Relieved

It’s been a weird year.

My husband and I had our wedding in March. Not a big deal, except that in the months leading up to it, I developed severe anxiety, a sleep disorder, and, most unsettlingly, a hypersensitivity to certain kinds of sounds (a symptom of anxiety). I stopped being able to listen to a lot of music I used to enjoy in the past.

In January, I came across old seasons of Hidden Singer on Netflix. That’s where I first heard Lee Juck’s 다행이다.

다행이다,” from his 2007 album 나무로 만든 노래 (Songs Made of Wood), is one of Lee Juck’s most well-known songs, written for his now-wife while she was studying abroad. It’s also one of the few songs I could listen to without experiencing panic attack-like symptoms. I listened to it on repeat for months. And, as is the case with most of my favorite songs, the lyrics struck me deeply.

다행히/다행이다 is not a complicated word. It’s commonly used in daily Korean in a number of situations. And yet, that’s exactly what gave me pause.

다행(多幸) is literally ‘much luck/fortune’–that’s the same 행 as in 행복, 행운, 불행, 요행. I’ve seen this song title translated as “It’s a Relief,” “Relieved,” “Fortunate,” “It’s Fortunate.” The phrase 다행이다 could also mean “thank goodness,” “how lucky,” “thankfully.” All of those words and phrases have their own specific nuances.

I used to feel helpless translating, at times, even a phrase as basic as 다행이다, which seems to carry several layers upon second glance. How do I know which is the right interpretation? What did the artist or writer intend? I’ve stopped thinking like that for the most part. My translation can try to be true to the original writer, but ultimately it is most true to myself. It’s a mere snapshot of my self, my feelings, at one particular moment in time. Through translation, I often uncover hidden truths about myself.

Listening to 다행이다, I thought of the phrase “What a relief.” But I didn’t think of a person. I thought about Korean. The sound of the language, the words, the grammar, Hangeul itself.

What a relief, that I had even just one ever-present, constant thing that I could rely on during that time in my life. What relief, that there was at least one thing I could delight in when it felt like I was disappointing everyone around me. What a relief, that I’ve had the privilege to pursue this language purely, doggedly, for so long. 다행이다.

What a relief”
Lee Juck (translated by me)

What a relief it is that I can see you and run my fingers through your hair
that we can sit face to face and breathe the same air
that I can hold you and let myself cry when things get too hard
What a relief
that this beautiful world exists with you in it

Even as the wind whips fiercely around me
and even as the roof I stand under drips with rain
What a relief it is that I’m not abandoned here alone
My weary daily life and my struggle to survive
isn’t in vain
because an astonishing person like you
is always by my side

What a relief it is that I can see you and we can share a meal together
that I can clasp your aching hands in my own
that I can hold you and comfort you as best I can
What a relief
that this beautiful world exists with you in it

Even as the wind whips fiercely around me
and even as the roof I stand under drips with rain
What a relief it is that I’m not abandoned here alone
My weary daily life and my struggle to survive
isn’t in vain
because an astonishing person like you
is always by my side

What a relief it is that I can see you and run my fingers through your hair


Header Photo by Issara Willenskomer on Unsplash

Japanese words to understand the Japanese mind

We recently got back from a trip to Tokyo, and half of my heart is still there.

This was my third time in Japan and Theo’s sixth; between the two of us, we’ve explored most of the touristy metropolitans on Honshu, so we were content to just stay put in Tokyo, visiting museums and parks, eating soft serve, and making late-night trips to Family Mart.

Sunset over Setagaya Park.

People are always surprised when they find out that I keep going back to Japan though I only know the most basic of conversational Japanese, and yet I’ve only been to Korea once despite being fairly fluent in Korean (going on my ninth year of studying)!

The reality is, I’ve been your typical anime, manga, and (later) JRPG nerd for far longer than I’ve been studying Korean. I loved Pokémon in elementary school, watched English dubs of Rurouni Kenshin, and ate up the most ridiculous shoujo manga I could borrow from my friends. I taught myself kana when I was in high school and studied the language for a year in college — in a lot of ways, Korean was the interloper in my Japanese studies, heh.

