I believe in the neighbors of Fargo, North Dakota.
In 1995, I arrived in Fargo, North Dakota without any idea of how to even pronounce the name of my new home. Three days after emigrating from the Republic of Korea, I attended my first kindergarten class. As I stumbled through the English alphabet, I felt a deep, sinking gloom of the loneliness that lay ahead.
Day after day, I struggled through the alphabet, memorizing the pledge of allegiance, trying to communicate with my peers, and deal with the ice- cold weather. My misery showed straight through to the people around me. Slowly, but surely, people stopped to talk to me and welcome me into their city, or as each of them called it, the neighborhood.
First, two teenage girls at the local YMCA stopped me and chatted with me at the gym. I got angry, because I thought they were making fun of my clothing, but I realized they just wanted to talk to me about something. These girls kept coming back to make sure I always had something to do. During the summer, they invited me to a summer day camp, which they ran. I will never forget each girl’s kindness and courage to start speaking with me.
Second, my apartment neighbor stopped to welcome my family. A single mom with a kid, she invited me over everyday for dinner or to play games with her son, Nathan. He and I became best friends, despite the communication barrier. As we grew older and my English improved, I confided in him the difficulty of being one of the few minority members of such a white district and he confided in me his difficulties as well.
Third, the ESOL (English as a second language) teacher took the time to become one of my friends. Much more than a teacher, Mrs. Olson spent time with me outside the classroom as well. She took her teaching assistants and me to eat pizza or ice cream many times. However, there’s no way to characterize her. She had an amazing amount of patience and a gift with working with children. I still remember how she kept encouraging me to work on my English. When I become complacent and stopped studying, she didn’t give up, but, instead, worked harder. She brought toys that cost fake pieces of money, which I could only earn by doing well on the quizzes.
So, you see, ordinary people all throughout the community became my neighbors. Each of them took the time to welcome me and, sometimes, help me integrate. These various people helped me to what understand what defines the English word neighbor.
It is not the geography that defines a neighbor, but the way a person builds up the courage to speak and invite a stranger to his or her community. So, citizens of Fargo, thank you.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.