Monday, April 2, 2018

Int'l Essayists: Mary-Kim Arnold on How Language Makes & Unmakes Us

I decide to study Korean and so I spend a series of Saturday afternoons in a cramped classroom fifty miles from home.

We are asked why we are taking the class and the answers are somewhat predictable – an upcoming trip to Korea, the requirements of one grant program or another. When it comes to me, I say, “I am a poet and I want to learn another language to take apart its grammar, to understand its syntax.” 

My instructor nods approvingly and I grow attached to the way this sounds. 

To take apart grammar, to understand syntax. This is an intellectual inquiry – a purely academic exercise. 

But I know that I am there for another reason that is more complicated, more personal, and harder to articulate. Or perhaps, I am simply unwilling or unready to vocalize it. 


We learn vowels first. 

After several repetitions, he holds up his hand and shakes his head. 

“No, no,” he says. “Hold your mouth like this.” 

He makes a perfect circle with his lips: “Oooo,” he says, “oooo.” 

We try. “No, no,” he says, “Oooo. Not oooo.” The sounds he makes are indistinguishable to our American ears. 

He says, “You have to move your mouth. You have to move your body.” He bends his knees then bounces up as he expels sound. “Oooo.” 

“If you are doing it right,” he says, “you should feel the energy through your body. Do you feel it?” 

I want to feel it. 


Hangul, the Korean alphabet, was developed in 1443 by King Sejong, who documented its creation in the Hunmin Jeongeum (“The Proper Sounds for the Education of the People”).

Until the invention of Hangul, written Korean relied upon Chinese characters known as hanja. The number and complexity of the hanja characters meant that only the privileged elite – almost exclusively male aristocrats – were literate. 

Hangul was designed so that even a commoner could learn to read and write. 

Despite opposition by some scholars who saw the use of Hangul as a threat to their status, this new alphabet made its way into the popular culture, with notable widespread use among women, even for a time referred to – dismissively of course – as “women’s script.” 


Confucian principles, which guided Korean society during the Choson period, long had excluded women from public life, assigning them to the private sphere of domesticity – home and care of the family, while men occupied the outer realm – politics, ethics, and the ownership of property.

Although intended to be complementary (rather than strictly hierarchical), this split between public and private spheres effectively meant that women were denied formal education, legal rights, and economic means. 

The relative simplicity of Hangul, however, allowed women to learn to read and write. Some of the earliest preserved texts and poems (kyubang kasa – literally, “lyrical verse of the inner room”) recorded advice and reflections on domestic life passed from mothers to daughters. 

From its earliest usage then, Hangul conveyed something of women’s lived experiences between and among women and through time.


Lady Hyegyong (1735-1815), Consort to Crown Prince Sado, is recognized as one of Korea’s earliest women writers. In her memoirs, she provides a compelling, deeply personal account of tragedy and madness in courtly life. 

She was married to Crown Prince Sado when they were both nine years old. The Prince suffered from mental illness and as he got older, his behavior became increasingly violent and erratic, and the potential threat to the royal family became clearer as his cruelty and violence escalated. In the summer of 1762, when the Crown Prince was 27 years old, his father, King Yongo – honoring the court rules against shedding royal blood – ordered him sealed into a rice chest, where he remained for eight days until he died. 

In her first-person narration of these, she defied the standard conventions of memoirs of the time, which were primarily written to convey Confucian moral principles. By discussing power struggles, retribution, complicated psychological profiles of the royal family, Lady Hyegyong’s writings served to “re-compose” the public record of history to reflect her own lived experience. 


In 1876, the Treaty of Ganghwa was intended to open Korea, which had maintained a policy of isolation for centuries – even being known as the “hermit kingdom” – to foreign trade. Although Japan and Korea were to be treated as equal in status, the terms of the agreement were far from equal. 

The signing of this treaty became the first formal step toward Japanese occupation, which began officially in 1910. 

During the 35 years of Japanese rule, Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese cultural and religious practices. 

For more than a decade, the Korean language was banned in schools, businesses, and public places under penalty of death. 

