Korean was my first language, my mother tongue. Then we immigrated to the States, and the world suddenly changed: the food, the sounds, the smells–and the words I heard all around me.
I was four-years-old. So I was still unselfconsciously osmotic, able to soak things up the way kids can. Now, as a writer, I can hardly imagine not speaking English. I revel in its wealth of words, throwing them out gleefully like fistfuls of hundred dollar bills. I love its idiosyncrasies of spelling and grammar, its constant, open acceptance and assimilation of other cultures’ words, the way it can go starkly, polysyllabically, pompously Latinate, then earthily Germanic and then so inimitably flip.
Like a little black dress, it’s both elegant and practical and will never go out of style. I even prefer its meat and potatoes sturdiness, its direct, technical staccato, to the softer, lilting melodies of the Romance languages.
So I grew up speaking English and, as if I’d married my soul mate, fall more deeply in love with it as time goes on. Yet all the while my parents continued to speak to me in Korean. In fact, they still do. And I respond to them in English. This dynamic has been so natural to me that I wasn’t even aware of it–until my other half, who isn’t Korean, commented with fascination on its peculiarity.
I profess an inability to speak Korean. It’s my canned response to Koreans, to some of my parents’ friends who don’t speak English fluently, and to whom, out of Confucian respect, I feel obliged to adapt. Though in all honesty, my connection to Korean feels more like an atrophied muscle or a clogged pipeline that needs, respectively, the discipline of regular training and a mellow glass of Cabernet to unclog.
Speaking Korean is like a close friend I haven’t seen in years. The kind of friend with whom I can within minutes of reuniting feel that same, old, undiminished camaraderie. As if no time at all had passed. With a few words, more than twenty years are wiped away, and I am again the four-year-old girl yet to leave her homeland. It is the language of my mirage-like, distant toddlerhood–and the language of absolute authority, the way parents can seem to a child of four.
Hearing Korean will always possess for me the quality of a parent stentoriously calling a child upstairs by her full name in that particular tone that says “you’re in trouble.” And my response to it is visceral, instinctive, like a dog responding to a whistle only it can hear. Korean carries power and resonance–and as its recipient, I am relegated to a position of an eternal child, on the brink of leaving my first home.
Recently, however, my mother asked me for help with a speech she was to give in English. A big speech in front of important people. It was a critical moment. A potential turning of the tables. A changing of the guards. An opportunity to wield the expertise I had worked for so many years to attain. When she called me the next morning to tell me what a success the speech had been, she thanked me profusely–and with great approbation. And I understood what it meant to be an author: a writer with authority.