On October 25, I went back to my old high school, which of course meant I traveled back in time. I hadn’t set foot in the building in almost twenty years, and I’d forgotten that the auditorium was right by the entrance. What did feel familiar were the lockers, rows and rows of lockers, banks of them painted in red and blue and orange.
Every year, Ocean Township High School recognizes academic achievement at the Spartan Scholar ceremony, and this year, they were kind enough to invite me as a guest speaker. Appearing below are some pictures and the speech I delivered. The latter portion of the speech includes my “Backstory” piece.
Speech delivered 10/25/2010, at Ocean Township High School
What is a Spartan Scholar? A stranger may think you study in a room with a bed, a desk, a lamp, and nothing more. They might assume you are from Greece, and if they’ve seen the film 300, they might wonder, “Was there an academic division in that screaming army of theirs?”
Lucky for us, we know what it means to be a Spartan Scholar. It means we did good. It means we received a letter from Ocean Township High School, congratulating us for making the grade. Believe it or not, I still have these letters. I even have the invites. I’m fairly certain these invites were printed with The Print Shop. Unless you are my age, you probably have no idea what The Print Shop is or the chainsaw cacophony from a dot-matrix printer’s efforts as it fed sprocket-fanfold paper through its roller and scraped the paper with ink.
When I became a Spartan Scholar, it was a lifetime ago, literally, for all the students in this room. You weren’t even born yet when I roamed these hallways with my textbooks in tow, sprinting to my locker trying not to be late for my next class. And yet my memories hardly carry the heft of twenty-some years. This is surely one of the oddest truths about life, that as I’ve aged, I don’t feel any older. The mirror says otherwise, and my body does, too, a few wrinkles here, a couple of stray gray hairs there, an aching knee after a tennis match. These are the visible, concrete reminders that time is passing, that my stay on this Earth is actually quite short, and that’s why I’d like to tell you about love.
In my junior and senior years of high school, I fell in love, not with a girl but with the world of literature, thanks in no small part to my two English teachers, Ms. Elaine Flynn and Mr. George Ripley. Ms. Flynn introduced me to the poetry of T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats, and Mr. Ripley challenged us with the tragic dramas of Eugene O’Neill and the complicated beauty of William Faulkner. Even though I knew in my heart of hearts that I wanted to study English in college, I didn’t dare, for I believed the goal for higher education was to secure a job, and it would be easier and more lucrative to be in the sciences than the humanities
So I followed my head and opted for a degree in engineering. In the fall of 1990, I was a freshman at Cornell University, in the Materials Sciences and Engineering Department, and for the first couple of months, I convinced myself that I could do this. Being in Calculus 192 was as pleasant as being in a dentist’s chair, but if I just buried myself underneath the suffocating avalanche of equations and formulas and proofs, I would emerge as…what? An engineer, of course. With a good salary and benefits and maybe a little house on a cul-de-sac. But what kind of a person would come out of that misery? One snowy evening in December, staring out of my dorm window and into the infinite darkness of the night, I realized that this was my life, and only I could own it. As my first semester drew to a close, I asked myself what I wanted, a question with answers I’d always known. I wanted to read books; I wanted to write books. The bigger question was, did I have the courage to pursue my passion? And maybe the biggest question of all, did I have the courage to tell my parents?
As it turned out, I didn’t have to worry about my parents. I have to tell you, I’m still a little dazed at their reaction. For sure I thought they’d tell me I was crazy, or at the very least, question my decision to leave the safety of engineering for what many jokingly referred to as an entry to the fast-food service industry, a major in English. But my parents trusted me to do what I felt, to become who I wanted to be. It’s one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child, and I’ll always be grateful for their acceptance when I made that heart-tripping phone call.
So what happened to me? I did graduate with a degree in English, and let’s just say I haven’t worked at McDonald’s yet. Within a couple of months, I found work at the IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, where I served as an associate editor for their Transactions/Journals department. I didn’t stay long, just a year and a half, but long enough to meet my beautiful future wife. Because I’d always been handy with technology, I picked up some computer programming skills at that job and carried it over to an IT consulting position with AT&T. That didn’t last long, either, just three months, because I received a better consulting gig at Automatic Data Processing. That was 1997, and I’m still there 13 years later, with the title of Lead Software Engineer. I’m a web developer, working with Microsoft .NET, Adobe ColdFusion, SQL and XML and AJAX – any more acronyms and I guarantee I will put you into a coma. So let’s not go there. It’s a fine job, and because I work from home with a thirty-two hour week, I still have time to write.
I probably should’ve told you this earlier, but this is the trouble when one starts to talk about one’s life. Even though we live out our lives in linear fashion, our minds know no such temporal boundaries. I neglected to mention how my passion for English was created, the reason why I even became a writer, why I had my first novel published last year. If not for the dedication of my ESL teachers, Suzan Cole and Susan Jarosiewicz, I wouldn’t have stood a chance at learning this language, for back in 1981, when I was ten years old, my life was a foreign-language film without subtitles. Everywhere I went, people spoke English, which was a problem because all I knew was Korean. My mother, my two sisters, and I had made the trek from Seoul, South Korea to reunite with my father in New Jersey, and once we got our bearings, we had to get right to work.
My dad had set up an oriental gift shop at a mall called Peddlers Village in the town of Manasquan, though calling it a “mall” was probably stretching the truth a bit. It was more like an upscale flea market, with canvas curtains for doors and questionable establishments like pawn shops and fortune tellers. Our store occupied one of the largest spaces, and it was here, as I rang the register and dealt with customers, that I became an American. Thrust into a situation where I could not hide, I was forced to embrace the language, the people, the country.
Because I was young, I learned quickly, and soon I felt comfortable enough to walk around our mall. Peddlers Village had about a hundred stores, and each of them sold something very specific. In our neighboring shop, an old man sold dolls and dollhouses. Across was a lady who arranged silk flowers in intricate designs, and catty-corner from her was a booth where they sold mirrors of all shapes and sizes. Here they all were, a collective of small business owners, trying to make a living by selling their wares. Some only lasted a couple of months, but the lucky few went on for years. We were fortunate, staying afloat for more than a decade.
Thinking back now, it seems obvious that a place like Peddlers Village could form a solid basis for a novel, but until I read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the idea hadn’t occurred to me. Seeing the way a town and its people sustained his work of fiction, I thought back to the store of my youth, and the proverbial light bulb lit up in my head. All those merchants, all those dreams! Each store owner held their own unique drama, and like the way George Willard in Winesburg threads through many of the chapters, I figured I could do the same with my main character, David Kim.
In the fall of 1998, I wrote the first chapter of Everything Asian. It was titled “Cimmetri,” about a couple who own the mirror shop in the mall and how their lives intertwine with the Kims in unexpected ways. I can’t remember who actually owned that store in Peddlers Village, but it doesn’t matter. Because what’s now on the page is more real than my memories could ever be.
Spartan Scholars of Ocean Township High School, thank you for letting me share my life story with you. If you can allow me to impart a bit of wisdom, it is this: don’t let fear win. What’s in your heart might seem scary and wrong and impractical, but it’s the truth, and if you follow it, it will feed you, it will make you, it will lead you to your own greatness. Thank you, Mr. John Lysko, for inviting me, and Ms. Sue Henderson, for making sure I get here. To stand here before you, in the auditorium of my alma mater – what else can I say? It’s been a good night. So I’ll say it again. Good night.