I Make My Own Language
It’s 2008, the world’s finances are up in flames, and I’m a workplace meme. I’m a cat who knows twenty words, chiefly my name and the names of delicious foods. Once, during a meeting between my boss and my school principal, I perked up. They were talking about me! Seeing my renewed attention to this strand of conversation, my boss explained to me that the Korean word for horse sounds like ‘Maria’—they weren’t actually talking about me.
Why were they talking about horses?
Reader, I struggled to thrive. I lived in Korean; I suffered in Korean and, sometimes, I just wanted to run outside my apartment and scream profanities in Korean because there was no other way to get across that I was living & suffering & assorted verbs.
It took me more than five years to buy an approachable Korean textbook—more than three years to open said book, work through its twenty-five lessons, and realize that I had somehow absorbed its grammatical knowledge into my meager cat Korean, that it was inside me however imperfectly, a native hibiscus flowering in the dark.
Lesson 14: What do you want to do?
Lately, I have begun to see myself as a Korean woman.
From the confusion of my classmates in elementary school to a colleague’s offhanded remark that he’d “date any Korean woman” he could get, my journey of self-recognition has taken many detours. Growing up as an adoptee, I thought of myself—even before the quote in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle—as an Italian American person who happened to look different, a Twinkie with a yellow exterior, white interior. I couldn’t picture myself as a Korean person because I believe it would be inauthentic; I became contemptuous of Korean culture because I believed, like a zealot, that it had no relevance to me. Making a show of being uninterested in Korea became a way to prove my loyalty to the USA and my family. Even in my inner heart I felt no doubts. I also opined, fueled by 90’s era white groupthink and my own naivete, that we had ‘solved racism’ and America was a colorless melting pot nation of immigrants. Thus, I didn’t need an ethnic identity because everyone would accept me on account of my background.
What I didn’t understand is that everyone would see the outside—that, like a Twinkie, an Asian woman is a cheap and easily consumed product of flawed American thinking.
In high school, I worked at a supermarket half a mile from my childhood home. It hurt me to hear two women talk about me in the third person while I rang up their groceries. “I love hearing foreign people speak English,” one said as the other nodded sagely upon hearing this great wisdom. “Listen to the way the words roll off her tongue.” I’ve never forgotten it because my friends and I took pride in our accent, our New England heritage, and our country. We didn’t want to emulate some of the more ridiculous tendencies of our parents’ generation, like saying ‘paper’ straight up as ‘pay-puh’ or putting too many ‘idears’ in our speech. To us, these quirks were embarrassing, so we cultivated a snappy newness to our Boston/New England hybrid accents, eliding our ‘the’ into the next word if it began with a vowel and jettisoning some of the nasality of our forebears.
I began from a space in which divorcing the notion of the mother—this ambiguous Korean woman who had chosen to divest from me the way we had separated ourselves from the word “idear”—from motherland had become impossible. Like most white people, I gleaned this selfhood from imperfect sources such as white opinions on Michelle Kwan, Lucy Liu Hollywood films, and Chinese American food. As I got older, my resources broadened; I began to feel more like myself. It pleased me to use metal chopsticks, get my hair cut by people who understood Asian hair, and watch caricatures of myself and my adopted friends in Bleach that I had never seen in Western media. Even so, at the time, I thought that I, like a lot of second-generation immigrants and hyphenated Americans, was a diluted Korean—that a pure fountain of Koreanness welled up from Seoul of which I possessed a mere spark and ‘real’ Korean people a fire. When I read the Republic in college and learned the phrase “a copy of a copy,” I saw myself in that criticism. Out of the desire to experience the source, I returned to Korea.
In 2008, calling myself Korean was a method of self-abasement. “Since you are Korean, why don’t you ______?” was my most common microaggression as ‘real’ Korean people invited themselves to the bonfire of critiquing my existence. For people who live adjacent to their identity, the struggle to place oneself can be likened to similar awakenings about gender, sexual preference, spirituality or even relationships—a tightrope walk in the dark with doubt making you question the presence of a net.
Externally, it makes sense that everyone saw something I could not; internally, no one could see the inferno that I hid behind meek deference, thanking them for their input. I stacked logs beside the wood stove in my childhood home to burn later; I cut marks in my skin and cried in the restaurant bathroom at sixteen when, out for dinner alone with my dad, the waiter mistook me for his wife.
Lesson 20: Native Korean Numbers
Hana is a single flower.
Dul is the battleground laid against you when you fight against yourself.
Set is a field of flowers people hold in their heart like expectations.
Net is the weave of stars that displace you from a continent.
Lesson 19: When
I had a habit of asking “jigeum” (now) after any social proposal. I knew the present tense and the past tense. I could scan Korean words as they scrolled by to announce news or advertise the next subway train, but I couldn’t tell their meaning. At school, I was friends with the teachers who were brave enough to speak English. The others perhaps wanted to be friends but just couldn’t find the words. They spoke slowly to me, with sympathy.
