By Mara Guevarra, Yonsei University Graduate Student ’16-’17
“If you don’t mind me asking, why are you studying Korean?”
To be fair to my friend, I know the answer.
I spent half a summer in Seoul when I was seventeen. Primarily taken care of by my host grandparents, I tried to communicate with them with my broken elementary Korean, while they spoke to me in a mix of Jeolla-do and Seoul-mal accents. Our time together was short but my memories are still strong. The shy smile of my host grandmother when she told me to start calling her 엄마, mom. The blue, textured wallpaper of their old apartment. Walking post-dinner laps together in the nearby subway station plaza.
Telling my friend of that summer is its own answer, and my tongue trips over itself trying to inject the power of memory into my words. I tell her how seriously I took my summer language program. I send her a link to my outdated travel blog and I mention my freshman drawing final, which included a chalk portrait of my host nephew. I tell my friend that 아빠, father, still introduced me to their neighbors as 우리 미국에 왔던 딸, our daughter from America, without hesitation. It had been six years since we’d last seen each other.
But telling is not showing, and my impassioned answer still lacks. It’s not enough to share facts about my old host family or of a month and a half in 2011; instead, I want to cut out the nostalgia from inside me and present to her, this years-old affection delicately wrapped and maintained. If she saw the depths of my affection, maybe she’d get her answer.
“Wow,” my friend says offhandedly, her eyes wide in surprise. “You really acted like their daughter.”
I smile. That’s good enough.
A week before my paternal grandmother moves back to the Philippines—a month before I leave for what would be almost two years in Korea—I nest myself into my grandmother’s embrace as she prays her daily novenas and try to commit the scent of her perfume to memory. When she finishes praying, we talk and joke, and then finally settle on a game: she says a phrase in English, I give it back to her in Tagalog, and then I translate it into Korean. It starts off gentle: I switch my grandmother’s “Have you eaten?” into “Kumain ka na ba?” which morphs into “밥 먹었어?”
My grandmother basically guffaws, and I grin brightly at her delight.
“Ano ba yan,” she laughs. “You sound so Korean.”
A few months later, I confess to my grandmother over text that I’m losing my Tagalog without the constant immersion that is living with family.
You’ve been learning too much Korean, she messages me. Dapat mong matutunan ang wika natin. You need to learn our wika.
My face burns with shame. I’m both a heritage speaker with no real grammatical command of Tagalog and an on-and-off Korean learner whose speaking skills still haven’t gotten over the plateau of a high-intermediate level. Even so, the weight of Korean on my tongue is a heavy one, and the weight of knowing my brain seeks out Korean first rather than Tagalog is a burden.
As my heart fills with spite, I type the words then why did no one teach me Tagalog? only to back out and text her back a deflection instead: What does wika mean?
Her response is immediate. Wika means language.
I do not respond, and I let the text get buried.
On my first day of my Korean language summer program, 언니, older sister, personally delivers me to school by bus. After some light conversation, she stares at my face searchingly, smiling slightly, and she says kind of wonderingly in English, “You really look like a Korean.”
I squirm under the pin of her smile. I think of my American-ness and my fastidiousness to interrupt and say I am Filipina before anyone can assign an ethnicity otherwise. I think of the parental side of my family, quick to say they are part Spanish (from Papa) or part Chinese (from Mama’s Tatay), but I know nothing about Spain nor China; my only inheritance from those two cultures is the blood in my veins. After everything that has passed, out of all possible identities, I have clung to diaspora as my label.
The bus ride is long, so I give 언니 a pained smile and attempt to close the conversation. “Well, my parents immigrated from the Philippines,” I say slowly, “so I’m Filipina.”
“I know,” 언니 says, smile serene. “But if I didn’t know, I would see your face and think Korean.”
I spend my first proper 설날, lunar new year, not alone and kind of lonely in Seoul, but in the Philippines instead, with extended family and a different kind of loneliness.
