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Language, Love & My Half-Icelandic Son

Language is everything. How we talk about our days, how we relay directions or crack jokes.

Language is how we tell someone we love them.


"Sa-lang-hae" is how I often say it to my son. It's Korean. But he doesn't speak Korean yet, or any language, really. He's fluent in "goo, ah, goo!" Korean unexpectedly feels more natural to me after his birth. It must have been what I heard as a baby until I learned English a couple years later through TV and preschool.


"Jeg elska thig"

How Una says it in Icelandic.

When the three of us are together, we say "I love you" in English.

In whatever language, we relay our love in a million different iterations, peppered with coos and simpering sounds of delight and awe.

My parents say it in Korean, so do my Grandparents. Una's parents and family say it in Icelandic.


Our son hears that he is loved in three different languages, every single day. But I'm unsure what he'll feel in his body, what language will resonate most.


I read a short novel as a kid about WWII. Members of the underground resistance in France sucker punched an undercover ally from England in the gut. The surprise was an impromptu background check. Whatever language he uttered a cry aloud in was his native tongue. When he cursed in English, the French were pacified. Because the sounds we make in our most guttural, primitive moments are supposed to be who we really are, not who we pretend to be.


Mine seems to change. When I stub a toe or bang my head, I offer a sharp "Shit!" or "Fuck!" (sorry, Umma!). Am I then an American at my core? How could that be? The fact of birth and environment? But my family for thousands of years lived, died and were created in Korea. We left, sure, and made the USA our home in 1991. But can people change so quickly?


It's to my surprise and slight confusion that my soft words of marvel are in Korean. They feel more honest when I'm trying to tell my son everything about him that absolutely slays me. My vocabulary is like that of a first-grader though, so I switch to English pretty soon. But English feels hollow, somewhat vacant. They feel like echoes of emotions I'm trying to convey. My son's shown me that I'm Korean, despite my best efforts to ignore and spit on it growing up.

I wonder if he'll say certain words in Korean to his child, if he chooses to have any. God, I wish he would. Is that selfish? I need to learn Icelandic. Good news! It´s SUPER easy. If you could see me now, you would see a man guffawing in bursts of unearned pleasure at a line that only amounts to 15% of a joke. I need to learn Icelandic because of how I was raised. I spoke to them in broken Korean and only tangentially understood half of our conversations. I know that they won't read this blog because they won't be able to understand it. It's awful to speak in halting sentences with your own parents. I know when I hopefully publish a book, they won't be able to read it. I would personally stop about a quarter of a way into letter or note my Dad would put into our lunches as a child because I didn't know what any of the words meant. I'm sure they were beautiful and sweet. But I have no idea what he said. He's leaving my sisters and me three bibles written in Korean as our inheritance, one for each of us. He's gone through each one and highlighted verses he thinks suits us or is worth pointing out. He's written small notes about our lives and moments we´ve shared in the margins. I don't know how to read them or what they mean.

I want my son to be able to communicate fully with me. And I want to communicate fully with him. I want to hear about his day at school and know what every word means. I want him to read my little notes and be embarrassed by my corny sense of humor and flair for melodrama. I don't want him to be embarrassed because he can't read it. I told my parents I would be so different from them when I was a mean and angry teenager (...and still a mean and callous person tiptoeing into my young 20's/mid 20's/still have my days into the late 20's). But we share more similarities than I would have planned on. They got married at 27. I got married at 28. They had their first kid at 29. Me too. They moved to a country where they didn't speak the language, without a job, with very little money, and only knowing a few people. They took "immigrant bags," those bags that have wheels at the bottom with a hard, flat surface but otherwise made of flimsy (yet still, course and rough) cheap cloth. Big, unwieldy, inexpensive. Nothing like the fancy hard-cased bags. They didn't take a lot. I took 3 bags in March. But my bags were nicer. I've gotten a lot of nice things from my parents and family. I know a lot of people in Iceland. And I have a huge support network in this country. Our family here gives us so many advantages my parents didn't have in their move. My wife grew up here and knows how to operate in this country. I'm not so different after all. I just have it easier because of their hard work. I've turned out to be a lot like Duk Soo Roh and Young Sill Park.


Umma, Appa, it must have been tough to know that your kids didn't fully comprehend you. It must have been lonely. I didn't know enough Korean to share every detail of life with you. And sometimes (ok, often) I acted out and directed my frustration at you. I´m sorry. I didn´t often understand the content of the Korean shows and movies we watched together. I was embarrassed by the smell of Korean food when you packed my lunch after my friends made fun of me. Thank you for packing us sandwiches instead. There was much I didn´t know about Korea and your life before you came to America. But I always understood that you loved me.




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