What I Didn’t Know

I found out that I was different when I was eight. I’ve worn braces that go up to my knees since I could walk, so I knew I was different but I never knew what that really meant. Strapping them on each day had become something so natural, like brushing my teeth in the morning. Growing up, my parents never sat me down and explained to me why I had to put on my braces. I just knew it was something that I needed, something that I had to do in order to walk.

It was in a dusty field on a hot summer day when I realized that being different meant something bad. I was in a summer program and everyone was about to play softball. When it was my turn to step onto home base, I wasn’t scared. I had never played before, but it seemed fairly easy: I just had to swing the bat for it to hopefully hit the ball and then dash to first base with all my might. So that’s what I did – my arms flailing by my side as I ran and ran, not caring how well I had hit the ball. I huffed and panted, completely engrossed in just getting to first base that I didn’t know why everyone was laughing. After I caught my breath, I saw some kids pointing at me. I froze. I realized that people were laughing at me. I hadn’t run because I couldn’t run. I had scurried. My attempt to run was more like scrambling my way through the dirt. I remember locking eyes with my older brother who stood on the field in the middle of the crowd, not knowing what to do. He didn’t say anything and neither did I. I wanted to cry, to say something, to do something, but all I could do was just stand still while my face flared more from hot shame than the blazing afternoon sun.

When I returned home that day, my mom knew something had happened. She could detect a change in my face. As I started to tell her about my running, I could feel my throat closing up. I had no control over the words that spilled out of my mouth and soon I was blubbering, repeatedly gasping for air as ugly tears poured down my face. My mom turned to my brother for an explanation. He quietly pulled away from the corner of the wall and approached us.

“Everyone started laughing when Ellie was trying to run,” he said.

I cried harder. All I wanted was to have my mom hold me, as if her enveloping me in her arms would make me believe that everything was a lie. No, I could run. No, I wasn’t different. Surely my mom would tell me. And I’d believe her because she was my mom. My mom, who didn’t speak a word of English but somehow managed to work and take care of two kids in a country far away from everything she knew. My mom, whose mere angry glare was enough to get me to do anything she’d say. My mom, who would tickle my nose and ask me where I came from, giggling and hugging me as she joked that she didn’t have a nose like mine.

She stared at me as what my brother said hung heavily in the air. Both of us sat there in the living room and said nothing. My mom then broke the silence.

“It’s ok,” she said as she got up and went to the kitchen to prepare dinner.

I would wait for her to lie, to say what I wanted her to say for many years, and it would be something that I’d never get from my mom who couldn’t speak love but instead showed it by cooking my favorite Korean dishes, organizing my room and buying me pretty clothes. She would try her hardest to get my feet with my braces to fit in the pair of the shoes that I really wanted, unlike the ugly orthopedic shoes the doctor recommended to my disgust.

Sitting there on that living room at eight years old though, I didn’t know. 

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