Saranghae, my mom had written. I love you.
Picture me in the spring of 2017, sitting in a hotel corridor in Salvador, Brazil, where my Bridge Year was soon coming to an end. Phone in hand, I gazed at the blue and yellow palette unique to KakaoTalk, or “Korean WhatsApp”, thinking of a response. For most people, the response would be pretty intuitive: if someone, especially your mom, says I love you, you’d probably say it back. What I was concerned about, however, was whether or not I should switch to the Korean keyboard for my reply.
I love you too, I typed back, but in English. I followed it up with a nonsensical cartoon emoji and locked my phone.
Korean is the one language I’ve known all my life. As my inherited tongue, it’s been the language of my lullabies, my reprimands, and late-night conversations over miscellaneous Korean snacks like fried tofu and squid. I speak exclusively in Korean with both my parents, who, even during their fifteen years in Hong Kong, still kept the fridge well-stocked with kimchi and the living room filled with the cloying music of Korean soap operas.
Yet the language in which I think and communicate in most comfortably is English. I also speak Chinese, Spanish, and Portuguese, which means that Korean, “mother tongue” though it may be, is often pushed aside to make room for other linguistic endeavors. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and even more so now after Somi Jun’s recent, very beautiful, piece in the Nass about how Korean affects her relationship with her mother. We grew up halfway across the world from each other, yet many of her experiences — like wielding more power speaking in a tongue different from that of her parent — resonate with mine.
It isn’t surprising, seeing that language and language-learning are universal in many ways. For example, our command of the languages we speak reflects the environments we learn them in, which means that my Korean — a language I learned and used in a family environment all my life — is somewhat infantile, while my other languages capture broader, more academic, themes. For instance, talk to me about politics in Portuguese — a language I started learning on Bridge Year — and I could engage you in a conversation about the role money plays in Brazilian politics. Talk to me about politics in Korean — a language I’ve spoken all my life — and I’d have little to say. I might ask if you’ve had lunch.
Understandably, every opportunity to learn a new language leaves me feeling a little guilty. Why try so hard with the languages of others when you can’t fully speak your “own”?
This was why, eleven thousand miles away in Brazil, I found it so hard to call home.
Whenever my Brazilian homestay mom asked “Você já falou com sua mãe?” — “Have you talked with your mother?” — I would often change the topic. Don’t you feel saudades for home? people would ask, referring to a nostalgic sense of homesickness uniquely captured by the Portuguese language.
I did. I did miss home. But when I decided to call home, my “mother tongue,” ironically enough, often hindered my ability to connect with the people I loved the most. It was painful then, and still painful now, to realize that although I owe my parents many things, my words — most of which I speak because of them — will never fully pay the debt.
How are you? my mom would ask.
I’d tell her that I was eating well, happy in my homestay, that I enjoyed going to the beach with friends. When I sprained my foot during a capoeira class, I told her I went to the doctor to get an X-Ray.
I didn’t tell her that my favorite fish moqueca reminded me of home, because I didn’t know how to explain how the taste of Bahia somewhat echoed the tastes of my mother’s spice-filled cooking. I never really knew how to explain the comedy of seeing my male classmates wearing Brazilian sungas on the beach for the first time. I never told her how beautiful the sky looks when the sun sets in pinks and purples across the sky in the artists’ district of Rio Vermelho, a view that stays with me today and urges me to go back.
It’s alienating to feel incapable of expressing yourself to those who are unconditionally present for your life, your pleasures, your sorrows, and all the quiet moments in between. Even here at Princeton, I feel a loneliness that comes with being incapable of telling my parents certain things. When our weekly calls coincide with good moods, I try my best. On bad days, the whirlwind of thoughts and events I’d intended to share with them dissipates when I find myself too emotionally exhausted to explain everything in Korean. Sometimes, this creates a dangerous cycle where the frustration towards my lack of language deters me from talking about these things the following week, the week after, and soon—as I slowly forget—the rest of the year.
This year, I decided that I’d end my twenty years of procrastination and enrolled myself in a Korean class at Princeton. Although some of the essays had me thoroughly stressed and close to tears, I’ve learned to talk about a series of random topics — ranging from Korea’s education system to smoking laws — with vocabulary I’d never used before. Thankfully, the class has done more for my Korean than the episodes of Boys Over Flowers or Dream High ever did, both soap operas that I watched with the hope that I would magically transform into the colloquial Korean-speaking teenager I never was.
Yet there are times I think I’ll always be the cultural misfit who aspires to re-discover her roots but never achieves it — and I feel fine about it. In an era full of kids whose identity is traced not to a specific point on a map, but rather encompasses multiple points across it, maybe my haphazard identity makes sense.
Besides, expecting everyone to be fluent in their inherited tongues isn’t fair. Not everyone can claim their parents’ primary language as their own primary language, especially when globalization has rendered it capable for people to grow up, or study, or work, or love, anywhere on the globe. Ascribing moral superiority to someone who, in the lottery of life, grew up in a way that allowed them to speak their inherited tongue most fluently is, I’ve learned, unwarranted.
I know this. I’ve studied it. But when surrounded by peers who can communicate with their parents without any linguistic difficulty, I can’t help but feel a little morose about not feeling that way—and not being able to, for a while at least. When I lived in Brazil, listening to people speak the colorful colloquialisms that belong to their language alone, or watching residents of Salvador singing about their beloved beaches in a festival rich with their own ancestors’ history, I was always a little disappointed that I’d never experience that sense of unity with my own heritage.
But despite the fact that Korean often leaves me speechless, it is, without doubt, the one language that moves me viscerally in a way no other language can. Several years ago, I remember reading a poem in Korean for the first time and breaking into tears; poetry adopts a different quality when heard through your mother’s voice. Hearing my mom speak on the other end of the line — with the particular lilting cadence of our shared language—soothes me regardless of whether or not I know what to say in response.
Just over halfway through Bridge Year, I had to leave my homestay in Salvador. For a while, the emotional effect of leaving, coupled with the stresses of packing up a life I’d built up over five months, left me spending evenings holed up in bed wallowing in self-pity.
It was on one of these nights that I decided to call home.
“Min-ah”, my mom said, calling me by my nickname, “how are you?”
My parents were, expectedly, very happy to hear from a daughter who was not very good at keeping in touch. For a moment I had the urge to say that things were going well, as I did most of the time, just because it was easy to say. This time, however, I decided to tell them exactly how I felt—in Korean.
Over the spotty Wi-Fi connection, I talked about how I felt leaving my homestay mom, how lonely I was sometimes, how I felt inadequate and defeated when I couldn’t make my own decisions and have control over my experience in Brazil. My parents would listen carefully, stopping whenever I interrupted them or waiting when I stumbled in my attempts to be eloquent. More often than not I’d resort to the wayward English word to get my point across, which made the Korean sound a little disfigured, if not ugly. Yet for an hour the conversation spun on, until the internet unexpectedly shut down and I decided it was time to go to bed.
The next morning, I received an apology from my parents. They said they didn’t feel like they could help me, and that it’d probably do me better to speak to my sister — with whom I communicate in English — instead.
Perhaps they were right. Maybe I’ll always be better off expressing myself in a language that is distant from my parents’. Yet reading my parents’ Korean made me feel, for a second, relieved, as if an entire history’s worth of people and love was supporting me in ways nothing else could.
The apology wasn’t theirs to make, but mine.