Why I love going to the writing Lab each day: I get to work with some of the most hilarious, surprising, smartest, thoughtful, and reflective teens in New York City. Best of all, our work at times extends beyond fiction and traditional memoir as college deadlines loom. A few of us spent hours and hours over the last four months identifying, deconstructing, and framing the highlights of their rich lives into two-page college essays. Take Eunju Namkung, 17. Her parents have spent decades working long hours in nail salons and car shops with the hopes that their daughter would have the opportunity to enjoy the rewards of literacy and specialized education. So it was a particular pleasure to receive Eunju's elated text message two nights ago: "AHHH!I GOT INTO YALE...I can't believe how fortunate I am!" Fortunate, humble, sweet... and wonderfully talented. Please help Eunju celebrate by reading her two winning college essays:
By Eunju Namkung
My first name is Eunju. The heavy drop, Eun, a stone into a puddle, plows the air to make room for the uplifting Ju. The two syllables bob up and down, literally illustrating the very word that describes and resembles how it sounds: undulate. Undul. Ate. Eun. Ju. Eunju. If said in a whisper, it will trick ears into thinking they have heard "I love you." When said loudly, boldly, it bellows like stomach thunder, a near profanity. If said too quickly, it is a sneeze and there will be an unsure "Bless you" from someone thinking, "That was a strange achoo." Then again, if said with macrons on each syllable, for those days the tongue doesn't want to stretch, the name transforms into a senior citizen reaching for the remote that's always two inches too far.
My last name is Namkung. Among the Kims, Chois, and Parks, Namkung is the maverick of last names. I have to assure everyone, even Koreans, that my seemingly mutated name is truly Korean-- which it is. I also tell curious others that I am a princess, a royal debutante, descendant of the Namkung Dynasty- which I'm not, but it is just too irresistible when Namkung means "South Palace" in hanjja. An Olympic last name, I wear it like a gold medal and threaten all boys that if they marry me, my last name will eat their last name. No hyphens, no negotiations. No Namkung, no "I do."
I am Eunju Namkung, born Korean, raised everything else. The daughter to Eun and Jung Ju, I have taken pride in having a valuable name that means even more in American life. My parents pronounce my name the "Korean way," which isn't necessarily the right way. I prefer the undulating Eunju, the one by which I am called in class, in the streets, in my world. I have grown up in Riverdale, a Jewish Bronx town, where come Hanukkah, people jokingly ask me if I am Jewish. Understanding my cue, I respond, "No, I'm Eun Ju," to which we both respond in laughter. It is an identity that defines me as much as I define it.
In April, 2008, I discovered that Eunju is not only an entertaining name, but an intriguing one that has the power to bring people together. I designed a tee shirt with my name printed on it: EUN on the front, JU on the back. It was bizarre when people rushed me to ask where they could purchase it. Very much aware of the narcissistic connotations, I told them it wasn't for sale. I wanted to be a jokester, not a jerk, but impatient requests for the shirts encouraged me to try to understand why people were reacting with such enthusiasm. Thus I began my short-lived career as a salesman.
A modest sale of a few shirts escalated into an order of 170. Among the customers, there were teachers (Organic Chemistry, English, and Physics); one president of the Jewish Club; a Student Union president; athletes; math-letes; kids who wear tight jeans and colorful sneakers; a set of identical twins; kids who play trombones; kids who use Macs; kids who go to church; kids whose parents are too strict; kids who sleep in other people's homes more often than they do at their own homes; kids who smoke; kids who save the environment; a pastor; three Helens and two Philips, but no Eunjus. I had known each of them from my classes, sports teams, extracurricular activities, and neighborhood, but I had never known that they valued my name as much as I did.
The customers of Stuyvesant HS decided that it was necessary to organize a single day, a holiday of sorts, to wear the shirts altogether. On June 6, 2008, we strutted down hallways with the letters of the name on our chests and backs. We laughed at the accusations made at us for being a fan-club, a fascist army, and even a cult. We insisted that there was no idolatry, militant spirit, or kool-aid involved. Hugs, hi's, and high-fives were exchanged between strangers-turned-friends. That day, even Eunju among the EUN JUs did not feel like Eunju. EUN JU was everyone.
In the summer of 2006, I worked alongside my dad at Radial Auto, a Korean-owned garage where he has spent years working with other immigrant men. The men, who didn’t know what make of me, gave me tasks that they thought I could handle: organizing boxes, weeding, sweeping. My dad, however, treated me as if I were one of them, even giving me a blue-collared shirt to wear, which I did proudly. With his guidance, I adjusted tire pressures, performed oil changes, replaced brakes, fixed the lifter, and did other jobs that would make my arms ache and my mom frown.
The ride home would be a quiet one because I would sleep in the back seat, completely exhausted from the day's work, my legs feeling like metal oars. I remember dinner tasting heavenly each night that week. I don't remember exactly what I ate those nights, but the menu did not matter. Even plain white rice, the same white rice that I had every night, tasted like fine dining. I realized that every bite I had had been the result of my dad's tired muscles and coarse hands.
Since then, I have asked my dad many times when I can work at the garage again. Every time he replies: "You did such a good job last time, I don't have anything for you to do anymore. We'd all have no jobs if you worked full-time." While I laugh to placate him, I have been secretly heartbroken because I miss power tools and working by his side. But I get it. He knows that I have learned that there is no limit to hard work, that there is nothing more gratifying than earning and providing with your own strength. He reminds me that I must be strong in my own way. While he uses drills and wrenches to provide, I must find my own power tools in the classroom.
My father, who looks enviously upon my books, takes to his own readings, finishing volumes of newspapers each night, occasionally reading a Korean novel. Sometimes he asks me how it feels to read Shakespeare or Tolstoy in English, but I cannot explain the experience of reading. While he has asked me many times to help him learn English, he is always too worn to learn a language he has struggled with for more than twenty years. His mechanic's shoulders simply ache too much when he sits hunched over small desks reading through my old notebooks.
When my dad learned that I began earning essay awards and high marks on my writing assignments, he suggested, "Save all your writing and make a book." With his words in mind, I stopped throwing out drafts or notebooks, even napkins with half-finished sentences. Books have become my bedside buddies and my teachers. I absorb pages and pages and feel empowered. I feel like I have been given the fuel to contribute my voice in this world, to speak up for those who can't, especially for those who provide without breaks and holidays, without a doubt that his daughter could discover her own power tools.