I immigrated from Seoul to St. Louis at the age of 4 in 1982. My first language was Korean and I slowly learned my third language, English. I quickly learned my second language, baseball. My parents settled in rural, all-white town in Missouri and we stood out like a big, yellow thumb. Wherever we went, we got long stares and acclimating to kindergarten was difficult.
I had no friends early on and was met by young bullies, who funny enough, barely seemed t know the English language themselves. Still, they could put words together that left wounds.
“Let’s fight, Bruce Lee.”
“You look really funny.”
“You smell so weird.”
“Can you even see?”
All the bullying went away when I got a baseball glove and bat. It was never easy to get a dozen-plus kids together to play baseball at the local neighborhood field, so when I showed up, they didn’t see Asian, they saw a kid who could fill a spot. Before long, I was an actual teammate on a real little league team.
My parents worked long hours, but always seemed short on cash and time. Yet, they supported me in baseball the best they could by driving me to every game, paying for the team entry fee and even purchasing me the shiniest, newest Louisville slugger.
That aluminum bat was my prized possession – and man, I swung it well.
Soon, I was being invited to join elite teams, heading off to select baseball camps and I even started dreaming of becoming a Korean American Major Leaguer. I got new bats as I grew taller and stronger, but that first bat rested safely underneath my bed. It represented my first friends, my first love and my parents’ sacrifice.
I recall around 5th grade, as I was lazily watching Saturday television on a hot summer day, I heard thwacks against our livingroom window. Outside our house were middle schoolers, leaning off their BMX bikes, throwing eggs at our house. I ran to my room, grabbed my bat and stormed out the front door yelling expletives better than any native tongue could in St. Louis, and swinging that bat around like I saw a fastball down the middle. They ran off. Man, I swung that bat real well.
A few years later, in the middle of the night, my dad abruptly woke me up. In Korean, he told me quickly, “The alarm went off at the dry-cleaning store and we have to check it out.”
This happened a couple times a year, and usually it was a mouse that tripped the alarm, so a patrol car swung by the storefront and if there was no broken window they drove on by. My father, always suspicious, believed a thief snuck in through a vent, and was now stealing all the money from the safe. Now that I was a bit bigger,he believed I was ready to accompany him in that rare chance a thief was actually hiding in the shadows with a switchblade. My father never put a petty thief with a gun, it was always a switchblade -like the one you see carried by one of the Jets or the Sharks in West Side Story.
I put my clothes on and felt the tension reach my neck as my teenage muscles ripple with adrenaline. I reach out under my bed and pull out my trusty Louisville slugger bat. It represented my dad’s sacrifice, and I thought the least I could do was protect him if a thief came out of the shadows. Luckily for both of us, it was a stupid rodent, but I was able to get him with one swing. Like I said, man, I swung that bat really well.
There was no way that bat was returning underneath my bed. That was the last time I swung that bat. It was time to move on.