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The Language of Home



The language comes back quickly. The blend of Korean, English, and hand gestures accompanying you know, that thing... what's that thing called? Our Konglish Home Sign System. My Korean is quite limited these days; I've been told I speak like a country hick with the vocabulary of an eight-year-old. But after a few hours of staying with my parents, I find myself thinking in Korean.


"내 모자 어딨노? 여기 나돗 는대, now I can't find it."


This shift in my inner monologue surprises me every time. It feels like my brain has been hijacked by the eight-year-old I usually keep buried somewhere deep and airless.


My mother and I have a discussion about the origins of the Korean language. Its written form, Hangul, was personally invented by King Sejong in 1443 in order to give commonors a way to read and write. Classical Chinese was the system of writing at the time, and it was accessible only to the educated elite.


The part of the story I hadn't heard before was that the king was met with great resistance by the elites who wanted to preserve their power by keeping everyone else illiterate. According to my mother, the king hid in a cemetery to create this language because the nobles were plotting to kill him.


"It's exactly the same today," my mother sighs. "The rich people want to keep all the power to themselves and keep everyone else down."


"Yes, it is!" I reply.


I think of Mitch McConnell's stonewalling of COVID relief.

I think of the members of Congress who refused to wear masks being first in line to get a vaccine that is in desperately short supply.


I think of how 600 US billionaires have collectively gotten $560 billion richer in 2020 while over 22 million people are unemployed. That's not counting the people who are risking their lives daily to pay rent and/or racking up debt (medical and otherwise) they may never be able to pay back.


"It's exactly the same today," my mother says. "They're all corrupt. Just look at that guy-- the one who ran against Hillary Clinton in 2016 and committed fraud."


No, not Trump. She's talking about Bernie Sanders.


The story she believes is that the DNC paid off Sanders to intentionally lose to Clinton in the 2016 primaries. The evidence: After the election he purchased a large home.


"Where did he get that money?" she accuses.


On January 6, 2021, my father, along with two carloads of his church buddies, drove to Washington DC to participate in the March to Save America. They felt called by God to protest a "stolen election" and reinstate Donald Trump as president. They left DC around 2pm because things seemed to be getting out of hand.


I find out about it the night before when I overhear him going over travel plans.


"Is dad going somewhere?" I ask.


"DC, to support Trump," my mother answers.


I have no idea what is about to happen. I don't even know if this is a small gathering of Korean Evangelicals or if he's joining all those white people in the red hats. I am furious that he is risking his health and the health of his family by driving in a car with members of his church and joining a rally with people who may or may not believe in the efficacy of masks.


"Is it going to be safe?"


My mother waves away my question. "You know how he is. What can I do?"


How he is: My father has a propensity for doing crazy, impractical things because he gets fixated on some notion. My childhood is generously sprinkled with memories of coming home and finding out he's going on a mission trip to Russia or Kenya or North Korea, or that he bought a car wash or a cell phone store or a random lot with a giant rock on it (still not sure what the plan was for that one). He is too stubborn to be talked out of anything. That's where you get it from, my mother would say.

During dinner, he watches YouTube videos on his phone like he has done throughout most of my visit. I had believed my parents were immune to Trumpism because their English comprehension wasn't advanced enough to understand American politics. Was I naive or condescending?


It turns out there is a plethora of videos on YouTube in which urgent sounding Korean men translate Fox News and Newsmax content. In a globally interconnected world, language can't stop a virus.


"You know Trump is going to be president again, right?" he says with a grin.

One of the first Protestant missionaries in Korea was the London-born, American-educated Horace Underwood. In 1884, Underwood translated the bible into Hangul so that anyone, including women and the lower classes, could read it. He insisted that Christianity should be as accessible as possible and that the locals should be given ownership of the religion. Give them self-determination in their own ministries. Start bible classes and build universities to promote literacy. Teach them that anyone can be a leader in the Kingdom of God.


This ethos has been very appealing to the masses of people who held little power in society. Today, South Korea is home to the world's largest megachurch.


