Memoir: The Mystery of Language

Dolls with bottles on display with neon Korean letters, SunyuKim,
In Korea I would blend in physically until I’d have to speak, my accent instantly exposes me as a foreigner. When I try to communicate in Korean, I speak like a toddler, in broken half-phrases, “Me go to sleep,” kind of cave-speak, but at 3yrs old I could understand and speak fluently in both languages, I even spoke American English with an Asian accent.

But it’s been a lifelong point of shame for me, that I lost the ability to speak my original language. My inability to speak was especially mortifying to my status-conscious mother who always introduced me to her friends as, “This is my youngest daughter, my American girl, who can’t speak Korean at all.” The Korean mothers and grandmothers would then tsk and nod their heads in a disapproving way and continue to talk about me as if I wasn’t there. “Why can’t she speak? The young don’t have any respect. They think they don’t need traditions anymore…”. They didn’t realize that I could understand everything they said. It was like a secret power. Sometimes, depending on how rude their comments were, I would respond back to them in perfect English. Their faces would redden quickly with surprise, instant karma!

But the stigma bothered me. It was like a mask or a costume or a sign that I had to wear, labeling me as an outsider. I felt like a traitor among Koreans that could still speak the language, as if they were loyal but I wasn’t. It appeared as if I selfishly, purposefully chose to reject my heritage. Not speaking Korean became a part of my identity; a sign that I was an anomaly, an ugly duckling, a square peg without a home. No one else in my family had this problem.

The acquisition of language is so mysterious. How is it that babies and toddlers can understand, but not yet speak? Do we all learn speech through a form of telepathy? Korean language is still stored in my brain, but through disuse and trauma, I can no longer access the information. I can crudely translate words and phrases but the grammatical structure of Korean sentences confuses my English trained brain. It’s strange because I still sometimes dream in Korean. The knowledge is elusively intact but deeply buried.

Korean babies 1st Birthday celebration,
So how did I lose the ability to speak my native language? Trauma, always trauma, it’s a kind of lightning bolt that strikes more than twice. Maybe there’s a kind of over-confidence that comes from being a survivor, there’s an odd mixture of both guilt and pride. The guilt is from surviving, or being spared certain abuses; the pride is from the strength of not letting tragedy and abuse break you. Maybe I secretly think there’s a reward at the end of all the seemingly endless struggles, but maybe the miracle of existence is the ultimate reward.

Survivors have to learn to adapt and detach, or they’ll disease their mind with unending sorrow. We learn to selectively remember and forget. We also sometimes disassociate and doubt our own reality. Survivors often experience amnesia to cope with extreme grief. I lost my original language when I lost my grandma, my Halmoni, my Korean female shaman. She was my Merlin, my hard working, hard drinking, gambler widowed Grandma, who raised me from abandonment all on her own. She gave me a foundation of stability when I needed it the most. If I had been raised entirely by my volatile parents, I don’t think I would’ve survived with my sanity intact.

The first five years of life are crucial, it’s when the brain is hard wired with survival information. We learn how to: trust, eat, walk, speak and love during those years but when trauma is introduced it rewires the brain to exist at a survival mode. Primal rage is the term that therapists use to describe how babies and toddlers cope with abandonment, physical and sexual abuse, (which includes witnessing violence) and extreme neglect. Because they’re too young to understand what’s happening, their perception becomes infused with unexpressed grief and trauma. They often become overly sensitive and hyper vigilant; they future trip scenarios to anticipate danger.

Survivors have to choose life over self-destruction. It’s an ongoing battle to overcome self-hatred. Why would survivors hate themselves? Because they blame themselves for what happened. It’s hard to explain the lifetime struggle to forgive and love yourself (and your abusers) but it’s what drives my need to create art. Poetry and the writer’s life are my therapy, my raison d’etre, my justifiable reason for being alive. Why did I survive? To live to tell the story.

