By Kim Young Jin
I don't know when the itching started. Only that it did. Random patches of my body started tingling, aching to be scratched off. Under the knees, behind the joints of my elbows, all over the thighs and calves.
At first I gently stroked the afflicted areas with my nails, creating what I call skin snow; carcasses from the successful excavation of a layer of cells from my epidermis. My mom vacuumed away the carbon dust.
I told myself it was all harmless exfoliation, an expeditious removal of particulate grime that had found their way into the creases of my skin. The scratching was supposed to stop when it became painful. But the more I stroked, the more it itched. While my mind was captivated by some wild Tom and Jerry chase on TV, my hands moved mechanically to the chaotic beat of the cartoon’s music; up and down, up and down.
With continued scraping, a red film began to show through the remainders of my flesh. Usually this would rekindle in me a determination to stop - I knew that what lay below would cause me immeasurable pain - but the feeble fire was smothered, more often than not, by another wave of a visceral desire to decimate. Soon I disposed of all restraint and full out butchered my own skin.
Finally, a tender, raw region would surface - the most dreaded sight of my youth. One touch and pain shot through my limbs, and although my affliction was only skin deep, its incessancy tormented my young psyche. Baths, to me, were an invention of the devil, conceived for the sole purpose of torturing my self-skinned body.
My dad bought all kinds of powders, some to mix into the waters in which I bathed, some to coat my scars. When I was five, he came across a brand of goods ostensibly tailored for skin conditions like mine, and stocked up on various bottles, tubes and jars. All of its products were plastered with brown stickers; to emit, I think, an aura of earthly wholesomeness. They still looked like the perfect pseudoscientific products, though. Gaudy, and ineffective.
Anything the doctor recommended, we tried - mystical-sounding lotions, fat-free diets, purportedly special towels and clothes and blankets. But they didn't change much. The scars always came back, the bleeding always resumed. My parents discovered that the chips and candies that were the lifeblood of children were detrimental to my condition; up went the goodies into the cupboards, never again to be a part of my childhood.
Two weeks after my seventh birthday, my parents came across some different advice: a humid and warm environment will help skins like mine recover. So my mom and I stuffed as few cardboard boxes with as many things we could while my dad hunched over the computer, wrestling with logistics. Eventually, we made the trip, from Incheon, Korea to Singapore, where my mom and I would stay for a few weeks to see whether my skin could acclimatize to the new weather and air. It never occurred to me, at the time, what exactly it was that we were doing - I simply went along with my parents, as I had been doing my whole life. As we walked into the departure corridor, I looked back – and for a split second, before the walls obstructed my view, I caught a glimpse of one of the many incongruities of human emotion – my grandparents smiling, with tears glistening in their eyes.
On the plane, I became instantly ensnared by the in-flight blockbusters. While I eagerly scrolled through the movie list on the tiny, low quality screen in front of me, Korea receded into the distance, so that I barely noticed the dreamy fumes creeping over the twinkle of its metropolitan lights.
The first school I attended in Singapore wasn’t one of the local schools that dominated the educational landscape, but an international school, creatively named “International Community School.” It was the archetypal cosmopolitan institution, each classroom being composed of Hungarians, Americans, Britons, and so on. It didn’t compare to the public education I had been receiving in Korea. My parents were paying ten times more for me to get less homework, be less intellectually challenged, and to be surrounded by cool Caucasians. I couldn’t understand why they had chosen a school so isolated from the sea of Asians it was located among.
The white kids were loud and unafraid to assert their dominance. They sauntered into the classroom letting out bursts of laughter, toying with their new iPhones, their shiny exteriors catching my jealous eyes. I looked at those kids from a corner, these strange new creatures who were supposed to be my friends, wishing I were back home in bed.
I attempted to join in, to identify the humor in their jokes and the reasons for their laughter. But each approach was greeted with cold indifference; each interjection hung awkwardly in the air, having blocked important discussion on things I was too below them to understand. The only companions I gathered to me were an entitled Indonesian and a meek Brazilian, and even they treated me like an oddity sometimes. To lighten the mood, I often resorted to making funny faces, or broke into silly dance moves, and they were prone to asking me to repeat, again and again, these obsequious stunts I had conjured up to dull the sting of my loneliness.
The library was always a better option. The books didn't eye my lunch distastefully, asking why I eat fish, including the eyeballs. They didn't shoulder me politely away, impatient scorn simmering beneath their "hey"s and "yo"s. They didn't despise my mental alacrity, as if it was my fault they were slow. All they did was sit there, docile and compliant, ready to sweep me away to another world at a moment's notice.
