My brother and I have played ghostwriter and personal secretary for my mother for years. As English-speaking natives in a Korean immigrant household, it fell to us children to help my mother navigate the world outside our home. I texted her friends back, I read over legal documents, and I started editing her resume before I was of legal working age. Later, when my father got sick, my mother struggled to explain to my brother and me what the doctor had told her in English and what we found ourselves too frayed to ask.
Because of this language inequity, my mother and I have lapsed into a gray zone, somewhere between parent-child and equals. It is an uncomfortable truth that I wield a power over her, one that I’ve been conditioned to take for granted. I can decide I am too busy to help with her documents until the weekend, while she texts everyday to see if I’ve at least taken a look. I can be annoyed–angry, even–at her dependence on me and the dependence will not decrease in the slightest.
And it is this–the unequal power dynamic in the most intimate relationship in my life–that makes me identify as a native English speaker. It is not relative mastery of the tongue nor affinity for it. It is the fact that I possess power in a world that places English at the top of its linguistic hierarchy.
This inequity between my mother and me intensified with tragedy. In the years following my father’s death, my mother and I lived alone. I was 16 when my father died and my brother, then 17, soon flew off to college. My mother and I were left in an alien apartment in a new neighborhood. We wanted so desperately to move on from the vision of my father, shrinking in bed, that we sold my childhood home in favor of an apartment in a neighboring city. In the dash to move on, we lost much of the paraphernalia of our collective life, her 30 years in America combined with my own 16. Unmoored, we found we did not have the energy to even cling to material objects.
In that apartment, our combined grief seemed to accrue gravity, sinking its heels deeper into the ground as time went on. Meanwhile, I continued to grind at school, struggling to keep my foggy conception of the future as a priority. My mother, aunt, and cousin periodically took my arm and invited me to cry, but I found it difficult to break into the sobs that racked mourners on TV. And when my mother would fall into these body-shaking sobs, I was surprised to find myself resentful. I wanted to cry, too, but it felt like there could be only one of us in the household.
During that year, we came to despise each other. We fought quietly at first and then venomously. We tried to reconcile and provide each other comfort, but would inevitably end up screaming into the night. On such nights, if she ran out of things to say, she would mock me in parroted English, emphasizing her perception of me as emotionless and callous. Sometimes, she would meet me in a screaming match in her own halting English. Sometimes, she would break into Korean and I would not fail to respond, despite my broken comprehension. She was enraged at my self-righteousness and uppityness, though I never felt more vulnerable in my life.
It didn’t all come down to language, but in the language inequity lay our perceptions of power. To me, she was ahmma, who was supposed to be my mother and protector but had seemingly ceded that role. To her, I was a foreign body – cold, unfamiliar, and threatening.
I got into the habit of sleeping at friends’ homes, half-fabricating excuses to spend weeks at a time crashing on someone else’s couch. My mother, in turn, would demand that I get out of her house in the middle of the night or remark, offhand, that she might as well die if I kept this up. Only with time and distance did our relationship seem to improve. I flew across the country for college and my mother was left alone in that white, sun-filled apartment. At school, the tears that never came at home would arrive frequently and without notice. I would lie on the hard mattress of my bunk bed, possessed by sobs that I could not explain to my startled roommates.
At this strange campus, so sticky with humidity and conceptions of social hierarchy, I wanted to be taken care of in a way that had been rendered impossible since my father got sick. It would strike me in waves – I wanted to rely on my parents the way my peers relied on their parents. I wanted to be comforted.
This past summer, I went into self-imposed exile, learning Korean in a Korean-only language program and finding a strange approximation of the comfort I had been yearning for. During the summer Korean program, I isolated myself from my primary tool in the world, English. I understood in some limited capacity what it felt like to have my native language rebuffed and replaced with an inaccessible language. I was unable to express myself beyond short phrases, resorting often to laughter and tears. I was defanged, stripped of the language that made me powerful and thus threatening. In this controlled bubble, padded with privilege and a full-time support staff, I became childlike.
I wanted this more desperately than I had realized. For the first time in years, I felt soft, non-threatening, and small. I invited babying, instead of fear. My mother demonstrated patience with my linguistic ineptitude that I myself had never afforded to her. I came to look forward to our phone calls and would write them into my schedule in clumsy Korean. At college, it was rare for me to call even once a week, but over the summer, I called every other day and for hours at a time. We talked about anxieties; we gossiped; we cried. I felt, for the first time since middle school, able to confide in her.
She would often cry from happiness during these phone calls, overjoyed that I had chosen to take this step. My commitment to learning Korean represented not only reconnecting with Korea but also my access to an absurd amount of educational resources. This program, part of the renowned Middlebury Language Schools, cost $12,000, covered in full by scholarships and grants. The prestige and effectiveness of the program offered an opportunity to reset my relationship with my mother, to overwrite the years we spent cycling through fear of each other and of the world. Here was an opportunity to let my rapidly rising social prospects erase our anxiety about what we had lost.
My learning Korean means my mother can speak to me without fear of ineptitude, and I can perform the role of “child” in our relationship. I am no longer the sole gatekeeper of language and culture. She can wax poetic in Korean and feel heard; I can speak to her in a language that comforts instead of marginalizes her. Meanwhile, I’ve learned from her patience with my clumsy, bashful Korean and have been better about prioritizing her solicitations for help with English-language documents.
So I could say that this is a story about healing. That my decision to try and meet my mother where she is has bridged the final gap between us. I could say that learning Korean has simply reversed the power inequity between my mother and I, the power inequity reflected in my relative mastery of English and her lack of access to it.
It seems that I could forget the time my mother and I spent hurting each other. I feel that I should forget, now that I have the opportunity to construct a new narrative. This past summer has improved my relationship with my mother so much, it feels that we could just move on, just leave behind the years we feared each other and the sheer mass of our loss.
Yet it feels crude to propose a simple reversal of power as the result of my attending a very expensive summer camp. This should not be a story about Middlebury or the miracle of relearning a language, though it did feel like a miracle. This should be about why my mother and I were alienated from each other in the first place. Why I feel both trapped and liberated by English. Why our relationship was ultimately reformed by the translation of my high school grind, the one that made me seem so aggressive and callous, into actual tangible power and access to educational resources. But I should not have needed to learn Korean to feel safe around my mother. And I should not have needed so many resources to learn Korean.
It feels like my improved relationship with my surviving parent is a commodity that I bought on Princeton’s dime. I realize now that part of the reason our grief sunk so deep and turned venomous was because my mother and I were both shoved into survival mode, immediately after my father’s passing. She struggled to work and I struggled to keep going to school. We can finally bear to speak to each other because I am no longer a reminder of economic insecurity and I no longer see her as a threat. How much kinder we are when we feel safe. Taken care of. What a luxury stable relationships have become.
Today, I talked to my mother on the phone. She forgot the word for “breadwinner” and called me her breadwoman. I forgot the word for “question” and she answered me, with patience I am still learning, sounding out jil and mun so I could say “I need to ask you a question” in her native language. The question was about study abroad, whether or not she thought I should do it. At the end of the call, we made plans for me to come home and visit her at her new job.