By Rachel Park
My decision to major in comparative literature can be traced back to my complex relationship with language. I was born in the United States and raised by my parents, two immigrants from South Korea who came to America barely knowing any English. My story is certainly not unique and echoes the countless stories of children born to immigrants who came to America searching for a better life. I think for many immigrants and their children, the loneliness of language is something that is all too familiar. The thought of language being the cause of loneliness, when it is typically seen as the instrument of communication, seems counterintuitive. But it is the only way I can capture the experience of feeling the burden of language every time you have to speak. As the oldest child, I often had to act as translator for my parents, navigating the English world and reporting back to them. I began to dread even trips to the grocery store, where I would have to go along and guide my mother through the aisles of foreign shapes and symbols to get the most menial items of everyday life. I couldn’t speak the Korean of my parents or the English of my peers. I was exiled from language and I wanted desperately to return, but I didn’t know how. How can you return to a place you have never been to?
It was only until I came to Berkeley that I realized the full extent to which this exile had affected me. When I got my papers back, my professors would often tell me to be clearer or more assertive. I had a peculiar aversion to using the word “I” in any of my essays, and the passive sentence was my best friend. It suddenly dawned on me that the reason for this was because I had become so used to never speaking for myself – I had always been the intermediary, the translator, the mediator between my Korean past and my English present. I didn’t use “I” because I didn’t know who this “I” was.
This difficulty in speaking is not very conducive to academia in general, and Berkeley in particular. Academia leaves little room for uncertainty, doubt, or obscurity: there’s that indescribable feeling of shame when the professor calls on you in front of the entire class and you are forced to admit “I don’t know.” Or when grading a paper and your professor just puts a question mark or an “unclear” next to a paragraph. And this stigma against uncertainty and “not knowing” has pervaded our everyday lives as students. For some reason, we are expected to always know what we are doing next or where we are heading in our lives – what you are majoring in, what you are writing your paper on, what you are doing after graduation.
This demand to always speak with clarity and with certainty, to always “know,” seems incompatible with my own struggles to speak. But for me, the most wonderful part about my time here as a comparative literature major has been exactly that – learning how to speak, yet also how to listen. There is something very humbling and intimate about learning a new language (or re-learning familiar ones). It sounds overly simplistic to say that Berkeley taught me how to speak and listen. But in a world where it seems like everyone is either speaking too much and trying to speak the loudest or unable to speak at all, I can’t think of more important things to learn. That is not to say that I have found my language. Even now, whether it is English, Korean, or French, I feel like a stranger whenever I speak: speaking reminds me that I am a foreigner without a native tongue because I have no native home. But I no longer feel obligated to translate myself for the sake of others. Instead, my time here has taught me to speak despite my tenuous relationship with language – because the pain of speaking is only outweighed by the pain of not speaking. I am graduating in a week, and people often ask me what I feel. My answer is this: Fear. Happiness. Joie. Inquiétude. 고마움. 행복. The fact that all of these words, yet none of them, capture how I feel is the perhaps the surest proof that refuge can be found in the spaces of the uncertain.
Congratulations to all the seniors that are graduating, and to those that are afraid of the uncertain, I encourage you to embrace it instead, and not to not let the fear of speaking stop you from finding your voice.