To speak one’s own language was to risk erasure. 


What is the relationship between language and culture? 

American linguist Joshua Fishman points out several. A language long associated with the culture “is best able to express most easily, most exactly, most richly, with more appropriate overtones, the concerns, artifacts, values, and interests of that culture.” There is also a symbolic relationship – in that a language stands for a culture and sums it up – “the whole economy, religion, healthcare system, philosophy, all of that together is represented by the language.” 

Perhaps the most important dimensions, Fishman suggests, concern the extent to which the language contains a sense of sanctity – the language embodies the mind, soul, and spirit of a people; kinship – in that it creates the ability to recognize who belongs to and with whom; and moral imperative –that the internal experience of language compels the desire to preserve it and to ensure its continuity.

What is Korean-ness, then without the Korean language? 


In her book Dictée, Korean American filmmaker, visual artist, and writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha addresses her mother, who lived through the Japanese occupation: 

The national song forbidden to be sung. Birth less. And orphan. They take from you your tongue...

To have one's language and one's own name forcibly suppressed, Cha suggests, is akin to a renunciation of one’s birth. Without her mother tongue, she is orphaned. To be without name and without language is a kind of exile. 


I was born in Korea and adopted when I was just older than two. Here is some of what I know from official documents. 

In 1973, I was found abandoned at the Dongdoochun Homes for Babies. There, I was given the name Mi Jin Kim.

Soon after, I was placed in the care of a foster family while I awaited adoption. 

On a night in the late spring of 1974, after the transcontinental flight from Seoul to New York, I landed at JFK airport. A woman I had never seen before met me there. She pointed to herself and spoke the Korean word for mother. 

“Language is not a handmaiden to perception; it is perception,” says literary theorist Stanley Fish. “It gives shape to what would otherwise be inert and dead. The shaping power of language cannot be avoided.” 

What transpired in those moments when this language was uttered? How and to what extent did this woman, daughter of Portuguese immigrants, become my mother? (And what of my Korean mother?) How was my notion of mother, of self, shaped by this utterance? 


Cha was born in 1951 in Busan. 

Poet Myung Mi Kim was born in Seoul in 1957. 

Cha arrived in the United States with her family in 1963. Three years later, Myung Mi Kim and her family arrived, and seven years after that, I landed at JFK. 

I like to think there is a continuous line of kinship between us. I like to think that in their texts, I can find a record of their lived experience as Korean women. Poets. Artists. Documentation, like in the tradition of Lady Hyegyong, that can serve to re-compose the public history. 


Myung Mi Kim’s poem, “Into Such Assembly” begins with these lines: 

Can you read and write English? Yes____. No____.
Write down the following sentences in English as I dictate them.
There is a dog in the road.
It is raining.
Do you renounce allegiance to any other country but this?
Now tell me, who is the president of the United States?
You will all stand now. Raise your right hands.[1]

This passage calls to mind an examination of sorts, designed to assess (English) language skills and allegiance to the United States. 

Allegiance is defined as loyalty or commitment of a subordinate to a superior or of an individual to a group or a cause. Allegiance then is related to power. Consider its synonyms: Fidelity. Homage. Devotion. Obedience. 

These lines also highlight the connection between language acquisition and assimilation. 

In order to proclaim allegiance to one nation, one must renounce it to any other nation, and by extension, renounce the language of that nation as well. 

Assimilation demands nothing less than erasure of one’s language, one’s sense of self as mediated by and through that language. 


“Korean is a physical language,” our instructor tells us. “You have to be in your body to speak it.”

Beyond pursing one’s lips to make the proper “oooo” sounds, I am uncertain what he means by this. But since this is, after all, an intellectual exercise, I spend an afternoon reading about the relationship between the body and language. 

I read that in infants, motor development is associated positively with language development.

“Advanced motor skills provide [infants with] more opportunities to explore their world,” and this physical exploration – holding, pointing to, or shaking an object, for example, and the related attention given to those objects – enhance language learning.[2]

But perhaps a deeper, richer connection between the body and language is to be found in linguistic embodiment, one of the central theses of cognitive linguistics:

The meanings of language are embodied, which means that it is the speaker’s bodily experience that triggers the linguistic expressions that carry the meaning(s) to the hearer(s).

