By Sunny Kim
There was always noise in the early morning of Bundang - the sounds of cars honking, people talking, and the nearby bakery would announce their new flavor of the week, urging people to buy their loaf for breakfast.
"Oh sweetie ..."
"We're not mad. You know what? I miss Minnesota too.
"And the back yard where you used to play."
"Spring Lake, where you learned to skate."
He pulls Riley towards them. The three hug.
When I saw this scene in the movie, "Inside Out," I felt a pang in my heart. I could relate to Riley's emotions because I too had moved from one place to another during important times in my life: once during my childhood, and another time as an adolescent.
It made me think about home and where my true home would be.
Bundang, South Korea 1997-2003
I was born in Bundang-gu, the largest and most populous district of Seongnam, a major city in the Seoul Capital Area in South Korea. Bundang-gu has a land area of 26.81 sq mi with 503,830 people living in the district. It's about ten times smaller than Austin but with almost twice the population.
I grew up in this part of Seoul, a busy, restless city that never sleeps. I can still remember sleeping in the tiny apartment we used to live in. The cool breeze would seep through the balcony onto my skin and I would hold tight onto my blanket for warmth. There was always noise in the early morning of Bundang - the sounds of cars honking, people talking, and the nearby bakery would announce their new flavor of the week, urging people to buy their loaf for breakfast. But these sounds were never a nuisance because soon enough it would all mesh together to create one blob of noise. It would be strange to not hear anything at all in the early morning of Bundang, as these sounds were sounds of comfort and familiarity to my ears.
"The sounds of cars honking, people talking, and the nearby bakery would announce their new flavor of the week, urging people to buy their loaf for breakfast."
I only have bits and pieces of memory living in this part of Seoul because my family moved to Austin, TX when I was 7 years old.
When people ask me where I am from, I say, "I'm from Seoul, South Korea but I've lived in Austin since I was 7 years old."
And when I tell them, "I'm Korean," here are some of the responses I get.
"Oh that's cool. I love K-pop culture. Do you have any idols you like too?"
"I think I've seen a Korean drama recently about a girl who was desperately in love with this guy, but the girl is from a poor family and the guy is the son of a CEO. Have you seen it?"
"Oh I love Kimchi! Do you like it too?"
"My friend is also Korean, do you know him?"
"Ooo I love sushi. We should go to this one place downtown sometime."
"I know someone who is also Korean with the last name Kim! Are you guys related?"
"Wait, North or South?"
Austin, TX 2015
One time I was using an Uber to go to Kerbey Lane Cafe on Guadalupe Street. The driver was a Caucasian woman. She had a big cross dangling from her rear-view mirror. She was humming a song I didn't recognize. I got in the front seat and she said, "Sunny?" to confirm I was the person who called her Uber for a ride.
"Yes, that's me," I said.
After a few minutes of silence, she asked, "Are you a UT student?"
"Yes, I am," I said.
"Where are you from?" she asked.
Most days, I would say the same line I tell everyone which is, "I'm from Seoul, South Korea but I've lived in Austin since I was 7 years old," but today I just wanted to say, "I'm from Austin," because that wasn't a lie.
"I'm from Austin," I said.
The driver gave me a long, hard look. Her eyes were striking blue.
Uncomfortable, I hastily said, "Well, I'm from Austin but I was born in Korea."
I purposely emphasized that I've lived in Austin for a large portion of my life, that I'm not a foreigner, that I'm also an Austinite.
But others see my black hair, my small eyes, my yellowish skin tone and their eyes are always searching, trying to identify what I am. And I have to tell them I'm Korean.
Yongin, South Korea 2008
"Alright, everyone please be quiet. Give your attention to your new classmate. She is from ... (I'm sorry, where did you say you were from again, Sunny?)"
"Yes, yes! Sunny will be joining our class for this semester and hopefully many more," the teacher said. "She is from Austin, TX so everyone be nice to Sunny. Show her around the school, let her know where everything is ... and there! You can sit right behind Bokyung in that empty seat. Is that alright Sunny?"
"Okay, great! Will you just briefly introduce yourself to the class?"
"Uh, um ... Hi, my name is Kim Seo Eun but you can call me Sunny."
"And where do you live Sunny?"
"Uh ... I, I ... I live in Yongin," I said, proud that I had memorized the new district I would stay for the next couple of months.
Then loud laughter burst in the room. All the students laughed. The teacher was laughing too.
"Did I say something stupid? Why is everyone laughing?" I thought, puzzled by the response.
"Haha, yes! We all live in Yongin!" The teacher said triumphantly. "What apartment do you live at Sunny? I'm sure some of your classmates live in similar areas as you do."
"Oh shoot," I thought, my face red as a tomato. "Dumb butt, of course everyone lives in Yongin, that's the district," I thought.
"Um ... so I'm not really sure exactly where I live ...," I said.
"Oh ... well that's okay! Will you please go sit in your seat? We're very happy to have you, and class is going to start soon."
"Yes," I said as I scurried to my seat. "Maybe if I walk fast enough, I'll become invisible and no one will remember the stupid remark I made," I thought.
I sat in my assigned seat. There was a girl sitting right in front of me. She had long, black hair tied in a ponytail - not too loose, but not too tight.
She turned around and we made eye contact. She smiled, one of those very nice smiles that made you feel at home.
"Hi, Sunny. My name is Bokyung. It's nice to meet you," she said.
"Hi, it's nice to meet you too," I smiled.