That said, I’ve never been good at learning Japanese, even though I keep coming back to it. (I recently had an epiphany about this but that’s another blog post).

Learning Japanese through Korean (kinda)

As I got better at Korean, I wondered if things would stick better if I learned Japanese in Korean. To some extent, I was right; it did make learning grammar easier since there are a lot of grammar constructions that have a one-to-one equivalence between Japanese and Korean. But then I’d always feel like the two languages were competing for my time — and I would always choose Korean in the end.

When I told my Korean teacher about my upcoming trip to Japan, she asked if I wanted to spend a few minutes every class doing some basic Japanese, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt.

(As an aside, I’ve been taking private lessons in Korean for about a year now and my teacher is phenomenal. She’s done academic research in linguistics as well as technical translation work from Japanese into Korean, and she is trained to teach Japanese. She’s currently studying to get her TESOL certificate too. We have the nerdiest conversations about language and culture in Korean and it’s brilliant.)

In any case, I decided to show her some of my notes from a Japanese book I picked up on a whim when I was there in 2015.

My Japanese notes are in a mix of Korean and English.

Much like I’d started out learning Korean, I brute forced my way through the text, looking up every unfamiliar Kanji, unknown vocabulary word, and grammar point I didn’t know. I even made index cards to flip through on my commute to work.

But then my teacher suggested we try a more inductive approach to learning Japanese. So rather of meticulously going over grammar point by grammar point, this is what we do instead.

  • I read through the Japanese text on my own out loud (yes, stumbling over all the Kanji I couldn’t read)
  • My teacher then re-reads each sentence out loud, and then translates it into Korean.
  • We go over some key vocabulary and phrases in the text.
  • We discuss the text together in Korean.

Even though our discussion (and my comprehension) of the text is largely in Korean, I find my ear becoming more and more attuned to cadence of Japanese sentences; I’m even retaining more words and improving at reading. Most importantly, I feel myself getting better at Japanese, while also getting to practice Korean.

Two birds! One stone! I finally feel like I’ve found a sweet spot for learning both Japanese and Korean.

My teacher has been incredible; she basically lets me set my own curriculum and follows me patiently wherever my language whims take me. Obviously this wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for her. But! There’s something also to be said about this book I serendipitously picked up four years ago

日本人の心が分かる日本語: a mini review

I didn’t know anything about this book when I spotted it in the Japanese language section of Kinokuniya’s flagship store in Shinjuku, but the book’s subtitle caught my interest: “A book for foreigners wanting to read between the lines to see what the Japanese really think.”

The book is made up of short essays (3-4) pages on specific words related to Japanese culture and etiquette. Each essay is structured the same way:

  • A few introductory sentences defining the word and its origins
  • Several specific example scenarios, usually in the form of dialogue, illustrating different nuances of the word or the concept it represents
  • Each example scenario is followed by an explanation
  • Each essay has an additional section called もっと深くwhich goes deeper into the topic using more advanced Japanese
  • Finally, each essay ends with a list of key vocabulary words. These words tend to show up in subsequent essays.

I haven’t taken the JLPT exam, but the essays are probably at an intermediate to upper-intermediate level in terms of grammar. The vocabulary felt more advanced than the grammar, though the book does a great job of referring back to and reinforcing the key terms that were introduced in earlier sections of the book.

Here are just a few of the topics covered in this book:

  • しつけ
  • けじめ
  • 遠慮(えんりょ)
  • 気をつかう
  • がんばる
  • 無理
  • 空気を読む

So my teacher and I discuss these essays in a mix of Japanese and Korean, and the great thing is, I’m learning a lot of basic things about Japanese culture that I didn’t know before, while also using Korean to compare and contrast it with Korean and Indian culture. It’s stretching my brain in fun and exciting ways.

Speaking of brains, I think I’m feeling my mind sort of… unlock(?) itself to Japanese lately. It’s easier to learn and retain new things. I feel energized by studying Japanese — that’s something I used to only ever feel with Korean.

