"Bad" English Is Part Of My Korean American Heritage
Once a source of shame, but I now say it proudly: bad English is my heritage.
Excerpted from Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong. Copyright ©2020. Available from Penguin Random House.
I had a special, almost erotic, relationship with my stationery when I was young. I collected stationery items the way other kids collect dolls or action figures. “Really I must buy a pencil,” Virginia Woolf said, without warning, before rushing out the door to begin her peregrination throughout the wintry streets of London. I would have related to her urgency. I too felt passionately for the lead pencil, as long as it was a thin lavender mechanical pencil with a Hello Kitty bauble clasped to the tip with a delicate silver chain. And erasers too, scented raspberry or vanilla, molded into plump pastel wall-eyed Sanrio critters. I adored my erasers so much I had to repress the urge to bite their heads off. I was careful at first, gently brushing the bobbed feet against my notebook. But once my eraser was spoiled with graphite, I ruthlessly rubbed away my errors until all that remained was a gray dusty nub of face with one sad punctuation of an eye.
For some reason, I was a target in church camp, where the Korean girls my age ostracized me out of their room, claiming all the beds, saying they were taken even if they were not, so I was forced to bunk with the younger girls in the next room. One early morning, I was betrayed by my beloved stationery. I opened up my Hello Kitty diary, which I’d left unlocked, and saw that someone had inscribed, on the first page, in neat cursive that must have been written with a mechanical pencil: Ketty, go home.
The Korean girls I knew were so moody they made Sylvia Plath seem as dull as C-SPAN. Some were from L.A.’s Koreatown, wore fake Juicy Couture, applied makeup like Chollas, and spoke in the regional creole accent of FOB, Gangsta, and Valley. “Bitch, what are you looking at? Are you a lesbo?” asked one girl named Grace when she caught me gawking at her white ghost lips outlined in black lip pencil. Later, I tried to look up lesbo in the dictionary and was relieved that I couldn’t find it.
Because I grew up around bad English, I was bad at English. I was born in L.A. but wasn’t fluent until the embarrassingly delayed age of six, maybe even seven. Matriculating at school was like moving to another country. Up until then, I was surrounded by Korean. The English heard in church, among friends and family in K-town, was short, barbed, and broken: subject and object nouns conjoined in odd marriages, verbs forever disagreeing, definite articles nowhere to be found. Teenagers vented by interjecting Korean with the ever-present fuck: “Fuck him! Opa’s an asshole.”
The immigrant’s first real introduction to surviving in English is profanity. When my cousins came over to the United States, I immediately passed on a cache of curses to them to prepare for school. My uncle said he used to start and end all his sentences with “motherfucker” because he learned his English from his black customers when he was a clothing wholesaler in New York. My uncle, a profane and boisterous man, has since returned to Seoul and keeps up his English with me.
Uncle: What is the word? The word when you have lice down there.
Uncle: Yes! Crabs. I have learned a new English word— crabs! It is what I had once.
Niece: . . .
Uncle: It is not what you are thinking. I did not get it from a whore.
Niece: How’d you get it?
Uncle: Military service. It was so easy to get the crab. There were no bathrooms, only hole in the ground. We had to shave so we had no hair down there. A terrible time. Once we tied a man to a tree and left him there.
English was always borrowed, from hip-hop to Spanglish to The Simpsons. Early on, my father learned that in America, one must be emotionally demonstrative to succeed, so he has a habit of saying “I love you” indiscriminately, to his daughters, to his employees, to his customers, and to airline personnel. He must have observed a salesman affectionately slap another salesman on the back while saying, “Love ya, man, good to see you!” But because there is no fraternizing man or slap on the back, his usage has an indelicate intimacy, especially since he quietly unloads the endearment as a burning confession: “Thanks for getting those orders in,” he’ll say before hanging up the phone. “Oh, and Kirby, I love you.”
The immigrant’s first real introduction to surviving in English is profanity.
I did not actually use my mechanical pencils so much as line them up to admire them. My mechanical pencils, in pistachio, plum, and cotton candy pink, were wands of sublime femininity that had to be saved for later. The longer I saved them, the more unbearable became my need to use them. But still I denied myself, because the exquisite pleasure was the mounting longing for them rather than the gratification of that longing. One has an overwhelming desire to eat what is cute, writes Sianne Ngai, and therefore cuteness is ideal for mass commodification because of its consumability. Cute objects are feminine, defenseless, and diminutive things, provoking our maternal desires to hold and nuzzle them as I had with my mouthless Sanrio erasers. But they can also unlock our sadistic desires to master and violate them, which is why I probably held off using my stationery in order to ward off my darker instincts.