Class began, but I was distracted thinking about Austin - the laid-back vibe, Tex-Mex food, the hot, blazing summers and swimming in those hot, blazing summers. I thought about the friends in Austin, the one who had a swimming pool built in her house, the one who goes to church regularly, the one who loves to dance and the one who lives with a strict Jewish mother. But all of that seemed fuzzy now. I was in a new place, a new environment - I was back home, in Seoul, South Korea. As for why I was here, the reasons were unclear. I had just finished 5th grade back in the states, and now I was entering an all-Korean public school, starting 6th grade. I had to live at my grandmother's house with my parents. I wondered how long I would stay here.
"It will only be maximum of three months," my mom said. I nodded.
I looked at the window to my left. There wasn't a single cloud in the sky. The day was bright and clear, just like the skies back home.
Austin, TX 2011
The bell rang and students rushed out to go to their next class. The hallway was packed with students. It looked like a jungle. Papers ruffling, girls gossiping and jocks sauntering, wearing the long white socks that go all the way up to the calves. There were the band geeks, talking about their next recital and competition, international students who only spoke in their language and the straight A student, holding her books close to her chest as if someone would come and snatch it away.
It was the second semester of 7th grade, and I was back in Austin, TX.
"Oh, crap," I thought. I couldn't get my locker to open because unlike everybody else, I didn't have a regular 6th grade experience. In fact, I was in school in South Korea for the past year and a half.
I was back in the states, but nothing was the way I remembered it. We still lived in Austin, but my parents and I moved to a different school district, so I didn't know anyone at the school. Plus, a lot had changed since my absence of a year and a half. Students no longer had the innocence of a 5th grader. We were entering the second semester of 7th grade, and middle school was filled with adolescents with acne, braces and glasses. Actually, I had all three: acne, braces and glasses, and now I was struggling because I couldn't figure out how to open the lock to my locker and my next class was about to start in a couple of seconds.
"30 more seconds!" The teachers shouted.
Then all the doors shut. Silence.
Fidgeting with the lock, I finally got it open but it was too late because class was starting now.
I walked in class, opening the door quietly and sat down in an open spot. I flipped to page 263 opening up the dusty biology textbook with a pen in hand, ready for class.
Austin, TX 2015
"Hi, what's your name?"
"My name is Sunny. I'm a junior journalism student," I said.
"I love your name, it's such a pretty name," she said.
"Thank you," I said.
"Where are you from?" she asked.
"Oh, I'm from Austin but I was born in Korea," I said.
"So you're an Austinite. It must be nice to go home every weekend since your parents live so close," she said. "I'm from Dallas, so I have to buy a bus ticket every time I want to go home. It's not too far, but it's a drive."
"Haha yeah, it's nice," I said.
The girl and I talked some more and then said goodbye. She had to go to another student organization meeting.
As I watched her walk away, I thought about what she'd said. "It must be nice to go home every weekend since your parents live so close."
I thought about how this was not true and how I had unintentionally told her a white lie.
The truth was as soon as I got accepted to college, my parents moved to New York - a place unfamiliar, cold and very far away from Texas. Every time someone would tell me I have it easy because my parents live close by, I would hesitate wondering if I should tell them the truth.
Sometimes I would, but this time I decided to brush it off. I was tired of explaining, and I didn't feel the need to do so.
During the holidays, I went to stay with my parents in New York. While I'd missed them, I'd also miss our old home back in Austin. It felt more homey, comfortable and safe. Here, everything was foreign; there wasn't a single person I knew other than my parents.
"Do you get homesick?" my roommate asked.
"Of course I do, I think everyone does," I said.
"I can't imagine how you feel with your parents living all the way up in New York ... My parents live 20 minutes away and I still get homesick," my roommate said.
"Well ... you know you just have to deal with it I guess," I said.
"Most of the time the kids move away from the parents – unless you're like me and your parents move away from you," I said laughing trying to brighten up the mood.
She smiled. But there was a melancholy look on her face. I wasn't sure if she was thinking about me or if she was thinking about her parents.
New York was a home that didn't feel like a home. But was there ever a permanent home? During my childhood, Bundang was my home. Then it was Austin. Then Yongin was my home, then it was Austin again. But now New York? It was confusing and difficult to keep it straight. Where was home for me? Did I even have a home?
I wondered what would've happened if we never went back to Korea after my 5th grade graduation. What if we never changed school districts in Austin? And my parents never moved away to New York? Sometimes I wished that everything would have stayed the same. That everything would be in the same place, at the same time. It seemed unfair that I had to adjust so many times to different environments. Secretly I would blame my parents for moving me around so much as a reason for my lack of childhood friends. I would try to find a way to justify the reasons for the change in my life and its results.
But none of that seemed to matter anymore. Because we moved from Bundang to Austin, I was able to learn English fluently and attend school in the U.S. Because we moved back to Yongin from Austin, I was able to re-learn the Korean language, culture and its customs. Because we moved back to Austin from Yongin I re-learned English and earned an education at a good university. Because my parents moved to New York, I was able to explore a different city during the holidays instead of being stuck in Austin.
Perhaps home is something that will continue to change as I continue to grow. Maybe it will never be just one place, but multiple places. And I'm okay with that. But next time I find a new home, I want to choose it myself. With this thought, I walked out of the theatre, smiling and hopeful of the infinite journeys I would have in my future in search of my home.
– End –
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Sunny Kim is a junior journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Asian Experience Magazine and co-founder/president of Asian American Journalists Association at UT Austin. She currently works as a journalism coach at the college of communication and as a cross-cultural communication intern at Access to Culture, a business firm in downtown Austin. Connect with her via Linkedin.