On the one Korean drama I can’t forget

Sometimes certain stories come into your life right when you need them the most. 

On December 14, 2017, I wrote that sentence and saved it to a draft titled ‘Lingering thoughts on Because This is My First Life.’ 

For the rest of 2018 I couldn’t remember what those lingering thoughts were.

Funnily enough, now, a year later, I do. Something about it being this time of year, with the holidays and New Year coming up, and with it, inevitably, all the conversations about family, memories, nostalgia, tradition — stuff that’s always made me nauseous — also made me remember the Korean drama Because This is My First Life.

I have, in many ways, been a thorn in my parents’ side for the past several years. I’ve broken from tradition in a number of ways, forcing them to scrap and rewrite the playbook of raising a Good Indian Girl time and time again. One of these ways is my being in a relationship that doesn’t, and will never, conform to their expectations. Trying to contort myself and my partner to fit into that mold continues to cause me great pain.

Because This is My First Life is a show that reached out and spoke to my heart one year ago, and it still does so today. With its main couple and their unconventional relationship, their love for each other challenged by tradition, their strained familial relationships — it’s a story that paralleled my life shockingly well. (Minus the, you know, whole contract marriage deal).

Both characters realizing what they value in themselves and in each other, and then acknowledging that those things are different from what their families value, was heart-bursting moment for me. 

The finale wasn’t about solving all of the issues and living Happily Ever After. It was an acknowledgement that relationships take honest work. And family might not always come around, but you can still be yourself and be happy. It’s okay to prioritize that happiness.

The last few minutes of the finale has some of my favorite lines in all of K-drama land:

계약 내용은 일년마다 갱신되지만 대전제는 항상 똑같아. 우리의 사랑은 최우선으로 할 것. 물론 일반적인 일은 아니다. 각자의 집으로 갔던 첫 명절에 어머니는 나에게 전화를 걸어 우셨고 우리 아빠는 상을 엎었다. 하지만 그게 다였다. 그 이상에 큰 일은 일어나지 않았다. 그냥 우리는 남들에게 또라이 부부가 되었고 그 만큼 우리의 생활에 충실할 수 있게 되었다.

결혼이든 비혼이든 혼인 신고를 하든 안 하든 무엇을 택해도 생각보다 그렇게 심각한 일들은 일어나지 않는다. 중요한 건 어떤 형태로든 옆에 있는 이 사람과 지금 이 순간을 함께 하는 건. 그래서 오늘도 우선 우리는 사랑만 하기로 한다. 그리고 지금 이 순간을 사는 여러분에게 모든 진심을 담아 건투를 빈다. 어차피 이번 생은 우리 모두 처음이니까.

Every year we renew our contract but the terms always stay the same. That our love will be our top priority. Of course, this is easier said than done. When we went to our separate homes for our first long holiday, my mother-in-law called me and cried over the phone and Dad flipped over the table. But that’s all. Nothing else happened. We simply became known as the weirdo couple to others and were able to stay true to ourselves that much more.

Whether you choose to get married or remain single, whether you choose to register your marriage or not, whatever you end up doing, the consequences are not as severe as you’d think. The important thing is that, whatever form it takes, you share this moment together with the person by your side. That’s why, once again today, we decided to love each other first and foremost. And to all of you living in this moment, with all of our hearts, we wish you good luck. Because, for all of us, this is our first life anyway.

I’m not a romantic and I certainly don’t believe that putting love first can solve all of your problems. But this message to me was more about staying true to yourself — you might disappoint others in your life, but at the end of the day, it’s not going to be a big deal. People will continue to live their lives.

If this is a hopelessly Western way of thinking, well, I’m not going to defend myself. For the most part, I still tend to live my life conforming, trying not to rock the boat, but some things are just too important.


Fun fact: I didn’t finish a single drama in 2018.

