My Mother’s Tongue


My favorite photo of my mother and me features a car accident. We are walking down a sidewalk, holding hands, wearing long cotton dresses. Ahead of us, a sedan has crashed through the window display of a clothing store. We look purposeful and resolute, my mother and I, as though we might motion for the driver to move out of the way. The photo was printed in the local paper of a southern town in the US, small enough for such occurrences to be newsworthy. I recall the interaction with a level of detail that almost casts doubt on the entire memory: Our quickened pace when we noticed the man crouching in the street with a camera, his bald pate leaping up to catch the sun’s gleam, asking us if we wouldn’t mind being in the newspaper, if we could walk towards the car again, slowly, “to give the photo life.” When the story ran, I snipped the photo out with blunted scissors and had the cutout laminated at Kinko’s.

It didn’t seem unusual for strangers to photograph my mother and me. One of my earliest memories was a man asking my mother if I wanted to be a child model; it was the only time my mother seemed angered by a photo request. While we walked through the woods or ate drippy cones of ice cream, people would surreptitiously snap photos on disposables meant to capture their own family outings. Art students would request permission in hesitant tones while clutching expensive cameras. Maybe we were eye-catching in small-town Georgia, my mother a gorgeous, bold-faced immigrant, her daughter with improbably light hair and dark eyes, features that danced between familiar and “exotic,” that word that has come to say far more about the speaker than the described object. I am sure the intrigue was heightened when I would lean against my mother and ask in our secret language if we could leave yet.

My first word was umma, mom in Korean. But I called my father Dad. He was an early pioneer of the English teaching craze, the handsome American teacher on a morning public access TV show. My mother and her family woke up early to watch the show and recite useful English phrases to each other. He said he wanted to be a cook. She said he should become an English professor instead. Together, they enrolled in graduate school in the United States, two bewildering new worlds converging on my mother at once. She poured her emotions into painting, and her language into me. We walked often through the woods, holding hands, pointing out butterflies, leaves, flowers. Nabi, Ip, Kott. After every word I said correctly, she would clap, momentarily as giddy as the child I was. I would delight in her delight. We sang Korean folk songs while pinching off honeysuckle blossoms to taste the minute sweetness. I glowed with her love, basked in the warm security of what I thought was a language between us. Perhaps this is why strangers asked for our photos, in an attempt to capture a secret world between two people.


During extended stays in Korea, my cousins and I often wandered the streets unsupervised. Once, we stumbled on a Dippin’ Dots ice cream machine on an otherwise unremarkable street in Seoul. Buzzing with anticipation, we carefully thumbed the requisite number of coins into the machine, yet it remained inert. After fumbling with the buttons in vain, my cousin disappeared into the adjacent store entrance. An old woman soon emerged, scowling and grumbling at my cousin behind her, but her expression quickly rearranged into one of intense curiosity when her eyes fell on me. “Juhgiyo… iguh weh andaeyo?” I asked her why the machine wasn’t working and her wrinkles re-constellated as she smiled, remarking on how wonderfully I spoke the language. “My mom is Korean,” I offered. She nodded and said, “You’re so pretty, your father must be American!”

As a child, speaking Korean in its land of origin had the same effect as an incantation, causing strangers to exclaim at my native accent and search my face for signs of my being one of them. When I spoke Korean, I unearthed a hidden thread that bound us together. Until the early 1990s, South Korea was one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world. It was only in 2007 that the foreign population in the entire country exceeded a million in a country of forty-nine million. Growing up, I was accustomed to the quizzical looks and double-takes as my speech sparked a recognition contradicted by my appearance, revealing a sameness that hadn’t been seen before. Your barim is wonderful, I was told over and over. Barim—the word resonates like a homonym, meaning pronunciation but also breath, wind. In speaking well, I commanded the air, shaped the elementary force into a magical token that proved I belonged.

I visited extended family in Korea every summer, sometimes traveling with my parents, often alone. Humid days stretch long in my memory, listening to cicadas scream, growing fat on the many culinary expressions of love prepared for me by my aunts and my grandmother. My cousins and I were all close in age and we joked and argued in a constant, effortless babble. Back then, I translated often for my cousins, most of whom have now—as a symptom of what critics have called Korea’s “English-worshipping”—surpassed my Korean ability with their English. I was the youngest one, the sore thumb. I remember asking my cousin if there was an opposite of double eyelid surgery—could I have mono-lids? She responded by poking me in the ribs. “First you have to get rid of all that American fat,” she laughed. The phrase “almond-shaped eyes” describes nearly every Asian woman in English literature. I looked for them frequently in the mirror. Where was the Korean in me?


