandpa an attitude?
차 빼세요. [Please move the car.]
I don’t think my grandpa can understand what you are asking. I am sorry.
제발 차 좀 빼라고! [Just move the car!]
Why are you shouting? I don’t see why you have to be this rude.
Words clogged my throat and my neck felt tight.
“Just move the car!” the man finally shouted, as he pushed my grandpa backwards.
My grandpa stumbled a bit but maintained his stance. He looked shocked and cried out, “You pushed me?”
Do not touch my grandpa.
I felt a sudden surge of anger towards this man. He said he didn’t “push” my grandpa but “shoved” him. I wanted to correct his English, because “push” and “shove” basically mean the same thing, but if anything, a shove is worse. Yet, all I could do was stare. I jammed my hands inside my jacket pockets and anxiously fidgeted with the bits of tissues inside them.
Taught to Keep a Low Profile
As my thoughts alternated between English and Korean, I remembered a frequent lecture from my mom: “You cannot win against White people. You have to bow down and go along with what they say to survive. No one is going to take your side.”
Any time I complained about my classmates casually insulting me, my mom asked, “Are they White?” Then she responded with the cautionary phrase: “Watch yourself around them or you could end up getting in big trouble.” She had heard many stories from her friends about various conflicts in which authorities gave preference to White people over people of color.
My mother does not speak English, so she could not intervene. I looked at her and saw her frantic eyes and tense body. She took a step forward, as though she was ready to rush over to my grandpa’s defense. But she stopped moving, and her feet then stayed glued to the ground, like mine. My brother, whose English was about as good as mine at the time, also stayed silent.
Looking back, I realized that not only was I frozen between my two languages, I was frozen between two competing impulses: listening to my mom’s warning to avoid conflict, or speaking up for my grandpa. My mother’s warning and the scene in front of me intertwined.
I was used to brushing her lecture off, but in this moment, I finally realized what she meant: we were helpless. Whether it was true or not, I felt like if I even said a word, the situation could escalate. Then my grandfather might get hurt. And if we had to call the police, maybe my family would somehow get in trouble, not the aggressive man, since we might have a hard time articulating our side of what had happened.
How Am I Supposed to Feel?
Before their argument could escalate further, a bystander stepped out of his car to help. He told the man to keep his hands to himself and told my grandpa to move the Jeep. His eyes carried the message: just comply.
“Thank youuu,” the wallet-seeker said, dragging out the “you” sarcastically as he looked toward my grandpa. My grandpa glared at him through the driver’s seat window and waited for the man to walk into Burger King.
We entered the restaurant in silence and took a table in the back. When I got my burger, I didn’t talk to my family; we all ate quietly. Instead, I looked around and spotted the man with his family. His two kids took a bite of their Whopper Jrs. and smiled at their parents. The dad, face flushed, seemed to be complaining about something to his wife. I wondered what his version of the story was.
On the car ride home, my mom and grandpa cursed out the man in Korean, calling him a “crazy bastard,” but they did not seem too upset about what had happened. This confused me; I did not know what I was supposed to feel. My brother had been silent in the parking lot, too, but in the car he made fun of the man for saying, “I didn’t push you. I shoved you.”
I thought of comebacks I could have used against the man and started arguments with him in my head. I wanted to make up for my inability to speak in the moment. Inside my head, my mom’s warning did not cause me to hesitate. English and Korean did not swirl around confusingly. My thoughts were in precise English. I won each argument with ease and the man backed down.
Next Time, I’ll Speak Up
My grandpa wasn’t injured, but we were scared that he might be attacked. For Asian Americans, this fear is real. In recent years, there has been a rise in hate crimes against Asians in the United States.
I worry whenever my grandpa goes out by himself. In my mind, I see images from the news of elderly Asians who were hit, leaving their faces purple, eyes shut from swelling. I now understand why my mom advises me to keep a low profile. I’m torn between finding her advice frustrating and valid at the same time.
I wish my mom did not have to feel so vulnerable. I also know my situation is different from hers, in that I am lucky to be bilingual. At the time of the parking lot incident six years ago, I was an immigrant child. I did not know what to do or who to listen to. However, now that I am older, I have greater confidence in my judgment and my language skills. That means I have the privilege of telling my side of the story if something bad happens.
I will not keep my thoughts to myself. I will empty them out. If I ever have kids of my own, I will teach them to speak for themselves.
1. Although Seohee knew both Korean and English, what internal conflict made her “frozen between two languages” during the confrontation?
2. As Seohee states about her grandfather’s role in the confrontation, translations often come with “misunderstood nuances.” What knowledge did the white person in this situation need to prevent it from escalating?
3. Seohee is conflicted between her mother’s lectures and her own internal desire to speak out against injustices. How does Seohee decide what the best action for her to take is? If you were Seohee’s friend, what advice would you give her?