Authors: Sook Nyul Choi
Houghton Mifflin Company
Text copyright Â© 1994 by Sook Nyul Choi
All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce
selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin
Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Gathering of pearls / by Sook Nyul Choi,
Summary: Sookan struggles to balance her new life as a college fresh-
man in the United States with expectations from her family at home
HC ISBN: 0-395-67437-9 PB ISBN: 0-618-80918-X
[1. Universities and collgesâFiction. 2. KoreansâUnited Statesâ
PZ7.C44626Gat 1994Â 94-10868
[Fic]âdc20 CIP AC
HC ISBN-13: 978-0-395-67437-6
PA ISBN-13: 978-0-618-80918-9
Printed in the United States of America
BP 10 987654321
To Audrey, writer and voyager
By the Author
Year of Impossible Goodbyes
Echoes of the White Giraffe
Gathering of Pearls
Halmoni and the Picnic
My thanks to Kathy for her support and input in every step of the manuscript's evolution, and to John for his enthusiasm and interest. Many thanks to Audrey for her loving encouragement and critiques. And, as always, my sincere thanks to Lauri for her guidance and continued support of my work.
Sook Nyul Choi
Would I ever get out of the belly of this giant metal bird? It had been a long flight across the Pacific, and we had already made stopovers in Anchorage and Seattle. It had been twenty-eight hours since I left Seoul, and the flight still seemed endless. My legs ached from sitting so long, and my head throbbed. Everyone around me had fallen asleep, but my mind kept racing.
I had been so determined to leave Korea and study in America, but now that I was on the plane, I felt nervous. I remembered how I had pestered our priest, Father Lee, to help me. He had finally gone to the bishop to talk about me, and the bishop had put Father Lee in touch with a nun he knew at Finch College, an all-girls Catholic college in New York. How excited I had been when I heard back from the college that I had been granted a scholarship. But my mother, Father Lee, and my four brothers thought I was too young to go so far away.
Now, suddenly, I worried that maybe they were right. I knew no one in America, and my command of English was poor. Would I understand people there, and would they be able to understand me? How would I keep up with all the American students at college? Would they like me? Would I like them?
Finally, the pilot announced that we were about to land at Idlewild Airport in New York. As I watched everyone begin moving about, collecting their things, I was seized with a strange blend of anxiety and excitement. This was it. 1 was finally in America with my new life ahead of me. Half dazed from the sleepless night, I made my way through immigration and customs, following the bustling crowds.
Everything around me seemed larger than life. The terminal was huge, and all the people were so big and tall. I looked around and saw no one who looked nineteen years old, as I was. For a minute, I wished I belonged to one of the older travelers in front of me. But I just kept on walking, propelled by the sea of people. The burly men ahead of me were speaking loudly in English, and I strained to see if I could understand what they were saying. They bantered back and forth, sometimes bursting out laughing and slapping each other on the back. I understood a few words here and there, but they spoke too quickly for me to comprehend what they were talking about. I wondered how I would ever manage to get through college.
As I walked through the swinging doors, I saw a crowd eagerly awaiting the arrival of our flight. People began waving and shouting, then rushing toward each other with kisses and open arms. How wonderfully warm these people were. I had never seen anyone embrace and kiss in public like this. In Korea, we bowed deeply to greet each other. I wondered if the students meeting me would hug me. Would I know the right way to hug them back?
Clutching my black patent leather purse and my little suitcase, I anxiously looked right and left for a group of college students waving red hearts. Two days before I left Seoul, I had received a letter from the dean of students saying that a couple of my classmates would meet me at the airport. They would be waving large, red felt hearts; it was a long-standing tradition of the college to greet new students this way. I had been envisioning this moment ever since I read the letter. I imagined a band of pretty girls, all waving hearts, rushing toward me as I stepped off the plane. But as I stopped to look around, I saw no red hearts and no girls my age.
