When people find out that I don’t speak much Korean and that my mom doesn’t speak much English, they usually don’t understand how we’ve gotten by all these years. Women seem especially scandalized, since they tend to be more of the “My mom is my best friend; we talk about everything” camp. A lot of people also seem to feel sorry for us, as if our time together must be quiet and stiff.
The truth is, while I wish my Korean was better, we do have a pretty rich relationship. I get by on the rudimentary words and grasp of sentence structure at my disposal, and my mom’s gotten pretty good at parsing through my mispronunciations. (Unbeknownst to me, up until recently I’d been saying gibberish whenever I wished a Korean person a happy birthday.) I also cheat by throwing in some English every third or fourth word, in what many folks call speaking Konglish. I’m sure my mom doesn’t get some of these words, but she nods and moves along as often as I do when she uses a Korean word that is unfamiliar to me.
Basically we talk a lot about food and what our family members are up to. “Did you eat food today?” “Yes I did. Did you also eat food today?” “Older brother brought you some vinegar.” “Have you heard from your sister lately?” and so forth. These may sound like shallow topics, but I find the simplicity of our words beautiful and I love the discrete care for each other that underlies our conversations. I’d liken it to the relationship one might have with an intelligent pet or a person with a mild developmental disorder, but it sounds a little offensive to me. The point is, though I may not be able to express everything that you might be able to with your mom, Don’t cry for me, Argentina.
Here are some fortunate things that the language barrier has afforded me:
- We didn’t have to have the Sex Talk; my mom just signed the release form so that public school could take care of that.
- We’ve never argued about politics or any other potentially divisive topic. (Though one time she did say, “It would be good if Hillary Clinton was President, no?”)
- She’ll never know just how “liberal” my really expensive liberal arts college was, or how many business classes they offered – exactly zero.
- We didn’t have to have the Sex Talk. Can I just point out how much it means to me to not hear sexy words come out of my mom’s mouth? I even feel weird having typed that last sentence, as it has “sexy” and “my mom’s mouth” in it. Ugh.
That said, I do admire the dynamic that most of my friends have with their mothers. Sometimes I do get frustrated while trying unsuccessfully to communicate something to my mom. And I do feel the occasional twinge of jealousy when I hear someone laugh really hard at something clever her mom said. There are things I wish my mother knew about me: the books I read, my feelings about the environment, the fact that I am really good at making puns (with the right mix of people and booze), things like that which my friends have access to but she doesn’t. And I wish I knew more about her, too. Does she like gossip as much as I do? Do her co-workers think she’s funny? Ultimately, I realize that us knowing more about each other would also lead to us knowing more things we don’t like about each other. If that sounds like a cop-out, so be it, but I’m fine with the mental portrait I have of my mom as it is: a kind, self-sacrificing woman with a weakness for health fads, Korean soap operas, and shellfish. And I’m sure that there are already enough things about me that she doesn’t like, so I’ll just leave it at that.