We share a weakening grasp on a native language, and this is something that ties us together.
Like many of my generation, I’m a counter-migrant. My mother left Korea and landed in the U.S. as a nineteen-year-old, sure that she’d found her forever home. I left the U.S. for Romania as a twenty-year-old Europhile, wanting to see something different.
Twelve years later my mom is still in L.A., home to the largest population of Koreans outside of Korea, and still waiting for me to return home. She’s confused about my decision to leave the U.S., the apex of so many of her own immigrant dreams. She seems to feel my choice somehow repudiates the one she made so long ago.
In bitter moments, she accuses me of wanting to get as far from her as possible. In lighthearted ones, she makes fun of the country I now live in. The English weather, she groans; the food; the grayness. What’s the appeal, she wonders.
My mother chose to raise me in her adoptive language rather than her native one. My grandmother lived with us in the difficult first years of my life, when my birth triggered in my mother one of the bouts of mental illness that have plagued my family for generations. My grandma and I spoke Korean to each other, and learned English separately—she from the school where she was learning citizenship lessons alongside English vocabulary; me from the rest of the world, including my mom. When my grandmother moved out, my Korean left with her.
That my mother raised me in her non-native language isn’t unheard of for a first-generation immigrant. She came to the U.S. with little knowledge of English apart from Elvis lyrics, and essentially learned the language through a combination of college and non-Korean boyfriends. It was a fraught and often painful process for her. North Carolina wasn’t the most racially sensitive of places in the 1960s, and she wanted to assimilate linguistically and make sure that her children did, too.
In my case, as a snotty teenager rather than a culturally isolated one, I didn’t feel that Korean would be a useful language for me to know. In terms of emotional literacy (or lack of it), I wasn’t interested in being connected by language to my heritage or my wider family. I was interested in pragmatism. And as a snotty teen indoctrinated in American individualism, Korean annoyed me. I didn’t appreciate the language’s seemingly endless ways to express deference; or the granular attention to family relations that mandated (for instance) four different words for “uncle” (maternal, paternal, maternal aunt’s husband, paternal aunt’s husband); or the way Korean adults referred to themselves not by name, but as “[child’s] mother” or “[child]’s father.”
Spanish was more widely spoken, and thus more likely to be useful to me in future work and travel, so that’s the language I chose to learn in school. It helped that we lived in a largely Korean and Hispanic neighborhood, where cultural influences intermingled well before the advent of the Korean taco truck. My mother picked up basic Spanish in the course of her work as a nurse. She and I could speak Spanish with her boyfriend, but he and I couldn’t speak Korean with her family.
Eventually I lost my ability to speak in Korean with my grandmother without another family member present to help. Toward the end of her life we watched musicals and silent movies together, not really conversing, as we both felt hesitant about our secondary languages.
A decade later, my mother and I went to visit my grandmother’s grave with my aunt-in-law. I sat in the backseat as we drove around the garish, almost theme park-like complex where my grandma is buried. My mother translated for me intermittently, but anyone who’s been outnumbered in a social setting by native speakers of another language knows how awkward it is to keep asking what’s being said; eventually other people’s speech becomes a kind of soundtrack to your own thoughts and interpretations, which you keep to yourself. My aunt-in-law was shocked that I couldn’t speak Korean. She kept asking how it was possible.
The difficulty of communicating with family is the greatest language-based loss for me, but there are plenty of prosaic ones as well. There’s the Korean shopkeeper who looks put out at having to speak English with me. There’s the hairdresser who heaves a sigh when I ask if she has any English magazines. There are the countless other times, over the years, when I’ve disappointed a Korean by failing to be Korean in this most crucial of ways.
And it’s not just family and various Korean immigrants who are disappointed by my insufficient Koreanness. Non-Koreans often seem to feel I’ve failed to live up to both halves of an identity-based hyphen. A Chinese and Vietnamese friend from college would sneer at Asian American girls stumbling over languages while ordering for their white boyfriends in restaurants. He saw this as linguistic theater, a display of exoticism without substance. To him, as someone who couldn’t speak Korean at all, I was even worse. (It might be more accurate to call this person a quasi-friend.)
But what’s particularly dizzying to me now—and a hallmark of cultural globalization—is when non-Korean friends’ Korean is better than my own, thanks to their chosen pop culture diets of K-pop and Korean dramas. My Somali-Swedish-British friend has a Korean vocabulary larger than I’ve had in decades, and his cousin knows about trends in Korean street food to which I’m oblivious (cheese + kimchi sounds like a nauseating combination to me).
My deficiencies in Korean are second nature to me, so much so that it wasn’t until recently it gave me any real pause. Now my mother—after a long period of stability, whether real or apparent—has again been in the grip of mental illness. With me taking on more and more responsibility for her, it’s crucial for messages to be relayed accurately. Sometimes this happens in person, as I spend more time these days back in L.A. Often it’s remote, thanks to Skype’s unlimited calling plan and the Korean messaging app Kakao, a garishly cartoony version of WhatsApp.
It is often a struggle. Her dentist has to repeat to me, in English, what he’s already told my mother in Korean. Her doctor and I have a hard time understanding each other and become increasingly frustrated. Her accountant tells me I need to practice my Korean, his tone half-joking, half-chastising. There are phone conversations I’m supposed to be listening in on where the only words I catch are “x-ray” and “co-pay.” If, half a lifetime ago, I decided that working on my Korean wasn’t a practical decision, I now find myself reconsidering this decision.
Communication with my mother has taken still more unexpected turns. Among the peculiarities of this latest bout of illness is not just her penchant for saying odd things, but saying them in an unexpected language. She now tosses Spanish into her sentences in ways that amuse some people and disconcert others. She calls family members muchacho and muchacha, and seems emboldened to utter emotion-laden words (e.g., professions of love) in this third language instead of either of her primary ones.
Her Korean is weakening now, though she still uses it regularly with family members, service professionals, and old friends. She forgets Korean words more and more often; the Korean:English ratio of her sentences continues to shift as time goes by. I’ve been speaking with her in an idiosyncratic mixture of English and Spanish, with Korean generally used only when referencing foods.
I think we both feel intermittent pangs of guilt due to a weakening grasp on a native language, and—in disparate ways—this experience is something that ties us together. “No puedo recordar,” she now says of certain words or terms, or basic tasks she once knew how to do. I cannot remember. Well, neither can I.
Christine Ro spends her days writing website bios and her nights doing unspeakable things.