A particularly engrossing comic book series was Asterix and Obelix – the adventures of two Gauls who, with the help of a magical potion, perpetually repressed their Roman counterparts, when it was supposed to be the other way round. Maybe I, too, could become invincible like them, and rise against my oppressors. I just needed to find my magic potion.
It was ironic, the way they excluded me. We were all kids from different countries, going to the same school. Our biggest similarity was that we were all different.
Also ironic was how my exterior, instead of manifesting the repression of my personality, flourished and thrived. Much of the rashes had subsided, and my scratchings were less feral, less crazed. I could finally adjust the showering head to spray more than a light dribble of water, and fooling around at the beach became less of a mad scramble to avoid the stinging seawater. It was as if a huge, malignant tumor had been cleanly excised with the sharp scalpel of dense, wet air. My life felt less cluttered, less cumbersome, less dirty. For once, I guess, we had chosen the right treatment. And as my skin healed and reformed itself, the heavy tropical sun tanned it dark brown, camouflaging the scars of the past.
I moved to a local school when I was ten.
Rumor had it that the lack of diversity in local schools was more than made up for by the rigor of their education. And rumor was right. I no longer carried empty bags to school; I had to study before tests; there were no more counters to aid my arithmetic. And my Singaporean classmates didn't seem to mind my nationality one bit; I used to wish they did, at least a little, so that I didn't have to feel so common.
Every December, while all my friends are away on trips with their families, I go back to Korea, where I’ll stay at my grandparents’ place. Greg, my narcissistic best friend, says that my identity is nonexistent. I belong to nothing, and should pledge allegiance to thin air.
Singapore, the country whose people I empathize with, whose traditions I know the origins of, whose uniting spirit I grasp; that country is not the one into which I was born. But Korea, the country whose cultures I am mostly ignorant of, whose language I cannot even fully understand; that country is my birthplace. He says that I am a weird hybrid human with no roots. How can you call yourself a Korean, he says, if you've spent eleven out of your seventeen living years outside? You know as much about Korean history as the toddler sitting next to you; I bet a lost tourist would know more about the country’s founding fathers than you. You clamor to go back every holiday, when you know perfectly well that you'll just be cooped up at home.
He started learning some Korean last holiday. Now he knows more words than me.
But whenever he starts one of his diatribes on why I should declare myself homeless, I beg to differ. Home is where you feel you belong. It isn't determined by numbers and measurements and calculations. You don't follow a set of criteria for choosing it. You don't wake up in some foreign country, look at the calendar, and go: "that's ten years - now this is my home." You feel it.
When I step outside of the airport every December, a blast of icy air hits my face. And - even though it hurts - I take a deep breath of the minty atmosphere. My nostrils, though drowning in mucus and cracked from the dryness, recognize the infusion of cigarette smoke and the hint of exhaust. My nose knows, as easily as a fish thrown back into water, that it is where it should belong. That it is smelling the perfume of the metaphorical womb from which it emerged.
I walk into a convenience store to buy a drink. Rows of chips and cookies dressed in flamboyant packaging greet my entrance. Apple, peach, mint, and coke-flavored gum – which are all illegal in Singapore - lie seductively in the corner, tempting me with their usual sweetness. The corn chip, the one on the top left corner of the shelf - I ate that with my cousins while we played catch in the neighborhood. The cheese and onion flavored one over there - that's the one I bought before every movie we watched in the house. The chocolate covered strawberry popsicle right there, beside the door - I once used all my pocket money to buy it for the whole family.
I toss some items onto the counter. A short lady with white makeup caking her face stands to service me. She smiles, and informs me of the price, in Korean. Not in a foreign language I forced myself to learn and which foreigners are hesitant to use on me because I don't look like I speak it; in Korean, which the cashier uses on me because she sees, and knows, that I am.
Sometimes I wonder if I would feel this way about my country if I had grown up here all these years. Maybe the few precious memories I have of it might drown in a deluge of other ones. Maybe the sheer volume of experiences might make me take the place for granted. Maybe the fact that what I want is accessible right outside the door, and not an ocean away, might lessen my appreciation of it.
But that's far from happening now. And if migrating to the ends of the earth will make my heart beat for home as much as it is now, I'll do it.
Kim Young Jin is currently studying in Singapore's version of high school, a junior college. He moved to the small country from South Korea at age six, and is therefore ignorant of most of the traditions of his birthplace. But his patriotism burns strong, and is dangerously close to becoming jingoism. His work has appeared in TeenInk and the Blue Marble Review.