I have enjoyed reading 913’s new columnist, Charles Hammer. His piece, “If you don’t think the climate is changing, ask the armadillo,” was a beautifully told story. Since Hammer had been my professor, teaching feature writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in early 1980s, his column brought me bonuses — the fond memories of the olden days.
I had been published in Seoul National University Press while I was a student in the School of Music. But more than 30 years ago, as an immigrant, writing in English was an unrealistic dream for me. That changed while I was taking Hammer’s class.
His approach to writing was “easy does it” and “write what’s familiar to you, using simple vocabulary.” He said the reason Ernest Hemingway was so successful was because he wrote what he knew and told stories from his memories with gut feelings.
Hammer didn’t lecture at length on the technical side of writing. Instead, he asked students to read their own work to the class, encouraging the rest of the class to critique them. Because of my insecurity about reading in English to the class, I asked Hammer to please read my first essay for me and he agreed. It was a story about how I saw America as a newcomer to the United States in October 1966.
I had flown into Kansas City from Paris on Oct. 1, a contract with the Kansas City Philharmonic as its cellist carefully tucked in my suitcase. But landing at the Municipal Air Terminal near downtown Kansas City, I thought, “This cannot be America!” The land was flat. The Missouri River I saw from a taxicab was muddy and lifeless. Many downtown buildings were boarded up, and beggars sat on the streets, thrusting their hands to anyone passing.
My dream of coming to the United States began during the Korean War as a child while watching American movies — panoramas of tall, beautiful buildings, good-looking men and women holding hands and striding along wide boulevards, streams of fast-moving cars and the Statue of Liberty holding a torch high in the air over the Hudson River.
Where is America the beautiful? I thought.
My studio apartment on 11th street in downtown Kansas City, which the Philharmonic had reserved for me, had a battalion of cockroaches. They reminded me of the Chinese army that ambushed the U.N. soldiers near the Manchurian border I had read about. They, the cockroaches, were everywhere — on the TV screen, on the couch, on the kitchen countertop. One morning I found a dead one in my freshly made coffee!
“Mother, America has cockroaches!” I reported by letter.
On the first day of rehearsal, I learned in dismay that 80 members of the Philharmonic orchestra were on strike. I was the only one who had brought an instrument to rehearsal. Understanding very little English, I listened to their discussions as a dog might listen to scripture reading — completely bored. In the days following, the musicians were scattered to several different locations in Kansas City, holding picket signs and talking to pedestrians, probably asking to sign their names on the petitions and explaining why Kansas City needed a symphony orchestra.
Luckily, in late November, the Philharmonic was back in business.
On the first night of the subscription concert, I was in my long black dress, under the bright stage lights, trying to look my very best and playing every note on the sheet music. During the last piece in the program — the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 — I noticed something black and shiny crawling out of the f-hole of the cello, waving its antennas, and seating itself on the belly of my cello.
My bow arm stiffened and the vibratos quickened. As the finale approached, the conductor took a faster tempo and began jumping up and down on the podium, wielding his baton wildly in the air, and to my amazement, the cockroach, too, wielded his antennas up and down rhythmically and persistently. There was a unmistakable resemblance between the two — the conductor on the podium and the cockroach on my cello. They both wore shiny black tuxedos with parted ends and they were passionate about Beethoven’s symphony!
The concert suddenly ended, and a loud applause filled the hall with shouts of “Bravo!” The conductor on the podium smiled and motioned all musicians to stand, with a swooping arm movement. As I did, the cockroach tumbled down fast and hit the floor.
“A cockroach?” my stand-partner hissed through the side of her mouth, keeping her perfect posture before the audience. “Where did it come from?”
I pretended that I didn’t understand her.
When Professor Hammer finished reading, every student in the room laughed. It was an electrifying moment for me to know that my limited English was not a barrier for telling a story. When my manuscript was returned to me I saw a letter “B” in red at the top of the first page and Hammer’s handwritten note: “Therese, you’re an A storyteller but due to some grammatical errors in the manuscript, I can only give you B this time. Keep writing!”
“B” suited me just fine!
Today I am a proud B student in the School of Aging, and I still write what I know, still take an “easy does it” approach and still make occasional grammatical errors.
Professor Hammer, I couldn’t have done it without you!
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.