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We Asked Students to Write About Migration. Read the Winning Essay.


What has your life experience and the experience of those around you taught you about global migration?

That’s the question we asked students as part of “Hard Truths,” a photography exhibit from The New York Times that appeared at the University of Melbourne. And after receiving dozens of submissions, we have a winner: Gina Song.

Her essay, “Future Tense,” stood out for its insight and lyricism, packed into our 500-word limit. Read. Enjoy. Share your thoughts on the question by emailing us: nytaustralia@nytimes.com.


When my grandparents, my dad and my aunt step off the plane and into the “last utopian land” of Australia (as advertised by a Korean brochure) they are met with angry protesters.

Sweating under the heat, they hold up signs that read: “Go back to your country!” “Our land, not yours!”

My family only realizes this later. In the moment, not understanding a single word of what the sunburned white people were saying, they simply raise their hands and wave.

“What a nice welcome!” my grandfather says, before they go to get their bags.

Fast forward a few decades, and global migration pays for my groceries. I charge $40 an hour to break down a language that I have rarely given a second thought to. One of my students asks: “Teacher, why is ‘would’ a past tense word but can be used as a future tense word, granted that it’s placed before ‘do’ and ‘make’?” And I stare for a moment, mutter something about the “mechanics of grammar” and then offer a hopeless “I guess it just is?”

They laugh and laugh and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.

My grandfather doesn’t laugh. He attends 50 job interviews, each a human resources job that matches the managerial position he had in Korea. He glows on paper but in the interview room he’s quickly rejected.

Maybe it’s his name that’s the problem? Jay-Hong becomes Jay. My father, Hyun-Duk, becomes Harry. It is 1999 and Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal are at the height of their fame. My mother, Soon-Yool, becomes Sally.

The boy I tutor changes his name every week. When I first met him, he was Joe. He went to class and realized every other white boy was named Joe — so he becomes Michael. The three- hour Michael Jackson documentary is released and he becomes Adam. I tell him his Korean name, Jun-Hyuk, is nice. He laughs.

“Do you have a Korean name?” he asks me. I tell him that my parents had named me Jin-A, or Gina. “See? Korean but still easy for white people to pronounce.” He smiles. “How could you possibly understand?”

My grandparents buy a struggling candy store called Kandy Korner. My grandfather sorts gumdrops and sherbets and now knows the difference between “rocky road” and “peppermint crunch.” At night, they attend language school. The teachers are kind, but when they walk home they hear people yell “Ching-Chong!” and “Gook!” They understand what that means now.

My grandparents set up a family, and now their grandchildren have acceptable names and can speak enough English to prove their worth in a job interview. We understand attempts at humor. We understand offense. We have studied the language. We want you to do the same.

Change the idea that global migration is thievery, a pastime, a decision made on a whim. Change the idea that it is anything but an attempt at renewal. It is the ridiculousness of a new language. It is Jun-Hyuk changing his name. It is my grandparents, waving at anger. It is my ability to think in a future tense — rather than one of present survival.

Now on to stories from the week.



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