In other words, “our construction of reality is likely to be mediated in large measure by the nature of our bodies.” 

This theory of course, extends beyond the Korean language, but to language acquisition, use, and transmission, more broadly. The implications, as I understand them, suggest that we create meaning in and through language as a result of the way we experience of the world – i.e., 

We can only talk about what we can perceive and conceive, and the things that we can perceive and conceive derive from embodied experience. This means that our mind bears the ‘imprint of embodied experience.’[3]

When a mind is shaped then, in one language and one’s earliest bodily experiences transpire in one culture, what is the effect on that mind, on that body, when it is taken from that culture and placed in another?


Cha examines the physical act of speaking. She breaks the actions of utterance down in painstaking detail: 

The entire lower lip would lift upwards then sink back to its original place. She would then gather both lips and protrude them in a pout taking in the breath that might utter some thing….But the breath falls away. With a slight tilting of her head backwards, she would gather the strength in her shoulders and remain in this position…. From the back of her neck she releases her shoulders free.[4]

Producing speech is not only physical, but there is discomfort, even pain associated with utterance: “Inside is the pain of speech the pain to say…. It festers inside. The wound… Must break.” 

The speaker feels the language in her body, describes it: 

Now the weight begins from the uppermost back of her head, pressing downward. It stretches evenly, the entire skull expanding tightly all sides toward the front of her head. She gasps from its pressure, its contracting motion.

There is a sense here of an eruption of language, as if language itself had to break out, break through its bodily container. The degree to which the eruption can be located in the physical body calls attention to the mechanics, the apparatus of speech. 

This from Myung Mi Kim’s “Under Flag:” 

“No, ‘th’, ‘th’, put your tongue against the roof of your mouth,
lean slightly against the back of the top teeth, then bring your
bottom teeth up to barely touch your tongue and breathe out, and
you should feel the tongue vibrating, ‘th’, ‘th’, look in the mirror, that’s better”[5]

Both passages foreground not only the apparatus of language, but the difficulty of making sounds that are unfamiliar. 


It has been observed that in cases of international adoption, adoptees lose phonetic perception of their first language. 

Unlike bilingual language learners, international adoptees do not retain their birth language as a second language. Instead, development is completely halted because adoptive parents rarely maintain the native language.[6]

As Myung Mi Kim asserts in Penury

They must be taught the language which they must use in transacting / business with the people of this country.

Children adopted younger than the age of three will lose expressive skills (ability to speak) in the first language and their receptive skills (ability to recognize, understand) within six months. 

It stands to reason, given what we know about the relationship between language and culture, that the elements of cultural understanding contained within language are similarly lost to the adoptee.

“Neither, neither,” Myung Mi Kim states later in “Into Such Assembly.” “Who is mother tongue,” she asks, “who is father country?” 

This suggests the disorientation of losing one’s language and the relationship of losing one’s language to one’s sense of self. There is a discontinuity, a rupture that defines the experience. 

Kim states that “Korean” and “American” are categories that don’t fully or specifically define her current sense of self. Although she writes of childhood memories, she calls her facility with the Korean language “truncated, stunted, and ruptured.” The language is not something that she fully knows or can fully possess. 

Regarding English, which she finds more effortless to pronounce, she is still “otherized” in America because of her Korean appearance. 

American, but not American. Korean, but not Korean. 

“Poetry,” says Kim, “is what happens when something is being held on either side of the predicament."


Our instructor tells us that Korean sentences are ordered as follows: 

subject + verb
subject + object + verb 

There is no verb inflection for tense or number. There are no articles. Relative pronouns are not used and there is no gender agreement with pronouns. Passives are not commonly used. 

He makes up, on the spot, a silly anecdote to illustrate the difference between Korean and English syntax. 

Your friend calls you on the phone, he says, and the connection is not good. You want your friend to bring you an apple. In English, you would say: “I want an apple.” But the phone cuts out before you finish the sentence. So all your friend hears is “I want,” and she would never know what it was you wanted. 

