Musings about Language and Loss

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by Rachel Rostad – Korean adoptee, writer and poet, former schoolmate, Fulbright Korea

I recently took part in an Adoptees Speak project which inspired the following lil musing about language, loss, etc.:

My Korean is at an intermediate level, which means that I can get through short interactions without that moment of rupture, when a Korean person suddenly realizes that I’m not Korean. Then, their inevitable question: Where are you from? They begin by listing off other Asian countries. I interrupt: “한국 사람이에요,” I’m Korean, and they look at me with surprise. I elaborate, sometimes defiantly, sometimes sheepishly, depending on my mood: “미국에서 왔는데 입양됐어요. 그래서 한국말 잘 못 해요.” I’m from America but I’m adopted. So I can’t speak Korean well.

Yet these phrases are like warm butter in my mouth, easy and oiled. I’ve said them dozens of times to cashiers, taxi drivers, bartenders, coworkers, friends of friends. Ironically, when I explain my lack of Korean ability, that’s when I sound the most fluent.

“한국말 잘 하는데…?” the taxi driver says. But you speak Korean well…?

One of the most difficult things about being in Korea has been my inability to be fluent. Or, not just fluent, but eloquent. I’ve always loved writing and speaking, metaphors, complex turns of phrase, plying language like it’s playdough, smearing it around like thick paint. In English I am an architect, able to be both exact and sweeping. In Korean I lay down words with all the precision of a cement truck.

Sometimes one thinks of transnational adoption in terms of cost-benefit analysis. Gained: English, American citizenship, American family, money, opportunities, stability. Lost: Korean language, Korean family, origin, history, an uncracked sense of belonging. Impossible to balance on a scale; both sides contain the infinite. But as far as languages go, and capital (social and otherwise), English is the better end of the deal. It’s inarguable, i.e. I’m only in Korea because my native English is so prized here. When I teach pronunciation in class, the vowels and the American “r”s fall out of my mouth like dense golden loaves of bread straight from the heartland. The gold of honey, of coins. English feels like money in my mouth.

And yet what is the price of being unable to speak with my Korean grandparents? I stare at my grandmother, as she grabs my hand and tells me something, staring so deep into my eyes it seems she’s staring past them and into my skull, as if she could implant the words there and skip the intermediary steps. I stare just as deeply back, and yet the words don’t arrive psychically, in the neat italicized font of a novel. I force a smile, and shake my head in apology.

Days later, in my bedroom, the tears suddenly come, violent and hot, and I’m not sure why at first. I thought my grief should be over. But loss is like a leaking pipe in a cartoon: when you plug up one hole, it spurts out of a different one. And how do you measure the leakage? Would it be easier if I could fill a bucket and say: There, that is the extent of my loss. I could get out a loss-sized container and put it on its loss-sized shelf. And close the closet door.

But that isn’t quite right. Loss isn’t constant like a leak, it’s migrating geese, here with me one season, shitting all over my sidewalks, flapping their wings, and my skies shake with their raucous noise. Then flown away quietly to the south, the next. And I forget.

Loss is especially confusing to measure when it appears as if I haven’t lost anything at all. I found my birth family, more than most adoptees can dream. I’m lucky, I’m lucky, I’m so lucky. And yet the grief. How do you grieve a childhood you didn’t have, especially when you are happy with the one you got? What I have is surely blessing enough. But you can’t reason with grief, it’s a wailing child, illogical, endlessly sensitive. You give her candy but she still won’t shut up, she doesn’t know what she wants. Korea has turned me to an infant, and yet I won’t let myself be babied. What I want no one can give me because I don’t even know what it is. The grief has no fillable outline. It’s not missing like an organ; it’s missing like wherever dreams go when you blink awake into the morning light. The grief has no endpoint; it only demands that I listen, again and again.

That’s the mistake I made coming to Korea, with a sterling, deceptively simple goal like “get to know my family.” As if it were a hole I could shovel dirt into and know when I’m done. I am trying to accept that eloquence in Korean won’t give me my family. People, regardless of language, are unknowable, unhaveable. Learning Korean won’t give me that alternate universe childhood. Won’t make us close, won’t give us a shared past. My grandparents are getting older, I’m getting older, there will always be more Korean to learn, my goal is unfinishable, the finish line a mirage pinned to the horizon. Grief no matter which direction I go, if I stay or leave this country. After all, I have a family in America too. I will continue to learn Korean but I must not convince myself that it is the solution to my loss. Because loss is unsolvable. One must just look at those monsoon-gray clouds, say, oh, there you are again, let it rain warmly down.

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