The Languages I Speak

by Jenny Yang Cropp

I grew up in a small city in the southwestern corner of Oklahoma, not too far from the Texas border. I say things like “yall” and “fixing to,” and, when I’m not thinking too much about it, I have a fairly pronounced accent. After my parents’ divorce, I was raised by my dad and his family, Oklahomans by way of Colorado and then Texas, with a mixed heritage of mostly Irish, English, and German.

When I was in high school in the early 1990s, the option to choose “two or more races” did not exist on any form I had ever filled out. I often had to alternate between white, like my dad, and Korean, like my mom, though back then it probably said Oriental or some such nonsense.

I don’t speak Korean. I’m not sure if I ever did. My mother left when I was two, and by the time I realized what I was missing, when I could finally ask her to teach me, she said it was too hard and too late. There weren’t a lot of Korean language classes in Oklahoma, either, so I had to let it go. There are many things I have learned and will learn, but Korean won’t be one of them. I know that about myself.

It has been, however, a sticking point for other people, a litmus test for how Korean I was or wasn’t. There’s this false assumption that I had a choice and that I rejected my mother’s language, but I had about as much control over that as I have over how people judge me for it. Still, it’s hard not to be ashamed, not to hold my mother’s language in my mouth and feel as if my tongue was not made for it, as if her words do not belong to me.

Things have changed considerably since I was in high school. The 2000 Census gave me a new box to mark. There’s a growing field of scholarship, with books and conferences, even an academic journal about multiracial identity and experience. Every week there are new articles to scroll through on my Facebook feed, most recently an NPR piece about the terms we use to describe ourselves. A conversation is happening, and it’s affirming and exciting.

But when I needed it the most, it didn’t really exist. The few books or articles never entered my tiny, pre-internet bubble of life in Oklahoma. Believe me when I say I was looking. I was the kid who checked out 14 novels each time we went to the public library, one for each day until we’d return. My dad once accused me of being on drugs because I stayed up all night, night after night, preferring to read than to function. I was driven, and I was trying to find something.

Although now I see reading as a way into other people’s perspectives, back then I wanted mainly to see myself in someone else’s words. That would have been proof that my experience was valid, that there was a word for this thing I was living through but couldn’t articulate for myself. I might not need that much validation these days, but that’s still how I process my life. I need it in a story or a poem to wrap my head around it.

I was thirty-two when I found Jon Pineda’s Birthmark, a collection of poems about multiracial identity, about loss of language, about a distant parent, and for the first time I saw my own ambivalence laid bare. I’ve read a lot of other things since then that explore the same ideas, but this was the first and most powerful. It’s the one that I return to each time something happens to remind me that progress is glacier-like, and there are still things I struggle to say about my own experiences.

The collection opens with “Matamis.” The speaker is on a beach with his father, sharing an orange, and thinking about the word “sweet” in English and “matamis” in Tagalog:

I remember thinking, in Tagalog,
the word matamis is sweet in English,
though I did not say it for fear
of mispronouncing the language.

What I love is the ambiguity of meaning here. The speaker could be thinking that the Tagalog word matamis means the same as the word sweet in English, and what he fears is to mispronounce the word matamis in front of his father. Simultaneously, you can reinterpret the syntax to mean that the speaker is thinking in the language of Tagalog, and perhaps it is the word sweet he is unsure of and afraid to say aloud. Maybe it is English he’s uncomfortable with. The syntactical blurring in those lines raises questions that are answered in the last stanza with silence, with the speaker’s choice to instead say nothing:

Instead, I finished the fruit & offered
nothing except my silence, & my father,
who pried apart another piece, breaking
the globe in two, offered me half.
Meaning everything.