I say this as I watch Memories of the Alhambra on Netflix, so maybe 2019 will be different? Alhambra strongly reminds me of Nine (also now on Netflix), which I absolutely loved and have actually watched twice. But it also reminds me of Sword Art Online and Ready Player One, both of which I hate. Heh. So we’ll see if I stick with it. I’m two episodes in and I haven’t rolled my eyes too much yet.

I often tell people that Nine is the drama that pretty much ended all Korean dramas for me. In the five years since it ended, I’ve only finished three dramas — Signal, Age of Youth, and Because This Is My First Life.

Maybe I’m becoming more discerning? Picky? Impatient? I’m not sure. Nevertheless, I’ll continue to keep an eye out for another drama that charms me as much as First Life did.

Me, in Korean

It’s always surprises me when fellow language learners say they feel like a “different person” when they speak in a non-native language.

When people ask me if I feel like I have a different personality when I speak Korean, my answer has always been no.

If you’re learning a new language as an adult — at least, past the “optimal” age to acquire a language — how much of your self can truly be affected by the language? The culture and language of your family and the society you spend your day-to-day life in has so much a firmer hand in shaping you. I doubt that even study-abroad programs or other intense immersive experiences can have a significant effect on one’s core self.*

(Aside: I do think this is a very different situation from being multilingual from birth. I’m not well-versed in the research, but I know there are models and theories for how language shapes identity and personality in children who grow up in multilingual/multicultural households.)

I’ve heard a lot of language learners say they sound more polite or reserved in Korean or Japanese but I suspect that’s because those languages have distinct speech levels; and the one that you learn in class or from a textbook is the standard “polite” style, mixed in with a few extra honorific and humble verb/noun forms. The phrases and and vocabulary you learn tend to sound more neutral; and coupled with literal grammatical ways to sound polite that don’t exist in English, it makes sense why people might feel like they have a new personality in a new language.

So maybe that’s why people feel like they’re a different person when they’re speaking a different language—maybe it’s because at the beginner level, communication feels limited to more neutral phrases. Communicating abstract inner feelings, your 속마음, is a challenge. And then once the nuances of language, all the contexts and connotations of words and phrases, become more apparent, there’s a learning curve to “fitting” yourself into this new language. How does my personal philosophy and worldview fit into Korean? My interpersonal relationships? My morals and ethics? My sense of humor? My “voice”?

No, I don’t think I have a different personality in Korean, but I do think that adjustment period of finding yourself in another language can feel weird and uncomfortable to the extent that you feel like you’re undergoing a kind of metamorphosis. You might feel like only a small part of yourself in Korean — the rest is still being built as you build up fluency.

One interesting thing I have noticed about myself when I speak Korean is the degree at which I show certain parts of myself. I grew up in the United States, but was taught to reject the Western mindset for a more conservative South Asian one — that is, to reject individualism for collectivism, to maintain the status quo and preserve social harmony, to revere one’s elders and social “betters” regardless of their character, to give a few examples. Through and through, I’m Asian American, and I still don’t know how to balance how I was raised at home (very Indian) with how I grew up among my peers (American). But I’ve noticed that when I speak in Korean, especially to native Koreans, I subconsciously tap into the part of me that’s more Asian than American and downplay or ignore the parts of me that are more Western. But both of those identities are still a part of my self and still continue to shape my personality.

The more advanced I become in Korean, the more I become myself in the language. These days, I’m finding it to be easier to express my innermost thoughts, my life philosophy, my 속마음 in Korean. But I think the moment that I felt like I was wholly myself in Korean, was when I realized I could be funny. Not that I’m really funny or anything in English, but it’s pretty satisfying to know that I can be my snarky self and actually say things in another language that can make people laugh.

At the end of the day, maybe this is what fluency should be? Not a score on a test or the ability to talk about politics or discuss modern literature, but a measure of how much you feel like yourself in a language.


*Post-script: I have little to no knowledge of psychology, so I’m probably missing a lot of nuance here. One thing I got lost reading about while working on this post was the distinction between ‘self’ and ‘personality.’ There seems to be different schools of thought on how/if they are distinct, and then how those things relate to ‘identity.’ I might be wrongly conflating a lot of things here but writing all of this out in my own words, just for my own sake, still felt worthwhile. Thanks for reading!

