Written by Kathy Hill, ETA ’12-13

I have only heard my mother’s voice once since I arrived in Korea, when my sister Skyped with me at Christmas. I’m not avoiding my mother. She is the type of mother you can’t easily ignore.

My mother doesn’t own a phone. Once, I bought her a pay-as-you-go phone, so I could easily reach her at any time, and she took it back to the store the next day. She said she didn’t need a phone. “Who I’m going to talk to?”

“Me,” I said. “Me.”

My mother thinks that if she has a phone, my sisters and I will use it as a reason to visit her less often.

Calling my mother persistent would be an understatement. Since I’ve been in Korea, my mother sends me at least four emails a day. Sometimes it’s daily advice: “Today is cold. stay worm;” “you should go this one for study break, music take dust away, and feel rich.”

And when I think I’m too busy to reply to her, she asks via email: “Are you live?”

My Korean host mother says I am good at understanding and explaining things, even when I don’t know all the right words in Korean. But I guess you could say that I have experience navigating broken language. My mother and I grew up learning English together after we moved to the United States from Japan. I was four years old; my mother, 30. I assimilated quickly and soon forgot my Japanese. But my mother struggled. I grew up getting free drinks and hamburgers every time we ordered fast food at the drive-thru because the drive-thru window workers misunderstood my mother’s English. At parent-teacher conferences, I would look away in embarrassment and eventually clarify my mother’s unsuccessful attempt to ask why I had gotten “Excellent” instead of “Outstanding” on my report card. Speed Quiz without the excitement was an everyday activity, and my sisters and I became translators for my mother’s English. Yet I still fail to interpret my mother’s most complex feelings and actions because she simply doesn’t know the vocabulary to explain things like her divorce from my father.

As a stay-at-home mom of four without perfect English, my mother can’t get a decent job. Instead she spends all day every day at the library so she can become fluent. She reads along with audio books: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Norwegian Wood,” “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” When she sees something that inspires her or relates to her life, she copies it down in an email and sends it to me. She uses paragraphs from books to better explain what she wants to say. The quotes are enlightening, and every day I am more impressed by the expansion of my mother’s vocabulary, but I welcome the raw emails with misspelled words and grammar mistakes, the ones in which I can hear her voice. Once, in the fall, I wrote her to tell her I missed the comforts of  home and she wrote back, “you mean miss your fantacy? you will come back to real world.”

To me, no excerpt could better express the intonation and articulation of my mother’s voice or reveal the compassionate intent of her blunt commentary.

But “broken” language can be a source of shame. Sudden stops and mispronounced words can sound clumsy and frustrating. “Teacher, toilet . . . go. . .” Many of my students struggle to push foreign words out of their mouths and throw their hands up after a few stuttered syllables. Class 2-7 is noted as “no energy” on my teaching schedule. It’s unlikely that I can get more than a quarter of the class to participate in my lessons. But I don’t necessarily think less of them for it. These are the same students who will scream “Teacher! Teacher!” and flag me down when they see me downtown just to say between exasperated giggles, “Teacher! No English!” when I ask what they are doing.

Class 2-7 refuses to speak English and my mother communicates with book excerpts for the same reason: They’re scared to lose face by not speaking perfectly. It is from my mother that I learned a student’s language ability can never define their intent, passion, rhythms of speech, or nature of thoughts, and I learn to translate my mother’s thoughts everyday.

“i am proud of you!! you chose hard road to go koria for 1 year, wow!!

it’s not like 3 month of summer break, it’s deferent then visit and live

you will be big open mind, deproping charactor, you don’t know it

enjoy your lest of time, don’t force yourself or don’t be codependent too

we all need know how to loved, not just love

we grow, we learn every time, you have to believe yourself, even outsider don’t want to

hey, that is not their business, but my business!! take care yourself, we trust you

have fun!! smile – Mom”


Kathy Hill is a 2012 – 2013 ETA at Ocheon High School in Pohang.