I had a panic attack last month, when I was facilitating a tenant’s meeting. Towards the end, I invited a tenant couple to come lead their portion of the meeting, which they had agreed to do prior to that day. Suddenly, they began shaking their head. When I asked why, the woman said that she didn’t want to do it anymore. “You do it,” she said, and told me exactly the things that she had wanted to say. I encouraged her to come and tried to share why it was important for her to share. Her husband, sitting next to her, began to get upset and interrupted: “시끄러워. 이런거 다 소용없어. 왜 이런 쓸떼없는 일을 해!“ Shut up. None of this matters. Why are you doing this useless work? Something in me broke, and the rest is a blur. I slowly backed out of the situation, crouched down in a corner, and cried. A handful of organizers, tenants, and strangers came by to ask if I was okay. I don’t even remember what I said in return. I felt as though none of it ever happened.
As I was calming down, the man came by with his wife. She did most of the talking, explaining to me that so-and-so goes to the same church as them, and she didn’t want to be speaking at a meeting with them present. I was only half listening, because I was staring at the man’s head, where a grey hat should have been. I could’ve sworn he had been wearing a grey military cap, just like my grandfather’s. But slowly, I began to realize that he had never had one. That I had simply imagined it on his head, as soon as he began yelling those words. 왜 이런 쓸떼없는 일을 해. Why are you doing this useless work? Verbatim, the words uttered by my family about my life & work.
Writers always talk about the mother tongue as a place of home & return for their writing. Mother tongue knows you best, fights off the White colonizers, and expresses feelings that the English language were never meant to hold.
But it would be a lie to ignore the deep, unspeakable wounds left by our mother tongue — with its knowledge of the aches & bruises within your soul. It knows how to shake up your deepest core & leave you crumbling into pieces. Nothing quite captures the viciousness of its fiery lashes, and the generations of pain slowly drawn out from beneath your skin. English can never evoke the same kind of haunting vibrations between my ribs when they’re spoken. Because mother tongue is the words of trauma, the stillness of family silence, the cries of 전쟁 / war, 한 / grief, & 광복 / liberation. The kinds of words that dig deep into your heart and lodge themselves there, for generations.
For me, loving the mother tongue means opening myself up to reveal all the soft spots, as well as the wounded ones — and embracing the fire that knows how to both give me warmth & burn me alive.