April 5, 2019 | Narrative
trying to articulate my korean-ness
Before preschool, I didn’t know any English. I could only parrot the things adults said to me. Bye-bye, sweetheart. See you later. I could say yes and no without knowing what I was agreeing or disagreeing with. All I understood and spoke was Korean.
Then I started preschool—a Korean-only toddler thrown into an English-only environment. My mother told me that the first few times I went, I would come home and lay still and quiet on the floor, worn out from the overwhelming experience.
Once, my mother asked me what language I dreamed in, Korean or English.
I dream in English. I have no memory of ever dreaming in Korean, although when I was a child and didn’t know any English at all, I must have. Every dream that blossomed in the night must have been in Korean.
But not so long ago, I did have a dream involving Korean. I was taking an exam, and the text—just a simple children’s story—was in Korean. I stared at the passage, stumbling through the words, seeing shapes instead of letters. I swallowed hard, my heart rate soaring. My eyes jumped from one word to the next and the minutes evaporated into nothing and isn’t this just an easy story?
Come on, please, you can do this, oh God oh God oh God.
English is the language I speak and read and write—effortlessly, easily. I never have to think before words well up in my mind and spill forth from my lips. I never have to force myself to concentrate so that the marks on signposts and pages transform into words.
But there’s one thing I cannot ever express, even in English. The one language I’m fluent in fails me utterly when I try to talk of being Korean, of being Korean American. It seems unfair, how little I can say, how much the words fail me, how none of them seem right at all—and this is the only language I have at my disposal. How much, then, will I never be able to articulate, even to myself?
Many nights, I stand in the stairwell in flip-flops and socks, talking to my mother. I find myself using less and less Korean as the weeks go by. I start sentences and trail off, realizing that something in the structure sounds wrong. I break off in the middle of words, tripping over pronunciations. I patch the many holes in my Korean with English—or is it that I’m just inserting some Korean words and phrases into English sentences? I can’t manage to get through a whole conversation in Korean without relying on English to fill in the blanks, and some conversations—the ones where I talk about serious things, important things—have me saying everything, every word, in English.
My mother reassures me every time I vent my frustrations. She tells me this is only natural, this imperfect, fading Korean, for someone who’s grown up in America—particularly in a part of America where there are hardly any Asians at all. She tells me what I speak is enough because, after all, I can still communicate with my grandparents. But I can’t help looking at the other Korean Americans I see every day, all around me at Brown, so many of them fluent and bilingual, and wondering with a bitter ache what that must be like. To be able to say everything they want to say. To have this definitive marker, this confirmation, of Korean-ness. Me, what do I have? I did not grow up with Korean church or Korean grocery stores or Korean communities or Korean traditional holidays. (Maybe this is why, after all this time, after all the confused thoughts, I still have no way to write or speak of a Korean-ness, a Korean American-ness.)
All I have, it seems, is the language, and I have so precious little of it.
Sometimes I wonder what kind of inheritance I’ll pass along to generations after me. What kind of broken Korean will my children speak? Will they speak it at all? Will I simply give up trying to talk to them in a language I myself don’t fully grasp? I imagine gathering up the bits and pieces of Korean I have and holding them in my hands, the words cracked and sharp-edged rocks—or maybe just eroding sediment and bleeding colors. A sorry kind of gift, a meager inheritance. But even worse, what if one day, all I have left are the scars from holding on too tightly or just the fading stains of crumbled earth?
Once, I asked my mother what Koreans could be proud of, aching to know what I could hold on to and value amidst my growing awareness of all the ugly parts of the society: the narrow beauty standard, the sexism and racism, the intense academic competition, the grueling work culture. My mother said to me, Hangul, and I turned away, tears suddenly springing from my eyes. Hangul, the alphabet developed by a king, that which Koreans could be proud of, the thing which eluded me. I could barely, barely, read Hangul, and writing it was nearly impossible.
If I can learn to speak and read and write Korean fluently, I tell myself, then the tension, the frustration, will sigh and melt away. Surely there is a Korean-ness somewhere inside of me, waiting to be awoken by the right words, the magic words.
But nothing is as easy as that. Maybe there will always be something I cannot fully articulate, in either language, in any language, and maybe I will have to rest in the restlessness and find certainty in my uncertainty.
Maybe that’s all I can ask for.