This year, my husband and I made a scheme for reading The New Yorker. This came about to prevent stacking up a whole-year-worth of The New Yorker magazine issues without reading any of them. We pick one article to read from each issue and discuss about it after a week. Meanwhile, one person reads it and passes it onto the other.
This article is from the first issue of Year 2017. To Speak is To Blunder by Yiyun Li. She turns out to be a fiction writer, but this piece is about a personal history.
This picture describes Li’s current state very well. One of her identities is fading away: her identity in Chinese. After she moved to the United States, she started using English. Now she writes in English only, a foreign language to her.
At the beginning of this year, I started two blogs, one in Korean and another in English. The choice of running two blogs came to me naturally like “the switch from one language to another” felt “natural to” Li. I acquired another language, English, and quite often I think in this language. Then why not write in it? Of course, there were more factors under consideration such as the prospective readers of each blog, but most of all, it seemed unfair for me to choose just one language to write my blogs in. I spent 16 years using only Korean and 19 years using Korean and English. I could not abandon either.
Li chose to abandon her native language, Mandarin Chinese on purpose. Or rather she chose to live her life in her new language, English. By thinking in English and especilly remembering in English, she had more control over her memories. If the memories in Chinese from her childhood and youth were forced upon her, the memories in English were chosen by her. Furthermore, she rewrote her Chinese memories using English. In this new version of the memories, some painful elements were erased, and only the nostaligic ones remained.
When a person moves from one country to another (or one environment to another), it is like your soul flies to the new destination, except there is no airplane. You soul is moving through the air without any signage or safety net. You are on your own and need to figure which direction to take. A mother language is tied to the core of one’s soul. It is through the mother language a person first connects to the world around them and shapes their view of it. It is powerful to have a thought in a language. On a flip side,
can you draw a thought in your head without using a language?
An immigrant goes through constant challenges on their identity, and their language plays a big part in it. I often feel split or pulled in two opposite directions of maintaining my Korean identity and adopting American identity. I feel comfortable building relationships with Americans using English, but at the same time I constantly crave chances to connect with Koreans speaking Korean. As much as I am quite aware of my physical and mental states, I am aware of the linguistic dynamics in my heart.
After all, I was not alone.
There might be more people out there like me navigating through the confusing journey of finding one’s own identity as an immigrant (without an actual destination). At least, there is Yiyun Li, who wrote a whole-four-page article about a similar experience as mine on The New Yorker. I thank her for sharing her very intimate and personal story.