In Korean, you would say: “I apple want,” so your friend would hear the important words – you and apple. Your friend would know something about you and about the apple. Or, in Korean, you could just say “apple,” and assume that your friend knows it’s about you and could probably conclude that you want an apple. And then she would bring it to you. 

We all laugh. But might this emphasis suggest some implicit Korean value? 

Might we be able to suggest that the fact that a relationship exists between the subject and the object of the sentence is more important than the nature of that relationship, or – perhaps more accurately – more important than the action that transpires between them? 


We are told there is no verb tense in Korean. There are ways to indicate time of course, but the verbs themselves are always in the present tense. I do not know enough Korean to really understand to what extent this is true or at least, applicable, but the idea lodges itself and I turn it over in my mind: A continuous present moment? An ongoing state of being? 

Stanley Fish asserts: 

Sentences promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world. That is what language does: organize the world into manageable, and in some sense artificial, units that can then be inhabited and manipulated.

Among the few documents of my adoption, beneath the heading “The Natural Parents,” the following sentence is typed: 

The child’s natural parents are both unknown as the child was found abandoned. 

There is at least some reason to question the veracity of this statement – given what we know about children whose identities were switched, and children with living parents who were sent abroad. And one can easily imagine this same line repeated in exactly this same way on the documents that accompanied the estimated 200,000 Korean children adopted internationally. 

But it is the past tense and the passive construction that is of interest here. We learn that passivisation of verbs is rare in Korean, and one wonders whether this particular turn of phrase, this particular grammar is uniquely suited to communicating the unequivocal availability of Korean children to the waiting families overseas. 

The past and passivisation in this case, effectively close the door on the possibility of maintaining the family lineage. 

No other syntactical arrangement would accomplish the desired effect: “The child was found abandoned.” 

If language is perception – defines it – as Fish asserts, then I wonder how this statement might have alternately been rendered in Korean. 

Parents child abandon. 

Unknown parents child abandon. 

Parents child abandoning. 

But perhaps I am off the mark here. Perhaps the point is not what is done to child. Perhaps what is important here is that the subject, parents, and the object, child, exist and that a relationship – at least through syntactical proximity – exists between them. 


Another adoptee tells me that she believes it requires a certain kind of optimism to give up a child. A fervent belief that the pain of relinquishing the child in the present moment can be borne in service to the promise of the future. That the separation can be endured. 

The notion of enduring separation is a familiar one to a nation that has been divided for most of recent memory. Since 1945 and the end of World War II, the Korean peninsula has been divided into North and South. 

In the chaos that followed in the wake of the capture of Seoul and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, hundreds of thousands of families were separated. Most believed this would be temporary. But after the armistice, the border at the 38th parallel between North and South Korea became the most heavily militarized border in the world. 

Theresa Cha, on returning to a nation, still divided: 

Here at my return in eighteen years, the war is not ended. We fight the same war. We are inside the same struggle seeking the same destination. We are severed in Two by an abstract enemy an invisible enemy under the title of liberators who have conveniently named the severance, Civil War. Cold War. Stalemate.

Even naturalization, even renouncing one nation for another does not guarantee belonging. Cha again, to her mother from Dictée

I have the documents. Documents, proof, evidence, photograph, signature. One day you raise the right hand and you are American. They give you an American Pass port [sic]. The United States of America. Somewhere someone has taken my identity and replaced it with their photograph…. Their signature their seals. Their own image. And you learn the executive branch the legislative branch and the third. Justice. Judicial branch. It makes the difference. The rest is past.

A certain kind of optimism compels a family to leave their country for an uncertain future. To renounce all that they know and take on new names, new images of self. The fervent belief (hope) that they can bear it. 

Myung Mi Kim, from the poem “Food, Shelter, Clothing:”

They had oared to cross the ocean
And where they had come to
These bearers of a homeland

And so a sense of homeland is carried with those who leave. But even denouncing allegiance to the nation of one’s birth in service to allegiance to another does not protect against the displacement, the rupture from one’s homeland. 

