The Girl and the Hobbit

Just before we moved back to Korea, my mother gave me a beautifully bound edition of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

I was almost ten and still naive enough to think all countries were like the U.S of A. So the move across the sea didn’t perturb me too much—I would miss my friends, but nothing would change, not really.

Then my parents enrolled me in a local elementary school. The bathrooms were in a separate building without doors, with stalls on one side and the urinals on the other. In the winter, we took turns going to a shed in the freezing cold to refill pails of coal for our classroom. Students seated by the furnace burned, the rest of us shivered and grasped pencils in our mittens. There were eighty of us in one classroom.

Korean was my native tongue, but by the time we returned to the country of my birth, the knowledge of it had all but slipped away. While the others did their lessons, I painstakingly copied the Korean alphabet in my notebook and was treated like a dunce.

I had been a cheerful child before our move. I went to birthday parties, visited the local library, played the violin, was at the top of my class. In Korea, despite looking the same as everyone else, I was a weh-kook-in, a foreigner.

The first few months were the hardest. I was beaten up for wearing “nice clothes,” was made to sing “American” songs in front of the class, and was told to go back home. I became so homesick that my mother had to spoon feed me gruel topped with a little piece of kimchi because I could eat almost nothing else.

There was an American military base in the middle of Seoul, and with the American soldiers came their books. Sometimes, after days of searching, I would find a used bookstore that carried English paperbacks, probably found discarded in bins. The books were smelly, yellowing things with torn covers and missing pages, and they reflected the tastes of the GIs—thrillers, mysteries, and most of all, science fiction and fantasy.

In a way, the books saved me. They were a link to the life I had known, and for the next fifteen or so years, even after I had ceased speaking English altogether, I still scrounged for them.

This exasperated my parents—they wanted desperately for me to study more and read less—but I think they understood. My father would keep an eye out for anything in English, and during his trips abroad, he would remember to ask about the most popular books and bring them back to me. My acquaintance with Asimov’s Foundation series began this way.

These days I write, or try to write, science fiction and fantasy. People who know me sometimes have hard time believing that I make up stories about magic portals and engineered humans. But maybe they can find some reasons here.

I still have my copy of The Hobbit.

I wrote this post in 2002, and it’s probably the best explanation of why I write what I do.

April 15, 2019