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By a stroke of luck and real estate plans falling through, my parents lived with me and my husband for the first four months of my son’s life. One morning, as I was getting dressed, I overheard my mom talking to the baby, reciting in a singsong voice the various mountain ranges of her native South Korea. My son was then eleven weeks old. Amused by her eccentric choice of conversation, I stopped getting dressed to listen. When she was done with South Korea, she told him about the highest peaks in North Korea, too.

Every morning when Emmett woke up, I sang, “Good morning to you, good morning to you, good morning dear Emmett!” to the bouncy tune of happy birthday. Maybe it was because every day felt like a miraculous surprise, a new birth, since I had struggled through seven years of infertility and pregnancy losses to finally have my child. In those early days, I’d drop Emmett with my mom in the guest room so she could cuddle him while I dressed. I brushed my teeth to the sound of Korean lullabies. Her songs were usually minor-key melodies, soulful and dark—Korean folk songs in the pansori tradition. As the lore goes, the best pansori singers “broke” their voices by singing against the crashing roar of waterfalls. Such rough training was designed to create grit and power in the voice, qualities my parents expected of me growing up as an immigrant kid in New Jersey. And yet, I wondered if I should ask my mom to sing my infant boy brighter, happier songs. He’s just a baby, I wanted to say. Time enough for grit and soul later.

Emmett is the first member of my Korean family with a mixed heritage. His father is an American of German, Irish, and Italian descent. We named him after my husband’s favorite Jim Henson character, Emmet Otter, and were delighted when we discovered that “Emet” in Hebrew means truth. My Korean name, too, means truth. As a first-time mom raising a biracial, bicultural child, I was enchanted by this serendipitous twinning of our names. It was like a treasure hidden behind the façade of disparate languages and cultures, reminding me of the magic of layered identity.

My family moved to the United States when I was six years old, and my son was born almost three decades later, when I was thirty-five. In the years before I became a mother, I planned for my child to be bilingual like me, speaking English and Korean. But after he was born, I was stumped about how to make these plans a reality. I knew the most effective way, the way counseled by language acquisition experts, was for me to speak Korean to Emmett and for my husband to speak English: the “one speaker, one language” rule. I had learned this in a linguistics class in college and squirreled away the information, planning—as one does, at age twenty—to execute it flawlessly in my future life. Many of my friends and acquaintances used this method in their bilingual homes. As a result their children learned Korean, Japanese, Urdu, Farsi, Spanish, or Chinese in addition to English. I knew it worked—and envied their achievement—yet I was reluctant to speak Korean to my son. I told myself it was because I didn’t want to exclude my husband, who doesn’t speak Korean, but this was just the easy, incomplete answer. My husband has been around me and my parents speaking Korean since he and I met as children in seventh-grade algebra. Sometimes he chimes in on Korean conversations, unexpectedly supplying answers or reminding me to tell my mom a critical detail I’d left out in a story. He claims he picks up enough key words and fills in the rest using context clues. He thinks this is how our dogs must experience human speech: mostly opaque except for the high-frequency words that pertain to their interests: walk, food, treat.

So the bilingual problem wasn’t a matter of logistics: I knew how it was done and I knew, whatever inconveniences it posed, my husband was on board. The problem was emotional. The problem was me.

My Korean is a linguistic homunculus, all weird proportions and exaggerated nerve endings. Some people describe their language level as having stalled at the age of their immigration, but this wasn’t true for me. Since we spoke Korean at home, at church—really everywhere except for school—I continued to pick up new words, new modes of speech. What changed was that my vocabulary was now being populated by a microcosm of speakers: my parents, my aunt and uncle, my cousins, and the community of Korean immigrants in the area, mainly evangelical Christians. As a result, the Korean word for “resurrection” comes without hesitation, as do “confess,” “intercessory,” “victorious.” All manner of food and feelings are discussable. Jokes. Insults. Family gossip. Fashion. But I have scant words to discuss politics, which we rarely broached at home. Or science. Or cultural theory. Or any number of topics that might come up in a wider social or intellectual context, and do in fact preoccupy my mind in English.

Several years ago, I arranged to interview a high-profile Buddhist monk. She spoke only Korean, and before the interview, I jotted down notes for myself in English, thinking I’d translate on the spot. The interview was a disaster because I knew no Korean vocabulary specific to Buddhism, but this had not occurred to me beforehand. It was a linguistic blind spot, a blank that was so complete I had not noticed its absence. I thought I knew the words because I knew how to think about them in English.

Remembering this, and other moments in which my mother tongue failed me, and vice versa, I wondered: Was I even qualified to teach my son Korean? Would I be passing on a fractured, stunted language that prevented him from seeing the world in full color?

But a newborn doesn’t require conversation about Buddhism or cultural theory. For months, I tracked the things I actually said to my child in English, with a simultaneous Korean translation running in my head. Could I say this in Korean? Could I say that? The answer, almost invariably, was yes.

But still I chose not to speak.

The reality was nothing so concrete as logistics or vocabulary. The truth was that while I wanted my son to have the bilingual option, I had become an American. An American woman, an American mom. The reality was that I could not just switch into Korean because I did not know what kind of Korean mother I wanted to be.

