hyphenated fluency

Jihyun Rosel Kim discusses hyphenated fluency in Canada

What is your primary language of communication?

One of the signs of adulthood is that you have to fill out many forms and surveys about yourself and your background.  You are asked to categorize and divide your identity into knowable, and seemingly unending, labelled chapters: university admission, a new job, the newly-returned census.

You answer the questions with automaton-like movements: an utterly forgettable moment in your life. But sometimes, a mundane question stops you from mindlessly clicking next on a form.

What is the language that this person first learned at home in childhood and still understands? If this person no longer understands the first language learned, indicate the second language learned.

By now, I’ve spent over half of my life writing, speaking, working, and living in English. Most of my education has been in English. Almost all of my personal relationships are in English. Most people are surprised when I tell them that English is in fact my second language. And yet, there are times when the appearance—and the de facto primary status of English—slips away to reveal the other part of myself: a hyphenated identity that is almost a native speaker, but not quite.

I remember the first essay I wrote for graduate school. It wasn’t a good essay—the chief reason being procrastination and the general paralysis of pursuing an advanced degree. After I received the graded essay, I went to my professor’s office to discuss the aftermath. My bespectacled professor, a Romantics scholar, asked me tentatively whether English was my first language. In that moment, it felt as though he had pulled the last block of the Jenga tower of my English fluency, exposing its weak foundation. He lifted the mask that made me look almost the same as the other students, revealing that I was not quite it, but really something else altogether.

Mimicry is the ‘double articulation’ of colonial identity, where the difference of the colonial subject is always slipping away at the edges.

Homi Bhabha famously wrote the phrase, “almost the same, but not quite,” describing colonial otherness in his essay “Of Mimicry and Men: the Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” According to Bhabha, post-Enlightenment English colonial discourse shows its ambivalence toward colonial subjects in its “desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite.” Mimicry is the “double articulation” of colonial identity, where the difference of the colonial subject is always slipping away at the edges. This slippage is significant, since colonial identity is often marked by striving to be something it is not, firmly demarcating the Other through this “almost” sameness from the colonizer. Therefore, in order to be successful, mimicry must “continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.”

To situate myself, I am not a colonial subject, but an immigrant living on colonial land.

In my childhood, English was a language outside of myself. It was a language of another place that seemed so foreign it became unreal. For a brief period in Korea, my parents subscribed me to English lessons where I would have a short conversation with a “native English speaker” over the phone every morning before school. The stock English phrases I spoke—“I am 8 years old; I live in Korea”—felt like spells, where I would elicit specific responses from my anonymous, disembodied teacher. When I said, “my favourite colour is green” on the phone, my native English speaker teacher would tell me that his favourite colour was blue. These phrases, so divorced from my everyday life, seemed magical and I would memorize those 10-minute portals into another dimension.

Just before my 12th birthday, my family decided to immigrate to Canada. Suddenly, the spells that were contained in my morning routine became my real life.

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Building fluency in a language is an exercise in tedium. It feels like being told to climb a mountain in pair of flip-flops. I only remember particular moments during this struggle to understand what was going on around me. I remember watching My Best Friend’s Wedding at the house of another Korean girl who had come to Canada as a young child. She laughed so many times as I sat in stony confusion. I remember reading bulky picture books meant for children at the library. I remember trying to read Anne of Green Gables because I had read the Korean version a few months earlier and not understanding a word.

Building fluency in a language is an exercise in tedium.

Some months later, I had my turn to demonstrate my progress in the English language. We were in “Language Arts” class—something I had been allowed to attend after a year in ESL classes—and the teacher decided to play a spelling bee game. We were split into two teams. Each student had to spell a particular word the teacher read out. The word I got was artificial.

The teacher paused after reading that word, realizing that he had reached me. “You don’t have to answer that,” he quickly said, calling out the student next to me.

“No, I know.” I took enormous pride in spelling out this very advanced word for my age in front of the whole class A-R-T-I-F-I-C-I-A-L.

The teacher told me I did a great job. I knew that he meant it. I also knew that his sincere surprise at my ability to spell artificial was a little bit more excessive than his praise for the other students who scored points for their teams. This excess, again, marked my status as an outsider, a mimicker of the language, looking from the outside, constantly fretting at the edges that I would slip, get something wrong, and give myself away. Yet, this moment was also one containing the possibility that I could, and would, become more fluent one day, and continue to surprise others with my English abilities with a deepening interest in English, writing, and eventually, two university degrees in English literature. The act of spelling an English word correctly in public gave me a sense of ownership and confidence that I had never felt before.

I learned that the appearance of fluency had almost as much clout as fluency itself …

The irony of spelling artificial right, as a milestone of my fluency, is not lost on me. Yet, it was also fitting since I had faked my ownership of artificial; I didn’t know what it meant—just how it was spelled. I had seen the word in one of my textbooks. I learned that the appearance of fluency had almost as much clout as fluency itself. Empowered with this knowledge, I spent the next few months practicing the North American “r” sounds to shed any foreignness in my speech.

Friends was my entryway into inhabiting my English-langue self. I watched the reruns multiple times every day. I wanted to own the cool casualness of adults addressing each other with a “hey” and a shoulder shrug, instead of the bow that I was accustomed to in Korea. As a child who had grown up speaking a language that had specific forms of salutations and different greetings for anyone who was older, the boldness of addressing anyone with a first name in English seemed liberating. I wanted to own this attitude that the English language promised—the easy smiles that came with calling strangers by their first names.

Because my reference point for learning English was an ensemble drama about a group of friends who seemingly had no parental involvement—except for the Gellars, who seemed more like ineffective comic relief than the authoritative adults in my life—I equated speaking English with independent and liberated adults. Korean, the language relegated mostly to my family members and the occasional interactions at church (until I stopped going), brought me back to the structured reality where I respected my elders and didn’t make direct eye contact. As I spent more and more time with English and became more comfortable using it, the deferential Korean I engaged in with my parents seemed more uncomfortable—more artificial.

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These days, my Korean core remains mostly hidden to other Koreans around me. One night, I was having a conversation with an older Korean-Canadian man at a networking event. He said he was looking to meet others to do business with, those who would really “understand the Korean culture.”

My acquaintance from work—who knew of my Korean heritage—asked this man, “You don’t think Rosel can do that?”

“No,” the Korean-Canadian man replied after glancing at me, simply but definitively. I am sure that he never even thought that I could actually speak Korean.

Yet, he was right in assuming that I do not understand Korean culture as he would like. I speak French—a language I didn’t start learning seriously until university—better than Korean. I notice gaps in my Korean vocabulary during conversations with my mother. I wish I could describe the complexities of my adult life and adult emotions more fully and colourfully, but I find myself stopping with a smile after saying a stock Korean phrase.

These days, I listen to Korean podcasts in search of the casualness of frank adult conversation, an attitude I erroneously relegated to one language. Eighteen years after arriving in Canada, I am searching once again for fluency, but for fluency in my mother tongue, the fluency of my beginnings, transposed to the fluency of who I am today—Jihyun Rosel—a hyphenated fluency of bilingual identity.

Jihyun Rosel Kim is a lawyer living in Toronto. Her articles and essays have appeared in Huffington Post Canada Blog, GUTS Feminist Magazine, Vancouver Observer, among others. Follow her on Twitter @jroselkim 

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