Dawn Chun, 16, is a junior at Belmont High School in Los Angeles. Born in Seoul, she immigrated to the United States with her family in 1983. In her nearly five years in America, she has attended four public schools. Here, she talks about what it was like to be a newcomer plunging into a foreign culture, knowing little English and having no friends.
I remember the first day of school. This little girl came up to me and asked, "What's your name?" I knew what she meant. So I said Dawn. And then she said, "What?" and I had to spell it out. Then she said, "What is your last name?" I didn't know what that meant, last name. It was so embarrassing. I couldn't answer her. It was this little kid, a blond girl. I couldn't answer her. So she left.
My first friends were Koreans. When you don't speak any other language, you tend to find who is your nationality and you tend to be friends with them.
One friend, she didn't speak much English, either. She just came (to America), like me. The other girl spoke English fluently. I think she was born here. When her dad asked her to help me out in school, she tried, but I guess it was hard for her. She didn't want to hang out with me because I didn't speak any English. She wanted to be with her friends because they spoke English.
In school, when someone would ask her, "Are you Korean?" she would say, "No, I'm American. I'm not Korean." I didn't like that.
Right now, I say I'm Korean. Maybe if I stay here longer I'll say I'm Korean-American.
I like Korean culture because you respect the elders, not like in America. When you say bye or hi to an elder, you have to bow your heads. I still do that to Korean adults. I did that to my elementary schoolteacher, too, when I first came here. I didn't know you could just go "Bye!" and leave. So the teacher said bye, and I bowed my head and said bye like that. When I got out of school, I was so embarrassed. I found out that's weird, to bow your head.
Now, I don't hang out with Koreans. I don't know why. I hang out with one Chinese and one Vietnamese girl. They've been here (in America) for seven or eight years. There are not that many Koreans here. There are a lot of Hispanics. Orientals are a minority.
Hispanics here get more advantages because they are the major group. Like those papers they pass out (notices for parents), one side is in English and one side in Spanish. Other people, from Asia, they don't always get those things. They don't know what is going on. Maybe there is a shortened day, and they don't know it. That happened to me when I was in junior high.
When I was in junior high school, all the (newly arrived) Korean kids would hang out in the cafeteria. And there was a Ping-Pong table, and all the Asian kids would hang out there. All the Hispanic kids would hang out upstairs where the lunch area is. Here, they hang out in libraries or outside somewhere. One group is in the library all the time. They want to hang out in an isolated area.
When I first came here, I was afraid because I was so small and all these kids were so tall. I felt safer when I was just by myself, far away from people. Then when I got to speak more English and had a lot of friends, I started to go out, walk around the campus, say "Hi" to friends.
I feel there are a lot of groups . . . a lot of separation, even here.
All the groups make fun of each other. I don't understand that. Hispanics tend to call Asians Chino . It's not a bad word, but it sounds like a bad word. They call me Chino . I get mad at that because I'm not Chinese.
Us, too, Asians, we call Hispanic people (names). Like they're lazy, they don't do their work, they have brains but they don't use it. Hispanic people (say) all Asian people . . . drive too slow and they're nerds. They go, "People with glasses are smart." That's not true. Maybe they need glasses because they watch too much TV.
I haven't seen fights at this school. But my friends told me about a lot of fights at their school. Like there are fights every Friday--Vietnamese against Korean, Korean against Mexicans, Mexicans against Vietnamese. I don't think they ever fight (each other), like Mexicans against Mexicans, except in gangs. They fight other cultures.
I think people don't understand each other. They don't want to get another person's culture. They only want their own. They don't want to mix together.
Sometimes that bothers me. Like America is mixed, right? But I don't think it's going be one nation. People don't try to be like one.
I learned about the melting pot in history class. It was interesting. Then I learned there's another (idea) called salad bowl. The teacher asked us, "Which one do you think America is now?" I feel it's a salad bowl, not a melting pot.