I imagine that behind every bilingual person there is a story of separation. Of homes left behind, families divided, identities remade over and over again. A history of loss in addition to the mixed gains of the American Dream.

Yiyun Li, in an essay entitled, “To Speak is to Blunder,” writes: “Like all intimacies, the intimacy between one and one’s mother tongue can be comforting and irreplaceable, yet it can also demand more than what one is willing to give, or more than one is capable of giving. If I allow myself to be honest, my private salvation, which cannot and should not be anybody’s concern, is that I disowned my native language.”

I did not disown my native language, but I gave it increasingly tight quarter in my life. As a teenager, I realized that my fluency in the Korean language and culture raised expectations that I would behave in the Korean way. Speaking the language was like clicking “I agree” on terms of social and cultural engagement that I would never agree to in English. That is, as a female, I would acknowledge my subservience to males. That I would attempt to be thin and discreet-looking, taking up minimal space in every sense of the word. That as a younger person, I would be obedient to my elders. That I would choose a Korean mate and continue the bloodline, as if I were a pedigreed poodle. It was said of my friends, who either could not or refused to speak Korean, that they were “Americanized” and—regrettably, according to my parents and their friends—could not be expected to follow the Korean norms.

I enjoyed speaking the language, but not at the expense of my freedom. So I spoke it less and less, and only with the people I already spoke it with, as if I’d erected a linguistic border in my brain. No new travel passes, just the original population.

It seemed so easy just to let it go, to let the language recede with me. My son would never “need” it after all. My parents speak English, as does almost everyone else in my extended family here in the States. Even my relatives in Seoul speak English. I struggle with what this is about, this lingering hope for my son to speak Korean: is this just a parenting prize that I feel I need to achieve? A way to please my own parents, a new notch in my model minority belt?

But this is an obsession that goes beyond duty. Language is a pleasure, after all. Bilingualism strikes me as a kind of synesthesia. Instead of seeing colors associated with letters and words, instead of hearing melodies, what I hear with language is the play and echo of the other language. The option to say it differently, and thus to live it differently. Language is not only a means of communication or description. It’s a framework in which we process existence.

Yi writes: “It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible in my native language.” As every bilingual person and translator knows, there are certain words—a feeling, a way of being—that is absent in one language but perfectly brought to life in another. A word that, by existing, gives permission to be.  What if you need that which does not exist in your language?

Wherever I go, I ask people if I should speak Korean to my son. I am a fiction writer, and at a gala to raise money for childhood literacy, where I was invited to sign copies of my novel for donors, I ask the literacy experts and non-expert donors alike what they think about early bilingualism.

“You must. You must speak Korean. He will get the English anyway,” insists one education professor from Brooklyn College, who admits to being monolingual herself. Feebly I offer my fears and excuses, but she dismisses them all. Finally I realize that we are on two different tracks: she is talking pedagogy while I am wandering the rocky terrain of culture and identity. She tells me to look up dual-language classrooms, and I promise I will and never do.

A tall, elegantly dressed man who wanted his book signed to his wife, who left Turkey as a ten-year-old, tells me to have courage. “My wife and I didn’t with our kids. They resisted it and we chickened out.”

I ask this man what it was like for his wife to leave Turkey at that age, old enough to have created a world of memories. To have developed a firm identity that would stretch and shift in ways she might never have imagined.

“Her English is perfect. Like yours,” he says, misunderstanding my question.  

It surprises me that my parents don’t pressure me to speak Korean to Emmett. In a perverse way, I wish they would. It would give me direction, something to work toward or resist. Instead, their cultural views—so certain for us, the second generation—seem to have relaxed for the third. They are more likely to aim for compromise, more interested in assimilation.

When Emmett was around six months old, my mom shocked me by saying that she didn’t want to speak Korean to him anymore. Since before his birth, we had planned that she and my dad would be his primary Korean speakers. But now my mom was backing out, with the most unexpected excuse. “I don’t want him to think I’m the weird one when everyone else is speaking English,” she explained. “I don’t want him to like me less.”

Now she thinks it’s weird? I thought incredulously, remembering all the times I had felt “weird” as the minority kid at school and she told me simply to be brave and proud of my differences. Now she wants to fit in and be like everybody else? Had I not been so astonished, I would have laughed.

“But if he doesn’t hear it from you and Abba, who is going to teach him?” I demanded. “You keep speaking Korean,” I told her firmly, the echoes of “Say it in Korean!”that parental admonition I’d heard a thousand times—ringing in my memory. “He has to hear it from someone,” I said.

My mom agreed to keep speaking Korean to Emmett, but in the weeks and months following our conversation, I caught her continually slipping into English. At best he was getting a mixed bag. “Konglish,” as we call it. I wanted to interfere in their baby games, to tell my mom to stay on task! Speak Korean! But I saw how much they were reveling in each other’s company and bit my tongue.

For reasons I could not understand, Emmett’s first word was “umma,” Korean for mom, followed by “abba,” Korean for dad. Since I never modeled these words to him, it came to me as a rebuke. “Shouldn’t I be speaking Korean?” he seemed to say. “Shouldn’t I be saying ‘umma’?”