My mother is worried about my generation.


"You have no idea what's going on because you trust whatever the news tells you, and they never show the whole picture."


I tell her that I am often quite critical of CNN and the New York Times, but I look at the data presented by scientists and primary sources to determine what is most probably the truth.


Except it comes out like: You have to look at facts, and logic. I don't believe everything on news, I look at facts, and science, and think about what makes sense, and what's really real in reality.


A large part of the reason I assumed that Trump is an idiot from the get-go is based on the way he speaks. His sentence structure is often incoherent. He defaults to stock statements that have little meaning other than "I'm great. You're great if you like me. You're not great if you don't like me." He sounds like a bigot with the vocabulary of an eight-year-old.


Can my parents appreciate his lack of facility with a language that is not their primary one? Or do they empathize with the frustration of having thoughts they can't articulate? You know what I'm trying to say.


"The fact check is a lie," my mother says. "I searched something I knew was true on a fact check website, and it said it was false."


When I try to explain the fallacy of using a conclusion to reach a premise, she shakes her head. "The problem is that you've been brainwashed by your education."


This is rich coming from the woman who once threw a chair at me for getting all Bs on a report card.



My father used to tell me that I am not really American. I should take advantage of the opportunities in the US by getting good grades and earning lots of money, but my ethnicity will always be my primary identification, whether I like it or not.


But when I visited my relatives in South Korea, they marveled that my Korean accent sounded so authentic. I got just as angry as when Americans asked, "Where did you learn how to speak English so good?" The implication was the same: You sound like us, but you're not one of us.


I used to fret about what I'd do if the US and South Korea ever went to war. If I picked the US would I be thrown into a concentration camp because of my face? If I picked South Korea would I be rejected because of my citizenship? It was like when my parents, after a huge fight, asked me which parent I'd rather live with. I couldn't pick so I eventually decided they were both shitty for making me choose.


As an adult I have found this in-betweenness useful. It allows me to cherry-pick what I want from each culture. Korean food is mine. But the obsession with plastic surgery? That's Koreans over there. The heterogeneity of my life in New York and the pro-LGBTQ, womanist, antiracist, anticapitalist discourses in which I have immersed myself? Me. But the gun nuts and fried butter are all White America.


My parents were born in the mid-1950s, right after the end of the Korean War. But, of course, that war never ended. They immigrated to the US in the late 1970s when South Korea was still a military dictatorship and a poor country reliant on American aid. They have now lived in New Jersey for double the number of years they have lived in their ostensible homeland.


In that time, South Korea has become unrecognizable. It has the tenth largest economy in the world while being roughly the size of Indiana. Its popular culture and tech industry have become world-renowned. It handled COVID-19 a hell of a lot better than the US did.


"I've seen it happen," my mother warns. "Korea is a mess. The news only shows what the government tells them to show, and now they're rewriting the history books to say Communism is great and North Korea is not so bad. It's completely backward."


I have no idea what is written in the South Korean history books. I do know that my parents' early lives were defined by the loss of half their country to one of the most repressive Communist states and the systematic slaughter of nearly every Christian in North Korea.


For most of their adult lives, they have held allegiance to a home that has been frozen in that time. A memory. Imagine if in thirty years I tried to draw my childhood home from memory. A fantasy.


As they approach the end of their lives they cling to Christendom as their true home, one that is perpetually under siege. Religion, empire, virus: all must proliferate completely or face eradication.


I had imagined my parents and I were located on separate but neighboring continents. Sometimes the gap between us seemed as vast as an ocean. Sometimes as possible as a strait.


When my father marched alongside White Nationalists in an effort to undermine democracy, I faced a crisis of cartography. The paper map on which I charted my identity turned out to be a globe, and my two homes have overlapped on the other side. My parents and I are on the same continent, somehow still half a world apart.


We are all Korean-Americans who have lived in the US for over thirty years and have been heavily influenced by its culture and ideology. We share both languages; we share neither.