I had thought Korean was an ocean inside of me, its tide ebbing and flowing in conjunction with my proximity to other Koreans. Instead, it drained out of me over time, as if dripping from a sieve. My parents divorced, exacerbating the financial issues that had sparked the rupture. Costly flights to Korea ended in an abrupt collision with puberty. My cousins came to me instead, encouraged by their parents to immerse themselves in English. I threw myself into now-unhyphenated American adolescence, lapping up Plath and Sexton, dead white women who gave voice to the sense of loss that I could not contain nor name. Our home shrunk down to my father, who had stopped practicing his own Korean, and me. Occasionally, I watched Korean movies, assuming the words I couldn’t understand were simply obscure. As time went on, I began to rely on other cues, a dramatic shift in music or a change in facial expression, to deduce what was happening. My mother had moved away, taking her tongue with her. Not far but far enough.


Han, jung, chonsu: a few of the untranslatable words that shape Korean identity, an intensely proud culture constructed in hermetic resistance to neighboring empires. The language lies at the heart of national identity, as Korean itself is a true language isolate, some say the most isolated of all earthly languages. Far from its neighboring Japanese and Chinese in syntax and sentence structure, no one is sure where Korean originated. King Sejong is revered for bringing literacy to the peasant masses five centuries ago, enlisting scholars to develop a simple alphabet to replace the elite Chinese-based system. Korean is a deeply philosophical language, reflecting the culture’s introspection, its preoccupation with elemental forces, its shamanic undertones.

During the Japanese occupation, military generals banned the language in an effort to break the people’s spirit. Korean was spoken in hushed tones; native names were held close to the chest as Japanese replacements were reluctantly assumed. Waves of vicious colonization have perhaps bonded the language even more tightly to identity, to the doubled tragedy of Korean adoptees returning to the home they have been robbed of. Following the Korean war, over two hundred thousand Korean children were adopted over the past six decades, most of them by American families. Tens of thousands have returned to their country of birth, seeking relatives, seeking home. Ethnographic studies reveal that, for many Korean adoptees, the greatest barrier to acculturation is linguistic. For native Koreans, the language is so intertwined with cultural belonging that some dismiss returning adoptees as not really being Korean at all.

I love Korean like a distant, intimidating relative. I love the unconditional inclusivity in the Korean use of oori, “we,” when speaking of our mothers, our president, our country—so rarely do you alone possess anything, as in the indiscriminate English use of the possessive. I love the bluntness of the cadence, the occasional guttural sounds that seem to bob up and down the trachea. The aiya of pain somehow always sounded more genuine than the demure ow. The written language, this page, does not always make room for the spontaneous eruptions of language, an ocean unexpectedly brimming at my throat. I stroke a cat and something inside of me sighs, “budurupta.” I watch as polite disinterest mounts at a dinner table that has been taken hostage by a particularly loquacious attendee and I think, “I saram nunchi hana do upda!” Another phrase that cannot be translated, only re-interpreted, which reminds me of the saying that each language is a way of reaching for the sky, and so I think of myself as having not an extra pair of hands but maybe one more outstretched palm. It was this secret knowledge, that I had an extra hand reaching for the sky, more than anything, (certainly more than my face) that sustained my sense of being Korean.


I didn’t return to Korea until my freshman year in college. Hardly a month into my first semester, my mother called to say my grandfather was dying. A ticket was purchased, a suitcase packed, and I wrote out a list of vocabulary words during the overnight flight. Upon arrival, I rushed to a food stall and ordered bibimbap with no meat from a harried-looking ajumma. A steaming bowl was quickly placed in front of me, a neat little mound of ground beef completing the color wheel of vegetables and egg over rice. I reminded the woman of my request, and she chided me as if I were her child, asking if I really want to waste a whole bowl because of this tiny amount of meat, which anyway was the most expensive part of the dish. I couldn’t think of a good reply, which was just as well since I wouldn’t have known how to say it politely in Korean. I ate around the meat, and while chewing, I mulled over past conversations with strangers that rarely went so poorly. I felt both wistful and ridiculous for missing strangers’ shock and delight over my excellent grasp of the language, my barim.


As I rushed to join family members in mourning, I learned that Korean hospitals devote a large wing to this communal act. My entire family was there, the women robed in black hanbok, the men in Western-style suits. The room was raucous with moaning and crying, as though the walls themselves were grieving with heaving shoulders. My aunt rose to greet me and I opened my mouth but my heart leapt up to stop my tongue—what do I say to a mourning elder? Racking my brain, I suddenly thought of how you never apologize to express regret or sorrow, unless you are admitting guilt, indicating that you caused the misfortune. After a beat, I told my aunt that I had missed her. I bowed deeply and she gathered me into a hug, an American hug. She said in careful, deliberate English, “I miss you very much.”

