Speaking two tongues
I take my bilingualism for granted. It’s probably because I can’t remember when I was monolingual. My mother tells me that when I was very young, before I learned English, she read me English books. I was not on board: I sobbed while ripping up the pages, angry with my mother’s plans for bilingualism.
When my family moved to Los Angeles, I was five and my sister was three. I don’t remember much about our arrival, but I’m told that I stayed silent for an entire year. My kindergarten teacher took my mom aside to ask her to tell me to just follow along when there was singing or dancing. Even though I understood perfectly well, I just refused to dance. A year later, when I finally opened my mouth in public I was fluent. Soon, my mom says she would be driving along with two or three of my friends in the back seat, and if one of them said, “I goed to the beach yesterday,” I would say under my breath, “I went.”
My outgoing, gregarious sister, on the other hand, just launched straight into speaking mangled English, interspersing it with Korean words. She probably learned faster as a result. A favorite family story has it that she marched up to a blond-haired, blue-eyed toddler and announced, “Look at my mokgeori (necklace)!” to which the little boy replied, “Ooh, I like your mokgeori!”
To ensure that I wouldn’t forget my first language, my mother forced me to write a daily diary in Korean. It was hell. I had to write five lines, and although I don’t remember what I wrote, I’m pretty sure it was the same thing every day. I do remember trying to make my letters as large and wide as possible so that I could fill up those five lines quickly ― I’m not sure if my mother picked up on that. And I had to write letters to both sets of grandparents. While that must have been equally horrible, I must have blocked those episodes from my memory. My sister didn’t have such onerous requirements, which I thought was unbearably unfair. My mother claims it was due to her illiteracy, but I knew better.
Although a family rule was that we had to speak in Korean, we quickly lapsed into English since we knew our parents understood us. We sometimes socialized with Korean children, but we spoke to them in English, too.
After we returned to Korea, my sister and I would do literal translations of English phrases into Korean, making it sound ridiculous. My sister would offer everyone a bite of her food, saying in Korean, “Do you want to chew?” which made no sense. I uttered equally odd phrases, prompting people to question if I was from Gangwon Province or Ulleung Island.
At home, we’ve invented a third linguistic alternative. Every family has their own shorthand. Mine, however, is particularly strange. We converse in a pastiche of Korean and English with unequal helpings of Japanese, Chinese, Italian, French, and German words thrown in for good measure. Our dialect is so strange (or so I’ve been told) that even people who are fluent in both Korean and English have a hard time understanding us. Sometimes we’ll be speaking in English but use a Korean slang for the verb (e.g. “so chokpalryo-ing!” for “so embarrassing”). Sometimes we make up words. My mom described my daughter’s happiness one day, saying, “She’s so hoala.” After adopting it and using it for days, I asked what language hoala was from. My mom said, “Chinese, of course!” A few weeks later, I texted my sister (the only person in our family who actually knows Chinese): “Your niece is so hoala today,” and received a confused reply: “What’s hoala?”
At times I don’t even realize which language I’m speaking in. I often say things in Korean to my husband, who stares at me blankly. I have also been known to translate into English what my parents are saying so my husband can understand what’s going on. Only, I’ll do this even when my parents are speaking in English.
I have a feeling that my multilingual legacy to my daughter will be our hodgepodge language, but hopefully she’ll figure it out in the end. Even though she hasn’t said anything yet, she already understands the Korean for “Do you want to go to sleep?” to which she shakes her head and hands feverishly to express her extreme displeasure, and “Should we go out?” to which she fetches her shoes and socks, in addition to a couple of English phrases. And if she doesn’t know how to say she’s happy in either Korean or English, at least she’ll know how to say it in “Chinese.”
Chi-Young Kim is a literary translator based in Los Angeles. She has translated works by Shin Kyung-sook, Kim Young-ha, and Jo Kyung-ran. Contact her at email@example.com or via her website, chiyoungkim.com.