Monday, May 3, 2010

Languages and the languages within them

Rather than give a play-by-play of my life for the last 5 months, I'll try to jot down some of my observations both of how I've changed and how my fiance dealt with the entirely new experience of living in a country he'd never been to and couldn't really speak the language of very well.

For me, it felt like I had been gone a million years and come back a different person to a totally different world, but at the same time it felt as though I had left only a day before and nothing had really changed. Upon arriving in America, suddenly my 9 months in Korea seemed like a dream that had passed in the blink of an eye but contained so many experiences. The fast-slow time paradox still hasn't faded, as I realize that this semester I had dreaded so much is almost over. As I write, I should be studying or writing one of my numerous papers due this week, final exam week at Michigan State University. This is my last full semester here; I will finish my studies on July 1st. That day can't come soon enough. But where did the time go? Was I ever in Korea? Was I ever here before, searching for a way out? Will the day I leave again ever come? Time is anything but exact. It's a subjective measure applied objectively to an abstract phenomenon. I hate time. It's never on my side. I guess that's because I only notice it when it doesn't work in my favor.

It takes about 2 weeks to get over jet lag when you fly between Asia and America. This is a generally accepted reality, and it was no different for Kyu Won and I. Amidst a dream-like state, we celebrated Christmas with my mother and brother, and then again with my brother, father, and stepbrother. Everything in my family happens in twos. If you include the extended families and stepfamily, things sometimes happen in fives. This could be part of the reason I'm good at adapting. I'm always changing anyway, why not be a chameleon? Anyway, both American Christmases were just like I remembered them, plus a feeling of awkwardness and a sense that I didn't belong. I've always had that sense that I don't belong in my family. I also had the sense that I didn't belong in my friend groups in elementary, middle, and high school. I always have a sense that I don't belong anywhere, except when I'm alone with my fiance. That's a good sign for our relationship.

After coming back to America, that sense of being an included outcast became even greater. I had two roles in conversation: telling everyone else about Korea, or listening to everyone else talk about things I didn't know about. I still think in Korean often, and at the beginning, I inserted Korean words into English conversations. I was always trying to bring up Korea because I had nothing else to talk about; it was like the "word vomit" Lindsay Lohan's character has issues with in Mean Girls. At some point it became evident that nobody cared, but I couldn't stop. I needed to be admired so that I could stand out of the group in a positive way rather than in an awkward way.

I know Kyu Won felt even more awkward, because he couldn't understand the fast speech, slang, and complicated words and phrases in American conversation. He had only heard me speak to one American in Korea, and to my best friend, who is Korean but has studied in America for like 6 years and is fluent in English. With my best friend, Jenny, we could also speak in Korean, and she could translate anything one of us couldn't understand, so it wasn't really an American conversation. My family is sarcastic and witty, and tends to talk about technical things, as both my parents and my brother are or were engineers. My mother is a lawyer now but has worked as an engineer for companies like GM and NASA. My father is an automotive engineering sales manager after working his way up the ladder. You may remember I saw him on a business trip in Korea. My brother majored in electrical engineering and is basically a wonder boy. He programs and builds things for computers, guitars, motorcycles, and more, and he once built a high-tech motorcycle with touch screen rear-view mirrors and Windows XP installed. I almost failed statistics in high school and college, and my major is International Studies and Psychology. I can't keep up with my family. I always feel like the dumb one in my family, although I know I excel in other things, like languages and music composition. The other problem with the huge difference between the rest of my family and I is that I always feel alienated, like I love them but I don't know how to talk to them. This got a hundred times worse. Hopefully I also excel in acting and nobody noticed that I was more awkward than usual. Kyu Won must have felt like my pet, calmly sitting or standing by me, listening only to me, and not understanding what anyone was saying. I remember how that felt in Korea, and I still feel that way sometimes although I've improved a lot. Everyday conversations in Korean give me confidence because I can follow them, but as soon as things get technical I feel like a moron again. It doesn't matter whether it's my family talking about microcontrollers or my fiance's family reminiscing. Both are foreign languages to me, and it was strange to come back to America and make that connection.

I realized that language is not just English, Korean, French, or Japanese. Each language has its own sub-languages that only certain sub-cultures can understand. Take generation gaps in slang, for instance. Try telling you grandparents that you lol'd when your bff friended your bf's homie on Facebook coz he's smokin' hot. Technical terms and concepts create a huge language barrier between my family and I. Instead of thinking of language as purely a country- or ethnicity- based construct, I've begun to think of it in more multilateral terms. What I mean by that, for those of you who don't speak my language, is that languages aren't just alphabets and vocabulary. Language is made up of so many different factors. For instance, I have a English conversation student from Korea who is studying for her master's degree in statistics. If she were to explain what she's studying in depth (thankfully she doesn't torture me like that), I would probably have no idea what she was talking about. Although she is the foreigner and I am the American, I would not be able to understand her speaking prefect English. What a concept! I think languages like English and Korean are just the modes of expression, and that people who speak different languages could actually be speaking the same one but not understand each other. I'll explain that with the same student. If she talked to a Chinese student studying for a master's degree in statistics in Germany, they could talk about the same thing in four different languages and never understand each other, just like a doctor, a lawyer, a fisherman, and a chef could talk about their fields in the same language and never understand each other. To fully understand a conversation, you need to be fluent in two languages: the topic and the linguistic means of talking about that topic. You could expand on that and say that culture is a language. I've always thought that music is a language, but I never saw this big jumbled picture before. All of this because I don't understand my family any better now that I went to another country for 9 months than I did before I left.

This redefines compatibility for relationships. I realize why I love Kyu Won. We speak the same language, even though he speaks Korean and I speak English. We think in similar ways, and the ideas trying to get out are similar enough that we can break through the language barrier on the surface and reach a greater understanding of each other than I can with any of my friends or family members. We can't have witty reparte, and we can't chit chat for hours about nothing without difficulty. But we often don't realize that our conversations are strange and incomprehensible to others, or that we are from different countries and ancestries. To me, he's not Korean first, and to him I'm not American first. Those things are way down the list of things we think of when we think of each other, but they're the first things we use to describe each other to others.

So how do you talk to someone who doesn't speak your language? Speak another language you both know. Although most of our early conversations were about 60% body language and 40% a grammatically incorrect, unclear mix of jumbled words in Korean and English, I remember the ideas Kyu Won expressed to me as if they were expressed fluently in English. I merely translated those conversations into a format easier to file in my memory. Try it. Talk to someone from another country. Find a language you can share with someone you can't understand. It's amazing.

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