We homeland remember. 

We homeland belong. 

Belong: mid 14th c: “to go along with, properly relate to,” from be- intensive prefix, + longen “to go,” from Old English langian “pertain to, to go along with,” is of unknown origin. Sense of “be the property of” and “be a member of” first recorded late 14th c. 

We nation belong. 

We separation endure.


Don Mee Choi, Korean-American poet and translator of the contemporary Korean poet KIM Hyesoon, speaks of the power relationship between Korean and English: 

I would say that Korean is subordinate to English. South Korea has been a neocolony of the U.S. since 1945. Hence, English is not my second language. It is my colonial language like Japanese was my father’s… South Korea and the U.S. are not equal. I am not transnationally equal.

This statement foregrounds the ways in which Choi’s relationship and access to each language is shaped by her own lived experience and indisputably, this access to language also bears the weight of history – her own family lineage and kinship as well as the broader sociocultural and historical realities. 

Myung Mi Kim characterizes her own relationship to her native Korean language as shaped by the experience of exile – leaving Korea as a child, living in the space between cultures and languages. Her English is “perhaps an English that behaves like a Korean, an English shaped by a Korea.”[7]

It has been observed that the process of second-language acquisition is influenced by the language the learner already knows. This “language transfer” results from the interaction between the known language and the one being learned. While there does not seem to be a single, widely accepted theory as to why this occurs, one might hypothesize at least, that the bodily experience of language – what is held and carried in the body – plays some role in the speaker’s orientation toward and access to both languages. 


In How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, Fish asks: 

How many dimensions of assessment – of contexts within which assertion occurs – are there? The inventory would be endless.[8]

The organization of words in a sentence “shapes the items it gathers by relating them to each other in some ways, but not in all ways.” The goal, he says, “is not to be comprehensive, but….to communicate forcefully whatever perspective or emphasis or hierarchy of concerns attaches to your present purposes.” 

From this one might venture to hypothesize that a simple, declarative, narrative sentence represents a certain kind of harmony between one’s selected items and one’s organization. That is, a continuity between what is being said and the form in which it is being stated. In this case, there can be a seamlessness – an invisibility of the apparatus of language and its meaning. 

But when there is discontinuity – rupture, discord – between the language and its meaning – it is then that the very mechanics of the language are laid bare. 

Consider the following excerpt from Myung Mi Kim’s Penury

you speak English so well transcript 

The word “penury” is defined as a condition of extreme poverty or insufficiency. Scarcity, dearth. This lack characterizes the passage above. What cannot be said. The language itself becomes unspeakable. Unutterable. 

The inability to utter language is a kind of powerlessness embodied. The extremity of lack denies even the basic capacities of simple utterance. Not even sound can be produced from the organization of these letters; they are unpronounceable. 

In Cha’s Dictée, we are offered this attempt to characterize this loss, this rupture: 

Being broken. Speaking broken. Talk broken. Say broken. Broken speech. Pidgeon [sic] tongue. Broken word. Before speech.”[9]

The halting, stunted organization of these words, and the repetition of “broken” call attention to the inability of the words and sentences to convey any meaning beyond the simple fact of the (failed) attempt. 


Translation: early 14th c. – “to remove from one place to another.” From Old French translater and directly from Latin translatus for “carried over.” 

From Willis Barnstone’s “The ABC of Translating Poetry:” 

“Translation is the art of revelation. It makes the unknown known.” 

“Moving between tongues, translation acquires difference. Because the words and grammar of each language differ from every other language….” 

“A translation is never an exact copy. It is different. In translation perfect mimesis is impossible. But a fake or counterfeit of the original is possible, and usually it lacks criminality, since it stays close and calls itself what it is.” 

“A translation dwells in exile. It cannot return.”[10]

This notion of translation as “carried from one place to another” is useful in considering Myung Mi Kim’s observations of her sense of hybrid identity: 

I could be (and am often) variously hyphenated as a Korean-American poet, a Korean-American woman poet, an immigrant Korean-American woman poet, a Korean-American woman poet of the diaspora, a bilingual Korean-American woman poet, and so on. These markers are ethnicity, gender, displacement, migration, and linguistic affiliated, however, tend to reiterate the ‘purity’ of languages, inviolability of nation boundaries, and fixity of categories that elide the complex geopolitical and historical forces that produce these hyphenations.