Eventually, I gave in. I clicked the tip of my mechanical pencil, which snipped out a nib of lead. Because I had no interest in writing when I was young, I drew. I drew girls that looked nothing like me. I was at first a poor draftsman, outlining the U for the face, then filling in eyes that were lopsided dewdrops, then roofing the face with hair curls as coarse as bedsprings. But over the years, my technique became refined, and I could decently draw the anime girls I adored.
I took pleasure in drawing the eyes because I, like everyone else, fetishized anime eyes, those bewitching orbs en-gorged with irises of snow-flecked sapphire and thatched over with the inkiest lashes. How huge and innocent those anime eyes, how meager my own slits. But the nose eluded me. I could not get that snubbed peck of a nose right, no matter how much I practiced drawing it. I had the misfortune of inheriting my father’s pronounced nose that in pro- file looked like a 6. When I complained about it, my mother protested it was a royal nose, but the kids in church called out the truth in their basic English.
“Why do you have such a big nose?”
I drew peck after peck on sheets of paper, wasting reams so I could pin down that perfect nose. Once I dreamed of anime girls soaring up and down on pogo sticks, their pigtails a nimbus of curls, their tartan skirts aswirl, their enormous eyes cracked with light. I looked up in time to see a girl arc up in the air and then rocket straight down for me—to pogo my nose down to a button.
I am now in the habit of collecting bad English. I browse Engrish.com, a gag site that uploads photographs of mis translated English from East Asian countries. The images are separated into signs (“Please No Conversation, No Saliva”), T-shirts (“I feel a happiness when I eat Him”), and menus (“roasted husband”). The most viewed image is a cartoon ad of a popular sweet tapioca pearl beverage with the caption “I’m Bubble Tea! Suck my Balls!”
I steal these lines and use them in my poetry. Take the phrase “I feel a happiness when I eat him.” It has all the traits of a surprising poetic line. A familiar sentiment is now unfamiliar because chance has turned Error into Eros. That needless “a” is crucial since it tweaks the tone into a slightly sinister animatronic pitch while indicating that the lover is not awash in happiness but feels happiness at a remove. Like an extra tooth, that “a” forces open a bead of uncertainty, or cold reflection, while she takes into consideration her happiness. She is not sure why she is happy, but she is, as she eats him.
One day, I was browsing through the T-shirt category. I happened upon an image of a young Chinese boy innocently wearing a shirt branded with the word “Poontang.” This photo triggered my own memory of the time I arrived in elementary school wearing a Playboy Bunny T-shirt. I had completely forgotten about it. Thinking of that memory, I was made sharply aware of the people who were taking these photos: backpackers traveling through Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and China—white and Asian American tourists. Outsiders who were at home treating the natives like they were the outsiders.
English is our ever-expanding neoliberal lingua franca, the consumer language of brand recognition and outsourced labor. The more developing the nation, the more in need that nation is of a copy editor. When I lived in Seoul for a year in 2005, I too snapped photographs of the Engrishisms that plastered storefronts like bad wallpaper. But I was also disturbed by how much globalization has led to English cannibalizing Korean. Reading a sign in Hangul characters, I slowly sounded out an unfamiliar word, only to realize that the word was lipo-suk-shen. A friend told me that teenage couples preferred saying “I love you” in English rather than the Korean equivalent because they thought it was a truer expression of their love.
Apparently, Asian children innocently wearing profanity- laden T-shirts were at some point an Internet meme. I found images of a young girl wearing a sweater of Mickey Mouse giving the finger; a kindergartner wearing a sleeveless “Wish you were Beer”; a forlorn boy sitting on the bleachers in a “Who the Fuck is Jesus” sweater.
I thought, I have found my people.
Once a source of shame, but I now say it proudly: bad English is my heritage. I share a literary lineage with writers who make the unmastering of English their rallying cry—who queer it, twerk it, hack it, Calibanize it, other it by hijacking English and warping it to a fugitive tongue. To other English is to make audible the imperial power sewn into the language, to slit English open so its dark histories slide out.
To other English is to make audible the imperial power sewn into the language, to slit English open so its dark histories slide out.
My mother’s English has remained rudimentary during her forty-plus years living in the United States. When she speaks Korean, my mother speaks her mind. She is sharp, witty, and judgmental, if rather self-preening. But her English is a crush of piano keys that used to make me cringe whenever she spoke to a white person. As my mother spoke, I watched the white person, oftentimes a woman, put on a fright mask of strained tolerance: wide eyes frozen in trapped patience, smile widened in condescension. As she began responding to my mother in a voice reserved for toddlers, I stepped in.
From a young age, I learned to speak for my mother as authoritatively as I could. Not only did I want to dispel the derision I saw behind that woman’s eyes, I wanted to shame her with my sobering fluency for thinking what she was thinking. I have been partly drawn to writing, I realize, to judge those who have unfairly judged my family; to prove that I’ve been watching this whole time.