Tips for improving Korean essay writing

After more than a year of attending advanced Korean classes and regularly writing and reviewing 500-800 character essays with my teacher, I’ve accumulated a few useful tips for improving long-form writing that I thought I’d share here.

I’ll preface this by saying few people write well in any language, even among native speakers. I’m a writer and storyteller in both my professional and personal life and I know just how hard it is to build compelling rhetoric using effective, engaging language on any topic. So, following these “quick tips” won’t make you a good writer in Korean — that will take years of practice reading and writing, just as it would in English. But it may help you get started on the road to sounding more natural.

Caveat: This is only one language learner’s experience (mine) and one language instructor (my teacher)’s advice, so take with a grain of salt.

Continue reading “Tips for improving Korean essay writing”

Interview with Jung Yumi (Elle Korea 2018)

I’ve liked a lot of projects that Jung Yumi has been in, but the one I can’t forget is Que Sera Sera, her first TV drama. It’s possibly one of the most horrifying and hard-to-stomach (i.e. amazing) melodramas I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen it 2.5 times myself and the opening song still always gives me goosebumps.

That said, I think it was her role as Joo Yeol-mae in I Need Romance 2012 that really made me a fan. I was surprised at the frankness with which that show addressed love and female sexuality and relationships that didn’t conform to societal norms; plus, I have a soft spot for shows with female leads who have close circle of girl friends. Writing aside, I adored Jung Yumi’s punchy line delivery and the spark she gave her character. [Shameless plug: I’m currently captioning I Need Romance 2012 in Korean on Viki if you’re looking for a fun drama to study with.]

Last month, Jung Yumi wrapped up filming Live, her small screen comeback after four years. She was interviewed in this month’s Elle Korea on her past projects and her acting style in an article titled ‘정유미의 호흡’ (translated below).

Now, I’ve translated the article’s title (maybe too literally) as ‘Jung Yumi’s Breathing.’ 호흡 is an interesting word. It literally means breathing or respiration, but in the context of the article, it’s more referring to Jung Yumi’s laissez-faire way of doing things. She goes with the flow, marches to the beat of her own drum, so to speak.

Disclaimer: All copyright belongs to the original source. I am not profiting by this translation and cannot guarantee its accuracy.

jungyumi2

Continue reading “Interview with Jung Yumi (Elle Korea 2018)”

I guess this is a slump

I’ve been feeling very “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” when it comes to studying Korean these days.

When I don’t have time to study a language, I feel bad because I truly love it and want to do it regularly. That is not what’s happening now; for the past couple months, I’ve actually been great about challenging myself with Korean and studying consistently. And yet somehow, this made things worse?

A few days ago, without planning to or really thinking about it ahead of time, I told my Korean teacher that I wanted to quit studying Korean. I’m not sure if I meant, like, stop taking Korean classes or just stopping altogether, but either way, my reasoning was kind of lame and surprising even to myself.

I felt like studying Korean had become pointless.

Here’s the thing. I love geeking out about linguistics and language acquisition, and learning languages has always been a thing I’ve loved doing for its own sake, like how people love things like hiking or cooking, without aspiring to be a mountaineer or chef. I never started out learning a language to accomplish anything or to fulfill a goal aside from just enjoying the process. I didn’t start studying Korean because I thought it was a valuable skill I could bring to the workplace or anything. I didn’t plan on doing anything with it.

But after becoming more disciplined in my studies — attending classes, writing more, memorizing words, participating in discussions — not only did my language abilities improve, I started to feel more and more restless. I kept feeling like I wanted (needed?) to do something with Korean.

I tell people I want to become a literary translator some day, but it isn’t currently feasible for me to set out on a path to accomplish that. I’m not ready to quit my day job and give up the nascent career I’ve built for myself since leaving academia in 2014 — it’s not related to Korean, but I like it. Packing up and moving to Korea isn’t an option, and yet everyone tells me that’s the only way I can make any kind of “use” of this skill.

