A Mother’s Love
What does it mean to have a mother tongue?
Thanks to the palette of circumstances that has (so far) painted my life, I have been blessed with four brilliant colours with which to dabble on the infinite canvas of language. As a Korean international school student living in Hong Kong, I’m currently fluent in the quadruplet of Korean, English, Chinese and Spanish – chronologically learnt, and developed, in that order.
As is evident from my blog, however, the language with which I express myself most frequently – and most eloquently – is English. Although I’m Korean at heart and always will be, Korean has always been my cozy ‘homely’ language, the one I use at home… and, unfortunately, only in the home. The other day, my Spanish teacher organized a Skype call with a Korean living in the US for a Spanish-Korean conversation on American politics that – you guessed it – I had to translate. Suffice to say, foreign policy is not a word I whisper to my mother as she tucks me into bed every night. (Interestingly enough, the only reason I could translate the term ‘immigration’ correctly was because the word ‘immigration’ in Korean sounds the same in Chinese.)
English has always been the oxygen with which I have swum in the depths of literature, mathematics, science, philosophy, logic, art and all the fields of life one is exposed to in the algae of academics. That was a direct side effect of having attended English-speaking schools ever since I moved to Hong Kong thirteen (!) years ago. Chinese is a language that I’ve been studying since I was five, largely because it has always been a mandatory subject since I moved to Asia’s World City. Spanish, on the other hand, I chose to pursue myself when the opportunity blossomed five years ago. If I had to rank my competence in these languages, I’d say the list would begin with English, then move on to Korean, then Spanish and finally, end with Chinese. Choosing between Korean and Spanish is a toss-up: I can speak and listen to Korean with less effort and more visceral quality, but I can talk about GMOs and globalization much, much better in Español.
But if you asked me to rank my love for these languages? Simply put, that’d be impossible. Each language has a unique allure that cannot be superseded by another. Chinese always produces scintillating works of both visual and oral art; Spanish has an exuberance that never stops dancing in its lively, accented flamenco; English is a gem that has shown me what it means to see the world through beautiful words, and Korean has taught me what it feels to love and be loved.
What inspired me to write this post today revolves fundamentally around the lattermost language: my mother tongue. However comfortable I feel with the Korean language, I find myself regretting the fact that I’ve never taken it out to see the rest of the world. I’ve only given myself the chance to fall in love with English literature, primarily poetry, leaving aside the pulsing, beautiful world of Korean wonder sitting unread and left behind.
As an IB student, one of my tasks this year is to embark upon the journey of the Extended Essay. The EE, as it is so fondly known, gives students an opportunity to write about anything they’re interested in, provided this information fits squarely into the frame of 4,000 words. After a bit of ruminating on what I could possibly write about, I realized that the EE could be a wonderful way through which I could connect to my mother culture in a way I hadn’t done before.
War has always been a meaningful topic for me. Although I cannot claim to know what it is like to be in war, the poems and pieces I have read on war have moved me to tears countless times. In fact, the first poem that instigated the avalanche of my creative passion was a war poem we had to write for a class assignment; I remember reading that poem several times over and realizing, for the first time, why people like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon wrote. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, war has forever transformed the place I call home. For over sixty years, Korea has been fractured by the jagged edges left from an era of conflict, of blood, of well-worn tears… and even now I don’t know enough about the fight to give it justice.
It was in this context that I envisioned an Extended Essay with the primary goal of comparing and contrasting English and Korean war poetry. Just to see if my idea would work, I hastily opened Google, typed 전쟁 시 (‘war poetry’) in the search bar, crossed my fingers, and waited.
The first link I found, I clicked.
After the first line I read, I cried.
For sixteen years, I had neglected a part of my existence I hadn’t been brave enough to embrace. For sixteen years, I had seen my mother tongue as a language unnecessary outside the comfort of my household, outside the everyday face, sight, smell, touch, sound, taste and every lasting sensation encountered in the home. For sixteen years, I had crafted an artificial – yet convincing – voice with which I read my poetry, a voice through which I deemed the world tender, soft, so beautiful to the touch.
Frankly, there is nothing like hearing poetry spoken in your mother’s voice.
Reading a poem written in my mother’s words, written about my mother’s past – our past – was overwhelming, awe-inspiring, too precious to be able to express in this meagre string of pixels. It was a rising sensation that stopped at the chest, made its rapid descent, before gurgling up again in a childish display of emotion. Like a child so relieved to see his mother again after a painful stretch of absence. Like a mother so thankful for the quiet breathing of her child. A symbiotic love that cannot be found anywhere else other than in the temporary, yet so very infinite, haven of poetry.
I should never have believed that I ‘missed’ the nuances of my mother tongue, that I could never speak it properly. Because in my first years of life, my mother breathed into me lullabies that have written in me the desire to hear beauty in the voice that opened my eyes for the first time.
Today, I prepare myself as I begin my descent into the welcoming waters of my mother language. For too long I have left lands unchartered. For too long I have sat still, too dry to be submerged. But now, it will change; I will change.
Because now I know what it means to have a mother tongue.
이불 같이 덮자
만약 통일이 온다면 이렇게
If Reunification Came, I’d Like It To Come Like This
Let’s cover ourselves in blankets
If reunification ever comes, I wish
it would come like this
in warm, soft cotton sheets