Speaking in Tongues

by Hannah Kim

I am an extremely fortunate first generation American on one side and second generation on the other. Both my parents speak English. My mother was born in Hartford, Connecticut and raised in La Jolla, California. She was an English Literature major at Barnard College. My father immigrated to the United States from Seoul, South Korea when he was 12. Even though my family still chuckles at his grammar from time to time, he learned English in high school through TV shows and rap music. We live in San Francisco, where, for us, English is the most foundational instrument for conversation and connection.

I didn’t really know my grandparents on my father’s side too well. My relationship with them was more like a pen-pal relationship, until they both developed health complications and passed away within the same year. My maternal grandparents actually met in English class in Korea, as they both held aspirations to work in the United States. I am still in awe that my grandpa has no Korean accent when he speaks English.

I feel very grateful that it has been so easy to interact to my Korean relatives, but almost too coddled. I haven’t had to stretch myself in a new country and learn a whole new alphabet, vocabulary, and slang under pressure. I felt almost like a fake Korean, which is a common feeling for many Asian-American people. I adore Korean food, sing Korean songs with my grandpa, and know miscellaneous  words, but I don’t know how to form a sentence in Korean.

I did not feel a full sense of belonging until this past weekend, when I met Dongbum’s kids for the first time. Dongbum is my dad’s baby brother, who passed away on Christmas day about 20 years ago from lung cancer. When he passed, his children, Kristin and Ryan, were 5 and 3, respectively. Kristin had written on a piece of construction of paper, “I will never get married. They will just leave you and die.” Ryan is the spitting image of his father. Kristin is the spitting image of her mother. Our mothers met on a Korean exchange program. That exchange program is how Ryan and Kristin’s mother was able to introduce my parents.

My dad has a second brother, Yongbum. He is caring, hilarious, and kind of anxious. He wants to care for everyone and wants everyone to be comfort, at the expense of his own sanity sometimes. He is married to Hyeonju, a beautiful woman who used to be a pianist. She is extremely religious, sleeps all day, and always tells me I should model. I tell her that I am way too short to model.

I met Hyeonju’s ama at their house when we came for food. She didn’t speak English, but she was so smiley and dynamic as an elderly woman. By picking up on random words, I was able to understand her and respond.

“동료 + 멋진 +어머니” = “Brother” “Handsome” “Mother” → My brother became so handsome and looks like my mother

아가” + 아름다운” = “Baby” “Beautiful → I saw you last when you were just a baby. You have become so beautiful

“행복한 + 가족 + 음식 +맛있는” = “Happy” “Family” “Food” “Delicious”→ I am so happy our family is all together now. The food looks so delicious!

Only then, did I feel a sense of comfort with the Korean language. What was once  accumulated shame about not knowing anything about the language my relatives spoke natively became unexpected comfort. I picked up so many words without any sort of maintenance rehearsal or studying. Don’t get me wrong: I have a lot to learn, and hope to take Korean classes in college or after college, but I’m not starting from zero. I’m starting from a vocabulary stemming from my grandparents, Korean restaurants, relatives who saw me as a baby, songs I used to sing with my grandfather, names my mom would call my dad, words that grandma felt important that I should remember. And I think that’s a little more than nothing.

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