Manila couldn’t feel more like the opposite of Seoul. The Philippines’ January humidity covers me in a thin sheet of sweat as I copy and paste a 새해 복 많이 받으세요!!! Happy New Year!!! across multiple 카톡 chat rooms. Instead of the rice cakes I’ve come to associate with 설날, the Philippines is celebrating the Chinese New Year in every mall, mooncakes and tikoy advertised on hard-to-miss bright red kiosks with signs in gold lettering. And—because Tatay was half-Chinese—we are also having tikoy for breakfast.
As my aunt and my grandmother bring up anecdotes of my great-grandfather, I chew our breakfast tikoy thoughtfully. Tikoy tastes like oil and fried eggs and sugar, chewy and sticky and sweet, greasy and decadent at ten in the morning.
I wonder about my great-grandfather, a man I know my grandmother loved fiercely, and therefore, by extension, a man that I wonder about from time to time because love and memory are my family’s only heirlooms. This was a man who abandoned his Chinese father to stay with his Filipina mother, whose Chinese surname was cast away to take up his stepfather’s. My great-grandfather didn’t come to know his Chinese heritage, and the only thing passed down from him to my grandmother to me is a single street name somewhere in Fujian, supposedly the location of their family compound.
Tatay is part smoke and part imagination in my mind, and I imagine him weaving through a vision of Manila’s Chinatown that I only know from television programs, the streets bursting in red in time for the Lunar New Year. In this daydream, my great-grandfather gently squints at wrapped tikoy, deciding on which bundle to bring home to prepare for his children. I wonder if he felt the paradoxical comfort of dissonance: surrounded maybe by Cantonese or Hokkien he didn’t understand, but holding on dearly to the last vestiges of a culture he couldn’t remember. I wonder if my great-grandfather felt the same longing within him that flares up in me: the rise and tide of neither here nor there, the white background noise that is diaspora. An identity forged from being lost; an identity created from hybridity.
Or he might be nothing like me at all. Maybe he just bought tikoy at Chinese New Year because there is comfort in the routine of tradition.
(Either way, the tikoy is good.)
As I shove more of the 보쌈 into my mouth, 이모, aunt, gives me a pleased frown. “야~ 마라는 한식 잘 먹네. 너 진짜 한국 사람이야,” hey, Mara eats Korean food well, you’re really Korean, she proclaims, as I load raw garlic onto my 쌈.
I laugh it off and object as vehemently as I can without seeming offended. When I itch to assert that I am Filipina—my accent and taste for kimchi be damned—I fill my mouth with food and chase my words with spicy pork instead.
But my host aunt continues in Korean with a frown, “You know, my daughter doesn’t really eat kimchi well. She can’t eat anything spicy.”
I look over to my host sister, her love of squid snacks, gum, jellies and most junk food well known even to me, who sees her once every few months at best. At the mention of kimchi, her nose wrinkles.
“나 한국인 아니야?” I’m not Korean? She pouts, her mouth settling in an unamused line.
“아니야,” her mother parrots teasingly, nope, rolling her eyes.
I squirm when my host sister’s frown deepens. I gulp the rest of my mouthful nervously, and both food and discomfort coat my esophagus. My host sister only stares determinedly at her plate.
“당연하지,” I tell my sister softly, once I’ve swallowed my silence too. “너 한국 사람이야.”
Of course you’re Korean.
At 87, my Mama is literally history in the flesh, and my week in the Philippines turns into informal interviews with my grandmother. Every morning at breakfast, I prompt her to reminisce and I hungrily clutch onto her many stories, the cherry-picked scraps of our family history almost forgotten or left behind.
I look at our pandesal, that morning’s breakfast. Pandesal, pan de sal, bread of salt; a Filipino breakfast staple with a Spanish name, and my grandmother’s favorite. The pandesal is hot, its butter melting, and the heat burns my fingertips when I try to take a bite. Giving up on eating for now, I steal a glance at my grandmother and renew my hunger for a story instead.
“Mama,” I say slowly, as I think about what exactly I want to ask. “Daddy said he had always wanted to learn Spanish from Papa. Why didn’t Papa teach him?”