Korean traditional marionettes, HeoYoungae,
Grandma (Halmoni), became my world when my family migrated to the United States without me. She taught me the name of things, her nicotine voice purred language into me. She guided my first perceptions of life, showed me how to dance, sing and gather sticks and herbs. She buckled my red bright shining sandals and tucked me in at night. I watched her make earthy, savory feasts cooked over real wood cracking fire. We sat together on floor cushions to eat communal meals, colorfully arranged side dishes on tiny plates (banchan is served with rice at every meal, similar to Spanish Tapas or dim sum). Every Korean meal is a feast, the banchan represents a variety of tastes: sweet, spicy, salty, sour all displayed together like individual islands of flavor. The little tables were lacquered and inlaid with iridescent mother of pearl: peacocks, cranes, tigers and peonies and we sipped warm roasted barley tea while watching the snow pristinely falling, dressing tree branches with white crystal ice.

One day when I was 3 years old, she told me we were going to see my parents and my siblings in America. We packed our clothes, blankets and bought gifts for the voyage, it was my first plane ride. I remember my red plastic sandals the most, it’s interesting how the brain freezes on certain, seemingly random details. When we arrived, my family, especially my mother was over joyed. She’d been mourning my absence since I was a 12 month old baby. But I was suspicious of my new family. I wouldn’t let my sister explore our precious things. “Grandma! She’s touching Our blanket!” I was protective and guarded, Grandma and I were a Family; They were distant relatives to me.

“How do you say soo-cahl (spoon), in American?” Grandma would ask me and I’d proudly shout out, “Soo-Poon!” I urgently wanted to impress everyone with my bilingual skills. I felt sophisticated, translating foreign words that even my grandmother didn’t understand, knowledge made me feel precociously worldly. They recorded my voice translating American words and singing Korean folk song duets with Halmoni. My tiny voice hummed over the words I didn’t know. I had confidence then, Grandma gave me free reign in Korea. My life with my family in America was the opposite; like a prison sentence with sudden violence and the shame of molestation.

After six months my Grandmother returned to Korea, without me. That was my second dose of trauma. When my mother and my family first left me in Korea, my infant brain thought they had died. I howled, I was inconsolable, I wanted to die. But Grandma took their place, feed my stomach, my heart and my mind with her dependable love. Her universe was old school cool; original and hand made. She survived war poverty, losing her beloved, gentle husband and I think I inherited her strength, her resolution to live and not give in to hopelessness. Yes, she self-medicated with alcohol and cigarettes, yes she got verbally and physically abusive while drunk, (not to me but to her daughters), but I remember her laughter, her crinkled face and waving gray hair and that I felt safe with her the most.

I went into mourning again after she left me in America. I slept alone on the floor with our Korean blanket and cried for days, weeks, months… as I think of this even now I’m crying, because she was my sanctuary, my home, my sanity, after everyone left me. I didn’t realize our visit to America was a one way trip for me, and that she would return to our home in Korea alone. When she left, my voice went with her, the knowledge of the Korean that she taught me, stayed with her. It was the only part of me that I could separate from, that could return home with her like a ghost. She and Korea were my orphan’s shelter, my safe home.

Forget what hurts you. Forget the pain, let it all go, good with the bad. That’s what the brain does to protect itself. Don’t speak or write or confess what’s true because it breaks your heart again to remember… This is how I lost my original language, my mother tongue is gone, hiding in dream scapes in my mind, lost in Korea with my Halmoni in irreplaceable time.


    1. Thank you Alchemist, yes I lost them twice, it changed my ability to trust, made me think everyone I loved would eventually leave. But the grief created the artist in me so there’s a treasure chest there also. I appreciate your supportive comment.✨

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  1. So personal and poignantly written, especially the poetical ending. Such tramatic experiences at such an early age. It’s interesting what remains in our subconscious: you explore this subject with such raw honesty and straightforwardness. Thank you for posting.

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  2. “Poetry and the writer’s life are my therapy, my raison d’etre, my justifiable reason for being alive. Why did I survive? To live to tell the story.”
    I believe we, who love to write. Hard life or soft life. Writing is our release. Wonderful and worthwhile words and thoughts shared dear Judy.

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