I was led to a table crowded with bowls of rice, sweetened rice cakes, assorted vegetables cooked in soy sauce. Light, digestible foods. Mourning food. I nibbled and thought about my grandfather, my haraboji, a man of starved cheekbones and glittering pupils. Each time we visited the tiny home in the tiny village nestled between enormous mountains, haraboji would slaughter a chicken for my halmoni to prepare into a fragrant, spicy stew. I had to step over the fresh pool of blood to enter the house, and as I did so I felt both honored and woozy. But we did not have the fond, picturesque relationship that I would have liked, as I pictured dimly in my head as an alternative to the final death rites—even while Korean was safely tucked inside of me, I could barely understand a word through his thick country accent and his smoker’s rasp. It was only through my mother’s stories that I came to know the broadest contours of his life, how he was hardened by the same forces and circumstances that have shaped Korea’s difficult history. We slept there in the hospital for the next three nights, every day bringing a fresh influx of strangers paying their respects. When they arrived, they bowed to each of the bereaved, including me, but it was not only because of their lingering glance that I felt acutely out of place. Where Korean may have once saved me, tethered me, reminded me that there was something of me that connected me to these people, the scattered bits of language I had now were not enough. I didn’t know how to mourn in this country.


In the 1960s, a sociologist interviewed Japanese women living in San Francisco in two languages, finding that they responded to the same questions with dramatically divergent answers in Japanese and English. Asked to complete the sentence, “When my wishes conflict with my family,” they answered, “It is a time of great unhappiness” in Japanese, but in English, “I do what I want.” The researcher concluded that we are different people in different languages. “I do what I want.” I often uttered similarly solipsistic phrases as an adolescent American, but could never say it in Korean. In that language, that culture, it’s less an indication of confident self-possession, and more a flagrantly disrespectful way of announcing to the world (or to the people around you, who are your world in Korean terms) that you are selfish, which is the ultimate betrayal in a country struggling over its Confucian traditions and viral Western individualism. I know this linguistic taboo deeply, almost physically. When speaking Korean, I obey it, in the same way that I bow and tuck my chin when facing elders.


Later, two of my cousins and I walked around Seoul, gazing at the constant crowd that filled the city as blood fills arteries. Americans teaching English and study abroad students ambled and shrieked while dominating the narrow sidewalks, sometimes dissolving into peals of laughter that pricked my skin. On the streets of Itaewon, Turkish men called out to passersby in an especially silky version of Korean while performing complicated shows of scooping gum-textured ice cream. Occasionally, I saw pairs of Somali and Malay women, long scarves trailing after them, a world apart from the space they inhabited in my media-fed imagination. Seoul now teemed with diversity, reflected not only in the people but also in the language.

My cousin pointed out a large group of Japanese tourists and I tried to say there were so many more people here from all around Asia than in the past, but I struggled for the word. I instead asked my cousin in Korean, what is the word for all of us? Not just Korean, but also Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese. Oh, he said A-si-ah saram. Asian person, with the English word for Asia. North Korean refugees are stumped by these loan words—ice cream where they called it urim gwaja, or ice snack, handbag where they called it sohn-kabang. The rapid clip of linguistic evolution is not sympathetic to the glitches of history, the fracturing of a collective. North Korean refugees too are often denied kinship as South Koreans deride the northern dialects as backward or uncivilized.

Later, I ducked into the subway and emerged in my aunt’s neighborhood. Long-forgotten memories sprang up as I passed the same little shops and a mall, surrounded by the same towering apartment complexes. The neighborhood was far from the compressed tumult of the city, and the cicadas were still screaming. I passed a playground where I once roamed. It looked tiny and cramped, a swing set and a slide huddled close on a square of rubber tarmac. Two children squirmed on a park bench, waiting for their turn on the swings. One girl skidded to a stop and offered up her swing. And when she turned I saw her familiar face, a bronzed face, a face of multiple origins. She called out to someone, “Oppah, iriwah,” tossing the language out in the air like a bright beach ball. I hope she feels at home.


Rumpus original art by Maryam Afaq Ansari.

Zavi Engles is a writer, poet, and activist living in Chicago. Her work has previously been published in Salon, Chicago Reader, and aaduna. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter at @zavizavizavi. More from this author →