“Maria, do you want to go out to eat?”
“Maria, do you want to go to a meeting?”
I used to be against transnational adoption, arguing from the hell of hatred stoked inside me that it ‘ruined’ children, that it revoked blood in favor of nature, that my mother should have gotten an abortion instead.
지금, I am not against it.
Lesson 12: It’s delicious, It tastes awful, Thank you for the food
When I move, I map the distance to Korean markets and restaurants. As for cooking, I haven’t got the knack for labor-intensive traditional dishes, but I can manage the basics. When we have more money and space, I plan to learn how to ferment kimchi and bestow upon myself the superpower of living anywhere I like (since I can already make pasta arrabbiata and all types of parmigiana).
Like any fourth-generation immigrant, I long for my grandmother’s cooking. Living in Korea after college forced me to learn to cook for myself, but I inherited some of her secrets—how long to boil the pasta down to the minute, seeing it’s cooked al dente by how it hangs, never using a measuring cup but just knowing “enough,” which I hear in her gravelly voice to the background of my mother’s frustrated, “But, Gus, can you give me an estimate?” Now japchae hangs from my pasta fork as often as spaghetti and I add ‘enough’ to every pot of kimchi jjigae.
The chopsticks I bought in Korea have lived in five of our United States.
Lesson 3: Yes, No, What?
When I began studying Korean again in earnest, he told me my accent was not American. I didn’t know how to explain my Korean accent is the sum of all my failures, so I quit.
Lesson 10: Have, Don’t have, There is, There isn’t
My love for languages enkindled when I was old enough to begin ballet dancing. French commands accessed another aspect of the self, one that hearkened back to my grandmother’s heritage. Since then, I’ve learned a mode for every sphere of life—ancient Greek to insert myself into a conversation between Plato and Plotinus, Portuguese to shepherd Brazilian students in their English studies, Japanese to converse into the spaces where both English and Korean failed. In academic circles, level, proficiency, passing a test becomes your goal. You make progress to earn a certificate or brand yourself on a letter or numerical scale. Perhaps your focus is functional, making it easy enough to accomplish a certain objective, such as scaffolding texts until you can cut through The Republic without going to the dictionary every two words. However, for every case, this evaluation is linear.
Yet languages, like this essay, are circular. They feed into one another, clash, erase each other. Over time they are subject to the dreamlike logic of our memory, eluding you at precisely your moment of need. I misplace words all the time. The Japanese ‘tatemono’ completely blocked my access to the much-more comprehensible ‘edifício,’ close cousin to our word ‘edifice.’ I knew that one was Portuguese and one was Japanese. I knew my teacher wouldn’t understand a ‘tatemono’—more correctly written 建物 or even たてもの for beginners like me. But my brain refused to let the Japanese skyscraper in my mind stand aside. That was my mood that day.
To me, Korean had never been a language in the way of a scholarly ladder that I could scale to the top. In Plato’s parlance, I was poetry. Since Koreans speak Korean and I did not speak Korean, I was the mimetic “copy of a copy”—a version of the true Form so diluted I had become worthless.
A language is a way to live. Once it is planted in you, it can wither and go to the coldest and most frozen of winter grounds—but it will never die as long as you can find spring in your heart.
Lesson 25: From A to B, From C Until D
In my lifetime, I’ve studied Koreanness, learned about Zainichi Koreans, Koryo Saram, Koreans in Brazil.
I have overdosed on Korean; I have lived in Korea and suffered with Koreans and sometimes, I just want to run outside my apartment and scream in Korean because my body has no other way to get across that I am living & suffering & assorted verbiage. It is impossible to alienate a part of yourself.
In my lifetime, I’ve lived a diaspora.
Lesson 17: Past Tense
About the Sewol Ferry.
My students were the exact correct age to be on that ferry. When it came up that they were drowning, they had drowned, I thought back to the days of my second childhood in Korea, running around the park with them for no reason other than to be young and wild.
I felt when it sank my heart.
When you have a that and that thatness moves into ourness, when the myness moves away from meness and into weness, then your spellchecker dies and your editor throws a fit. That’s the first half.
Then you belong.
That’s the second half.
Maria S. Picone writes, paints, and teaches from her home in South Carolina. Her writing has been published in Kissing Dynamite, Ligeia, and Q/A Poetry, among others. A Korean adoptee, Maria explores themes of identity, place, and social justice in her work. She received an MFA in fiction from Goddard College. Her website is mariaspicone.com, Twitter Maria S. Picone (@mspicone) / Twitter
Banner Art: Silhouette. Digital Image (c) by Robert Frede Kenter Twitter: (7) RobertFredeKenter (@frede_kenter) / Twitter