It took me nearly eleven months to venture to speak to my son in Korean. The thought made me nervous, as if I were rehearsing for a role. I chose a time when he and I were both relaxed. We were playing on the floor in his room. I had even chosen a specific phrase to say—“Jal-het-suh-yo!”—which is a phrase I knew he was familiar with because my father said it to him all the time. It was a game they played. My father would shout, “Jal-het-suh-yo!” and my son would clap his hands in self-congratulations. We had the same game in English: “Good job!” followed by clapping hands. He had been celebrating himself in this way for months.

As I prepared myself for this new linguistic adventure, my son was sitting next to me, spinning the wheels on a red plastic car. He caught my eye and smiled. I grinned back.

“Jal-het-suh-yo!” I said, carefully using the same tone and volume of voice I’d use if I were speaking English. I might feel like I was performing outside my comfort zone as a mother, but I wanted to be as convincing as possible.

I expected the usual smiles and claps, but instead Emmett froze, his finger over the toy wheel suspended in mid-action. His lower lip turned down. His eyes went big and liquidy. It was his stranger danger face, which I had seen him deploy only two or three times in his entire life. He thought I was a stranger.

I’m certain my own adrenal system underwent its own fight-or-flight reaction, but I tried to control what I could of my face. I didn’t want him to know how surprised I felt, how panicked.

I switched back to English, as if to reassure both of us who each of us were. “Good job!” I said.

His body relaxed, he went back to playing with his car. A few minute later, I tried it again, thinking perhaps it was a coincidence. Perhaps I had projected my own feelings and somehow imagined that he was upset. Why would he be upset? He knew the word, had heard it literally hundreds of times before. It had only brought him joy before.

“Jal-het-suh-yo!” I said.

The outcome was immediate, identical, freshly shocking for how clear it was. I had violated the one speaker, one language rule and here was the result. Wide eyes, rigid hands, trembling lip. At only eleven months old, four short syllables were all it took to redefine my identity in the eyes of my son.

I knew it! I wanted to shout if only I weren’t so emotionally rocked by the experience. I knew language would change everything.

What I didn’t realize in that linguistics classroom as a know-it-all undergrad was that raising a bilingual child is not simply a matter of imparting language. It is creating identity, curating culture. And because I had tangled, knotted feelings about both those things in my own experience of speaking and being Korean, I could not snap my fingers and switch codes. Technically I was capable, but emotionally I was not ready. I was dragging my feet. I was doing it wrong. And time was ticking.

I wish I could say I developed a plan. That I pushed through my anxiety and spoke Korean to Emmett every day.

Instead there were smaller steps: I began a small collection of Korean children’s books. I bought a box of brightly colored flashcards showing animals, fruits and vegetables, characters from a popular Korean cartoon, trucks and household items, with the Korean noun printed beneath. These items sometimes went ignored for weeks or months, and I didn’t push it. But sometimes, when one of us became interested, we read a book. One day, flipping through the cards I realized I had never learned the word for polar bear—literally North Pole bear—a discovery so delightful it seemed worth the thirty-year wait.

At eighteen months, Emmett understands most things I tell him in English, a development he seems to enjoy. I believe he, too, is flirting with bilingualism—curious one moment, resentful the next. He brings me Korean-language books from his library, and then physically pinches my lips shut with his fingers when he hears the foreign-to-him words. He turns the book to its cover and examines it with a quizzical expression, as if to say, “What is this gibberish? What is wrong with this book?”

But he keeps bringing them over, and I keep reading them. I understand we are both stretching, experimenting on the edge of something unfamiliar. For him, this new language. For me, a new shade of motherhood. In narrating someone else’s words, fables that bring me back to my own childhood, and brand new stories that surprise me with their fresh ethos, I am finding my voice. I am learning how to become a bilingual mother.

Yoojin Grace Wuertz

Yoojin Grace Wuertz was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States at age six. She holds a BA in English from Yale University and an MFA in fiction from New York University. Everything Belongs to Us: A Novel is her debut novel, which was selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice. She lives in northern New Jersey with her husband and son.

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5 Comments on “Mother Tongue

  1. Dear Yoojin, you have told the story of an immigrant beautifully.The immigrant leaves his/her home trying to assimilate but all the time aware that assimilation is neither possible nor desirable
    He/She is in two boats more separated than united.a citizen of a no man,s land.

  2. Stretched identity, that’s a good description for the situation I sometimes feel I’m in. As for bringing up your son bi-lingual, just be proud of what you (will) achieve. As a mum you can only do so much! It’s almost like the breast is best discussion, you know what you should be doing and you want to, but sometimes it’s just not possible.

  3. If you cannot bring yourself to speak Korean to your child there are other options: maybe there is a Saturday class for kids in your area if there are many Korean-Americans, or if not then an online class. He can have a Korean pen pal by e-mail or WhatsApp or whatever kids use these days. When he’s about 16 you can send him to South Korea for a high school exchange year. Or if he doesn’t feel comfortable going then then during college.

    Anyway, very good piece about all the complicated bilingual feelings!

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