Even though I teach writing, I cannot really remember or trace the early years of my own journey of learning to write.
Thanks to my mother’s foresight and my own tendency to hold onto things, however, I do have two special artifacts from my childhood – photos below.
First is a report on Beethoven that I wrote in the 5th grade, only a few months after my family moved from Korea and I began to learn English. This is my first “writing” in English that I can find. Mostly, it seems, I copied sentences from the Britannica. And that was “writing.”
Second is a newspaper article that I wrote in the 5th grade to a Korean Catholic newspaper about my observations on adoption. In that article, I express sadness about Korean children who are adopted by families in other countries and I urge Koreans to adopt Korean children. An impassioned argument and plea from a 10 year old.
During my teenage years, I wrote a lot. Flipping through the many spiral notebooks that were my journals reveals that I wrote my “diaries” in English (even through the early years of my language acquisition) but insisted on writing my “poems” in Korean. In English, my writing was about what I did that day, what I saw, what happened to so-and-so, or what I was thinking. In Korean, on the other hand, my writing demonstrates an annoyingly dramatic teenage-angst in what appears to be verse. I can’t help but to roll my eyes at my 14 year old self. It seems that my young mind associated English with recording facts (information) and Korean with describing love, pain, betrayal, suffering, drama, and dreams in poetry.
Later on in college, the notebooks got fancier and I wrote exclusively in English – and I stopped writing poems. Probably realized how terrible they were. There was also a vague attempt at fiction-writing but I quickly learned that I was no good at it. So, instead of trying to create literature, I studied it.
The evidence of various transitions between Korean and English in my writings makes me wonder not only about my cultural identities but also my relationship to writing. You are what you write – and I guess how you write.
A recent article in The New Republic called “Multilinguals Have Multiple Personalities” cites studies that illustrate a personality difference exhibited by one person speaking in two different languages. The article summarizes one particular study:
In one session, the volunteer and experimenter spoke only French, while the other session was conducted entirely in English. […] When [Susan Ervin] compared the two sets of stories, she identified some significant topical differences. The English stories more often featured female achievement, physical aggression, verbal aggression toward parents, and attempts to escape blame, while the French stories were more likely to include domination by elders, guilt, and verbal aggression toward peers.
I find myself experiencing this kind of shift in my identity when I switch “code” between English and Korean in my day to day life. In speech, I communicate not just the words or the “thing” that I’m trying to get across but also the cultural mores, the values, the manners, and the habits deeply rooted in that language. And I dare say the language also shapes human beliefs and behaviors.
Sadly, I don’t know if the same kind of code switching applies to my writing now – mainly because I don’t write in Korean anymore. So, it seems I have lost my Korean writing personality. Or even more sadly, perhaps this means my Korean writing personality will stay trapped in that 14 year old teenager ridden with angst. Scary thought.