And so, I wonder. To what end am I working this hard?

It’s like, up to a certain point of proficiency, learning Korean “as a hobby” for my own intellectual satisfaction was fine. Aspiring to know the language well enough to enjoy its culture and history and literature was fine. But now that I’m becoming more fluent, there’s this itch in me to want to use it to create or contribute something meaningful, to make not just a hobby, but part of my livelihood

And because I can’t find a way to do that, it makes me want to give up just a little on the language. Maybe not pushing myself, not going all-in with my studies will help me keep Korean at arm’s length and push it back into “just a hobby” territory.

I’m not even sure if any of this makes sense, but I think I’m going through some kind of existential crisis or slump with learning Korean right now. I need to take a step back and think about how to reprioritize my life.

Throwback to my K-pop listening days

Confession time. I tend to get defensive when people ask me if I’m learning Korean because of K-pop. That’s because 1) K-pop was never a motivation for me to learn the language; it was a side-effect, and the better I got at Korean, the less I started to like idol music anyway. And 2) the stereotype of a typical K-pop fan these days is less than flattering.

That said, yes, I too had a rich, happy K-pop phase. I used to be a huge DB5K fan and then Big Bang, and had my phases with SHINee, Infinite, B.A.P., and B2ST (which UM WHAT apparently a lot has happened with them since I last checked).

Anyway I found my interest in K-pop rekindled when a friend of mine told me about YGE’s official rhythm game BeatEVO YG. The app has been absolute shit since its recent Android update so I can’t in good conscience recommend it, but I got addicted anyway and am now super nostalgic for 2006-2010-era Big Bang. All of a sudden, I’m back to listening to 하루 하루, 거짓말, 마자막 인사, 나만 바라봐 on repeat.

EvoBEATYG_screenshot
The lyrics to this song are so horrible and yet….

I think now, listening to those songs, a lot of the nostalgia I have has to do with how much those songs influenced my learning Korean. I really don’t think I give K-pop enough credit for the role it played in my early Korean learning days, but it was a critical source from which I absorbed tons of new grammar and vocabulary.

A few days ago, I was digging through some old notes from that “exponential” phase of my Korean learning days and found a three-ring binder full of K-pop lyrics and language notes.

I used to print out the lyrics to a song I liked and then painstakingly look up every single noun, verb, particle, connector, and sentence ending I didn’t know using either Talk To Me In Korean, Clare You & Eunsu Cho’s Online Intermediate College Korean, and/or Korean Wiki Project. I’d break up the lyrics into stanzas and under each stanza, type out all of my language notes, and then write up a rough translation of the lyrics in English. And then I’d compare it existing translations out there.

And then, I’d memorize.

20180419_205544
My language notes from Big Bang’s ‘Haru Haru.’

 

It wasn’t a perfect or even efficient method, and there were definitely pitfalls I had to watch out for. I risked learning grammar incorrectly, or learning weird slang words/expressions and skewing my developing vocabulary to words related to love and heartbreak. English translations that existed online were mostly terrible, so using those to help me grasp word usage and nuance was probably a bad idea. The potential to learn something wrong and then struggle to unlearn it later on was very, very high.

And yet.

This way of learning Korean through K-pop somehow made Korean feel like a more tangible and comprehensible language to me than reading about it in a textbook. Over the years, through reading a wide range of material and, yes, suffering through textbooks, I’ve managed to correct some of those things I learned incorrectly while gaining a deeper understanding of others I had oversimplified. But, for sure, if I hadn’t started out teaching myself like this, I don’t think I’d be at the level I am now.

I might be reluctant about admitting it these days, but I look back on my K-pop fandom days with a lot of fondness, both for how much I enjoyed the music itself and for how much it built my foundation for Korean. Those were good times.