I searched the crowd anxiously, trying to smile and hide my mounting fears. I did not even have directions to the college. All I had was the address and phone number. The crowd was dwindling, and I stared at the glass doors, hoping to see someone rushing in to find me. I tried to comfort myself, thinking perhaps they were just late. But the area was almost empty now. I felt so alone in the huge airport. I would just wait, I decided.
I straightened my gray wool dress that Mother had designed and made for me. It was a simple but fashionable dress with three small bows down the front which hid the buttons. Mother had a good sense of style and sewed very well. "When your American friends first see you, I want them to know that you have simple, yet good tasteâwith a touch of flair," Mother had said with quiet satisfaction as she sewed on the last bow. "A black patent leather purse and matching pumps, and you will look just fine." The memory of Mother's soothing voice rang in my ears. I was glad she was not here to see me standing all alone in this big, empty airport, feeling scared and unwanted.
After waiting almost an hour and a half, I just could not wait any longer. I got up and headed for the public phone booth. Jaechun, my second oldest brother, had given me some American coins that he had saved. I carefully read all the instructions on the pay phone, inserted a few coins, and embarked on my first telephone conversation in English.
"Hello, this is Sookan Bak. I come from Seoul, Korea," I said slowly, with my voice trembling. "Sister Casey, the freshman dean, is there, please?"
"Oh, dear, a lost freshman!" answered a welcoming voice. "You are mighty late! No one is around right now. They are all in the assembly hall for the final orientation session. Just a minute, please. Let me see if I can reach Sister Casey."
As I waited, a recording came on, telling me to insert more change. I frantically dug through my purse and added the last of the coins Jaechun had given me, praying I would not have to wait much longer for Sister Casey.
"Hello. Yes, Sister Casey says it is best if you come straight over as you are already so late. She will meet you in front of the administration building. It's called 'The Castle.'"
"I am at Idlewild Airport. Can you please tell me how I can go to Finch College? Can you please tell me slowly?" I asked.
Struggling to understand, I wrote down everything she said. Outside the terminal, I found the big bus to Grand Central Station, just as it was about to drive away. I waved wildly, got on the bus, and settled in for the ride. We sped by rows and rows of New York City skyscrapers, but I felt too overwhelmed to appreciate anything so new and different.
At Grand Central Station, throngs of people rushed to and fro with determination. I stood in the middle of the crowds and stared at the long row of ticket counters, trying to decipher the many signs. I finally found the right ticket booth and, after waiting in a long line, bought my ticket and boarded the train to White Plains.
Contrary to what the college operator had said, this was quite a long trip, and I was terribly afraid of getting lost. But I got off at White Plains Station, as I had been instructed, and got into a taxi. My head throbbed. My life in this new country was not starting out as I had expected. Would everything be such a struggle for me here? I sat on the edge of my seat, clutching the sheet of paper on which I had written the directions. I watched the meter click as we sped down the maze of unfamiliar roads, and I softly asked how much farther we had to go. The driver smiled kindly and told me to sit back and relax.
We finally turned onto a smaller road that headed up a lush, green hill. At the top, there was a large, gray stone structure with four turrets, just like the pictures in the book of
King Arthur's Tales
that I had read.
No wonder they call the administration building The Castle, I
thought to myself as I let out a huge sigh of relief.
As the taxi pulled to a stop, a tall nun approached. I quickly stepped out of the taxi, and before I had a chance to bow, she opened her arms and hugged me tightly. Her arms locked around my trembling body and her voice rang. "Sookan, hello. I am Sister Casey, your class dean and theology professor. My heavens! All alone, all the way from Korea! I am terribly sorry there was a mix-up about your arrival date."
Her long black veil fell around my shoulders, encasing me in a soothing darkness. There was an odd smell about her, a mingling of antiseptic and sweat, which I somehow found comforting. When she released me from her tight embrace, I stood awkwardly before her, staring down at my purse. It was strangely disconcerting for me not to be bowing. I wondered how I was supposed to show my respect for her.