Pity the Asian accent. It is such a degraded accent, one of the last accents acceptable to mock. How hard it is to speak through it to make yourself heard. I am embarrassed to say that I sometimes act like that white woman. When I phone in my order to a Chinese restaurant and the cashier doesn’t understand me, I repeat myself impatiently. When I call Time Warner and reach a representative with an Indian accent, I am already exasperated because I heard that Indian call centers barely train their employees. I have a theory that Seamless was invented so Americans don’t have to hassle with immigrant accents. Automation will replace Indian call centers for this very reason. Machines will flatten the accents of nationalities already flattened by English.
I have noticed that a new TV Asian accent has emerged, an accent used by no Asian except for Asian American actors onscreen: this accent is gentle, sitcom-friendly, easy listening. I have a hard time with the rare Asian American sitcom on offer, since they are so pandering and full of cute banter. But then, I’m of the extreme opinion that a real show about a Korean family—at least the kind I grew up around—is un- televisable. Americans would be both bored and appalled. My God, why can’t someone call Child Protective Services! they’d shout at the screen.
My grandmother used to watch the old dating show Love Connection religiously. She didn’t understand English at all, but she still found it uproariously funny to watch two people talk at each other on the couch. Laughing along to the laugh track, she’d turn to me to see if I was laughing, then turn back to the TV to laugh some more. That canned soundtrack, echoed by my grandmother, was a hollow cave of sound that sharpened the cheerless tension in our household. While she watched, I sat, vigilant and ears pricked, increasingly agitated by the laugh track’s annoying demand that I join in. My home was a provisional space in which the present was always wasted in dreaded anticipation of the future. I always knew when my mother was in one of her moods, though I never exactly knew when she’d strike, so I waited and waited until I heard her shriek my name at the top of her lungs, which was my cue to leap up and slam all the windows shut so our inside sounds wouldn’t leak outside.
As a poet, I have always treated English as a weapon in a power struggle, wielding it against those who are more powerful than me. But I falter when using English as an expression of love. I’ve always been so protective of making sure that my family’s inside sounds didn’t leak outside that I don’t know how to allow the outside in. I was raised by a kind of love that was so inextricable from pain that I fear that once I air that love, it will oxidize to betrayal, as if I’m turning English against my family.
How far can I travel harvesting bad English before I’m called a trespasser? While I have borrowed from Hawaiian Pidgin and Spanglish in the past, I would think twice before using these languages now. When the film Crazy Rich Asians premiered, the twittersphere called out as “blackface” the actor Awkwafina’s accent, an accent not far removed from the K-town one I heard growing up in L.A. It never occurred to me that those K-town girls were doing blackface. I thought they were just talking the way other teens around them talked.
At the time of my writing, this country has seen a retrenchment of identities on both sides of the political spectrum. The rise of white nationalism has led to many nonwhites defending their identities with rage and pride as well as demanding reparative action to compensate for centuries of whites plundering from non-Western cultures. But a side effect of this justified rage has been a “stay in your lane” politics in which artists and writers are asked to speak only from their personal ethnic experiences. Such a politics not only assumes racial identity is pure—while ignoring the messy lived realities in which racial groups overlap—but reduces racial identity to intellectual property.
When we are inspired by a poem or novel, our human impulse is to share it so that, as Lewis Hyde writes, it leaves a trail of “interconnected relationships in its wake.” But in the market economy, art is a commodity removed from circulation and kept. If the work of art circulates, it circulates for profit, which has been grossly reaped by white author- ship. Speaking on this subject, Amiri Baraka offers an in-valuable quote: “All cultures learn from each other. The problem is that if the Beatles tell me that they learned everything they know from Blind Willie, I want to know why Blind Willie is still running an elevator in Jackson, Mississippi.”
We must make right this unequal distribution but we must do so without forgetting the immeasurable value of cultural exchange in what Hyde calls the gift economy. In reacting against the market economy, we have internalized market logic where culture is hoarded as if it’s a product that will depreciate in value if shared with others; where instead of decolonizing English, we are carving up English into hostile nation-states. The soul of innovation thrives on cross- cultural inspiration. If we are restricted to our lanes, culture will die.
Rather than “speaking about” a culture outside your experience, the filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha suggests we “speak nearby.” When you decide to speak nearby, rather than speak about, the first thing you need to do is to acknowledge the possible gap between you and those who populate your film: in other words, to leave the space of representation open so that, although you’re very close to your subject, you’re also committed to not speaking on their behalf, in their place or on top of them. You can only speak nearby, in proximity (whether the other is physically present or absent), which requires that you deliberately suspend meaning, preventing it from merely closing and hence leaving a gap in the formation process. This allows the other person to come in and fill that space as they wish. Such an approach gives freedom to both sides and this may account for it being taken up by filmmakers who recognize in it a strong ethical stance. By not trying to assume a position of authority in relation to the other, you are actually freeing yourself from the endless criteria generated with such an all-knowing claim and its hierarchies in knowledge.