Okay, so, a funny, unexpected side effect of playing so much BeatEVO YG — I’m really into Sechskies now???? Yep. The real reason I don’t listen to K-pop any more is actually just because my taste in idol music is stuck in the 90s-00s. 😂

Thoughts on literary writing in another language

Last month, I told my Korean teacher about staying up really late to finish an assignment for an online YA fantasy writing course I was taking, and she semi-jokingly suggested that I should try writing a novel in Korean.

Now, I don’t think this is something I’ll ever do or even be interested in doing — it’s hard enough to write a novel in English and I’ve been trying for a decade! — but it did make me wonder about bilingual writers who choose not to write in their mother tongue.

In the case of the diasporic writer, I get it. You become more fluent in English or the primary language of wherever you are educated. But what about writers like Yann Martel (Life of Pi), Nabokov (Lolita), and Jack Kerouac (On the Road), who chose to write in English when they were more than literate in their native languages?

Granted, you could argue that choosing to write in English is a practical move since it makes your writing accessible (and marketable) to the broadest possible audience… but as much as writing is a business, it is also a very personal and emotionally taxing endeavor that language has no small part in.

I thought back on the times that I’ve been compelled to write in Korean, not just for the sake of practicing writing, but because Korean came intuitively to me in that moment. Sometimes it was because there were specific words or sentence constructions that fit what I was feeling more closely in Korean than English. Most of the time, writing about my fears, my insecurities, and disappointments came difficult in English and more easily in Korean. As limited as my writing ability was, I found it easier to be honest with myself and express myself feelings in Korean than English.

In her memoir, Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, who chooses only to write in English, perfectly captured what I was beginning to realize:

When one thinks in an adopted language, one arranges and rearranges words that are neutral, indifferent even, to arrive at a thought that one does not know to be there.

When one remembers in an adopted language, there is a dividing line in that remembrance. What came before could be someone else’s life; it might as well be fiction. Sometimes I think it is this distancing that marks me as cold-hearted and selfish. To forget the past is a betrayal, we were taught in school when young; to disown memories is a sin.

What language does one use to feel; or, does one need a language to feel? In the hospital, I visited a class of medical students studying minds and brains. After an interview, the doctor who led the class asked about feelings. I said it was beyond my ability to describe what might as well be indescribable.

If you can be articulate about your thoughts, why can’t you articulate your feelings? asked the doctor.

It took me a year to figure out the answer. It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible to do that in my native language.

—Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You In Your Life by Yiyun Li

There is definitely a sense of detachment and distance that I feel when I write about something intense and/or emotional in Korean. In English, the same sentiments come across as strangely warped or fake because it’s difficult, in a way, to properly admit that I feel those things. Conveying a worry or a painful memory in an adopted language might feel almost dissociative, but it’s also relieving.

(Side note: There’s a great line in Li’s memoir where she writes about finding comfort in Katherine Mansfield’s journals: “Is it possible that one can be held hostage by someone else’s words? What I underlined and reread: Are they her thoughts or mine?” This is exactly how I felt reading Li’s entire memoir. I have something highlighted on almost every single page. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re a lover of reading/writing and have struggled with mental illness.)

In fact, a few days ago, I wrote a short poem in Korean about why I write in Korean. It’s not very good but it surprised me that I even wanted to do it; it’s the first time I’ve ever written anything in Korean that’s not a journal entry, a translation, or a TOPIK essay, and I haven’t written poetry of any kind since high school. Something about writing it in Korean made it feel more sincere and natural.

As a reader, I’ve always found poetry difficult to enjoy because bad poetry is really really bad and good poetry is usually too honest for me to stomach. But I’ve now come to enjoy the works of certain Korean poets, and many Korean writers as well, whose works I would have found difficult to get through in English. Their subjects and themes resonate strongly with me, yet also more remotely.

A lot of bilingual writers have said some variation of what Li says in her memoir — that writing in a non-native language offers them a sense of distance, that words have less personal context and therefore less “baggage.” Maybe there are some stories and subjects that fit with some languages more naturally than others.

Either way, it makes me grateful to know another language — that as a writer and a reader, I have that much more opportunity to be moved by literature.