He refuses, in that moment, to choose one language (and, arguably, one identity) over the other, and this is contrasted with a moment of bonding between father and son. The orange becomes a “globe,” symbolic of the space they inhabit, and it is split in half by the father. This gesture, the handing of half an orange to the son, resonates on multiple levels, suggesting issues of racial, cultural, familial, and emotional inheritance. The final line, “Meaning everything,” is separated from the previous sentence by both a period and a line break. It is also a fragment. What means everything? The gesture, the silence, the symbolic orange, or its halving? All of it. They can’t be untwined. Language and love and identity are all wrapped up in this moment.

The summer before eighth grade, I went to visit my mother in Queens. She lived in a Korean enclave where the signs were in Hangul and the kids working at the frozen yogurt shop laughed my brother and me out of the store when we tried to order in English. It was also one of the few times that my mother’s mother was around, so I was confronted with my inability to speak Korean both inside and outside the home.

I knew from stories that she had carried me on her back the first year of my life, but I didn’t remember her. She wouldn’t let your feet touch the ground, my other grandmother liked to say, chuckling both at the tenderness and the cultural difference. That story made me feel deeply connected to this woman whose words I could hear but not understand. She spoke, instead, in the universal language of grandmothers. She held my hand a lot, or she touched my head, smoothing the same hair that she used to fluff when I was a baby so no one would think I was a boy. She even slipped me money when my mother wasn’t looking.

Pineda’s poems often deal with childhood memories: a fight with a group of boys, a swimming lesson, a boxing match attended by father and son. Whatever the context, there is a longing for connection. The boy he beats looks as if he could be the speaker’s brother. The lost language and lost father are the edges of the pool towards which he swims. Even the boxing match, a metaphor for the father/son relationship, is an opportunity to highlight a shared moment of enjoyment between rounds. When so much of identity is rooted in belonging, the desire to connect is everything.

The title poem, “Birthmark,” is a prose poem in third-person. The speaker is in bed with his lover, and he focuses on and touches several small birthmarks on her thigh which remind him of the Philippines in terms of their shape and pattern. This provides a metaphor for the speaker’s sense of identity as a connection to a “place he has never been” and “a family he wants to touch, though something about it all is untouchable, like love, balanced between desire & longing.” In the same way that you can never fully know or understand someone else’s experiences and never completely merge with another human being in the sentimental “two become one” notion of romance, the speaker can never fully access the experience of a Filipino identity. Despite this recognition, however, his desire to access that experience brings him close enough to it, as close as he can get “to this place that seems so foreign, so much a part of him that for a moment, he cannot help it, he feels whole.” Part of his sense of identity, then, lies in his alienation or separation from the Filipino community. He also evokes the incompleteness that accompanies this experience. Here, in this moment of trying to connect, he has a feeling of wholeness or completeness, but it’s a passing feeling, and one that “he cannot help,” as if he is reluctant to let himself feel that way.

My favorite line in the book, from the poem “In the Romance of Grief,” is this: “Perhaps this world survives its losses/through its forgetting.” That letting go, that willingness to be silent, to forget, could be seen as the easy answer, but it’s not. It’s the hardest thing we can do. Rather than attempt to recover what has been lost, the speaker strives toward acceptance of that loss and incorporates it into his sense of identity.

At a job interview last year, a woman interrogated me for what felt like an awkward eternity. She wanted to know why my bio said Korean American, and why not just American, because her nieces are half Korean, the mother is Korean, but they just think of themselves as American, and well, do I speak the language? Her disappointment in me was palpable, and since my face betrays every emotion, I’m pretty sure I involuntarily cringed.

I gave my usual reply, that I have learned how to say hello and thank you and enough foods to order from a menu. I didn’t tell her about that summer with my grandmother, though, when I learned the only two Korean words that I don’t have to look up just to reassure myself I got them right. Because we often had to be buzzed into the building, she taught us to answer her yoboseyo with yoboseyo halmoni so she would know it was us. She went back to Korea not too long after that, and I didn’t see her again for sixteen years. When I did see her, she pointed to herself and said halmoni so I would remember, and then she hugged me and held my hand and fed me. I never had to say a word.

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