Ever since I started writing, I was not just interested in telling my story but also in finding a form—a way of speech—that decentered whiteness.
I turned to the modular essay because I am only capable of “speaking nearby” the Asian American condition, which is so involuted that I can’t stretch myself across it. The more I try to pin it, the more it escapes my grasp. I tried to write about it as a lyric poem, but the lyric, to me, is a stage, a pedestal from which I throw my voice to point out what I’m not (the curse of anyone nonwhite is that you are so busy arguing what you’re not that you never arrive at what you are). I admit that I sometimes still find the subject, Asian America, to be so shamefully tepid that I am eager to change it— which is why I have chosen this episodic form, with its exit routes that permit me to stray.
But I always return, from a different angle, which is my own way of inching closer to it. If I’m going to write nearby my Asian American condition, however, I feel compelled to write nearby other racial experiences. Students have asked me, “How do I write about racial identity without always reacting to whiteness?” The automatic answer is “Tell your story.” But this too can be a reaction to whiteness, since white publishers want “the Mus- lim experience” or “the black experience.” They want ethnicity to be siloed because it’s easier to understand, easier to brand. Ever since I started writing, I was not just interested in telling my story but also in finding a form—a way of speech—that decentered whiteness. I settled on bad English because, as the artist Gregg Bordowitz said about radical art, it bypasses social media algorithms and consumer demographics by bringing together groups who wouldn’t normally be in the same room together.
You can’t tweet bad English. If I tweeted a line from my poem, it would sink like a lead balloon. Bad English is best shared offline, in a book or performed live; it’s an interactive diction that must be read aloud to be understood, but even if I don’t quite understand it, those chewy syllables just feel familial to me, no matter the cultural source, which is why it brings together racial groups outside whiteness. But bad English is a dying art because the Internet demands we write clear, succinct poems that stop us mid-scroll. If you want to truly understand someone’s accented English, you have to slow down and listen with your body. You have to train your ears and offer them your full attention. The Internet doesn’t have time for that.
So as long as it lasts, I want to write nearby Rodrigo Toscano, who pulls his Spanglish phonetic syllables apart like taffy (“tha’ vahnahnah go-een to keel joo”) or LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, who recombines black slang, Japanese, Spanish, Chamorro, and Tagalog into a remastered Afro- Futurist song (“. . . bubblegum kink / a Sheik’s interloper. / A radical since 1979. / a brujo. A tommy gun. A were- wolf.”). I can’t speak for the Latinx experience, but I can write about my bad English nearby Toscano’s bad English while providing gaps between passages for the reader to stitch a thread between us.
When I was growing up, black and brown kids were casually racist. Korean kids were casually racist. It didn’t hurt so much when a nonwhite kid called me slant-eyed, because I had a slur to throw back at them. I can’t think of a blameless victim among us. But it would be wrong of me to say that we were all on equal footing, which is why I can’t just write about my bad English next to your bad English. In my efforts to speak nearby, I also have to confront the distance between us, which is challenging because once I implicate myself, I can never implicate myself enough. The distance between us is class. In K-town, Koreans worked the front and Mexicans worked the back. I made a friend whom my mother said I couldn’t play with, and when I asked why, she said it was because she was Mexican. The horror of it was that I told this friend. I said, “I can’t play with you because you’re Mexican,” and she said, “But I’m Puerto Rican.”
In his book white flights, the writer Jess Row says that “America’s great and possibly catastrophic failure is its failure to imagine what it means to live together.” Row contextualizes this insight by reflecting on white postwar novelists who erased their settings of “inconveniently different faces” so that their white characters could achieve their own “imaginative selfhood” without complication. In thinking about my own Asian identity, I don’t think I can seal off my imagined world so it’s only people of my likeness, because it would follow rather than break from this segregated imagination.
But having said that, how can I write about us living together when there isn’t too much precedent for it? Can I write about it without resorting to some facile vision of multicultural oneness or the sterilizing language of virtue signaling? Can I write honestly? Not only about how much I’ve been hurt but how I have hurt others? And can I do it without steeping myself in guilt, since guilt demands absolution and is therefore self-serving? In other words, can I apologize without demanding your forgiveness? Where do I begin? ●
Cathy Park Hong is the author of three poetry collections including Dance Dance Revolution, chosen by Adrienne Rich for the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Engine Empire. Hong is a recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Her poems have been published in Poetry, The New York Times, The Paris Review, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. She is the poetry editor of The New Republic and full professor at the Rutgers University-Newark MFA program in poetry.