By Doeun (Jessica) Kim, 14, Manila, Philippines.
The streets of Gwangjin-gu (South Korea) rush past the bus window, the sun making Heejin’s eyes squint. The bus flits through the usual route of convenience stores and cafes while she plugs in her earphones, their tangled wires hanging against her chest. Classical music lingers while kids wander along the pavements, dragging themselves to after-school academies. The Ajummas Manning Street food carts with warm fish cake sticks dunked in broth as they count the crinkled bills, sweat creeping down their foreheads. A man in a suit sits beside her. His head leaning back and his eyes are shut. Teenage girls giggle in the back of the bus, their bangs twisted into hair rollers. They purse their bright red lips while taking selfies but Heejin ignores them because she thinks those were the kids who wouldn’t succeed. It’s her stop as she leaves the bus to her math academy.
Heejin leaves the doors of her last cram-school of the day, stretching after hours of studying. She walks home, taking out a packet of red ginseng from her backpack. She drinks it and cringes from the bitter taste. Her grandmother gave her a box of this ginseng extract for Christmas. It will help you with your studying, she said.
“Heejin-ah! Come sit, I cooked salmon,” Heejin’s mother says. She is holding a rosary, whispering prayers. Heejin drops her backpack onto her desk then sits down. Her fingers lift the metal chopsticks as she takes a piece of salmon.
“Eat a lot, it’ll help you study better.” Heejin always ate as fast as she could so she had more time to study for her exams. She leaves to her room while still chewing her food. Organizing her textbooks across her desk, she sits down as she takes out a pencil and an eraser which corners have been flattened out. She takes notes for hours, typing and deleting on her computer, the inner corners of her eyes begin to crust. The sound of the keyboard and the scratches from her pencils repeats for days and nights, until she doesn’t know how long it’s been.
It was all for Seoul National University. It would help Heejin with her future, allow her to have leisure for the rest of her life, at least that’s what her mother said.
“Endless studying would all be worth it, right? Just wait for SNU, and it will be fine”. She falls asleep and wakes up to these thoughts.
Heejin shuffles through the hallways to get to her next block. Her eyes feel heavy after the all-nighter she spent as she enters class. People’s heads are buried underneath their arms and some are sitting on their desks, complaining to their friends about their tests. Heejin sits on her desk, putting in an earbud. Behind her sits Eunjung, her pencil barely tracing on the lines of her notebook. The two were close friends since their childhood, until the rankings of the finals in junior year were posted outside the teacher’s office.
They locked arms, looking for their names on the poster. Heejin’s name was written in second place, and Eunjung’s glimmered above hers. There had been small tensions between them before, but it was the first time Eunjung had placed higher than Heejin. Heejin let go of Eunjung’s arm and said, “Maybe it’s just another sacrifice for both of us, and our future.”
After that, Heejin began to skip Saturday family reunions and church on Sundays. Instead, she always sits down and studies, letting only her classical music flow through her ears. She still goes through social media, seeing the pictures of her old friends laughing, singing karaoke and her cousins in family lunches.
It’s the night when SNU’s acceptance letters come out. Heejin’s mother and grandmother sit behind her, each squeezing her shoulders as she powers up her computer. Her fingers hovering above her keyboard, taking a deep breath before she goes through her mail. Heejin clicks on the letter from SNU as her breath pauses while she scrolls to the bottom of the letter. She only hears the shrill of cicadas from outside as she reads the words, ‘congratulations and informing you of your acceptance to SNU.’
Her mother hugs her, “you made it my Heejin, you made it.” Heejin stays still in her mother’s embrace, her eyes staring at the letter.
“Did I?” Maybe it was too good to be true. She fell silent while her mother organized a celebration dinner with the whole family.
Heejin enters the snack bar.
“Immo, can I get a coffee milk please,” she asks, placing coins onto the counter. She pops the seal of the carton with her straw, then sees Eunjung scrolling through her phone next to the tables. Heejin is about to ignore her and leave, like usual, until Eunjung asks, “I heard you got into SNU. Was everything worth it?” Heejin stops. She didn’t know.
She went to the school rooftop, walking up the steps with the unfamiliar feeling of skipping class. The door opens into the vicinity of Seoul, its hazy sky looming above the city. She sits on the ledge surrounding the rooftop. Her fingertips rest on the cement. They tap towards the end, her flesh pressing onto the ridge while Heejin stares at the door. Her fingers continue to move away from her, until they reach the edge, barely touching the ledge now. She feels a warm gust of wind passing through her palm as she stares back. Buildings leaning and pedestrians walking across the streets while staring at their phones. Where was the life here? The sun scorches the people as they complain while walking to work, parents forcing their children to study for the whole day. Heejin feels blindfolded, as if she spent her four years working for something that she didn’t want to do. She stands up and closes the door behind her. She rushes down the stairs and she promises herself to ignore the feelings that came up in the rooftop.
By Doeun Kim, age 14, Philippines. “As a young writer living in the Philippines, I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to send out works. I am a fourteen year old, born in South Korea and currently studying at the International School of Manila. Despite being Korean, English is my first language, before Korean. Attending an international school has opened my eyes towards the distinct culture every person brings. I hope that through my writing, I am able to inspire others to embrace their culture.”