She bent down to look into my eyes and said with a concerned smile, "Well, I'm sorry you missed orientation week, but I'm glad you're here safe and sound. It'll be all right. We'll get you settled in." I could almost hear her thinking,
The one who needs orientation week the most, and here she is, the last one to arrive.
With a helpless smile, I apologized and explained that my visa had come late. She cheerfully told me not to worry, and asked me if I wanted to rest. Formulating my response in my head, careful to put the words in the right order, I slowly answered that I wasn't tired, and that I wanted to meet my classmates. She seemed concerned, but said with a smile, "Well, in that case, how about changing into your native costume and we can surprise everyone at the assembly hall."
I wished I could refuse. I preferred to meet everyone in my Western clothes. I didn't want to attract so much attention to myself. But instead I heard myself meekly responding, "Yes, Sister Casey." I couldn't say no to an elder's request.
She escorted me to a small empty room in The Castle and said, "When you are ready, come down the hall to my office and we will go over to the assembly hall together. You may leave all your belongings in there for now. Hurry, so you can catch Sister Reed's speech."
In the cold room, I opened my suitcase and pulled out a pale blue silk
The crisp dress that Mother had packed so carefully was now all wrinkled from the long journey in my tiny suitcase. Mother would be upset if she knew I was showing up at the assembly hall wearing a wrinkled
I sighed, but got myself ready in a hurry.
"Oh, you look absolutely enchanting!" Sister Casey said when she saw me standing in front of her office. "It will be such a treat for everyone. And it must make you feel at home to be in your native dress."
I just smiled as I gathered part of the skirt, the
in my hands and took careful steps down the stairs. I did not feel comfortable; I felt awkward and self-conscious. I already looked so different from everyone with my black hair and yellow skin that I didn't want to make myself stand out even more. I would have liked to slip in quietly at the back of the assembly hall and have a chance to observe unnoticed. But when I entered the packed room, all heads turned. My face burned with embarrassment. I didn't know what to do, and instinctively just bowed. I felt like a rare bird on display, and at that moment, I wished I had a pair of invisible wings that would carry me far, far away.
A girl's voice rang out, lifting the heavy air around me. "Oh, Sister Casey, Sookan is my roommate. I've been waiting for her. Sookan, sit next to me. I'm so glad you're finally here!" The tall, blond freshman with the blue eyes and winning smile beckoned. Relieved, I quickly rushed over and took the seat next to her. "Hi, my name is EllenâEllen Lloyd," she whispered. "You're so beautiful!"
"How did you know my name?" I asked.
"I saw your picture in the freshman file that Sister Casey has in her office," she said.
I was grateful to Ellen and I admired her outgoing nature. I sat back in my chair and began listening to Sister Reed.
"Sunday through Thursday, you must all be in your rooms by ten o'clock, and lights must be out by the ten-fifteen bell. Weekend curfew is eleven
and is strictly enforced. It is important that you abide by the dorm rules; anyone who violates these rules will receive the appropriate number of demerits. Ten demerits, and you will not be allowed off campus the following weekend. Now, with regard to male visitors: men are only to be received in the sitting room on the first floor of each dormitory. Under no circumstances are they allowed upstairs. Male visitors must be off campus by nine-thirty
on weekdays, and by eleven o'clock on weekends."
As the speech continued, Ellen whispered to me, "I hear Sister Reed has bright red hair. See how red her eyebrows are? They say she was a cheerleader in high school, and that all the boys chased her. Can you imagine!" Her expression was animated and cheerful. "Here, everyone is afraid of her. She is the vice president of the college, and is very strict. She teaches a course on marriage to the seniors, and they say she's tough. But they also say that if she decides she likes you, there's nothing she won't do for you."
With renewed respect, I listened to Sister Reed. I couldn't keep my eyes off her red eyebrows and her green eyes that sparkled like emeralds.
Later that evening, when we were alone in our room, Ellen watched me rush into the bathroom to change into a Western skirt and blouse. "Oh no, now you look just like everyone else here," she said. "I wanted you to stay in your Korean outfit longer. You looked so pretty and special."