I gently recall my grandfather: weathered hands and a vibrant wanderlust spirit in his youth, but senile and physically weak in his last few months. His niece, whom I had never met before, flew in from the big city mysteriousness of Chicago to our little town in North Carolina. I don’t remember her legal name, but I do remember her kneeling by his seat on our couch, their hands clasped together as their soft Spanish filled the room. I remember their Spanish as musical almost, all pretty accents and hushed words. I looked at my grandfather, hunched and vulnerable in his sickness and his age—Spanish falling from his mouth like pearls—and I thought, I wonder what you’re saying and I don’t really know you at all.
In the present, my grandmother regards me quietly, her eyes locked onto my face while she hesitates to answer.
Finally, she says to me, “Masakit loob niya,” so soft and reluctant that I regret the question.
She pauses again. “I don’t how to say that in English. How would you say ‘masakit sa loob’ in English?” she asks me.
It only takes me half a second to think, “마음이 아프다.”
I look at my grandmother’s expectant face, and I wince trying to think of a way to convey that in English. There is nothing like loob in English, just like there is nothing like 마음 in English. A transliteration could be heart, mind, soul, or even the word inside, but even that feels too superficial, just barely an explanation for the weight of the emotion the word tries to encapsulate. Context determines nuance, after all.
I want to tell my grandmother that masakit sa loob can mean emptiness in your soul so deep that there is a resounding echo; it is a pain so far within you that English has no word for it. In my Papa, it was bitterness within him for the Spanish half of his family—enough to ensure that his own children never learned Spanish from him, that that language was not one to be learned, at least not taught by his mouth. Within me, my pain is more of an anxiety: a swirling mass of feeling unanchored, the siren call of belonging nowhere.
Heart, loob, 마음. English in this instance is the limitation and not the advantage.
I shrug at her, reaching across the table to pour myself another glass of mango juice. The condensation wets my fingertips and I welcome its coolness against my hot skin.
“It’s okay,” I say instead. “I understood. You can’t really say it in English anyway.”
Korean is not a language meant to be mine.
At least with Tagalog, Bisaya, Cantonese or Hokkien, there is a buried connection destined to be recovered and a reclamation of culture lost. Yet for some reason, out of all the languages I’ve learned, Korean has become precious, a language buried deep in my ribcage, spindly bone curved around the ambiguity of my desire. My family and friends chorus this question of my desire on unending repeat: Why are you interested in Korean? Why are you learning Korean? Why Korean?
The simple answer is that I am learning Korean because of them. After that first summer, there were other people who followed who have surprisingly treated me just as kindly as my first homestay: pseudo-families, professors, strangers, new friends. I’ve been called daughter; I’ve been told I was loved. I’ve been fed, asked after and cared for. Trying to articulate that affection, though, is difficult. It’s hard to articulate that I’m learning Korean because of a plural, collective You that encompasses a whole group of people I’ve come to view with a familial sense of affection.
I come from a place that’s ambiguously neither here nor there, and Korea is comforting in knowing I do not belong here—not really—but feeling welcomed. Korean is not a language meant to be mine, but it’s somehow become a part of me instead.
“Can I ask you why you are learning Korean?”
It’s the beginning of my second year—my third semester—in Seoul now, and a friend of a former language partner would like to become my next English-Korean language exchange partner. As expected, her first question for me remains unchanged. Unlike the question, though, I’m unsure if my answer is still the same.
I’m still learning Korean because of an abstract concept of them. But somehow, there’s something more now. Within a few moments of reflection, I know that learning Korean will be never-ending: there’s now something limitless in that same nestled desire.
I laugh then, because I have no idea how to speak that out loud.
“It just felt right when I first started learning it,” I grin. “I just like it.”
She smiles in confusion, tilting her head a little to the left. “That’s it?”
It’s not. I truly love how Korean physically feels in my mouth, how my tongue bends around certain sounds and consonants. I feel unbridled elation when I truly understand the nuance of words that are difficult to translate into English. I feel lightness when I make my 엄마 smile, and I grin when I use ridiculous slang just to make my Korean friends laugh. I can tamper down the annoyance, the frustration and the sadness that comes with me learning Korean, if it means I can one day properly thank my host families and my friends for their love.
But I don’t know how to articulate any of that, so instead I smile wider at her, laugh and say: “That’s it.”
Mara Guevarra was a 2016-2017 graduate student at Yonsei University in Seoul and currently resides in Raleigh, NC.