To put another way, how can we talk about Korean-ness without acknowledging the role that the United States has played in what is contemporary Korea? From the Japanese occupation, through the Korean War and subsequent division along the 38th parallel, it is impossible to conceive of Korean-ness not being entangled with American intervention. 


The act of writing is an act of discovery, uncovering the self through language. To refuse chronology, to refuse narrative linearity, to resist a logic of causality – all these allow space to tell a story that must be apprehended, taken in, understood, only in a form that itself resists definition. 

The trauma of displacement and the rupture of exile locate the exiled in a space of mutation between Korea and the United States, between the English language and Korean, between the past and the present. This alternate, mutated space – a liminal space – becomes a site of the ongoing act of re-creation, re-composition. 

Early in Dictée, Cha presents a series of short passages as lists that a language learner might encounter, with the command: “Traduire en francais:” (Translate into French) 

1. I want you to speak.
2. I wanted him to speak.
3. I shall want you to speak.
4. Are you afraid he will speak?
5. Were you afraid they would speak?
6. It will be better for him to speak to us. 

The simple sentences accumulate, demonstrating the forms of the verb “to want,” calling attention to the mechanics of language, but their concern with speaking also foregrounds the preoccupation with and the significance of speech. 

This passage suggests the longing and desire of the exiled to make speech, the fear of utterance, and in the last sentence, even the threat of consequence of speaking or not speaking. 

This ongoingness, this continuous present – calls to mind verb construction in Korean. My knowledge of Korean at this point is so elementary as to be nearly hazardous in this case, but I am pleased by at least the possibility that the continuous activity of recreating language through lived experience might have some referent in Korean grammar, might itself be steeped in Korean understanding – in the sense of “sanctity” to which Fishman refers. 

That it is in fact, a reflection of Korean-ness – its sanctity, its kinship – to suggest that as transplanted, hybrid, hyphenated exiles – from Cha, to Kim, to myself – it is our way of enacting our sense of moral imperative – to reconfigure legibility, to attend to the liminal, to narrate and document the interstices of languages and culture. 

To foreground the rupture. 

To embody and embrace it. 

Mary-Kim Arnold is the author of Litany for the Long Moment, which was selected by Carla Harryman for the 2016 Essay Press Open Book Prize. A multidisciplinary artist and writer, her work has appeared in a number of literary and art journals, including The Georgia Review, Hyperallergic, and The Rumpus, where she serves on the Advisory Committee. The recipient of fellowships from the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts, she holds graduate degrees from Vermont College of Fine Arts and Brown University, where she teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program. She was born in Seoul, South Korea and lives in Rhode Island.

[1] Kim, Myung Mi. Under Flag. Berkeley, CA. Kelsey Street Press. 1998. Print. 
[2] Behrens, Melissa, and Jaimie Hauch. "Does Motor Development Influence Language Development." Marquette University, n.d. Web. 20 May 2015. 
[3] Ibid. 
[4] Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictée. Berkeley, CA. Third Woman Press. 1995. Print. 
[5] Kim, Myung Mi. Under Flag. Berkeley, CA. Kelsey Street Press. 1998. Print. 
[6] Nelson, Stacy L. “International Adoption and Language Development.” Research Papers. Paper 227. Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Web. 2012. 19 May 2015. 
[7] Uhm, Jean. “’Languaging’ the Third Space.” Jacket2. Jacket Magazine. Web. 2013. 19 May 2015. 
[8] Fish, Stanley. How To Write a Sentence and How To Read One. New York, NY. HarperCollins. 2001. Print. 
[9] Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictée. Berkeley, CA. Third Woman Press. 1995. Print. 
[10] Barnstone, Willis. “The ABC of Poetry Translation.” Academy of American Poets. Web. 2001. 18 May 2015. 

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