It was the second month of my first semester an NIU. There were so many things to get used to. For instance, in the classes I had in Chinese, I would write my name as normal. However, in the classes taught in English, I would have to write my name as Nari Lee.
Sunny, my guardian and one of the people who had rescued me from North Korea, said that she still wasn’t used to the Western way. Eventually, I asked her, “Sunny, why are there no classes in Korean?” The reason I had asked this was because my first Cultural Communication essay (which was an English language class) had come back riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. The essay for my Chinese class was in similar shape.
Sunny looked up from the papers she was grading. “Well,” she said, “we teach on a tiny island. While it is true we have to teach many students who speak a… staggering variety of language, we just can’t support every single spoken language. So we have classes in what are deemed to be the four major languages.”
I sighed. “At least I get to work on my language skills.”
“See,” Sunny said, “there’s a bright side to almost everything. By the way, you said your birthday is next week?” I nodded. “Want to do anything for that?”
“Not really,” I said. “My family never gave parties, they were too poor and my old school did not really go out of its way to promote individualism. Besides, I would like to test my guitar.” I had been working on a guitar and amp combination using various blueprints I had found online. It should have been ready by the time of my birthday.
“Let me rephrase that,” Sunny said with a note of amusement. “Is May going to hang out with you? Because I think she might like to.”
“Is it an American thing or a May thing?” I asked.
“She hasn’t been very vocal about it,” Sunny said, “but she would like it. If you don’t want to make a big deal out of it, you might want to ask.”
I did ask May over, but I didn’t tell her it was my birthday until we were down in the basement. We were sipping on some ginger tea and eating some kimbap Sunny had cooked for us and I was just getting ready to turn on my amp when I told May, “So, today is actually my birthday.”
“Really?” May asked. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It seemed the kind of thing you would make a big deal of,” I said honestly. As I spoke, I fiddled with the knobs on the amp. To be on the safe side, I turned the volume and gain down. “My other nine birthdays weren’t really that big.”
“Totally get it,” May said. “I understand not wanting to attract attention.”
I looked at her, trying to hide my incredulity. May’s blond hair was possibly not a natural blond and the purple highlights on the tips of her pigtails were even less convincing. To top that off, there were her mismatched eyes, one green, one blue. “I see,” I said. “How long ago was this?”
“I was a little younger then you when I decided to stop giving a shit,” May admitted. “Of course, the reason was that I had realized that whatever I did, they’d keep coming after me. Plus, the stakes weren’t as high as yours were.”
I thought back to how some of my fellow classmates at my previous school had been removed at odd times with no explanation. “The stakes may have been higher for me,” I said, “but I’ll always wonder if the attitude was similar.”
There was a pause. I’m not sure what May was thinking, but I know I was considering what had happened (and what was happening) to all the people I left behind in North Korea. I then flipped the switch of the amplifier.
Despite the gain and the volume being low, we were assaulted by the sound of massive feedback. As May covered her ears, I desperately tried to turn the volume and gain down. “Sorry! Sorry!” I said, as I fiddled with the knobs.
“Shut it off! Shut it off!” May yelled. Seeing as both knobs were at zero, I decided to follow her advice. The harsh screeching stopped.
“You know,” I said, after our hearing began returning, “I think the problem might be a software problem.” That was the problem with using a completely solid state amplifier. The arduinos might have been easier to get than tubes, but my programming skills were not exactly up to the task.
“So,” May asked, “how long will it take to fix it?”
“Quite a while,” I said, an unintended note of glee in my voice. “The programing is probably going to be the trickiest bit, then I’ll probably have to replace the speaker.”
“Sounds like you’ll be having fun,” May said, sounding amused.
“Well,” I said, going over my code in my head, “I would hardly be doing something like this in my free time if I didn’t like it.” I turned to face her. “Surely that’s how you feel about medicine? After all, you lived your entire first semester off one of your creations.”
“Kind of…” May said. “Yeah, I love the actual creation part of my work sometimes. But… the more I think about it, the more I want my work to change the world for the better, y’know?”
“I don’t really think that,” I said. “Honestly, if I worry about how my inventions are used, I’ll eventually go insane.”
“In other words,” May said, seemingly quoting someone, “you only make sure your rockets go up, and you don’t care where they come down.”
“I guess…” I said. “But it’s better than being bored.” I was suddenly angry. “None of the projects I’m supposed to be doing here are interesting.” I gestured at the amp. “This won’t last the rest of the month. Then what am I going to make? I’ve already made a dozen different radios. In fact, if I hadn’t discovered Metal music, I’d be done making audio equipment.”
“You… you’re bored.” May seemed shocked by this statement.
“I’m surprised that more people aren’t,” I said. “I’m tired of being limited.” I picked up my guitar. It was a triple-humbucker Jazzmaster clone. “Well, at least this works. Want to hear the opening rift to ‘Enter Sandman?’”
As I played, I reflected on the opportunity I had come across recently. With musical instruments, I had no idea what made a good one. However, one of the other people who had rescued me seemed to want to design a gun. Based on what I knew of him, I could guess his requirements would be demanding. And maybe I would stop being bored.